By Reed LeMans
It is not every day you see a teacher dressed up as a cat, but commitment to a fun classroom environment is important to Michelle Dilworth. She sits at her desk, focused on tomorrow’s lesson plan, as students run by. She is so occupied she has yet to notice the horrid smell of a stink bomb in the hallway.
Upon learning of the rascality she merely smirks. She’s been through it all before; that much is clearly written on her face. “Teaching has taught me to be a lot more patient,” Dilworth says. “In 22 years I have been able to teach every grade from kindergarten to 12th grade, and it’s been a really good experience to see the differences in each grade level.”
Dilworth has been teaching health and physical education her entire career and currently works at Roosevelt Middle School. Her close friend and ex-colleague Peggy Karotko, a teacher at James Monroe Middle School, talks of her teaching style as, “very hands-on,” and says, “Her classes have a variety of learning styles incorporated in them.” Passionate about her field, she is quick to instruct, “Being active, that keeps your brain functioning!”
Unfortunately she has been struggling to instill that in all her students now that her class size has increased dramatically recently. “This year, these are the largest classes I’ve ever had. From 25 to 40 in just a couple years,” she stated. Dilworth can’t get to her students as much as she used to be able to. When asked what the implications of this are she says, “Now, they could just sit there and do nothing the whole class time, and I wouldn’t even have time to notice. I worry a little bit about that.”
But Dilworth does not let that stop her from trying to teach every one of her students to her fullest. She prides herself on the relationships she has made with her students over the years, “I stay in contact with several students. Pretty good contact where we meet for lunch or that kind of thing, with students from 15-20 years ago.” For her, the best part of the job is having kids see her on the streets years later and thank her for being their teacher. She figures, “Sometimes, younger kids don’t realize how much they actually got out of what you did until later.”
Despite having no regrets in her career choice, Dilworth does not like taking the job home. Although her 21-year-old son is no longer problem, raising a 14-year-old daughter is stress enough. Trying to maintain a break from work, she does not allow her daughter to have friends over after school. “I teach kids her age all day. I don’t want to come home and deal with more kids,” she remarks with a sigh. As a mother, she worries about bringing the teacher home and would rather keep it separate for the sake of household.
The recent fiscal problems in the department of education have taken their toll on Dilworth and she only recently got back to a stable condition, “Last year I was cut part-time. First time I’ve ever been part-time in 22 years. I took about a $1,500 a month pay cut. It was a struggle, but I’m back to full-time this year.” Although in a better position herself, problems haven’t let up around the Eugene School District and she worries for the students as more school days continue to be cut off the calendar meaning students get less instruction time.
She is frustrated with the adversity the public school system has thrown on her and her fellow teachers with all the cuts, and talks of a particular student she has, “I have an autistic kid in one of my classes… he can’t do any class work and he can’t control himself… he’s basically flunking because he’s in a public school.” She frowns disheartened admitting, “I’m not a behavior specialist. I don’t know how to deal with autistic kids.” Special needs kids are mainstreamed into regular classes now, and teachers don’t know how to deal with such students. She can’t instruct the child properly and the feeling of failing a student hurts any teacher.
Yet Dilworth accepts the difficult situation for what it is and keeps on going. She looks up to the multitude of Oregon Duck Football posters around the classroom remembering older days to get her mind off the stressful subject. “I graduated from Oregon in ’91…” she pauses, “I paid $800 a term!” Back to her peppy self, she jokes of her obvious affection for the team, “I’m a football freak, a sports freak. Comes along with the job!” Dilworth is a teacher enamored with activity at her core and she lights up her teaching with that passion. An educator just like a true athlete: beat down, but not out yet.