I have now clocked in six days in my new job as a staff accompanist at a suburban Chicagoland high school. The school is a new one that just opened its doors last week. It is still in the building stage and is currently only welcoming freshmen and sophomores. I am working part-time, approximately 7-10 a.m. mornings and one evening per week.
It has been a long time since I have spent any time as a high school insider. Of course, I was a high school student once, in a small, rural Texas town (my graduating class had around 160). I also spent three years teaching secondary level English in my twenties. So I have experienced high school from both sides of the lectern. But what I have seen in the last week is nothing like what I remember from either of those vantage points. Times, as they say, have changed.
When construction is completed this $125 million facility will include a state of the art auditorium and fine arts wing (with midi labs, practice rooms, and sculpture garden); a football stadium with two practice fields; two soccer fields, two baseball fields, and two softball fields; an aquatic complex; a greenhouse with rooftop garden; and, of course, the latest in computer technology and media. I am impressed by the design of the building, which makes extensive use of natural lighting; windows, expansive and plentiful, are a prominent feature of all corridors and classrooms.
I am also impressed by what I have seen of student life at the school. It strikes me as much more similar to my college than my high school experience. Course offerings are extensive. Students design their own schedules based on educational and vocational goals. The library is immense, the lockers full-size (in my high school everyone had a 50/50 chance of getting a lower locker, which meant a year of stooping and bending and getting bumped on the head). The staff that I have met strike me as well-credentialed, professional, and positive. I hope these students appreciate how blessed they are.
On the other hand, some of the things that I remember from my own high school days are missing, and I think the effect is unfortunate. When I was in high school, teachers were inextricably connected to their rooms. When you entered a classroom you were entering that teacher's world. The way the room was arranged for learning said much about the teacher and his or her personality, values, and style. I have seen teachers whose rooms were furnished almost like homes, with rugs and rocking chairs and refrigerators and microwave ovens (and I'm talking upper level, not elementary teachers). But at this school the teacher's home base is his or her office (or, more likely, cubicle), and the classroom is only a teaching space which he occupies for one period. As a result, the rooms, as clean and beautiful as they are, lack personality. No motivational posters, bulletin boards, visual learning aids, displays of student work, or other teacher-specific content is to be found (except for those rooms where roaming is impossible, such as the choir room, band hall, and art department). When you go to English literature it's just the teacher and a roomful of desks: no Elizabethan timelines, diagrams of the Globe theater, or drawings of great writers lining the walls. And in my opinion something is lost in that paradigm. (Of course, the ability for a teacher to display politically charged materials is also weakened, and that may be a good thing.)
Something is also amiss when luxury items and technology and replace basic learning tools. In the first week of school I have been unable to acquire staples such as paper clips, scissors, index cards, tape, and colored markers: none of the aforementioned were included in the supply package provided to each classroom, and they are apparently not to be found anywhere else on campus (or if they are, they're being hidden and hoarded). In my search for these elusive items, I encountered one sympathetic secretary in the main office who seemed ready to raid whatever stores she could find; but when a clearly more senior secretary gave her the evil eye she demurred. I was told that my department had a budget for such things and that they would have to be ordered through it. So much for that lesson on sharing in second grade.
Then there was the quest for the paper cutter. The choir director with whom I was working had created some ensemble audition sheets to pass out to his students. They were not lengthy, so to conserve paper he put two on a page. My task was to cut the pages in half. Simple, right? Think again. Here beginneth my paper cutter odyssey.
Against my better judgement, I started with the main office. The previously sympathetic secretary, now properly indoctrinated, flatly told me, "We have nothing like that here." So it was on to the grade-level offices. No luck there either, or in the teacher lounge. Finally someone took pity on me and said, "I think they have one in the library." Upon my arrival I was kindly welcomed::cue heartwarming music:: and pointed to the object of my desire. I guess librarians still appreciate the value of sharing--all that book-lending, you know?
Now, perhaps my expectations are set unfairly high. The ribbon cutting ceremony was just last week, after all. But I can't help wondering: if it's possible, on the first day of school, to have fully-equipped computer labs, a portable Lumens in every classroom (these are so totally cool--I would have loved one when I was teaching school), and five octaves of marimbas, is a box of paper clips too much to ask for?
(P.S. One other revolutionary development that I would have loved in my teaching days is the online gradebook whereby teachers can post up-to-the-minute grades for parents to log in and see. No more sending out progress reports or chasing down parents to alert them to their child's falling behind. All they have to do is log in, and it's all there in black and white. It's great because it puts the responsibility on the child and his or her parents. Parents can even set up their account so as to receive an alert when their child's average falls below a certain level. The only problem with that in my Type A community is that according to one of my co-workers there are parents who will set up the alert to come when the average falls below a 92. Sigh.)