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Archive | 12:00 am

The Blog That Was A Decade In The Making! Part One

14 Sep

September 14, 2011

Actually it was more than a decade, but why screw up a good title?

Allow me to begin with a short disclaimer. The story you are about to read is true; only the names have been changed to protect the idiots. The location is Brooklyn New York, this is my life, and everything that I am about to write is true. It all happened. All I have done is change some names and places.

I began teaching in a very small but very high-profile middle school in Bay Ridge. It was an experimental school of expeditionary learning. In theory, that means a lot of hands on learning, field trips, and learning through experience. At least that’s how it was explained to me. In my short time there I saw none of that.

I was fresh out of college and looking for a job. I wanted to teach high school on the theory that I was not interested in and would be bored with teaching anything geared to younger students. The irony is that when I got to teach in a high school I almost exclusively taught students who read on a fifth grade level, had to be motivated as if they were on a third grade level, and acted as it they were kindergarteners.

The middle school job would be a feather in my cap if I got it. Although it was not a high school, it was a plum job because the district superintendent had taken a special interest in it and it was a showcase school. But even better, I had an in. I was recommended by someone very close to the Principal. The only hitch was that, this being a “crown jewel,” I had to be interviewed by the District Superintendent. Had I known then what I know now I never would have gone.

I was nervous but I was prepared for the interview, or so I thought. One of the first questions was “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and I had no answer. Remember, I was fresh out of college and this was my first interview. My answer was something like “I hope to be teaching to the best of my ability.” It was not a good answer. I later found out that he was looking for a leader and hoped to hear “I want to be a Principal.” That is an awful way to hire a teacher. A Principal is chiefly an administrator. Who would want to hire a teacher whose stated goal is to not teach in a few years? At any rate, I must have been good in most other respects because I got the job.

And that’s when it went bad.

By total coincidence one of the other brand new teachers in the school was someone who I remembered from when we attended junior high school together. I hadn’t seen her in years but I became fast friends with Elaine and we both became fast friends with another new teacher, Catherine. We got along together but not so much the other teachers. The first week before school began was taken up not by preparing for the school year but by team-building. Weird events like building a tower of Legos, picking team names, trivia games about each other’s life, that’s how we spent the first week. Of course, I screwed it up on the very first day.

Before we went home we stood in a circle and did the “handshake or hug” exercise. The person on your right would turn to you and ask “handshake or hug?” and after you performed whichever you picked you turned to the next person, etc etc, until it was back to the person who started. The whole time I was waiting for it go get around to me I was gauging the rest of the group. It was split about 45% hugging to 55% handshakes but those who hugged all seemed to be the chief people in the school. Luckily, or so I thought, I was standing next to Elaine and when she asked “handshake or hug?” I said “hug” and we gave each other a warm, friendly embrace. Remember, we knew each other. I thought it showed me to be friendly.

I found out that it showed me to be wrong for the school because I had, somehow, overstepped some weird boundary that I had no way of knowing existed. It had nothing to do sexual harassment (especially since Elaine hugged me many more times in the school) but because somehow the major clique had come to the conclusion that their response would be “handshake” and anyone not shaking hands would not fit in. So on my first day I was judged not worthy of the clique.

I also screwed up the next day when I gave the opinion that homework was due the day it was due.

The school was only two years old and before school began it was decided that we needed a school-wide policy and regulations. The question was asked when homework was due. Was it due the next day, or was it OK for a student to hand it in a few days later? And how many days was OK? And how many days would make it late? And should an absence be an excuse for lateness? And so and on and on. My answer was that homework was due the next day and late any time after that. I was looked at as if I dropped my pants and soiled the floor.

In the end we did not agree on a policy.

My experience went from bad to worse to worse. As a rookie teacher I was given the worst class, the most unruly and disruptive group of low performing students and no matter what they did in any other teacher’s class it was my fault. For example, on Monday I did not have them until the last three periods of the day, but if they misbehaved during period one I was blamed since I was their main teacher. I had them for Humanities, a double period class, and Writing. No matter that I pointed out that I had not seen them all weekend, let alone at all that day, so it could not possibly have anything to do with me. But the answer was that they had me more than any other teacher so it was my fault. The Principal was in my room a dozen times a week to yell at me (in front of the kids) and coddle the students. They had a conduct sheet, a form where every teacher grades them for each class and it goes from teacher to teacher daily. When I got them for period 7, the comments looked like this:

Period 1- D Loud and noisy.
Period 2- F Threw books.
Period 3- C+ Principal had to be called.
Period 4- (Lunch) D Fighting.
Period 5- B took too long to quiet down
Period 6- C- Loud

So what was I to do? By the time they got to me they were a lost cause. If I had not had Elaine and Catherine with me I would have gone insane.

Despite later working in a school the newspapers called Horror High, this was the only place where I had a battery thrown at me.

In the years since I have come to realize that the real tragedy of that class is that many of them belonged in special education classes but since the Principal’s main concern was with school’s image we had no special ed classes. Most of them never had an evaluation. Those kids were cheated out of a proper education. There was one student who clearly needed counseling. She had a strong need for attention and acted like every student’s mother. If one of the kids during class had a sneeze she’d jump from her desk and ask if he was sick. If anything came up with one student she was out of her desk and helping, especially during a test. I’d ask her to sit down and she’d get righteously angry and indignant with me. “But she needs me!” I heard over and over again. The kids just liked the attention, but even more they liked the disruption, so they always seemed to need her.

On day the student walked into my classroom in tears and announced to the class that she was moving away and this was the last time they’d see her. Everyone ran over to her for hugs and good byes. She wasn’t moving. I knew it for a fact. This was a plea for attention. Of course she was in class the next day.

And a week later she walked into my classroom in tears and announced to the class that she was moving away and this was the last time they’d see her.

And the next day she did it in another class. And while her teachers all complained, not a word was said to the student and she never did see a counselor. But I got yelled at because my class was noisy. Remember, I was a rookie.

There was also the one student who no one dared to discipline because his father was a big name in local politics. In all of his classes he sat in the back with his friend and played Pokemon.

The Principal was of the opinion that in a special school like hers with a hands-on District Supervisor she had to look good, so to do that she always sided with the students in any dispute. That kept them happy and kept complaints down. But it made the teachers easy targets. One of her rules was that a teacher was to never tell a student to shut up. That’s not a bad rule though in my high school years I broke it all the time, but by that point in the future I was nearly running the place. (And I knew the right way to do it.) But back here it was an issue. If a student didn’t like a teacher, he’d go the Principal and outright lie and say that Mr. So and So told him to shut up. Then the teacher was in deep trouble because no matter how much you denied it, the student was right.

And I soon learned to never send a disruptive student to the Principal’s office because that was a reward. The student would get milk and cookies there.

Another way of making the school look good was a policy of making it nearly impossible to fail a student. 65 was the passing grade but we were told that if a student’s average came out to 60 we should round up to 65, effectively lowering the passing grade five points. We also had to, three weeks in advance, fill out a form and give a copy to the Principal, stating our intention to fail the student. It needed every single test and quiz grade, every homework, everything the student ever did. The Principal had to approve it. It almost never was. Only students who never showed up or had an obscenely low average failed, and then we could only give 55 as a failing grade. So if their average was 25 we bumped them up 30 points so they didn’t look so bad.

I was teaching a class about Thomas Jefferson when a student asked if we could meet him. Remember, this is a seventh grader, about 13 years old. After a shocked pause, I said “No, he lived 200 years ago. He died a long time ago.” After a few seconds in which I could actually see the gears turning in her head, she said “ohh” and it dawned on her, but not for long since I got a similar question from her the next day. Her average was about 47 and I somehow managed to fail her only because the office had screwed up and lost the form I filled out. They were all set to change my failing grade to a passing on the basis that I never did the paperwork when I showed them my copy of the form. Their disappointment at having to fail her was obvious.

The kids were out of control in every class and failing most of them but since I had them the bulk of the time (for Humanities, Writing, and for a few of them, home room) it was all my fault. One of the worst things they did was push a teacher down the stairs. It happened outside my room while they were waiting for class to begin. However, they had ten minutes before it started and never should have been there to begin with. They were only there because their previous teacher couldn’t take them another second and dismissed them early. This happened all the time because there were no clocks installed in the building. The school was a converted apartment building and the teachers had to bring in their own clocks, and of course none of them were in sync. Want to get rid of a lousy class? Set your clock a few minutes ahead and let them out. It happened all the time.

So I was in my room getting things set up when I heard the mob outside but it was early and I had no intention of letting them in yet when I heard the computer teacher screaming at one of them, (and in fact he was cursing) and it was getting very bad. I ran out of the room intending to save the teacher’s job because he was way over the line but I got there too late. I was just in time to see him flying down the stairs. He was pushed by a student. I called security, got the kids into my room, and they were rioting. The Principal came and instead of screaming at them, told them how wrong the computer teacher was for cursing. Never mind that they were acting like cannibals and pushed a teacher down the stairs. And after she yelled at them, she yelled at me. Why? Because it happened near my room.

The teacher who caused it all by letting them roam the building by kicking them out ten minutes early? Not a word was said to her.

The writing was on the wall. I was going to be forced out or fired.

I beat them by getting a job in another school first.

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Part Two can be found by clicking on this link.

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