Wendy Warren, High School Teacher
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Warren was born and raised in New York but has lived in Houston for more than twenty years. She is an eleventh-grade U.S. history teacher at Hastings High School, in the Alief Independent School District, which serves one of the state’s most ethnically diverse student populations. More than sixty languages and dialects are spoken by the area’s children.
I was in the corporate world for fifteen years before I made the switch to teaching. I worked in the Texas Medical Center doing professional billing and consulting. My career was going really well; I made good money and all that. But at about year ten, I was feeling that there had to be something more rewarding. So I went back to school, and after getting my teaching certification, I completed a master’s in education. Some people thought I was crazy to work longer hours—and with teenagers!
I was nervous on my first day in the classroom. At the time, my own children were very young, so I wasn’t used to teenagers. I was teaching tenth-graders that year, and I remember coming home that first day in shock, thinking, “Oh, my gosh, they’re like barbarians!” Today’s slang is not what I grew up with, and the kids dress differently. But I did go back the next day.
My class is diverse. I think the school is around 40 percent Hispanic, 38 percent African American, and the rest Asian: from China, Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan. The smallest percentage is white, maybe 5 percent. Twenty-some years ago, this area was the white middle-class suburbs of Houston; ten years ago, it was already an international area, but not as much as now. Alief has become more and more minority, with a lot of new immigrants and first-generation American children. I don’t know why. The housing plays a role, I think: There are many inexpensive apartment complexes that would bring in people with limited resources. The types of students I work with are the kind who need teachers the most.
I like to be at school by 6:45 in the morning. I ready the room, write objectives on the board, get papers together. As the department chair, I also have to hand equipment out to people. Sometimes students come in for tutoring. At 7:30 the bell rings. We have some sort of morning announcement, then the Pledge of Allegiance, and we begin class. In a typical day there are four class periods; you teach three and have one to plan and grade. I teach the same course throughout the day. That may sound boring, but it isn’t. Something different happens in each class.
I get right into the lesson of the day, whatever that might be. We usually start the year with a quick review of early American history. Officially, we begin after Reconstruction, and typically I get to the seventies. I always incorporate current events, and I try to bring what we study down to a personal level. In our second unit we touch on the immigration of Europeans in the early 1900’s. We discuss how they were treated, and we compare those events with what’s going on with immigration today. The students take these issues very seriously, and we have strong debates in the classroom. As you might imagine, many of those who are children of immigrants are for open borders, but I have seen a few kids who came here legally who are against illegal immigration.
I’m just the facilitator of our discussions. I never talk down to a kid; I’m not sarcastic. That’s one of my strengths, and I think it’s key, because I can really get my kids to participate and show what they’re thinking. I’m constantly looking for new instructional strategies so they know how hard I work. We’re not going to sit and do work sheets.
Teachers have the same amount of time to eat as the students: 25 minutes. I let the kids out and go to the teachers’ lunchroom. Lunch is usually grouped by department, so I eat with others in social studies. Then the bell rings, and I head back to class. Sometimes the last class of the day is the hardest, because the kids are tired or they’ve had too much sugar. But you have to push it into high gear. When the final bell rings, the kids are happy to get out of there. And the teachers? There’s still a lot to do. After 2:30 I have meetings or tutoring. Sometimes I’m working with other teachers or handling department business. My time is so filled that I have to go home to do my planning and grading. I still probably work one or two hours at home every day, and that’s with ten years’ experience.
Five years ago or so I created a curriculum for a class of recently arrived students to the U.S. I would introduce them to the symbols of America and the founding of the country, and the kids were very motivated. When you ask these students why they came here, they always say “to be free,” and they seem to know a lot about individual liberties before they get here. They know they’re here for a better life. I’d say the more Americanized they become, the more that motivation seems to disappear.
In that class, I used lower-reading-level history books because the students were just beginning to learn English. Language can be a challenge. I’ve had some classes with five or six—Spanish, Vietnamese, Urdu, Korean, Chinese, a lot of Asian languages. But Spanish is the predominant one. Human nature is to stick around people you’re comfortable with, but these kids interact in a healthful way. I’d try to pair kids who spoke the same language so they could help each other. Students always appreciate if you show you value their language and their culture. And yet I only speak English! I took Spanish in high school, but it’s limited.
I don’t know percentages on what happens to the students, but half of them will at least begin college. I couldn’t tell you how many finish. Many will go to two-year technical schools. Some join the military; they see that as a way to get their education.
This past year I won the teacher of the year award in my region and the Houston West Chamber of Commerce Secondary Teacher of the Year award. It has been quite a year. Throughout my career, I’ve been asked to become a specialist who coaches other teachers and take steps outside the classroom, but I’ve turned those opportunities down, because the whole joy is being with the kids. I love this age group I have. Tenth-graders in our school are the youngest; they’re babies. And twelfth-graders are ready to get out. The eleventh-graders are getting serious about things. They are, to me, perfect.