Trying to teach art at a dysfunctional public grade school

March 7, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

“If I didn’t care about my kids, I’d have an easier time.”

“No real-life problem is ever actually solved, it seems.”

For three years, Geri Anderson has worked as a grade school art teacher. She wakes up every day, willing to try her hardest to make a difference in the lives of the students who attend Walnut Elementary School.  “Geri” and “Walnut” are not real names; Geri and I decided to use these pseudonyms to allow Geri to speak freely. Everything else in this article is based on my recent interview of Geri. 

Geri is a soft-spoken woman in her mid-twenties.  Before being hired for her current job, Geri often substitute taught at expensive private grade schools.  She took her first permanent job at Walnut to make a difference. 

Geri teaches art to each of the 200 students who attend Walnut.  They range in age from preschoolers to sixth-graders. The average class includes about twenty children, although some of the classes have almost 30 children.  Not all of the teacher positions are filled at Walnut; for many months, the school has sought the help of adults from the community to fill in for the non-existent science teacher, for example. 

Walnut is located in the urban center of a large U.S. city.  98% of the children attending Walnut Elementary are African-American.  More than 90% of these students receive free or reduced price lunches.  Based upon Geri’s observations, the great majority of the students live in single-parent homes.  Classroom behavior issues, including infinite variations of acting out and talking out, are constant challenges.

Geri’s sees her overall task as “bringing beauty to her students’ lives.” To accomplish this, Geri acknowledges that she needs her students to sit still enough and focus long enough so that they can understand the assignment. Many of the students “simply cannot sit still and be quiet.”  At a grade school like Walnut, however, this task is an uphill climb each and every day.  Before teaching at Walnut, Geri did not realize it could be this hard to get the children to focus.

The administrators are also concerned with keeping order, but Geri is concerned that, for the administration, keeping the children quiet has evolved into an end rather than a means to a higher end.  They are “not so worried about freedom of expression as much as seeing that the children sit down and stay quiet.” 

Over time, one can see the cycle: the children act up and the administration clamps down.  They react to each other. Sometimes it seems like running through this senseless cycle is, indeed, the main purpose of Walnut.

What is the problem with these children who won’t focus, who won’t listen?  Many of them are loaded down with tragic life circumstances to an extent unimaginable by teachers who don’t teach children who are economically disadvantaged.  One child showed up at class the day after seeing his aunt die the previous day.  Another boy cried when asked why he wasn’t doing his art project.  He told Geri that he “hates” his stepdad and “my mother doesn’t listen.”  One little boy told Geri that his dad was “beating up my mom against a wall.”  To keep the perspective, these are children at a grade school. These children are only 5 or 8 or 10 years old.  The have very few choices in what goes on in their homes.

Recently, one child was so angry at an adult male resident of his own household that he told Geri that he wanted to either “run away or punch him in the face.” Many of the children are dealing with constant flow of disturbing new people who come in and out of their homes and lives.  In such an environment, “Who do you trust?”  Does it make sense to trust at all?

How else does Geri learn about the students’ stressed home circumstances?  She often sees it before and after school, when parents drop off and pick up their children.  She’ll hear, “Get your ass over here now!”  Similar degrading comments are commonly made to many of the children.  Based upon her own observations, Geri suspects that many of these parents are “smacking the children around.” 

As a teacher, one often doesn’t know the mental turmoil these little children are carrying, often without anyone with whom to discuss these things—without any responsible adult to empathize with them.  Geri sadly recounts that these sad circumstances sometimes spill out of her students only when they are reprimanded for not focusing in class or failing to do their homework. 

The stories go on and on.  Some of the kids live in homeless shelters.  One little boy mentioned that his uncle recently got shot in a drive-by.  One child described how he hides with his brother so that his mother “won’t hit us with a stick.”  Shootings and violence permeate the experiences of many of the students.  Death is a part of life.  “You’re not dealing with kids, but with old souls who have seen a lot.” 

The school often deals with discipline issues with new rules. The administrators recently announced a new plan for preschooler art.  Starting next year, Geri is required to grades the preschoolers’ art assignments.  Geri asks, “How do you grade a four-year-old?  They’re barely out of the womb and we’re already so stringent.” 

This challenge of keeping the kids’ attention leads many of the teachers at Walnut to adopt a “boot camp” approach to school.  Unfortunately, this stern approach resembles the home environments that many of the children should be allowed to escape.  Instead of engaging the children with pleasant conversation in the morning, Geri overhears many of the other teachers barking at their students.  “Sit down!”  “The work’s on the board!  “Take your coat off!”  “Raise your hand!”  It echoes down the hallway and it’s hard to listen to, so Geri often closes her own classroom door.

Geri admits that some strict behavior control tactics are necessary some of the time, for some of the children. But many of Walnut’s teachers are in this “boot camp” mode all day for every student.  Geri laments that this approach is demeaning and counterproductive.  Nor would this approach bother Geri so much except that so many of the teachers talk to their students in “demeaning” and, sometimes, “hateful tones of voice.”

What do you do with such children?  At Walnut, there is a good counselor, but there is not enough counseling to go around.  There are some teachers who truly care enough to take the time to listen to the children, and then to encourage them.  They repeatedly advise the children: “You still need to produce at school even though it’s very difficult to do.”  These teachers are painfully aware that they don’t want to encourage their students to start using their tragic experiences and emotional disruption as excuses for not trying. This strategy sometimes works.  Many of the children show “incredible resilience.”

These challenging life experiences often come out in the children’s art.  Sometimes, Geri will deal with these tragic personal revelations by asking the children, “Do you want to draw it?” This approach is often helpful, especially for those children who struggle verbally.  The children’s drawings will sometimes depict the police, as well as men being thrown in jail.  “This is real life for them,” Geri mentions. “If you have the kind of life where you see birds, you draw birds.  This is what they see.” 

This lifestyle is also reflected in the music many of the students hear and sing.  Shockingly degrading violent lyrics to music are heard in the classroom, but there are no radios playing.  The kids will spontaneously sing these shocking lyrics in class.

For Geri, the problem always comes back to the parents.  It’s clear to her that the lack of education of these parents is simply being transferred down to their children.  What is school?  Is it really about learning or is it daycare?  Real learning goes beyond the walls and requires parents to work with their children to educate them.  For many of these children, however, the parents simply don’t have the skills or experience is to serve as mentors. This is especially unfortunate, according to Geri, since “95% of what is learned is learned at home.” If the parents are raised without education being an important part of their lives, “how can they impart the importance of education in their own children?”

In order to effect desperately needed change, parents need to be taught first, but how many of the parents who need help are willing to be taught?  Many of the parents hold down multiple jobs.  Further, many of them carry the kind of disruptive emotional baggage that would send many well-to-do suburban parents to their professional counselors and psychologists.

Sometimes there’s entirely too much pressure on Mom.  Many of the mothers are not taking care of themselves.  When this goes on long enough, they will not feel like taking out time to care for their own children. One of Geri’s fantasies is to invite the moms to school for a “spa day,” where the mothers would be pampered just a bit.  Similarly, the school might sponsor a basketball shootout evening for the dads.  These things would cost some money, of course, and it would be difficult to convince the district to allocate money for these sorts of things. 

Instead, the school district offers PTO meetings, which many of the parents consider tedious and degrading.  Geri hears these sorts of complaints from the parents that have attended.  They complain that they “already know that if your child has a fever don’t send that child to school.” 

What is needed?  Many important things, according to Geri, but many of these important things are cheap or even free.  For instance, the parents should be encouraged to turn off the television. In lieu of television, they need to establish “calm zones” in their homes.  They need to eat dinner with their children.  They need to read to their children.  Library books are free, and parents should take advantage of valuable library resources.  Each home should have some sort of building blocks to help the children develop spatial abilities.  The parents need to make sure that the children are actually sleeping eight to ten hours each night.  The lack of sleep is a huge problem during the day, but many parents put a low priority on getting their children into bed.  They need to understand that the children’s sleep time should be valued as “a sacred time.” Doing each of these things would require parents to put the needs of the children above their own needs on a regular basis.  In too many cases, selling this idea is a steep uphill climb.

Many of the parents don’t understand how to deal with correcting their own children.  At home, they punish their children instead of disciplining them.  In short, the parents are not explaining to their child what the problem is.  Instead, the children are simply told that they are “bad.”  Walnut Elementary is a school full of “bad” children.  This is not surprising, given that many of the teachers are also busy labeling and ostracizing those “bad” children.

Each of Geri’s classes includes more than a few children who are “really talented.”  Even if they aren’t well focused, many of the other children would be content to try to learn art.  But there are several children in each class who make it impossible to communicate assignments to those who are willing.  These disruptive children will stand on chairs and destructively grab things off shelves during story time. 

I suggested to Geri that art class might be seen as more “fun” than reading or math, and that it concerns me that maintaining discipline in an art class would be this difficult.  Geri explained that many of her struggles are caused by children who have been hammered with severe punishment all their lives.  Many of these troubled kids struggle the most in an art class that often invites freedom of expression.  In an art class, these children are being challenged to think outside the box and many of them struggle to do this.  There are many successes, of course, and these result in smiles and hugs.  But there’s long dry stretches too. Geri sometimes thinks, “How can I motivate them yet also tell them don’t worry about messing up each day?”  

At Walnut, then, the job of an art teacher is often the job of a counselor. Geri works to direct the children’s attention to their own behavior and to remind them that no one makes them choose their own dysfunctional behavior.  She often reminds the students of natural consequences.  “If you don’t brush her teeth, they turn yellow.  If no one pays electric bill, the electricity is turned off.”  Sometimes, her impromptu psychology sessions work to dissipate disruptive behaviors.  “It’s amazing what can happen if you break it down in a firm but loving way.  If you give them a plan you give them a direction.”  It beats telling them simply to “be good,” which is not at all helpful. 

It is not surprising, then, to hear that Geri is interested in pursuing a degree in art therapy. Sometimes the kids don’t have the words to express their concerns, and “images work more powerfully.” When the children work on expressive art, each project offers them a chance to invest something personal into the project.  This helps Geri to understand what is going on beneath the surface.

Then again, the reality is undeniable: “You can’t pick who you want to come to school.”  A quote she once heard has stuck with her ever since: “Every kid can learn.  Just not on the same day in the same way.”

Many of the teachers have developed a “trick” in order to deal with the intense lack of order in the classroom.  They teach to the majority.  This is not fair to those kids who are the most disruptive, but would be even less fair for the majority to lose their entire education because you’re attending primarily to special challenges.

I asked Geri whether most other teachers would consider her to be a complainer.  After all, don’t all teachers, even those in expensive private schools, have some difficult students in their classrooms? 

Geri admitted that every classroom in every school has challenging students.  The real problem is not the difficult students, however.  The problem at Walnut is that the teachers receive little or no support from the administration. For one, you cannot remove these extremely difficult kids from the class.  That just doesn’t happen, no matter how bad the behavior.  Instead, a teacher at Walnut needs to deal with these children every hour of every day.  The teachers’ energy is drained by the constant task of asserting redirection and applying constant positive discipline.  “You try to ignore the negative and compliment the positive.  Sometimes, the negative dies.” Often, however, it does not die.

When a teacher asks the Walnut administration for support, the teachers are told “you’ve got to get tougher.”  It’s hard to know what this means, says Geri, given that teachers will not go to the administration until they’ve repeatedly warned the children, called the student’s parents, and requested detention (where the students will sit in a separate room doing lessons all day).  What the administration really means by “get tough,” is to intimidate or demean the children, but Geri refuses to do this. 

Geri has attended numerous workshops, many of which she describes as “useless.” Teacher training does not include real training on “character education.”  In her opinion, this is a topic that needs to be incorporated directly into daily curriculum.  Intense character education is not about “a word of the month.”  Real character education gives the students hands-on exercises in self-control.  It would teach them what it means to earn or show respect. The lack of character education at Walnut is glaring.  “You don’t learn math in a day.  Why assume that a student could so quickly learn character education?”

What are some of the other solutions?  Geri has more than a few ideas.

For one, every classroom teacher at Walnut needs a permanent full-time assistant.  No teacher has such an assistant.  Having a permanent assistant would allow one adult to calm the disruptive children, temporarily removing them from the classroom if need be, to allow the other children to learn.

Geri fully understands that good teachers need to integrate discipline and learning, but the main problem at Walnut is constant and intense stream of interruptions.  These distractions make it difficult to get even five minutes of uninterrupted attention of the students at the beginning of a class.  “If I can’t give the directions, I am unable to work with the children.  You’re constantly prohibited from reaching your basic goals.” Geri asks whether I have any idea how hard it is to talk about art history when there are multiple disruptions within the first five minutes of each class. I don’t.

What else would benefit the children?  Having a real playground.  Studies show that children who more often engage in play more often succeed as learners.  Play is critical for learning. Walnut does not have a real playground, only a parking lot with broken asphalt, and the kids often throw the pieces of asphalt at each other. 

Here’s another thing: healthy food.  The children often come from homes where healthy food is lacking. Walnut does nothing to break this cycle.  The food served at the school is “unhealthy processed food and sugar drinks.  It’s awful.”   The social atmosphere at Walnut is no better than the nutrition.  There is a strict rule at Walnut that there will be absolutely no talking by any student during the 50-minute lunch period. Students found violating this rule are made to stand up against the cafeteria wall. The overriding goal of lunch time is to “be quiet and eat your lunch.”  This requirement comes straight from the principal’s office.  Why is such a rule necessary?  “Because everything at the school must look orderly in case guests visit the school.” Structure is often a good thing, but the structure at Walnut borders on militaristic.  The children are required to walk in the halls with their arms completely and rigorously in front of them.

Geri’s other suggestions return to the topic of the administration’s lack of support.  What’s needed is an administration that is “not afraid to provide and try new things.”  Also, it is critical to have an administration that focuses on what is working rather than what is not working.  Unfortunately, the administration of Walnut has postured itself as an enemy of its own teachers. What else can one think when teachers are berated by their superiors in front of their students for failing to turn in a form on time? 

The administration, including the principal, commonly displays a startling lack of tact and professionalism. Here’s a typical comment: “I don’t care.  You’ve just got to get it done.”  Sometimes comments like these come in over the intercom. They are also common occurrences at teacher meetings, where teachers are treated like hired hands rather than professionals.  Geri laments that the adults at Walnut “don’t even know how to talk to each other.” 

This culture of dysfunction spills out into the hallways.  “No one says hello.  If a teacher deemed to be too nice, he or she is accused ” of being too lenient and spoiling the children.”  The result? Geri has often had to deal with children who are upset, even crying, because another teacher has been hostile to the child, day after day.  Geri asks, “At what point are you going to kick those teachers out of the school?  If we really cared about our kids, we’d take care of those teachers.”

Every day remains a new day. “You’re on your own and it’s a different world.”  It’s impossible to point one finger at “the problem” at Walnut.  “It’s beyond what any one person is doing.”
To console herself at the end of the day, Geri reminds herself that she works in an institution that does not reflect the cooperation and cordiality that can more often be found outside of her institution. 

She continues to hold out hope that she can continue to make a difference in many instances, even if not everywhere or for every student.


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Category: American Culture, Education, Health, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    This post raises so many important and controversial issues, it is hard to know where to begin commenting. Accordingly, I'm going to pick just one small piece and start there.

    As I began reading this post, the image that flashed into my mind was not of an inner-city school in America, but rather what must be a large number of such schools in Iraq. This mental image was especially in my mind when I read these words: "Many of the children are dealing with constant flow of disturbing new people who come in and out of their homes and lives. In such an environment, “Who do you trust?” Does it make sense to trust at all?" I would imagine the "constant flow of new people" for Iraqi kids in Baghdad is significantly greater than it is for American kids in any U.S. city.

    Accordingly, as difficult as these problems are for some American inner-city children, I wonder what will become of the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of single-parent and orphan Iraqi children who were made that way by America's unwarranted invasion. Do they get counseling and free school lunches? Do they get good teachers for math and science? Do they get teachers who treat them with respect and dignity? For the ones who do work hard in school and get good grades, can they look forward to having a meaningful career? Will they become the leaders of local businesses and professions, or leaders of local street gangs, building yet another generation of strongman dictators who believe that violence and terrorism are the most accessible pathways to political power? And what will be the source of their moral education — secular lessons that teach respect for all people and beliefs, or religious lessons that teach the extermination of unbelievers?

    These are important questions, but who in the Bush Administration is asking them? And who in the MSM is holding the neo-cons accountable for not doing so?

    Anyway, this doesn't really have much to do with Geri's experience as a teacher in an inner-city American grade school, it's just the first thing I thought about when I read Erich's post.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    It reminds me of an experience a friend of mine had when he substitute taught science in a low-income area high-school. He told me that, of the 40 students in each of his classes, only about half had the reading skills necessary to even read the assignments. When he had the temerity to give them an actual test, less than half of the class managed a passing grade.

    One football player angrily accosted him, threatened him, and demanded a passing grade for his essentially blank test paper. My friend stood his ground. The parents then came in and demanded that their illiterate son be given a passing grade in the senior science course. The school administration then overrode the failing grade.

    My friend no longer teaches.

  3. Daphnie Erickson says:

    I am fully and overwhelmingly supportive of the ideas of Geri and greatly aware of these circumstances going on in many public schools in the inner city. I myself have worked with economically disadvantaged children and understand that these children cannot be expected to perform at a level that they cannot attain due to their environmental upbringing. If the community and administration do not get involved in reconstructing the education system by incorporating positive "character education" we will soon create a generation uncapable of carrying on social equality and economical stability.

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