Friday, June 24, 2005

On New York City's Out-of-Control Public Schools

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.


  1. Wow. I'll bet your "education courses" that were required never mentioned how to run a delinquent military encampment. Don't dare mention reality. At best, you'll be labeled politically incorrect. At worst, dismissed or disciplined (something never done with students).
    You are right. Nobody cares enough to actually do anything about the "problem." Talk is cheap. Action is non-existent. Apathy is rampant.
    Sadly, much of the pathetic answer will be to build bigger prisons, and that costs everyone who isn't in there. What a waste of a generation. Sorry you had to see it first-hand.

    1. Yes, you are right. No one mentions what goes on in the classrooms. I myself had no idea of what I was getting into. Quite honestly, I was frightened. I felt like my safety was in jeopardy. We simply cannot take for granted things such as school violence. Is breaking up fights the job of an educational institution? Isn't there something wrong with schools that require metal-detectors? That are overrun by security officers? The threat of violence is always imminent. How are these schools allowed to function? Why doesn't the teachers' union address this matter? Why not the city? Why aren't noncompliant students promptly expelled?

      What a waste of a school budget -- and waste of taxpayer money -- meant to be spent on education, I would assume

      No learning can occur unless there is discipline and respect -- which is sorely lacking.

      And the media talks about about band aids like rating teachers, test scores....

      It is interesting that private schools do not have these problems.... They would never tolderate usch behavior....

  2. You may already know, but education standards vary wildly from one place to another, partly because local school districts set the standards, which in turn are also not the same among the states. The federal government, for all the complaining, has very little to do with state and local standards. It's a shame, but that's how the system has evolved.

    I was fortunate to have pretty good teachers and schools, as well as having family support with a decent academic background. I just heard today that one in five children in America don't know for sure where their next meal will come from. With social problems like that, it's a wonder that schools do as well as they have.

    You should find Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man." His "Angela's Ashes" was a best-seller and was made into a movie. It was good but I found it too dark, even with his wonderful wit, for my liking. But "Teacher Man" is a string of stories from his career as a teacher in the New York City Schools. It's a quick read, not tied into a plotline (perfect for a chapter or two at a time) and truly entertaining. For someone who has had the experience you describe, this book is a must-read.
    (I always order second-hand and out of print books from ABE Books online. You can buy it for a dollar plus shipping. )

  3. Thank you for reading, John. And, yes, I do agree that all school districts are not the same; many are indeed outstanding. And yes, I have read McCourt's books. However, the problems in the New York City school system are endemic. Despite my good intentions, I found out that there was little I could do in a school where i had to fear for my own safety. I was shocked. Maybe I was naive. But no matter what social problems students come in with, violence and disruptive behavior such as what I described should not be tolerated in any school.

  4. Poor area schools are disguised correctional facilities where teachers lock their doors do not open their windows and fear their students. In these areas teaching is reduced to managing the class where teachers must be tough and loud and "in your face" to deal with students' rude, disrespectful or threatening attitude. A soft voice or a petite frame would most likely render you "incompetent" regardless of your dedication or qualifications. Some schools in "hard to staff areas" do their best to function and teach disruptive, unmotivated students without a discipline support system in place resulted from lack of funds and the misconception of freedom granted to students who cannot distinguish between right and wrong, good or bad. To make matters worse some administrators and secretaries seem to be on a planet of their own where no teacher has ever traveled successfully and productively before, for fear of humiliation. Union representatives like politicians collect dues and return big talk and no action.

    Poor public schools performance is marked by lack of materials, lack of proper and up to date books, old curriculum and worst of all lack of services to consistently develop, assist and monitor students psychological, emotional and academic performance and progress. In areas where students bring a myriad of problems into the classroom cutting jobs and not providing these services is outright criminal! After all, children are our future, and their education will produce the next generation of professionals: teachers, doctors, nurses, care givers and so on, or as Maya Angelou said it, "we will become their victims".

    I grew up in a communist dictatorship and I remember my family living in fear without the courage to voice their opinion or to take action, I also remember those who lost their lives persecuted and prosecuted for speaking and acting against the system. I remember the deep seated fear and paranoia instilled by the politicians who governed through chaos, corruption, nepotism, and oppression. The telltale signs of communism are here; less rights, no voice, no action, confusion and fear of losing everything you worked for.