Back in my pre-grad school days I became inspired to help children, largely as a response to this church talk. At the time I had big plans to go get a T14 JD and then go make a bunch of money - but I wanted to do something that was helpful and mattered before I got caught up in making millions. So I got into a program called The New Teacher Project (TNTP - similar to and somewhat affiliated with Teach for America) to be placed as a teacher in a high need location. I was ready to go save the world. I was scheduled to go teach high school on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, but there was an extreme need for teachers in Yuma, AZ so they asked if I'd be willing to go down to the Mexico border to teach chemistry instead, which I accepted. Yuma changed my life.
Yuma is a unique place. Some of it's uniqueness can be seen in this article I wrote while living there. It's a depressing place. Unemployment is inconceivable (yes, that word means what I think it means). Most of the local population are immigrants from Mexico, many of whom are seasonal farm workers. These immigrants' children tend to see how life is in Yuma and figure life doesn't get much better. Going to the local community college is seen as a major aspiration and accomplishment by most people. It broke my heart. I cared about my students, I saw them every day and I wanted them to make the most of their lives, but most of them saw little hope in their own futures.
In any case, moving on to the title of this work, the school district had been doing some restructuring imposed upon them by the state (because local public education was rather abysmal), and in the course of trying to make the students "college ready" they chose some packaged chemistry curriculum. It was an awful curriculum to prepare kids for college, indeed it did not prepare whatsoever - in fact, in a training for the curriculum that was given by the company which produced it, the company instructor stated that this was intended to be a low-level curriculum which would not prepare students for college. Even worse, the curriculum didn't even teach the concepts required BY STATE LAW. I brought up my concerns a number of times with the head of the science group at the school, and continually got "Well this is what we have to do." I brought up the issue with the principal, which was met with "Discuss your concerns with the head of the science group." I was at a loss. So finally, being a teacher who cared about his students' futures, I designed my own rigorous curriculum based on the state mandated concepts. Problem solved. For a day.
It seemed rather dishonest to sneak around with my own little plans under the guise of implementing the unfortunate curriculum given by the district, so I sent an email to the head of the science group letting her know what I was doing. Within half an hour my email had been forwarded to authority and I was asked to meet with the school principal ASAP. At this meeting I was suspended immediately, and an official date was set up for me to meet with the principal and a district administrator - at which meeting I was told I could bring someone of my choice.
As I considered who I would want to bring, I decided that the entire proceedings here were rather problematic and the community and parents would not be very pleased with how things were playing out, so I chose to invite a reporter from a local television station. I felt the students of Yuma were being betrayed and I wanted my story heard. I arrived on schedule at about the same time as the reporter. The reporter and I entered the meeting, and it was rather apparent that the present administrator and principal were horrified that I brought a reporter. Score. Just kidding. To my dismay, the administrator said the meeting could not occur with the reporter present, and even worse, the reporter knew the meeting members personally and was entirely willing to simply leave things where they were and never look into the situation again.
The meeting was rescheduled, I attended by myself, explained my entire point of view and all that had led up to my creating my own curriculum. It was apparent that the other attendees had nothing to retort, had no argument, and seemed to rather agree with how I felt about the situation. But being right isn't enough in the machine of school district bureaucracy. I was given the choice of teaching the curriculum specified by the district, or being dismissed from my position.
They gave me a few days to decide. I was torn. Should I abandon my students and let someone else teach them garbage, or should I go back and be the one who taught them garbage? I decided that it wouldn't do much for anyone if I went back. I would be showing my students that The Man can control you, that you just give up and submit when the stakes go up. I decided that, perhaps, it would mean more to at least some of them (and maybe be even a little inspiring) if I were to stand up, be immovable, and be the ridiculous idealist I obviously am. I told the principal I wasn't willing to teach the district's curriculum, which he skewed into me saying that I was quitting (apparently firing people is just a gigantic hassle). And that was that.
What did I learn here? That making big changes from the bottom up is difficult, and sometime impossible. If you want to change the world, you need a position of power. You need to be a big fish. I didn't save the world. But I'm still working on it. Three graduate degrees later, I still look back to my time in Southern Arizona when I need some perspective.