I was sorting through the detritus piled on my coffee table: applications, transcripts, advertisements for credit by examination, course brochures, grade reports, certification exam results, fingerprint forms, pricey home-study textbooks.
That was all that remained from my misguided quest to become a teacher in the New York City public schools.
It seemed so simple at first. I had heeded the idealistic call to public service. "I appreciate the value of a classical education," I wrote in my cover letter. "I remember those who influenced me and would like to pass on my enthusiasm to your students."
"If you already have a master's," a recruiter told me, "you only need 18 credits of education courses. And you need a year of teaching experience."
I had already easily passed the State teachers' exam. The so-called "courses" that I proceeded to take by examination were likewise nonchallenging, a mere exercise in paperwork -- and an obvious financial boon to the company that offered them for college credit.
I must say, I expected something more rigorous. I was beginning to wonder what I was getting into....
My years of teaching college, I was told, didn't count. To get the experience, an assistant principal said I could work as a full-time substitute teacher at his school, which billed itself as "an academic preparatory school."
"A full-time substitute," I wondered. "What was that?" I imagined I would be taking over for a teacher who had to take some sort of extended medical absence. Well, I soon found myself filling in for all the numerous teachers in the school who did not hesitate to take all their union-allotted sick days and leave.
Pollyanna that I was, I walked into the classrooms expecting to communicate my love for reading and writing and to be accorded the respect I had given my own teachers.
No one prepared me for the chaos that would ensue. I had no Virgil as my guide as I braved the inferno. As soon as I handed out the day's assignment, students automatically dropped it on the classroom floor already littered with candy wrappers, or wadded it up and tried to pitch it into the trash basket. Students came to class with no paper or pen, not to mention textbooks. They brought their cell phones that kept going off. They wore earphones and listened to rap music so loud that it permeated the classroom. Students used profanity toward me and each other to such an extent that it seemed an integral part of their vocabulary. Fighting students tumbled onto the floor and knocked over desks and chairs. On two occasions I found myself on the floor. Several times, I observed students led away in hand-cuffs.
"You tell us to stop playing cards," said one student to me, "and I will take your handbag." Another said, "Are you out of your mind?" when I told him to take off his earphones. Talk about courtesy and respect.... There was the class where students spent the period chasing each other. Then there was the student who bolted out of the classroom and in his rage put his fist through the glass in the door.
The bottom windows in the classrooms had to be locked because students threw books and soda cans out the window. Students disconnected the emergency phones that were in each classroom. Stink bombs were set off in the halls. Fire alarms went off at random. Students freely roamed the hallways during class time. Teachers were asked to patrol the halls in addition to their educational duties.
I asked the department chairwoman what to do about cheating, and she shrugged. That seemed the least of the dilemmas the school was facing. If I mentioned any problem, the assistant principal was congenial as always and waved me away. For him, it was merely another typical day.
Nobody talked about the discipline problem that was as big as an elephant in your living room. Teachers dared not complain, lest they be accused of poor classroom management and be blamed for student misbehavior. "A simple complaint," one veteran teacher once told me "is regarded as a cause of retribution by the administration. It's like living in a Communist country."
Where were those teachers, I wondered, for whom I was expected to fill in on a regular basis? Why did they call in sick so often? Perhaps they were simply biding their time until retirement. Or perhaps they were just burned out from coping with the chaos that ensued every day....
But what about a school's obligation to teach students? I at first wondered. Weren't there any sort of requirements that needed to be met? And what about homework? I had even ingenuously inquired. After all, when I taught college I never missed a day of class, and I also quite naturally expected my students to learn something.... And to hand in assignments.... Silly me. Having come in with such preconceived notions, I soon learned that I had missed the boat entirely....
If I had a question about how the education system works, I was lost in a bureaucratic underworld. Despite my many queries, no one could confirm how much substitute teaching was needed for certification. One year, I was told initially. Two years, said a different administrator. The rule had been changed to three, said another nonchalantly. How could I or anybody be expected to endure three years of this? I wondered. Or even one? Nobody was accountable and nobody cared.
Unlike Don Quixote, I could not persist in battling windmills. I had to face reality. Despite the school's stated mission, its "quest for excellence," I soon found that I was not expected to enlighten anyone. (Neither, I began to realize, were the other teachers.) I was there as a baby-sitter, no-- more than that -- as some sort of security officer to reign in the out--of-control discipline problems that predominated in the public schools. My so-called "school," I realized, was nothing more than a "warehouse."
Not only were the students lost to learning. The teachers themselves were also victims -- fearful to complain about what went on in their classrooms, lest they lose their jobs; weary of the daily onslaught of disruptive behavior; and of being expected to do not much more than clock in their time. The only requirement that I was given was to take attendance -- in order to ensure the school continued to receive its government finding.
I could not believe any type of school was allowed to function this way. Actually, I could not even believe that all I was privvy to was even legal. And we talk about school reform. The system was self-perpetuating, I realized, because no one who was invested in it dared to question it for fear of repercussions.. And why, I began to wonder, were those in charge of this
"reign-of-terror" not held responsible?
The last straw in my short-lived education career was a course I had to take that featured a video on how to fend off an attack by a student. With my gentle disposition, I had long since realized that I did not have the requisite military temperament. Athough I bought the $25 money order to accompany my teaching application for the following year, I just couldn't bring myself to fill out the form. I simply had to give up on my misguided quest. And I stopped answering those early-morning phone calls asking me to come in yet again and sub.
With much relief, I said goodbye to all that.
To say the least, all those advertisements about "making a difference" as a teacher turned out to be misleading. I cannot begin to explain how powerless I was made to feel in this dysfunctional system. And I shudder to think about how this school was preparing its students for the future by allowing behavior such as I witnessed.
And all the while the uninitiated constantly editorialize about why the city school system has problems retaining capable teachers and has under-performing schools
This Original Form of this Article was Published in Newday. All Rights Reserved.