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Tv Program Review

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Students, Take a Bow

by Gabriel Wallace

Flipping through the channels on the TV the other day, I came across a program where teachers were being honored for their hard work, dedication, and creativity. I immediately parked the remote on the couch beside me and sat back, ready to bask in the reflected glow of recognition my fellow pedagogues were receiving. The program was very well presented, with a video of each teacher being honored, showing her hard at work among her devoted students, gently nudging them along the paths of enlightenment toward success and personal fulfillment.

That video was followed by a separate video showing each teacher speaking to the camera, making comments about her philosophy of teaching, her approach to discipline, her classrooms strategies, etc. I felt myself swelling with pride in my profession, and I was grateful to the gods of television for throwing some positive light on a much maligned occupation.

But even as I felt these things, I sensed that something important was not being stressed, some crucial element in the complex equation of learning was being glossed over. And then it hit me. Of course, it was the students. Although teaching is always a challenge, even a mediocre teacher can look good if he finds himself in a positive learning environment, with good materials to work with and attentive, motivated students. A good teacher, however, can achieve wonders if he has only the last of these ingredients: good students.

I taught for five years at a private parochial high school on the north side of Chicago. The school was located in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, where maple, oak, and poplar trees lined the streets and people went on garden walks to see who had the prettiest flowers. The school building was a happy blend of form and functionality, with an impressive sculpture at the front entrance and a well-lighted, congenial interior, where walls were painted in cheerful pink, yellow, and blue and hung with impressive student art as well as lovely professional artwork. The five hundred students interacted with a phalanx of teachers, counselors, and administrators who worked hard to see that the needs of each student were being met. Parents served on the board of directors of the school, volunteered to assist in field trips, and of course became intimately involved with the progress of their children. Every morning both the principal and the assistant principal would personally greet the school buses arriving from the suburbs, and they would also see them off at the close of school in the evening.

The materials that I and my colleagues got to work with were all that we could hope for. The textbooks were carefully selected for content, design, and currentness, and they often came with supplementary audiotapes and transparencies. No matter what unit I happened to be teaching, I could always count on finding a film to complement it in the large collection of the film library. And of course, there was the library itself, containing several thousand volumes and employing two full-time librarians. It could easily have served the needs of a much larger school. There was climate control in the large, airy, classrooms, where class size was kept small, and the laboratories and computer facilities were state of the art for that period.

And the students? Well, they were simply wonderful. I recall remarking to one of my colleagues that teaching there was analogous to driving a sleek new luxury automobile: the sound of the powerful engine purring, the quick, cat-like response to the slightest touch on the steering wheel, the exhilarating leap as you pressed down on the accelerator! I held informal office hours in the classroom before and after school, and there were always students waiting to discuss the day's lesson or the homework assignment. During class sessions, it was obvious that points of discussion were taken very seriously, sifted and weighed and openly debated among themselves, and with me. Oh no, I was not allowed to go unchallenged on my pronouncements! Nothing pleased them more than to force me to confess that I might have been wrong, or at least that there was more than one solution to a problem. Assignments were invariably turned in on time, and the quality of the work always reflected considerable effort. Although some of these kids were clearly gifted, the vast majority were well within the normal range of intelligence; what fueled their single-minded striving for excellence was the ambience, the combination of physical plant, materials, and personnel, which literally left them with no idea that they could be other than the good students that they were.

It is one of the supreme ironies of my life that for the two years prior to taking the job at this school, I had been a G. E. D. instructor in a program at the Cook County Jail. If you have never seen the jail, imagine a heavy, five-story structure sitting on a large city block, surrounded by an 18 foot wall of thick concrete, topped with barbed wire. Guard towers occupy each corner of the square compound, and the windows that can be seen above the wall are just wide enough to frame the faces of the inmates peering through the iron bars.

Entering the building each morning through the huge oak door, I was searched by a guard and my briefcase was carefully inspected. Then I was escorted (no civilian was allowed to walk through the compound unescorted) through a series of clanging iron gates, down a dimly lit corridor lined with cells containing inmates in khaki jail uniforms. Finally we would arrive at the gate that led to the school area. At about the same time, the students would be arriving from their tiers, led in a double file by a guard. Before entering the school area, the men would be required to strip naked to show that they were not carrying concealed weapons. Once past that indignity, however, the men would be allowed to enter the school area, where there were no guards present.

The classrooms of the school were small and Spartan, with bare walls painted pale green,



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