Archive | June, 2012

This is Only a Test

21 Jun

I have spent a good amount of time in my life these last six years trying to explain (or justify) why I work with the students I chose to teach, long ago.  As well as why I love it.  I tell people I am from Jersey City (only partially true) and act as if I was lucky to have worked it all out.  I pretend my obligation is to kids “like me” as if I can sympathize.  It isn’t true entirely.  I had every reasonable opportunity in life.  I was born in the city, but moved to the suburbs.  I was born to wonderful parents.  Was raised in what anyone would describe as an idyllic setting.  I could teach anyone, and be just as ok as I probably am.  But I chose six years ago to teach in schools for the “left behinds.” Why?

 If I gave you the rundown of every kid who makes me proud, it would take up hours of your time.  I estimate having taught 1500-2000 kids in my career, and the vast majority (51% at least) have made me proud (if for only a fleeting moment, for some) in one way or another.  But I don’t do stats, I deal with individuals, so here goes:

I met Nate when he was a “new fish.”  First year in our school.  Way too old, and way to under-credited: unofficially, I believe 17 with 10 credits (by age17, most students in NYC have 30+).  He will probably be pissed when he reads this—as he reads most of my posts—but homeboy CANNOT WRITE.  He was seriously deficient in writing (despite being EXTREMELY intelligent in many other areas.) I Tried to work with him, tried alternative methods, tried to push him off on other teachers.  Nothing played.  He failed two English Regents in a row.  I got tired of it.  I don’t like seeing a kid I have grown to really and truly love fail a test that I have an answer for.

No piece of dramatic literature in the past 20 years has received more critical “shitting upon” than Suzan Lori Parks’ phenomenal “Top Dog, Underdog.”  No play should be more prominently urged upon NYC high school students of literature than Suzan Lori Parks’ “Top Dog, Underdog.”  I don’t say this because I heap presumptions about students’ empathy with the play.  I say it because I have yet to see a student who couldn’t illuminate in writing what it was about this play that touched them (in a good or bad way) and that is what literature should do.  I worked for one LONG afternoon with Nate, talking him through his thinking as he wrote about this play (which he read in my class LAST YEAR.)  I instructed him to translate the ideas and the content of what he had written into the essay he wrote for his State Test.  And he did so in a way that made me say: “Holy crap, I think someone gets what literature is all about!”  It is sad but true, this isn’t the norm in city high schools…not at all.

Memory is a freight train: I remember sitting on a friend’s patio, drinking brews. I remember sitting on a pew, watching a slideshow of the same friend’s life at his memorial service.  I remember life isn’t always fair. I remember hating the fact that I cannot do anything to change that.  I remember realizing I could at least dedicate my time to trying.  I remember I have been blessed in so many ways.  I have done a really great job at not remembering the rest.  This is what we do.

It’s not guilt or a bleeding heart or anything else that makes me say this: it’s having been a survivor of some real tough times, and having decided that I wouldn’t want to let anyone else have a life that’s tougher than it needs to be. That brings me to this: there is so much greatness ahead for the students I have taught, and for the students I will teach.  Not because I taught them or because I will continue to do so.  Not because they will meet standards and do well on state-administered tests.  But because we all have a way of surviving.  All of us.  Don’t care where you were born or whom you were born to.  Don’t care what you did wrong in your time, or who did wrong to you.  The one bittersweet blessing about living a life in which we get tested: we get used to being tested again, and again…and again.  And we learn the fallacy of our bullshit when we say: “It’s just me against the world.”  There is always someone out there who can help you pass that test.  Someone who can ignore his own interests and worries for a while and say: “You need to cross that river? I got you.”

My bro, I am so proud of you, buddy.  You took the challenge upon you to man up and kill that test, and you did it.  I love you, kid.  Pause…


A Man Must Have a Code

4 Jun

In game one of the NBA Western Conference finals, the TNT cameras caught a clip of Spurs coach Greg Popovitch, heated, tie loosened, gripping the side of his clip board as he shouted “Nobody said this was going to be easy.  I want to see you guys get ‘NASTY;.”  The Spurs who had been sputtering, went on a tear, played gritty, gutsy basketball and won the game.  The post-game interview, and ensuing commentary from Shaq, Kenny Smith, and Sir Charles Barkley made it clear that the “running commentary” on the game was going to take a very certain direction: Popovitch is a monster of a leader, who willed his players to win. The man is a genius.  Good leaders push their pupils, and challenge them to show up big.  They do so, not through threats or fear, but through inspiration.  They say things like “I want US to get nasty!” and they mean it with the kind of conviction that forces good people to say “Yeah, me too.”

A little over five years ago, when I was offered a job in public education, the woman who offered it to me was the woman who first brought public schools into juvenile incarceration settings.  She believed in what she did, and she surrounded herself with smart people.  The school wasn’t perfect (I don’t know many that are) but given the circumstances, the fact that it was spread throughout three lock-up facilities, and 4 non-secure detention sites, with a staff of over 100 teachers, it functioned very well.  In each site (more or less) there was a strong leader with a clear vision.  Teachers knew what was expected of them, and through weekly professional development programs, they were given tremendous support.  Riots went on around us, unfortunately neglect by the agency in charge of housing and caring for the students was rampant (that organization has since rescinded power) and the kids were not intrinsically interested in school, for the most part–who could blame them.  But as educators we knew what was expected of us, and did our job.  Not everybody loved our leader, but we believed in her.  And when she retired, she was replaced by a man with an entirely different philosophy, who was equally direct in his expectations.  Some balked at his more formal style, but if you interviewed the teachers from that year of transition, I highly doubt more than a small handful would complain about who he was and how he went about his business.  He was a man who wanted kids to get the best education possible.  He let his teachers know his philosophy on how he best saw fit to ensure that would happen.  And he listened to reasonable responses.  He was a Jets fan, so he knew about patience, and lived by the motto “try, try again.”

The climate in the DOE has changed since I began, and people will argue endlessly about wether that is a good thing.  The Andrea Peysers of the world, will argue that the impeccably prudent mayor, and his equally flawless cronies are finally getting rid of the bad apples.  Diane Ravitch would say Peyser and her ilk are teacher-haters, who oversimplify a complicated profession they don’t understand and threaten the future of public education by writing articles favoring the politicians who favor them in return.  The truth likely lies somewhere in between.  But what cannot be disputed is this: good teachers are leaving public education in droves.  And good, strong, experienced leaders who would inspire the hordes of young inexperienced teachers are fleeing in equal mass.  If the current sentiment and narrative regarding public school teachers persists, we won’t have any more “lazy, union-protected creeps” anymore.  They will get rid of the handful of them (disproportionately discussed in today’s media and general dialogue.)  But we will lose a hell of a lot more strong, experienced teachers who just don’t want to deal with the politics anymore.  Good educators are going to look elsewhere to practice their craft.  We are going to want to work places where the teaching is actually about the kids.  Not about the adults who claim to be the ones who really care about the kids.  In the end this may be what many influential people want.  The bursting of the Public School bubble, may be The Education Mayor’s Legacy, after all.  The man who came to power promising sweeping reform in the city’s schools may be winding the clock on the most severe reform of all.  It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if New York City was the first to implement a city-wide voucher program.  In fact, I expect it to happen during my teaching career.  By that time, I will no longer be in the system.  Many teachers, far better than me, will be long gone, too.  And many strong leaders will have been ushered into retirement, or will have fled to Charter Schools in Long Island, and who could blame them?  People get tired of being hunted, or being driven by fear.  It doesn’t make them better teachers, and in the end, the people who got into this job for the right reasons (working hard to educate kids who need and deserve it) are going to look for alternative options to find a place where they can do that without the restrictions of politics.  The mediocre will settle and stay.  The very teachers politicians and pundits would like to drive away are going to be the ones who remain.  The talented ones, the ones who care more about doing a damn good job than they do about being “protected” are going to go somewhere they can perform.  There will be an exodus, and it has already begun.

When I took my new position at a transfer school, serving students who had failed out of traditional schools for any array of reasons, I took the job because of the students and the people whom I would be teaching with, one of whom is a former mentor who recruited me to the school.  I went because I saw potential to continue pursuing the aspect of education that motivates me every day: working in radical and unique ways with kids who had trouble adapting to the traditional model of public education.  I took the job based on ideals and a connection to students.  I met my future leader in passing in the hallways.  He offered me the job based on resume and recommendation.  He had never seen me teach, he hadn’t seen me interact with students.  He never asked me my educational philosophy, and never saw student work that I would consider exemplary.  In other words, he didn’t understand my approach, and my ideals as a teacher.  And I was equally ignorant of his leadership style and educational philosophy.  This is a mistake new teachers make: they take a job without being fully informed because they want to teach, and a school is a school.  New teachers, if you take one piece of advice from this blog it should be this: once you close your door and start teaching, that is all that matters, you and the students in the classroom.  If you take a second piece of advice, it should be this: find out what your potential Principal, and future co-teachers think about education.  Find a place where the people have a clear vision that you want to be a part of.  Without that teamwork and camaraderie it is going to be a daunting, if not damning, task.

I’ve tried–under the influence of good parenting, and a sound education–to lead a life guided by principles and ideals.  People may have different opinions and attitude towards those principles and ideals, and may have a different impression of how well I have lived up to them, but I think even my harshest critics would tell you that I take the gravity of my job seriously, and I would sacrifice just about everything aside from my loved ones, and my health, to make sure I am doing the work justice.  In one of my favorite scenes from The Wire, detective Bunk is meeting the ruthless but principled thug, Omar, for the first time (since they attended high school together years prior.)  Omar discusses the “rules” of the street, similar to the rules of “the law,” in which certain principles dictate man’s actions.  Bunk, opines “A man must have a code,” after Omar insists he has no problem snitching on another character, because he would never pull his gun on somebody who isn’t in the game.  In short, I think the beauty of this line is in the universality of it: from high-ranking politicians, to teachers, to students, to bartenders, to the guys selling fake Gucci products on Canal St., we all live by our codes.  Mine is simple: give the kids what they need, because that is why we are all here.  Lately it feels like I am being forced to compromise.

Like good basketball players, and like any people who are talented at what they do, good teachers get “nasty.”  The push their students to get their hands in the dirt.  A lot of them say and do things differently than the status quo.  One of the best teachers I had in high school was a science teacher who had a “flair” with language, and who was known to disappear to his car at lunch and chain-smoke cigarettes.  He was quirky, but he had a code.  If you were prepared to work hard and better yourself as a student of science–and life in general, for that matter–he would bend over backwards to help you get there.  He was unorthodox in his approach, but nobody who met the man would challenge this fact: he was a darn good science teacher.  He cared more about the kids getting the best science education possible than he did about covering his behind and being “just good enough.”  He probably wouldn’t have lasted a minute in today’s public school system, and that’s the real shame.

A man must have a code: and one of mine has always been that Charters and Vouchers will be a giant leap in the direction of segregating schools along class divides.  It will take an urgent matter and make it dire: charter schools will be the last nail in the coffin of students like mine.  I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t totally false.  I am beginning to wonder if public school isn’t a potential solution to many of society’s problems (the wealth divide, broken homes, street violence.)  I’m starting to believe that maybe it actually is one of the problems.  And maybe the solution is to stop standardizing schools.  Perhaps something radical is necessary.

When I met the man who will be my Principal next year, I noticed right away that the way he spoke about the “talking heads” topics of career and college readiness, and closing the achievement gap was just…different.  He wasn’t using buzz words and key phrases because that’s what was expected of him.  He had a vision, and he believed in it.  If you get the kids in the building, and you give them something different, things can change.  Why does it have to be done in a traditional public school, under the umbrella of people who haven’t been able to fix the problems yet.  He spoke about going into jails, and group homes, and getting these kids enrolled.  He said he wanted teachers that will not only have their students as friends on Facebook, but hound them every morning to get their behinds to school.  He began to dispel the myths about Charter schools that many teachers have.  This wasn’t going to be a school for kids who would easily succeed anywhere.  This was going to be a different type of school, the type of school that couldn’t exist in the political spectrum of our city’s public schools.  The kind of place my current school was supposed to be, before we lost track of ourselves, before the politics dragged it down into the mud.  The kind of place I get excited about.

“I want to send a group of teachers and students to Paris.”  That was the line that cemented it for me, the words that made it clear as day that I was making the right decision.  “Most of these kids, the only time they have been out of Brooklyn, they were in a secure facility upstate.  We have to send them to Paris.”  Any leader who knows that the best chance a desperate student population has is to both literally, and metaphorically “go to Paris,” is the kind of man I want to work for.  I don’t care who is cutting the checks, whether I am protected by tenure and a union, or whether that dirty “Charter” word is attached.  I want to work for someone who calls a timeout, and says “Guys, we have to get ‘Nasty’!”  And then I want to go out there and do it.