Monday, July 27, 2009

A story from the trenches -- send me more!

If you read anything I send out this year, let this be it.  One of my friends responded to the survey I sent around a couple of weeks ago by emailing me this story of his experience as a TFA teacher in the South Bronx a decade ago (though he's no longer there, he is still (thankfully) very much involved with educating disadvantaged kids).  It is one of the most powerful, heart-breaking, enraging things I have ever read -- and perfectly captures what this education reform struggle is all about.  Stories like this about what REALLY goes on in our failing public schools need to be told and publicized, so please share yours with me.


Thanks so much for putting this survey together. It brought back some memories well beyond the few questions about what it was like to teach in the South Bronx with TFA back in the late nineties. I want to emphasize here that I no longer teach in the Bronx, so I have little idea how things have changed and have seen the current Administration take a number of important steps that may be making a great impact. I'm not close enough to the ground to know, but my guess is that there are still plenty of schools in the Bronx and in every other low-income community in the country that reflect some of the miserable stuff I saw in my school. You should really start collecting a book of stories like these. Among all the people I know who've done TFA, these stories are just a few among many sad ones.

As I filled out the survey, I was first reminded of the art teacher in our school. She was truly a caricature of bad teaching. Like something out of the movies. She spent almost every minute of every day screaming at the top of her lungs in the faces of 5-8 year olds who had done horrible things like coloring outside the lines. The ART teacher! Screaming so loud you could hear her 2-3 floors away in a decades old, solid brick building. When she heard I was looking for an apt, she sent me to an apt broker friend of hers. I told the friend I wanted to live in Washington Heights. "Your mother would be very upset with me if I let you go live with THOSE PEOPLE. We fought with bricks and bats and bottles to keep them out of our neighborhoods. Do you see what they have done to this place?" This same attitude could be heard in the art teacher's screams, the administration's ambivalence towards the kids we were supposed to be educating and the sometimes overt racism of the people in charge. The assistant principal (who could not, as far as I could tell, do 4th grade math, but offered me stop-in math professional development for a few minutes every few months with gems like "these numbers you see here to the left of the zero are negative numbers. Like when it is very cold outside.") once told me "I call them God's stupidest people" referring to a Puerto Rican woman who was blocking our way as we drove to another school. She also once told me I needed to put together a bulletin board in the hallway about Veteran's Day. I told her we were in the middle of assembling an Encyclopedia on great Dominican, Puerto Rican and Black leaders (all of my students were Dominican, Black or Puerto Rican). "Mr. ____, we had Cin-co de May-o, and Black History Month, and all that other stuff. It is time for the AMERICAN Americans."

Not everyone in the school was a racist. There were many hard working teachers of all ethnicities who did not reflect this attitude at all. But the fact that the leadership of the school and a number of the most senior teachers was either utterly disdainful of the students they taught, or has completely given up on the educability of the kids, had a terrible effect on overall staff motivation. And many of the well-meaning teachers were extremely poorly prepared to make a dent in the needs of the students even if they had been well led. The Principal told more than one teacher there that "as long as they are quiet and in their seats, I don't care what else you do." This was on the day this person was HIRED. This was their first and probably last instruction. He never gave me a single instruction. Ever. And I was a new teacher with nothing but TFA's Summer Institute under my belt. The Principal proceeded to get a law degree while sitting in his office ignoring the school. When we went to the Assistant Superintendent to report that the school was systematically cheating on the 3rd grade test (i.e., the third grade team met with the principal and APs, planned the cheating carefully, locked their doors and covered their windows and gave answers) she told the principal to watch his back. A few months later, inspectors came from the state. After observing our mostly horrible classes for a full day, they told us how wonderful we were doing and that they had just come down to see what they could replicate in other schools to produce scores like ours. And the list goes on and on.

Like when I asked the principal to bring in one of the district's special education specialists to assess two of my lowest readers, both of whom had fewer than 25 sight-words (words they could recognize on paper) in the 3rd grade, he did. She proceeded to hand one of the students a list of words that the child couldn't read and tell her to write them over again. Then she went to gossip with the Principal. After explaining to him in gory detail, IN FRONT OF THE STUDENT, that she had just been "dealing with a case where a father had jumped off a roof nearby and committed double-suicide with his 8 year old daughter in his arms", she collected the sheet with no words on it, patted the child on the head and left. No IEP was filed nor was I allowed to pursue further action through official channels (I lobbied the mother extensively on my own). I never asked for her to come back to assess the other student.

Our Union Rep was said to have tried to push another teacher down a flight of stairs. The same Union Rep, while I was tutoring a child, cursed out a fellow teacher in the room next door at the top of her lungs so the child I was tutoring could hear every word. When I went to address her about it, the other teacher had to restrain the Rep as she threatened to physically attack me. And when the cheating allegations were finally take up by city investigators, the same Union Rep was sent to a cushy desk job in the district offices. I hear that most of the people I'm referencing here are long gone now, and some of them actually got pushed out of the system, but how rare can this story really be given the pitiful results we see from so many of our nation's poorest schools and how far the system goes to protect horrible teachers and administrators like the ones I worked with?

At the same time as all of this was happening, by the way, the few good teachers in the building often became beaten down and disillusioned. One of the best in my building was consistenly punished for trying to make her corner of the school a better place for learning. They put her in a basement corner with no ventilation, no windows and nothing but a 6-foot-high cubicle-style partition separating her from the other 5 classrooms in the basement. After fighting the good fight she went to teach in the suburbs. When I got a financial firm to donate 20 computers, the principal said he didn't have the resources to get them setup for use and refused to allow them into the school. When I had my students stage a writing campaign to get the vacant lot behind the building turned into a playground, the principal wanted me silenced.

The saddest thing about the whole damn mess was that our K-3 kids still REALLY WANTED TO LEARN. Every day they came eager for knowledge. And every day this cabal of cynicism, racism and laziness did everything within their powers to drain it out of them. It was unreal. Don't get me wrong. There were some good teachers there. And some well meaning, but poor teachers. But in many classrooms, the main lesson learned was that school became something to dread, many adults thought you were capable of very little, and some adults couldn't be bothered to lift a finger.

I hope if any of the good, hard-working teachers who fought so hard to rid the school of this mess read this, they'll know I'm not lumping them in with the rest. But the problem was, when I addressed the worst practices in the school at a staff meeting, the bad teachers laughed and the good teachers took it the hardest and thought I was criticizing them.

Thanks again for the survey. Let's make these stories known.

 Subscribe in a reader