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Tag Archives: schools

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

19 Oct

October 19, 2011

Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
you can find Part Three here,
Part Four is here,
and Part Five is here.

Most people who send their kids to school don’t fully understand who runs the school. Ask most people who runs their child’s school, ask who is in charge, and they’ll say the Principal. They’d be correct, but that isn’t the full answer.

The teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), can wield a very big influence on the running of a school, but it varies from school to school. The middle school where I started had a chapter, all schools do, but it was invisible. Despite having a lousy anti-teacher Principal, none of the teachers were interested in the UFT. In fact, the UFT representative’s main job was to put union letters in mailboxes once in a while. Had the union been active it might have saved me from much of the harassment I was put through. On the other hand, Horror High had a very militant union and it ruined the school. That is not hyperbole.

Before I continue, let me remind you that unless I specifically say otherwise I am using aliases. However, I have to say honestly that no matter how you perceive what I am soon going to say, I want it to be clear that a teacher with a problem could find no greater ally than our UFT rep, Mitchell. He was a bulldog, tenacious and nearly-unstoppable. He would back any teacher in the school to the hilt. And I speak from personal experience. Simply put, he was a guy you’d want in your corner.

But it was those same assets that destroyed the school. And I mean that literally.

I don’t know what started it, but from the day I walked into the school Mitchell was in a personal death match with the Principal, whoever it happened to be at the time. And remember, we had a revolving door of Principals for years. For whatever reason, Mitchell was determined that HE was the power in the school. And it was easy to see why. While Principals came and went, he was always there. He was the constant. He was always in power- and a UFT rep is powerful. In some ways he was in the same position as our corrupt AP, Mr. Anderson. But while Mr. Anderson was a thief, and nasty on top of it, Mitchell was not. He could be a stickler for the rules when he wanted to be, but he amassed a lot of power simply by honestly gaining the faith of the staff- at one point almost everyone must have owed him thanks for helping them out of a jam. In some ways he led the school.

You might want to do a little Googleing. While I am not naming names in these posts, I have given away the name of the school often enough in some of my oldest posts. You can find them in my index, or a Google search of “horror high Brooklyn” will put you on the right track. You should soon find a lot of negative articles about the school, including a student walkout. The takeaway from those stories should not be how bad the school is, the takeaway should be that every article and negative quote came from one source, Mitchell the UFT rep (or his assistant, “Captain Educator.” And I did not make that up, the guy actually called himself, anonymously, Captain Educator.) In what possible way could those articles help the school? I have no clue. But they did directly lead to its being broken up.

By the time Mr. Stevens was in his second term as Principal, he had enough clout to stand up to Mitchell. And Mitchell turned militant, taking the chapter with him.

It was personal, no doubt, on both sides. Aside from the union rep hating the Principal and vice versa in the same visceral way that cats and dogs hate each other, it was clear that they really disliked each other as people. The Principal was no prince himself. He was not as perfect as you’d want him to be, nor was he as honest as he should have been, but he liked me and I had a good working relationship with him and when I had trouble with the DOE he stood by me and did me a big favor. I got along with both men personally and professionally, and in their own ways they were both good for the school, but in the UFT vs. Principal battle I was firmly behind the Principal. I might not have liked everything he did, but I think the vast majority of his decisions were done for the good of the school.

On the other side, I could not believe the number of emergency meetings that were called by Mitchell over nonsense, the serious talks of walkouts and strikes, the negative information being leaked to the press, the general tone of nastiness, and ultimately, the politicization of the school that resulted in it being shut down.

Let me say that nothing that was in the press was factually untrue, but it was exaggerated and horribly exploited for purely political means. (I mean you, Assemblyman William Colton, you complete political hack. And yes, that IS his real name.)

But more on him later.

At some point Mitchell had tried for and failed to get a position in the UFT hierarchy. He became so bitter that he stepped down and in the next election actively supported his hand-picked successor, a newbie to the union who was also a well-liked (if not exactly full of personality) teacher from my own department. She was calm and cool and still finding her way as union rep and as a consequence she actually worked with, not against, the Principal. They got along, they worked together, they even compromised with each other. This is not to say that everything that ever went wrong suddenly went right, there were still problems, but with the union and the administration getting along, things got done and the whole tone of the building had changed for the better. And of course that pissed Mitchell off.

It was personal. It was all personal. The school was working? No good. The staff was happy? That’s a problem. People seemed to like the Principal? And Mitchell had no authority? That could not stand. Because as a regular teacher and not a union rep, he was only as good as the rest of us. He wasn’t even a department lead. He had to answer to his A.P. like everyone else.

As for me, I was getting more authority over things in my department. I had over time become a Model Teacher, a curriculum writer, a program coordinator, and various other things that, although the titles were nice, had no real power in the school. However, they gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted within the four walls of my classroom. I was NEVER told what book to teach. I CREATED my curriculum. Inside my room, I was happy.

But Mitchell wasn’t. Hating every second of not being in charge, he turned against his successor and mounted a nasty campaign to get his job back and he won. And the school went right back to Hell with him.

The UFT’s troubles weren’t limited to petty union representatives. The union was run like a cult by Randi Weingarten. (Real name.) I cannot count the times we were told how to vote because “that’s what Randi wants.” Countless meetings were launched with “Randi wants you to” and concluded with “do it for Randi.” (Not that I listened, but almost everyone else did.) Randi was more than a woman, more than our union leader, she was a deity to those who believed in her. All of her inner circle and the higher union positions believed in her with an almost Jim Jones-like fervor. But to me, it was obvious that she was only in it for herself. We were all members of the Cult of Randi. It was clear to me that everything she did was not for the good of her union members, it was for the good of Randi Weingarten. And I was proved correct when after she stepped down from her post, she was rewarded with a cushy job in the city government she had spent years railing against.

From The New York Sun, February 2005: “Weingarten is very active in city politics as well, and has been described as a “kingmaker” in New York City mayoral politics due to her union leadership position.”

The UFT serves, or claims to serve, the students and has their needs at heart. That cannot be. By its very nature, a teachers union is there to protect the teachers’ interests. Sometimes that isn’t a problem as what is often best for the teachers is also best for the students, like smaller class size. But when the union protects weak or incompetent teachers, makes it nearly impossible to remove a bad teacher from the classroom, and forces teachers who ultimately do get removed to be placed in suspension centers (“rubber rooms”) where they check in and sleep, go online, or read the newspaper all day- at full pay, taxpayers’ expense- the student’s best interests are in no way being served. The UFT does an admirable job at protecting teachers, but stop and think a second the next time they say they are doing what is best for the students. I was once at a union meeting when it looked like the city was going to play hardball with a new contract and the worst teacher in the school (and crappy human being) Mr. Llewellyn stood up and delivered a tearful speech in support of the union. He was deathly afraid of losing his job if new standards were put in place. That was a man who would never last a week in a private sector job but he had it made in a New York City public school where incompetence is protected and professionalism is ignored.

The bottom line is, though the school had legitimate troubles, a personal vendetta by a petty man threw us to the wolves of local politics. It turned what was an underperforming and fairly troubled school into a political club wielded by corrupt politicians whose only use for the school was to advance their own careers at the expense of the careers of many fine teachers and the education of the children.

I am ashamed and disgusted that I didn’t walk out when William Colton showed up at a graduation ceremony and spoke to the graduates about his love for the school. That was just after we were told it was being shut down.

TO BE CONTINUED

Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
you can find Part Three here,
Part Four is here,
and Part Five is here.

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

12 Oct

October 12, 2011

Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
you can find Part Three here,
and Part Four is here.

One thing that was true then, is true now, and is universally true wherever you go is that the newer you are, the more jobs you get stuck with after everyone else turns them down. That’s how I was given the job of newspaper advisor.

It didn’t seem like that at the time. My boss very casually asked me “how would you like to make some extra money?” and I naively said “I’d love to.” In reality it wasn’t that bad a job, once I realized I had to do most of it myself. My school never had a lot of enthusiasm for things like school newspapers and while I did get the students to write a couple of articles the layout and design was all up to me.

The previous newspaper advisor was still using the out-of-date methods of laying out the articles by hand on tabletop, the way newspapers were laid out in the old west. I used the very simple Microsoft Publisher program. The last few years our school newspapers were printed in-house on copy machines. I had mine professionally printed on newspaper from an outside vendor. Even though eight years later I was in charge of school’s best yearbook in history, this little two sheet newspaper has better memories for me.

But it was still a lot of work and not much money and it was a bit of a watershed moment when I finally had the seniority to pass it on to a rookie teacher. And for the record, after I left it was almost always printed in-house on copy paper.

In a previous entry I mentioned the Getaway program. Despite putting a lot of effort into it I wasn’t in it for long. Part of the trouble was that it was focused on math and science and I was an English teacher. While they did well in those subjects they didn’t do well enough in English to create a dedicated Getaway English class. There weren’t enough of them with high enough grades. While their other classes were Getaway only, the English class was half Getaway and half honors English. The honors kids were on too high a level (or the Getaway kids were too low) so I was in effect running two concurrent classes. That was OK, but the Getaway kids were often not in my class because they were participating in Getaway events, events which I should have been a part of as a Getaway teacher but I could not be involved in because of the other kids I was responsible for. I had to be in the classroom. Because I could not be included in most events I never really fit in with the Getaway staff.

The worst moment came when the Getaway kids had a pizza party on the football field and the other half of my class sat in my room and watched the party from the windows.

To be fair, on days when the Getaway kids were gone I gave the honors kids a free period. It was unfair any other way. How could they sit in a class and work when half of the same class got to go on trips and have parties?

I wasn’t long for the program and I didn’t miss it, the Mr. Anderson the AP, or the other teachers. However, I knew I would miss the cd players and other things I ordered so even after I was no longer in the program I held on to the things I used. Selfish? Maybe. But they stayed in the school and were used for the students and I shared them with the other teachers. At least those who knew I had them.

Things changed on a regular basis at the DOE. It all depended on who was in charge/ what was in vogue/ whichever article had just been published/ who was running the meeting/ whatever some other school district had done/ what new book someone discovered/ what the Chancellor ate for breakfast. Take the Aim, for example.

The Aim is the point of each lesson. It was always written on the board at the start of every lesson. Don’t confuse that with the Objective, which sounds the same but was not. This was a common type of Aim when I started teaching:

AIM: To discover metaphors in Tom Sawyer.

Clear, isn’t it?

At some point it was decided that all Aims had to be written in the form of a question.

AIM: What are the metaphors in Tom Sawyer?

The reason was that the Aim should be answerable, so that if you asked the aim at the end of the lesson the answer would show that the students learned. If they could answer the Aim the lesson was successful.

But that was not considered a good Aim. It was a closed question. Even if you give the metaphors it shows only that the students can parrot the answer, not that they can think and discover the answer.

AIM: How can we discover the metaphors in Tom Sawyer?

That’s good. But it didn’t stop there.

Eventually it was decided that the Aim should be elicited. In other words, in a reversal of decades of educational policy, it was decided that the Aim would be left blank.

AIM:

At first this freaked out the students. The intent was that after the lesson the teacher would ask the class “so what was the aim of this lesson?” and if they could answer it correctly you did your job.

That idea didn’t last long and soon Aims were back on the board. But that wasn’t good enough. Not only did Aims need to be on the board, so did such stuff as Do Now, Objective, Motivation, Agenda, Rubric, and of course Homework. This goal was to outline the entire lesson on the board for the students to follow. It was ridiculous. In effect it put your lesson plan on the board and it was pointless. The students did not need a step by step, question by question guide to the lesson. That was for the teacher to follow. It also made lessons less dynamic and more rigid. It took out flexibility and creativity. It also took away the spontaneous “A-ha!” moments that students love. There is nothing better than when a student has everything click in their heads. This was akin to a magician standing in front of an audience saying “I am going to make this rabbit disappear and here is how I am going to do it,” then proceeding to explain every movement and sleight of hand, and showing the trick compartments and phony rabbit. It made everything clinical and uninteresting. But that didn’t last long either.

Rubrics weren’t bad in theory but as with everything the DOE touched, awful in execution.

They are standards for grading. For example, if the class did a skit, what would be a 100, what would be a 90, what content would be looked for, etc. Not only did it make it easy for the students to understand what was expected of them, it made it easy for the teacher to grade.

The problem was that by this point the DOE decided that the students needed to be in every step of the process. The class had to develop the rubrics. They decided what passing or failing meant, they decided all aspects of grading. Now in reality a good teacher could guide the outcome so no class had a standard like “45 is a passing grade” but it was a lot of wasted class time and effort.

Yes it helped the students take ownership of the learning process, but I was always of the opinion that my students could take ownership of it simply by showing up prepared with a pen and paper, which they rarely did. You see, the DOE was in love with high-concept ideas that might have worked in high performing schools with high level kids but that is not the reality of the majority of NYC schools. Most students don’t have stable homes, most students are not motivated by school. And with the low-level kids I usually worked with, attendance rates often hovered around 70%. When they showed up they might not have their textbooks, and homework? The homework rate was ridiculously low. And I was being judged based on those students.

I do believe that students will rise to the level they are treated, but I also believe that students do have to meet a minimal level of effort. And while I agree that school should be interesting, we are not there to put on a show. At some point it is up the student to realize the value of school and, at least to an extent, motivate themselves.

I can accept a lot of things, but when a failing student is held against me by lowering my passing rate, and the student missed 2/3 of the class, how is that my fault? I can’t teach a student who isn’t there.

I also can’t teach a student who is wearing headphones, talking on a cell phone, throwing books out the window or walking out the room whenever they want. Yet the DOE felt that eliciting the Aim was the answer.

TO BE CONTINUED

Part One can be found here,
Part Two is here,
you can find Part Three here,
and Part Four is here.

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