Thursday, July 14, 2011

Chapter 4: Kamikaze

Chapter Four: Kamikaze

You might think that with such a title I’m talking about the student who doesn’t want to pass or graduate.  There are students who deliberately fail, crash land every one of their courses in one way or another – and some come up with ideas so innovative you just wish they’d apply that sort of creativity and perseverance to something worthwhile.  These are the ones who remain in high school until they’re 20 or so until it just becomes embarrassing even to them.  These are some of the main targets of the Freedom Writer teachers.  I’m not talking about that group.
You might think that I’m talking about the student who refuses to come to school.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, most of them beyond the reach of a school, all of which result in a deliberate crash landing.  These, too, are Freedom Writer targets.  I’m not talking about that group.
You might think that I’m talking about the student who insists on getting suspended.  Again there are many reasons, hallway street “cred” not being the least of them, for this sort of crash landing.  Freedom Writer-types love to zero in on this group but I’m not talking about that bunch of kamikazes.
Actually, this is for prospective teachers, people thinking about teaching in the DOE.  I’m not talking about students at all.  Remember this memoir is about the kids who don’t need Freedom Writer-type missionaries.  I’m talking about teachers.  I’m talking about the teachers who find themselves in schools like the ones where I’ve worked, Bronx schools where there is no screening of the students who apply and students enter “over the counter” throughout the year.  I’m talking about teachers who find themselves being held responsible for things that are beyond their control.  If there is a recipe for insanity, this is it.  Remember this:
“I thought I told you to get your dirt out of my hole.”
“Yes, Boss.”
I’m talking about the kamikaze teacher who ought to know just as well as those Japanese pilots what they’re getting themselves into.
Let’s start with teacher evaluations, a hot topic these days because they want to pretend that these can be made “objective”, based on standardized test results and so forth.  That is just another red herring in the move to cover up the absurdity of “No Child Left Behind”, which I’ll apply a “S.M.A.R.T. goal” analysis to in a coming chapter.  For the time being, our evaluations still rely primarily on supervisor observations.  This observation will remain a primary part of the overall evaluation even when they change the rules.  Here is the description I wrote of some early observations that I experienced.  This one happened in late May, near the end of the year when the writing, as far as student grades for the semester were concerned, was already on the wall.

From my journal:
  They were on the AP’s case to get all of the observing done that “they” [1] are supposed to be doing.  I remember that last year the A.P. didn’t have time to do it all and at the end of the year “they” had just asked me if it was okay if “they” just wrote up a bogus observation on me.  I said, sure, and in the end I don’t know how many that amounted to but “they” are supposed to observe new teachers 6 times during the course of the year and this may or may not include observations by related others like [DOE consultant].  I think the A.P. only observed me twice last year - once during the first semester when “they” flunked me for not following the block and that was with the god-awful last period 9th grade double-period that included [9th grade student] and his Spanish sidekick whose name, mercifully, eludes me now.  I accepted that “unsatisfactory” because it was the first, even though how anyone could be flunked for anything that had to do with those kids is beyond the irrational.
The second was with that god-awful 10th grade class but “they” passed me because of something that one of the sleepy kids woke up to say during a dictation.  That’s all I remember, except that [DOE consultant] came in once during the bigger 9th grade block during the second half and again gave me a pile of notes which I never read but I think they’re still around somewhere. The only thing I remember that [consultant] saying to me was, “There are a lot of incorrigibles in there.”  That was the truest thing I heard all year.  It could be that I ought to be keeping better track of such stuff but the only thing I hung onto carefully was the paper I got at the end of the year that gave me some kind of satisfactory evaluation.
            So another observation had been scheduled since last week and this one was, as luck would have it, going to be taking place on Thursday, the day before the class trip.  It looked as though the trip was going to save me because with no decision on the trip rendered, the kids would have to make a good impression on the A.P. in order to have any chance at all of getting it.  This they were well aware of.  I made sure of that but I had also asked [2 of the best students in the class] to be sure to be there on Thursday for this very purpose.  I had told them this on Tuesday when I saw them strolling into school during second period, which is when I’m usually hanging out in the small room across the hall, from where I can see out onto the street beside the girl’s entrance.  They had said that they certainly would and that was the last time I saw either of them.  They were not around Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.
            They would probably have been a positive influence but it would not have been enough.  I had planned to read from their journals to show off to the A.P. that they’re actually writing journals and then to get back to the story from the anthology, where they would be answering questions about a humorous bank robbery tale and writing their answers down on the nice, colorful worksheet that they’d all have in front of them.  I’d tried the day before to get them to do this and had failed so they were supposed to be about halfway through it but only two girls had done anything and they had done most of it.  That was [female student], who is trying to make up for some lost ground here at the end and [female student], who will work at home but not in class.
            The A.P. showed up and made the same point that I had made about the class trip but “they” might as well have been making it to the wall.  The best that can be said is that they did not throw any desks out the window.  Actually, at least they stayed in their seats, which is something they don’t usually do anymore, and so that was a positive from my point of view but not from the point of view of someone who is expecting to see children studying and learning.  I read from the journals and most of them were mostly quiet but paying little or no attention, as usual.  Then I went back to the story and walked around the room with the book trying to get them to open their books, look at the words and think about what they were supposed to be thinking about but to no avail.  They were mostly quiet, meaning that most conversations were carried on in relatively low tones, but there was no class work actually going on. The best that “they” noticed was that one or two had their books opened.  [Male student] was the only one who actually answered one of my questions.  For the most part, they just stared.
            It wasn’t that the behavior was bad.  It’s usually not so bad.  In fact, maybe I mentioned that since they stopped working these past couple of weeks, they have been a little less hyperactive, as though there was some minor release of anxiety with the end of the school year (which evidently takes place at the end of the 2nd marking period).  But it was not the behavior of students.  There was no learning going on and no attempt at learning.  As far as I’m concerned, the A.P. could judge me a total failure because of that or “they” could judge me according to the lesson plan that I was trying to put over and give me a rave review because the lesson was a very good one.  This is why it’s a suicide mission that I’m on up there.  I don’t have the slightest idea, after talking to the A.P. after school which way “they’ll” go but I’m fatalistic now and don’t give a DAMN!
            During the observation, the A.P. was sitting behind [2 female students], who actually had the worksheet in question more or less finished but who were paying no attention and refused to do what I specifically asked them to do.  In fact, [female student] wanted her journal back and when I said to wait to the end, she simply got up, came to the front of the room as I was walking around trying to get them to read the story, and took it.  Maybe she didn’t realize that this is not the kind of behavior that the assistant principal was expecting to see.  Most of the boys just sat mostly quietly but talking and joking and not doing any work.  In fact, only [male student], a kid that has done no work and who is famous for that and whom the A.P. well knows – this kid, I say, was the only one who was trying to put on the pretense of school work and that was sort of hilarious.  It was perfectly obvious what he was doing and I pointed that out to the A.P. later.  The A.P. said that “they” had never seen such a level of defiance and “they” used that word and that is exactly what it is.  It’s pure defiance.  [Male student], who was sitting right in front of the A.P., was doing his homework and when I stood over him and told him to stop and open his book, he did exactly what I expected him to do - he kept doing his homework.
            The A.P. was so appalled by the arrogance of the kids that “they” demanded the phone numbers of [3 female students] and immediately made phone calls when the A.P. got out of there but it wasn’t before [male student], the only truly criminal mind in the class but one that I hardly ever see - but who, unfortunately had decided to make his first appearance of the past 6 weeks on this day - not before this student came to the girls’ defense.  As I was supplying the names and I.D.’s, this student felt compelled to get up and tell the A.P. that “they” were not being fair and that they had done nothing but he did it with a very brash, pompous, don’t-give-a-damn attitude, causing the A.P. to ask him to step out into the hallway.  I don’t know what transpired there.
            All I know, then, is that the performance was designed to make certain that no class trip was going to take place this week, next week or any other week for this group and I made that point very clearly to them as soon as the bell rang and we got ready to go up to the computer room.  I guess I’ve gone on longer than necessary about this but it will illustrate to our future generations (should any of them come across this monstrosity) what exactly I’m dealing with up there, or what it is that the teachers in New York and such places are dealing with.  I’m supposed to teach them but they’re unteachable.  The best I can do is try to get them to cooperate but when the year runs out and they’ve decided that their grade is already decided, there is nothing at all that a teacher or even an assistant principal could do.
I was thinking - and it will sound like rationalization to some extent and it may be that but there may also be some truth to it - I was thinking, I say, that by now I am a poor judge of what is happening in this classroom of mine.  Having been locked up with them for so long and seeing no other class in action, I am numbed to their behavior somewhat.  I’m in the position of having to accept whatever behavior they give me as long as I feel like I’m getting some work out of them at the same time.  I’ve got nothing to compare them to and I’ve got no choice but to be on good terms with them, not just because there is so little that we can do to discipline them but because as their main teacher this year, part of my role has been to be the advisor and this means friend.  I still believe that for very many of the kids up there, the best thing that I can do is like them, meaning take them for what they are.  I think I have done this and that it has had a positive impact but it leaves me open to the accusation that I’m not teaching them but rather babying them or something like that.  Tough love is the operating premise for most and it makes more sense in an educational environment than it does at home but needs are so great up there and life is already so tough, that the balance shifts.  This means that you can be taken advantage of and I have, certainly, even by kids who are basically good kids for the most part, but even so, showing that even this won’t affect the way I act and feel toward them is a good thing for them to experience.  I’d say that virtually all of the kids in that class, from the ones who take advantage of me to the ones who are just operating on their own scheme of things, believe that I have a real interest in them and in their welfare and that I will stand by them in a pinch.  That’s important.
I received an “S” for that lesson.  (You can see that some of my idealistic Freedom Writer tendencies had not yet been extinguished.)  Did I deserve an “S”?  It all depends on how you look at it, or more precisely, on how your supervisor looks at it.  I think the primary reason that I didn’t receive a “U” for this was because the A.P. was forced to take that student out into the hallway.  That no-show kid may have inadvertently saved me by showing up that day and trying to look good.  How “objective” is any of this?
Or for those prospective kamikazes who think that you will have things better in hand, how about this exchange that happened to me one time as I sat down for a post-observation meeting:
“I’ll tell you right now.  That was a “U”.
“What?”  They’d observed a portion of my best lesson.
“I didn’t see any learning taking place.”
“During the pre-observation meeting, you said you wanted to see 3 things, right?”
“Differentiation.  Did you see that?”
“Teaching to a standard.  Did you see that?”
“Discussing attendance issues.  Did you see that?”
“Then ….”
Of course, you may never find yourself in this situation.
It’s commonplace now to talk about the “failing” school system.  Even people within the system who should know better rarely question that description.
The New York Post recently described the citywide graduation rate of 62% as the “highest” ever.  Of course, there has also been story after story about how few of recent graduates are prepared for college.  Schools showing graduation rates of 80% and 90% nevertheless have rates of under 10% as measured by the new “college and career readiness” standard: 75 on the ELA Regents; 80 on a math Regents.  Graduation statistics are as flexible as a bungee cord.
So what is the definition of “failing”?  Is a 62% graduation rate “failing”?  Was the 59% graduation rate in 2009 a failure?  Would a 40% graduation rate be a failure if 75% of that 40% were ready for college or a career?  Here are some questions that need to be answered before describing the NYC school system as “failing”:

1.         What percent of kids entering 9th grade NOT overage graduated?
2.         What percent of students entering 9th grade OVERAGED didn’t graduate in 4 years?  5 years?  6 years?
3.         What percent of students whose attendance was at least 75% graduated?
4.         What percent of students whose attendance was lower than 75% did not graduate?
5.         What percent of students speaking fluent English entering 9th grade graduated?
6.         What percent of students who have been in the U.S. less than a year without an English language background graduated?
7.         What percent of students with no disciplinary record graduated in 4 years?
8.         What percent of students who have been suspended on average once or more per year graduated in 4 years?
9.         What percent of students who entered 9th grade at the appropriate age, spoke English fluently, attended school regularly and never got suspended graduated in 4 years?
10.      Maybe most of all, what percentage of students would graduate if there were no public school system?

I’ve never seen a statistic for category (#9) but I am certain that it is well above 62%.  I would not be surprised if it exceeded 90%.  Is that a failure?  The public school system is not a failure.  Don’t just accept that description.  The public schools in NYC are a great success.  Of course, they can be improved but not by the following the “race to the top” money grab that has more to do with destroying public education than improving it.
A teacher might think that his/her main role is to create a curriculum that addresses the required skills and content and of his/her students, create daily lessons to teach and reinforce these skills and this content, and then present these lessons to the class.  This is given, but in fact, we’re evaluated on other things, some of which are beyond our control.  Perhaps you noticed that the list above is built on 4 categories of students: the age of a student upon entering high school, his/her fluency in English, his/her attendance and his/her behavioral record, none of which is within the teacher’s control and should not even be considered part of the teacher’s domain, let alone criteria on which a teacher ought to be evaluated.  Nevertheless, the coming “objective” evaluations will use these and other kamikaze criteria to describe teachers as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”.
The first thing that must be done right now to improve public education in NYC is to save the kids who don’t need saved from the ones who do.  Turn the students who need to be saved over to the Freedom Writer missionaries and leave the functioning kids in the hands of teachers who are passionate about their subject or field of expertise.  Their passion is infectious for the functioning kids.  The entire system must be tracked.  We must stop this great injustice to the best kids in the system.  We must stop sacrificing the best for the worst.

[1] Note: the plural “they” is used deliberately, though ungrammatically, to disguise gender.

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