Because of my almost decade-long tenure as a NYC Public School Teacher, and my position as a union leader, people often ask me, “Why are the graduations rates in NYC so low?” and, “How come this generation of students seems so much dumber than previous generations?” and, “Is there one underlying reason behind the abysmal failures of the Department of Education?” The truth of the matter is that there are many factors behind the 54% graduation rates, 5th Grade reading levels of high school students, and every other indicator that there are close to 1 million students in New York City that won’t be able to spell “unemployed” correctly on their future welfare applications. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll try to shed some light on this conundrum: the NYC DOE has a budget of $17 billion dollars, yet produces students who are so ill-equipped that in the coming years, they will not be able to independently function either economically or socially.
By way of explaining the primary reason behind these failures, I’d like to recount an anecdote that occurred just this past Thursday. I was summoned to the Principal’s office to discuss “a problem.” As a union leader, I am privy to 90% of the school’s “problems,” which, according to the administration, are 100% the fault of the teachers. This particular problem revolved around some laptop computers that were purchased for the sole purpose of student use. Please keep repeating these two variables in your mind while reading. Laptop computers. Student use. Ok, ready? Here we go.
I was in the middle of teaching an English lesson to a group of students comprised of both general and special ed students, when I receive a call from the principal, who, for the sake of this anecdote, we’ll call Ms. Warbear. Because that’s what her name actually means when translated from the German words which make up her name. Seriously. Here is the conversation we have, in its entirety, verbatim:
WARBEAR: Mr. Outcast, where are the willows?
ME: Um, what? Who is this?
WARBEAR: It’s the principal. (Note – she never uses her name, just her title). I want to know where the willows are.
ME: (PAUSE) Is this a riddle or something? Because I’m in the middle of class here –
WARBEAR: (SIGHS) Can you just tell me where the willows are?
ME: …Down by the river? Look, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about, I’m in the middle of class, and don’t have time to locate your wayward trees…
WARBEAR: (CHANTING, AND RAISING HER VOICE) The willows! The willows! The willows! The little mini laptops! Where are they?!
ME: (RESIGNING MYSELF TO THE FACT THAT THIS CONVERSATION CAN NOT BE ANYTHING BUT EXCRUTIATINGLY PAINFUL) Why are you calling them “willows”?
WARBEAR: Where are they?!
ME: They’re in my room, in the closet, locked up…
WARBEAR: I need them. Now.
Remember, I am in the middle of teaching a class in a room other than my own, I cannot leave said class, the laptops about which she is screeching are locked in a 10’x4’x3’ steel cage inside of a steel-doored closet, secured with two separate bolt-action locks. If the laptops suddenly went radioactive, and reached critical mass, it would still take ten minutes to get them out. I try to explain, using as many single-syllable words as I can, that her request is impossible, and I’ll talk to her later. I gently end the conversation by hanging up on her, mid-screech. Also keep in mind that no one, in any culture, in any language, for any reason, has ever, or will ever call laptops "willows." Except for her. Someday, the color of the sky in her world will be revealed to me.
Three hours pass, and there is no further contact until the end of the day, when, as I am signing out, I notice a post-it note on my time card. The note reads, “You may see me at the end of the day.” The note is unsigned, and does not, in any sort of way, indicate who the “me” is, or who might have placed it on my time card. Knowing that a fairly intelligent person would have at least scribbled their initials, I deduce that it is in fact the principal who wishes to talk to me. If I had even the most ephemeral glimpse of the events that were about to transpire, I would have just walked out the door, hopped into my car, and driven home. Alas, I decided to pop into her office to follow up on both the strange phone call and message.
A little perspective is warranted here. The principal never leaves her office. Never. For any reason. She arrives at 7:45, hightails it to her deskchair, and remains firmly planted there until 5:30 or so when it is time to leave. Even during lunch she doesn’t leave the room, instead electing to wheel her chair from the desk to the paper and food-strewn conference table to eat and then back again. I’m not even sure if she has legs.
I enter the office, and am greeted by both her and one of the assistant principals, who, for sake of this anecdote, we shall call Ms. ELA. Ms. ELA is the assistant principal in charge of “Literacy,” despite the fact that she consistently spells numerous words wrong on departmental memos, and didn’t know what a syllable was until two years ago. Seriously. At our school, we have five assistant principals, each specializing in their own brand of incompetence. But more on that later. I sit down, and am immediately sucked into one of the most bizarre conversations I have ever had the displeasure of having. You’ll have to trust my eidetic memory and the fact that I write down everything being said during a meeting and I have not added, nor omitted anything to this dialogue. Once again, here is the conversation, in its entirety:
WARBEAR: Ok, so let’s hear it.
ME: Um, you asked me to come. I don’t know why I’m here. Is this about our phone conversation earlier?
WARBEAR: Yes, tell me about the computers. Why did you say that the teachers couldn’t have them?
Note: During that morning's ELA (English Language Arts) meeting, Ms. ELA said that teachers could use the laptops in my room to execute some mundane, unnecessary task, which I won’t describe right now, suffice it to say that it is indeed mundane and unnecessary. I corrected Ms. ELA, saying that those laptops were for the students.
ME: I didn’t. I said that those particular laptops are part of a class set, which I didn’t want to separate. If five or six people came and borrowed them, then the set would be incomplete when a teacher wished to use them for class. We have plenty of other computers for the teachers to use….
WARBEAR: Who put you in charge of the laptops? I’m the principal here!
ME: Um, you put me in charge of those particular computers when you saw fit to store them in my classroom, give me the key to the cabinet, and tell Mr. Tech Director (not his real name) that I would be responsible for overseeing their use.
WARBEAR: Well, I’m going to have to have a talk with Mr. Tech Director if he thinks he can go over my head!
ME: You specifically told him to put me in charge of them. I was there when you said it. We were all sitting in this room, about two weeks ago, in the precise locations we are sitting now.
WARBEAR: But you are not a tech teacher! It is not your job! The job belongs to the tech teacher on your floor!
ME: Yes, fine, but Ms. Tech Teacher (again, not her real name) doesn’t have room in her classroom for the cabinet, and in fact told me yesterday that she didn’t want any added responsibility, and was glad that I was taking care of it.
WARBEAR: That’s not what she told me ten minutes ago. I just talked to her.
ME: I doubt that; I was in her classroom all last period, we walked downstairs together, and I watched her as she clocked out and left. I’m not saying you’re lying or anything, but you definitely didn’t talk to her.
WARBEAR: Well, we’ll have to call her in here – I don’t want any of this “she said, she said” nonsense. (Note – in the four years this woman has been principal, she has been responsible for more atrocities concerning the English language than Dan Quayle and GW combined, including, but not limited to, the senseless slaughter of every cliché, proverb, slogan, idiom and quote).
ME: Ok, call her in.
WARBEAR: No, I’m not going to. You have to realize that I’m the principal here – stop trying to steal my job!
ME: (PUZZLED) I’m not trying to steal your job – I’m trying to do mine. If you don’t want me to be responsible for the laptops, then fine, whatever, take them out of my closet then. I don’t want to get in the middle of some ridiculous power struggle here.
WARBEAR: This isn’t a power struggle – this is about you doing whatever you want!
ME: I’m not doing anything except making sure that our students have access to technology. As it is, you didn’t program any of my 8th grade classes with anything except core subjects. All they have is English, Math, Science and History. For six hours a day, every day. They have nothing else. They have no Art, no Music, no library period, no technology lab. They deserve more (Note – it’s completely true. There are entire classes at the school who do not receive instruction in Art or Music, and never get to visit the library or computer labs. But one period a week they sit in the Auditorium and do nothing. For 45 minutes. We have 5 Assistant Principals, but only one Music and one Art teacher).
WARBEAR: (SMUGLY) Mr. Outcast, your class is programmed for extra core subjects because they are the Honors Class and they need the extra time.
ME: First of all, only one of my classes was given the designation “Honors” class – the other two don’t have art or music or lab or library either. Second, there is no such thing as an “Honors class” in this school, because two years ago you cancelled the program! (Note – this is completely true. Two colleagues and I spent six months designing a Gifted and Talented program for the school, only to see it get dismantled because one parent complained that it was unfair that some students were accepted and others weren’t. Specifically, her kid. More on stupid parents later). Thirdly, even if every one of my students was in an honors class, wouldn’t that mean that they should have access to things beyond the scope of the ordinary curriculum? There’s a lot more to education than teaching to a stupid state assessment test you know.
WARBEAR: (SUPREMELY SMUGLY) Well, maybe that’s why your classes do so poorly on the state tests! (Note – in nine years, my students have gone up an average of 27% on the state ELA assessment tests. One year, they went up 61%. Last year, my ELA class had the highest average score increase of every 7th grade in all of the 67 middle schools in the Bronx. Yeah, “poorly.”)
ME: (NOT EXACTLY WANTING TO GET INTO THIS DISCUSSION RIGHT NOW, BUT NOT WANTING TO BACK AWAY FROM IT, EITHER) I’m not here to prep students for a test. I don’t care about the test. I have never cared about the test. I care about educating our students so that they can be intelligent, functional members of society with skills in abstract reasoning and rational thought. Something that is apparently sorely lacking in our culture.
MS ELA: (WHO UNTIL THIS POINT HAS REMAINED SILENT) That’s not a very good attitude for a Literacy teacher to have…
ME: I’m not a “Literacy” teacher. My NY State certification is in English Language Arts and Literature. My undergrad degree is in English Literature. My Graduate degree is in English Literature. I’m not here to teach kids to read. We have faculty members for that, but I’m not one of them.
MS ELA: Well, you still have to care about the test and do what we tell you! (I thought this wasn’t a power struggle)
ME: You can tell me to do whatever you’d like, and I’m still going to make my decisions based on 1) The State Standards for ELA, and 2) my professional, expert judgment. And my expert judgment says that our students need more access to technology, and less test prep. The NY State ELA Standards don’t mention “test prep,” so you know what, I’m not going to do it. (Note – Yes, I am an arrogant asshole)
MS ELA: (GETTING ANGRY) I’m a parent – (Note – this is the phrase that people use when they have run out of intelligent, valid arguments. It is a logical fallacy, writ large, and if I have to explain why, then you are probably the type of person who uses the phrase, “I’m a parent” to start off every sentence) – and I wouldn’t want to hear a teacher say that he doesn’t care about the state tests! You would never say that to a parent!
ME: I say it all the time! Ask them! At every parent-teacher conference I say the same thing – “I don’t care if your kid gets a perfect score on the ELA test or not, all I care is that he / she is prepared for high school and beyond.” And they nod their heads, agree, thank me for being honest, and then buy me Christmas presents. I got a phone call last week from a parent who thanked me for getting her daughter into college. (Note – this is sort of true. It was the student herself who called to thank me, and her mom got on the line later). If you’d like, I’ll write out a letter right now that says, “Dear parents, I don’t care about the ELA test in the slightest. I care only about raising the intelligence level of your child.”
MS ELA: (LITERALLY GETTING OUT OF HER CHAIR, FISTS CLENCHED, FACE RED) If I was the parent of one of your students, I’d come up to your room and make sure you went straight to Hell! (Note – This is not an exaggeration or hyperbole. This is an exact quote. From an Assistant Principal in a middle school. To a 9-year veteran English teacher and Union official. Yeah.)
WARBEAR: Please sit down, please sit down, please sit down…
ME: I think I’ll be going now. Have a great afternoon. (EXEUNT)
I made my way to my car, turned on the radio, and sat there for a few minutes re-reading and updating the notes that I had taken during the meeting. There it was, in stark black and white. Straight to Hell. That’s where an Assistant Principal of a middle school believes teachers should go if they refuse to teach to the test and demand more access to both extra-curricular activities and modern technology.
Let me repeat that, because it’s really the crux of my entire argument against the DOE. A NYC School administrator vehemently believes that any teacher who chooses meaningful instruction over test preparation should forever burn in the infernal depths of Hades.
Think this was a one-time occurrence? A freak meeting where emotions overtook reason and tempers flared? Stay tuned.