Category Archives: teaching

Learning From a Bad Teacher

What can the bad teacher, John Owens, teach us?

What can the bad teacher, John Owens, teach us?

I know I am a bit late to the party with this review of Confessions of a Bad Teacher by John Owens. After I read it, I looked around to see what other people were saying about it online. Those who have a problem with the book seem to take issue with the fact that Owens was a teacher for a mere 5 months, meaning he did not stick around long enough to gain a big picture view of the Department of Education under Bloomberg. I say that this is one of the strengths of the book.

The book is an account of what any outsider might find if they cared enough to spend time in the public school system.

John Owens left a successful career in publishing to teach public high school students. Unfortunately, he ended up at one of those schools that represented everything wrong with the Department of Education under Bloomberg. It was a school located in the South Bronx that Owens calls “Latinate”. In reality, it was Eximius College Preparatory Academy. Owens’ biggest obstacle as a new teacher was his principal. He never names who his principal was but a basic Google search reveals that it was Tammy Smith, who was eventually fired for giving students credit for classes they never took.

Owens was hired as an English teacher. This fact alone should tell us something about the school. There is a flood of English and history teachers in the system. That means job openings in these subjects tend to be at schools with high turnover rates. According an Insideschools comment quoted by fellow blogger jd2718, turnover at Eximius was between 31% and 56% under Smith between 2006 and 2008. There is no reason to believe it was any lower when Owens was hired, which was probably a year or two later.

Smith told Owens to refer to the students as “scholars”. She envisioned the school as a “cathedral of learning”. The stain glass in this cathedral were bulletin boards, which had to be updated with new student work every month. The liturgy had to follow the workshop model and each hymn had to follow the strict timeline laid out by Pope Tammy I. Pope Tammy’s clergy were required to input a daily stream of data about their students. It was an unwritten rule that no less than 80% of the scholars in the cathedral should pass. Teachers whose students dipped below this number were subject to Tammy’s inquisition, including the dreaded “U” rating of which she was so fond.

Owens learned early on that what counted in Bloomberg’s DOE was appearance. The bulletin boards, workshop model, data and passing rates were all there to make the school and, by extension, the principal and, by further extension, Bloomberg, look good. Actually building a solid learning environment for students did not even figure into the calculations of school leaders. Helping new teachers like John Owens perfect their craft mattered even less. As far as Tammy Smith was concerned, teachers were there to build what Owens refers to as the “pageant”. All of her efforts went into making the school seem successful. The obsession with perception is Bloomberg’s biggest education legacy, which is perfectly consistent for a man who made his billions as a media giant.

The real victims in Tammy Smith’s efforts to put on an educational pageant were the students. Owens does a great job of describing the kids he was charged with educating. Any NYC teacher would be able to relate to them. Eximius is a secondary school, meaning it serves grades 6 through 12. Owens taught English to 8th and 9th graders, which are probably the two toughest secondary school grades to teach. Early in the book, Owens describes a boy who specialized in distracting other students. He was a particularly handsome boy and he used his charm to mill about the room talking to various girls. By the end of the period, the boy would find the time to rush some of his class work to completion, yet none of the girls he had distracted ever found time to do the same. When Owens spoke to the boy’s mother, the mother said “that’s how he has always been”. Owens equated the mother’s reaction to saying “yeah, his unbelievable charm and good looks are your problems to deal with.”

Many NYC teachers can relate to parents who seem to excuse or even encourage their children’s distractive behaviors. That is not to say that they represent the majority of parents. Owens describes children who could be made to behave by threatening to call their parents, a situation to which many NYC teachers can also relate. However, in his five months as a teacher, Owens learned that overall discipline is a problem in NYC schools. He found that getting children to settle down was a challenge and a good chunk of class time was spent on discipline. On parent-teacher night, Owens told a parent that children in a suburban school district in which he observed classes did not need to be told to sit down and, consequently, were able to concentrate on actual learning. The parent took this as a racist remark and complained to the principal.

The next day, Tammy Smith put a letter in Owens’ mailbox admonishing him for his racist remarks. Along the way, she was sure to embellish many of the details to make Owens sound like a tried and true racist. This situation illustrates everything one needs to know about why teacher turnover was so high at Eximius under Smith. It illustrates why teacher turnover remains so high throughout the NYC DOE.

New teachers in NYC find themselves caught in a vice. They have students who might have special needs or unstable families or who live in violent communities or suffer from poverty or all of the above. Understandably, this affects their ability to focus in school. No new teacher, no matter how smart or educated or dedicated, can effectively educate all of the students who suffer under these circumstances. They need guidance from administrators and more veteran colleagues on how to reach young people. However, administrators like Tammy Smith are not interested in guidance. Instead, they have internalized the reformer ethos of carrots and especially sticks. A whole generation of DOE administrators have been nourished on the reformer ethos that teachers are low-level bureaucratic functionaries in need of a good beating. Owens’ book demonstrates the hopelessness experienced by many new teachers who are caught between the hammer of punitive administrators and the anvil of students who are in need of a tremendous amount of attention. Like so many other teachers, these pressures forced Owens right out of the system.

The system did literally nothing to help mold John Owens into a great teacher. If Owens was having trouble controlling his class, he would get a sanctimonious lecture from administration on proper classroom management. Instead of learning effective teaching methods, he was subjected to endless professional development sessions on the latest buzzwords in modern “pedagogy”. In order to practice this “pedagogy”, Owens was forced to travel from classroom to classroom between periods because his administrators feared that giving teachers their own classrooms might actually make them feel like professionals. His veteran colleagues, instead of being called upon by administrators to be role models and mentors, were instead harassed because they cost the school too much money. From day one, John Owens and his students were set up for failure.

Not every teacher at Eximius was forced out after five months. Owens described how some of his young colleagues got along in the system. All they had to do was chaperone dances and oversee afterschool activities for absolutely no compensation. In this way, they helped make Tammy Smith look good. She was able to show the DOE that the school was offering a litany of great activities for their students, which allowed the DOE to pretend that they were indeed putting “students first”. In return, these young teachers got to work longer hours at the school instead of writing lessons or learning how to perfect their craft. They got to go home at 8 pm, at which point they would have to work on grading papers or planning the next unit. It was probably a rare circumstance when any of these teachers got to go to bed before midnight. A “good” teacher was measured not by what they did in the classroom but how much blood and sweat they gave to the school building for the benefit of the principal.

Unfortunately, the ritual harassment of veteran teachers at Eximius was a lesson to these youngsters in what they had to look forward to if they miraculously survived in the DOE. Instead of enlisting veteran teachers as mentors, Tammy Smith enlisted the teachers who kissed up to her as the staff’s role models. Owens describes one arrogant, smart-alecky woman who administration held up as the paragon of pedagogy. The one thing she seemed to do better than anyone else at the school was toe the administration line. This was surely no accident. Many schools have literacy coaches, math coaches, master teachers, lead teachers or just teachers who are held up as masters of their craft. Some of these teachers are great at what they do and have a genuine desire to help their colleagues. And then there are those who act as the resident snitch or lackey. The implicit lesson that was taught to John Owens was that the best way to be considered a master teacher was to be in the pocket of the administration.

While teachers can most certainly relate to John Owens’ story, it is non-teachers who need to read his book the most. So many odious impacts of what passes as school reform in this day and age converge in one place. Eximius is one of Bloomberg’s small schools. It was run by a principal who enthusiastically embraced the reformer obsession with data, appearance and jargon. The name of the school itself is an exercise in marketing. “Eximius College Preparatory Academy” sounds like one of these expensive boarding schools to which many reformers send their own children. However, unlike those fancy boarding schools, Eximius under Tammy Smith did not provide a rich curriculum taught by experienced teachers. Instead, it was a revolving door of disempowered staff suffering under the thumb of a principal who ran the school like her personal fiefdom. This was made possible by Bloomberg’s war on the teacher’s union, which resulted in principals gaining almost unlimited power over the careers of their teachers. With this unlimited power, Smith chose not to do right by her students or faculty. Instead, she chose to make her school a “pageant” where most of the “scholars” graduated thanks to her crooked tactics.

Unfortunately, there are many Eximiuses and Tammy Smiths throughout NYC. Making a school into a “pageant” might further the careers of selfish administrators. It does nothing for the students of the inner city who are in need of a first-rate education. Tammy Smith committed educational malpractice, as so many administrators still do throughout the DOE. Bloomberg’s school reforms have given birth to rampant educational malpractice dressed up as progress.

Owens’ book resonated with me because I started my career in a school similar to Eximius. It was a small neighborhood school that served students similar to the ones described by Owens. However, this was back in 2000 before the election of Bloomberg and the rise of the educational pageant. My principal was the complete opposite of Tammy Smith. He believed in helping teachers, not harassing them. He is the one who set me up with the mentor who I credit for molding me into the teacher I am today. As a veteran teacher himself, he knew what it took to set his students and staff up for success. My first year teaching was also his first year running that school. When he hired me, he made me feel as if I was going to be a part of something special. And I was.

Before he took over, the school had a reputation as sort of a mad house. The previous principal was forced out of the system for financial malfeasance. She locked herself up in her office all day while discipline and school tone deteriorated. When the principal who hired me took over, he made discipline the centerpiece of his vision. He doubled the dean staff, of which I was a part. Students who disrupted class had their parents called into the school. Chronic offenders were suspended. He hired a crop of retired teachers to come in a few times a week to act as mentors to the young staff. After his first year in the building, there was a tremendous improvement in school tone. He stayed on for three more years after that. His tenure was probably a golden age in the history of that school. Everything was not perfect, but the quality of education the students received in that building was light years beyond what it was before he took over. In the end, that is the only thing that matters.

Somewhere along the way, Bloomberg and his obsession with data took over the DOE. The principal was shuffled to another school and then eventually forced to retire. In the meantime, we got a new principal who was rumored to be a hatchet woman sent by the DOE. She brought with her the obsession with pageantry required to be a school leader today in NYC. She cut the dean staff down to one, causing discipline to deteriorate. Teachers were expected to work for free on silly things like curriculum maps. We were tortured with endless professional development sessions by people who could not teach their way out of a paper bag. The morale that had been built up over the previous four years evaporated. Teachers started leaving, including me. Most of all, the students who remembered the good old days noticed the marked decline of the school and resented it. She was not as bad as Tammy Smith, although she was cut from the same cloth.

I could only imagine how things would be different for me today if I started my career under Tammy Smith. Chances are that I would not be teaching. How many good teachers have been forced out of the DOE by the Tammy Smiths of the world? How many millions of students have been deprived of a good education thanks to Bloomberg’s reforms? These are the uncomfortable questions raised by John Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher.

Making it Look Easy

10000hours

How long did it take you to get good?

Last year I took on a student teacher, meaning a college student working towards his education degree, for two weeks. He was being mentored by my colleague next door who teaches 11th grade. His college program required him to teach a unit to a lower grade, so he stopped by for a cup of coffee with one of my freshman classes.

Before he taught his unit, he had to observe me teach the class for two weeks. As many of you know, my teaching style is very traditional. It has inaccurately been dubbed “lecture” or “chalk and talk” by some. This is because my students sit in rows as I stand up and ask questions. With every question we answer, we fill in another part of what are dubbed “Harvard style” notes that I compile on the board. By the end of the period, we have several boards full of pretty detailed notes. These notes answer an aim question that usually begins with the word “how”, like “How did the Renaissance begin in Italy?” or “How did Athens change during the Age of Pericles?” In my world, this is called an old-fashioned developmental lesson.

A few days before my temporary student-teacher started his unit, I asked him how he intended to teach it. He had some activities and questions lined up. Since he had been working with my colleague for quite some time, I did not micromanage what he had prepared. He was developing a style with which he was comfortable and I wanted to see him test it out with a different group of kids learning a different curriculum.

During his first day teaching my class, I sat in the back and took notes on what I was seeing. Whenever I take on a student teacher, I write copious notes while they are in the front of the room running the show. I take note of what happens every second. My hand is usually shot after 50 minutes of continuous writing.

After the period, we sat down to do a post-mortem of the lesson. As is my custom, I asked what he thought about it before I shared my observations. On this particular occasion, I do not remember what he said about his lesson, nor do I remember what I had written about it. What I do remember was his reaction when he found out what I had to say. It probably went something like this:

“The first question you asked was good. Notice how you received mainly one-word answers from the students. Perhaps you should have turned this question into a ‘why’ question. Never be afraid to give them the answer and then ask them why.”

“Remember when so-and-so raised his hand and said that? You basically just glossed over it and moved on. But he made a good point that you could have seized upon. You should praise the students when they participate and build off of what they say. There is a grain of truth in most things they share. If you can’t find the grain of truth, maybe ask the class what they think of that response.”

“Move around the room. Don’t just stand in the front. Be active. Let the students know you can be anywhere at any time.”

“The notes you wrote on the board were good but they need to be organized. Students need to know why this idea goes here and that idea goes there. There should be a logic and progression to your notes so the kids can go back over them later and understand it.”

“Look around the room. Make eye contact with every student. You don’t have to keep calling on the same 3 kids. Spread around the participation. For more advanced students, call on them when you ask a difficult thought question. For students who are shy or struggling, give them the softball questions. Make it so every kid can get involved with the lesson at different points.”

And on and on it went for the next half hour.

I remember him being surprised by how much I had observed and how detailed my observations were. Quite simply, he did not realize how much was involved in actual teaching.

When people observe my class, I think there is a tendency to believe there is nothing more to what I do than asking questions and writing notes. It is as if they believe I just roll out of bed and pull questions from certain orifices of my body, then write what the students come up with on the board. As someone who has been doing this job for nearly 15 years, it looks pretty easy from the outside.

Then, the few who actually try to take my place discover it is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Questions do not come ready-made from a can. You cannot just ask any question and get brilliant responses. Your questions have to be tailored to your kids. Students respond in my class because I make the questions easy to understand. That is not to say that the questions are easy. What it means is that the questions fit into their mental universe. They know there is an answer there but they have to go through their minds to find it. A teacher cannot do this without years of experience.

On top of this, there is the teacher mannerism. The way you look, speak, walk, move, breathe and everything else has to be an act. This does not mean it is phony. What it means is that certain mannerisms make the class run seamlessly. Praising students for great responses, or great questions, is vital. It is easy to forget to do this as a rookie teacher. After years of doing it, however, it becomes second nature. What happens when you’re in the middle of a discussion and a few kids are chatting or goofing off or somehow off task? How do you keep the lesson moving and deal with it without turning it into a “thing”? These are the types of things that separate good teachers from mediocre teachers.

What happens if a student gives a response that is totally off base? How do you fold that answer into the lesson without making the kid feel bad or derailing the discussion? After 15 years, I still get unique and interesting responses from my students. A veteran teacher has an instinct that allows them to think on their feet and use those responses to the benefit of the class.

These are all of the in-class skills of a teacher. Then there is the little matter of knowing your content. The better you know your content, the more connections you can make between lessons. You can ask better questions, present the material in a thorough and seamless manner and make it interesting all at the same time. How about creating homework assignments? How about creating exams? How about grading all of these things? How do you set up a fair grading system, leave useful written feedback and return it to the kids in a timely manner?

Yes, being a teacher is hard work. There are a few college students who have been stopping by my room this year to check out my classes. I wonder if they know what it is that they are seeing? I wonder if they appreciate all that it requires? How many of them are sitting there and saying to themselves “I can do that”? My response to everyone who might be thinking this is: no, you cannot.

One of those college students is going to be teaching a unit to my freshman in a few weeks. I wonder how things will go when it is time to take the reins. The college student I worked with last year had the advantage of having a warm, laid-back personality. It remains to be seen if this new student teacher has the same quality. If he does not, things might get rough for him.

I think the education reformers who have barely stepped inside of a classroom believe that teaching is a matter of discussing stuff with students. They do not think we work hard enough, so they have invented all of these rubrics, exams and buzz words to ensure that we are not skating to collect a check. In their years as young reformies, they probably observed many veteran teachers who made the work of educating look easy. They probably thought to themselves “I can do that” and concluded that we are a bunch of lazy union hacks who are not doing any actual work.

If I had the ability, I would force every college student who observes my class to teach it. Perhaps just one day of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and allowing them to be devoured by the sharks might preempt any idea they might have that teaching is unskilled labor. By doing this, maybe us veteran teachers can prevent the next generation of Michelle Rhees (who was such an awful teacher she had to duct tape her kids’ mouths shut), John Kings (who spent 6 minutes teaching kids cherry picked by a charter school) and Wendy Kopps (who never taught anything to anybody) from springing up among us.

Next time you walk into a classroom and see a teacher who is making it look easy, just know you are in the presence of a master who has spent countless hours and years honing every last inch of their craft.

 

Different Types of School-to-Prison Pipelines

school to prisonThe ACLU released a report recently outlining what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like in New York City public schools in the Bloomberg era:

“The total number of annual suspensions has more than doubled during the Bloomberg administration, from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011. Black students and students with special needs served an outsize proportion of these suspensions.”

They attribute this development to a zero tolerance policy handed down by Bloomberg in 2003:

“Mayor Bloomberg brought a harsh brand of zero tolerance to New York City in 2003, when he announced a new disciplinary plan calling for ‘an immediate, consistent minimum response to even the most minor violation of a school’s disciplinary policy’, including a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy’ for students who are in trouble repeatedly.”

NYC public school teachers who read these words might wonder on what planet the ACLU conducted this study. Just last year, Chancellor Dennis Walcott released a much more relaxed discipline code for the entire system. Even before this new code, one of the most common complaints from teachers in the city has been the complete lack of discipline in the schools.

I served as a dean for the first few years of my career. Deans in NYC are essentially school disciplinarians. They handle suspensions, parental conferences, arrests and investigations of wrongdoing. One of the first things I learned as a dean was how to suspend as few kids as possible. Kids who got into fights, disrupted class, cursed out teachers or compiled a long list of minor infractions over time rarely saw suspensions. If teachers in NYC tend to feel handcuffed when dealing with classroom discipline, that is because they are.

As a dean, I considered suspension my trump card only to be used in the most serious circumstances. We tried to work on modifying the behavior of disruptive students through mediation, parental involvement and conduct sheets that had to be filled out by teachers. At the time, I considered this a decent “ladder of referral”, as it is called in NYC. A combination of these things, along with a healthy relationship with the students, usually worked in quelling disruptive behavior. This allowed us to reserve our suspensions for the worst transgressions. I felt that using the suspension card too much cheapened its value and made it less effective in the long run.

Of course, this disciplinary tactic opened us deans up to accusations by our colleagues that we were coddling unruly students. The way I saw it, suspension was a poor disciplinary tool. It essentially amounted to a three-day vacation for students. What happens when the kid comes back from suspension only to continue with their unruly behavior? Since public schools cannot expel kids, the only thing left to do was to suspend them again.

The only exception to this is in the case of the “superintendent’s suspension”, as it is called in NYC. A superintendent suspension is usually given in response to a serious infraction, like a major fight or brandishing a weapon or assaulting a teacher. In my salad days as a dean, a “supe’s suspension” entailed getting a parent to pick the kid up from school on the day of the infraction. Then I would tell them to wait for the superintendent’s office to hand down a hearing date. Once the hearing date was set, we had to determine what type of penalty we wished to seek. The penalties ranged from a long suspension to a request for transfer to another school. We then had to go to a hearing where the student, parent and possibly their lawyer had a chance to defend themselves against the accusations being made. In most cases, the parents did not show up and we were able to get the penalty we wanted.

Very few infractions rise to the level of a superintendent’s suspension and fewer still warrant expulsion. In the most extreme case I saw as a dean, three students assaulted the principal which resulted in an all-out rumble between them and the School Safety officers. They were arrested and ended up testing positive for having crack in their system. Despite the egregiousness of this case, it was still a fight to get these kids out of our school. They lawyered up and dragged out the superintendent suspension hearing for weeks.

In the end, the main reason why public schools do not usually seek to suspend kids is that it looks bad on the “data” that has become so ubiquitous under Bloomberg. Principals know that suspension rates are a matter of public record, and also get factored into the school’s annual report card grade, so they discourage deans from pursuing suspensions. This is why schools that routinely get rated as “safe” in NYC can be anything but.

So the question remains: what planet did the ACLU study? Most teachers here would not recognize the zero tolerance suspension mills portrayed in this report.

I searched the entire study for the word “charter” (as in charter school) and the word did not come up once. My suspicion is that the study lumped charter schools in with the rest of the public school system. In that case, I can imagine suspension rates going through the roof over the past decade. The zero tolerance, almost militaristic, discipline code of many charter schools is well documented. Despite the claims of many charter advocates that they are as public as any public school, their discipline, suspension and expulsion policies are of a totally different breed.

In any event, the study does not paint an accurate picture of the discipline policies of NYC public schools. That is not to say that a school-to-prison pipeline of some sort does not exist here. It is just not the lock-em-up, zero tolerance type that exists in other places.

The report mentions the fact that many public schools have metal detectors through which all students must pass every morning. This is true and is not a practice with which I agree. However, I think it is important to look at what happens on the other side of the metal detector. I know a very smart parent who enrolls her children in a charter school. Despite my protestations to her that charters are nothing but test-prep mills, she has a response with which I cannot argue: they do not tolerate unruly behavior.  She does not have to worry about her child sitting in a classroom where kids are constantly disrupting the lesson. She does not have to worry about gang violence and fighting. While she might have an overly negative view of public schools, it is a view shared by many parents who opt for charters. These parents have a point.

There really is little that a regular NYC public school can do to curb generally rowdy behavior. Principals do not want to suspend students. What is more, principals fear angering parents by coming down too hard on kids. They all too often turn a blind eye to unruly behavior for fear of hurting their “data” or having an uncomfortable confrontation with a parent. This blind eye amounts to a sanctioning of bad behavior. Kids are instinctively able to feel out where the limits of the adults lie. Many know that there are very few limits and take full advantage of this.

This does not mean that most kids are unruly, far from it. However, it does not take a classroom full of unruly students to ruin the learning environment. A very small percentage of troubled kids can dominate a classroom or cafeteria. Through the sheer force of their examples and personalities, they can sweep up many of the meeker kids in a nefarious net where mischief becomes the order of the day. NYC’s teaching force is younger and more inexperienced than ever, as is the current crop of administrators. This means that the adults are less equipped to keep a lid on bad behavior. Experienced educators are able to manage school tone through soft means that do not include suspension or other types of harsh disciplinary actions. In short, lax discipline codes and inexperienced adults have been leading to a deterioration of school tone across the entire system.

At the end of the day, this is another version of a school-to-prison pipeline. A good school is able to reward good behavior, recognize the role models in the student body and elevate them so their examples affect all of the other students. What we have is precisely the opposite state of affairs, one where the most aggressive and abrasive students become the role models and set the tone. Other students then learn the lesson that these are the qualities that get one ahead in life. In these cases, schools can become recruiting grounds for gangs and other types of dangerous activity.

This is a school-to-prison pipeline that breeds criminality. Kids can be influenced into committing nefarious acts who might otherwise not be so inclined. They can be compelled to engage in a serious fight or drug use or brandishing of weapons or other types of criminal activity. These actions can lead to arrest and jail time. This type of school-to-prison pipeline is the other side of the same coin as the type of pipeline created by zero tolerance policies that criminalize even the most innocent childhood behaviors. A school can look for wrongdoing everywhere and end up criminalizing everything or it can look for wrongdoing nowhere and foster a culture of criminality. Charter schools fit the former category and public schools the latter.

I respect the ACLU and what they tried to bring forth in this study. However, their treatment of the issue is too thick to be of much value. There are different types of school-to-prison pipelines and I hope one day groups like the ACLU can realize this for themselves.

A Case for Teacher Tenure: The David Suker Story

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PART I (Lessons from a Bureaucracy)

David Suker is a New York City native. When it came time for him to choose a college, this young white man opted for Howard University, one of the most prestigious black colleges in the nation. He disliked the de facto segregation in the schools he attended here in New York, so he placed himself in a completely different educational setting when he got the chance.

This type of awareness is rare for someone so young. It is even rarer for someone so young to allow this awareness to guide him in making such a major life decision. Two decades later, it would be this awareness and courage that got David Suker terminated from his position as a teacher in the New York City Department of Education.

Shortly after graduating college, David returned to New York as a newly minted history teacher. He sought to make an impact on the school system that was so repugnant to his sense of justice. It was 1998 and New York City’s school system was called the Board of Education. By that time, the Board had earned a reputation as an inefficient and incompetent government bureaucracy that had outlived its usefulness in the private sector worshipping decade of the 1990s.

But David Suker’s problems with the Board of Education were not born out of impatience with the fact that it did not operate like a sleek corporation. His problems stemmed from being a first-hand witness to the injustice it perpetuated. The booming economy of the 1990s caused a teacher shortage, which meant that David could have plied his trade in almost any school he desired. What does it say about his character that he chose to start his career at a juvenile detention center in the Bronx, a place even the most fearless teachers dare not tread? While the education reformers were meeting around oaken conference tables scheming over how to remake the school system in their own image, David Suker would be meeting with the most forgotten children in the city to help them remake themselves.

It did not take long for him to witness as a teacher the types of injustices in the school system that had so repulsed him as a student. The children he was teaching in the detention center were being routinely brutalized by the corrections officers. When David questioned why this was being tolerated, he was promptly reassigned to an offsite office in order to shut him up. A week later, a principal named Robert Zweig picked him up off the scrap heap, so to speak, and hired him as a teacher for a program known as Offsite Educational Services. He would help children in places like housing projects and drug rehab centers get their GEDs. Once again, David Suker would help give the forgotten children of New York City one last chance.

Like most teachers, David started hitting his stride after his fourth year or so of teaching. The students with whom he worked had been written off by the rest of the school system. They had one last shot at some form of graduation by getting their GEDs. David Suker prepared his students for their GEDs not through rote test prep but by helping them appreciate the art of learning. Instead of drilling them in how to game an exam, he helped them navigate the New York Times in order to demonstrate how reading helps make sense of the wider world. In a program that routinely helped a mere 15% of students get their GEDs, David Suker was able to help 100 students get their equivalencies in a span of 3 years. By 2004, David Suker had arrived as a teacher.

Unfortunately, he was not the only one who had arrived. As David was giving his kids one last chance at a better life, Michael Bloomberg was getting his first chance at killing New York City’s public schools. Bloomberg did away with the clunky Board of Education and replaced it with a supposedly streamlined Department of Education headed by himself. To ensure this new system would run like a corporate machine, he installed middle management types in supervisory positions all over the city. Principals, superintendents and even his chancellor, Joel Klein, would institute Bloomberg’s reforms without dissent or delay. For David Suker’s “district” of forgotten children, known as District 79, Bloomberg installed Cami Anderson as superintendent. Anderson was a darling of Joel Klein. She would later use the slash-and-burn method of school reform she learned here in New York City with great effect as Newark’s schools chancellor.

In order to establish her reformer credentials, Anderson sought to shake up this “failing” district. The children of District 79, the children who were reared first under “Giuliani Time” and then under Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk duchy; the children who had seen their neighborhoods gentrified; the children who had their social services cut year in and year out; the children who had been the biggest victims of Bloomberg’s crusade to turn New York City into a playground for billionaires; the children to whom David Suker had dedicated his career apparently were not making “adequate yearly progress” in filling out the correct bubbles on standardized exams. District 79 was ripe for “reform”.

The reform of District 79 could not follow the template that had been established in other districts. There were no charter schools looking to co-locate there. Charter operators like Eva Moskowitz do not exactly clamor to take on the types of students with whom David Suker worked. Instead of co-locating, Cami Anderson would “reorganize”. She consolidated the various incarnations of Offsite Educational Services into a handful of programs in order to run them on the cheap. To save even more cash she required every teacher in the district to reapply for their jobs, including David Suker. This was a way of circumventing tenure to get rid of expensive veteran teachers. Since the quality of David’s teaching was never in doubt, since he was not quite an expensive 15 or 20-year veteran and since Teach for America wunderkinds were not knocking on the door to teach in District 79, David was rehired by an independent panel of administrators, teachers and parents. This gave David a front-row seat to Anderson’s criminal shakedown of the forgotten children of District 79.

Helping Anderson shakedown the district was none other than Robert Zweig, the principal of Offsite Educational Services who had hired David Suker back in 1998. Zweig was Anderson’s inside man. He helped Anderson turn Offsite Educational Services, a typically utilitarian Board of Education moniker, into “GED Plus”, a typically Madison Avenue Department of Education moniker. It was an open secret that Zweig was in line to be promoted to Deputy Superintendent for his role in helping Anderson “reform” District 79. This meant that Zweig and his school were on the bureaucratic radar. Everything he did was being watched by Anderson, Joel Klein and possibly even Bloomberg himself.

This news did not bode well for David Suker. Part of being a great teacher is being an advocate for one’s students. If he did not have enough resources for his students, Zweig would hear about it. If students did not have access to proper facilities, Zweig would hear about. Other teachers at OES or rather, “GED Plus”, would also hear about it. David was a textbook example of the type of teacher tenure was designed to protect: the one who did not allow administrators to shortchange his children. His courage was a thorn in Zweig’s side, as Zweig would remind him every year by writing him up for one petty infraction or another. There was that time in 2004 when Zweig gave David a “U” rating for the year for being absent 11 times when the contractually allotted number of absences is 10. 11 absences hardly constitutes a case of gross absenteeism, and Zweig knew the 11th absence was due to David’s plane making an emergency landing on another continent, but he took the opportunity to give him a “U” anyway as a friendly reminder of who called the shots at OES.

However, friendly reminders were not enough anymore. Zweig had to show Cami Anderson that he inoculated his teachers against opposing her reforms. Instead of just being a schoolhouse rabble rouser, David Suker became a liability, someone who threatened Zweig’s coveted climb up the bureaucratic ladder. In 2007, when OES was in the process of being rebranded “GED Plus” and half the teachers stood to lose their jobs, the staff had an end-of-year meeting with Zweig where they applauded his many years of service. This applause was music to Zweig’s bureaucratic-climbing ears. Of course, only one teacher questioned the applause. Only one teacher asked why his colleagues were being fired for the “failure” of the program while the principal stood to be promoted. That teacher was David Suker.

At the last graduation ceremony for OES before its rebranding, some students hung up scathing cartoons they had drawn criticizing the program’s administrators. It was doubtless the students had been feeling the pressure of Cami Anderson’s reforms as well and were not happy about them. Principal Zweig saw the hand of David Suker behind this, since David was both a critic of these reforms and a popular figure among the students. Zweig had the assistant principal question David about it. Nobody in the administration bought David’s denials. It was clear that David would be a marked man when he returned next school year to work in GED Plus.

But nothing happened that year. In fact, the 2007-2008 school year was the only time David was not written up or given a “U” rating. Instead, Zweig was being investigated by the DOE for having an affair with one of his assistant principals. This assistant principal was also under investigation for a Youtube video that had surfaced of her rolling around on the floor in front of her students in an ambrosia-induced haze, ambrosia in this case being a cocktail of liquor and cannabis. These investigations meant they were too preoccupied to harass David Suker. By the end of the school year, Zweig learned he would not become Anderson’s deputy superintendent after all. Instead, he would get the special title of “Assistant” to the Superintendent and remain the principal of GED Plus. The uncovering of his schoolhouse love affair led to the dissolution of his marriage. One can imagine the type of mood Robert Zweig was in at this point. Someone was going to pay come next school year.

PART II (When the Conscience Calls)

In the summer of 2008, the Democratic Party was set to nominate its first black candidate for president at their convention in Denver, Colorado. Ever the history teacher, David Suker was there. As he was taking in the mountain scenes from the highway on his motorcycle, a big rig clipped him and sent him crashing onto the side of the road. The accident broke his jaw and gave him a serious case of road rash. Five days later, the school year started for teachers back in New York City. David Suker showed up to work that day with his jaw wired shut and covered in bandages from head to toe. His colleagues and doctors exhorted him to take some time off work so he could properly heal. A teacher without the ability to speak is like a major league pitcher without the ability to throw. So David placed himself on the disabled list until he was able to get back into the game.

Little did he know that his motorcycle crash was an adumbration for what would become of his career. David Suker turned the corner alright. Unfortunately, this corner led to a dead end.

Upon his return from the accident, David encountered a principal Robert Zweig with little appetite for controversy. Instead of allowing David to teach students, where he would surely find something else about which to complain, he put David on sentry duty in a stairwell of GED Plus. He would only be allowed to work with kids again once he passed a physical and mental evaluation by DOE doctors. David passed these evaluations, at which point he went back to work with the children of GED Plus. However, as soon as he was put back in the game, he was taken right back out again. David Suker was served notice that he was to report to the rubber room.

Why David Suker was rubber roomed at the start of 2009 was a mystery at first. Teachers in his position rarely discovered the allegations against them before they went to a termination hearing, the dreaded 3020a. Only later would David discover the supposed “misconduct” for which he was rubber roomed. It had to do with the way he dealt with two different students on two separate occasions. One was a troubled girl who started cursing out David Suker while filling out her GED application. David took her application away, threw it in the garbage and invited her back to try to fill it out again when she was in a less belligerent mood, which the girl eventually did. The second incident involved a girl who had threatened to kill any gay people in the room. She used her fingers to resemble a gun and started yelling “buck, buck, buck”. Not sure if there actually were any gay students in the room at the time, and not willing to take his chances, David asked the girl to leave so she could work on her own, which she did. These were the charges for which David Suker was rubber roomed for over a year. Even by the DOE’s malleable standards, these were frivolous accusations. This is why he was eventually returned to work without having to go through a 3020a hearing. This time he was sent to work at a site with more direct supervision, another “last chance” facility for students known as Bronx Regional.

David Suker was horrified at what he saw at Bronx Regional. Students who, by state law, were entitled to extra education services because they had learning or emotional disabilities were instead required to sign away their rights to those services. There was no library or independent study area for students who wanted to prepare for their GEDs. The administration had effectively segregated the school by race: students from the Dominican Republic occupied the 2nd floor and black students, both African-American and African immigrants, occupied the first floor. There was no investment by the school or district in curricular materials, which meant each teacher was on their own to teach whatever they saw fit in their subject areas. In short, these neediest of students were not provided with anything with which to make good on their last chance. It was as if the system was shutting the last door that was open to them.  This is what Cami Anderson’s reforms had wrought upon District 79. It was never easy for David Suker to remain silent before. It would be impossible for him to do so now.

So David did what he knew was right. During a panel sponsored by National Public Radio, he accused the DOE of “educational genocide”. The racial segregation he witnessed at Bronx Regional as a teacher was the flipside of the same segregation he saw in NYC as a student. The more things had changed, the more they remained the same. The only difference was that resources were dwindling and corruption was increasing in Bloomberg’s DOE. David would bring these points home to chancellor Dennis Walcott himself many times during his appearances at the Panel for Educational Policy. Appearances like these were part of what put David Suker on the DOE’s radar. The event that truly caused a blip, however, was Occupy Wall Street.

David’s trenchant stance against the DOE’s reforms was part of the dissenting spirit in the air of those days of Occupy. Towards the start of the 2011 school year, a handful of protestors started sleeping over in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. On their third evening of protest, well before what they were doing had caught on, they were joined by David Suker. Over the ensuing weeks, David became a conspicuous figure in many of Occupy’s marches. As the Occupy movement grew, so did the skittishness of the NYPD. The police’s tactic of “kettling” peaceful marchers led to a surfeit of arrests. Among those arrests was David Suker himself. Expectedly, his name and face were plastered in the local newspapers more than a few times. These articles were printed on Friday, November 4. By Monday, November 7, David returned to his school to find out the DOE was, once again, placing him in the rubber room.

They were not going to release him this time. For all of the trouble he had caused during Cami Anderson’s shakedown of District 79; for all of the times he had accused the DOE of “educational genocide”; and for all of the times his name was printed in the media, they were going to make David Suker finally pay. While he was sitting in the rubber room, the DOE thatched together a bunch of minor unrelated charges. They were hoping the aggregate of these charges would result in his termination.

The first set of charges was in step with the DOE’s tactic of piecing together disparate frivolities to make the teacher out to be a menace:

“SPECIFICATION 1 : On or about September 16, 2011 Respondent followed teacher Yanira Rodriguez into the guidance office saying, in a manner causing her to feel threatened, words to the effect of may it be the last time you talk about me behind my back.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 3, 2011 , Respondent acted in a disruptive manner during a staff meeting by leaving the room twice while a colleague, Guidance Counselor Jackie Rangel, tried to address a comment Respondent

made and making comments to the effect of

a. I do not appreciate people talking about me.

b. We have to protect our jobs. There are  administrators looking to get people out.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested  on November 2, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-105.”

The DOE did not stop here. Usually at 3020a hearings, the charges are broken up into individual “specifications” of varying degrees of seriousness. But in the case of David Suker, the DOE came up with separate groupings of specifications, as if his transgressions were so heinous and frequent they defied a single list. However, the likelier scenario was the DOE looked at the charges above, decided they were not enough to warrant termination and invented more. With David languishing in the rubber room, the DOE dredged up their second set of specifications:

“SPECIFICATION 1: Respondent was excessively absent in that he was absent on the following dates:

a. September 15,2011 – Thursday

b. September 21 , 2011 – Wednesday

c. September 22,2011 – Thursday

d. September 23, 2011 – Friday

e. October 5,2011 – Wednesday

f. October 17,2011 – Monday

g. October 25,2011 – Tuesday

h. October 27,2011 – Thursday

I. October 31 , 2011 – Monday

j. November 3,2011 – Thursday

k. November 4,2011 – Friday

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 24, 201 1 Respondent, at Town Hall meetings held in the auditorium of the Bronx Regional High  School:

a. Acted in an unprofessional and disruptive manner by causing students to make excessive noise and be uncooperative

during a presentation provided by the  New York City Police Department.

b. Questioned publicly why the police were  in the building.

c. Publicly noted his dislike of the police.

d. Said that he had been arrested and beaten by the police.

e. Showed a scar on his head that he claimed came from being beaten by police.

f. Stated words to the effect that the school practices segregation.

g. Exchanged high-fives and raised fist gestures with students.

h. Brought his students to attend two periods of the Town Hall meetings instead of just the one as directed.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested on November 6, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-I 05.

SPECIFICATION 4: On or about February 13, 2009, Respondent threw Student LG’s* GED test application into the garbage can and directed her to leave the room when she refused to participate in a game of Jeopardy. (*Students’ names to be provided prior to trial.)

SPECIFICATION 5: On or about February 15, 2009, Respondent refused to allow student LG to enter his classroom requiring her to work alone.

SPECIFICATION 6: On or about the dates below, Respondent directed Student EB* to work independently and did not permit her to remain in his class:

a. February 27, 2009

b. March 3,2009″

This grouping of specifications reads like a what’s what in the defiant career of David Suker. Everything for which the DOE had already harassed him were in there, from “excessive” absences to failing to report his arrests in a “timely manner”. Even the accusation regarding the two students for which he had already been rubber roomed resurfaced, a blatant case of double jeopardy. The cherry on top, however, was his supposed “disruption” of a “town hall” meeting. The meeting was actually an assembly in which the students of Bronx Regional listened to lectures from NYPD officers on the pitfalls of violence. This violence was the result of Bronx Regional’s segregation of Dominican and black students. The DOE alleged that, during the assembly, David Suker questioned why the police were in the building. He even displayed a scar he had received as a result of a beat down from a friendly NYPD officer. He then supposedly committed the most treacherous act of which a teacher can be accused: he exchanged “high fives” with his students. It is amazing how such vile behavior went unreported by the New York Post, complete with a picture of David Suker sporting devil horns.

Yet, these evil deeds still were not enough for the DOE. With David Suker languishing in the rubber room, they continued scrambling to find things that could get him out of the door once and for all. Even with a 3020a process incredibly skewed against the teacher, there still might not have been enough at this point to terminate him. Then in January, three months and 9 specifications into David Suker’s rubber room stint, the head of the Administrative Trials Unit (the group that brings charges against teachers), Theresa Europe, sent a letter to DOE investigators. The letter revealed that David Suker had a daughter who attended an exclusive public high school in Harlem. Apparently, the address that David listed was not where his daughter really lived. This was the basis for the final set of charges:

“SPECIFICATION 1: On or about 2001 to present, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education which listed addresses where neither he nor his daughter, a student attending Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, lived.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about December 1, 2006, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to

defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter into the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering.

SPECIFICATION 3: On or about October 4, 2001, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter to a school she was not zoned for.”

These charges were an incredible stretch. High schools are open to students of all 5 boroughs of the city. David listed his daughter’s address as in the Bronx. These facts alone should have been enough for the hearing officer to dismiss this set of charges out of hand. However, the DOE went through the trouble of sending investigators to follow David Suker’s daughter. Investigators noted that she lived with her mother in the Bronx. They even noted the exact route she took to get to the train every morning. Stalking a young girl sounds like a charge over which a teacher would terminated. Yet, DOE investigators maintain their employment with the same exact type of behavior.

After this third set of specifications was drawn up, Theresa Europe’s office expedited David Suker’s case directly to the 3020a. The hearing officer was Eleanor Glanstein. She listened to the arguments of the DOE’s lawyer, Nancy Ryan, and David’s union-appointed lawyer, Steven Friedman. It turned out to be the usual kangaroo court. Glanstein gave Nancy Ryan tremendous latitude in bringing in last-minute “evidence” and witnesses, a practice that went largely uncontested by the union lawyer. Any reporter, pundit or reformer who believes teachers are protected by an impregnable wall of tenure should sit in on a few 3020a hearings. DOE lawyers act like schoolyard bullies. Arbitrators act like indifferent monitors who permit the bullying to take place. When the hearing ended in May 2012, David Suker knew he did not have a chance to keep his career.

The school year ended soon thereafter. David started summer vacation not knowing if he was going to have a job come next school year. The ante was especially high at this point since David’s wife was pregnant. It was a real possibility that, even before his son took his first breath, David would have no way to provide for him. Then, just as the 2012 school year was set to begin, David Suker learned his fate: termination. Glanstein’s written decision went through every one of the charges. She found David Suker guilty of the vast majority of specifications. The lynchpin of her entire decision was the matter of David’s daughter’s residence.

Needless to say, he was not about to let this decision stick. Like so many other wrongfully terminated teachers from the DOE, he took his case to the New York State Supreme Court. Throughout most of its history, the New York State Supreme Court has been reluctant to overturn the decisions of labor arbitrators for fear of compromising the arbitration process. Over the past few years, however, the courts have been overturning these decisions with unprecedented frequency. Even with terminations that get overturned, it is rare for a justice of the Supreme Court to question the DOE’s investigation. They assume arbitrators are correct in what they deem to be the facts of the case. They also assume that the teacher is guilty. At most, all a teacher can hope for is a ruling that the arbitrator’s penalty is “shocking to the conscience”. Fortunately for David, his case would be heard by a justice who saw through the entire witch hunt that comprised his termination.

Justice Alice Schlesinger’s decision is a devastating takedown of Glanstein’s termination, her guilty verdicts and the entire DOE investigation. The start of Schlesinger’s ruling (towards the bottom of page 11) suggests the not-so-impartial nature of David’s supposedly impartial DOE hearing:

“The ALJ recommended the penalty of termination. In doing so, she first summarized the number of charges for which she had found Suker guilty. She noted that they involved excessive absenteeism, unprofessional conduct toward a colleague, inappropriate and disruptive behavior at a school assembly, failing to follow correct procedures in dealing with two students in 2009, and failing to report one arrest in a timely manner. A necessary query here is whether the ALJ would have recommended termination if these were all the findings, in other words, findings related only to an assortment of unrelated conduct involving a politically charged assembly, an incident of rudeness to another teacher, taking too many days off without obtaining formal permission, failing by a few days in not reporting his arrest at a demonstration, and failing to follow correct procedures regarding two disruptive students almost three years before the Charges had been brought and which had earlier been investigated. I suggest the answer would have been no and that a lesser penalty would have been imposed, particularly since none of the above findings had anything to do with the quality of Suker’s teaching. If the penalty had been termination simply on these findings, it truly would have shocked the judicial conscience as being harsh. Even the very zealous attorney representing the DOE in her closing statement acknowledged this fact…”

In other words, the first two groups of specifications alone were not enough to terminate David Suker. They were a string of petty, unrelated charges that would have truly “shocked the conscience” if used as the sole grounds for his termination. The charges involving the disruptive students back from 2009, aside from being an example of double jeopardy, alleged that David merely did not follow the school’s ladder of referral for dealing with such students, hardly an offense for which a teacher should have their license revoked. This is a fact the DOE themselves realized when they released him from his first rubber room stint without penalty.

Instead, the arbitrator based her termination on the supposedly fraudulent address David Suker listed for his daughter. Schlesinger noted that the DOE lawyer’s plea for termination based upon this one charge took up seven pages of the hearing’s transcript. The lawyer characterized Suker’s conduct in this regard as “criminal”. Schlesinger, on the other hand, characterized these charges, and the termination upon which they were based, as a violation of his tenure rights.

The fact is that David did put down an address at which his daughter did not live on her application for elementary school. This was in 2001. The fact is that David did put down a false address for his daughter on her application to middle school. This was in 2006. He did this for various reasons, not the least of which was he did not have a stable residence. For David, it was a matter of picking an address and going with it. However, all of this should have been irrelevant to the DOE. Even if David had put down these addresses to intentionally deceive, he still should not have been charged for them. He could not be charged for them because the tenure law for NYC teachers states that the DOE cannot bring charges for anything more than three years old. The last time David provided an address at which his daughter did not live was 2006. These charges were drawn up in 2012.

At this point, David’s daughter was already enrolled in high school. Where David Suker or his daughter were living at that point were irrelevant since NYC high schools are open to students in all five boroughs. If this is the case, why in the world did DOE investigators stalk his daughter in the Bronx? Her place of residence did not matter at the time of the investigation. Perhaps these investigators should be brought up on charges of their own and required to be part of some sort of registry so their neighbors can know what types of creeps are living amongst them.

Justice Schlesinger summed up her decision with what she perceived were the real reasons for David Suker’s termination:

“As this Court stated earlier, the school’s leadership did not want petitioner Suker to remain there as a teacher. They did not like him or approve of his actions. They believed he was insubordinate, that he did not conduct himself properly, that he was getting arrested too often, and probably that he was not a team player. It is possible that much of that is true. But with the exception of the two episodes involving disruptive students, which had occurred almost three years earlier in 2009 and had not resulted in discipline, no one has claimed that David Suker is not a good and/or effective teacher.

Finally, it should be noted that the conduct spelled out in Charge 3, regarding a false address for his daughter, never involved Suker’s own school and never would have been discovered but for the DOE’S decision to target Suker to see if an investigation could find something to be used against him, which it did. But that “something” should not be a basis for terminating this tenured teacher, for the reasons already discussed.”

These words, and the entire David Suker story, encapsulates perfectly the reasons why all teachers everywhere need solid work protections. David stuck up for his students his entire career, even if it meant drawing the ire of his supervisors. He is the type of person determined to do the just thing, even if that thing is unpopular or dangerous to his livelihood. When his students were being beaten by corrections officers, he spoke out about it and was duly punished. Instead of being cowed by this experience with bureaucratic backlash, he continued to be an advocate. He was an advocate for kids who had no other advocate. When the reformer Cami Anderson came to town to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic that was District 79, she caused untold damage to the lives of the kids and their teachers. David Suker was not silent about these acts of education reformer criminality. For this, he paid with his career.

Education reformers are fond of saying how much they love poor children and how they want to help them. By the time David Suker was terminated, the DOE was thoroughly in the grasp of the reformers. Even though Anderson was off destroying the schools of Newark by 2012, Bloomberg acolytes still occupied every position of consequence within the system. They accomplished a feat by sucking resources away from the most underserved kids in the city. David Suker was systematically harassed when he protested against this. So while David is a textbook argument in favor of teacher tenure, he is also a textbook example of why reformers nationwide have made teacher tenure their biggest target. The reformers know what they are doing to our schools is an exercise in unmitigated brutality. Because of that, they need to shut teachers up so they can go about destroying the communities of poor people unabated.

We need to thank teachers like David Suker who refuse to lay down so the jackboots of school reform can trample over them. We need to thank them for using their own resources to lawyer up in order get their terminations overturned in an actual court of law, where a measure of justice can be served. We need to support them in their ongoing struggle against the witch hunts conducted by the Department of Education.

In the thick of last year’s holiday season, the DOE moved to discontinue the unemployment they were giving David Suker. They also sued him for the unemployment they had already given him. His son was born at that point. If not for the paychecks brought home by his hard-working wife, there is no telling what type of childhood their son would be having now. This is reminiscent of the Christine Rubino case, where she had to sell the house in which she was raising her two young children thanks to a wrongful termination by the DOE. They also tried discontinuing her unemployment. This is another reason why the DOE motto of “children first, always” is a cruel example of reformer doublespeak.

The battle is not over. The DOE is appealing Schlesinger’s decision. Let us hope it turns out like the DOE’s appeal of the Christine Rubino decision, where 5 justices saw through the charade of a sham DOE investigation and termination. Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

 

John King’s Bully Pulpit

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

John King measures just how close he is to losing his job.

October is national anti-bullying month. A recent study suggests that schools with anti-bullying programs actually might have more incidents of bullying. While this might have something to do with the fact that such schools over report bullying incidents, the study confirms a general sense that anti-bullying programs do not work.

The sloganeering involved in most school anti-bullying campaigns is similar to the anti-drug campaigns popular in schools during the 1980s. Both efforts tend to gloss over complex societal issues in favor of hokey slogans. We knew that the crack plague of the 1980s was not going to end by teaching the next generation to “just say no”. Similarly, we know that teaching our children to recite words like “tolerance” and “respect” is not going to end this problem of “bullying”.

Bullying is not going away. This is because the currency of our school systems, the currency of this thing known as “education reform”, is naked bullying. Look at the parent in Maryland who was roughed up by a police officer for questioning the Common Core State Standards. Look at New York State Education Commissioner John King’s recent performance in front of concerned parents in Poughkeepsie where he first tried to talk over their concerns, then canceled the rest of his speaking tour when he discovered that New York parents do not want to be lectured to like children. For good measure, he accused these parents of being beholden to “special interests”.

John King’s comments actually represent the first stage of bullying. What makes it easy for children to bully another child is the sense that the victim is somehow flawed. The child can be labeled a “wimp” or “whore” or “gay” or “weird” or any number of labels. Once that label catches on with peers, it becomes permissible to then torment and torture the victim. This is how seemingly good people could be led to commit acts of unspeakable cruelty. Their “goodness” is reserved only for the acceptable members of society. Anyone who is out of those bounds is fair game. Dictators have used this strategy to persecute groups they did not like. Democracies use this tactic as well, often with greater success.

King’s labeling of concerned parents as a “special interest” is a favored tactic of education reformers. The reformers burst onto the scene with many labels. They labeled the schools as “failing”. They labeled the children as “stupid” or “violent”. They labeled teachers as “incompetent” and “lazy”. Thanks to a massive PR campaign funded by billions of education reform dollars, these labels stuck. This gave the reformers the public traction they needed to go ahead with their agenda. This agenda involved closing schools, disenfranchising parents, firing teachers and other acts of institutional violence that could be properly labeled as “bullying”.

The Common Core is just the latest incarnation of this bullying. The only difference is that now, after a decade of failed education reforms, it is tougher for the reformers to sell their tropes of “failing” schools and “underprepared” children to parents. They cannot make the labels stick, which means, hopefully, it will become harder to foist their will upon our public schools.

People should not be surprised by the actions of Commissioner King. As the founder of the Uncommon Schools charter network, King instituted the type of draconian discipline policies for which many charters have become notorious. As Pedro Noguera wrote about his visit to UC:

“I’ve visited this school, and I noticed that children are not allowed to talk in the hall, and they get punished for the most minor infraction. And when I talked with John King afterwards, I said, “I’ve never seen a school that serves affluent children where they’re not allowed to talk in the hall.” And he said, “Well, that might be true, but this is the model that works for us, we’ve found that this is the model that our kids need.”

So I asked him, “Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.” And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.

Unfortunately what is often driving these high-performing schools is the idea that the kids need to be broken. That the kids’ culture needs to be taken away from them and replaced with something else, because they come in with deficits. They come in as damaged goods. And these schools believe that their job is to mold the kids into something else.”

There probably is not any bullying at Uncommon Schools because the administration has a monopoly on the practice. King obviously already wrote the children in his school off as brutes. This made it easy for him to institute an uncommonly brutish discipline code that would have gotten him run out of the wealthier school districts in America. He made it a mission of his chain to bully children into behaving in the proper way. In the end, all bullying is ultimately aimed at getting the victim to conform to some preconceived norm.

This was King’s exact attitude towards the parents in Poughkeepsie. In his mind, the children of these parents were “unprepared” to meet the “challenges of the 21st century” and so need the Common Core to make America competitive. When the parents rebelled, he gave them a label reformers have traditionally reserved for teachers and their unions: “special interests”. This means that anyone who disagrees with John King or the Common Core are merely myopic naysayers who only care about themselves. It is a convenient way for him to justify to himself the imperious manner in which he handled the parents in the audience. It is a convenient way for him to justify all of the reforms he has helped force upon New York State up until now.

It should be recalled that King was the one who designed New York City’s disastrous teacher evaluation system. In that system, King called for teachers to be judged by the test scores of students who are not theirs in subjects they do not teach. We can see in this John King’s disdain for teachers. He has already labeled us as selfish “special interests” in need of the same draconian treatment as the students in Uncommon Schools. His evaluation system is institutionalized bullying.

When teachers get fired because students they never taught fail standardized exams, that is bullying. When students as young as 5 years old have to prepare, then sit, for standardized exams with no other purpose than to rate teachers, that is bullying. When the schools of these children close because they are labeled as “failing” due to these exams, that is bullying. When every public school is forced to abide by ridiculous standards that will serve to suck the joy out of learning, that is bullying. When the charter schools who are the shining stars of the reformer movement are exempt from all of these changes, that is bullying. The reformers have labeled a certain group of people, namely public school teachers, their children and now their parents, as failures in need of corrective action.

If incidents of bullying have increased over the past decade, there can be little wonder why. The way students behave within a school building reflect the environment created for them there by adults. If the school building is located downstream from where education reformers dump their effluvia, as most public school buildings today are, then it can be little wonder why bullying takes place there. If children see people like King and Michelle Rhee deride their teachers as “ineffective” and “special interests”; if they know the state wants to close them down because they are “failing”; if they now see their parents shrugged off and insulted by the State Education Commissioner, then it is the adults from whom the children are taking their cues.

The bullying problem in schools will never end until the way schools are run is fundamentally changed. Instead of autocratic mayors having unquestioned control of urban school districts, we need the type of local and democratic control of school systems for which America used to be known. Instead of putative standards enforced with putative tests, we need the type of school system that has a rich and open curriculum.

Many parent groups, understandably, are calling for John King to lose his job. While I sympathize with that sentiment, we all know that the disappearance of John King will only pave the way for another SEC with the same exact agenda. The only difference would be that Governor Cuomo will choose someone who is a more shrewd political operator. I say: keep John King as SEC. There can be no better poster child for the high-handed and bullyish tactics of the education reform movement. Nobody could do more damage to education reform in New York State than John King himself.

The DOE’s Future and MORE’s Winning Strategy

coallitionbuildingcycle

I became a tenured teacher in 2003. Between September of 2000 and June of 2003, I would walk into the main office of my school to see my name on the list of probationary teachers. These were the teachers who had yet to receive tenure. Then, at the start of the 2003 school year, my name was off the list. I did not throw myself a party nor did my principal make any type of to-do about it.

However, I think receiving tenure in the New York City Department of Education today is an accomplishment that calls for the throwing of a party, like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation. In fact, I cannot remember the last time a teacher with whom I have worked has received tenure. There is an excellent and dedicated teacher at my school who is in her 4th year and, not surprisingly, got her probation extended another year last year.

This is a trend happening all over the city. Teachers are being denied tenure one or two years in a row before they are unceremoniously herded out of the system. How dedicated or effective a teacher is matters not. Principals are obviously under pressure from the DOE to deny tenure as much as possible. Even worse, tenure is not what it used to be, especially with the Race to the Top evaluation system now in place.

Many veteran teachers, myself included, have expressed outrage over the lack of ownership demonstrated by NYC teachers over their profession and their union. The vast majority did not even bother to cast a vote in the most recent union elections.

Yesterday I ran into a former colleague who retired last year. She looked very rested and happy. I saw on her face the joy she must have felt for not having to be evaluated by exam scores or implement a set of ill-conceived standards. My words to her were “you got out at the right time” and she totally agreed.

This is a teacher of the baby boom generation, that massive sector of the American workforce who is starting to collect Social Security and Medicare. Many baby boomers in the DOE must feel as if they are sprinting through a mine field, hoping to make it to retirement safely before a bad evaluation hobbles their chances of a peaceful dotage.

With the exodus of the baby boom generation, as well as the revolving door of Gen Xer and Millennials brought about by the rampant denial of tenure, we should wonder no more as to why teachers in NYC are not taking ownership of their working conditions. The fact of the matter is very few teachers in the system look into the near and distant futures and see themselves working inside of a DOE school building.

So voting in union elections, going to union meetings, attending protests of the Panel for Educational Policy and the rest of the things that activist teachers do must seem like a whole bunch of useless work to young and veteran teachers alike. They cannot be blamed for this. There surely are many young teachers who intended to make education their life’s work, or many older teachers who would have wanted to stay on just a little bit longer, but cannot do so due to the efforts of Pharaoh Bloomberg and his Queen Consort, Dennis Walcott, to turn public school teaching into a temporary gig.

And then there is that other group of younger teachers who are working on their administrative licenses. Generally speaking, they tend to teach non-core or non-academic classes, tend to not be very dedicated to what they do inside of the classroom and tend to not be very good at whatever it is they do inside of the classroom. This is just what I have seen from my experience. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions. This young crop, many of whom are more likely to get tenure if they do not already have it, may not be longed for the DOE either.

With the prospect of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty starting in 2014, many people are expecting big changes to Department of Education headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. De Blasio has never really been a fan of Tweed. I hear stories everyday through the grapevine of Tweedies and people from the various DOE networks jumping ship to other jobs in anticipation of the de Blasio era. There seems to be a general sense that he is going to clean house once he inhabits Gracie Mansion, which is certainly welcome news to teachers who care about public education. If this is indeed the case, where will these young people with administrative hopes go?

Years ago there was a young teacher at our school who fit the description of the bureaucracy-climber described above. He taught with us for one year before getting an assistant principal’s job somewhere else. He was an AP for around one year before going off to work at Tweed doing God knows what. From what I saw of him, the only skill he mastered was the ability to kiss the right posteriors, and he mastered this better than most anyone I have ever seen. What will become of him and those of his ilk? Will the ass-kissery that is their stock-in-trade be less of an asset (no pun intended) in de Blasio’s DOE?

Chances are, the field of administrative sinecures at the DOE will greatly decrease in the near future. That means these young teachers either have to be really lucky, really connected or really dedicated to making things work as a classroom teacher. Barring these things, they will have to find another profession or another school system.

That means that the next few months and years will be a time of great flux in the DOE. Current and aspiring Tweedies are going to be jumping ship. Principals will be trying to weed out the probationary teachers to whom they have refused tenure. More baby boomers will retire once they get the chance. And, finally, if the recent Daily News and New York Post hit pieces are any indication, Bloomclot is on one last push to get those teachers awaiting termination hearings out of the door.

So who is left in the system that has the most vested interest in improving our students’ learning conditions? First, there are teachers like me, the veteran 30-somethings to whom retirement is a distant prospect. Second, there are the first-year teachers who have come out of traditional teacher education programs (that is to say, not Teach for America), whose prospects for tenure might be better in three years under a de Blasio DOE than they are now in the Bloomclot DOE. Finally, there are the teachers of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the ATRs, who generally are veterans who continue to rotate from school to school without classes of their own.

If MORE wants a shot at winning the next UFT elections, these are the groups to whom they must appeal. These are the people who will most likely hunker down in the DOE for the long haul. If recent history is any guide the younger generation, the ones who elected Obama and de Blasio and started Occupy Wall Street, will be receptive to the “social justice” aspect of MORE’s platform. Social justice, however, must ride the coattails of bread-and-butter union issues and not the other way around.

MORE must paint for teachers a picture of what the teaching profession can look like. Solid workplace protections, small class sizes, a deemphasizing of standardized testing and a respect for the autonomy of educators as professionals, these are the things that will matter in the upcoming union elections. Thanks to a crop of new principals who have imbibed the Bloomclot method of systematic workplace bullying; thanks to the budget cuts that have swelled the size of our classes; thanks to the Race to the Top evaluations that have institutionalized the standardized testing regime; thanks to the prospect of Common Core that takes so much of the joy and creativity out of education, the imprint of over a decade of reformer philosophy will be felt in our schools for some time. MORE must attack each of these things head-on with an alternative vision of what the teaching profession in NYC can be.

Doing these things will paint MORE as a stark and highly desirable contrast to the Unity leadership of our union that has been complicit in this reformer legacy. They can paint the Unity method of caving to the reformers as the stuffy old status quo. Seasoning their rhetoric with the right amount of social justice will set them up to be the next wave of civil rights leaders, much like the reformers started using the language of civil rights over a decade ago to give their destructive policies a pious sheen into which the general public bought. MORE, by properly tailoring their message what promises to be the backbone of our union in the decades to come, can become a legitimate threat to the Unity stranglehold on power.

MORE will take a step towards building this new union coalition tomorrow with the “Win Back Wednesday” rally tomorrow at 4:00 pm outside of UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway. I will be there and hope to see you there as well.

The Argument Against Online Grading

Just say "no".

Just say “no”.

Sue me: I do not use an online grading program.

Engrade, Schedula, Jupiter Grades, every school in New York City has adopted their own program where teachers can post each and every grade to each and every assignment online. It is not free either, for these programs can cost the school over $1,000.

For teachers, the selling point is that they no longer have to hunch over a calculator for hours on end come report card season. All they have to do is press a button and the grades are all calculated for them, according to whatever scoring algorithm the teacher chooses.

For students, they can log on to see their latest scores. It is like checking under your pillow to find some money from the tooth fairy each and every day. An ongoing tally tells them the grade they have in the class so far.

For parents, they can closely monitor the progress their kids are making in their classes. The more involved parents can even download the assignments and/or lessons, assuming the teacher has uploaded them. An email link keeps them in frequent contact with their children’s teachers.

Administrators seem to like the idea of being able to pull up any student’s grade from a central database. From what I hear, most administrators exhort their staffs to use the school’s adopted online grading program. Some schools have even mandated that teachers use it, although I am not sure that is 100% contractual.

And here I am, one of the last teachers in the city to not grade my students online. I am the only teacher in my school who is not online, which leads to some interesting exchanges come parent-teacher night.

One teacher recently referred to my absence from the world of online grading as me “taking a stand”. I do not see it that way. For my part, online grading is not compatible with my teaching philosophy or my philosophy in general. Many teachers swear by it and that is their decision. If a teacher believes online grading helps them do their job better or more efficiently, then I certainly am not one to try to convince them otherwise. Teachers should be free to make these types of decisions based upon their styles and experience.

I understand all of the arguments in favor of online grading. Now I would like to present my arguments against it.

Teachers should make the effort to inform their students of how they are doing in class. But what does this actually mean? Is “how a child is doing” mean a number grade? I told my students on the first day of school this year that I do not want them caring about grades. They are not sitting in my classroom to earn a number. This bit of information caused many a furrowed brow on many teenaged faces. My goal for them is to gain an appreciation for history.

This is a quaint notion, especially in the era of data (!). Kids have this idea that they come to school to earn good grades so they can get a diploma so they can go to college so they can get a good job. These are assumptions that most students, no matter what their background, tend to share. This is all the more reason why they must be reminded of the fact that there is actual knowledge, actual learning, to be done inside of a school building. If on the first day, or even the second or third day, I did the standard thing by giving each student their pass codes to log into their online grade account, I would merely be confirming their deeply held assumptions that school is about numbers. There will be more than enough time for them to fret over numbers throughout their lives, whether in the form of grades, salaries or bills. For the 45 minutes or so they are in my classroom, I want them to worry about history.

At the same time, I do not see why those students who are particularly hung up on their GPAs cannot remain hung up. They get homework every evening that is returned to them graded the very next day. They get exams every two weeks that are returned to them graded, also the very next day. Their projects are graded in a timely fashion, so they have those numbers as well. For class participation, students know whether or not they raise their hands, come on time and complete the little written assignments that are required of them. In short, they have more than enough data (!) to keep track of their own grades. Those students who are grade-driven will know and remember the grades they get throughout the semester, whether those grades are online or not.

Most importantly, there are always students who I do not grade by the strict algorithm required by our department. Every year I teach a class of exclusively English Language Learners. If they were plugged into the same equations as all my other students, as most of the online grading programs demand we do, most of them would surely fail. Instead, I must use a more “holistic” grading method, as teachers like to say. There are students who come to my class speaking and writing very little English and end the year with much more confidence and skill using the language. These students have upside, meaning their English skills will only continue to improve over time. Should I fail these students if I know they would be able to make their way in the next grade, even if they have struggled in my class for most of the year? Not only would this be unfair, it would frustrate them. They would be forced to sit again for a class of which they eventually got the hang. I would be holding them back from applying their new-found English skills in the next, more challenging, stage. Would they continue to improve if they are not continually challenged? For these students, and for students in analogous situations, plugging them into a strict numerical algorithm would be doing them a tremendous disservice.

Teachers are under pressure to bring more technology into the classroom. We are told that kids are using more technology than ever in their personal lives, so we should get with the program and integrate more of it into our practice. The push to record grades online is an extension of that pressure. I see things precisely the opposite way. Since children are spending so much time with technology, they need to have daily reminders that life is not digital. Adults could use this reminder as well, which is an ironic statement coming from someone who keeps an internet blog.

Many parents seem to like how online grading makes keeping track of their children’s schoolwork easier. In an age when the American worker has to put in well over 50 hours at the office to keep their families’ heads above water, it is understandable that many of them like online grading. On parent-teacher night, many parents ask me why I have not posted any grades to the internet. This leads me to summarize to them what has been written above. Most of the parents seem to understand my reasoning. A very bare minority do not and chalk up my rejection of online grading as either laziness or Ludditism. I give them my personal email and school extension and tell them they can contact me at any time they might have a question about their child’s progress.

This always leads me to think about how my mother was able to be so involved in my schooling. She was a single parent who, at times, worked two jobs. After working, cooking and cleaning, she still set aside the time to help me study and do homework. She came to every parent-teacher conference. She came into my school even when there were no parent-teacher conferences. She received every report card and knew all of my grades, which was never a good thing for me as a solid 65 student. She interacted with me and my teachers constantly. The truth is, I would have never pulled even a 65 if it was not for my mother. If she had access to my grades online, how much less would she interact with me and my teachers? How much more would she be inclined to see my schooling as nothing more than a pile of data rather than a daily interaction between me, my teachers and my peers?

While it is tempting to have the freedom to throw away my calculator at report card time in favor of a computer program that tallies the numbers of all of my students with one click of the mouse, I kind of like punching in those numbers and seeing what comes out. A student comes out with a grade of 59? What if they tried their hardest for that grade? What about that unit when they were asking all of those questions about the Enlightenment or the Civil War, went out of their way to watch a documentary about it and then came to class the next day to tell me what they learned? Should I fail this student just because they did not surpass some arbitrary cutoff point? What if this was the first time they ever started to care about something that happened in history? With online grading, those students are locked into whatever number the program says.

This is not to say that I grade students with fuzzy math. I keep meticulous records (on paper of course), add up every single number and adhere to our department’s grading policy. Students are informed as to how their grades are calculated. In fact, as I told one parent who disapproved of me not posting grades online on parent-teacher night, I spend more time than most other teachers going over with my students how their grades are calculated. I walk them through a hypothetical student with hypothetical grades and show them exactly how I calculate during report card season. They get a handout describing in both words and in diagrams what it means for their grades to be “cumulative”. In my mind, there is more transparency in this type of grading than in online grading since, unlike a computer program, I walk them through exactly how the sausage is made.

And then, after I do all of this, I tell them that this is not the point of coming to school. These are merely numbers. Education is what goes on in class all day. It is how they are affected by history. It is how history shapes their lives.  How many online grading programs were used by Socrates? Did Plato respect him because he promptly posted his grades to the internet?

Administrators can twist my arm to go online all they want. They have their reasons for wanting teachers to post their grades to the internet. None of those reasons have anything to do with education and everything to do with the bureaucratic exercise of covering one’s behind. Administrators want to be able to say that their schools constantly inform parents. Granted, some administrators might think that going with online grading is “pedagogically” the best thing to do. If that is the case, they should share their reasoning with their staffs who should, in turn, be free to accept or reject that reasoning. However, in Bloomberg’s Department of Education, it is all about informing parents.

But informing is a one-way street. Informing means explaining to someone a policy decision after it has already been made. Instead of informing, schools should be eliciting. Instead of posting grades and sending home letters, schools should be asking parents what they need. Instead of telling parents what has already been done, schools should be working with parents in designing what needs to be done in the future. Granted, these things are not mutually exclusive. A school can both inform and elicit. Yet, instead of spending a cool grand on an online grading program, imagine a school spending that money on organizing a “parents’ night” or several “parents’ nights”? Instead of mandating that teachers hunch over a keyboard to punch in numbers, imagine schools that would encourage teachers to take a day out of the semester to knock on doors of the parents they do not get to meet on conference night. Instead of more digital interaction, how much face-to-face interaction can a school purchase with a thousand bucks?

Subconsciously, this is probably another reason I have an aversion to online grading. It has the foul stench of Bloomberg all over it. Not only does it conjure up images of Joel Klein-like characters profiting off the backs of school districts by hawking superfluous and/or useless technological wares, it is just another way to inform. One thing the reformers have done well is drive a wedge between teachers and parents, as well as between parents and parents. They have sought to atomize the “stakeholders” of the education system into its constituent parts so that it is more difficult to unite against their harebrained “reforms”. Bloomberg himself has accomplished this by making it easier for schools to inform than to elicit.

Contrary to what we are being told, education is not all about the data (!) I will remind myself and my students of this every chance I get.