An Inside Look into the Teaching Profession
A Troubling Experience at a Struggling School
It’s no secret that some schools don’t work. The 2007-2008 statistics on the New York City Department of Education website (http://schools.nyc.gov) show 374 New York City schools in need of improvement (SINI) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. What goes wrong inside these schools? According to one teacher, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.
“I had done a lot of work in impoverished neighborhoods and was interested in a way to make social justice happen on a larger scale,” she says. “I didn’t think ‘here I go, I’m going to change the world.’” But she did think education was a tool the disadvantaged needed desperately.
When she began teaching high school in the South Bronx, she was ready for the “metal detectors and NYPD security on each floor.” What she didn’t expect was the emotional toll that the environment would take on her.
“A kid was standing in the back of the room, punching the wall, saying repeatedly ‘I’m gonna f--- that b---- up.’” Yet, when she sent kids out of the room, “the principal would bring them back to me and say, ‘You can’t send them to me. We’ll talk about this later,’ and he would say that in front of the entire class. We’d have kids that had violent infractions that should lead to suspension, but they’d be back the next day.”
Why would a principal do this? Our teacher says the official line was, “You by law cannot deny a child education by taking them out of your room.” But she counters with the obvious, “When a kid is doing something that throws the whole class off target, removing them is really your last recourse.” She suspects that other factors were possibly at play. “The principal was concerned about us, a new school, getting shut down for being too violent,” and therefore wanted to avoid actions, like principal’s office visits, that would lead to incident reports.
And that’s where the SINI policy sticks the principal between a rock and a hard place: if he reports incidents, he risks having the school shut down; but if he underreports, he finds himself with a different problem. “A lot of the teachers were really jaded, and there’s this culture of the kids seeming to not care at all. Nobody did their homework, so a kid could pass just by turning in five assignments because nobody else turned in any. And, the kids learned that they could get in a fight and nothing would happen to them.”
As for reaching out to students’ parents, our source didn’t have much luck. “A lot of parents were unavailable. The ones who came to Parent/Teacher conferences were supportive, but often you’d never hear from them again. I didn’t feel like much came out of the conferences.”
What about the inclusion model? “I don’t think inclusion is possible in a class of 30 kids, especially when you have so many behavior problems. You can’t sit down with one small group that needs extra help if the rest of the class is going to get out of control as soon as you take your eyes off of them. When there is one person teaching kids ranging from 1st grade level to high school, all you can do is shoot for the middle.”
So, given all of these problems, what is there to be done? “One major thing that could be done is smaller class sizes. Some kids would be completely different in a smaller setting.”
Ultimately, many schools face problems that require practical solutions which have unintended spiritual and emotional costs. Detention facility-style security may serve a necessary purpose, but it hardly calls to mind concepts like nurturing, discovery, growth, or even freedom. Education cannot happen in a school like this one absent psychological, social, and financial aid. Metal detectors, policies that sweep problems under the rug, and threats of shutting down schools may seem like necessary evils, but they are proving to be generally ineffective, unacceptable solutions.#