Whilst going through some files and folders yesterday, I found some paperwork from my student teaching internship and was reminded of a story. Clemson didn’t call it an internship, they called it a “practicum,” which I suppose is a more accurate term, but I call it an internship because otherwise most folks don’t know what I’m talking about.
Anyhow, the placement folks were kind enough to assign me to the closest high school, less than a ten minute drive from my apartment, my workplace, and the university. I was assigned to “Mr. Heinz” for the Spring 2001 semester. He taught 10th grade US history, 12th grade economics and government, and he ran the Model UN and the Multicultural Club (though he always pronounced it “multi-culch”). Mr. Heinz seemed like a nice enough guy; students liked him, teachers liked him, he ran a few clubs, etc. After a week or so, he let me take over all three classes, which was fine by me– it was the point of the whole exercise, after all.
The shine wore off after a few weeks. I discovered that he knew little-to-nothing about economics, and he would occasionally contradict my lessons. It would have made sense if I were teaching about controversial economic theories, or issues that were ideologically or politically tinged, but this was basic economic stuff: supply and demand, specialization and division of labor, comparative advantage and so on. He didn’t speak up often, but when he did he was dead wrong. It left the students confused and me in a bind, because I didn’t want to undermine his authority or the students’ confidence in him– especially since he had a say in my grade for the practicum.
Mr. Heinz had an unusual form of detention: staying after school to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Equating reading with punishment is probably not an effective form of punishment (regardless of the author), and probably not good pedagogy. Worse, I discovered he wouldn’t back me up on disciplinary issues. I assigned three students to detention, and Mr. Heinz said he’d watch them. The next day, these students asked to speak to me privately. They told me that there was no detention; Heinz had sent them home right after the bell. I was impressed with their character and thanked them for telling me.
One Friday, near the end of a government class, I announced a homework assignment. The seniors stared at me in utter shock. Jaws were agape. The room was silent and still until I asked what the problem was. Somebody said, “It’s Friday.”
I said, “That’s correct.”
Somebody else said, “You gave us homework.”
The sincere bafflement on their faces led me to think there was a rule against giving homework over the weekend. By this point I’d discovered enough goofy policies from the feds, the state, and the district that such a rule wouldn’t have surprised me at all. So I turned to Mr. Heinz– who looked as bewildered as the students, but he recovered a lot faster– and asked, “Is there a rule that says I can’t give homework over the weekend?”
He said, “No.”
I turned back to the kids and said, “Get to work.”
Clearly, Mr. Heinz had never given them homework over a weekend. The kids weren’t happy with me, but Heinz looked furious. In that moment it became obvious to everyone in the room that although I was inexperienced and rough-hewn as a teacher, I was actually trying to challenge the kids and get them to work and learn. Heinz was not. This is not to say that assigning homework over the weekend will automatically turn students into workers and achievers– in fact there are some pedagogies that exclude homework altogether. But it looked like Heinz was not even bothering to try or to worry about it. I looked like a jerk who wanted them to learn, but he looked weak and soft and indifferent to their education. I was a teacher, he was a babysitter.
And it turned out he was a scumbag, too. Near the end of my practicum, he came to me with an offer. He had been mentoring a student who was earning his high school diploma by correspondence. The student was having great difficulty with an economics workbook, so Heinz said he’d pay me $25 to complete the workbook. He handed me the book.
I was flabbergasted. This wasn’t a student offering a bribe, or the parent of a student– this was a certified professional educator, one who worked with the biggest School of Education in the state, offering a bribe. Worse, it was a certified professional educator who, once again, had a lot of influence on my grade for the practicum, and therefore on my future as a teacher.
Maybe this was a trap or a test– after all, there was no way anyone could be that blithe about bribery and cheating, right? So I asked the other interns whether their supervisors had made similar offers. They had not.
I had no idea what to do. Filling out the workbook was absolutely not an option. I was afraid to say anything to the principal or the practicum coordinator at Clemson– I didn’t know what kind of blowback there’d be. If they didn’t believe me, my grade and career might be at risk. Hell, they might’ve been at risk even if they did believe me.
A few days before the end of my practicum, Mr. Heinz called me up in front of the class. As a token of appreciation, he presented me with a check that just happened to be worth $25 and told me to take my girlfriend out on his dime. The kids applauded. I found out later that Heinz had collected the $25 from the students. In short, his students were unwittingly subsidizing this other kid’s cheating.
In retrospect, I should have nuked him. I should have told the practicum coordinator, the other folks at Clemson’s School of Education, the principal at the high school, the social studies department chair, the students, and perhaps the local paper. He should have been suspended if not fired. I wasn’t going to get hired in that neck of the woods anyways, so it wouldn’t have cost me a job, and the more I think about it the more difficult it is to imagine receiving a poor grade as a result of reporting his malfeasance.
Later that day, I opened the workbook for the first time. A folded piece of notebook paper fell out. It was a letter from the student to Mr. Heinz, thanking him for agreeing to complete the workbook. It was a godsend, if we’re talking about the God of Weaseling-Your-Way-Out-Of-Sticky-Problems-With-Morally-Ambiguous-Solutions.
When I got to the high school the next morning, I put the blank workbook in Heinz’s mailbox. I then put a photocopy of the letter on top of it. I kept the original, just in case I ever did have to nuke him. I never heard another word about it.
I ended up with a “B” in the practicum. In her evaluation, the coordinator wrote that she arrived at this grade after consulting with Mr. Heinz, who claimed that he’d never talked to her about it at all and acted surprised at the grade.