The conversation was hitting me with particular relevance because of an encounter the night before, after showing August To June. It was with a young woman who had previously taught in a small east coast independent school, and was in her first year in a Los Angeles public elementary school. She was close to tears as she explained how nothing she tried seemed to be creating the kind of joyful classroom she had expected. Her students were disinterested and disruptive. The day before she had broken down in class and told them she was at her wits end. When I asked her if she had found any more experienced teachers to ask for guidance, she said she had no one to talk to.
I was now sitting with a group of mostly independent school teachers at the Progressive Education Network Conference in LA, discussing what role, if any, teachers in the private sector have vis a vis public education. Earlier in the conference a speaker had suggested that independent schools should raise money for public schools in their neighborhood, or share specialists free of charge. Others had taken umbrage with that, saying it smacked of paternalism, missed the point of the need for communities to fund their schools.
As this small group talked, it turned out that several of them had been public school teachers earlier in their careers, and had left the public sector wanting more freedom, and a more progressive setting. They talked about how isolated they felt in those conventional public schools. Another person in the group was involved in a progressive teacher training program in LA. She would like to place her student teachers in progressive public school classrooms, but can’t find enough of them, so finds herself using independent schools for many of her students. This has double consequences. It reinforces the idea that if you are a progressive creative teacher, you’d be better off in the private sector. But if her student teachers do chose to teach in a public school, they will not have had a student teaching experience that prepares them for some of the realities: large class sizes, limited funding, the plethora of issues related to poverty, and everyone else so busy with all the mandates, that they have no time to help a new teacher.
A light went on. While it was not enough, my small conversation last night had given that young woman some tools with which to go back to her class. A teacher in a private school wanting to engage might be able to offer a listening ear and some reflections to an individual teacher. But not only those in the private sector. What about the ranks of retired boomers who may have spent an entire career inside the parameters of public schools, finding ways to make school meaningful?
Here’s my tiny start: within an hour I had linked up that young teacher with a woman living not far from her who had been a public school science master teacher. They both had big smiles on their faces. Anyone ready to take this idea and run with it?