Project 42: What We Leave Behind

Nobody looks too happy about those doors as a legacy.

Nobody looks too happy about those doors as a legacy.

At the end of my sixteenth year of teaching, I am seriously considering NOT being a teacher anymore. A number of things have played into this, and a big part of it is taking the advice of people who care about me. At the very least, it is pretty unrealistic that I can stay at the Title I school where I currently am. The environment is too chaotic, too oddly dangerous, and all of the people that I counted on to be reliable are either gone, or in the process of leaving.

I used to really enjoy teaching, and that isn’t so much the case anymore. I find myself being more of a police officer or a politician than someone who opens up the world of literature and the power of the written word. I’m constantly interrupted by trivialities, and worse, every year the students seem to be coming in more distracted, more jaded. I find myself having to work harder and harder to make the whole thing function, and even then, the rewards, especially this year, are few and far between.

All of my efforts, everything I’ve worked towards, has been a tiny influence on a broken system. To other teachers, I’m sure this isn’t surprising. Without knowing me or where I teach, they can probably easily guess why someone who loves their job and is good at it would be thinking of leaving. Seriously, though, it’s not other teachers who need to know what it’s like. I swore off talking about my job face to face with “civilians” months ago.

It’s everyone else.

People who have no idea what it’s like teaching in an inner city school. People on the west side, voters, taxpayers. Some of these people are even making important decisions about education, with zero knowledge of the day to day operations. Everyone thinks that they are an expert in education, simply because they have been a mandatory recipient of it.

The art above has a relation to the one thing that I might be leaving behind in any lasting sense, should I leave the school site, or even the profession. In the past, I’ve been active in school reform, in the process of rebuilding and changing failing schools. I’ve been very serious about it, wanting to take the opportunities in education enjoyed by the more affluent communities of the West Side of Los Angeles, and bring them to East LA and South Central. For a brief moment, those ideas seemed very real, very attainable.

In the harsh light of the meathook realities attached to these kinds of environments, these situations, it seems that such a dream is possibly only that. Maybe it needs to fall to someone younger, with more energy to do the reform that needs to be done…I don’t know. 40-50% of teachers leave during their first five years….so continuity in those areas is even lower. That’s what the Reed Case, and the Vergara Case are all about…trying to preserve some form of continuity for those kinds of schools. Again…years of litigation, ruled by parties far removed from the day to day experience of my students…yet making serious decisions about them.

If I could change things so that teaching was just about showing students great literature, and how to write,grading and planning lessons, I would be a teacher forever. That’s not how it is though…that’s not how it is at all. Constantly management and safety issues come up, and other political garbage, and the voice of my conscience keeps shouting, “You aren’t doing enough to fix it. It’s on you.”

It isn’t though. I know better, even though it doesn’t feel that way.

Again..the art. What I might be leaving behind, what might be the lasting legacy, if anyone were to read the proposal or care about it, is Project 42. It depresses me a bit, because Project 42 isn’t about the best that we can do, it is just a method for coping with the worst that we have done.

What is it? In short…it’s a proposal for an intervention class. The idea is simple enough…you use statistics, available through the district MISIS system, to identify the most disruptive students in the school population. Those students are further sectioned off into Tiers, and the top handful, no more than seven, per grade level, would be put into a single intervention class for five weeks. Highly monitored, total discipline, entirely digital online curriculum scaled to student ability level. Separate lunch. One hour of group therapy a day. The idea is simply to get them in the habit of NOT being in trouble, while trying to provide a transfer grade of value, and use therapy to get to the roots of their issues. After that, if done well and correctly, they should not have been in any trouble, due to the “Boot Camp” environment, and would rotate back into a general student population.

In that form…I don’t even know how kosher, how possible such a thing is. The proposal is a living document, a starting off point for discussion about implementation. It’s about keeping kids in school, in class, by any means necessary, and about taking the ones who are lost, with every indicator that they won’t succeed, and trying to rehabilitate those students through the three things that the school system really has: curriculum, rules, and therapy services.

A few short years ago, we were a handsbreadth from a 700 API. Now…Project 42 is a reasonable response to the business on campus. In an academic environment that doesn’t suspend, where kids are temporarily kicked out of school, and students under 13 can’t be ticketed by school police in any way…it’s a reasonable response. In a full year, it would reach a maximum of about 160 students, and really just be a crash course in coping mechanisms, following rules, and doing your academic work.

As I think about it, it bothers me that Project 42 might be the lasting influence that I leave behind me.

Still..I have these choices before me:

Stay where I am, continue working hard and destroy myself. (Not an Option)

Stay and become like so many others putting in less effort, waiting on retirement. (Impossible to live with)

Leave…possibly the profession. Definitely leaving a community that probably will not get another teacher like me for some time.

Leaving is really the only option, and given the consequence free system of modern education, Project 42 is one of the few tools I can leave in my wake. Students who break rules at our school often don’t receive consequences. You don’t need to go to class, you can fight, you can curse at teachers. No problem. This year our school had the second highest discipline stats for ISIC, so teachers have been encouraged to deal with discipline problems themselves. That means that unless the offense is severe or dangerous, students remain in class, whether or not their behavior is blatantly defiant. Sometimes, even under those conditions.

My personality has changed under the stress of the past eighteen months, especially since September. I used to be fun. I used to help people or make them laugh. Now, if I can manage to act like myself during the school day, the second the bell rings to go home, I’m tired, withdrawn and moody. This stress has started to overrun the part of teaching find rewarding, that I find worth doing.

As a result, I need to leave at least this school behind. In light of the discipline problems, I feel I’ll at least leave them with the discussion of Project 42. Why not?

Given how radioactive my outspoken nature has made me in the district, I don’t know how realistic it is for me to get another posting. I tried last year, and didn’t succeed. I don’t think that I can maintain in this kind of school, in this kind of work. It has been a long, hard road, and this last stretch almost too demoralizing.

I hate these choices, and hate that I’m being pushed into making them.

I hate that any school needs a Project 42. I got into teaching to uplift children…and now, I am respected by kids and adults alike for discipline and management, not for being able to quote Shakespeare. When I verbally suggest Project 42 to anyone, they think that I should be the teacher. A large number of teachers would like me to be a Dean of Discipline. These are not the things that I got involved in education for.

To a large degree, they are the things I will be known and remembered for.


6 thoughts on “Project 42: What We Leave Behind

    • Thanks. Very much appreciated.

      I also would like to move forward. A good friend told me that I should think of doing things that are different, and so I’m considering out of classroom positions.

      Who knows what that would be like. I’m getting together the paperwork to apply for one tomorrow.

  1. Is the name “Project 42” a not-so-subtle reference to Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy?

    • It is not, actually.

      It is actually from a better time at this school, when I had a list of 100 projects to improve the situation. Several of those things actually happened, such as the introduction of an expanded math program, and new technology to the school.

      The list of 100 things to improve the world actually derives from Marvel comics…Tony Stark and Reed Richards have such a list.

  2. For what it’s worth, I think you should stay in teaching and transfer to a school that is less of a basket case. If LAUSD doesn’t have anything to offer, maybe there are other local districts you could try (like Glendale’s school district). Alternatively, maybe you could go teach in a private school. Of course you could always go into the comic book business.

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