An Independent Voice That Advocates For The Classroom Educator Without The Corrupting Politics Tied To Our Union And DOE Leadership.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
A NYC Teacher's Experience
I was sent the article and after reading it, I felt it was necessary to reprint it in its entirety on my blog. Obviously, many of you can relate to her experiences.
The article describes why teaching in NYC urban schools can be a horror. Student disrespect for education and their teachers, dysfunctional families and communities, negative peer pressure, lax student discipline policies, lack of resources, uncaring and incompetent administrators, and failure of our union to combat the antagonistic culture at the DOE. Moreover, the union failed to protect the teachers from DOE aggression and their biased investigations.
Its not bad teachers that causes poor student academic achievement as the media and the politicians would claim but its the many obstacles put up by the DOE and dysfunctional families that discourages good teaching and make the majority of teachers flee the system and the profession before being vested for a pension.
teaching is a common explanation given for the disastrously inadequate
public education received by America’s most vulnerable populations. This
is a myth. Aside from a few lemons who were notable for their rarity,
the majority of teachers I worked with for nine years in New York City’s
public school system were dedicated, talented professionals. Before
joining the system I was mystified by the schools’ abysmal results. I
too assumed there must be something wrong with the teaching. This could
not have been farther from the truth.
French and Italian in NYC high schools I finally figured out why this
was, although it took some time, because the real reason was so
antithetical to the prevailing mindset. I worked at three very different
high schools over the years, spanning a fairly representative sample.
That was a while ago now, but the system has not improved since, as the
fundamental problem has not been acknowledged, let alone addressed. It
would not be hard, or expensive, to fix.
Washington Irving High School, 2001–2004
NYC teaching career began a few days before September 11, 2001 at
Washington Irving High School. It was a short honeymoon period; the
classes watched skeptically as I introduced them to a method of
teaching French using virtually no English. Although the students
weren’t particularly engaged, they remained respectful. During first
period on that awful day there was a horrendous split-second noise. A
plane flew right overhead a mere moment before it blasted into the north
tower of the World Trade Center. At break time word was spreading among
the staff. Both
towers were hit and one had already come down. When I went to my next
class I told the students what had happened. There was an eruption of
rejoicing at the news. Many students clapped and whooped their approval,
some getting out of their seats to do a sort of victory dance. It was
an eye-opener, and indicative of what was to come.
next three years were a nightmare. The school always teetered on the
verge of chaos. The previous principal had just been dismissed and
shunted to another school district. Although it was never stated,
all that was expected of teachers was to keep students in their seats
and the volume down. This was an enormous school on five floors, with
students cordoned off into separate programs. There was even a
short-lived International Baccalaureate Program, but it quickly failed.
Whatever the program, however, the atmosphere of the school was one of
danger and deceit. Guards patrolled the hallways, sometimes the police
had to intervene. Even though the security guards carefully screened the
students at the metal detectors posted at every entrance, occasionally
arms crept in. Girls sometimes managed to get razors in, the weapon of
choice against rivals for boys’ attention. Although I don’t know of
other arms found in the school (teachers were kept in the dark as much
as possible), one particularly disruptive and dangerous boy was stabbed
one afternoon right outside school. It appears he came to a violent
death a few years later. What a tragic waste of human potential.
the weeks dragged painfully into months, it became apparent that the
students wouldn’t learn anything. It was dumbfounding. It was all I
could do to keep them quiet; that is, seated and talking among
themselves. Sometimes I had to stop girls from grooming themselves or
each other. A few brave souls tried to keep up with instruction. A
particularly good history teacher once told me that she interrupted a
conversation between two girls, asking them to pay attention to the
lesson. One of them looked up at her scornfully and sneered, “I don’t talk to
teachers,” turning her back to resume their chat. She told me that the
best school she ever worked at was in Texas, where her principal managed
not only to suspend the most disruptive students for long periods, he
also made sure they were not admitted during that time to any other
school in the district. It worked; they got good results.
was unthinkable in New York, where “in-house suspension” was the only
punitive measure. It would be “discriminatory” to keep the students at
home. The appropriate paperwork being filed, the most outrageously
disruptive students went for a day or two to a room with other serious
offenders. The anti-discrimination laws under which we worked took all
power away from the teachers and put it in the hands of the students.
Washington Irving there was an ethos of hostile resistance. Those who
wanted to learn were prevented from doing so. Anyone who “cooperated
with the system” was bullied. No homework was done. Students said they
couldn’t do it because if textbooks were found in their backpacks, the
offending students would be beaten up. This did not appear to be an idle
threat. Too many students told their teachers the same thing. There
were certainly precious few books being brought home.
tried everything imaginable to overcome student resistance. Nothing
worked. At one point I rearranged the seating to enable the students who
wanted to engage to come to the front of the classroom. The principal
was informed and I was reprimanded. This was “discriminatory.” The
students went back to their chosen seats near their friends. Aside from
imposing order, the only thing I succeeded at was getting the students
to stand silently during the Pledge of Allegiance and mumble a few songs
in French. But it was a constant struggle as I tried to balance going
through the motions of teaching with keeping them quiet.
abuse from students never let up. We were trained to absorb it. By the
time I left, however, I had a large folder full of the complaint forms
I’d filled out documenting the most egregious insults and
harassment. There was a long process to go through each time. The
student had a parent or other representative to state their case at the
eventual hearing and I had my union rep. I lost every case.
the girls were meaner than the boys. The latter did not engage at all.
They simply ignored me. Except for the delinquents among them, the boys
didn’t make trouble. The girls on the other hand could be malicious. One
girl even called me a “fucking white bitch.” It was
confidence-destroying and extremely stressful. I was often reported to
the principal for one transgression or another, like taking a sheet of
paper from a student. Once I was even reprimanded for calmly taking my
own cellphone from a girl who’d held on to it for half an hour, refusing
all my requests to hand it back. The administration was consistently on
the side of the student. The teacher was the fall guy, every time.
abuse ranged from insults to outright violence, although I myself was
never physically attacked. Stories abounded, however, of hard substances
like bottles of water being thrown at us, teachers getting smacked on
the head from behind, pushed in stairwells, and having doors slammed in
our faces. The language students used was consistently obscene. By far
the most commonly heard word throughout the school, literally hundreds
of times a day, like a weapon fired indiscriminately, was “nigga.” The
most amazing story from those painful years was the time I said it
you just have had enough. One day a girl sitting towards the back of
the classroom shouted at some boy up front, “Yo! Nigga! Stop that!” I
stood up as tall as I could and said in my most supercilious voice, “I
don’t know which particular nigga the young lady is referring to, but
whoever it is, would you please stop it.” The kids couldn’t believe
“Yo, miss! You can’t say that!”“Why not? You say it all the time.”“Uhh… Because you’re old.”“That’s not why. Come on, tell the truth.”
went on for a bit, until one brave lad piped up: “Because you’re
white.” “Okay,” I said, “because I’m white. Well what if I said to you,
‘You’re not allowed to say some word because you’re black.’ Would that
be okay?” They admitted that it wouldn’t. No one seemed to report it. To
this day, it’s puzzling that I didn’t lose my job over that incident. I
put it down to basic human decency.
course my teaching method had to be largely scrapped. The kids didn’t
listen to me in either French or English. But they had a certain
begrudging respect for me, I think because I told them the truth. I’d
plead with them, “Look, kids, you’re destroying yourselves. Yes, the
system stinks, but it’s the only show in town. Please, please don’t do
this to yourselves. Education is your only way out.” But it was useless.
I didn’t possess whatever magic some teachers have that explains their
success, however limited.
from the history teacher from Texas, other Washington Irving educators
stood out as extraordinary, and this in an unimaginably bad learning
environment. One was a cheerful Lebanese math teacher who had been
felled as a child by polio. He called himself “the million dollar man”
because of his handicapped parking permit, quite a handy advantage in
Manhattan. Although he could only walk on crutches, he kept those kids
in line! His secret? A lovely way about him and complete but polite
disdain for his students. Where he came from, students were not allowed
to act that way. Another was a German teacher, the wife of a Lutheran
minister. Her imposing presence—she fit the valkyrie stereotype—kept
those mouths closed. You could hear a pin drop in her unusually tidy
classroom, and she managed to teach some German to the few hardy souls
who wanted to learn it.
most impressive of all was a handsome black American from Minnesota. He
towered over us all, both physically and what the French call morally.
He exuded an aura that inspired something like awe in his colleagues and
students. I think he taught social studies. He was the only teacher who
got away with blacking out his classroom door window, which added to
his mystique. He engaged his students by concentrating their efforts on
putting together a fashion show at the end of each school year. They
designed and produced the outfits they strutted proudly on the makeshift
catwalk, looking as elegant and confident as any supermodel. To
tumultuous applause. They deserved it.
the school was always on the verge of hysteria and violence, it had all
the trappings of the typical American high school. There were class
trips and talent shows, rings and year books—even caps and gowns and
graduation. High school diplomas were among the trappings, handed out to
countless 12th graders with, from my observation, a 7th grade
education. The elementary schools had a better record. But everyone knew
that once the kids hit puberty, it became virtually impossible under
the laws in force to teach those who were steeped in ghetto and gangster
culture, and those—the majority—who were bullied into succumbing to it.
came to school for their social life. The system had to be resisted. It
was never made explicit that it was a “white” system that was being
rejected, but it was implicit in oft-made remarks. Youngsters would say
things like, “You can’t say that word, that be a WHITE word!” It did no
good to remind students that some of the finest oratory in America came
from black leaders like Martin Luther King and some of the best writing
from authors like James Baldwin. I would tell them that there was
nothing wrong with speaking one’s own dialect; dialects in whatever
language tend to be colorful and expressive, but it was important to
learn standard English as well. It opens minds and doors. Every new word
learned adds to one’s wealth, and there’s nothing like grammar for
organizing one’s thoughts.
all fell on deaf ears. It was impossible to dispel the students’
delusions. Astonishingly, they believed that they would do just fine and
have great futures once they got to college! They didn’t seem to know
that they had very little chance of getting into anything but a
community college, if that. Sadly, the kids were convinced of one thing:
As one girl put it, “I don’t need an 85 average to get into Hunter; I’m
black, I can get in with a 75.” They were actually encouraged to be
most Dantesque scene I witnessed at Washington Irving was a “talent
show” staged one spring afternoon. The darkened auditorium was packed
with excited students, jittery guidance counselors, teachers, and
guards. Music blasted from the loudspeakers, ear-splitting noise
heightened the frenzy. To my surprise and horror, the only talent on
display was merely what comes naturally. Each act was a show of
increasingly explicit dry humping. As each group of performers vied with
the previous act to be more outrageous, chaos was breaking out in the
screaming audience. Some bright person in charge finally turned off the
sound, shut down the stage lights, and lit up the auditorium, causing
great consternation among the kids, but it quelled the growing mass
hysteria. The students came to their senses. The guards (and NYC
policemen if memory serves) managed to usher them out to safety.
on two consecutive days, enormous Snapple dispensers on a mezzanine
were pushed to the floor below. Vending machines had to be removed for
the students’ safety. On another occasion, two chairs were chucked out
of the building, injuring a woman below. Bad press and silly excuses
ensued. Another time, word spread that a gang of girls was going to beat
up a Mexican girl. There was a huge crush of students who preferred to
skip the next class to go see the brawl. The hallway was packed, there
was pushing and shoving, causing a stampede. I was caught in it and fell
to the ground; kids stepped over me elbowing each other in the crush of
bodies. Eventually, a student helped me to my feet. Badly shaken, I was
taken to the nurse’s office. My blood pressure was dangerously high; I
was encouraged to see a doctor, but declined. My husband came and
brought me home.
thereafter, the teachers union (United Federation of Teachers, or UFT)
fought the Department of Education, which had recently loosened the
already lax disciplinary rulings. They organized a press conference and
asked me to speak at it about the worsening security situation. The
principal refused me permission to leave even though my supportive
assistant principal found a fellow language teacher to take over my
classes. As soon as school was out, though, a union rep implored me to
rush downtown with him as the press conference was still going on.
Questioned by reporters in front of the cameras, I spoke about the
stampede. There was a brief segment on the local evening news. The
principal was furious, and the next morning screamed at me in the lobby
that I was a publicity seeker who just wanted to give the school a bad
name. However, the UFT was successful in this case, as the former, less
inadequate disciplinary measures were restored, and things went back to
their usual level of simmering chaos.
it was clear that my generally robust mental state was deteriorating, I
did not want to quit. The UFT encouraged me to go into counseling; I
didn’t see the point but acquiesced and agreed to see one of their
social workers for therapy. Her stance seemed to be, “What is a nice
girl like you doing in a place like that?” I started to write about the
situation to people in authority. The UFT president Randi Weingarten and
the DoE head Joel Klein were among the recipients of my letters
detailing the problems we faced. I visited my local city councilman, who
listened politely. I did not receive a single response.
thereafter, my beloved husband died after a brief illness. The students
knew, so were somewhat subdued when I returned to work. But one
afternoon a girl, I forget why, muttered “you fucking bitch.” I finally
broke. I screamed at the whole class and insisted that they all get out
of the classroom. Furiously. Any physical contact was strictly forbidden
between staff and students, so my voice alone did the job. It was also
strictly forbidden to send one student out of the classroom, never mind
the whole class. The good-hearted teacher next door came to my aid. The
administration took pity on me and did not press charges.
the meantime, the UFT somehow found the “nice girl” a job at Brooklyn
Technical High School. There was one going for a French and Italian
teacher, as there were not enough classes for another full-time French
Brooklyn Tech, 2004–2009
Tech was considered one of New York’s “top three” high schools.
Students had to test in. My first principal was a big, jolly black man,
but he got caught on a minor offense and was sent packing. His misdeed
was bringing his daughter to school in New York from their home in New
Jersey, which, although against the rules, was hardly unheard of. There
was a $20 million restructuring fund in the offing for his replacement.
The new principal ended the unruly after-school program that purportedly
prepared underprivileged children for the entrance exam. Disruptive
behavior subsequently dropped considerably.
new principal ‘s word was law. Under the last-in-first-out system, my
job was never secure. Most students were the children of recently
arrived immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. A
minority were from older Irish and Jewish immigrant families. The many
obvious cultural differences were fascinating.
assistant principal was an amusing old cynic who loved a hassle-free
life. Under him, teaching was a pleasure. It was hard work, as classes
were large and students handed in assignments to be graded, but it was
rewarding. On Friday afternoons he would announce, “Okay, girls and
boys, it’s time to go to the bank,” our signal that we could leave with
impunity before the legally stipulated hour. However, some teachers
always stayed behind for hours on end to avoid bringing work home.
the disruptive students at first, the classes were manageable. What the
youngsters lacked in academic rigor, they made up for in verve.
However, as the years passed, micro-management became more burdensome.
Supervision became stricter, with multiple class visits and more
meetings. Some “experts” up the DoE ladder decided that we had to
produce written evidence that our lesson plans conformed to a rigid
formula. The new directives did not take into account that
foreign-language teaching requires instilling four different skill sets
(listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and therefore a different,
more flexible methodological approach. Unfortunately, our easy-going
assistant principal had his fill of the worsening bureaucratic overload
and retired. Instead of an eccentric opera buff with a sense of humor,
an obedient apparatchik would enforce the new rules.
the spring of my 5th year there, he informed me that I had been chosen
to replace the Advanced Placement French teacher, as her results were
poor. I did the AP training course and prepared for the new challenge
that would begin in September. The day before school began, however, he
phoned to say that my job was terminated. “There wasn’t enough interest
in French” to justify my position, apparently. This was despite
vociferous protests from students and parents. I would like to know if,
as a member of the UFT’s advisory council, I had asked the principal too
many questions. He was so kind as to find me a place at a “boutique”
school way down in Brooklyn’s Flatlands.
Victory Collegiate High School, 2009–2010
Collegiate High School seemed promising. It could boast of Bill Gates
money, and was one of only two or three new experimental schools
co-located in what was once the venerable South Shore High School. It
served the local, partly middle-class, partly ghettoized black
community. The principal informed me proudly that the students wore
uniforms, and no cellphones were allowed. The classes were tiny in
comparison to other high schools, and there were no disciplinary
the devastating blow to my career, I set out hopefully on the long
commute to Canarsie. The metal detectors should have clued me in. Any
pretense of imposing uniforms was eventually abandoned. Cellphones were a
constant nuisance. Administrators turned a blind eye to the widespread
would be repetitive to go over the plentiful examples of the abuse
teachers suffered at the hands of the students. Suffice it to say, it
was Washington Irving all over again, but in miniature. The principal
talked a good game, believing that giving “shout-outs” and being a pal
to the students were accomplishing great things, but he actually had
precious little control over them. What made matters worse, the teaching
corps was a young, idealistic group, largely recruited from the
non-profit Teach For America, not the leathery veterans who constituted a
majority at the two previous schools. I was a weird anomaly to these
youngsters. What? I didn’t feel pity for these poor children? I didn’t
take it for granted that they would abuse us? The new teachers were
fervent believers in the prevailing ideology that the students’ bad
behavior was to be expected, and that we should educate them without
question according to the hip attitudes reflected in the total absence
of good literature or grammar, and a sense of history that emphasized
example of the “literature” we were expected to teach was as racist as
it was obscene. The main character was an obese, pregnant 14 year-old
dropout. The argot in which it was written was probably not all that
familiar to many of the students. Appalled, I asked an English teacher
why the students had to read this rubbish. She was shocked at the
question: we have to teach “literature the kids can relate to.” Why on
earth did the school system believe that such a depraved environment as
depicted in this book was representative of the very mixed group of
families that inhabited the area, many of whom were led by middle-class
professionals from the Caribbean? The “language arts” department (the
word “English” was too Euro-centric) made one obligatory bow to
Shakespeare—a version of “Romeo and Juliet” reduced to a few hundred
words. It was common knowledge that the Bard was “overrated.”
small classes faced a large photograph of Barack Obama displayed
proudly in front of the classroom over the title “Notre Président.” The
picture resonated as little with the students as the Pledge of
Allegiance. Like at Washington Irving, all I managed to do was to get
them to stand for it and sing some songs. I did have the rueful
satisfaction towards the end of the year, however, of being told after
the class trip, “Mary, you won’t believe it! The kids sang French songs
all the way to Washington!”
the classroom, the children did as they pleased. Since the classes were
smaller, some students managed to learn a bit of French, but most
obdurately ignored me. One memorable 16 year-old fresh from Chicago
loved French but was contemptuous of me. She was tall and slender, quite
beautiful, and in love, it seemed, with another girl in the class, who
was not blessed with similar beauty. Throughout the year they were an
item. I finally managed to separate them, insisting that they change
seats when it became increasingly difficult to stop them from necking in
the classroom. That was when, despite her love of French, the Chicago
girl left my class never to return, except once, when we were watching a
movie. She came in, sat down and watched with us, breezing out again at
the film’s end. This was not unusual behavior. Some students had the
run of the hallways, wandering around as they pleased.
before, students engaged fully in the ancillary aspects of high school
life. As before, I tried to encourage them to engage in the learning
process. On one memorable occasion, I said to them: “You are not here to
play, you are here to develop your intellect.” The puzzled stares this
remark elicited spoke volumes. It seemed an utterly new concept to them.
school had an exceptionally good math teacher, among other excellent
ones. In November, students sat for the preliminary Scholastic Aptitude
Test that all juniors were required to do in preparation for the real
thing in the spring. I had to proctor the first half. As instructed, I
walked up and down the aisles keeping an eye on things. It all went
smoothly. When the language section was over and the math part began,
however, students stopped working. They sat there staring at the desk. I
quietly encouraged them to make an effort, but the general response
was, “I ain’t doin’ it, miss, it’s too hard.” I could not get them to
change their minds; they sat doing nothing for the rest of my shift.
preliminary test results that came back in the spring were abysmally
low—despite the fact that every single response bubble on the math test
had been filled in. Either the next proctor forced the kids to randomly
fill in the bubbles, or some administrators did so, another example of
the rampant deceit the school system indulges.
the terrible 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a number of Haitians joined the
school. These youngsters were remarkable for their good manners and
desire to learn, for their outstanding gentility in fact. They provided a
most refreshing change, but it didn’t last. They quickly fell into the
trap of hostile resistance.
June, things were really depressing. Not only was the academic year an
utter failure, word spread that 10 girls had become pregnant. Since
there were only about 90 girls in the school, this represented over 10
percent. The majority of the pregnant girls were freshmen, targeted it
was said by a few “baby daddies” who prided themselves on their prowess
and evolutionary success. One of them, however, was the beautiful
“lesbian” from Chicago. As her jilted partner moped around, cut to the
quick, it was impossible not to feel terrible for her.
again, I finally and suddenly broke. The threat was from an unlikely
source, a big lad who was always subdued. He was in the special
education program, and never gave any trouble when I substituted in that
class. But one afternoon, for some unknowable reason, this usually
gentle giant came up to me and said, “I gonna cut yo’ ass.” That was the
final humiliation I would suffer in the New York City public school
left that afternoon never to return. I left much behind: trinkets I’d
brought from France, hoping to use them as prizes for the highest
achievers; my beautiful edition of Les Fables de Jean de la Fontaine;
class records, French magazines, CDs and other educational materials.
But I brought away something priceless: an insider’s knowledge of a
teacher phoned me to say that in her culture “I gonna cut yo’ ass”
should not be taken literally, it just meant that he would teach me a
lesson. “I don’t care,” I replied. Another called to express her
astonishment that I would abandon my students. Why on earth did that
matter, I answered, they hadn’t learned anything anyway. The school
would hand out passing grades no matter what I did.
* * *
is not poor teaching or a lack of money that is failing our most
vulnerable populations. The real problem is an ethos of rejection that
has never been openly admitted by those in authority.
should millions of perfectly normal adolescents, not all of them
ghettoized, resist being educated? The reason is that they know deep
down that due to the color of their skin, less is expected of them. This
they deeply resent. How could they not resent being seen as less
capable? It makes perfect psychological sense. Being very young,
however, they cannot articulate their resentment, or understand the
reasons for it, especially since the adults in charge hide the truth. So
they take out their rage on the only ones they can: themselves and
also take revenge on a fraudulent system that pretends to educate them.
The authorities cover up their own incompetence, and when that fails,
blame the parents and New Post teachers, or lack of funding, or “poverty,”
“racism,” and so on. The media follow suit. Starting with our lawmakers,
the whole country swallows the lie.
do precious few adults admit the truth out loud? Because in America the
taboo against questioning the current orthodoxy on race is too strong
and the price is too high. What is failing our most vulnerable
populations is the lack of political will to acknowledge and solve the
real problems. The first step is to change the ”anti-discrimination”
laws that breed anti-social behavior. Disruptive students must be
removed from the classroom, not to punish them but to protect the
majority of students who want to learn.