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Monday, February 17, 2014


I came to teaching through an alternative certificate program, the New York City Teaching Fellows.  I now recognize it and its more famous cousin Teach for America as myopic attempts to fix deeply embedded social inequities. 

When I became a teacher I had no idea that I was entering a battle for the very soul of public education. I didn't understand that alternative certification programs were a tool of the market driven reform movement.  I was manipulated into believing (and egotistical enough to swallow) the idea that wanting to "do good" was enough to remedy systemic injustice. That all "these kids" needed was a bunch of someones who worked hard and really cared (underlying message being that what they currently had was a bunch of someones who didn't do those things).

But it is the system itself that doesn't care. If it were otherwise, how could you explain the willingness to let the poorly trained guide the worst off?  Teachers who go through real education programs spend hours and hours being observed. They are mentored by experienced veterans. They have time to explore, compare and form ideas on the philosophy of education. They learn slowly and thoughtfully how to address the needs of the whole child.  

A teacher in Chicago put it this way, "Beauticians in the state of Illinois are required to complete 1500 hours of practical training before they can get a job in Illinois. But [TFA] teachers can take a whole class of needy children after just 20 hours of practice? Of course, those undertrained novices are only for low-income children of color. No affluent school would allow someone-however well meaning-with no training to teach their children." 

For years, my students had a teacher who was unqualified. As I went to school at night and lessoned planned long past midnight, I was less than I should have been. I excused it with phrases such as, "But I'm working so hard" "At least I care" and "I mean well."  It was wrong. I was wrong. I didn't know better then but I do now. 

So if you are considering joining TFA (or any such alternative certificate program) I ask you to reconsider. Let your good intentions lead you to do what is right and refuse to participate in a program that foists upon needy and unsuspecting communities those with more gall and guts than knowledge, skill or experience.  To do otherwise is arrogant and furthers inequity upon the innocent.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Repeat A Lie Often Enough And It's Still A Lie

There are many lies told at my school but among the most frequently repeated is this gem, "It's all about the kids." That little ditty is sung most frequently by my principal, especially at staff meetings where she has at least once referred to teachers as "lazy." Given how often she says, "It's all about the kids," I tried to think of the times I had seen her act on it. Here's what I came up with:

It must be the kids my principal has in mind when she clocks out people who are paid to attend meetings a half an hour after they've actually left.

It must be the kids my principal is thinking about when she yanks a paraprofessional from a classroom to answer the school phone because her secretary is absent.

It must be the kids my principal is considering when she says there is no money to pay teachers for after-school tutoring programs yet conveniently manages to find the money to pay herself when she works late.

It must be the kids my principal is worried about when she kicks teachers out of the building who need and want to work late so she can go home.

It must be the kids the principal is fretting about when she purchases a new desk for her office but says there is no money to buy copy paper.

It must be the kids the principal is concerned about when her office is one of only six rooms with a working air conditioner.

It must be the kids the principal is focused on when meetings with parents are scheduled at 5pm.

It must be the kids she is concentrating on when she uses the ELL or speech teachers as a substitutes.

In today's education reform world, my principal and lots and lots of other people express oodles of concern about "the kids." But if you watch their actions instead of their lips, well the truth speaks for itself.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Advice for Executioner Cuomo

Last month, New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo said there should "be a death penalty for failing schools." Cuomo's analogy was both reckless and insensitive and he should reconsider his position.

While speaking about the death penalty, former President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery said, "By reserving the penalty of death for black defendants, or for the poor...we perpetrate the ugly legacy of slavery...teaching our children that some lives are inherently less precious than others." Much like its criminal counterpart, the "death penalty" for schools disproportionally effects low-income minorities. Thus sending the message that schools populated predominately with low-income minority students are less vibrant, less important, less "precious" than those populated with wealthier and/or whiter students. Killing beloved institutions in poor minority communities, rather than rehabilitating them, signals a fundamental disrespect.

The administration of capital punishment assumes that it will be done with fairness and justice. School executions are unfair and unjust since there are no agreed upon measurements of school success. Current measurements, such as test scores or graduation rates, do not take into account population disparities and inequitable funding. Justice Thurgood Marshall called the unjust administration of the death penalty "...a cruel and empty mockery. If not remedied, the scandalous state of our present system of capital punishment will cause a pall of shame over our society for years to come." Marshall's prediction has come to pass: our present system of capital punishment for American public schools is society's public shame.

Even if the the death penalty could be administered fairly, the Governor should rethink his desire to be seen as the "executioner" of public schools. According to a book by Joel Harrington, "The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century," throughout history the job of executioner has not been well-respected. In fact, society has generally scorned executioners as outcasts. They have been "universally reviled as cold-blooded killers for hire and accordingly excluded from respectable society at every turn."

So a word to the wise, Governor Cuomo: If your swift sword falls upon the head of a public school, mine will fall upon a lever other than yours in the voting booth. Use your executive clemency power instead and I'll consider using mine on your behalf.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Teachers Who Stay

recent article in the NY Times examined the benefits of short teaching careers. "...[T]eaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable." Others argued that "...students need stability and that a system of serial short timers is not replicable across thousands of school districts nationwide."

I would like to advocate for teachers as professionals, that is, teachers who stay. Teachers who stay establish and build relationships with colleagues and support staff. They readily lend supplies, become the source for institutional memory, serve as trusted advisors and can point colleagues, parents and students to which resources best explain the difference between factors and multiples. Teachers who stay earn the confidence of students, their families and the larger community. They are invited to family picnics, introduced to grandparents and recommended to cousins. Teachers who stay can be counted on. Their former students come back for advice, help with homework or to introduce a new baby. Teachers who stay are enriched by and contextualize experience and knowledge over the course of time. They know when and how to voice concerns and objections. Teachers who stay care. They are not cultural tourists in the community where they work but active members. They contribute to food banks, participate in voter registration drives and march against unfair police practices. Teachers who stay function as beacons of continuity and consistency in communities where familial disruption and economic instability are the rule not the exception.

But teacher-student –family -community interactions are not the only examples of the benefits of relationship building. Many daily interactions are enhanced by the existence of ongoing and long-term relationships. For instance, I've visited my local beach so frequently and for so many years that when I leave my beach pass at home, I am still admitted - because they know me. Then there is the owner of my favorite Mexican restaurant who remembers that I like a salted margarita and a few weeks ago lent me travel books because he knew I was going away. And there’s the print shop that doesn't charge me tax when I develop photographs because the staff knows I'm a teacher and the pictures are for my classroom. Conversely, it has been my experience that the delivery of excellent medical care and services has been reduced because, like the teaching profession, medicine has devolved into a series of discrete interactions designed only to achieve a set of metrics while failing to recognize the importance of the arc of relationship.

The other day I got a letter in the mail from my health insurance company informing me that I had to select a new primary care physician because my now former physician no longer participated in their plan. It is the third such letter I have received in ten years. This "doctor churn" was not the norm when I was a child. In fact, my entire family went to the same doctor for more than twenty-five years. He understood our health concerns in multiple contexts: individual, family, community, short-term needs and long-term goals. I remember my mother calling our doctor at night. I remember my doctor coming to my bedside at home. I remember my doctor meeting me in the emergency room when I needed stitches. At my new doctor's office, I spent time filling out forms which asked if I'd ever had surgery or was allergic to any medications. There is no way that that questionnaire or the five-minute consultation that followed could substitute for a quarter of a century of relationship building. There is no way I would feel comfortable calling my new doctor for medical advice in the middle of the night - at least not yet. We just don't have that type of relationship.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Teaching Is Going To Kill Me

Last night I got five hours of sleep. Sadly that is typical for a school night as I diligently attempt to juggle the demands of grading (while providing thoughtful comments for each student), phoning parents, lesson planning, designing bulletin boards, getting supplementary books from my public library, shopping for supplies at Staples for, writing IEPs, collecting and analyzing data and attending professional development classes. 

I'm afraid to go to my doctor because of what she will say to me about my weight and blood pressure.  
During quality review week, I suffer from lower back pain. During state exam month, I get headaches and diarrhea. In general, I don't have time to exercise or even to cook while the Sword of Damocles dangles over my head in the form of teacher ratings, school report card grades (that's right my school gets graded), letters to file, teaching observations, quality review and more. Over the years, I've gone to school with a sprained ankle, a twisted knee, a bulging disc, laryngitis and colds of various levels of severity. Many, if not all, of my colleagues do the same.

In the early 1900's, unionized workers fought against exploitive employers who forced them to work long hours with little time off in unhealthy circumstances. Workers were literally dying in unvented, unsafe, poorly lit, deafening factories. More than one hundred years later, I work in a dirty building with bed bugs and lice, mouse droppings, banging radiators, flickering buzzing PCB lighting, and no air conditioning for approximately ten hours each day (6:30am - 4:30pm). My reward when I get home? Another three to five hours of work preparing for the next day.

I won't die in a headline-garnering tragic fire at the "factory." I'll die at home from a stroke or a heart attack but all the same my death certificate should say, "Cause of Death: Teaching." 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Cruel And Unnecessary But Not At All Unusual

If child protective services is called about my mistreatment of children, I will understand. Why? Because across six days of the last two weeks, I forced children aged 11 - 14 to sit silently for more than 20 hours of testing.

I teach students with disabilities, sitting is not what they do best, testing is not what they do best, silence is definitely not what they do best. Yet there I stood, trying to keep a lid on their anxiety and youthful energy for hours at a time.

To help them do their best, my students were given test accommodations including: extra test time, breaks, and on-task focusing prompts. Also to help them do their best, I gave out mint gum, tissues and platitudes like, "Try your best, sweetheart."

"Don't give up," was the insultingly useless thing that I said to one boy who reads at a fourth grade level but was handed eighth grade testing materials that he absolutely could not read. How exactly did that test serve to measure any progress that he made during the year? Short answer: it didn't. Instead what it did was make him feel inadequate, stupid and frustrated.

Worse still is that if all this testing is actually to help students, parents and teachers assess what "Johnny" has learned, it is unnecessary. By this time of year, a student's levels and depths of understanding - their strengths and weaknesses - are very clear. I have months and months of student work (or sometimes a lack thereof) which demonstrates their growth over time.  You can see that in September Johnny did not understand how to plot a point on a coordinate grid but later in October he consistently can. Or you can see, as is the case with some students, that they have made little or no progress.

But then the purpose of high-stakes testing has very little to do with how Johnny is doing. If standardized testing ever was a useful tool for academic growth, it is now mostly used to "control" teachers.

Not At All Unusual
I wish that my role as a test-inflictor was an aberration but it is not. Across our nation, hundreds of thousands of teachers participate in this annual mental flogging of our nation's youth. This month Florida teachers supervised as children sat and sat and sat for the FCAT's. At the same time, Texas educators inflicted children with TAKS and STAARs. Next week, New Jersey teachers will begin abusing their students as they proctor statewide tests. With so many abusers out there, hardly a child goes unscathed.

As you might imagine, I have a long history of abuse having "whipped" students into shape for almost a decade now. I'm not proud of it. I know it is wrong and I'm looking to make a change.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Have The Common Core Bundles Wrought?

In New York City, the Common Core has brought with it bundles - or as the DOE describes them, "aligned tasks embedded in a unit of study." At my school, we are obligated to administer a minimum of two bundles in each major subject. It can take weeks to plow through the bundles with all their attachments (the 6th grade special ed class has been working on the same unit since Martin Luther King Day).  I refer to them as "piles." Why do I have such a low opinion of the tasks designed to "support schools?"

Before Easter vacation, I looked at a hallway bulletin board. It proudly displayed the culminating task for an English assignment. I saw ten essays written by ten different students each of which said the exact same thing. Each essay made the same arguments. Each essay cited the same evidence. Each essay used the same transition words. It was a model of uniformity.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. And then I looked at my own bulletin board. I don’t teach English. I teach another subject which has been similarly “blessed” with piles, I mean bundles. And there bright and bold for all the world to see were ten examples of student work each espousing the same reasoning, the same ideas, the same answers.

I used to take pride in the work I did as a teacher. I worked for hours creating projects for my students that offered multiple ways to demonstrate the learning they were doing. Now I work with pre-made piles that demand uniformity. How do students feel about this one size fits all approach? Do other teachers feel as I do? You know... ashamed.