Three minutes after the bell rang to begin the first period of classes at Eastern High School, students were still walking into Catharine Thomas' 10th grade English class. Two girls were talking to Thomas at her desk while boys in the back of the room cracked jokes. Outside, the second floor hallway was crowded with students, some late for classes, others preparing to cut a class.
"Okay, okay, let's start," Thomas said, walking to the blackboard.
Most of the students were not yet settled into their seats and the class already was five minutes late. As she looked over the class, Thomas saw that about eight of the 30 students were either cutting class or not in school at all. Most of the students sitting before her were wearing their coats because they were afraid that the coat would be stolen if left in a hallway locker.
Almost all of the boys were sitting in a cluster at the rear of the classroom, jiving and joking, while the girls sat up front, some of them talking. Thomas ignored the mumbling and talking. Her mind was on the students in this 10th grade class who could not read the assignment she had written on the board. To do the assignment, students had to read the paragraphs she had written there and form a sentence that summarized the main idea of the paragrph.
Not wantiing to embarass the poor readers, Thomas decided that she would not call on them. On other days, she said, she prepares for them separate assignments tailored to their reading level.
" . . . It seems like every year I have to fight a little harder to motivate my classes, to get them going the way I think they should, Thomas said later. "I have to put out a lot of energy with these kids we're getting now who can't read. I always have to come up with an alternative assignment . . . I'm the one that has to write up all that stuff . . . It's not like I have a lesson bank and I can just pull it out. It is something I have to do . . . All of that is a headache."
Thomas, a teacher at Eastern for 4 1/2 years, generally is described by students and other teachers as hardworking and someone who caresabout her subject, English, her students and the school. But Thomas says she will leave the District of Columbia school system in two or three years.
"I guess my patience is wearing thin," she said, "Maybe the kids are becoming more troublesome, or maybe I'm getting more picky. It's just that I don't think my patience can last . . ."
Thomas is among several Eastern teachers who find their job a trying and sometimes irritating experience. Teaching a class at Eastern is like a juggling act, according to the teacher. The trick is to keep from losing sight of the ideals of education in the face of the school's serious dreading problem, distractions caused by students who come to school with emotional or financial problems that demand the attention of a social worker rather than a teacher.
Teacher must perform daily without being able to draw on the kind of respect once shown by students for teachers. "Do what the teacher tells you because the teacher knows best" is a sentiment lost in the wake of school board policies implemented in the 1960s, teachers believe.
New rules passed then by the board changed the atmosphere in school by giving students the right to dress as they wished and by limiting when and how often a school could expel, suspend or otherwise discipline a student, several teachers said. Further aggravating the situation, teacher said, was the board's decision to increase the elective course offering - thus decreasing the number of courses students must master for graduation. Students Assertive
In the new atmosphere, students often have interpreted policies protecting their rights to mean they can do whatever they want, teachers said. At Eastern, many students have no qualms about walking into teachers' lounges, formerly the teachers' sacred preserve. Teachers are fighting to keep their louges and soda machines as their own.
"The question today," said Wayne Paige a drafting teacher at Eastern, "is - should education be an adversary relationship, (that is) education as democracy? If so, they've learned it very well, because everyone here is on equal footing. There are sorts of checks and balances. Teachers have rights, students have rights, everyone has their rights. The checks and balances are there, and they weren't there before. The student used to have to abide by the teacher's word, right or wrong."
Jeanne Davenport, an English teacher at Eastern almost 20 years, said students now "think they are more free to do things I would never dream of doing (as a student)." She attended Dunbar Hight School when Dunbar was the elite high school for Washington blacks.
"There is a familiarity that they feel they have with all teachers,"she said. "Maybe it's because they think they're totally grown up and they can say anything that they want to."
As the bell rang for teacher Cahtarine Thomas' second-period class, several girls were standing around her in the front of the classroom. She repeatedly told them they would be late for their next class. One of her students in the second-period class, ran in and yelled, "I'm a sick man, Mrs. Thomas, give me some help."
"Sit down," she told the boy before again reminding the girls to go to the next class. Another student came in, waving an assignment at Thomas, telling her to look at it right away.
"Just wait a minute," she told him, but he pushed through the girls still around Thomas and stood next to her, talking about his paper.
"None of them (students) have any patience," Thomas said later. "Whatever they want you to do you've got to do it, no matter what else is going on."
As Thomas' second-period class began - again five minutes late - she was interrupted by a booming loudspeaker announcement from the principal's office. In the back of the class, a boy used the interruption to shout across the roomto a friend. They began a loud conversation, that other students joined. Absenteeism NotedSTAs Thomas quieted the class after the announcement, she saw that about 10 students were absent out of the 30 registered for the class. She later said that her classes usually are 50 to 75 percent smaller than the number of students and absentees. Between 15 and 20 percent of Eastern's students are absent daily, so about 270 to 360 of the school 1,800 students are not in school on an average day.
In the second-period class, most of the boys again were seated in the back and spent much of the period joking with each other.
As Thomas worked with the class, finding topic sentences for paragraphs, she saw two girls turn to each other to discuss a flyer advertising a disco dance.
"Please put that away and pay attention," Thomas said after a few minutes. The girls said nothing and faced forward. One continued reading the flyer. She then tapped another girls on the shoulder and gave her the flyer to read.
"The fact that (the flyer) eventually go put away is an achievement," Thomas said later, "because (in some classes) it would never have moved."
Meanwhile, the boys in the back of the room continued talking. They stopped only when they were called on to read and when they began picking up their books and bags to leave.
"Oh, them," said Thomas later. "You get used to that. I just don't pay it any attention."
As Thomas continued calling on students to read the paragraph and summarize it, one young man interrupted to ask for a bathroom pass. She gave him the pass.
As Thomas turned back to the class, she began having more problems finding someone to read the paragraph on the board. She had been calling on students in the order in which they were sitting, but now she began looking around the room for volunteers. Finally she picked a young man and told him to read, but he said he did not understand what she was doing.
"I'll explain something two or three times," Thomas said later "but if the student isn't listening and asks me again - and they do it all the time - that really burns me up. I always (explain) it twice but, five minutes later after everybody has started doing the work, somebody will raise their hand and say, 'What are we supposed to be doing?' That irks me."
This time Thomas didn't explain the work to the young man. She called on one young man talking in the back of the class. He pretended not to hear her but, when she called his name again, he turned to her with a look that said, "Are you talking to me?" Class Interrupted
As the young man with the bathroom pass returned, a student in the hall stuck his head in the door and started talking to a friend in the class. Thomas told him to get out and tried to continue with the class. But the young man did not leave until he had finished making arrangements to meet his friend later.
"There ought to be more rules," Thomas said later. "It distresses me when I'm in here trying to get something done with my kids and . . . kids are in the halls. Downstairs kids are sitting in the auditorium. Go down on the basement level, and there is a gang of kids just standing there smoking. That irks me. That tells me that these people aren't supposed to be out there. They're supposed to be in class.
". . . There ought to be ahll sweeps," she said, "and just say anybody caught in the halls without a pass is suspended. They can't do that (because of board of education rules). But I think they've got to do something, even if it means holding kids up in class a little bit longer than usual just to get those halls cleared.
Almost unanimously, Eastern's teachers and administrators agree that the school board should give the school more power to discipline students.
"I'm not saying let's crack down on every kid," said H. Abraham McGill, an assistant principal at Eastern, "I'm saying the kids have to know we're serious about being a good school."
Teachers and administrators said the school has to become stricker to create a learning atmosphere for all students and especially to help students from lower-income families whose parents are not familiar with the prerequistes of academic success - good grades, high SAT scores and a good college.
"Teacher may be the only professionals and college graduates (the students) ever meet," Wayne Paige said. "Most of these kids don't have someone at home who knows the ropes, how to get into college, how to take that test and, most important how to push the kids to achieve, to tell them why school is important . . . "
In explaining their position, teachers and administrators at Eastern cite school board regulations prohibiting teachers from closing their classroom doors to student, no matter how late a student comes to class. The regulation, aimed at insuring that a student can enter class if he wants to, contributes to the late start of most clases, according to teachers. Students know they can straggle into the rodom without fear of missing the class or being handed any major punishment, teachers said. Homework Limited
As Thomas' second-period class ended, she gave the class a small homework assignment. Thomas said students usually fail to do large homework assignments.
" . . . You give them homework, and they don't turn it in," she said. She estimated that 40 percent of her students do not do homework. "I've told my first-period class, "you know, you kids are doing me a favour by not doing your homework. The sooner I get these papers(corrected) the sooner I can relax.' And they said, 'Oh , well, you're welcome.'"
In the next class. Thomas was forced to teach amid the outbursts of a young man who was teasing girls and became the center of jokes among the boys in the back of the room.
"That's my typical pain in the neck," Thomas said later. "That child is just nuiscance, and I've talked with his mother. And every day he comes in here and says he'll be so glad when he can get out of this class. . . ."
Thomas said she goes not have severe discipline problems in the classroom. She said students who talk or are inattentive cannot be forced to become involved in a class. Students sometimes curse at her under their breath. She said. But most will not repeat the words when she asks them what they mumbled at her.
Cheating is another major problem, Thomas said. Although it was not evident on the day a reporter visited the class, Thomas estimated that 50 percent of her students will cheat if given the opportunity.
"I know I have this one boy," she said. "Whenever I give a test I have a bring him up front because he has 'eye-itis.' But then, some of them, they'll try to cheat and still fail and that's the pathetic part . . . They can't even do that right . . . If you don't know the material well enough to cheat then you never knew it at all.
". . . Which is why," Thomas added, "When I give a test, unless somebody is being killed outside, I'm not going to go out that door."
Thomas said that most of the students who do not pay attention, who cheat and who disrupt class seem to have family problems.
"The job is getting harder and harder because of the kids who have problems in addition to educational prolems, problems in their home situation that make them unbearable . . . And they are in my class for me to deal with. Problems at Home
Students who are poor and have family problems or emotional troubles are a frequent source of trouble at Eastern, according to teachers and administrators, because they do not have the mental stability necessary to sit in a classroom and learn.
According to teachers, administrators and counselors, such students cometo school to escape problems at home and sometimes regard school as a place to earn attention by disrupting classes, withdrawing and becoming poor students or hanging out in hallways with friends.
Other students who come from poor background and broken homes - many Eastern students come from single-parent families or live with their grandparents - find that they lose interest in school as stress increases in their home life, according to Eastern counselor Nellie Grant.
Grant said she recently helped a male student whose mother had become mentally ill. The woman was spending the family's welfare check on liquor, leaving her two sons to pay for rent and food from the money they earned working at a fast-food restaurant. Then the student's older brother quit working and, feeling the pressure of trouble at home, ran up a $400 long-distance phone bill with a former girlfriend.
The Eastern student's brother then began using drugs and quit his job Grant said leaving the 17-year-old to face a house full of problems and an ill mother.
"Every day we see students who are working under the worst kind of pressure," Grant said. "You wouldn't believe some of the situations these children try to work their way through. And lots of times they won't come to anyone for help because they're embarrassed. They'd prefer to quit school or just tell you they don't want to come anymore before they'd tell you what'swrong."
As Catharine Thomas' seventh-period journalism class began, only seven of the 15 students enrolled in the class were present. Thomas said attendance drops in the afternoon when some students decided to skip their last classes. On Mondays and Fridays an unusually large number of students cut classes, Thomas said, because they regard those days ar part of the weekend.
Thomas said she had trouble all year with her journalim class because the students cannot read or write very well. They do not want to write and are looking forward to getting out of the class, she said.
"They (the students) just aren't interested," she said. "That's a problem in all the classes, but it is worse in an elective like this because they say the computer put them here and they don't want to do all that writing!" Interest Lacking
"Today the kids are not as interested in learning." said teacher Daven-teaching experience because they are 20 years. "That kind of dulls the ports, who has been at Eastern about not interested . . . It's almost to the point where you could be doing anything up here and they'd accept it. They wouldn't care . . ."
Biology teacher Nacy Cooksey said teachers today must motivate students to get their attention before they can teach anything. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she said, she could motivate her predominantly black students by applealing to their political awareness and asking them to learn as much as they could to prepare themselves to change a racist world.
"We only have so many microscopes," Cooksey said. "In the 60s, I could appeal to them to leave the microscopes in good shape because the black community would need them in the future . . . Their little brothers and sisters would have to use them when they were through. That doesn't work anymore."
Some Eastern administrators agree with teachers that the distinguishing characteristic of Eastern students in 1978 is an absence of interest in learning.
"Eastern has the staff and the facilities to educate students," said assistant Principal McGill, who taught math at Eastern for 11 years before taking his current position last semester. "But the students aren't asking much of us or themselves, and we have no way to make them work."
What is important to the students, McGill said, are graduation and extracurricular activities they will remember after they leave Eastern. "The student don't want this school to be any more than what it is, "McGill said. "It's a place where they can graduate, see their friends and be on one of the teams."
Although teachers, such as Thomas report that more is being demanded of high school teachers than ever before, the teachers and their union are drawing increasing criticism for a relatively high pay scale and generous benefits package that continue to grow despite the school system's problems.
For example, both school Superintendent Vincent Reed and Eastern's acting principal, Gloriad Adams, feel that the Washington Teachers' Union has burdened the school system with some mediocre teachers because of its success in demanding what Reed and Adams see as a long, bureaucratic procedure for the firing of any teacher. That complex procedure, which the two say is full of hearings and time-consuming paper work, is supposed to protect teachers against unjust firing. But in practice, they said, it makes administors shy about moving against an incompetent teacher unless the teacher does something outrageous in the classroom.
Constant criticism of their union, their pay and benefits, coupled with the low regard some people have for the city's public schools, have left many teachers feeling vilified. 'A Job' to Some
"It took me a while to realize," said John Warren, the school board member representing Eastern's area, "that everyone who works in the school system is not interested in improving it. For many people, the school system represents a job. It's not the days of Mary McLeod Bethune and that whole struggle. That's not it.
"Many of the people who teach today - and there are some good ones - many of them came through college. They hung out . . . played cards, plagiarized papers and cheated on exams. They did the minimum and slid through with a C or 2.5 (grade point average) or whatever the minimum was to get out. So they go into the classroom and pull out the book and look at the table of contents, and some of them can't read and talk themselves. That's why we've got to tighten up the requirements for certification," he said.
Reed complained that the teachers' union is seeking too many contractual stipulations in current negotiations with the school board. Reed cited one contract clause that would limit the number of PTA meetings teachers must attend. He said teachers should feel that going tosuch meetings is part of their job.
"We have a small group of teachers that are less than desirable," Reed said. "They are not improving the atitude of the children.
"But most teachers are doing an outstanding job of dealing with social problems kids bring to school," he said. "Inner-city teachers combat social and educational problems that suburban teachers never face. My hat is off to our teachers. It is amazing what they get out of kids." Union Role Defended
William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said Reed and several previous superintendants have blamed the union for the school system's troubles. Simons said his union is trying to limit formal meetings between parents and teachers because in the past those meetings always have been rushed and parents have been reluctant to talk about their children in a classroom filled with other parents.
The union favors phone calls and private meetings between parents and teachers, Simons said.
"For anyone (in the school system) to take the attitude that the union is an outside organization," Simons said, "that's for the birds. We're in business to do what we can to improve the school system. If superintendents realized that and used their resources to the maximum, we wouldn't have had to change superintendentsevery two years.
After her final class of the day, Thomas picked up a few wads of paper left in the room. Her room is cleaned only once a year, at Christmas, she said. Budget cutbacks have limited the number of janitors, and she makes a special request each month to have the room swept. There is nothing she can do about the mouse in the room.
Sitting down after the school day, she said that troublesome students are not the only reason she often leaves Eastern tired and despiring, she complained of older teachers opposing the younger teachers and controlling the chairmanship of departments. Thomas said many faculty members also refuse to share books, which are in short supply at Eastern. No new books have been ordered for the last two years because of budget limitations, but some are expected next year.
"I've gone home with the attitudes of the people (at Eastern)," she said, "and my hushand has said things to me and I've practically tried to bite his head off. He's told me, "If that's your Eastern attitude, leave it in the car, don't bring it in the house.' And I wonder, do you take your frustrations home and lash off at your kids? It's just the job is getting more difficut, the rewards are fewer and the pains are increasing."
Next: The future