Denver Bar Association
July 2009
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He Survived — A Dispatch from the DPS Front Lines

by Doug McQuiston

"What have I gotten myself into now?"

Those who know me know I have uttered that phrase more than a few times in my life. But standing in front of Ms. Smith’s second-grade class at Schenk Community School in a rough part of southwest Denver one sunny morning this past May, I realized that nothing I had ever done had prepared me for my adventure ahead.

I recently answered the Denver Bar Association’s call for attorneys to volunteer to work in Denver Public Schools as volunteer substitute teachers for a day or two. "Sure, I’ll do it," I told DBA President Mark Fogg. "Sounds like fun." A tight schedule kept me from attending the DPS Training Session for attorney volunteers, but who needs training for just a day in the classroom? How hard could it be, right?

Schenk is a "community school" in what can only be described as a tough community. The kids were what well-meaning bureaucrats call "disadvantaged." But that term falls short. It implies that they just got shorted a bit on the "advantage" line at birth. The reality was they had none. Despite that, they got up every morning, got themselves ready for school as best they could, showed up, and performed the minor miracle of making the most of it.

My school day started at 8:55 a.m. I met my second-graders outside on the asphalt playground. Workers were just starting to spray solvents onto the heavy steel grates that covered the windows, trying to remove the gang graffiti that had been left the night before. It made our eyes water. My students were already lined up. One of them looked at me and said "Are you the lawyer?" He then said, pointing to the graffiti, "That wasn’t there yesterday." The tag "killaz" was sprayed, repeatedly, on every grate along the entire east side of the school.

"Welcome to second grade," I thought to myself. Then, my herd headed up and moved out, past the graffiti and the workmen. We made it into the classroom without losing any strays.

That’s when the adventure started. I really had no idea how hard teaching elementary school could be until I tried to do it. Was there some secret method "real" teachers used to keep the students in their chairs, with the noise level down somewhere below the level of a machine-shop, while simultaneously keeping them from throwing pencils at each other or swiping each others’ notebooks? Try as I might, I never mastered it.

"Teaching?" That was what I tried to do in whatever spare time I could snatch from my failed efforts at "controlling." At seven or eight years old, they could smell my fear like lions on the Serengeti, and they took full advantage.

Before school started that morning, one of the regular teachers kindly told me that if I needed any help, I could "walk down to her classroom and get her." I could never figure out a way to leave the class unattended long enough to do that without risking casualties. So, I dug deep and tried to remember my Little League coaching days, my only experience with herding a large group of 7-year-olds through a task. It was the best I could come up with on short notice. "Sit down or we can’t get started on the book," I yelled over the din. "You’re wasting your own time, you know!" I shouted.

I could have used a whistle. I’m sure zip cuffs and Velcro® seats would have been against DPS regulations.

The students were very bright though, for the most part. Some lacked sufficient English to keep up, and my Spanish was nowhere near up to the task. Even so, they muddled through. When they focused, they were adept and eager to learn. They loved their math problem, and tore into their word-finding puzzles. Keeping them focused was a skill Ms. Smith later told me only came "with experience."

Somehow, in spite of my failures, we got through Ms. Smith’s detailed (and very well-put-together) lesson plan. To my amazement, the kids learned. We read "Anansi the Spider." Afterward, they finished a worksheet on the major points in the story, and did some beautiful spider drawings. They wrote "acrostic" poems (look it up — I didn’t know what they were, either). Some read theirs to the class. They managed all that while keeping up the din, flitting from table to table, raising their hands repeatedly to go to the bathroom and throwing pencils at each other — usually right after sharpening them.

I discovered the kids’ passion for learning, even in that tough environment, and even under my utterly untrained supervision, was innate and undaunted. Some of the more accomplished students completed their word puzzles early. I feared I would be unable to prevent riots from erupting as they grew bored. That’s when another little miracle happened: those who finished the exercise early set about helping the others who needed help. All I had to do was ask them, and they did it eagerly. In fact, the hour they spent on the word puzzles and helping each other finish, was the quietest hour of the day. It was the only hour when I really felt like a teacher.

I am committed to one more volunteer substitute day for DPS, which will come next year, if they’ll have me. In the meantime, I will tell everyone I know that the experience has forever changed my viewpoint on teaching. The only reason anyone would get up every morning and do this job is because they’re passionate about it. There wouldn’t be enough money in the world to pay most of us to do it.

It’s shameful, though, that those passionate teachers are handcuffed by a public education "system" so Byzantine that they aren’t free to do what they love to do. If we could do away with useless federal benchmarks, counterproductive "No Child Left Behind" regulations, and politically motivated but pointless tests, we could free up enough time for actual teaching. Who knows, there might be a little time left for morning and afternoon recess — eliminated from the elementary school schedules to free up time to "teach to the CSAP" (Colorado Student Assessment Program).

Oh, and I will no longer listen to any state or federal politician talk about public education until they have stepped in and taught second grade, solo, in a tough neighborhood, for at least a day or two. No more five-minute photo ops showing the smiling candidate reading Dr. Seuss on a campaign swing; I mean a full day, alone, no entourage, no body armor, mano a mano, up in front of Ms. Smith’s second-grade class at Schenk Community School.

That, my politician friends, is my new "benchmark."

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