Lose Great Teachers In a Sea of Red Tape
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
kids are never, ever the problem,” declares Merrow. “It’s the
It’s the adults,” adds Calton.#
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