Prologue II: My
I began my “official” journey as an educator in 1996. After nearly four years of coursework toward a Bachelor’s degree in English, I found myself confronted with a serious question: What am I going to do when I graduate? Naturally, I assumed that I would continue onto graduate school until I had acquired a PhD. Then, I would become an instructor and live out my days similar to Robin William’s character in Dead Poet’s Society, bringing literature to life for my hungry, well-behaved, somewhat troubled yet critically minded students. I never quite made it to that quiet, less-traveled, highly introspective path. Instead, I found myself on a well-worn path with countless others, a path where people don’t stop to contemplate the flowers because they are too busy trampling them along the way.
For a long time, I was excited at the prospect of becoming a high school teacher. While I knew it would not be a perfect Hollywood version of education, I figured there would be countless moments of enlightenment when students and I would connect, when we would have a collective Gestalt—an “AH HA!” moment when the parts and the whole would come together in an epiphany of understanding that makes education worthwhile. This may sound idealistic, but much of the literature, articles, and texts from my coursework, combined with my numerous classroom observations simply reinforced this notion. My professors and cooperating teachers often warned me that it would be difficult: the first two years are the hardest, they would say. But all of them, without exception, said that it would be worth it in the end.
After receiving my teaching certificate, I was terrified of entering public education—I was too worried that, by my mistakes, my students would fail. I just didn’t feel ready so I entered graduate school to examine at-risk education: the factors that cause students to fail out of school, the ramifications of that failure, and the possible solutions for addressing the needs of this population. Part of my rationale for this course of study was to provide my future students and myself with a safety net: if I knew and understood the reasons why students fail then I could keep them from failing and in turn, keep myself from failing as well. I also felt more prepared and ready to enter the teaching profession after this course of study. It would be difficult, but my future students would not fail because of my idyllic ignorance. As I began my job search, the voices of past professors and cooperating teachers came to me again: Remember, the first two years are the hardest, but it’s all worth it in the end.As I now complete my second full year as a high school English teacher, I am beginning to think that they were lying. The reality of education for me consists of dealing with a daily tsunami of logistical minutia. It consists of being forced to meet the superficially high standards of my department while simultaneously meeting the educational and emotional needs of 115 students a day. It is overcrowded classrooms and too many preps making efficient and effective instruction an impossibility. In the end, the reality is that my own education about risk and failure has not kept me from becoming a consummate failure myself.
There may be broad agreement on the definition of risk, but a harsh debate rages over the root causes of risk and the solutions to this “problem.” The causes range from the systematic oppression of students by an essentially ethnocentric society, to the dysfunction of family life, to innate deficiencies within particular students. Solutions are equally varied ranging from major reformation of the entire American educational system to relegating responsibility to teachers in the form of individualized educational plans for each student they teach.
Having taught for two years in public education, I have seen the connections between the research and individual students in my classrooms. I have attempted many times to employ the reparative suggestions of the literature—whether via curriculum development or in the final evaluation of a student’s work. I have tried to live a life of praxis—putting theory into practice daily. Unfortunately, I find myself in a liminal space instead—my body bridging the gap between the theory and the realities of teaching often resulting in what I perceive as failure.
I tend to my own failure as if it was created in isolation—as if it is a personal dysfunction existing inside my being. In actuality, my perceived failure is a product of conflict: a daily cognitive dissonance between the ways in which I define success and the way in which my school defines success for me. I view success from a critical, qualitative perspective: how have my students improved, how have their critical and reflective thinking skills developed, have they moved beyond summary to deeper analysis, etc.? My school defines success quantitatively: how many tests have they passed, how many papers did they write, how many days did they miss, etc.? Like many students who are at-risk, I have internalized this dissonance as opposed to reflecting on the larger social systems that create it. Unfortunately, much of the literature on educational risk implies that risk resides within the student and solutions are the sole responsibility of the teacher. The purpose of this paper is to problematize current conceptualizations of educational risk and the solutions offered to “curing” risk. In the end I do not offer more solutions, but reflections on ways we can shift our perspective in order to see the larger systems interacting in our schools.I begin with a review of definitions of educational risk and teaching strategies for reaching at-risk students. After defining these two categories related to risk I then define the explicit as well as implicit definitions of non-risk populations. After close analysis of the literature, I embark on a discussion about the socio-cultural assumptions embedded in our public school system. I try to bring the research into dialogue with my lived, embodied experiences as a public educator who deals with the realities and complexities of educating 115 high school students each working day. Interspersed within this text are a number of performance narratives based on my own experiences. These narratives serve as a lens through which we can see how larger systems interact to create a self-perpetuating cycle of risk. While these performances are unique to me, they reflect commonalities resonant to students, educators, and administrators alike. It is my hope that this paper will articulate the conflict that exists between theory and practice and complicate, rather than simplify, the tasks facing researchers and educators daily.