My Life As an NYC Teacher
A Tribute to the LTA - Long Term Absolution
Chapter 68: Addition by SubtractionRiddle: When is a negative of greater value than a positive?
I remember the first time I met a particular principal. It was my first day assigned to his school. I was resigned to teaching there.
I thought he might want to know something about my qualifications or experience as a teacher. More important to him, however, was the one question he asked me.
“Do you make phone calls?”
Not wanting to create an adversarial relationship on the first day, I gave him the answer he was clearly looking for. “Of course. No problem.”
“Okay.” He went back to his work.
With that I became a member of his faculty.
The phone call that the NYC teacher is expected to make has one of two purposes. Either it is to implore the parent to help curtail the student’s outrageous behavior in the classroom or it is to implore the parent to make the student attend school. The answer to the riddle above is found where these two purposes intersect.
One of the main components of an NYC school’s quality review is its attendance. The higher the attendance, the better. The lower the attendance, the worse. Therefore it is in the interest of the school to increase attendance.
I’ll point out a few of the flaws in this reasoning. First, a school is an educational institution staffed by people trained in imparting knowledge in various subject areas. It is not a gestapo with the resourses and training to penetrate the various “ghettos” and goose-step people to where they are expected to be.
Second, the percentage of working telephone numbers supplied by students to schools is roughly equivalent to the graduation rate - 50%, the recent uptick to 62% notwithstanding, given that such a number is the result not of increased learning but of increased paranoia on the part of school administrators needing to show “progress.” How does a teacher call home if there is no working phone number? Maybe you have to see it to believe it, but I’ve worked in schools where the likelihood of a phone number leading to a parent or guardian is about 25%.
Third, calling home isn’t necessarily the answer. I knew a teacher who attempted to call students’ homes on a daily basis. No one made more of an effort to contact parents. More than half of the time the number had been discontinued. More than half of the rest of the time, no one responded. On one occasion, however, he got through to a "parent" and the conversation went something like this:
“Hello, I am the teacher of so-and-so.”
“I’m calling to tell you that so-and-so hasn’t been doing his work and ….”
“Listen, teacher. If you bother me again, I’ll come down to that school and I’ll be looking for you. Got that?”
Needless to say, that teacher never made that phone call again.
You don’t have to be in the DOE long to witness child abuse at parent-teacher meetings. I’ve seen parents slap cowering students across the face in front of multiple DOE employees and I’ve seen that such “discipline” is more likely to create more disruptive behavior and academic failure than to improve it.
But aside from the many flaws in the teacher - student - parent relationship, the greater flaw is in the very idea that a school ought to be evaluated on its ability to increase attendance. In the majority of cases, the school is better off without the LTA - long term absent - student. The school shouldn’t be attempting to increase attendance. The school should be attempting to lower attendance to include only the students and families who are actively seeking an education.
The addition of a student on the attendance roster who has no interest in education is a subtraction for the education of those students who are there to learn.
At the end of any school day, any teacher will tell you that they were very happy that so-and-so didn’t show up for school that day because it meant that they were able to cover more material for the functioning students than they otherwise would have covered. Teachers won’t admit this publicly because the school reformers insist that they are reforming education and reaching those students who were previously being left behind by "failing" schools although it isn't the school that is failing but the student who is supposed to be taking advantage of a free public education who is failing. Like objecting to the idea that a person should be evaluated on the performance of another person - see Chap. 66 - teachers are threatened with toeing the line on attendance. Get those disruptive students into your classroom or else! Destroy the possibility that your highly functional students will learn as much as possible OR ELSE!
The truth is that it is in the interest of all to decrease attendance rather than to pretend to increase it and to pretend that students who aren’t learning are. In spite of what I said to that principal, I have often refused to make phone calls to try to lure students into my class who would do nothing but make teaching and learning impossible. I admit that I have frequently been happy - joyful isn't too strong a term - when certain students didn’t show up for school because that meant that more learning could take place in my classroom.
Any teacher will also tell you that it only takes 2 or 3 highly dysfunctional students to render a highly effective lesson “ineffective” in terms of how much learning took place. But they will only tell you this off the record. On the record, they are doing everything they can do to get those highly dysfunctional students to start attending school, to suddenly acquire those study habits that have been missing for the past 10 years, to miraculously become a person who can sit in a traditional classroom, listen to the lecture and discussion going on around him/her, think about these in terms of their own experience as well as the texts they've devoured at home, and be transformed into something they are not. That’s the lie / line that teachers have to spout / toe. It's a thin but potentially fatal lie / line.
Many teachers are, in fact, shooting themselves in the foot by making genuine attempts to get those dysfunctional students into their classrooms. These are the ones who are in denial about the likelihood of changing the behavior of a 16 or 18 or 20-year-old whose environment weighs far more in his character development than a few strange looking people standing in the front of classrooms or anything those strange looking people might have to say - even if they could hear it over the blare of the larger cultural and familial environments. These are the idealistic “Freedom Writer” teachers who hold pseudo-religious beliefs about the absolution of everyone or who fervently believe that they’ve been put on this earth to turn around the lives of the disadvantaged or who just like people so much that they can’t give up no matter how many times they are disappointed. I can’t help admiring them while at the same time wondering what it is that makes them try to change the world from a tiny teacher pulpit.
Many teachers realize that such a mission is futile and opt to try to focus on the kids who truly are redeemable, the highly functioning students who deserve the best that a teacher can offer but who frequently have to sit through the frequent and continual admonishment to the class about how to behave or the threats to call home or to put in failing grades for disruptive participation or the calls to the dean to remove the truly incorrigible. Do they really want to invite that student back to their classroom? How many chances does someone deserve?
If education is the purpose of the school, then subtraction becomes addition. It’s better to remove the dysfunctional than to add them. It’s better not to make that phone call, even given the slight chance that it will go through, than to waste time that could have been spent preparing a better lesson for those who will appreciate it.
If in these my last months in the DOE I were to meet that same principal, the interview would go something like this.
“Do you make phone calls?”
“Why would I try to get into class someone who is going to disrupt it and diminish the learning that might take place?
“So you don’t make phone calls?”
“The students who deserve the education I can give them are the students whose homes don’t need to be called. They are in class and waiting to learn.”
To the school reformer “LTA” means long term absence - a student who is bringing down the “data” in the Quality Review. It’s the school's responsibility and the teacher’s responsibility to get those phantom kids into the building.
To the teacher, whether they admit it or not, “LTA” means long term absolution from kids who will do nothing but cause them grief, take up their time in disciplinary proceedings and disrupt the learning of the “TCB’s” - my term - the truly college bound. That is truly taking care of business.
Answer to Riddle: When the subtraction of a positive is different from the addition of a negative.