Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The Future of Education
I went to teach in NYC as part of an experiment, following the takeover of the schools by Mayor Bloomberg and his appointed Chancellor Harold Levy. I had taught at the college level before for a few semesters and also spent a lot of time in schools. I approached teaching with some idealism, although I was not sure I was ready to face a classroom full of teenagers every day, quite different from the work I had done as a diplomat and nonprofit manager. I did not succeed as a middle school teacher in the Bronx, trying to do bilingual teaching to Spanish speaking 13 year olds. But I did experience the new philosophy and the new techniques being introduced into the schools by a reformist administration. It turned out to be a learning experience for me. Teaching fellows taught alondside Teach for America teachers as well as otherteachers being employed in New York, such as teachers from the Philippines and Australia. Of course there were the older teachers who remained the most numerous. Some represented continuity while others represented "the problem," imqualified teachers who had stayed on for years, some of which had not even passed the basic exam to hold a teaching credential.
I have been observing the debate about school reform. They make it seem like the only thing you can do to improve kids education in tough inner city schools is to find great teachers and put them in the classrooms and weed out teachers who do not suceed in raising test scores. I did not stay in teaching long enough to be evaluated, but it seemed to me that even good teachers confronted problems in these schools that would be difficult to overcome.
It would be easy to blame a lot of the problems in the schools as a result of the social milieu in which they operate: students come from poor, dislocated families with little education, high levels of family breakup, constant moving around and little discipline. This comes directly into the schools with the kids. Second, with middle school kids, one confronts what some teachers call "raging hormones." Both boys and girls are feeling their sexuality and spend a lot of time trying to impress each other by doing outrageous things and behaving badly.
However, I would say a lot of the problem is that the schools are not organized to help teachers teach. First of all, one cannot teach without what is called "classroom management." Discipline is the first barrier to teaching. Classrooms are on the edge of breaking into chaos without a very firm hand on the part of the teacher. But the schools do not help in this regard. The biggest threat a teacher had against a misbehaving student is to call his or her parents (actually the boys are the biggest problem), but it is nearly impossible to get a phone number for them. Kids are allowed into or return to school without administrators making sure they have a working number for a parent. Kids will intentionally give you false numbers to avoid having their parents informed of their shenanagans.
We were taught some methods to gain control of a classroom, but from what I saw, the most successful teachers in this regard were those who I liked to called "Nazis." These were really tough teachers who could scare the kids into compliance through screaming or different forms of intimidation. Having a thick New York accent helped a lot. Of course there are other methods. One is keeping kids so busy they can't get out of control. Another sure method of calming down a class is to engage in reading to them or making them read to each other. It is amazing how kids like stories. But you can't do this all day. Some teachers do very well by using slides, transparencies and projectors to teach, which takes advantage of the inherent instinct of kids to be captivated by visualizations. When I started teaching, nobody prepared me to prepare this kind of teaching tool or even how to get the use of a projector. Of course, today where I work in the military and business world, powerpoint presentations are the principal means of communication, but it was something of a novelty for me seven or eight years ago.
One would think it would be easy to begin a new semester by being assigned classes and the books for the classes. What I found, however, was that I had to find and figure out which textbooks to use and where in heaven's name they were kept. All this only started the same week school began. It was a race against time to get and assign books, let alone familiarize myself with them or begin to figure out what I was supposted to be teaching. The dirty little secret is that nobody actually tells you what you should teach.
Now, I have to admit that I learned a lot in the graduate courses we had in the summer before we started teaching, although they were focused on the subject matter I was assigned to teach, namely English as a Second Language (ESL). The teachers who taught those courses were of course model teachers. We were also taught to "teach to the standard," following a methodology called standards-based teaching. You make a connection from the State teaaching standards to your required daily lesson plans. We did get tips and lessons on how to teach ESL. Too bad I was not assiged to an ESL job. Althought the NYC schools had hired a bunch of us for ESL, when it came to finding a job within the system, the jobs were not there. What I learned was that the schools hold back hiring ESL teachers until they know how many non-English speaking students will be enrolled, which apparently changes considerably from one year to the next. So when I saw the opportunity, I grabbed onto a bilingual ed teaching slot instead of waiting any longer. Unfortunately, in addition to English, I found myself teaching both math and science in Spanish with no realy preparation and also was happy to teach social studies in Spanish. But I had no real clue about how or what to teach in these subjects beyond the textbook.
There was a big push in the NYC schools to teach reading and math. I appreciated the short seminars we attended that focused on reading. I did not attend the math prep courses which were only for math teachers. We were actually given in each classroom a small library of about 200 books to work with. This was great but at times, the books only served for students to break out into pandemonium and start throwing the books at each other or all over the classroom. Now some of my students, the boys, loved to play a trick on the girls: we had a large coat closet in the room and the boys' greatest pleasure was to shove a girl into the closet and hold her in there as long as possible. The girls usually came out laughing and happy as opposed to being scared or crying. It was all part of the rituals of spring, I suppose.
One of the biggest threats a teacher has over a student is forcing him to miss recess or lunch, keeping them to detention. It became more and more clear to me that the wilder students actually liked detention and the more they were placed there the more other students wanted to be with them in detention. I was quickly informed that while I could detain students during the lunch period, I could not make the actually misss lunch. It was a bizarre situation, but it was even hard to punish misbehaving students in any way that made them feel some degee of contrition.
So when people tell me that educational reform is all about the teachers, I think, well yes maybe. But it is also about the kids, their fmailies and the schools themselves who don't always make it easy for teachers, especially new teachers to figure out how to teach with the best of intentions.
Oh yes, when I left my Middle School,a bit precitiously I should say, to take this job with the military in Virginia, I went to see the Vice Principal, who had been nice to me, to say goodbye. When I told her where I was going, she said, "Can you take us with you?" I guess I was not the only one to feel frustrated at the systemic difficulties of teaching in an inner city "under-served" school. And when I said goodbye to the principal, who tried to manage the chaos, feeling a little guilty I was bailing out, he said to me, "Don't worry, you didn't do too much damage."