A Tale of Two School Districts

What do you know? A school that does not look like a jail.

To teachers in New York City, schools in the “suburbs” are mythical places. They have parking lots, swimming pools, computer labs, debate teams and lacrosse. Class sizes are small, educational resources abound and students sit still with hands folded and have names like “Cody” and “Brianna”. Teacher salaries are higher while less is generally asked of them. The only negatives we hear are about the parents who, as the polar opposite of many of those in NYC, are overly engaged in their children’s education and ready to challenge a teacher as to why their kid received a 95 and not a 97.

Urban myths? I guess it depends on the suburb.

I have a friend who is about to finish his first year as a high school teacher in an upper class school district. Before this gig, he taught in NYC for several years. In his own words, the transition from urban to suburban has been a “culture shock”.

He is treated like a professional. Administrators do not yell at him, subject him to useless professional development, lecture him in staff meetings like a child or berate him because he did not hand in or sign off on some meaningless paperwork. They respect his time as a teacher and understand that he has lessons to write, assignments to grade and students to tutor.

Perhaps this is because there are so few administrators at the school: three for a student body of about 1,300 kids. They handle the day-to-day operations of the campus while teachers lead academic departments. The only time the principal asked the teachers to do anything outside of teach is when she tried to mobilize the staff to resist the new value-added teacher evaluations.

My friend still has a tough time believing that a school like this can exist. He still fears that, whenever he sees the principal, he is going to be yelled at or harassed. He fears that one day the principal is going to take off her mask and reveal herself to be a reptilian overlord out to make his life a living hell. I think he can sue the NYC DOE and his former principal for an acute case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Since his time there, no teacher has been sent to a rubber room or reassigned. In fact, he has never even heard of any teacher being investigated for anything at the school. The staff is filled with veterans who have been there for several years, if not decades. Teachers hug their students, entertain them in their classrooms during lunch and routinely give them pats on the back and reassuring rubs on the shoulder.

And there is no small-minded administrator or ghoulish newspaper reporter there to cry “pervert”.

If I did not know any better, it seems as if my friend teaches in a healthy environment. Teachers do not come to work fearing what their principal will put them through today, nor do they have to put up with an autocratic mayor who sees himself as God Almighty. They can come to work and focus on teaching which, hard as it is for us in the city to believe, is the real job of the teacher.

You think the students at the school benefit from having a veteran teaching staff whose professionalism is respected? Gee, I don’t know, that is a tough one.

And what about us poor schlubs in the city? We may not be able to have the swimming pools or lacrosse teams that they have in the suburbs, but why is it that we are not entitled to the same healthy work environment my friend has? Why are we constantly broken down by administrators with questionable teaching backgrounds and ethics? Why do we have to open up the newspaper every day to find another round of bash the teacher?

You think the students at our schools lose out by having a teaching staff who are treated like criminals? Gee, that is a tough one as well.

So, why the contrast between my friend’s suburban school and New York City?

Because the parents in my friend’s upper class school district would never stand for it. They send their children to school to learn, to earn good grades and to build a transcript that will get them into a good college. They do not expect teachers to be babysitters, nannies or counselors. They expect teachers to teach. They cannot do that if they are in constant turmoil. A school that rubber rooms its teachers, wastes their staff’s time with useless meetings and PD and generally harasses them as a matter of policy would bring up serious questions about the leadership of that school. Angry parents will show up to school board meetings, point out the fact that their property taxes are funding their children’s school and call for the administration’s head on a platter.

On the other hand, parents in NYC are largely absent. Not only are they unaware about what their children do at school on a daily basis, but they expect teachers to raise their children for them. This creates a vacuum, one that administrators are all too happy to fill. It starts with people like the Mayor and Governor who claim to be “lobbyists” for children. Of course, this implies that parents are incapable of playing that role. And in the name of “the children”, they foist all types of “reforms” on the system that have nothing to do with learning and everything to do with building a billion-dollar edu-industry of testing and data. In order to implement these reforms, they seek out the most pliant and unimaginative people to be administrators.

That is why when an administrator says they intend to do something for the sake or safety of “the children”, you better run the other way. This means a teacher is going to get harassed. It is just like Napoleon who made all of his reforms in the name of “the people” of France.

Parents in the suburbs do not fall for this shtick. Nobody can tell them what is good for their children because they know what is good. They know what is good because they are present and engaged.

Imagine Mayor Bloomberg going out to the Hamptons to run a school system and telling the parents he knows how to educate their children. Imagine him closing down their schools, harassing their teachers and hiring yes-men (and women) as administrators. He would be run out of town as a laughing stock.

But this is par for the course in NYC, as well as urban school districts across the country. That is why in battling education reform, teachers who actually care about what is happening need to activate the parent community. They need to get parents to take the type of stock in their children’s educations as parents in the suburbs.

There is a long road ahead in this regard, but it is a fight that we cannot give up. The alternative is an eternity of harassment and misery.

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9 responses to “A Tale of Two School Districts

  1. it is also, always a top-down institution and the administrator out in the suburbs sounds, in general, to have a better handle on what works. wow, the principal even asks the teachers to fight for their profession. that in itself is wonderful but unique. just having the freedom to be a real administrator is unique now.
    at last there are bands of administrators, educators, researchers lending their names and expertise to exposing the overall destructive forces of reform. otherwise, with the exception of a few pockets of sanity, it is over for urban and suburban schools alike, over for teachers and, tragically, over for students.
    the damages done by this corporate led, cheap, sub-standardization of public education is already in evidence and the waves of damages incurred will be with us in social and human failures to function for many years to come…
    thank you for your best efforts every day, in a place where no one ever thanks you, for using your heart, soul and mind to make magic happen, under a wicked, devastating spell.

  2. The best article ever….I agree with its entire contents….and your right-this is an urban myth…infused with a fairly tale. A teacher that actually gets to teach….WOW…I have to meet this good friend you speak of.

  3. My wife worked in the city and I taught on the Island. It was a world apart in so many ways. My ability to work as a professional and her goal was just to survive. I had a great deal of experience working with city administrators and when It came to them it was either sink or swim. They either developed a method that worked or they quickly lost their jobs.
    This is a great article and really tells it like it is. Bloomberg destroyed administrators in the city and made them yes men who are scared that they will lose their jobs. None of this craziness is happening in the suburbs.

  4. Fantastic post and so true. Teachers in NYC are under duress and attack from so many sides, it’s a wonder we keep forging ahead in spite of the abuse. Your post should be published somewhere.

  5. This post is magnificent, and I hope that we all – parents, teachers, ed reformers, members of the public – remember the alienation and distrust created over the past 10 years in the city’s schools when we go to the polls. It doesnt have to be this way here or anywhere else.

  6. I came to your blog from a link on EdNotes (to read your most recent post) and then clicked around and saw this. I am an NYC public school parent and I have to say that I am sadly disappointed in this post. You tar all NYC parents with the same brush (uninvolved) and you seem not to realize that some of the parents who “don’t show up” may be compromised in some way (language barriers, work, health/substance abuse issues, etc.) or may themselves have bad memories of (substandard) schooling that makes them less likely to see school as a positive place where there input would be well regarded. As a parent, I am aware that my child will be better served when the teacher is happy. And I can’t help but think that the reverse is true too–which is why the parent bashing that you do here seems so counterproductive. Karen Lewis was able to do what she did in Chicago because parents and teachers were a united front. I think you would be well advised to be less divisive (and dismissive).

    • I am sorry you feel this way. If you check around the other posts here, you will see that, at many points, I say that parents are overworked (like most other Americans) and do not have the opportunity to be involved. I also say at many points how we need to make common cause with parents, to engage them, if we are to improve the education system for all children. We get nowhere in that respect without parents.

      You do not seem to disagree with the point I made here, which is, on the whole, parents in NYC are disengaged. I did not explain the reasons for it, mostly because I have explained the reasons for it many times in many other posts. It is a statement of fact: Bloomberg can get away with so much because the stakeholders in the school system (teachers, administrators and parents) let him get away with it.

      Yes, of course, there are people from all of those groups who stand against him. I celebrate those people here on many occasions: MORE, Change the Stakes, Leonie Haimson, etc. That does not detract from my point that disengagement is an issue, no matter what the reasons are.

      Ironically, I never in my life mentioned “substance abuse” as a reason because, as someone who grew up in the inner city, I do not think substance abuse is as pervasive as some others think it is. I chalk it up to parents being overworked in a post-industrial economy.

    • Also, I would not characterize what I said as “parent bashing”, anymore than I would characterize the trope you trot out of “substandard education” as teacher bashing.

  7. Their, not there. Sigh.

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