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New York City
September 2002

Schools Lose Great Teachers In a Sea of Red Tape
By Marie Holmes

As classes begin this month throughout the five boroughs, a slew of newly certified teachers step to the front of the classroom. Yet staffing needs have not increased. In fact, according to the Independent Budget Office, the BOE actually lost 7,100 students last year. The majority of these new teachers, then, are hired to replace those who have left the system.

While many spots open up simply because teachers retire or move away, often seeking higher-paying positions in the suburbs, an unknown number of young, caring professionals quietly exit their classrooms each June. Many don’t leave the city. Some continue to work with at-risk children.

As power shifts into the mayor’s hands, city schools continue to be characterized by a laundry list of deficiencies: not enough classrooms, not enough graduates, not enough certified teachers. The BOE and a number of national and local organizations have been successfully closing this last gap by actively recruiting anyone with a bachelor’s degree and a conscience to fill the vacancies, but can anything be done to keep good people in the classroom?

Richard Calton left the BOE to devote his full-time efforts to Harlem Live, the on-line newspaper written and produced by New York City teens that he founded with a few former students. The publication has received numerous accolades, but when a grant from Teacher’s College at Columbia University ran out last year, so did Calton’s salary. He is currently collecting unemployment and has no plans to leave the organization that he built.

“I have the dream job of any teacher,” he says, “because you don’t have the bureaucracy hanging over your head and you can really empower the kids.”

Not that rules and regulations hampered his style when he was teaching in the schools. Realizing that it would take months to build the kind of trust necessary for real learning to take place, Calton took groups of students on trips after school, supplementing the instructional day with not only his own time but also his own money. He returned them individually to their front doors in the evening.

“In the classroom they’re all performing for each other, so you take them out in groups of five or six,” he explains, “and they act like real people.”

Elise Merrow, who recently finished a part-time stint as the Service Learning Coordinator for Summerbridge at the Town School, an academic program for middle school students, used similar tactics when she taught at the intermediate level on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Written requests to family members and friends helped her raise money to take her Italian class out to eat in Little Italy. Showing off their linguistic talents, the kids made an impression on the people at the restaurant.

It was an eye-opening excursion for the students, she says. “Their experience in downtown is that white people clutch their purses when they walk by.”

Both Calton and Merrow saw immediate academic improvements in troubled students who accompanied them on these field trips. Both also complain that institutional regulations staunched their best creative efforts.

Merrow was thrilled to find, at the last minute, that she would be teaching ancient cultures, only to discover that her experiences in India and Mexico wouldn’t contribute much to the curriculum. She was required to teach about the aboriginal peoples of Australia, a topic about which she admittedly knew next-to-nothing.

High-stakes testing proved to be yet another hurdle, discouraging the students and, in turn, discouraging their teachers. “They don’t feel good about this wonderful thing they wrote for Ms. Merrow . . . It’s just the numbers,” she laments.

Josh Merrow, a former teacher at El Puente in Brooklyn, says, “You had to submit a written request to make photocopies . . . because there was only one copy machine.”

He cites a general lack of time, materials and support as his main obstacles.“It was a struggle to stay on top of everything. You have a full day of classes, plus meetings, then homework to correct, classes to plan. You have to buy materials out of pocket and wait a month to be reimbursed, if there’s money. The administration of El Puente did a great job stretching government funding, even raising money from foundations and private donors. Even so, it wasn’t enough. It seemed to me that most of the staff were overworked.”

The first year, they agree, is the most difficult. Having earned a Master’s in Education from City College, says Calton, “I was handed a sponge and a piece of chalk and it was like, ‘Good luck.’”

A conflict between a new female assistant principal and a group of older male teachers, as well as what Calton describes as blatant racism, made for a contentious working environment in which he was perceived as a troublemaker.

“I had the kids write letters to Mayor Koch,” he explains, “because [they] were sitting four to a book.” The mayor later visited the school, although Calton was assured that it wasn’t because of the letters. By June, he had been transferred. Made wary by this experience, he choose to substitute teach in a variety of districts to test the waters before committing to another permanent position. He taught and did administrative work before leaving for Harlem Live.

Merrow stuck it out for a second year at her school, even though a beloved director had left. The new director “seemed good,” she says, for a brief moment. “He beat us down with protocol.”

“I left because I won’t teach with anyone . . who’s not a visionary, who’s not willing to bend the rules for the kids.”

Both would go back into teaching, under the right circumstances. Calton continues advising, organizing and, when he has a spare moment, fundraising at Harlem Live, while Merrow would like to organize biking trip/ cultural immersion experiences for students.

Small class sizes, rather than salary increases, would top their list of demands.

“ If you have smaller classes,” says Merrow, “you don’t need [to offer teachers] more money.” Twelve to fifteen students, they agree, would be ideal.

Yet all the money and resources in the city can’t fix what Merrow and Calton view as the crux of the problem–administration.

“The kids are never, ever the problem,” declares Merrow. “It’s the leadership.”

It’s the adults,” adds Calton.#


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