THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON

Most people are just doing their jobs.

Most people are just doing their jobs.

If you have ever taught in New York City then you know who the School Safety Agents are. They are the men and women dressed in police-like outfits who patrol the hallways, oversee dismissal and are generally there to protect the safety of students and staff. I used to work alongside many SSAs during my days as a dean and I still have an appreciation for what they do on a daily basis.

The SSAs are part of the New York City Police Department. Because of this, they have wider latitude than teachers or deans to physically restrain students who are acting violent or threatening. However, they have much less latitude than police officers and must take extra care to respect the civil rights of students. They are in a tough position. On one hand, they need to maintain the aura of authority figures. On the other hand, they must earn the respect of the students in order to do so. This latter imperative usually causes some teachers to criticize SSAs for being too chummy with the students. It is a rare occasion when an SSA has a reputation for being too strict, although it does happen from time to time.

There was one particular SSA at a school in which I worked who was kind of strict on yours truly. I would even go so far as to say that his behavior towards me was downright rude and unprofessional. As far as his reputation with the students or other teachers was concerned, I haven’t the foggiest idea. All I know is that this man tested the limits of my patience.

One of my many nasty habits is cigarette smoking. All schools have a de facto smoker’s corner somewhere outside where teachers congregate to indulge their two favorite habits: nicotine and complaining. While it is unhealthy to blow cigarette smoke, it is pretty healthy to blow off some steam. I justify it by thinking the two balance each other out. The teachers at the school were vigilant about going to an inconspicuous place where they wouldn’t be seen by students. During those times when there were no students around, I went around the corner to catch up on my text messages and emails while inhaling yet another cancer stick; menthol 100s of course. This had been a thing of mine for as long as I could remember and I couldn’t imagine who I might have been harming aside from myself.

Yet, somehow, a new SSA at the school informed me that this was not the place to smoke. He approached me while I was indulging in the filthy habit and said he was at a “training” recently which taught him there should be no smoking anywhere near the school. Whether this applied to just staff or any random person I did not know. Rather than make a thing out of it, I dutifully took my business elsewhere without giving it another thought. In fact, I followed his directive for several days thereafter even when he was not around to enforce it.

That all changed one day while going out to grab a late lunch. My path took me right by my old smoking spot, the one the SSA said was not a smoking spot. I saw him standing there chatting it up with the head custodian, who just happened to be smoking at the time. Whatever the topic of their conversation was, it certainly was not about how the spot in which they were both standing was off-limits to smoking. I could tell this by the hearty laughter that punctuated their conversation. They were doing everything short of slapping each other’s backs. I thought to myself, ok, maybe the smoking ban was lifted just for the moment they were standing there. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect for the time of day I happened to be caught. Or maybe the smoking ban was in effect just for me. Whatever it was, the parameters of this smoking ban were bizarre indeed and riddled with loopholes. The next day, I decided to reclaim my spot.

About a week or two after the smoking ban, I once again happened upon my favorite SSA. This time, I was heading out to grab a fast lunch that I could bring back to the building to eat while catching up on piles of grading. Teachers have this weird tendency to plan out every minute of their prep time. I used to have to schedule bathroom trips lest I forget and be stuck in a classroom for the next three periods. The relative productivity of my day usually depends upon getting the annoying stuff out of the way (eating, bathroom, correspondence [w/smoking], etc.) so I could focus on planning and/or grading.

To that end, I decided to avoid the crowds of students, who were meandering out to lunch through the front exit, by slipping out through the side doors which were usually free of traffic. Despite the relative ease of getting to this exit, I rarely used it because the doors opened out into a very narrow street. Any bystander walking along outside could get a face full of steel unless I slowly inched the door open to let them know I was coming.

As I was walking down the stairs, I saw our SSA standing on the landing between the second floor and the exit which was my destination. I said hello as I passed him (to which I received his usual non-response), reached the bottom of the stairwell and, just as I pushed on the iron bar to make my exit, he says “nobody is supposed to go out through that exit.” I thought to myself, gee, it would have been nice if you told me that before I reached the bottom of the staircase. Maybe you could have worked that into the conversation after my “hello” to you. I said to him “I thought you were standing there to make sure the kids didn’t cut out of school through this exit”, to which he shook his head “no”.

Now, after the earlier smoking controversy, I saw this man’s directives as mere suggestions. I certainly was not about to run back up the stairs so I could exit through the crowded lobby and fail in my mission to get back in time to get some serious grading done. Furthermore, I never knew it to be school policy for the exit in question to be off-limits to staff. So, I inched the door open and made my escape.

I started thinking about that last “no” he said to me. If he was not standing there to ensure that students did not cut out of school, does that mean he was stationed there to stop staff from exiting? Was he standing there to make sure people from the outside did not sneak their way in? The latter was sort of an impossibility, since the door could not be opened from the outside due to the fact that it automatically locked, had no handles and weighed around half a ton. As a former dean, I am sensitive to the need for a school to have secure exits locked to the outside world. That is why I was always sure to fully close the door behind me on the few occasions I used that exit. I would lean my entire body weight on it, listen for the thud that told me it was locked and did some quality control by trying to open it up again, to no avail.

Whatever his reason for being stationed on that landing, he obviously took it quite seriously. At the next staff meeting, the administration told us that we should avoid using that exit. Our SSA had obviously saw my exiting as a transgression serious enough to inform my superiors. Whether or not he mentioned me by name to them is still unclear. Perhaps his total lack of interest in me as a human being was my saving grace in this instance, since he most likely didn’t know my name.

Sure, both of these run-ins with this SSA were pretty petty. Despite the fact that he committed one of the cardinal sins of the schoolhouse by snitching on me, I still had the ability to swallow my pride and try to smooth things over with him. However, a few weeks later, we took one step further away from doing that.

I have a very strict bathroom policy in my class. Each student receives a certain number of bathroom passes each semester. They know not to burn them unless they have an actual emergency. Of course, allowances are made for students with medical conditions. All told, between the months of September and June for all 150 of my students, there are no more than 20 instances of students leaving my classroom for any reason. In short, it is a rare occasion that you will catch any of my students in the hallway.

Yet, it is simply unavoidable in some cases. One day, one of my bright freshmen was not her chipper, participatory self. She had a sullen, ashen look on her face. Around 15 minutes into the period she asked to go to the bathroom. I could tell this was an emergency, so I told her to just go without worrying about looking for and filling out the bathroom pass. This was the only time this student ever left my room.

No more than 5 minutes later, our favorite SSA returned her to class and said to me that she was “walking the halls” with her friend. I had never known this girl to be a hallwalker. If she was in fact walking the halls with her friend, then I was inclined to believe it was pure coincidence. Perhaps she just bumped into someone she knew on her way back from the bathroom. In order to verify this, I asked the student if she had made it to the bathroom. She said she did. At this point, the SSA told me that I needed to give her a pass if she was to leave the room. This is the type of dressing down that adults are just not supposed to do to other adults in front of students. It does not matter if it is an SSA, teacher or administrator, it is unprofessional to admonish a colleague in front of students. Besides, hadn’t I earned the benefit of a doubt after years of not ever producing any hallwalkers from my room? Surely if someone from my class was “walking the halls”, there is a reasonable explanation. The most likely explanation is that the hallways are the only path from classroom to bathroom. There is no other way to reach the bathroom except through the halls. Case closed.

I really never found out what this SSAs shtick was. He was transferred to another school shortly thereafter. Whenever I think of him, I think of the Stanford Prison Experiment. In short, you give someone a role, especially a role with a little power, and they will likely use it in all types of creative, malicious ways.

The other thing I think about is the movie Idiocracy. In a future where the world is as dumbed down as humanly possible, the police know nothing more than how to bark out simplistic orders and blast people with pepper spray. It can be argued that Idiocracy is already here. During my time at Occupy, I saw first hand many officers who had no affect and seemed to know nothing more than how to bark out the same order over and over again.

However, these seemingly trivial run-ins with a seemingly trivial person had me reflect on some serious lessons. Every year I take a class period to tell my students that my goal as their teacher is to develop their sense of humanity through the study of history. The school system would like me to play the role of a transmitter. It not only places me in a position to transmit the knowledge it wants me to pass down, it places me in a position to transmit a certain set of values.

It wants me to tell children that the harder they work, the more rewards they receive. It wants me to transmit the value that success means making money. It wants me to transmit the value that the goal of education is so they can go on to be the type of workers our corporations want to hire. Through these values, students will learn that hard work will eventually get them much success, which means money. The further implication of this is that those who have money now must have worked hard for it. The wealthy earned their keep and are entitled to every last dime they have.

In short, the school system is designed so that I as the teacher pass on the idea that the system that exists in the world today is not only good, but natural. No other system can be imagined. No other system is desirable. Work, work, work, work with the nebulous carrot of “success” dangling in front of you. Most of us are destined to be the hamster in the wheel: working furiously but never getting any closer to the carrot called “success”. It is really ingenuous, this school system of ours. In the end, it functions as little more than a 13-year exercise in brainwashing. It makes us all complicit in our own subjugation.

The more robotic, thoughtless people exist in the world today, all the better for the system. As the great Jewish philosopher Hanna Arendt described, the Nazi state was built on thoughtless, robotic individuals. Most Germans were complicit in a murderous system, yet nobody felt any responsibility since everyone was just doing their “job”.

If I want students to get one thing out of my class, it is that a combination of critical thinking and empathy helps ward off the banality of evil of which we all seem to be capable.

Sure, the banality of evil can be a Nazi official from the 1930s. Much more often, it comes in the form of that SSA watching out for smokers and hallwalkers. He is a relatively harmless example of the banality of evil. As a matter of fact, most people are relatively harmless examples of it. Their biggest crime is the fact that they are incapable of going off the script. In the aggregate, however, so many people committing small acts of thoughtless evil amounts to one gigantic, evil system.

The best type of revolution against this sytem is not violence. The best type of revolution is the slow but steady awakening of peoples’ humanity. It is the one-at-a-time awakening that shows people that life doesn’t have to follow a script. It is the type of revolution designed to reprogram the very DNA of the system by reaching its most atomic, and most necessary, constituents: our children.

This is my most important lesson for both my students and myself. I do not want to be a teacher, not in the sense that the system defines that term. Instead, I want to be an anti-teacher.

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2 responses to “THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    Just wait until administrators who are “only doing my job” have the Danielson checklist in hand… it will be like when you get wacked by The Mob: nothing personal, just business.

    • Oh, but Danielson is the best pedagogical thinking available today. Surely the DOE wants us to be the best teachers we can be so we can do “our jobs” better, no? Don’t you feel yourself getting better as a teacher with just the mere prospect of Danielson on the horizon? Between Danielson, the age of the unaccountable principal, the threat of school closings, budget cuts and the destruction of due process, I feel on top of the world…. the underworld.

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