Teacher in Crisis

As many of you have probably noticed, the frequency and size of posts on this blog have tailed off lately. My goal is always to update this place twice a day with things that are not complete wastes of time for the people who have been gracious enough to frequent here.

It has not only been this blog that has fallen into a state of semi-neglect. My email correspondences with colleagues, friends and fellow bloggers have also backed up. I am not as quick to hand back homework or exams to my students as I used to be. A few weeks ago, I curled up into a ball in my apartment in a state of acute depression. It is like I have been having an existential crisis although, at 33 years of age, it might be a mid-life crisis.

As I read the blogs, talk to colleagues and come to work every day, it is becoming painfully obvious that I am not longed for the world of New York City’s Department of Education. Although things are far from definite, one thing I do know is that the role I am currently playing in the system is too constraining and is causing me more than a little psychic torture.

I talk to teachers from around the city. Despite the fact that these teachers are in different schools teaching different subjects to different student bodies, the story is almost always the same. One of the reasons why I did a lot of thinking about the passing of Fortunato Rubino yesterday was the fact that this system could ill afford to lose an educational leader like him. The horror stories I have seen first-hand and have heard from friends all speak to an epidemic of oppressive leadership in schools across the city.

One colleague from another school works under an AP that hates her. They have never gotten along. The teacher has never been insubordinate and, in fact, has feverishly tried to comply with the increasing number of responsibilities her AP has heaped upon her. It is of no use. This teacher is already out of license by teaching art most of the day. She has no materials and is located in three different rooms on different floors. Whenever she turns around, she is being called into another meeting or put on another “curriculum planning committee”. On top of that, she has to deal with the litany of disrespectful and sarcastic comments that spew forth from the mouth of her AP. She gets the sense that she is being set up for failure. I suppose she should be thankful that she has not been written up and still has a job in the NYC DOE.

Other colleagues of mine are not so lucky, like the one whose 3020a hearing begins tomorrow. I have known her since college and we have worked at the same school for 5 years. During that time, she has done all of the extra things that the administration has asked of her: stay late for open houses, teach some of the most challenging classes and give up time in order to be the coordinator of student activities (COSA). She regularly was the first one in the building and the last one out. The students recognized her hard work on their behalf and admired her for it. A lot of her work was done for free, out of a sense of obligation to the school community for which she worked. Few people, especially administrators, rarely ever gave her a “thank you” and would be damned to put it in writing if they did. Despite all of this, she never once complained or was insubordinate. As a matter of fact, she was quite supportive of the administration and their vision for the school.

And for all of her hard work, support and dedication to the children and the system, she faces termination.

We had a staff meeting in the auditorium yesterday. Most of the meeting consisted of students presenting some of the extra-curricular projects they had been working on. Once that was all done, they stayed in the auditorium while the principal addressed the staff. He stood at the back speaking to the napes of necks and bald spots of everyone in the room. In a tone that could only be described as angry, he shared some parental complaints he had about first marking period grades. Parents were upset because teachers were taking points off for bad behavior. Some teachers had never given exams, yet failed students who had showed up every day. He mentioned how he tried to defend the teachers by referring parents to the online grading system, yet saw that teachers really had no justification for failing the students in question. The staff largely hung their heads in shame, many of us wondering whether we were the objects of the principal’s ire. The students who had presented their projects were there to listen to it all.

These are just a few examples of what goes on every day in New York City’s Department of Education. Sure, there are horror stories out there like David Pakter, Peter Lamphere, Ted Smith and Christine Rubino. These stories are just the most shocking and reprehensible examples of what a reprehensible bureaucracy is capable of. What causes teachers to be the most demoralized, however, is the type of treatment described earlier at the hands of people who are supposedly education “leaders”. It is the endless pettiness, immaturity and inhumanity to which teachers are subjected every minute of every day. It has become so normal, so commonplace, that it forms the unconscious background of everything else that happens during the course of the school year.

This is the norm throughout the New York City Department of Education. To be sure, there are principals out there who do not do business this way. These principals should be celebrated, appreciated and supported. But, if me or my friends’ experiences are any indication, this is not the norm. Fear, disrespect, paranoia and inhumanity are the orders of the day.

“My principal does not like me, so she is making my life a living hell” is a commonly spoken sentence in Bloomberg’s DOE. At no point have I ever heard that “my principal has tried to bridge the gap with me” or “my principal had an open and honest discussion with me” or “my principal disagrees with me but it’s perfectly fine”. At no point have I heard a principal who has a problem with someone on the staff doing anything less than try to make someone’s life a “living hell”.

Principals lead school buildings. The goal of every school building is to provide a healthy educational environment for its children. If a teacher were to stand in the back of the classroom and berate all of the students for the transgressions of a few, it would be considered bad practice. It would be noted in an observation report and probably be used as a justification for a “U”. If a teacher did not get along with a student, it would be considered harassment for that teacher to give that student extra work and make snarky comments to them. It would probably be cause for disciplinary action, maybe even a 3020a hearing.

It seems as if because principals have the power to make the lives of teachers a living hell, or because they have the power to destroy teachers they do not like, that they believe it should be a power that gets exercised. There are even some principals who fancy themselves humanitarians because they do not do this to every teacher all of the time.

As I get older, I get more intolerant and militant. I just cannot fathom why a principal, someone who is responsible for setting the tone of a school, would think that making anyone’s life a living hell at any moment is productive in any way. Someone disagrees with your vision for the school? Great. You should welcome criticism, dialogue and debate. As the principal you have the final say, of course, and it does not mean you should put the things on hold that you want to achieve because a few malcontents do not like it. Instead, how about trying to bring those teachers along to your vision, give them roles of leadership and importance in that vision and show them that your way can do great things for many people?

When a student challenges me in class, I usually ask them why they feel the way they do. I do not take it as a personal insult. If anything, everything that students do in my classroom is a reflection on me and I take it as a critique of what I am doing at the moment. I have learned a lot about teaching because of this. Maybe I am a little too secure about the righteousness of my vision and ideas.

But I do know one thing: a leader who does not lead by example, a leader who believes a different set of rules applies to them, a leader who does not encourage free discussion is not a leader at all, but an oppressor. It does not matter what the setting is. It does not matter if it is in the political arena or in the arena of education. There is something rotten if a leader does not take their role seriously enough to model the behavior they want to see in the people they lead.

Before I started teaching I had a notion, since then discarded, that schools operated on a different moral plane than the “real world”. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. The real world to me was ruthless, ugly and destructive. Schools were beacons of high-minded values and enlightenment. After 12 years in the system, 10 of them under the Bloomberg regime, this silly naiveté has been beaten out of me. If anything, the ugliness and ruthlessness in our education system is worse than that of the real world because it is the students who ultimately get hurt.

Along the way, a lot of innocent teachers lose their livelihoods, reputations and careers because an administrator took a bad shine to them. What does it say about a human being if they can intentionally make the life of someone’s mother, daughter, father, son, brother, husband or wife a living hell? What does it say about a human being if they can give absolutely no thought to taking someone’s livelihood away merely because that person disagrees with them or because that person rubs them the wrong way? I might be able to forgive a lot of things with people because I also would like forgiveness for my own shortcomings, but I cannot forgive people like this. So-called leaders who act in this manner are working from a morality (amorality is more like it) that does not even register in my universe.

I do not totally blame the system either. While the reptilian corporate values that Bloomberg has foisted upon our schools have caused tremendous damage, it would have gotten nowhere without a legion of willing collaborators to do his bidding. It is easy to throw up your hands and say “it’s just the nature of the beast”, but at what point does one accept responsibility for being part of that beast? I think there is still something to be said for individual choice, free will and doing what you know to be the right thing in your heart.

This is why I admire the career of Furtunato Rubino. His example points to what is possible within the context of a thoroughly rotten system. While other principals were busily seeking ways to make people’s lives a living hell, Mr. Rubino never once lost focus of the fact that he was an educator who had an ultimate responsibility to the children of the community he served. Maybe if the Reality-Based Educators, Norm Scotts, Arthur Goldsteins, NYCDOEnuts, Michael Dunns and Bronx Teachers of the world became administrators, they would be able to carve out a piece of sanity and humanity in this monstrous universe we call the Department of Education.

But I understand why the people I mentioned might not be thinking about making such a move. They are teachers first, great teachers, and they know the work they do is the most valuable work of all. After dedicating your life to teaching, there is a sense that becoming an administrator makes you one of “them”. Their values are too incorruptible to be able to give themselves over to the system in that manner.

As for me, I have seen and heard too much to pretend it does not affect me anymore. Too many lives have been ruined, too many lines have been crossed, too much of man’s inhumanity to man has been on display for me to plug along, teach my classes and go home like nothing has ever happened. I feel filthy with each passing day.

So, I do not know what the future holds for me but I am pretty certain what it does not hold. Bloomberg, Walcott, Duncan, Obama and all of the administrators who know no other value but to make peoples’ lives living hells can go on building their filthy world without me.

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12 responses to “Teacher in Crisis

  1. kudos for a great article! You are expressing the frustration – no, despair – of teachers currently in NYC public schools, and no, this cannot be good for kids of any age.

    remember to put the name of the arbitrator for the open 3020-a on your blog, otherwise no one will be able to find out what room to go to in the AM at 51 Chambers Street.

  2. I can completely identify with the crisis you are undergoing, AT. I am with you on this. I have found myself feeling at times saddened, depressed and angry at the state of the system – the political system, the economic system, the education system. I am not long for teaching in the public schools. Like Butch Cassidy and Sundance, I think the world has passed me by – “My times is over!” Every time I come out of PD or a focus group or a department meeting, I realize I can no longer teach the way they want me to teach – by the numbers, by the data, by the technics, by rote. I cannot privilege the mechanical and the technical over the human. I cannot sell my soul for my paycheck.

    My approach to teaching is this: I always try to keep the humanity in my lessons, I try to teach the WHOLE student in front of me, not just the part that takes standardized tests. I believe the best classes are the ones where people have, you know, fun – and learn something new or see something in a different way or take chances with something or hear some new POV that they had not considered before. I believe in bringing lessons to students that relate to their spirits as well as their minds. I believe in socio-emotional learning – my own as well as the students. I believe in taking my lunch time to talk a student through her anger at her AWOL father or sadness about her mother paralyzed from a stroke or fear over starting a new life in college. I believe in living my own life in balance so I can model that same mode of living for my students. I believe in ALWAYS telling my students the truth. I believe in teaching meaningful lessons that will stay with students long after they’re gone from high school. I believe in the sound of laughter – genuine, gentle laughter. I believe in teaching my students to question EVERYTHING they read and EVERYTHING they hear – including the words I say to them.

    The system does not value these things. The political powers do not value these things. The education elite do not value these things. The media do not value these things. In fact, this kind of teaching and learning is dangerous because it does not prop up the status quo or help to replicate the current power structure.

    And so I am thinking through my next career move. I am studying a bit of the Sudbury free school model because this kind of education speaks to my soul and I might want to try something in that area. I am taking a course in starting my own business because I am thinking that kind of thing might be helpful in the near future too. I am getting used to the idea that I will not be teaching the DOE much longer.

    I have never wanted to be an administrator. Not in this system, at any rate. From the beginning, I have always enjoyed the teaching and interactions with students and hated the other stuff- the PD, the meetings, the curriculum writing. My talent does not lie in administrating – it lies in bringing my own experience to the classroom and teaching as honestly and as earnestly as I can. I know in my 11 years as a teacher I have heard from many students that they have gotten something of value from me. For that I am proud. That is not to say that having human administrators like Fred Rubino isn’t an important thing – it surely is. I just know that I cannot be that administrator. A line from an Eastwood movie comes to mind – “Man’s got to know his limitations…” Well, I know mine and administrating is definitely one of them.

    But as I say, I feel I can no longer be the teacher I am capable of being in the DOE anymore either. I also am feeling the emotional and physical exhaustion from the corporate reform jive – and this is sapping my ability to help students both in and out of class to become the people they are capable of becoming. (The cynic in me thinks the capitalist reformers want it just like this – everybody in fear, everybody exhausted, everybody cranky and ready to turn on each other.)

    And so I am putting the timeline in place to go. I have a few things I need to do beforehand – finish off my loan debt, extricate myself from an expensive apartment lease, make sure my wife’s employment is secure, build a prudent reserve. But once that is done, I am pretty sure I am gone. For now, the timeline is about a year and five months. We’ll see. I’ll re-evaluate that timeline in June, then re-evaluate again September, then next January, then June 2013.

    Whatever happens, I do hope to take up teaching again somewhere in the future on MY terms – not Bloomberg’s, not Cuomo’s, not Murdoch’s, not Obama’s. I want to continue to teach lessons that are not tied to some computerized testing program. I want to teach humanly and humanely.

    That’s where I’m at these days. It sounds like you’re there as well. How many others out there are in the same state of mind?

    • Thank you for this thoughtful comment RBE.

      I used to be the type of teacher that listened to students’ problems and was there during lunch and prep periods to talk. It is an admirable thing and something students need. However, after seeing more than one teacher destroyed because people make immature and insidious accusations, I have learned to keep my distance from students.

      It is a bad thing to do and runs counter to the type of person I am. This is one of the reasons why I feel filthy. It is not fair to the students and not fair to me.

      Yes, I definitely believe in telling the truth all the time to my students. It is one of my greatest assets as well as my greatest liability. The kids appreciate it but others may not appreciate it very much. It is a very liberating thing.

      I am very disorganized and probably the last person who should be an administrator responsible for scheduling and other logic-based things. On the other hand, I doubt I could be any worse than most of the others in the system now. People like us have a certain vision that the system desperately needs. Maybe we can create the vision and leave it to others we trust to fill in the organizational or logistical stuff?

      But I understand why you don’t want to be an administrator in this system. Once a teacher, always a teacher. It’s by design that the DOE spits out their best educators either through harassment of attrition.

      And certainly the realities of life prevents people from making big drastic decisions. I am not married or have a mortgage but I have loads of debt and no other prospects for employment. At this point, I am willing to roll the dice and opt out of the system totally in order to prevent this feeling of flaying flesh that crawls on my skin every day.

      Anyway, thank you very much for sharing. Good luck in everything it is you decide to do.

    • m lewis redford

      yup; me too – 25 years teaching in the same school in the UK and just about ready to burst or haemorrhage. What illness is this in the education systems (of the world?) that they mutate and consume their own resource in the name of growth?

  3. Pingback: Teacher in Crisis | assailedteacher - Angryteach

  4. Interesting to see that this is rampant around the city. We need to be stronger by getting together. We should publish a real teacher handbook. Title: Survival 101

  5. m lewis redford

    how sad to see the normally ebullient assailedteacher bruised and despaired! That is a tragedy in itself – I have come to rely on this blog for affirmation that there is hope, that what we do IS still noble and worth championing. How sad to witness the arrogant and determined trashing of teachers’ careers and lifework for the sake of a Mickey Mouse-level philosophy – shallow, pat and wrong.

    When something is right it participates in grass growing and people breathing, even if the whole world is screaming it is wrong. You can’t argue with grass. Keep on blogging (as they might have said in the early seventies).

    • Thank you MLR. I hope I can pull myself out of this tailspin soon. It seems that all I have left is this little piece of internet space. I wish I could write poetry like you do, it might get at something deeper inside of me that I have yet to explore.

  6. Your article made me sad. I’m finishing up my 12th year of teaching and wondering if I should keep doing this or find a new job. Just this year I’ve had more data, reading strategies (I’m a U.S. History teacher) and the like shoved into my curriculum by administrators in an effort to boost test scores. I spent at least one day a week in some sort of training during our third 9-weeks and only 1 training actually dealt with my subject. I’m just worn out and tired, and sick of having to teach things that have little to do with my subject. The kids are getting bored with all of the reading strats and data-based strats and I’m unable to do the more fun simulations and such that I used to do because I don’t have time. It’s pretty sad, and the kids are being hurt the worst out of this.

  7. I have a sneaking suspicion that like periods before the dark cloud over education will recede as the economy and political climates change. Teachers, for a short time, were applauded. This time coincided with a huge demand for the next generation to step up and educate. Today the market is flooded with certified teachers, some with traditional backgrounds, but many with fast track certificates that don’t generate the same quality teacher as those that study pedagogy in Bachelors or Masters program. I foresee the trend played off in the Media and politics waning as the next generation chooses not to go into the black sheep of professions and the demand once again spikes.
    How will children learn if no one is choosing to teach them? Teachers will once again be revered and placed back on the pedestal where they belong.

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