In my last semester of college, back in 1980, I requested a student-teaching assignment several hours away from campus, nearer my home in central Iowa. I was directed to Madrid High School in Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), Iowa. I was designated to teach three English classes, all with the same cooperating teacher, and one class each of reading and psychology, each with different cooperating teachers. The school’s enrollment in grades 9-12 was about 150, with graduating classes of 35-40 students. The building was fairly new, bright, and clean, and the cooperating teachers were nice, enthusiastic professionals.
My primary cooperating teacher became ill early in my student-teaching experience, and I ended up figuring out a lot by myself. The other cooperating teachers and the entire faculty, about a dozen teachers or so, were supportive, but I was largely on my own. Most of my student-teaching experience happened with a substitute teacher in the room. My college supervisor and mentor, the saintly Mrs. Marian Gremmels, made the three-hour trek to visit me one time and was satisfied that things were going well. As the school year ended, my cooperating teacher resigned his position at Madrid High School, and it was offered to me. I stayed there for five years, and I wouldn’t trade those five years for anything.
I was still largely on my own, and I’m glad. Although others were willing to help, collaboration wasn’t expected or really even practical. The high school English faculty consisted of two full-time and one part-time teacher. None of us taught the same courses. For example, I was the only Sophomore English teacher. Juniors and seniors took elective classes, and no one taught more than one section of any of them.
The Madrid High School students in the early 1980s were lively and fun, but as in any high school population, some were troubled. The community was a largely blue-collar bedroom community for factories in Des Moines and its suburbs. (Small towns in Iowa are usually based on agriculture, but Madrid’s culture is based on industry, dating back to its origins as a mining community more than a farming community.) Most of the student body considered high school education necessary and worthwhile but most were not college-bound. Parents were generally supportive of the school but not shy about communicating concerns. Because the community was so small—about 2,000 people—and I lived in the community, it was common to run into students and parents everywhere and frequently. The school and its activities were the hub of the community.
If something was going on in town, it affected most if not all of the student body, and it was dealt with in class. If a business closed or opened in town, it affected numerous members of that small student body. If one of the factories went on strike, it affected not just the members of the striking families but everybody in such a pro-union town. If a student or a student’s parent died, it affected school for quite a few days because most people had some connection to the family involved. When the Madrid, Iowa Centennial Celebration rolled around, the school was a major player in the festivities. The daily life of the community was reflected in the school to a very high degree.
Five years in Madrid, Iowa taught me a valuable lesson that I didn’t really know I was learning: A teacher needs to regard each student as an individual, not as part of some larger student body tapestry. (This is especially true for writing teachers.) I frequently had students more than one period each day, and for three years in a row. You get to know them pretty well in those circumstances. When your classes are based on writing and discussions, each student’s voice and personality emerges.
Did I make mistakes in those early years of teaching? Oh, yeah. A lot of them. But we learn from our mistakes. How about the time I gave Mike sixty detentions? It started off badly, with me issuing a detention, and rubbing it in with “And if you don’t stop talking, I’ll give you another one.” Mike: “Fine, go ahead.” Me: “OK, fine. You got another one.” And it went on from there. The principal wasn’t too happy with either of us, and I would approach the situation very differently these days.
For the past 25 years, I’ve worked as an English teacher in a large suburban Chicago school with about 2,800 students. More than 98% of each graduating class goes to college. The community is relatively affluent and mostly white-collar conservative. I almost never have the same students in class more than one period and rarely have a student in class more than one year. I still teach Sophomore English, along with some other classes, but our English department has 28 teachers, many of whom also teach the same classes. (I do not live in the same community where I work, although the community where I live has similar demographics.)
In an environment like ours, it’s easy to go into a mass-production mode, especially these days when schools call for collaboration and consistency. Those are nice words, but I’m concerned about how they affect a teacher’s view of individual students. If we’re supposed to collaborate our way into a consistent approach between teachers and students, what about when an individual student isn’t served well by that one-size-fits-all approach? Then we’re told about the wonders of Response-to-Intervention and Differentiated Instruction. More nice words, but what if we just went ahead and did those things anyway without being prodded to do so on the basis of assessment results? What if we just start by focusing on individual students and serving them as well as we can, rather than serving the curriculum and treating the students who don’t get it as aberrations to be dealt with through some other program?
Those years in Madrid, Iowa also taught me the value of being a strong individual in the classroom. By “strong” I don’t mean loud or overbearing. I mean a teacher should be able to manage the curricular and behavioral aspects of a classroom without requiring a lot of support from others. I was and still am a quirky teacher, a little unpredictable, prone to digressions, but still fired up about writing and books and how what we’re doing in class is relevant to the real world that exists beyond the school walls and schedule. I’m worried about how the push for consistency affects younger, newer teachers who are taught to collaborate their way through a curriculum. Collaboration has its place, no doubt about it, but I still like to see teachers who can make decisions and act on them based on the needs of their own individual students and their own teaching strengths and styles.
When I was involved in hiring new teachers, that was my number-one consideration about each candidate: Is this person a strong individual, able to make good decisions for the benefit of the students in his or her classes? I got it right more often than not, but I feel badly when those strong individuals are now frustrated by a culture that doesn’t seem to value individuality in teachers or students.
I’m still in touch with some of the students from those years, and I’m glad they’re doing well. My wife’s family is from Madrid, although none still lives there, and I have some relatives there too, so I know a little of what’s going on, although I don’t pretend to be up to speed on everything. Madrid has changed over the past couple of decades, jolted harder by the economy than most small towns, but I still see a lot of pride there, much of it based on what goes on at the school.
And in my office desk drawer, where it’s always within reach, I can show you my orange and black student-teaching portfolio from Madrid, Iowa circa 1980. I don’t look at it very much for content these days, but I keep it there as a reminder of how the lessons of a small school are just as relevant for a big school if we go one student at a time.