Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stay Away

"Don't even bother."

That's the message I feel I was given while I was working in the public school system.  I entered the public school arena as an Alternate Route candidate.  This essentially means that while teaching, I was to be mentored and/or advised by a colleague as well as monitored by the school Principal.  The time that I put in teaching, writing lesson plans and - well - being a teacher would all go towards me earning a teacher's certificate.

The school I went to work in in Newark was on the brink when I arrived.  The community around the school is completely dysfunctional (plagued with violence, drugs, and poverty) and most of my students were coming into the building in the same resultant condition.  The Principal was losing his grip on the school and by the time December rolled around, he had lost complete control.  By January, teachers were leaving and substitutes refused assignment at the school.  By March and April, the school resembled more of a battlefield than a place of learning.

Despite these difficulties, I stayed.  Like I said, many teachers left - or were forced to leave due to stress induced medical reasons - but I remained.  I wrote and submitted lesson plans; gave individual music lessons before school; collaborated on concerts; staged concerts; created a school drum line; formed great relationships with some of the toughest students; and filled in when substitutes left in the middle of the day.  I was choked by a student during a fight.  I helped council young boys through the violent death of uncles and brothers.  Finally, my 3rd grade strings class was chosen to go play at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center ("NJPAC") with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

I did all of this and at the end of the year was told I would not be returning.  Newark closed six public schools and while mine wasn't one of them, they took a tenured teacher and moved him to my spot (he quit at the end of last year).  Oh, and I never received any professional credit towards a teacher's certification.  The Principal was dismissed at the end of that year (thank god), and I found out that all of the work I did was essentially branded as meaningless.

Last year I spent the entire year as a substitute in my own hometown suburban district.  One day I worked as a sub at the High School in a special program for diverse learners - not an easy class to walk into.  After just one day, and the teaching of one class, I received a note from the head of that program saying he'd never heard anything about a sub like that before in his entire career.  I was called to work all the time.  I made an impression on the kids as well as teachers, administrators and Principals.  I was encouraged to apply for openings in the district and did so with recommendations from teachers and Principals.  I was never hired.

The overwhelming message for me - as a public school teacher - has been "Stay away."  They don't want people like me.  It's funny because while subbing I had (too many) students tell me You're better than our real teacher or PLEASE be our teacher for the rest of the year...please! 

Despite the kids begging me to stay, and making an impact in the classroom, the "powers that be" didn't care about classroom effectiveness and, instead, told me to go.

That's a problem.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Two In One Week

Last week we saw two American teachers die at the hands of their students.  One teacher was shot at point blank range on school property and another was stabbed in a school bathroom.  Of course the biggest question to come out of these two things is "Why?".

For the past few years there has been a national discussion going on here in the US regarding our education system and its problems.  We have become a nation obsessed with test scores as well as our standing compared to that of other industrialized nations throughout the world.  Within this discussion the job of teachers is often questioned.  Most people tend to have the opinion that teachers have an "easy" job, and many also believe that because teachers don't really work a full year, they don't deserve the pay or the benefits they get.

According to the web site for the National Education Association (NEA), the national turnover rate for teachers is 17%.  In urban school districts that number is 20%.  One third of all new teachers leave after three years, and 46% of new teachers are completely gone after five.  In an earlier post, I quoted a New York Times op-ed piece that spoke about mediocre talent in the teaching profession.  When you see the stats above it's no wonder that this is a prevailing opinion (and one which I agree with).

Why do the good ones leave?

Well first off, contrary to popular belief, teachers actually put in long hours.  A 2012 report  ( by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that teachers work 10 hour days.  Now, I am not saying that this is special or abnormal.  There are many jobs that involve 50 + hour work weeks, but the big difference is many of these jobs have overtime pay and/or a higher annual salary or bonus.  The NEA says that the average annual salary for an American teacher is just over $56,000.00 dollars.  That's pay for someone working a 50 + hour week who has at a minimum a Bachelors degree and in many cases a Masters.  Add in the now daily threat of violence or even the possibility of death.  Does that seem like the type of pay that is going to attract top tier talent?

I know from experience a new hurdle to overcome - in addition to violence, death and other in-school difficulties - is parents.  Parents are sending disrespectful and/or entitled children into classrooms who feel that they are either smarter or better than their teachers.  They see themselves as above the process. Many students today are bi-products of the endemic cynical view on teachers that is held by their parents.

These are all problems that need to be discussed and/or addressed in the national education discussion.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Another Shooting

There was yet another fatal shooting in the Newark neighborhood where my old school is.  I am still in touch with many of my old colleagues and they have told me that due to neighborhood violence, all after school activities have been put on hold, or just outright cancelled.  Another heartbreaking thing I've learned is that the music teacher who replaced me (who was the reason I was let go from the school) left at the conclusion of last year.  He didn't like the kids and the feeling was mutual.  As a result, the school just lost its music program.

I read about the recent school shooting in Nevada and the poor teacher who bravely gave his life.  That made national headlines - as it should.  Meanwhile in Newark the streets are filled with gunfire and innocent people are getting killed almost every day and yet - not a peep in the national media.  It's almost like gun violence in the inner-cities...well that's expected.

Cory Booker was just elected Senator in my home state and I must shake my head.  The entire time he was campaigning the national media never confronted him on the gun violence in Newark.  No one grilled him on that.  Again, it's like it's just supposed to be that way.

Imagine what the possibilities could be for those young people in our inner-cities if they could just walk to school and then back home safely?  Most of the kids living in Newark (and cities like it) are already living in poverty.  Add the fear of violent death to that, and what kind of expectations can we put on them to learn?  What kind of expectations can they put on themselves?

I just wish someone would ask these questions loud enough for everyone to hear.