When It Gets Hot People Get Shot: One (and more) Reasons This Charter School Teacher is Supporting the Chicago Strike

12 Sep

I decided to take the summer off blogging for several reasons, not the least of which is that I spent my summer hours thinking about education far too much, as I worked to develop a brand new English Department, and the culture of a brand new school…in between attempts to catch a big fish.  I was out of Brooklyn for much of the summer, away from internet and the mindset that trends me towards blogging: that is the mindset of work and educational philosophy.  When I was back I was hard at work applying that philosophy to something mildly bigger than my menial blog: the development of a brand new charter school targeting students I have taught throughout my career (over-age-under-credit young men and women involved in court systems and/or group and foster housing.)  It is a feat that is going to continue to require tons of hours.  It is also, as I mentioned, mildly more important than this blog.  Throughout the summer, both while I was fishing up north, and working on curriculum and planning in Brooklyn, the heat became deadly from June through Labor Day Weekend.  Not like people having sun stroke deadly, but the kind of deadly that kids refer to when they shrug and share the age old adage: “When it gets hot, people get shot.”  The same week school started for my students, a young man was shot right down the block from me, while attending a house party.  He died on his way to the hospital.  Alan Shulman’s fantastic article in the link, which mentions some of the victim’s intellectual pursuits, and improvement in school in the months leading to his murder is a potent afterthought to the conversation I had with my principal during the first few days: “that damn well could have been one of ours.”

There is a rising sentiment, as I have lamented time and again in posts prior, among the American public that teachers are whiny babies.  That they don’t appreciate the summers off, complain about uninvolved parents, unmotivated kids; while they bitch about weak administrators and glad-handing politicians and lean on strong unions to skate by and under-educate our youth, particularly the ones who live in neighborhoods like mine.  Anytime public sentiment leans so strongly in one direction on nearly any issue, there is almost always a truth to the bluster.  Where there is smoke there is fire, so the saying goes.  As a teacher who supported his union and paid union dues for 5 years, I can attest that some teachers surely do espouse some of these beliefs from time-to-time in moments of frustration.  A small few even fit the caricature.  They tend to be black sheep.  Outcast even by other teachers as poisonous, they typically bounce from long-term replacement job to long-term replacement job, speaking the sound and fury of fools that exist in any industry.  A good few of them are certainly lining the pickets in Chicago, but from my experience working with good union-represented teachers in a city not unlike Chicago, I can guarantee they are outnumbered ten-fold, by people of moderate tempers, with high aspirations for their students, troubled by the disrespect the kids are being showed by politicians who surely have no idea what it is like to sit in a room with 35 students or more, facing a myriad of challenges that the politicians themselves have been historically unable to fix for these young people: decrepit living environments, hunger, single-parent homes, gang pressure, needing a new damn pair of sneakers, abuse, long rides to school, adults around their community giving up on them way too soon.  And now we ask the few people who have not given up to just deal with bigger class sizes; with being judged by results on unfair and often meaningless tests that cannot possibly reflect what goes on in the bubble of a classroom.  The vast majority of these “union thugs,” get up and go to work and say, “today I choose to believe in educating these kids despite all the crap people are saying about me, because it’s what is right.”  And people just tell them: “Damn right you will, so stop complaining and get on with it you laborer, you! Oh AND DO IT IN ROOMS WITHOUT AIR CONDITIONING.”

I know, I know.  Of all the complaints the teachers have this seems like the most trivial (even if the simplest for Rahm and Co to acquiese) but it is a symbol and more.  The reality, as I discussed with my father over the weekend, is the VAST majority of the people clamoring for these teachers to shaddup and get back to work, have NO idea what the inside of an urban public school is like, particularly an average, or below average performing school.  It’s not just like your children’s school, only the teachers suck, so the kids don’t learn.  Schools do not exist in a bubble.  And for schools who educate at-risk and troubled youth, it is a constant battle to keep the pressures of the outside world from bursting any bubble that may exist.  You cannot turn off a child’s reality just by having him walk through a door (and a metal detector.)

The very people who sit on the board of my school–well-meaning and decent people, who made it their MISSION and charter to serve and help fund a school for the most challenging population in Brooklyn (kids who are behind in credit, court-involved, and living in group or foster homes, or homeless shelters) sat in awe, with jaws dropped, as my principal shared some stories of the struggles our students bring with them to school everyday: extreme hunger, poverty, fear, violence, uncertainty and distrust.  The idea of educating students in despair is so much prettier than the reality of what it requires.  The reality, despite the fact that it doesn’t mold to the agenda of many politicians, pundits, and citizens, is that poverty and urban decay (and all the ugly conditions attached) are not excuses liberals conjure up to blame for poor education, nor are they overblown issues.  This is a truth that these students–and the teachers who serve them–have to contend with every single day.  And when the schools that are supposed to provide children with an equal opportunity at success as their suburban and rural counterparts–and even as their peers in elite schools in their own city–are overcrowded, and underfunded, something as small as an airconditioner seems like a gesture that one would make without blinking.  With classes exceeding 35 students, and behavior management issuses, and overworked teachers, it seems an equity-minded politician would buy those airconditioners out of pocket.

I tend to doubt it, but maybe Rahm Emmanuel and the rest of the anti-teaccher crowd would happily agree to have their children attend a school for a year where class sizes exceed 35 students; where many or most students are hungry, desperate for a change of clothes, and struggling against the pressures of poverty, single-parent families, gang violence, street violence, disease, and drugs; where teachers are stressed by evaluations, not happy to be creative and supported to do better; and where administrators are handcuffed to enact change by politicians who still don’t seem to see the importance of a balanced and equally supportive education system.  I imagine if he would do that, send his kids to one of those schools for a year, and could still look his constiuency in their eyes and say, “These schools dont need more support and funding; the teachers should work for a barely-livable wage, and be evaluated by how well the students do under their ONE YEAR of tutelage, regardless of their inherent realities; oh, and the overcrowded classrooms definitely dont need air conditioners,” then perhaps he could work equal amounts of wizardry and convince the teachers to believe in that fantasy, and get back to work, as well.  More likely, his kids would come home unhappy, undereducated, drenced in sweat, and trembling in fear, with a new swagger, and a different dialect, proclaiming: “Yo, Dad, that school is hot.  And when it gets hot, people get shot.”


One Response to “When It Gets Hot People Get Shot: One (and more) Reasons This Charter School Teacher is Supporting the Chicago Strike”

  1. Barbara Ripton September 18, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    So simply put forth that you would think, someone, someone in a positon to make the change needed, would pay attention. I think it is Willy Loman’s wife in Death of a Salesman who says “attention must be paid” when she laments the disregard with which Willy is subjected. You’re right also, air conditioners are a very small token of the unrest. How many of the politicians who allocat funding sit in un-air conditioned offices all summer?

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