Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The number two hundred thirty-seven is the ugliest number I have ever seen.

237 was the number of students on my class rolls as the Fall 2007 semester got rolling at Waco High School. No, it wasn't a computer glitch. That was the first thing I asked. I was told that more freshmen than expected had enrolled and that last year's administration had spent so much money we couldn't afford to hire another teacher. "We're aware of the situation," said the the principal.

237 students breaks down into six sections of World Geography, each with 34-38 students, and one section of 'Enrichment,' a course in which students would be prepared to take the high school exit examination. At a 'good' high school, a typical teaching load would be no more (and usually a lot less) than 150 students in five or six sections. 237 is, for most teachers, unimaginable. Inconceivable.

Didn't we all have fun when they all showed up? The 32 desks that would (barely) fit into my smaller-than-average classroom would not contain them all. I pulled in chairs from the library and sat three at my desk when necessary; students sometimes volunteered to sit on the floor. Usually, however, they didn't all show up. Even so, even if 'only' 33 were in class, these were 33 students crammed like sardines into an under-sized classroom in a school with a reputation for disciplinary problems. Some days, in some classes, even fifteen years of experience and a reputation for being able to handle difficult students could not overcome odds like these.

Even when class was not in session, the load that was my 237 bore down upon me. Each assignment, each quiz, each test, meant more than two hundred papers to score and more than two hundred grades to enter. I had to buy a special high-capacity stapler just to staple together the stacks of papers.*

Perhaps most difficult of all was the fact that fifty of my 237 were classified as Special Education students. I was required by law to follow fifty different custom-tailored sets of modifications for teaching these students. Daily I filled out twenty Behavior Improvement Plan sheets for students who had a history of inappropriate** behaviors at school. I have no accurate tally of exactly how much of my life was taken up attending and filling out paperwork for Special Education meetings (called ARD's), but I am sure the true figure would shock even me. One Special Education teacher told me that even she didn't teach fifty Special Education students and that she certainly didn't try to teach them in classes filled to capacity.

It did, eventually, get better. As the months wore on the numbers on my student rolls slowly dropped. The slow, but steady attrition of economically disadvantaged students—via suspensions, juvenile detention, and dropping out—whittled my numbers down almost to 200 by the Christmas break. By April fewer than 180 were on my rolls.

In fact, it wasn't until April that someone clued me in on why I really had 237 students to start the year. "Look at how small the classes are for the 11th grade teachers in your subject," said the veteran teacher with 30+ years in the classroom, "and look at how large the 9th grade classes are. This school gets in real trouble if our 11th graders' test scores aren't good enough this year. They could have rearranged the schedules and made the 11th grades classes larger so some of those teachers could have picked up part of the 9th grade load, but they chose to let your classes be huge to keep the 11th grade classes as small as possible. Anything to try to bring up test scores."

I'm not sure that even I am cynical enough to believe what I was told. Sure, it seems to make more sense than saying the principal last year blew the money on a new copy machine, so we can't afford to hire the teachers we need, but would they go this far just to raise test scores? Could the school administration intentionally put 9th grade students in less-than-ideal learning conditions in order to keep the school out of trouble with the state and federal governments? If so, is this justifiable? Or is it merely the educational equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul?

If I were responsible for the school, would I make such a choice? It's the kind of question that makes me glad that I'm not in charge of a school and it is another example of how the high-stakes regime imposed by the No Child Left Behind act distorts what should be important in the American education. Even if overwhelming evidence existed that the size of my 9th grade classes has absolutely nothing at all to do with getting higher scores on this year's 11th grade tests, the system established by NCLB would make it difficult for many to accept that evidence.

The joy went out of teaching for me this year; my teaching mojo has evaporated. I never thought I would have cause to say those words, but the 237 have worn me down to a nub. I have the summer to find my joy again, to get my mojo back. If I do, I'll back in a classroom next year, but it won't be at Waco High.

* Typical staplers are rated for 20 sheets and can usually handle up to 25, they are useless for anything larger.

** 'Inappropriate' is a term running the gamut from not completing assignments to bursting into nearly psychotic states of rage at one or several classmates for no apparent reason. Some of these behaviors are so unique/bizarre that I will not mention them for fear of violating confidentiality.