Friday, December 19, 2014

Chapter 83: Restorative Logic: If It Ain’t Broke … Break It

My Life as an NYC Teacher

Chapter 83: Restorative Logic: If It Ain’t BrokeBreak It


A License to Harass


    I was “U” rated in an observation of a coverage of an advisory period.  I’m not kidding!  See Chap. 82: ATR Advisory.
    Once a teacher is “U” rated in an observation, the supervisor is mandated to assist that teacher in improving his/her teaching.  The supervisor has to cut and paste an individualized “plan of assistance” to address the unsatisfactory issues noted in the observation.  How else are supervisors going to justify their inflated salaries?
    In my case, this meant that I needed help in two areas based on the Oct. 17, 2014 advisory coverage observation at Mott Hall Bronx.  I was observed and “U” rated teaching a lesson on imagery in a coverage of an advisory group, classes noted for their rigorous curricula - to the four students excluded from the class trip, which was where the teacher I was covering for had gone - no doubt gleefully.
    First, I was to implement a “formal” closure rather than the oral closure that I had utilized.  Although the oral assessment is a highly regarded and valuable teaching tool, my ATR field supervisor, Annelisse Falzone, felt that such a tool was not merely inadequate but inadequate to such a degree that it rendered an entire lesson unsatisfactory.  Even if the summation (of any kind) is inadequate, it is impossible for the final 1-2 minutes of a good lesson to render that lesson “unsatisfactory.”  But the oral closing is an excellent way to end a lesson (as well as to monitor progress throughout a class).  Ms. Falzone, however, needed a justification for an “unsatisfactory” rating so she grasped at a straw.
    The other thing I needed to do to improve my teaching was to pace the lesson better.  For my advisory coverage observation I found myself in front of four unknown students - the four who had not been allowed to go on the class trip.  (Actually, three - the fourth walked in fifteen minutes later.)  I didn't even know what grade level they were, let alone what their skill levels and attention spans were.  I knew nothing at all about these students but I had a lesson in hand (Lesson Plan) that was wide open in terms of differentiation.  The fact that these students were used to spending their advisory period chatting and gossiping, as they themselves told me at the outset and as a teacher confirmed, should have had no bearing on the pacing of the lesson.  I guess.
    Add to this the fact that I was expecting to teach a normal ELA class rather than the first period advisory.  The advisory class is eleven minutes shorter - 42 minutes - than the regular class length - 53 minutes - at Mott Hall Bronx.  My lesson plan had to be supple enough to allow for either contingency.  The fact that the lesson plan allowed for such deviation didn’t seem to have merit in the eyes of the beholder, i.e., the one grasping at straws.
    In short, in terms of pacing I had to guess right about a lot of unknowns.
    Nevertheless, I got through the mini-lesson and into the group work, as Ms. Falzone’s own observation report testifies.  The students learned the material.  They did the work, which can be seen linked to Chap. 82.  There was, in fact, no pacing problem at all.  But Ms. Falzone knew that simply saying that the lesson needed a “formal” rather than an oral summation wasn’t enough to justify an “unsatisfactory” rating.  She needed another straw.  So she grabbed for another straw.  But we all know what happened to that first little pig and his straw house.  Straw observations are just as easily blown down.
    Not mentioned in Ms. Falzone’s written report was another reason for my unsatisfactory performance.  I had not sent students to the board.  Yes, she floated this during our post-observation conference as a reason for failure.  I just laughed and she didn’t use it against me in her formal write up.  I guess that straw was so flimsy that it broke even before she could grasp it.
    Although I didn’t note it in my rebuttal to this observation (Chapter 82) because it is purely anecdotal, there is a small epilogue to the story of that advisory coverage observation.  Near the end of the day I was sitting in the Mott Hall atrium, an open area at the center of the school with a sun roof that is surrounded by classrooms.  There are half a dozen small tables in this area where students and teachers can work or conference.
    I was sitting alone in this area during the beginning of 5th period (12:16-1:07) when a math teacher came out of her room, slightly exasperated, with two students.  She asked if they could sit at the table with me to do some math work.  I was happy to take them off her hands, knowing full well how the disruptive behavior of two students can scuttle an entire lesson.  I wasn’t surprised to see that these two were two of the four that I had taught during my advisory coverage observation that morning.  One was student 4, the slacker.  I guess I was doing my part in the “restorative justice” system by monitoring them as they whiled away their math class in the comfort and pleasant environment of the atrium.  Punishment for getting kicked out of class?  This was Mott Hall.
    They had math work in front of them but paid it no mind.  There was far more important gossip at hand, which they shared with every student who came by with a bathroom pass, a virtual stream in that haven of restorative justice.  I urged them several times to do the work but work was the furthest thing from their minds.  In fact, when the math teacher came out near the end of the period to see how they had done, one of them simply told her that she had already failed that course and so she couldn’t be expected to do work that she didn’t understand.  Of course, she had made no effort at all to try to understand it but there was a certain logic to her argument.  Maybe that was restorative logic.
    The reason I mention this at all is not merely to give evidence about why those students had not been allowed to go on the class trip.  I mention it because during this atrium session, while they were restoratively and judicially not doing their math work, I asked them what they remembered about the class I had taught.  I asked if they could recall the 5 academic words for sensory imagery.  They each recalled four of the words, including “gustatory” and “olfactory,” the less familiar words, but omitting “auditory” until I asked them what an “auditorium” was.  But, of course, this was merely an oral assessment and not a formal “closing” and thus would have no meaning in the DOE worldview of my field supervisor.
    My initial “plan of assistance” was delivered on Nov. 12, 2014.  It outlined my urgent need to improve pacing and closure based on the advisory coverage observation.  I was directed to submit lesson plans in advance.  It was made clear that I would have to spend time meeting with the person who was helping me and that I had to follow whatever directives were mandated by this mandated process.  Of course, it was unlikely that I would ever again teach a lesson on sensory imagery while covering for an advisory group teacher on a field trip.  Nevertheless, my plan of assistance is meant, I guess, to prepare me for such a contingency.
    But when the premise is faulty, all that follows is nonsense.  Mandated nonsense is harassment.  The “plan of assistance” is nothing more than a license to harass.  Since I disagreed with both the very idea of doing advisory coverage evaluations and with the rating itself, I refused to submit lesson plans.  I instituted my own “plan of resistance.”
    I was reminded of a comment from a 10th grade student at another high school.  Thirteen years ago I was having trouble teaching an ELA class but it had nothing to do with pacing or closure.  It had to do with the complete lack of interest on the part of the students either in learning the ELA material at hand or in passing the class.  I frequently lectured that they were the ones who needed the grade and the credit, not me.  I had already passed high school.
    Finally one student said to me, “Mr. Haverstock, you keep saying that but this class isn’t for us.  It’s for you.”
    This confounded me.  I believed that the teacher was serving the students by facilitating their education.  But that wasn’t how many of them saw it.  From their point of view, the education that I and the school were providing was of no benefit to them at all.  They saw no connection between learning about literature and getting along in the world after school.  It was the old, “How is math going to help me?” taken to the Nth degree.  How was any of this going to help them in any real way?
    But it was clearly helping me.  I was coming to work every day and collecting a paycheck every two weeks.  That was worth more than all the figurative language you can think of.  If I could have drawn a straight line from “The Monkey’s Paw” to a bi-weekly paycheck, they all would have paid attention.  The school system existed to benefit those who were making a living from it, not those it was pretending to educate.  The students were merely the justification for a system whose real, tangible benefits went not to the students but to those perpetuating it.  When I finally understood this point, it was a revelation.
    In this sense the “career and college readiness” slogan is a fraud and the students know it.  Many of them know they’re not going to college.  Many have no desire to go to college.  Others have no desire to take the risk of going to college.  Why spend years and thousands of dollars to get an education that may or may not raise your standard of living?  A school system that insists on perpetuating this lie is only pretending to be in the best interest of the students when, in fact, it is acting in its own best interest and perpetuating itself.
    Worst of all, the top third who are going to college and who are going on to bigger and better things - they know that they are not getting the preparation they need because these new reform schools place them in classrooms where 40%  of their “peers” are not going to college.  They’re not even going to graduate.  The top third is sacrificed again in the name of education reform.
    “Plan of assistance?”  Plan of resistance.
    I have refused to submit lesson plans according to my plan of assistance just as those students refused to do the work I assigned.  It’s not for me.  It’s for them.  I taught an excellent lesson under difficult circumstances and yet was rated unsatisfactory by a supervisor in need of a reason for being.  Part of the reason that I’m chronicling this episode is in the hope that other ATRs won't be put in the same situation - improperly and unethical evaluated.  (Of course, mostly, like most bloggers and novelists, I'm just a compulsive writer.)
    Field supervisors have a job to do and they are going to do it.  There are real benefits to them and if there isn’t enough work, then all that’s needed is a few more “U” ratings and you’ve got all the work you want.  And if you can create your work by “U” rating an ATR, there is the added benefit of possibly running a few of us out of the system altogether and earning your pay by saving some DOE money.  ATRs beware.
    Here’s another piece of restorative logic.  These supervisors claim that their goal is to help the teacher - but the teacher they are helping only needs help because they have decided that the teacher needs help.  It’s a scam not far removed from the scam run by Charlie Chaplin in his famous movie “The Kid” wherein the kid breaks the window so that the Tramp can happen along at the right moment and fix it.  Observe a teacher in an advisory coverage, declare him/her unsatisfactory and then earn your bi-weekly paycheck by fixing what you’ve declared to be broken.
    As restorative logic dictates - if it ain’t broke … break it.