Final article in the four-part series.
Dangerous Minds. The story of how a teacher can make a difference. If she’s just willing to work a little harder. If she’s just willing to dig her heels in and reach out to a group of young toughs. If she’s just willing to work past their created exteriors to the damaged child inside.
A veteran teacher, a dozen years under her belt, from a family of teachers, a family that taught her the importance of education from the beginning. A family that taught her how to teach early on. A sister who worked in the back woods, teaching foreign languages to students who couldn’t imagine ever leaving the state. A father who worked in maximum security conditions, teaching GED to the all but hopeless. She had learned early on how to fight to teach.
How do you fight to teach the needful when you’ve been told you’re not wanted? When you’ve been told, “Thanks for giving 100%, but we can’t afford to pay you half of what you’re worth.” A 12-year vet being paid like a sixth year teacher, and they couldn’t afford to keep her in there with the students.
The day after receiving the news: As James Hetfield sang, she walked in, feeling the other teachers’ eyes upon her, pretending it didn’t matter. She walked, head high, but, like the prisoners her father used to teach, looking neither left nor right with anything other than her peripheral vision. She pretended it didn’t matter, but inside her heart hurt. Alliteration. She couldn’t teach that now — there was no time.
In all the time of her purgatory, only one teacher, the upstander Lance Holly, walked in to commiserate with her plight. All the others avoided her as if being laid off were a communicable disease. No mind. She preferred the company of her students.
The classroom was the only place she felt comfortable. Among the kids, the young toughs with their rough exterior – she spent every moment given to her with them. She urged them to come in during lunch for extra help. She exhorted them to stay after school, even if for only a few minutes. There was just no time.
A freelance writer, she crafted letters. Underneath the hurt was anger. Teachers don’t get laid off in October. It’s just not done. All schools run over budget. In education, schools ensure they have enough money in the reserves to pay teachers through their contracts. It’s too disruptive to the students’ education to do otherwise.
She wrote a letter to Representative Jared Polis first. He was the founder of the New America School and an educational advocate. Surely he would not support practices that hurt the students’ education.
She wrote letters to the board of directors of the New America School. She wrote to Polly Baca, former state senator and community leader. She wrote to Richard Jose Bela, nonprofit consultant. She wrote to Sarah Kurz, Principal, and Gina Nocera, executive director of the Jared Polis Foundation, and Domonic R. Silva, partner at Kimble Associates. She wrote to Matt DeAngelis, investment banker who finances schools. She wrote a personal letter to each of them in their role as board of directors of the New America School.
She wrote to Dominic DiFelice, superintendant of the New America School, reminding him of what he already knew: schools don’t hire teachers without having the funds to follow through to the end of the year. Schools don’t jeopardize students’ educations like that.
She wrote to Nora Flood and Tisha Bouwmeester, leaders of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, warning them of the errant ways of a charter school they oversaw.
In all, she wrote ten eloquent letters from her heart about the inequity of the New America School’s bad faith hiring and failure to maintain compliance with Colorado State educational standards.
Three weeks later, Jared Polis had not responded. Polly Baca did not respond. Richard Jose Bela did not respond. Sarah Kurz did not respond. Gina Nocera did not respond. Domonic R. Silva did not respond. Matt DeAngelis did not respond. Dominic DiFelice did not respond. Nora Flood did not respond. Tisha Bouwmeester did not respond.
In the movies the principal is always the antagonist, the villain. The veteran teacher did not know if this principal had been responsible for the elimination of her position – not just her position, but the entire English department. She did not think so.
Ten letters and three weeks — not one single person in charge of overseeing those young, vulnerable tough’s education responded. Not even with a form letter.
The antagonist is bureaucracy. Small fry – one teacher did not matter. A group of young toughs who were broken inside did not matter. Money mattered. Money always mattered.
Heart hurting, feeling like the condemned, the veteran teacher walked into that school seven more times, until the end of the quarter. She didn’t want to. Her stomach was in knots as she drove to the school every day. However, the bureaucracy had given her seven more days to be with her students. Seven more times to reach them, to give them the skills that might carry them at least a little outside of their lives. Seven more times to craft scholarship essays, interpret poetry and analyze songwriting.
Seven more times to remind the teen girl of how beautiful she is, inside and out.
Seven more times to guide the former drug dealer away from the errant ways that had him still in high school at 21.
Seven more times to reach out to students who had lost family to drug cartels, fathers to murder, who never knew fathers, who were bouncing from house to house. Seven more times to enjoy the shining stars of the international students, the clever refugee who was destined for greatness now that he had survived the wars. Seven more times to urge students not to smoke pot during lunch but come to class instead. Seven more times to pester students to turn their work in so they’d still be graduating seniors. Seven more times to just enjoy these young toughs with the broken interiors for the beautiful works of art they were.
Coolio asked how anyone could reach him if they couldn’t understand his life. One of only two Hispanic teachers in a predominantly Hispanic school community — she understood them. The artful lie of “Dangerous Minds” is that the dedication of a teacher can make the difference. The bureaucracy of school administration will not allow it, though. The bureaucracy of education is charged with keeping itself afloat, even on the backs of the teachers on the front lines. Even at the expense of the very students they are supposed to protect.
Rumors of art teachers taking over core English haunted her mind. She liked the art teacher. But the woman was not considered highly qualified by the state of Colorado to teach Language Arts – much less English language development and literacy. The woman was highly qualified to teach art. But the admin figured it could teach her its writing program, and that would be sufficient. That second-year art teacher could teach art half the day and teach English at least as well as the 12-year veteran considered highly qualified by every standard. Right.
The veteran teacher expelled it from her mind. If founder Jared Polis didn’t care, if Dominic DeFilece didn’t care, if the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the board of directors at New America School didn’t care, there was nothing she could do.
She crammed as much learning into that last day as possible. At any given moment she was helping three students with two more pieces of student work in her peripheral vision. She helped craft essays. She plugged in the gaps left by a new, inept teacher – one who would be returning to work on Monday while the vet filed for unemployment. She graded work the minute it reached her hand so the students could get the instant gratification – sometimes the only sense of academic achievement they felt.
On that last day, she meant to leave the minute her contract hours were up. But she still had papers in front of her. One talented student was teaching another the guitar. Two students were completing their work for her, asking for help along the way.
Finally, room empty, she walked out flanked by helpful students. As they helped her pack her car, she exhorted them to keep at their studies, to not let procrastination get in their way. She taught them until the last second. And then she drove away, leaving the school and her teaching career in her rearview mirror. Her heart was broken, and she could not be an effective teacher thus.
Her teaching career was over.