Skip to main content

A Confederacy of Dunces

People who aren’t teachers always say the same three things to me: “Wow, you’re lucky, you get the summers off,” and, “You must love kids,” and, “Wow, I could never do that job!” What people don’t seem to realize is that teachers need their summers off for their own psychological health, teaching more than three years will drastically change your perception of children, (and most of the rest of the human race as well) and yes, not only could you not do this job, you wouldn’t want to do this job. I’ve been teaching in the NYC public school system for close to nine years, and I wouldn’t wish my job on my worst enemy. Which, ironically, is the NYC public school system.

Why? Because the entire New York City Department of Education is a perfect example of an entropic system – in fact, it was designed to fail. Don’t believe me? Since 2002, the NYC Schools have been under the direct control of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a man who has demonstrated time and again that he knows absolutely nothing about education. How else would one explain the inability to deal with abysmally low graduation rates? So, ever the politician, Bloomberg appointed long time crony Joel Klein, a man who has demonstrated time and again that he doesn’t know anything about education either, to come in and clean things up. Klein managed to do two things – lower the number of school suspensions (he managed this feat by refusing to suspend students for even the most violent crimes. We had a kid who brought a 12” knife to school in his backpack, and his suspension application was rejected by the city), and hire the sorriest bunch of administrators he could possibly put together. Truth of the matter is that the vast majority of school administrators (Principals, Assistant Principals, etc) are not only severely lacking in teaching experience, but they have no interest in education at all.

Let me repeat that for dramatic effect:

Administrators of NYC Public Schools genuinely have no interest in educating children whatsoever.

How can I make this outrageous statement? Keep reading.

Let me start by giving you a rundown of the people who are “in charge” of the school in which I have worked for almost nine years:

The Principal, whom readers know as Warbear, has held a NYS Permanent Certificate in Special Education since 1996. She became a school administrator in 2004. Our senior AP has held a Nursery, Kindergarten & Grades 1-6 Permanent Certificate since 1998, and became an administrator in 2005. The ELA AP, you know her as the one who damned me to hell, so we’ll just go ahead and call her Hellhound, was also issued a Nursery, Kindergarten & Grades 1-6 Permanent Certificate in 1996; she became an administrator in 2004. The AP in charge of sciences has the most experience – 20 years as a licensed “Industrial Arts” teacher. You know: shop class. Our AP in charge of “Special Education But It Isn’t Quite Clear What She Does All Day”, received a School District Administrator Permanent Certificate in 2005; she does not now, nor has ever, held a teaching license in the state of New York.

There you are ladies and gentlemen –the illustrious leaders of our NYC Middle School. None of whom have ever taught so much as a single Middle School class in their entire lives.
It’s not just my school, oh no – the practice of hiring and placing people with little to no educational experience is endemic to the entire system. Principal of Urban Assembly Academy of Civic Engagement? Zero years teaching experience, received Administrator’s license in 2008. Principal of New Millennium Business Academy Middle School? No teaching license, holds only a provisional Administrator’s license. The Bronx School of Diplomacy principal? Ditto – no teaching license, and a temporary Administrator’s license which expires in three years. The Bronx Mathematics Preparatory School? That’s right – the principal hasn’t taught a day in his life and holds only a temporary Admin license from 2007. The Bronx School of Science Inquiry and Investigation? Hmm…no records are found at all of the principal’s license. And that’s just a small selection of schools in the Bronx. You can try it for yourself: Just search for a school here and then cross reference the principal here. Hours of fun.

But, Valannin, you’re saying to yourself, that doesn’t prove that the administration doesn’t care about education! No? Well then try this on for size:

I arrive at work everyday at around 7:30 AM – we don’t actually have to be in the building until 8, but there’s always plenty of work to be done. I walk in today and notice that my timecard is missing from the slot (yes, we actually have timecards, like common laborers in a sweatshop or something). I ask the payroll secretary, who, despite being the only other person in the school who is legally allowed to even touch my card, doesn’t know where it is. I’m about to give up and just go to my classroom when one of the paraprofessionals motions to me that not only does she have my card, but a notice for me as well. Isn’t that nice! A paraprofessional with no administrative or teaching license has access to my payroll card and is handing out official notices to boot! What a professional atmosphere I work in!

The letter she hands me says the following:

“You are invited to attend a three-part series of a Balanced Literacy Workshop…blah blah blah…” I stop reading after the words “Balanced Literacy” (I’ll explain why in a future post) and “invited.” See, in the strange world in which I was raised, when someone “invites” you to something, you have the opportunity to decline. I’m not big on workshops; I’ve been to dozens of them over the years and have never learned anything of any importance, or anything remotely related to my job of teaching English Literature. Usually workshops consist of Dept of Ed administrators (read: people with very little teaching experience) or overpaid consultants hawking the next great methodology in teaching. Methodologies, I may point out, that have failed. Hard.

Before I stuff the invitation in my bag (I save every piece of paper ever given to me by administration; it’s fun to watch them squirm when they claim to have “never said that” while you are waving the very notice on which they have said exactly “that”), I glance down at the time and date of the workshop. 8:30, October 6th. Gee, today is October 6th. I’m being told about a workshop being held in another location less than an hour before it starts?

Brilliant planning, and entirely indicative of the way the administration manages time in our school. Two years ago, they planned to have the entire 8th grade class pose for the “senior group picture” outside in the yard at 2:45 PM. We dismiss at 2:58. Ever try to coordinate 300 eighth graders in the Bronx to get together for a group picture 15 minutes before dismissal? Let me ask it another way – every try to line up 300 meth-addicted retarded goats and get them to board a canoe blindfolded during a hurricane? Same thing. I knew that such an exercise was going to be a failure from the get-go, and as such, I didn’t even bother to take my class downstairs. Sure enough, there were three fistfights and the kids ended up breaking a steel gate. Needless to say, the photo-op was postponed.

So, I made my way up to my classroom and began preparations for the day. I had planned to begin a complex project involving symbolism and literary theme, and I had some loose ends to tie up. Flash forward to about 10 minutes into first period. A teacher walks in, let’s call him Mr. D, clutching a coverage slip (that’s what teachers get when they have been assigned to cover a class for an absent teacher). We have the following conversation:

Mr. D: Oh, you’re here.

Me: As far as I can tell.

Mr. D: Then this must have been a mistake.

Me: I guess so.

He leaves. Not two minutes go by before AP Hellhound makes an appearance in the classroom. Here’s the transcript of that conversation:

Hellhound: Why are you here?

Me: I work here.

Hellhound: Aren’t you supposed to be at some meeting? (Notice how she says “some meeting.” If she was the AP in charge of ELA, wouldn’t she damn well know where I was supposed to be?)

Me: No administrator informed me that I would be attending any sort of meeting today.

Hellhound: Oh. Well, I think you are. (Again, what’s with all the pathetic dancing around of the subject?)

Me: Nope, I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be here, unless you know something I don’t.


Two more minutes go by and yet another AP sticks her head in the room. For sake of this anecdote, we’ll call her Rosie, since she has been blessed with all the grace, charm, and beauty of Rosie O’Donnell, if she suffered a debilitating brain injury.

Rosie: You’re here…

Me: Why does everyone keep saying that to me?

Rosie: Warbear wants you downstairs in the main office.

Me: Now? I’m in the middle of class.

Rosie: Yes, now. I’ll cover the class. What are they doing?

What are they doing? It took me an hour to plan the lesson and a whole period the day before to explain it to the class. I wasn’t about to explain it in five seconds as I went out the door. So, I left and made my way to the office, where, sure enough, Warbear was perched on her throne. Standing in the back of the room is Hellhound. Here is the conversation in its entirety:

Me: Ok, yes?

Warbear: (feigning puzzlement) Mr. Outcast, can I help you?

Me: You just asked me to come down here. Rosie came into my room and told me that you wanted to see me now.

Warbear: Don’t you have somewhere you have to be?

Me: Yes, teaching class. I’m in the middle of instruction.

Warbear: I believe you’re supposed to be at a workshop? You were told to go.

Me: No, I was invited to go, and I respectfully decline the invitation.

Warbear: (GETTING ANGRY) Why?!

Me: A couple of reasons. One, I didn’t find out about this workshop until today at 7:30, and two, since it was an invitation, I decided that my job is more important than sitting in some workshop.

Warbear: Do you know what your job is? Your job is to do what I tell you to do.

Me: No, I’m pretty sure that my job is to teach English to 8th graders in this school.

At this point, Warbear snorts derisively, waves her hand dismissively at me, and makes a chuckling sound that can only be interpreted as “Oh, please.”

Me: (not wanting to get into yet another fight) Look, had you informed me of this workshop in advance, I could have made other plans. I’m in the middle of a project with my class. When did you first find out about the workshop?

Warbear: I don’t know. Ms. Hellhound, when did we find out about this?

Hellhound: Um, two weeks ago.

Me: Then why didn’t you inform us then?

Warbear: Because we didn’t know that there were going to be seats available until last night. (Seats? I’ve been to these types of workshops before. You sit in the library of some school with a dozen or so other people on folding chairs. It’s not exactly like trying to get Pink Floyd tickets).

Me: Even so, it might have been a good idea to let us know from the beginning that you were planning this. I’m just asking for a little professional courtesy here.

Warbear: But Mr. Outcast, if we weren’t able to get the seats, then the teachers who wanted to go would have been disappointed. We couldn’t tell them two weeks ago because they might not have been able to go.

Me: What?! If no one knew about the workshop until this morning, how exactly would they be disappointed in something they had no prior knowledge of? If you weren’t able to get the seats, then you could have just not told us.


Me: You have to! You called me down here! You took me away from my class and all you’ve done is talk in circles!

Warbear: You do what you think you have to do. You want to call the Chancellor, go call the Chancellor. (Note – I emailed the Chancellor an hour later). Go call a lawyer.

Me: Ok, fine, I’ll go call a lawyer. Then I’ll call the NY Post and the President of the United States. I’m going back to class.

So I leave and go back to class. Rosie is sitting in one of the student’s chairs, which is pretty funny in and of itself, because it looks like someone dropped a zeppelin on a barstool. She pries herself up and says, “So you’re here.” I respond, “I was given a choice. And here I am.” She leaves, and I pick up where I left off. On a side note, one of my students tells me, “Ms. Rosie tried to make us do something stupid to the project, but I told her that Mr. Outcast knows what he’s doing.” And yes, she will be getting extra credit tomorrow.

Not five minutes goes by and the classroom phone rings. It’s Warbear yet again.

Warbear: Mr. Outcast, what are you doing here?!

Me: I’m teaching my class.

Warbear: Didn’t I tell you to go to the workshop?!

Me: Um, no, actually, you didn’t. Your exact words were, “You do what you think you have to do.” I have to teach. My students will always come first.

Warbear: Mr. Outcast, I’m asking you nicely now, will you go to the workshop?

Me: It’s too late for that. Maybe if we had this conversation two days ago, things would have been different. I can’t talk to you now, I have students waiting.

And then, I hung up. Of course, after the two periods were over, I fired off an email to the Chancellor, the union, and pretty much everyone else I have in my little black book who may be able to assist me with fighting the insubordination letter which is certain to arrive tomorrow.

Angry yet? Let’s crunch some numbers: I teach six periods on Tuesday, which is about one period above the average, to three classes containing 30 students each. Had I gone to the workshop, 90 students would not have received any meaningful instruction in English for today. Ah, but it gets better. I wasn’t the only teacher “invited” to attend today’s snore-fest; four others were given the same honor. Assuming that they also teach three classes, or 90 students, that would make a grand total of 450 students who would not have received any meaningful English instruction today.

Let’s look at it from a financial perspective: I get paid approximately $386.75 a day to teach. Had I gone to the workshop, the city would have paid me that same amount to do absolutely nothing. Plus, all six of my classes would have to have been covered by a substitute teacher at a rate of approximately $40 per period. Given that each teacher has an average of 5 teaching periods a day, the school would have to spend approximately $200 to cover that teacher’s program. My attendance at the workshop would have cost the school, and by extension, the City of New York, approximately $586.00. Four other teachers did attend the workshop, and so, their absence from the school cost taxpayers approximately $2350. Had I gone, the total would have been $2932.00. And that’s just for one day.

Remember when I said that the invitation referenced a “three-part series”? The administrators, in all their infinite wisdom, scheduled three of these workshops. This means at some point, the five administrators in our school sat down and figured that it was perfectly acceptable to take $8798.88 from the budget in order to 1) pay teachers not to work and 2) pay other teachers to cover the classes from which the original teachers were absent. (That’s not even counting the cost of the workshop itself. That’s right, each attendee at a workshop can cost a school upwards of $200. I don’t know the exact cost of this particular workshop, so I won’t speculate here.) In addition, despite all the rhetoric being thrown around involving NYC students and their apparent lack of “rigorous instruction,” the administration further decided that 450 middle school students should miss out on a day’s worth of ELA instruction. On three separate days. So that their teachers can sit in a room and fill out a chart entitled “What we know about Balanced Literacy.”

Now here’s the punchline. At the end of the day, I ran into one of the teachers who actually attended the workshop. She’s a 12-year veteran middle school teacher. Here’s the conversation we had:

Me: So, how was it? On a scale of 1-10, 10 being “total waste of time?”

Ms. B: 10

Me: Interesting. And what did you all talk about?

Ms. B: Same old shit we talk about at every workshop.

Me: Didn’t learn anything new? Helpful?

Ms. B: Nope.

Me: When did you find out about it?

Ms. B: This morning. Hell, the school didn’t even know about it until last night.

Me: What do you mean?

Ms. B: When we walked in, the person running the workshop said, “Oh, here’s the group who didn’t even sign up until last night.”

Me: Hmm…Interesting. Did they happen to give you any handouts or documentation?

She rummaged through her bag and then handed me a blue folder which contained about five Xeroxed papers in it. I didn’t even bother to read through it, for the label on the front of the folder said it all:

Balanced Literacy K-8
Knowledge Management Enrichment / Intervention
Special Education

That’s right. It was a workshop for Special Education teachers. I’m not a special education teacher. Neither are half of the other teachers who attended.

They don’t know, and they don’t care.


Moni said…
Val you're back. Where the hell have you been?! I missed you. I love when you rant I could read it all day. As far a the post goes,referring to the NYC school system; Didn't you know that idiocracy and bureaucracy go hand in hand?

The NYC school system sound ghastly but I assure you things are the same here too, just to varying degrees. I have a friend who's getting his Masters degree and starting his student teaching. He lives just outside of NYC and if he doesn't find a school they will place him in the Bronx for his student teaching.

Wow, I would send him your post, but damn why shoot someone down before they even get started. lol Know what I mean?

But all said and done, you have to look at the fact that those kids are damn lucky to have you teaching them, because you haven't become complacent about molding young minds, you still care.

Moni said…
Oh, one more thing since you're talking shop. I can't find your email address, but I just wanted to brag a little. You gave me some advice a while back about my daughter and placing her in the public school system. You probably don't remember.

Anyway, she's in the public school system I had her tested and she was placed in the gifted program. As a result she was selected to be placed in the Johns Hopkins University program for talented and gifted students. She's 13 and in the 8th grade. This program allows her to take her SAT's I remember you said you took your SAT's around that age. How was the experience for you?

Sorry, I just couldn't resist bragging. Maybe she'll be smarter than her old mom.
Anonymous said…
I found your site from your review of "The Lost Symbol". Not only was that brilliant, but your blog I just read is as well. Take heart that you're not the only one dealing with inept school administration. It seems to be a bi-coastal thing ...

Anonymous said…
I also found this from that Dan Brown review :). Really great blog here, bookmarked and will be sure to share this with others, you're a genius :D

Popular posts from this blog

All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions (W. B. Yeats)

Something occurred to me as I was having a conversation with a friend today, (she’s definitely one of the Outcast by the way), when she mentioned that I wasn’t very “open-minded.” The phrase “open-minded” is perhaps the most aggravating and deceptive American axioms ever invented. Why? Because it’s a trap. The only reason people see others as not “open-minded” is because they are not in agreement about a particular subject. If someone says, “I don’t think the U.S. ever put a man on the moon,” I’d disagree, because there’s tons of evidence to the contrary. But then I’d be met with the dreaded “you need to be more open-minded!” Well, shouldn’t they have the same level of open-mindedness? Of course not. Because in their lexicon, “open-minded” means “believing any old bit of nonsense as long as it goes against tradition.” Cold, hard facts scare these people, so they hide behind the gilded shield of “opinions.”

To be honest, I don’t believe there are any such things as opinions. There are f…

Reason # 1147 To Enroll Your Kids In Private School

Here's a brief story I'd like to relate while it's still fresh in my mind; typically, my articles are 3-4 pages, and quite frankly, it's far too hot to create such a magnum opus tonight. So, I offer you an ultra-condensed version of a disturbing event which took place this past Friday.
Actually, to set the stage, we have to go back to the previous Friday, when the Superintendent of our District happened to be visiting our school. To explain why he was there, I'd have to go over the one-page cap I've set for myself for this article, so suffice it to say that he was trying to do in late May what he should have been doing all year long – namely, his job.
While he is visiting, a student decides it would be a real hoot to throw a glass bottle out of a third-floor classroom window. And since the universe is not without a sense of humor, the bottle travels along a trajectory which terminates at the windshield of a brand-new car parked on the street outside. A car t…