Monday, December 17, 2012

It's a horrible day.  It all started Friday when a severely disabled young man walked into an elementary school in Connecticut and killed almost 30 people - 20 of them young children.  Yet again we Americans are forced to sit back and ask "why?".  Yet again we are forced to watch helplessly as another psychologically disturbed individual walks into a public place with an array of military grade assault weapons and opens fire on the innocent.  The reason it's so chilling this time is because so many of the victims were young helpless children.

Now we begin to state why we believe this happened.  Many are blaming our violent culture: TV, films, video games and web sites that do nothing except further enhance what many see as an increasing culture of violence.  I agree in some regards with that.  We do live in a society that seems to enjoy violence.  We also seem to be pushing an ever expanding envelope when it comes to what's deemed "acceptable" in entertainment.  The TV landscape is dominated by Reality Shows whose sole purpose seems to be rewarding the moronic, useless, argumentative, indignant or a variation of all of these. Video games are extremely violent and only seem to be getting worse.  Films are violent and so are the lyrics in much of the popular music...but again: we've heard this before.

This is all old news and, yet, nothing seems to change.  In addition to the aforementioned I have been thinking a lot about education and the role our schools play.  I have worked with and taught a wide array of children in my life.  I have taught at an inner city school, a school for children with autism and a High School for children with behavioral and emotional issues.  The one thing that keeps popping into my head is how we all know who the kid was who did this horrible thing in Connecticut.  We had a variation of him in our elementary, middle or High School.  In fact, there may even be a student like that in class with your child right now: a highly intelligent, disaffected, socially awkward, perhaps mentally disabled child.  Maybe you made fun of him in middle school or High School.  Maybe you stood and watched when he was pushed around on the playground.  Or maybe you did what most of us chose and silently dismissed him as "weird" or "different".  It's time to change that.  I think that schools need to identify these kids and work with not only their teachers but also parents and family members to get them help early on.  So much of what we see today is the result of social and/or psychological dysfunctions that are not properly addresses or treated.  Why is that?

The young man who did this suffered from severe psychological problems.  I saw an interview with one of his former school counselors today who said that the young man did not feel emotional pain.  The other thing the counselor said - that scared the hell out of me - was that the young man was also incapable of feeling physical pain.  Knowing this, you have to ask two obvious questions:
1.) Why wasn't this young man given proper and/or top notch treatment and care?
2.) Why, knowing of his disabilities, did his mother keep military grade assault weapons in their home?

It's the second one that gets me.  Why, as a part of her son's treatment, wasn't the mother educated about the dangers of having these weapons - especially with a mentally disabled son - in her home?  Is it really her "right" to have these military grade weapons in her home when it clearly is and was a danger not just to her but also her community?  Also, why wasn't her son placed in a special home?

The cynical side of me believes this has to do with money.  Could the mother not afford appropriate or proper care?  Maybe her insurance wouldn't cover it?  What about the schools?  Were appropriate programs put in place to help this young man?  If not, was it because they were not in the school's budget?

These are just questions I have and I'm hoping to get answers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I have not checked in on my Blog in a while.  It is now November of 2012 and just as this school year was getting ready to start, I was informed that I would not be returning to Newark...and it was not my choice.

They shut six public schools in the city and although mine was not one of them, they took a displaced music teacher from a closed school and moved him into my position.  This had nothing to do with the job I was doing but because the teacher has tenure and I do not.  It was a simple case of bureaucracy combined with seniority.  It did not matter that I had formed relationships with many of the troubled children at the school nor that I managed to keep the strings program alive, stage four concerts and start a school drumline.  I also helped many children through tough times - like my colleagues.  I managed to do all of this and I am not even a "real" teacher.  I am still trying to earn my certification...which is a whole other story.

I have learned a lot from my experience in Newark.  In fact, I have learned so much that I am writing a full book about it.  Many of those things will be covered here for every and no eyes to see.  What about the education process in this country?  How are we training teachers?  How does our society view teachers?  Should kids in an inner city like Newark be expected to learn like kids in a suburban community like mine?

I asked my kids last night why they think they have to learn science and math and do you know what their answer was?  "I don't know."  Mind you, my son is in advanced math and is a straight "A" student, my daughter is a straight "A" student as well and her reading level was just evaluated at a seventh grade level (she's in fifth).  Despite this, they can't tell you why they are asked to learn the things they are.  Why is that?  If two kids from a suburban school district can't tell you why they are learning what they're learning do you think kids in the inner city can?

This is the tip of the iceberg and something that needs to be written about at length.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Two Weeks From Hell

In the last two weeks the following things have happened at my school:
- As I wrote in an earlier post I was choked by a third grade boy.
- One of the most beloved security guards at our school was attacked by a fifth grade boy and punched repeatedly causing severe bruising on her arms and back.
- A third grade teacher was pushed so hard by a boy in another class that she fell over.
- A seventh grade teacher found out that her blood pressure is too high due to stress and was told to take a two week medical leave.

In addition to all of this, Miss M, the dance teacher was also hurt and took a medical leave.  Miss M is a massive presence in our school and losing her seems like the final blow.  The school is out of control and the kids know it.  I feel terrible for many of the children because they are scared, confused and frustrated.  There is not much learning going on and how could there be?  If you noticed - many of the incidents that are occurring at my school are being done so by boys.  The male population at my school is in crisis.  These boys are terrified.  They also lack self esteem and - as I have said numerous times - a male influence.

As a teacher, the last two weeks have been crazy but I'm not leaving.  I'm committed.  I'm determined to try and make a difference.  Many times I look at the kids from the perspective of a parent not as an educator.  These kids are being robbed of something and it's not just an education but also their lives and development.

I have to try and change that.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Where Are the Men?

A third grade boy tried to choke me today.  He put his hand around my neck and had a look of sheer anger in his eyes.  He was fighting with another boy and I broke up the fight by pulling him off.  I put him into a door jam to calm him down and he grabbed my neck.

I don't blame him for anything.  This child is angry - like most of the boys at my school.  They are young boys or men and most are mad.  I feel terrible for them.  They need help and I am not talking about academic help.  They need a man to not only look up to but talk to and express themselves with.  I don't know how they would react to me because of my skin color.  Is this wrong?

I am a father before I am a teacher and I am the father of a son and a daughter.  I see what I give my son and these boys don't have that.  The boys at my school are starving for a male to lead the way.  I don't know that I am that man but damn it I'm gonna give it a try.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Basic Needs

Today I had a third grade boy tell me that he doesn't smile.  I tried my hardest to get him to crack but he wasn't taking the bait.  Finally, after some of my best material failed, I saw his lips change position and begin to form the basic shape of a what could be a smile but then he stopped himself and walked away.

Yesterday I had a fifth grade boy ask if I wanted to see a picture of his father.  I told him that I would love to see the picture, fully expecting him to get a photo from his backpack or jacket pocket.  Instead he walked over to my computer and navigated his way onto a web site that showed mug shots.  There staring back at me was his dad.  In the Newark system for God knows what.

The boys at my school are starved for things we all take for granted.  Hugs from men being the number one.  Healthy meals are number two and discipline and structure are tied for number three. How can these kids be expected to learn anything when they come to school lacking the utter basic needs of life?

I love when I hear people and pundits speak of what's "wrong" with inner city schools.  It 's always some asinine commentary on what teachers do wrong.  Come spend a week with me and then make your comments.

The kids I work with are not intellectually underserved.  They are emotionally underserved.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Lesson I

The most amazing thing that I learned at the close of that first week was that I did not want to leave.  In fact I realized that this was where I belonged.  I knew it was going to be the hardest job I ever had but I also knew I wanted the challenge.

For me the challenge was going to be convincing these children of their potential.  Making sure they knew that they were capable of anything.  They were all smart, talented kids but they had the misfortune of being born into a place that constantly told them they had very few options.  It was going to be my job to convince them otherwise.

While my kids and the other children in The Land of Make Believe had a mindset of "When I go to college..."  the kids 10 miles up the road had a mindset of "If I eat dinner tonight..."  That's what I was working against and whether or not I had the teaching chops and patience to get over that hump was the $100,000.00 dollar question.

Week One

I began teaching in Newark back in late October of 2011.  When I interviewed for the job the district Fine Arts Director as well as school Principal told me that teaching at the school was going to be "hard".  I kind of chuckled to myself because before I started teaching here I was under the very false impression that I could handle anything.  In fact I prided myself at the level of control I was able to maintain in my classes.

Before teaching in Newark I taught at two schools.  One was an elementary school exclusively for children with autism.  The other was a High School for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems.  I figured these two experiences had given me enough of an idea on what it was like to not just teach but work with two "difficult" populations of children.  Teaching children with special needs is challenging and I prided myself on the fact that - without any special ed. training - I had been able to rise to the occasion.  In fact I had also created my own early childhood music curriculum.  Because of the work I had done with the special needs community, I had been recognized not just by local and state organizations but also on the national level.  What type of challenge could teaching in an inner city school present that I had not seen?

Little did I know.

My first day, in my first class I knew right away what I was in for.  I realized right off the bat that the kids I would be teaching had no idea what structure was.  I was playing the piano and they were up banging on the piano, running around the room.  No one was paying attention.  It was pure chaos.  When the class finally ended I sat down and asked myself "Am I in over my head?"  I knew the answer to that question was going to come directly from what happened over the course of that first week.  Let me just say that within that first week I questioned not only my ability as a teacher but also as a parent, educated human being and leader.  I was a mess.

Imagine teaching a class and in the middle of doing so four children get up and walk out of the room?  Imagine having a seventh grade girl say to you after your first class with her "You're not gonna last."  These were just two of the things I experienced that week and if it weren't for my fellow arts teachers, I think I would have walked on day two.

"Miss M." and "Miss N" are my colleagues at my school.  Miss M. teaches dance and Miss N. teaches visual arts.  They are two of the smartest, intelligent, strongest women I have ever met in my life.  They gave me two of the best pieces of advice the first day I walked through the door.  Miss M. said to me "Do not take anything these kids say to you personally."  Miss N. echoed the same advice but added "Be strong.  Remember, you're going to have to extend your view on what 'family' means."

By the end of the first week I wasn't sure on if I'd made the right decision.  I was frustrated, confused, and also upset.  The kids at my school are smart, energetic kids - juts like kids everywhere else.  But, like I said earlier, they lacked structure, discipline and focus.  They also lacked basic needs like a good breakfast, clean clothes and hugs.  I noticed right away that a lot of the kids couldn't look me in the eye.  Many never smiled.  Some attached themselves to me right away while others not only acted distant but would not come near me.  This was all new and somewhat overwhelming.  Would it change?  Would I get better?

What the hell was I doing here?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

10 Miles Ain't That Far

I am a music teacher and I work in the Newark Public School system in New Jersey.  My commute to work is a dream.  My school is only ten miles from my house but in the twenty-five to thirty minutes it takes me to get there in the morning (there's traffic) things change drastically.

I live in a beautiful community.  It is a one that is made up of wide, tree lined streets and these are occupied by Victorian style houses.  These homes are occupied by my friends and neighbors who - generally speaking - have careers in the financial, pharmaceutical, or legal industries.  My children go to school and play sports with kids who get new iPhones for Christmas.  In our entire circle of friends my wife and I are one of three families where both parents work.  Our community has a beautiful downtown with shops, stores and restaurants.  Our children will someday be able to go see a movie, have a soda or some ice cream and never have to get in a car to do it.  This is one of the reasons my wife and I chose to live here.

A friend of mine whose wife is not from here told me that she refers to our town as "The Land of Make Believe".  I know why she calls it this.  At times our town can seem surreal.  The tree lined streets, old Victorian charm, church steeples, downtown, good schools and beautiful parks can feel too good to be true.  It really does look and feel like a place that was "made up".  In fact, many TV shows, commercials and even Hollywood movies have been shot in our town.

The community where I teach is the complete opposite.  It is a mess.  While my community feels surreal from a sugar and sweet perspective the community I work in seems surreal from a gritty crime drama perspective.  The school I work in is an island to the kids who go there.  It is a place that provides structure, consistency, love, discipline, praise and encouragement.  It is more than a "school".  For many of the kids it is home and we, as teachers, are not simply educators but surrogate parents and guardians.

This has been a life changing experience for me.  I have been affected in ways I never imagined.  I started this Blog more as a way of therapy than expression.  I need to "talk" about what I see every day and my poor wife has been the brunt of most of my frustration, sadness, and also happiness.  You see, I LOVE my job.  It's challenging and crazy in many ways but it's also incredibly rewarding.

This will be where I come to get it all out.  Talk about the thrills, emotion, stress and challenges involved with working 10 Miles From the Land of Make Believe.