Tag Archives: Student Teaching



There are more layers to the student-generated slavery math questions. This site is more popular than I thought because Aziza Harding, the student-teacher from P.S. 59, as well as some of her well-wishers from NYU have found their way over here.

Taken together, their responses paint a telling picture. Let’s start with the first comment from an NYU email address. This person’s moniker is “GONNA KILL YOUR ASS”:


The irony is that I am the one that needs to be reported when they are the person threatening to “kill my ass”. How dare a teacher exercise free speech?

But “GONNA KILL YOUR ASS” goes further, this time using a handle called “WATCH OUT, SERIOUSLY”:


Does this mean that I should be worried because I am now posting “one more thing” about this issue? What, exactly, is so “courageous” about putting nothing on the line and having nothing to risk? This person obviously does not know the meaning of courage.

What is more, and what is a common theme for all the rest of the responses, is the anti-teacher sentiment expressed. Every graduate student apparently has  a “theory” about “school math teachers being absolutely brain dead!” I guess that would hurt my feelings if I was a math teacher.

And then Ms. Harding responded herself:

Hello!!! This message is coming from the “stupid” student teacher that you wrote about awhile ago. You are totally entitled to your opinion (I mean this is AMERICA) but your blatant disrespect by calling me out of my name, I found to be a bit troubling. If you check my remarks I surly didn’t call my teacher out of her name nor do I think she is a terrible teacher. I just think she had a major lapse of judgement when it came to assigning slavery math as homework. As for being ‘media hungry’ yep..that definitely WAS NOT my intention when speaking to my professor about the matter. All I wanted was advice on how to engage in a meaningful conversation with the teacher about why I found the assignment problematic. And it also looks like you didn’t do your research WHAT SO EVER. For one if you read any of the articles my Professor clear as day states that he alerted the media (with out any clear warning to me) and in a way hung me out to dry. When speaking with NY1 I expressed my concern over the assignment and ALSO noted that I was never able to speak to the teacher because she was out of town when this whole issue took place. I’m assuming you really didn’t take much time to READ. So when someone found your rant and passed it onto to read I was taken aback by your mean spirited words. “Not to worry, I am sure there are a few charter schools who would love to hire you for three years before spitting you out like bubble gum that has lost its flavor. Then maybe you can get a taste of how it feels to be on the receiving end of the process you help set in motion on others.”–> Well let me assure you I have no intentions of being a teacher and was student teachers only to earn some ex cash while doing my graduate studies. But I do hope that some good will come of this and that I actually use my words and actions for good..unlike you. It just looks like you have your own agenda to push and you accomplished it. I never wanted media attention, I don’t crave it and don’t care for it and to see people like you who twist the truth well… I guess that just comes with this whole ridiculous story coming out.

To which I responded:

Hello there yourself and thanks for stopping by. Allow me to address your remarks:

a) Your name was already in the papers. Don’t blame me for “calling you out of your name” since it is already plastered out there for everyone to see. Don’t want your name in the papers? Don’t talk to the media. It is as simple as that.

b) While your actions were, in my opinion, foolish, I never called you stupid. That would be too vicious even for me. Please quote the place where I called you stupid.

c) Your cooperating teacher is out of town. I am sure you don’t have his/her email, phone number or any other method of contacting them in the year 2013.

d) While your professor certainly helped create a firestorm, you played a role in this fiasco as well. You showed him the handout. You did obviously did not try to find out what was behind the handout or if there just might have been a decent explanation for such a handout. How much effort did you make to contact your teacher? Obviously not a whole heck of a lot. You said yourself your cooperating teacher was good. Why not give her/him the benefit of the doubt before you go showing it to anyone?

e) Your comments to the media were self-serving. After you create a media firestorm, you say how you want this to be a learning experience. You say you want kids to learn how horrible slavery was. According to the parents, their children DID learn this. Again, did you ever bother to get a full picture of what the students actually learned before you made your self-serving comments.

f) Wow, so you don’t even want to be a teacher. Thank you for demeaning the profession that me, your mentor and millions of other people make their life’s work. I guess that says it all, does it not?

g) Despite what you might think, I appreciate you stopping by and leaving your comments. I have seen teachers destroyed over things like this. I have seen people lose their livelihoods over an honest mistake. I have seen teachers pilloried and scapegoated in the media because of things “twisted out of context”, as you are so fond of saying. That is what the media does. They twist EVERYTHING out of context.

Do you know what it is like to be stripped of your identity, have to sell your house, have to see your kids go hungry all because a hypocritical system wanted to jump down your throat? Meanwhile, the people that do the real damage to our system: the administrators and political leaders who close schools and mismanage resources, not only get off scot free but actually get to move up in the system?

Of course you did not know these things. Of course you did not know the risk YOUR actions might pose to another human being. Now you do and, hopefully, you take it as a learning experience.

And the hits just keep on coming, this time from another NYU email:

a- “hare-brained educationists”

b- “Either Harding and McIliwain are really bad or really stupid people.”

c- Oh because someone really wants to receive a phone call or email about work when they’re on vacation in another country.

d- It seems like you’re basing a lot on the assumption that Aziza went to Professor McIiwain as a means of finding a way to create some sort of media frenzy. You could call into question what the professor is teaching, his lifetime body of work, and maybe, just maybe, that she went to him for advise on how to approach the situation. Furthermore, what besides ignorance could have been behind the premise for that worksheet? If a male teacher wrote a math problem for International Women’s day that read “14 girls were raped in Nepal. 3 girls were raped in West Africa. 2 girls were raped and killed in New Dehli. How many living girls were raped?”, how would you feel?

e- How are the children learning how terrible slavery is if they are the ones creating questions like this? Furthermore, how are parents confirming that something was learned when things like that worksheet were created? That is not learning in the spirit of inclusion, but learning just how superior one group is over another.

f- I missed the part where Aziza demeaned your profession. Meanwhile teachers are molesting students, calling them racial slurs, and having 8 year olds arrested. But not wanting to be a teacher is demeaning. Okay.

g- Irony.

Despite what this person or Ms. Harding might think, I never called anyone “stupid”. At the same time, the comments from Ms. Harding’s supporters do not speak well for her. Who would want their cause to be defended by people who threaten to kill someone else over the internet?

You can’t have it both ways. If this issue was so important, then why not text or email the teacher? I have texted and emailed people on vacation if the issue was important enough. If it is not so important, then it could wait.

The funny thing is that these comments are pressing me to defend the worksheet, something I never did. I acknowledged that the worksheet itself was foolish. My contention is that: a) the teachers should not be fired for this and b) Ms. Harding’s and Mr. McIlwain’s actions did nothing to improve the situation.

Since the person above “missed the part” where Ms. Harding disrespected the teaching profession, here it is again:

Well let me assure you I have no intentions of being a teacher and was student teachers only to earn some ex cash while doing my graduate studies.

I do not know exactly how this works, since student-teachers are usually not paid. It is sad that the person who left this reply does not see how Ms. Harding’s quote above is a disrespect to the teaching profession, especially in light of her actions. It is the same type of disrespect shown by Teach for America, who use teaching as a stepping stone. More importantly, it is a disrespect to the students who are subjected to an inexperienced teacher with no desire to improve or dedicate themselves to them. Furthermore, Ms. Harding’s actions not only helped endanger the careers of two teachers, it turned the school into a media circus. I still fail to see who won as a result.

Perhaps the students wrote such offensive questions because they were 9-years-old. This person is expecting 4th graders to have a nuanced or sophisticated view of  history. Children, by and large, lack empathy in general. The ham-fisted questions they created are not necessarily a reflection of everything they learned about slavery. Parents asked their children about what they learned and were satisfied with the answers. What is the problem?

However, the final part of what the person said above says all that we need to know about their perspective. “Meanwhile teachers are molesting students, calling them racial slurs, and having 8 year olds arrested. But not wanting to be a teacher is demeaning.”

Wow, does it get more disgusting than that? Of course Ms. Harding would not want to sully her hands on a profession whose practitioners are nothing more than child molesters, racists and supporters of the school-to-prison pipeline. The only thing teaching is good for is to make some “extra cash”.

Everything is very clear now. Why would people who hate teachers so much care one iota about potentially getting one of them fired? These people are scum anyway.

I remember I knew everything when I was a grad student as well. If people disagreed with me it was because they were wrong, not because someone could possibly see things differently. Being ensconced in books and academia has a way of numbing one to the real world. Being young and ensconced in academia has a way of simplifying one’s opinions. What is wrong is wrong and what is right is right. Everything is absolute and the standard used comes from books and professors.

And, if in our pursuit of doing right some people get hurt then “thems the breaks”, right? After all, what is a few measly careers when students are writing stupid questions? This is an injustice, a “human rights” issue even, and thank goodness the folks at NYU are here to call attention to it.

Out of curiosity, since P.S. 59 is in Williamsburg, where has NYU been for the past 10 years when Pharaoh Bloomberg has been pushing minorities out of the city through gentrification and stop-and-frisk? I forgot, NYU is one of the biggest gentrifiers out there. They are really nothing more than a real estate company that collects (overpriced) tuition for an education than can easily be had through the CUNY system. It is really no wonder that such an institution produces people so out of touch with reality and so in love with their own sense of justice.

Worry about a bunch of questions created by 4th-graders if you wish, those of us who actually care about public education will be at the protests against school closings, charterings and standardized testing. Those of us who actually have to work for a living, without mommy and daddy paying our ways, understand that jeopardizing someone’s career is not something you do on the fly because we are “offended”. Those of us with rent, bills, mortgages, children and taxes understand how valuable a job is to come by in 2013. Playing games with a teacher’s career is something to be done with a heavy heart when children are actually being abused.

It is telling that none of Ms. Harding’s defenders ever claimed that the school was better off for what her and her professor did. All they have are her good intentions. A perfect defense for a bunch of people who live in their own minds and not the real world.


The hypocrite lynch mob is out in force for this one.

The hypocrite lynch mob is out in force for this one.

The media, DOE and the hypocrite circle are having a field day with the 4th grade math homework sheet that contained inappropriate word problems about slavery.

To summarize, students were encouraged to create their own word problems in an effort to fuse math and social studies instruction. These questions were then combined into a homework sheet that at least one teacher had already used in January. Earlier this month, another 4th grade teacher asked their student-teacher, Aziza Harding, to make copies of the sheet. Harding felt uncomfortable doing this, so she left a note requesting to speak with the teacher instead. She then showed the sheet to one of her professors at NYU, Charlton McIlwain. McIlwain contacted the media and the DOE is considering the appropriate disciplinary procedures.

Rather than jump on the faux-outrage bandwagon, I would like to start a bandwagon of my own.

First, Aziza Harding sets the tone for this faux-outrage:

 “Instead of these kids being desensitized to this type of violence, that they have a general idea that, ‘Wow, this was a terrible thing that happened to a group of people for over 300 years,'” Harding said.

Well, by this logic, since the students created these questions does it not mean that they are already “desensitized”? Is “desensitized” really the appropriate word to describe a bunch of 9-year-olds? How much empathy do 4th-graders have to begin with? Perhaps they can empathize with someone who is suffering in front of them. Can they really empathize with the suffering of people who lived 150 years ago?

To be sure, using this homework sheet was not a good idea for many reasons. It trivializes the issue of slavery. It not only trivializes the suffering endured by enslaved people, it trivializes slavery as a historical issue with which we are still dealing as a country. These student-generated questions should have been a signal that the issue of slavery needs to be taught with more gravitas to children who are so young.

This seems to be an issue of teachers under pressure to create “cross-curricular” activities. Or, it could be an issue of teachers under pressure to infuse literacy throughout the entire curriculum. Perhaps it is both. It highlights how meaningless cross-curricular studies and literacy-infused math can be when it is forced, whether by teachers or administrators. By “forced” I mean when done for the sake of doing it rather than being an organic overlap between disciplines.

There are just some instances when you cannot connect two disciplines. Math is best infused with history when it involves some sort of statistical analysis. For 4th-graders, perhaps they can be given the years of significant events in the history of slavery and be asked to add and subtract. “How many years between the Constitutional ban on the slave trade and Nat Turner’s Rebellion?” It does not seem that the math being taught in the ill-conceived slavery worksheet was any more difficult than that anyway.

The entire push behind cross-curricular studies and literacy-infused math is really one of the many hare-brained fads pushed on teachers by education researchers. Some researcher somewhere found that these things “work” with a group of children they used as lab rats, which means that teachers everywhere should use it. Not only should we use it, we must use it NOW because the “future” of children is at stake. We cannot afford to lose one more minute!

Speaking of hare-brained educationists, this brings us to the other untold part of the story. Aziza Harding supposedly left a note with her cooperating teacher. Yet, for some reason, she was just bursting at the seams with outrage that she had to show the worksheet to her NYU professor. And what does the professor, Charlton McIlwain, do? He does not advise her. He does not even call the school. He calls the media. What did he think would happen if he called the media?

Here is what will happen:

The principal said she’ll be meeting with families and all staff members will undergo related training.

The whistleblowing student teacher said she hopes that P.S. 59 students will get help understanding why slavery is a much more serious issue than these simple math problems.

Sure, just at the expense of turning the school upside down in the process. NY1 was at the school last week. The principal has to do damage control. Teachers will be walking on eggshells for the foreseeable future. You tell me: will this be a net loss or net gain for the children? Do you really believe Ms. Harding accomplished her mission in getting students to understand why slavery is such a serious issue?

There promises to be even more fallout from McIlwain’s ill-conceived phone call to the media:

After seeing NY1’s story, State Senator Simcha Felder, who is the chairman of the New York City Education Sub-Committee, emailed a statement that read, “While the city, state and unions are busy haggling over teacher evaluations, New York City’s students are being subjected to reprehensible and irresponsible educational materials. I am calling for the immediate removal of these two teachers.”

Felder also commended the student teacher for coming forward.

Yes, someone’s head must roll for this.

Either Harding and McIliwain are really bad or really stupid people. Perhaps they are both. If McIlwain is an education professor, someone who is an “expert” on schooling who presumably went through the rigorous infantile process to receive an ED.d, he has not the foggiest idea of how the media and the school system work. If his goal was to help children, he has accomplished exactly the opposite.

As for Aziza Harding, it is great to be outraged about things, is it not? It is so easy and costs absolutely nothing on your end. You can have a knee-jerk reaction to something, ring the alarm bells and end up being quoted in the media as some sort of enlightened crusader for justice.

Next time, why not actually talk to the teacher first? Furthermore, in the age of Google where employers are sure to look up anyone they are considering for a job, what principal is going to want an oversensitive, media-hungry nooblet on their staff?

Not to worry, I am sure there are a few charter schools who would love to hire you for three years before spitting you out like bubble gum that has lost its flavor. Then maybe you can get a taste of how it feels to be on the receiving end of the process you help set in motion on others.



Please welcome guest blogger Ms. Ortiz. This is the first of what I hope to be many contributions from her.

Ten years ago, I would have never imagined that I would be in college studying the liberal arts, much less history. I was good at math and believed history was the most boring subject a kid could be forced to take. My years of learning history in middle school felt like review of what I had already learned in elementary school, which was American history and the structure of our government. The only difference was that, in middle school, I had to memorize dates that meant very little to me. It’s tough to get motivated to have dates, people and what seemed to be random events drilled into your brain.

When I started high school I expected my history class to be the same boring, rote rundown of disconnected events and dates. I didn’t anticipate putting more effort than necessary into the class, just enough for a decent grade. My first week in high school completely changed my attitude towards history. The class wasn’t the same drill I had gotten used to. Instead, history was presented in a story-like fashion where seemingly unimportant events had the ability to change the course of humanity. I wondered about what if something else had happened instead, which sparked my interest in the past. I’m sure that I annoyed my teachers with these questions. My interest in these what-if questions motivated me to learn as much as I could.

Apparently, history wasn’t the study of disjointed facts and dates like I learned in grammar through middle school. Instead, I began to see the interconnectedness of historical events. This new way of looking at history enabled me to actually remember the facts that had been previously drilled into me to no avail. Before I knew it, I actually even appreciated the subject. We are all a product of history. Without historical understanding, we would not able to make sense of the world today and how we got to where we are now

Because of this, I decided to major in history in college. As I take more history classes I have been able to make sense of how the past relates to the present and how it fits together like a giant puzzle. Take a look at the early years of Christianity. A seemingly obscure movement in the Middle East grew into a church that ended up dominating society socially, politically, and economically. If the church hadn’t risen to power the way it did, we would be living in a totally different world today.

So now here I am, just a few months away from having the opportunity to teach history myself as a student teacher. I will have the chance to teach children who are the same age I was when I first caught the history bug. It is exciting to think that a student could possibly leave my class loving history. Hopefully, as I grow into a career, I can help students learn to use the past as a way to unlock the rhythm of the present. Hopefully, I can help students see how the past has helped configure the world in which we live today. Hopefully, and most importantly, I can arm students with the tools they need to decode the past so they can imagine a better future.

The road ahead of me is long. There are many things I have yet to learn. But one thing I know is the value of bringing history alive for my future students. This is the possibility that excites me the most.

The Worst Student Teaching Experience, Ever

My semester-long stint as a student teacher could have easily suffocated my passion for this career. I am thankful for it nonetheless, since it taught me valuable lessons that normally take teachers many years to learn. This is a story of intrigue, paranoia, frustration and failure. It is a story of the flower of youth being plucked before its time. Whatever bits of hope are contained therein are purely incidental.

By senior year in college, the only thing I had left to do was a semester of student teaching. I was assigned to a large high school in Manhattan that has since been closed. For the spring 2000 semester, Mr. Thomas (not his real name) was to be my mentor. We were told to go into our high schools a few days before the new semester started to introduce ourselves to our mentors and straighten out what class we would be teaching. Even from this early stage, there were signs that this was not going to be my semester.

I arrived bright and early on one of those quiet days when no children were in attendance. The staff was all in jeans and t-shirts, a comfort most of them were going to give up once the kids returned. Perhaps they were too relaxed, since it was not until lunchtime that anybody bothered to tell me that Mr. Thomas had called in sick for the day. I was told to come back on the first day of school. It would be fine, I was assured, since student teachers only observed classes for the first two weeks anyway. In other words, it was not like I had to teach on the first day. I had plenty of time to work out with Mr. Thomas what exactly I would be doing.

When that first day arrived, I again came bright and early to school. I was told to wait in the Social Studies office, where Mr. Thomas would be able to find me. A whole hour passed before my mentor finally appeared. It was 10 minutes before the first class of the day, which left very little time for Mr. Thomas and I to work out my duties for the semester. He hurriedly shook my hand and led me to some dingy room where we could talk in peace. He had a schedule of five classes: four 10th grade Global History IVs and one 9th grade Global History II. Common sense would dictate that I should teach one of the 10th grade classes, since I would be able to observe him teach the same curriculum to another class. Alas, common sense was on short supply at this particular school.

Mr. Thomas launched into some long-winded speech about me having my own “style” and him not wanting to interfere with that style. What the hell was this man talking about? How did some 21-year-old punk who had never taught a class in his life have any style at all? I thought I was here to develop a style. I might have been flattered that he gave me so much credit, if it was not for the fact that he also gave me his 9th grade class to teach. More importantly, because he did not want to cramp my awesome style, he said I could start teaching my class that day. I looked at the clock and saw I had precisely 3 hours until I had to stand in front a room full of 9th graders for the first time in my life with no lesson plan and no idea what I was supposed to teach them for the semester.

The clock started ticking. Just 4 short years before, I was a student in a New York City public high school. My memories of high school consisted of sleeping in class and spending hours in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn “chilling” with my friends. Being back in a high school building made me feel 17 years old again. How in the world was I going to take myself seriously enough to teach? How were these 9th graders not going to see through my pretentious shirt and tie to the insecure 17 year old boy that would be trying to pass himself off as an educator? I had three hours to figure it all out.

Those three hours would be engaged in watching Mr. Thomas go through the first day of class routines with his 10th grade students. During the first period, Mr. Thomas’ students filed into the room and sat where they wanted. All the while Mr. Thomas stood at the front wearing a serious glare, the type that certainly would have scared me as a teenager. He immediately picked two random students to distribute textbooks to the class. As they were doing so, a girl got up to open a window. Before she got halfway to her destination, Mr. Thomas said a stern “no, no”. The girl started to protest and Mr. Thomas repeated his words over hers. She sat back down with a roll of the eyes, duly chastened. From that moment on, the students learned not to mess with Mr. Thomas.

It was all downhill from there. It turns out that Mr. Thomas did not distribute textbooks for the kids to take home. Instead, the textbook was his lesson. He picked random students around the room and had each read a paragraph out loud about World War I until the bell rang. There was no homework, no settling the kids into routines, no notes on the board, no handouts, no do now activity. He did the same thing with the next 10th grade class. In fact, he did this every day I observed him. There was no deviation from this routine of empty reading and lack of any actual work or thinking. Still, on that first day, I was too idealistic and intimidated to pass any type of judgment on Mr. Thomas’ teaching. He was the veteran and I was the kid. There had to be a method to all of this.

There was at least one free period between Mr. Thomas’ classes and the class I was destined to teach. The clock seemed to be moving agonizingly slow, dragging out my dread and anticipation. I expected that Mr. Thomas would sit down with me and give me some pointers on how to make it through my first class ever. After his last class, I sidled up to him in hopes of hearing his thoughts. Instead, his words to me were “don’t take this personally, but I need my space. You should go off and do your own thing to prep for your class.” Prep for my first class with what? I had 40 minutes to figure out what I was going to do. There was no time to round up textbooks, make copies or write a lesson. Even if there were textbooks, what pages would they read? Even if there was a copy machine, what would I even copy? What am I going to do with 30 9th graders for 40 minutes? The longest presentations I ever gave to a group were little 5 minute skits for other college students, and even those seemed to drag on for an eternity. I was toast and I knew it.

The biggest fear of the student teacher is losing control of the class. What if the kids run into the room, throw chairs at each other and totally tune out everything I say? What tools do I have at my disposal to force kids to listen to me? In fact, why should the kids even give me the time of day? Who was I to demand their attention and respect when I literally had no clue what I was doing?

Those questions would soon be answered. I showed up to the classroom 5 minutes before the period started, only to find another teacher and another class in the room. I peered through the little window on the door to the classroom to get acquainted with what would be my work environment. It was a large, open and bright spave. It certainly was a much better room than the one in which Mr. Thomas taught. The bell rang, the previous class marched out of the room and I stormed in, placing myself by the door so I could watch the first students I would ever teach as they entered. To my pleasant surprise, they did not come running wildly into the room throwing chairs at each other. They were mostly sheepish and uncertain of each other and the strange, gawky figure at the front of the room. To make it more confusing for them, Mr. Thomas was sitting in the back. They did not know to which adult they should offer their allegiance. Some of the kids asked me “Are you Mr. Thomas?”, to which I responded with a shake of the head. Their programs had Mr. Thomas’ name on them, since it was legally his class and he was merely lending it to me.

I feared that my kids would be wild because I secretly desired for them to be so. If they had not let me get a word in edgewise, then I could chalk up my failure to unruly students and give Mr. Thomas an excuse to take control of the class for a few weeks until they were settled. That is not how it happened. To my horror, all the kids were in their seats by the time the late bell rang. They were quiet and their upturned faces were all on me, as if they wanted and expected me to actually teach. You could have heard a pin drop in that room as I cleared my throat and wrote my very long and inconvenient last name on the board. Until this point in my life, the only people who called me Mr. Teacher (instead of just my first name, Assailed, or my shortened name, Ass), were adults who wanted to address me in condescending anger. “Mr. Teacher, you’re in big trouble for pulling that fire alarm.” It was always a sign of me being subordinate. Now, I had to call myself by this name when I was in a position of power. Mr. Teacher was now a name to be respected instead of a prelude to a talking to by an authority figure.

It was an out of body experience. As I pronounced my name for the class, I wondered who this Mr. Teacher was and where the hell he gets off thinking anybody should respect him. Everything after that moment was a blur. I remember doing some sort of brainstorming activity to pass the time, which only ended up eating away 10 minutes. For the rest of the period, I rambled on about what we would be learning despite the fact that I had no idea what was in the curriculum. Looking back on it, it was not the most horrible experience in the world. After a few minutes I had found a level of confidence and comfort that I did not expect. The game was on to see which student would be the first to realize that I was full of it. Mercifully, the bell rang before they could figure me out. I had made it through my first teaching experience ever.

After the class was over, Mr. Thomas mustered up the stomach to spend 20 consecutive minutes with me discussing what I should do next. I needed handouts, lessons and textbooks, he said. I needed to establish routines. I did not have to give homework every night, but it should be understood that the kids would have to “study” on the nights they do not. Study what? I had no notes or materials to give the students. Even if I did, what does it mean to “study” them?

For future lessons, his routine would be to cut out of my class 5 minutes early so he could go to lunch. I would meet him downstairs after class was over, looking at the top of his head as he hunched over the table, scarfing down his food. I would be lucky to get a complete sentence of feedback out of him about the day’s lesson and, when I did, he would say little more than “it was a good lesson.” After a while, I did not buy the fact that every lesson I did was good. I certainly was not satisfied and I was losing the respect of the kids with each passing day. Since I was not getting any help from my mentor, I had started spending hours in the social studies office looking through materials to use in my classroom and picking up bits of conversation from veteran teachers who spent their free periods there. My constant presence in the teacher’s lounge seemed to engender a lot of resentment on the part of the teachers. Many of them spoke down to me (when they spoke to me at all) and gave me death glares as I sat at the giant table pouring over materials. Maybe I was taking up their space? Maybe I had done some horrible thing I was not aware of that violated some secret teacher code? Whatever it was, I had obviously done something to get off on the wrong foot with them.

If my student teaching experience consisted of just this, it would be bad enough. However, things were about to go from bad to much worse.

Mr. Thomas happened to be absent one day. In a fit of youthful eagerness, I offered to cover his full schedule of classes. His classes were just about to learn of the social unrest caused by the Industrial Revolution in Europe. As an opening question, I asked the students about the meaning of oppression and what groups they might consider oppressed today. I will admit it was not the best assignment, but what do you expect from a total novice who never received an ounce of guidance? Anyway, I listed the answers the students gave on the board. I do not remember the rest of the lesson aside from the fact that the kids were very nice and cooperative.

The next day I had some things to take care of at my college, so I was only able to make it in to teach my own class and then leave. I was unable to speak to Mr. Thomas at all that day, which really was no big loss for me. The day after that, I went back to my old routine of waiting for Mr. Thomas outside of his room for the start of morning classes. When he arrived, he said to me “I told the assistant principal I don’t want to work with you anymore.” I was completely taken aback and let out a reactionary “why not?” I was barking up the wrong tree. Mr. Thomas was already inside of his classroom without giving me another look or missing a beat. When I arrived at the AP’s office, she beckoned me with a stern voice and a wagging finger, ordering me to sit in the chair beside her desk. She launched into a shrill lecture against mentioning “sexual orientation” in class. I did not know what in the world she was talking about and I told her as much in the most respectful tone I could muster at the time. She asked “did you or did you not tell Mr. Thomas’ class that gay people are oppressed?”

“No, I did not. I asked the class about oppression and what people they thought were oppressed today. One kid in one class answered ‘gays’, so I wrote it on the board. It was one answer among many and that is where it stayed.”

But from the inferences she was making, it seemed as if she was suggesting that I had led a detailed discussion on queer identity politics. It was an extremely bizarre accusation for many reasons. I was totally unqualified to lead such a discussion, seeing as how I had zero experience with being gay or gay people in general. I had never even taken a gay studies class in college. But, even if I had led a discussion on gay rights, so what? Was she contending that gay people were not oppressed? Or was she contending that the oppression of gay people was not an appropriate topic of discussion in a history class? Assuming that such a discussion does, in fact, have no place in a high school classroom, does it really warrant me of being stripped of my student teacher duties?

She said, “I have every right to let you go and end your student teaching time, but I will cut you a break and try to find another teacher you can work with.”

Great. Now she was going to have to ask the staff that hated my guts for whatever reason to take me on as a student teacher. Only now, I would be seen as a troublemaker, damaged goods, a liability or someone not worth taking the chance on. I was not holding my breath. To make things even worse, the AP had already informed my college professor about my scandalous gay rights discussion, prompting her to come down to the school to admonish me on doing such a foolish thing. From that point on, she treated me as persona non grata. I was afraid for my grade point average, which was near perfect after four years of hard work. All of that was jeopardized because of the paranoid judgments of a group of ignorant people.

Fortunately, she was able to find another veteran teacher to take a chance on mentoring me. He was much older and milder than Mr. Thomas. Instead of Global History, I would be teaching American History. After I taught my first class, I realized why they had put me there. It was a zero period class that started around 7:30 in the morning. Any teacher who has had a class that early knows that most of the students on the roster are still at home sleeping. I would be lucky if four students showed up. Only one student bothered to show up on time every day, a senior who needed this one class to graduate. The class was death but at least I was able to limp through to the end of the semester. This mentor was a better teacher than Mr. Thomas, although he certainly was no Teacher of the Year. He spent most of his time lecturing and his students spent most of their time sleeping. However, at least he took the time to give me feedback on my lessons. I was too young and inexperienced to internalize the tips he shared with me. But after what I had been through up until that point, I was thankful that anyone in that building spoke to me at all.

Ever since the incident of the gay rights discussion that never took place, nothing was the same. I was only 21 years old but felt like a crotchety old man. On one occasion, my nicer mentor suggested that I spend less time in the social studies office, since the teachers were very territorial and there was a lot of “who does this guy think he is?” feeling going around. At that point, I did not care what they thought of me, so I made it a point to spend as much time in the office as possible. After all, I needed to work on my lessons and I could not pass up the chance to piss people off with just my mere presence. If they were going to make it so easy for me to get under their skin, then I was going to take full advantage of it. While they sat around with their coffees talking about the color of their drapes and what they did over the weekend, I was going to pour over my books and my handouts and build my career right in front of their eyes.

Ironically, the more time I spent in the office, the more teachers I was able to meet. I learned that not all of them were bitter, petty people. There were those that understood that I was doing actual work and respected me for it. On one occasion, one of these teachers revealed that Mr. Thomas had been under a very long and dragged out investigation that prompted his removal from the classroom. He had just recently been cleared. Therefore, he was a little sensitive to any controversy in the classroom, which explained why he was so quick to get rid of me. What I did not understand was, if he was so apprehensive and hurt, why would he take a student teacher on at all? The teacher had an answer for that one too: he got a free class at my college. It sort of made sense to me at that point. It was a bitter lesson to learn that schools were not the wonderland of learning and tolerance that I had envisioned. There were those people who, for whatever reason, were not solely motivated by the high ideals of disseminating knowledge.

It has been 12 years since my personal horror show of student teaching. There were many things I left out about the experience, things I will be sure to reveal in future posts.

I like to think I am light years beyond the type of teacher I was back then. In some ways this is true. But, in other ways, a part of me is still that bitter 21-year-old student teacher. A part of me still feels sickened when I see a teacher act all uptight or afraid to say or do certain things. There are always limits, of course, but there is also such a thing as intellectual honesty. Oppression is a fact of life and I do not see why so many teachers try to avoid the issue. Ignoring it and treating it like it does not exist just serves to perpetuate oppression, since it deprives children of a full understanding of the world around them. In short, there are too many repressed teachers who go out of their way to censor themselves. Knowledge should be a vast open space. I make no apologies for being honest and open with my students. There is nothing inappropriate about giving your students access to powerful ideas that they can use to unlock the meaning of the world around them. Of course, teachers censor and repress themselves for good reason, especially today when their tenure rights have been severely eroded away. My honesty is my personal rebellion against this culture of fear, paranoia and pettiness that pervades the public schools. I find that honest words cut through the foul smog of censorship like a knife. It might catch up with me one day, but at least I get to keep a part of my soul.

Moreover, I learned that the rumors that make their rounds around the teacher’s lounge should be immediately disregarded. I cannot imagine the types of judgments that were being passed on me as a student teacher; judgments from people that only had second and third hand information about what really went on. Whenever a teacher is removed from the school pending an investigation, there are always those teachers that are quick to combine the scraps of half-digested rumors they have heard and judge that “the teacher should not have done that.” As a former chapter leader, I have seen first-hand how totally innocent and innocuous things can be twisted around in an attempt to destroy a teacher’s career. When the day finally comes that my more judgmental and rumor-prone colleagues find themselves on the business end of an investigation, I can only hope that other people are not so quick to write them off like they have written off countless others. I am not religious but a little “there but for the grace of God, go I” might be in order.

Honesty is a tough commodity to find today in public schools. Fear is the order of the day. I resolved a long time ago to not carry out my duties in fear. It is the 21-year-old student teacher in me. It is the idealist who has seen all of the horror stories one can see in a public school. Rather than allowing the system to crush my humanity, I have vowed to be more and more humane with every new horror story that comes along. It is my way of compensating for the sins of the education system. The current era of education deform only promises to inject more dark fear into public schools. As their measures become more severe and entrenched, so will my honesty and so will the honesty of every educator out there who has never lost sight of the type of courage that is required to be an actual teacher.