Monthly Archives: May 2012

Dear Teacher, In Your Absence…..

Substitute teacher, the unsung hero of education.

My mother has been very sick as of late. It has necessitated me taking many days and periods off. In times of stress like this, I find temporary respite in reflecting on some of the more trivial things in life, like absentee lesson plans.

It is the policy of most schools in which I have worked for teachers to hand in three days’ worth of emergency lesson plans for the main office’s file. I suppose that, from an administrative standpoint, it helps in the smooth functioning of the school day.

While I do not like taking days off, it is something that I have lately found unavoidable. It is has given me cause to reflect upon my entire absentee lesson philosophy.

From my days as a student in New York City’s public schools, as well as a teacher who has both covered classes and had classes covered for me, I have a pretty good idea of the mood of a class when the teacher is absent. In high school, students walk into a room where the teacher is absent and reflexively think “free period”. They will sit next to their friends, usually well far away from their regularly assigned seats, and set up shop for a bull session, a card game or a freestyle cipher.

To be honest, I used to leave busy work behind when I was absent in the first years of my career. I would provide a history crossword puzzle or graphic organizer because I felt the students were more likely to do them. But then the teacher who covered my classes complained to me that the students were done too quickly and had enough free time to play around and cause trouble.

That is when I decided to go to the other extreme and provide dense readings with tons of questions. It would be the type of work that took way more than one class period to complete. I figured it would keep the students more than occupied and I can grade them on the amount of effort they put in rather whether or not they completed the entire assignment.

Then, one day, one of the school’s favorite substitutes complained to me that the students found the work “boring”. He was having trouble motivating them he said, so he scrapped my handout and did a lesson with them on the fly about the topic. His tone could be described as gloating, as if he had one-upped the regular classroom teacher, which was me. I did not have the heart to tell him how little I cared.

At the same time, I have also covered my fair share of classes. The first thing I do when I get a coverage is look over the attendance roster for names of students I might know. It usually gives me an idea of the type of class with which I will be dealing. Once I and the students are in the room, I look on the teacher’s desk for any assigned work for the period. I do not really care what type of work it is, since it is not my class and I assume the teacher knows best what their students can handle. At the start of the period, I introduce myself, ask for their indulgence while I take attendance and lay down some modest ground rules. Then I ask them the topic they are studying, hand out the assignment and let them know that I would be happy to help them complete it on their own. They will be collected by the end of the period.

There are those circumstances when the work is easy or there is no work at all. Far be it from me to let the class off light with a free period. I usually take the opportunity to test myself and pull a lesson out of thin air. If I do not know the topic, which is most likely the case with any subject that is not history, I rely on the most vocal students to guide the class through explanations. Sometimes I refer to the textbook and struggle through the topic out loud so the class can see the thought process in action, and maybe get a few laughs at my expense.

I do not recall there ever being a time when I had a nightmare coverage. For many years I was a dean, which meant I had the pleasure of getting the toughest classes to cover. For my entire life I have been a big, tall loudmouth, which means I still get the pleasure of the toughest classes to cover. Never once did I think of leaving a negative report for the regular teacher, even if the class was not the most angelic. I know that, for my part, I do not like the feeling of being told that my classes or lessons suck by another teacher. This goes double time if I am returning to work after dealing with an emotionally draining personal problem.

My view is that I am a professional and that any class will be safe while I am in charge. The regular classroom teacher should be free to recover from their illness or deal with their personal life without the fear that they will get reports about paper airplanes being thrown and “kick me” signs being taped to the substitute’s back.

I have never understood the tension that exists between the substitute and the regular classroom teacher. Substitutes always seem to find a reason to bemoan the work the classroom teacher leaves behind, or lack thereof. Classroom teachers always seem to find a reason to bemoan how the class was handled in their absence, or how their lesson plan was not followed.

Teachers have enough guilt and worry calling out as it is. No matter what work is left behind or not left behind, take your day, deal with what needs to be dealt with and come back to work when you feel you are ready to face the day. Your colleague will be there to pick you up because, at some point, we will all need to take a day for ourselves.

The days that I have had to call out lately have solidified my policy for leaving behind absentee work. My number one bottom line rule is that the work must be relevant to the unit we are currently studying. At the start of each unit, I hand out a sheet that has all of the homework assignments that go with it. If I am able to anticipate calling out ahead of time, I make copies of the exact lesson plan that I would have delivered if I had been there that day. Their assignment is to do the homework that goes with that lesson. Their motivation is that they will not have any homework for the class when they go home that evening. It is not perfect, but I find that it works most of the time.

On those days when I cannot make copies ahead of time, or when the class has just taken a test (meaning they did not yet receive the new homework sheet), I call in an essay prompt over the phone about the last lesson we studied. Sometimes, I will offer extra credit on the previous or next exam for those students who do a good job. It is a hard assignment to cheat on. As a matter of fact, students will try to work in groups and compare information. They will think in their minds that they are cheating. In my mind, they are doing exactly what I want them to do. They are working  collaboratively to write the strongest essay possible. Not only can it be an actual learning experience, but it co-opts the natural urge to socialize when the teacher is absent, marshaling that urge in the name of education. It feels good to return to work and get a stack of 30 essays packed with historical information (it feels good until I have to grade them, that is). Even the students who usually do not do homework or write essays hand in the assignment. And, in the end, if they really think they have gotten away with cheating, who does it hurt? Let them have their fiction.

So, if you ever cover my class, I apologize ahead of time if you consider the work I leave too boring or too easy or both. I am doing the best I can. We all have our days when we need to handle life outside of school. If, for whatever reason, you think you have a better way to handle my class for the day, go for it. You are the one that has to deal with them then and there, not me. I respect your judgment as a professional, even if you do not respect mine.

And when the day comes that you might need me to cover your class, I will do it dutifully and ensure that your darlings are engaged. You will not receive a bad report about your class from me. I have your back.

What Happened to all the Astronauts?

When the moon was made out of cheese.

ETS recently released a report about the lack of civic engagement of the American child. (Click to watch the video here.)

It asks the question: despite the fact that history is a core subject in most schools, why are only 25% of students proficient in civic knowledge? Apparently, only 24% of 4th graders know why we have a Constitution and 22% of 8th graders know what the Supreme Court does.

These certainly are alarming statistics. It is ironic that ETS, which stands for Educational Testing Services, is bemoaning the decline of civic engagement. While ETS is not nearly as objectionable as Pearson or Wireless Generation, it could be argued that the entire regime of standardized testing that ETS represents has helped along the disenfranchisement of the American citizen. The narrowing of the curriculum to which testing lends itself enables subjects like history, which should be studied and assessed as whole cloth, to be chopped up into isolated bits of trivia. This testing regime goes part of the way towards explaining why children lack civic knowledge

The narrowing that we see today threatens to do away with history as a subject altogether. One of the bromides of education reform is that schools need to prepare students for the 21st century economy, which promises to be a highly technological affair. This means stressing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. ETS is rightfully concerned about the health of American democracy. Yet, the education reformers of today are more concerned with keeping the United States economically competitive. They have shown little regard for activating the American people as citizens. Rather, they are single-mindedly obsessed with activating the American people as the low-paid technological workforce of the future.

Part of this is nothing new. There was a wave of science and math education after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. Our leaders believed the Russians were beating us technologically during the Cold War. Not to be outdone, President Kennedy promised to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s by riding a spate of investment in STEM education.

There was a major difference between that wave of STEM and the current wave. When the first people landed on the moon, they planted an American flag because it was the culmination of a civic exercise. The resources of an entire nation had been working towards that moment. It may have been “one giant leap for mankind”, but there was no doubt who out of mankind’s representatives took the credit for that leap: those that lived under the Stars and Stripes. In short, we invested in STEM as a civic exercise.

Today, the justification for STEM education is naked economic interest. We must be able to keep up with our global competitors not as a matter of civic pride, but because we are in danger of losing our spot in the marketplace. There is no talk anymore of producing the next generation of astronauts. Astronauts were intergalactic conquistadors working in the service of a country; a country that was advancing knowledge for all mankind. Today, we tell kids to study STEM because the economy of tomorrow demands it. There is no purpose other than the profit motive.

History and civics were necessary to produce astronauts. Even if the version of America that children learned was sanitized, at least there was the idea that America was worth knowing. People had to have an idea of what that flag on the moon represented.

On the other hand, history and civics is irrelevant in the global marketplace. Business today knows no borders. Products, capital and labor cross national boundaries with ease. In fact, allowing future generations to imbibe the lessons of freedom and justice that come with any sanitized reading of American history might make the low-paid functionaries of tomorrow less than compliant. There is no place for civics in the current Neoliberal regime of education reform. The only subjects worthy of study are the equations and formulas of STEM. The only way to measure learning is the bloodless data of high-stakes testing. The only purpose behind this effort is cold economic calculation.

So, while history is still a core subject in most American schools, it is a subject that is devalued in the sterilized world of education reform.

This leads us to other reasons why the civic spirit is lacking in American children. While it is a cause for concern that less than a third of schoolchildren know about the Constitution or the Supreme Court, it is safe to say that the proportion of adults who know these things is not much higher.

To a great extent, the United States has always been an anti-intellectual place. On the other hand, the era in which we currently live marries good old American anti-intellectualism to widespread Gen X apathy.

Since the 1970s, it has become the norm for voter turnout to hover around 50% even for presidential elections. Congressional and local races are generally much lower. A change happened during that nervous decade. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the increasing vulgarity of popular culture gave rise to widespread cynicism among the electorate. All leaders were bums. All politicians were the same. It did not matter which politician’s slop the electorate eats up, for it all winds up the same flavor in the end.

To a great extent, the cynicism in the electorate gets at something real. No matter how well-liked a politician is, there is always the understanding that we are being gamed. Bill Clinton left office with high approval ratings, yet by that time he had already proven to be a philanderer who had committed perjury. His moniker of “Slick Willie” was almost an endearing term. He was the slimy politician that Americans loved to love.

Contrast the benign “Slick Willie” to Richard Nixon’s dark nickname of “Tricky Dick”. By the time he left office, “Tricky Dick” was a term of derision. Nixon was the slimy politician that Americans loved to hate. This is because “Tricky Dick” came from a generation of American citizens who expected more out of their government than they do now. Many people may not have voted for the POTUS, but he was still everyone’s POTUS and deserved respect. People had faith in their government. They were civically engaged.

So America’s children can be forgiven if they do not know about the Constitution or the Supreme Court. Adults tend to only know these things as broken promises. The most enlightened among the electorate know them as noble experiments of a genteel age that have been betrayed by a generation of self-seekers and social climbers. It is not that American adults are ignorant of these things; it is that they have an instinctive mistrust of what they have become.

Is it any wonder that America’s children, who can pick up so readily on the unspoken assumptions of the adults around them, betray the same lack of civic spirit the electorate as a whole demonstrates?

How can we revive the civic spirit? It will not come with more high-stakes tests, even if those tests are in civics. It will not come with new curriculum or new project-based methods of teaching civics. It will not come with making American history and government a double period class in the fashion that math and science have labs.

No, reviving the civic spirit in children will only be possible once it is revived in the adults. There used to be a time when the government exercised its power of public domain over the television airwaves to cover issues of public moment. There used to be a time when the reporters actually investigated instead of accepting the words of politicians and business leaders at face value. There was a time when Americans tuned in to see their astronauts launch into outer space.

Today, all we have on the television is Snookie’s pregnancy or the Kardashians’ bad hair day. All we have in the papers is partisan yellow journalism.

There was a time when a person (albeit, usually a white man) would be able to work for the same corporation for 30 years and then live off a decent pension in old age, supplemented by Social Security. There was a time when Americans felt as if they were getting ahead, before the age of credit cards and debt slavery. There was a time when, with government help, parents would be able to put their kids through college to get the education that was going to improve the life of the next generation.

Today, Americans move from one low-paying job to another. Creditors call their houses seven days a week to remind them of how behind they really are. A college education is no longer the magic bullet for intergenerational progress.

All the while, politicians are telling everyone that things are fine. The economy is always improving, or always on the verge of improving. The Dow Jones is up. Business leaders see bright days ahead if we just give them another tax cut and tighten our belts a little bit longer.

Americans have lost stock in America. Our children sense this and know better than to put any stock in it in the first place.

Hope: The Two Biggest Anti-Teaching Forces Also Hate Each Other

Education is the most ridiculed department on any college campus. Its professors are generally not practitioners. Its subject-matter consists of hand-me-down theories from psychology and sociology. Its literature cloaks itself in clumsy jargon in a laughable attempt to sound scientific and, therefore, legitimate.

Graduates fully realize the joke once they start their teaching careers. Faced for the first time with a room full of students to teach, all of the neat theories they spent thousands of dollars learning melt away into oblivion. At the same time, those education professors never quite go away. There will always be a new method or curriculum that some educationist somewhere cooked up and successfully foisted upon some unsuspecting school district. This requires endless hours of professional development sessions accompanied by the requisite drumroll of empty jargon.

It is a never-ending cycle. The new program that took hundreds of hours to learn will eventually be scrapped in favor of a brand new program. The educationists will claim that this is because there have been new and exciting developments in the field of pedagogy. However, teachers know that educationists are merely throwing darts; their programs nothing more than jargonized guesswork.

Despite the general perception of educationists as bumblers and incompetents unfit to compete in the more respected fields of study, they are actually pretty smart. As teachers, from our first moments in the education program up until the last days of our careers, we are never fully out of the orbit of educationists. They will always be around, first as our professors and then as the faceless people whose names grace the latest pedagogical fads. (How is Charlotte Danielson doing, by the way?)

That is because they have successfully established a system where they are considered the experts and we are merely practitioners. Part of this is due to the unique historical circumstances out of which our current system of schooling arose. The late 1800s not only saw the genesis of compulsory public schooling, but also the modern social sciences: psychology, sociology and economics. Compulsory schooling created a need for trained teachers. Those teachers would be trained at the nation’s colleges by professors who took on the trappings of social scientists. It was at that moment that teaching became pedagogy.

So now we have a two-tiered system of pedagogical experts and pedagogical practitioners. It is a system designed to disempower teachers by keeping any semblance of professional autonomy out of our reach. The educationists have a monopoly on research and theory. Those things have always trumped experience. Teachers are told that they have nothing to contribute to the field of pedagogy while, at the same time, the field of pedagogy is able to dictate the way teachers do their jobs. It is a patriarchal system where the teaching workforce, overwhelmingly female since its inception, is expected to be mute so that the experts can talk amongst themselves in the proverbial smoke-filled parlors of academia. They often take time from their bull sessions to order us around. “Today you’re doing whole language.” “Ok, now do balanced literacy.” “Hey, serve up some fuzzy math, will you?” “Don’t forget to differentiate your instruction. There are multiple intelligences out there!”

This is why a recent study of schools of education conducted by the National Counsel for Teacher Quality promises to have interesting implications. Teachers (the practitioners of pedagogy) have been accustomed to being bossed around by outsiders in the current age of education reform. Politicians, businesspeople, celebrities and assorted self-promoters have taken up the cause of public schooling. No matter their particular recommendations, they are in agreement that teachers are the problem. We are the ones that need to change so that education can be saved. It is easy for them to order us around in this way, since the pedagogical experts have been doing as much for a hundred years.

But now, with this NCTQ study, the reformers have found the pedagogical experts lacking. Apparently, the experts have been falling down on the job by not preparing prospective teachers to analyze education data. In the age of the standardized exam, worshipped by reformer outfits like the NCTQ, there promises to be no shortage of education data to be mined. Data training will be one of the most important criteria when the NTCQ releases the rankings for education schools in U.S. News and World Report.

Yet, the NTCQ is meeting resistance from the education experts. Many schools of education refused to share with the NTCQ their syllabi, forcing the NTCQ to obtain them via Freedom of Information Law requests. Apparently, it is easy for reformers to tell teachers what to do, but the pedagogical PhDs are having none of it. This is their field. They are the experts and they do not take kindly to uninitiated outsiders telling them what they have to do. They are tired of hearing that testing is the future of education. After all, it is the educationists who direct education.  The NTCQ telling the educationists that testing is the future of education is like Kim Kardashian telling Stephen Hawking that string theory is the future of physics.

In short, the two biggest forces that have sought to disempower teachers (educationists and reformers) are at each other’s throats.

The other interesting implication is seen in the following excerpt:

“A lot of schools of education continue to become quite oppositional to the notion of standardized tests, even though they have very much become a reality in K-12 schools,” said Kate Walsh, NCTQ president. “The ideological resistance is critical.”

This is the type of reptilian discourse that defines everything education reformers say. It is the reformers who justify their high-stakes testing, union busting agenda with “research”. Yet, educational research is conducted by educationists. If the educationists oppose standardized testing, would it not stand to reason that the research does not support the notion of testing?

Oh, but Kate Walsh calls the resistance of educationists “ideological”.

It makes one wonder if the educationists do not support testing and the teachers do not support testing, what justification do the reformers have for supporting testing?

Could it be their own dogmatic ideology?

We can only hope that the NCTQ and the educationists continue to duke it out on the issue of data. Not only will it fan the flames of dissension between the two biggest enemies of teacher autonomy, it will expose the fact that education reformers have absolutely zero justification in educational research to push for more testing.

This does not mean that I am a fan of education research. It means that, from time to time, it is worthwhile to club your opponents with the same bludgeon with which they usually club you.

Michelle Rhee…. Compassion?

An old story, but a reminder of the kind of person Michelle Rhee is.

Always, she preens for the cameras. Early in her chancellorship, she was trailed for a story by the education correspondent of “PBS NewsHour,” John Merrow.

At one point, Ms. Rhee asked if his crew wanted to watch her fire a principal. “We were totally stunned,” Mr. Merrow said.

She let them set up the camera behind the principal and videotape the entire firing. “The principal seemed dazed,” said Mr. Merrow. “I’ve been reporting 35 years and never seen anything like it.”

You can tell that she actually took great pleasure in firing this principal; restrained jubilation is how I would describe it. probably the same attitude she had when she duct taped her students’ mouths shut:

Compassion? That pretty such sums it up.

Now she has landed in NYC.  God help us.

It’s the Economy, Stupid, Especially Now

The Times has run yet another piece on the issue of racial segregation in public schools. The author, David Kirp, comes down squarely on the side of desegregation as the best way to close the achievement gap:

The experience of an integrated education made all the difference in the lives of black children — and in the lives of their children as well. These economists’ studies consistently conclude that African-American students who attended integrated schools fared better academically than those left behind in segregated schools. They were more likely to graduate from high school and attend and graduate from college; and, the longer they spent attending integrated schools, the better they did. What’s more, the fear that white children would suffer, voiced by opponents of integration, proved groundless. Between 1970 and 1990, the black-white gap in educational attainment shrank — not because white youngsters did worse but because black youngsters did better.

This seems like a quaint point to make in a post-racial society. By post-racial I do not mean that we have overcome racism, quite the opposite, but that the racial makeup of the country is very different now than it was in 1954 (the year of Brown v. Board of Education), or even 1974.

The New York Times ran an article last week saying that whites made up less than 50% of all births last year. To put it another way, the population is undergoing considerable browning. The Brown case took place in an America where racial lines were much more clearly drawn. The word “integration” back then had a hard-and-fast meaning. In 2012, the term “desegregation” is more nebulous, perhaps even meaningless.

Kirp claims later in the article that “integration is as successful an educational strategy as we’ve hit upon.” Yet, it is not clear to me that integration was an educational strategy at all. School integration was the leading edge of a wider social experiment that sought to end the Jim Crow regime of the south. It was easier for the court to mandate that children lead the way on integration than it was to mandate the adults do so. Essentially, children were guaranteed to put up less of a fight.

It was assumed, of course, that black children would benefit from going to white schools. Whites in the south had the better part of everything: schools, movie theatres, restaurants and transportation. School integration was just the first part of a wider mission to allow blacks to partake in American public life on the same footing as whites.

Kirp’s article, while making some interesting points, is flawed in that it ascribes to the Horace Mann idea of schools being the balance wheel of society:

Not only were they more successful in school, they were more successful in life as well. A 2011 study by the Berkeley public policy professor Rucker C. Johnson concludes that black youths who spent five years in desegregated schools have earned 25 percent more than those who never had that opportunity. Now in their 30s and 40s, they’re also healthier — the equivalent of being seven years younger.

This might be true, but this does not necessarily mean these black youths did better because they had spent at least five years in desegregated schools.

The big question I have is: who were these black students that did not get to attend integrated schools in the supposedly halcyon days of desegregation? In the south, it would seem to be the children of sharecroppers. In the north, it would seem to be the children who lived in the most isolated urban ghettoes. In other words, it would stand to reason that the poorest of the poor black students never got a chance to attend integrated schools.

It does not seem as if the study cited by Kirp controlled for income levels in any meaningful way. In fact, the only acknowledgement he gives to this question comes later when he claims “many of the poor black children who attended desegregated schools in the 1970s escaped from poverty, and their offspring have maintained that advantage.” It is interesting to note that “many” is not “most” or even a “significant proportion”.

Yet, Kirp seems to think that integration was a successful educational program:

Why? For these youngsters, the advent of integration transformed the experience of going to school. By itself, racial mixing didn’t do the trick, but it did mean that the fate of black and white students became intertwined. School systems that had spent a pittance on all-black schools were now obliged to invest considerably more on  African-American students’ education after the schools became integrated. Their classes were smaller and better equipped. They included children from better-off families, a factor that the landmark 1966 Equality of Educational Opportunity study had shown to make a significant difference in academic success. What’s more, their teachers and parents held them to higher expectations. That’s what shifted the arc of their lives.

It is tough to sift through this reasoning. Part of this paragraph echoes an age-old trope floated by slave-owners in the antebellum era: that whites can teach blacks the proper way to live in society. This is the prototype of the White Man’s Burden philosophy that would later justify imperialism and, today, lurks behind well-worn education reformer apologies for charter schools and the Teach for America program.

There is no reason to assume that a good number of the black students Kirp discusses did not already come to school with high expectations. One only needs to read the accounts of what the Little Rock Nine had to overcome in the pursuit of an education to understand their drive to succeed. Many of them went on to attain advanced degrees and they all, in one way or another, lived successful lives. Was it attending Central High School that did this for them, or did they already come from families that stressed education and who belonged to a black middle class that was taking shape around that time?

Then there is the matter of the type of economy graduates are entering. During the 60s and even somewhat in the 70s, it was still possible to make a decent living straight out of high school. Wages were relatively higher and worker protections were much more robust. Now, it is tough to make a living straight out of high school and not much easier to make one out of college. It is tough to make a living in general if you come from a poor background. The wealth gap has widened tremendously since the 70s and 80s. Are we to believe that integrating schools will help overcome this wealth gap?

Kirp proposes a racial solution to a problem that is not strictly about race, but is strictly about class. In New York City, nearly 80% of the students who attend public schools are minority. This is obviously not because 80% of the city is minority. It is because parents with the means to do so send their children to private schools. This is because, despite many wealthy New Yorkers’ liberal leanings, they will not allow their children to attend supposedly “failing” schools with mostly minority students. The only way to integrate NYC schools is to force all NYC parents to send their children to public school.

For the second straight week, the New York Times has made a class issue into a race issue. The more we speak about race, the further away we are from any real solution to the economic caste system that defines the United States.

How to Uphold Teacher Professionalism (Rule #1: Stop Snitching)

Having spent some of my childhood in the streets, I have a strong aversion to snitching. It was one of the absolute lowest things one could do, the fast track to becoming persona non grata.

Part of the reason for this was the dire consequences that could befall the “snitchee”. If one were to face consequences for something they do, then fine, but those consequences were not ours to give. The snitch takes upon them an omnipotent role, one not worthy of respect because it is so cheaply had.

Now I am a grown up and have been out of the streets for many years. I understand that, as a teacher, there are times when I might have a legal or moral obligation to play the snitch role. A few years ago, a female student came to me saying that a male teacher had propositioned her. I went straight to the administration. The student could not understand why I was making a big deal about it. I explained that I am a mandated reporter with the legal obligation to report any child abuse. Not only was it the legally right thing to do, but the morally right course as well.

Aside from that time, I never saw a reason to march into an administrator’s office to inform on a colleague. Whether I liked a colleague or not, if they were not doing anything physically or sexually abusive to a child, then there was really no reason to inform on them for anything. Just like in the streets, doing so could carry serious consequences. It is not my place to play God with people’s careers.

There is also the added reason that teachers are members of the same profession and union. No matter our personal feelings towards a colleague, a sense of solidarity should supersede everything else. As professionals, there is no reason why personal disagreements could not be ironed out face to face. It does honor to the profession to rise above personal animus and find common ground with someone you otherwise do not like. As members of the same union, nothing is more corrosive to workplace solidarity than a schoolhouse snitch.

The first year teaching at a new school is always challenging. You have to get used to the students, the culture, the expectations of the administrators and your colleagues. Usually, it requires revamping all of your lessons. There is a learning curve that, by the end of the school year, leaves you exhausted.

I once transferred from a school where I was the history department to a place where I was one among many. Instead of making my own curriculum, like I did in my previous school, I had to follow a department-wide curriculum. For the first few weeks, I went through an adjustment phase where, at most, I was off in the calendar of lessons by about a week.

My door is always open when I teach. My voice usually resonates across the entire floor, the acoustics of your average school hallway carrying it far and wide. A teacher on the floor, one who taught generally the same courses as me, came into the classroom one day during an off period to tell me I should be an announcer. I had a “nice voice”. I was also “cute”. This was not flirtation at all, just friendly banter.

At the end of the first month, it was time for our first department meeting. The assistant principal was not pleased. Apparently, not everyone was following the curriculum. He looked right at me and asked me where I was in the curriculum. I told him an answer he did not want to hear, at which point I was duly reamed. Seeing as how I was never “reamed” before, it was not a pleasant experience. It certainly took me down a notch in front of my new coworkers.

A day later, one of my colleagues came to me and said that the “nice voice” and “cute” lady was the one who ratted me out. I did not think much of it, because I was used to colleagues trying to poison my mind against others with whom they did not get along. I thanked her for the information, but quietly suspended my judgment.

It did not seem as if she was the type to rat. She was generally personable and had a decent sense of humor. She was also a common malcontent in the teacher’s lounge, deriding the AP as an “idiot” and generally berating everything the administration did.

Then, the next school year, I was charged with creating the uniform midterm and final exams for one of the grade levels, the same grade level for which I had been reamed for not following. I wrote up the exams and then emailed them to my colleagues to get their input. No input was ever given, so they were administered to the students as-is.

One day, the “nice voice” and “cute” lady told me the AP had reamed her for not handing back the final exams. She said she told him she did not hand back the exams because I used all old Regents questions, many had been recycled from previous midterms and finals. She did not want the answers to the two or three repeated questions floating around for public consumption.

I did not realize it until later, but she had pretty much admitted to me that she had, once again, ratted me out.

The AP had a “talk” with me about why I recycled the same questions. This time, I did not hold my tongue. I told him that all teachers received a copy of the exams two weeks ahead of time. They had plenty of opportunity to advise me on what they wanted changed. Furthermore, I had submitted each and every exam to him for approval before making copies. Why had he approved exams that had two or three recycled questions if it was unacceptable?

I really did not get to say what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say was that quibbling with a teacher over two or three questions was waste of a six-figure salary. It is unlikely that the students themselves would even notice the recycled questions. Even if they did, so what? I made it a point to recycle questions that had been recycled on the Regents exams themselves. You want high pass rates for the Regents, do you not? And, while we are at it, were you this harassing to the teacher who did not hand back these exams to her students? You know, the teacher that could have easily told me to change the offending questions, thereby obviating her need to withhold the results of the exam results from her students?

I was taking the fall for something that, in the grand scheme in the educational universe, meant absolutely nothing. On top of that, I was taking the fall for the actions and decisions of other people, especially the person that made the choice to not return those exams.

What happened next was the first and only time the street came out of me to a colleague. Shortly after this incident, everyone in the department was in the same room grading Regents exams. The snitch was hovering over me asking what I was doing. I looked up at her and, in so many words, told her not to worry about what I was doing and to go off and find something to do herself. Peppered in those directions were some choice words that the likes of Rahm Emmanuel would usually say, only said with a Brooklyn accent.

From that day on, she was a victim. I had spoken to her just terribly and she did not know why. Why not go tell an administrator after you cry in a corner?

After a whole school year of not speaking to me, she solidified her position in my mind as one of the most odious people I have ever had the misfortune of working with. One day, another colleague and a good friend had been “rubber roomed”. The accusations were frivolous, a result of a personal vendetta by the administration.

The snitch did not get along with this teacher. Once she was rubber roomed, not only did she say that the teacher deserved it, but deserved to be terminated as well. To be sure, what this teacher was accused of should not have been anything more than a letter to the file. If I did not know before, I knew now that this woman had no regard for the careers and livelihoods of her coworkers.

Towards the end of my time at the school, the snitch would find reasons to hover right outside my room when I was teaching with my door open. She would make an inordinate amount of trips to the water fountain and seemed to have a very hard time getting the key to the bookroom to work, the bookroom that was right next to my class. She certainly got an earful of history and, who knows, maybe the administrators received daily reports of what was happening in my class.

If I was a schoolhouse snitch, I would have had no shortage of ammunition myself. Every single day, this teacher would berate her classes. When we would be teaching the same period, my class would overhear her telling her kids to “shut up”. If it was not that, she would berate individual students for the smallest infractions. She would yell at individual students for calling out, spending more time yelling at the student than the student took in committing the infraction in the first place. In fact, every little thing seemed to set her off. She was always yelling. My students would overhear her and laugh.

Every school in which I have worked has had their schoolhouse snitch, usually more than one. Sometimes the snitch is the union leader. Invariably, the snitches are not the most exemplary teachers in the school. They are the ones mired in mediocrity, the chronic yellers and burnouts, the ones who do not give back exams, for example. It is not hard to see why: snitching is the most valuable role they play.

It is the teachers who cannot let their work speak for themselves who serve as the snitches. People who are secure in their profession, the ones who take pride in what they do, who have no time or interest in snitching.

Now, while the snitch deserves some blame for making the decision to be a snitch, administrators are the ones who create the environment that allow snitches to thrive. It is a common scene in most schools to see the resident snitch sitting in the administrator’s office, speaking in hush tones. It was the AP who decided to ream me out after the snitch had gotten a hold of him. This behavior encourages more snitching in the future.

We hear in the media that it is the union who protects bad or incompetent teachers. After 12 years of working in unionized public schools, I have a different explanation for why (the few) incompetent teachers remain in the system: so very many of them are doing petty favors for the administration. There are those few people who have little to offer in the realm of teaching, so they make up for it by undermining union solidarity.

Back in the middle ages, it was a cardinal sin for artisans to reveal the secrets of the guild. They knew their livelihood depended on an iron-clad vow of secrecy, lest they open themselves up to competition and get driven out of business. What they produced was craftsmanship that stood the test of time. Masons would adorn the face of each building stone, even the ones that would not be seen by the public, with finely-etched images. After all, God’s eyes were watching.

If only teachers would live by that same credo. If only we treated each other like professionals, no matter what our personal issues were. Unfortunately, it only takes one snitch to demoralize an entire staff; one snitch and the administrators that protect them.

Thursday Picture Roundup

It’s definitely an espresso morning.

Sanctimonious Scions of Society (Why “Good” People are so Bad)

Corporate Buddha meditates under a tax shelter.

A great article in the New Republic describes the arrogant corporate mindset that permeates Google and other Silicon Valley outfits:

SEARCH INSIDE YOURSELF is a Zen-like curriculum in “emotional intelligence” that has been taught at Google University to Google employees since 2007. Its central concept is “mindfulness,” a kind of serenely focused attention, and it consists in a series of meditations and mind-body exercises—“wisdom practices in a corporate setting”—that are designed to enhance “stellar work performance, outstanding leadership, and the ability to create the conditions for happiness.” The irony of refining the attention of people whose business is to disperse and even destroy attention is of course lost on Meng, who soulfully includes a prescription for “mindful e-mailing” (“begin by taking one conscious breath …”). Meng does a meditation “every time I walk from my office to the restroom and back.” The restroom, indeed. “Mindfulness,” he explains, “is the mind of just being. All you really need to do is to pay attention moment-to-moment without judging. It is that simple.” (The denial of significant complexity is inscribed in the book’s vrai-naïf style: “Difficult conversations are conversations that are hard to have.”) Owing to Meng’s course, employees at Google get promoted, come to work more often, and have fun. As an example of someone who grasps that “your work is something you do for fun,” he gives—in one of the many unself-aware passages in this manual of self-awareness—Warren Buffett. More than fun, “your work will become a source of your happiness.” And of the company’s happiness, too.

I am pretty sure that Siddhartha did not meditate under a bodhi tree so that corporations can train their workers to be “non-judgemental” and “present”.

The article gets at a fundamental shift taking place in American society: the workplace has become people’s entire lives. Corporations like Google are training their workers to find spiritual fulfillment within the work place, making things like a social life and a family superfluous.

If one has to work 80 hours a week in order to get ahead in the company or, more commonly, to merely maintain their position, then there really is no room to have a family.

Not only does this mindset pacify an overworked labor force, it imbues those who work in Silicon Valley with a vacuous sense of self-importance:

 “Even though I am still very shy, I find myself able to project a quiet but unmistakable self-confidence, whether I am meeting world leaders like Barack Obama, speaking to a large audience, or dealing with a traffic police officer. … In most situations, when interacting with people, I let my ego become small, humble, and mostly irrelevant, while focusing on bringing kindness and benefit to whomever I am interacting with. … I am amazed by how much my simple aspiration for world peace has resonated with so many people.” The man who wrote those words must be insufferable. I have never met him, but I have read his book. It is called Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), and he is Chade-Meng Tan, an engineer at Google, Employee Number 107, known officially as the “Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny),” whose job description is “enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”

The man humbles himself so that he may be exalted.

The engineers in Silicon Valley merely reflect the leading edge of a trend that has been overtaking the entire workforce. Whether one works 80 hours a week or not, those of us who work for a living are having our entire lives dominated by who signs our checks.

With employees being asked for the passwords to their Facebook accounts, or teachers being terminated for what they say on personal time, the American worker has had their civil rights trumped by the prerogatives of employers.

The workplace has become the centerpiece of our entire existence.

In Silicon Valley, where workers are at least decently compensated for their work, we see a scary sanctimony that seems to be becoming more pervasive among the members of the 1 percent.

Being non-judgmental is just plain stupid. Judgement is a fundamental human capacity, something that exercises the more advanced reaches of our brains. One of the first things I tell my classes at the start of the year is that they will be doing a lot of judging. They will have to analyze evidence and information in order to come to inductive answers to questions.

It is sad that this non-judgemental craze has taken public schools by storm over the past 20 years. Kids are trained from kindergarten to not judge or to be “tolerant”. It is designed to have the same impact on them that this faux-Buddhism has on Silicon Valley workers: to silence their inner moral voice in hopes of fostering “group think”. Everything everyone says is great. Every idea is equally valid because, after all, who are we to judge?

This is why so many pernicious and destructive ideas are so easily accepted in the United States. We have been trained to subdue our critical, questioning side. Evolutionists and Creationists, Democrats and Republicans, everyone’s ideas are “equal”.

Yet, when the richies are seized by this idea, it is accompanied by an insufferable do-gooder mindset that paves the path to hell. The article describes Google engineers who are so enthralled with their own enlightenment that they believe whatever services they market to the people must be good. After all, it was designed by “present”, “non-judgemental” people, so the product must be totally benign.

This is the same mindset that runs through all of the education reformers. Whether it is Bill Gates or Salman Khan (is it a coincidence that both of these guys have ties to Silicon Valley?), there is a sanctimonious sense that they truly believe they are working for some higher purpose.

And what about those who disagree with their ideas? Oh, they are just judgemental and petty. They are motivated by selfish ends, like those teacher unions who only look out for themselves. Our morals are superior, so it is justified that we roll right over all critics and protests without a second thought. Do these people not understand that we are trying to save the world?

The scariest people are the ones who are the most convinced of the righteousness of their cause. Sycophants are not only found in religious circles. They are found in Silicon Valley, where people believe they have reached Nirvana. They are found in liberal circles, where cultural identity issues merely mask the class oppression upon which wealth for the few is sustained. They are found on Wall Street, where the religion of economics inoculates even the brightest day-trader to the fundamental destruction wrought by their actions.

Beware of rich people bearing gifts. After they tyrannize their own souls, they will stop at nothing to tyrannize all of ours.

Fun With History

A friend emailed this to me yesterday. I have not looked at all of it yet because I am going to test myself to see how many people I can guess without any help.

First, go to this site, where you will see the painting above. It is a collage of many different historical figures. Hovering your mouse over the person gives you their name. Clicking on a person takes you to their Wikipedia page.

When I was a kid, my mom brought a little paperback book of the presidents into the house. It had brief biographies about all of the presidents up until Reagan (it was the 80s after all). I read that book about a thousand times by the time I was 10 years old. I credit that with sparking my love for history.

This picture is a nice little novelty. If I had kids, I would probably show them something like this. It might be nice to use in an elementary or middle school classroom, but who has time for that when there are tests to be taken?

Teachers, You Are Being Watched

I always feel like, somebody’s watching meeeee.

Chancellor Walcott has already said in the DOE’s social media policy that teachers should have no “expectation of privacy” online. This includes our Facebook pages and our blogs. The principal’s union tepidly protested by saying it is unfair to administrators to make them police the online actions of teachers.

With the cases of Christine Rubino and Patricia Dawson, we have seen teachers destroyed for what they have said on the internet. There might come a day, not too far off, when I will be targeted as well.

I already know this blog is being watched. It has been banned on the DOE’s server, most likely for my early articles in support of Occupy Wall Street. Then there was the time that the police showed up to a public, open-air discussion that I had promoted on this blog.

Sometimes, when I am looking at my site stats, I wonder who is out there just reading in an attempt to find something, anything, that could incriminate me.

Yes, I am paranoid. After the horror stories I have heard of and witnessed, you would be as well.

It is funny, since I try my best to not personalize this blog in any way. My topics are generally universal. I do not reveal anything about the politics at my school or who I have problems with. That is not what I want this blog to be.

Yet, I know that people are watching me, people even more paranoid than me.

Look at what happened to Francesco Portelos. In many ways, he runs my alter-blog. He has been fearless in naming names in an attempt to hold his administration and union rep accountable. He was recently reassigned due to an investigation, an investigation that we all knew was coming at some point.

There is a petition in support of Mr. Portelos that you can sign via the NYC Rubber Room Reporter.

And yet, the people that know me best have advised me to watch my back. They see the handwriting on the wall that the boys in the trench coats are coming for me next. They too know I am being watched and they fear for my career.

I know there is no free speech anymore. The DOE, as well as employers in general, want to make it so their workers cannot be critical in any way of the rotten system to which they bear witness on a daily basis.

All I can say is that this blog has never been about me. It has been about making universal observations about the DOE, education, politics and social class. All I have done on this little internet space is exercise my First Amendment right to discuss issues of public moment.

But, then again, so does Mr. Portelos.

We are both radicals in our own way. The DOE would love nothing more than to make examples out of radicals.

So, keep your eyes peeled for news as to when, where and why I am being reassigned. To those shadowy figure who have been keeping an eye on me: I hope you find what you are looking for. It must be nice to have a job where you can spend time reading the harmless words of regular people. I just hope it is all worth it for you in the end.

This one is dedicated to you: