Teachers make a difference every day in kids' lives
Arizona Daily Star
June 7, 2005


A couple of weeks ago, I spent a grueling, but enlightening, day at TUSD's Wakefield Middle School. Photographer Lindsay A. Miller and I were on assignment for the Sunday Opinion Page doing a piece about the cost of educating a child in the public schools.

We went there to gather a bunch of facts, figures and pictures. What I came back with was respect for teachers, administrators and students.
One of the first things I noticed was the uniforms. Most of the students were wearing white polo-style shirts, khaki pants and white sneakers.
Navy blue pants are an option, but because the weather had turned hot, almost all the kids were wearing the lighter- colored pants.
The uniform is important. They came about several years ago during the an intense period of gang violence. At Wakefield, they erase any semblance of gang affiliation.
But the clothing also levels the playing field among students going through an insecure period in life. It's hard to be envious of the girl sitting next to you when she has to wear the same thing you wear.
We were there to follow student Stacy Armenta, who takes almost all her classes with the same group of students. Like Stacy, they are learning to speak English.
We followed her from a reading and writing class, to a Spanish class for native speakers, to a math class, a science class and back to the reading class.
My impression was that if every kid in the Tucson Unified School District has the quality of teachers that Stacy has, we do not have to worry about the state of education in that district. Did I mention that all those teachers conducted classroom business in both English and Spanish?
Maybe it was the Heisenberg principle at work - that the mere act of observation changes what is observed - but every teacher was on her game. And it wasn't as if they knew we were coming. In fact, we had to explain to each teacher who we were and what we were doing.
I saw at least two situations in Stacy's classes that would make me, if I were a teacher, question my career choice. In both those classes the teachers worked around what I would call a difficult situation and continued to teach.
I picked out a young boy in the first class as a troublemaker. But as the hour and the day wore on, it became clear the kid could not sit still and pay attention.
The problem was not that he couldn't concentrate (which he couldn't), it was that he disrupted the entire class.
In that class, long after I had lost patience as a mere observer and after he managed to agitate students around him, his teacher politely asked him to leave the room. He did.
He returned a few minutes later, quieter if only for a short time. Yet, despite the disruptions, the teacher managed to keep the kids fully engaged in the day's lesson.
In another teaching challenge, the science teacher took students into the classroom for their post-lunch class. It was a huge class and many more students than those who participate in Stacy's teaching block.
This teacher's style was immediately apparent. With so many students to teach, she demanded respect and discipline. The students delivered.
As she went on with the lesson, she made sure students spoke only if they raised their hands. But she also engaged the group through open-ended questions and encouraged participation from those who normally do not. It was a remarkable show of teacher skill and care.
I've always thought middle schools were just insane asylums for pre-adolescents. It is a time when kids are moving way from childhood. It's often not a pretty transition.
The kids at Wakefield are pretty much the same as kids in any other middle school. The girls wear too much makeup, and they are way more mature than the boys. The boys seemed to run the gamut from the scrawniest and least mature to those who have to shave every morning.
At lunchtime, Lindsay and I had similar thoughts. We wanted to tell every one of those kids: "Just wait a little while. Life gets so much better after middle school!"
I had gone to middle school to gather facts and figures. But I came away with a much better understanding of education as a living, changing human commitment.
Margo Hernandez is a Star editorial writer. Contact her at mhernandez@azstarnet.com.