Thursday, September 14, 2006

i heart public school teachers

This morning the sky is grey, the rain is streaking down, and I’m preparing to run off to a day of meetings and puddle hopping. Perfect setting for the main thing that’s on my mind this a.m., which is: the NYC Department of Education. It’s a gloomy subject, ladies and gentlemen. Doesn’t matter what angle you look at it from. Today I’m thinking about the angle of how many just unaccountably enthusiastic and genius teachers I’ve met over the few years that I’ve been working in the world of public education in this city. And how they get dragged through the mud by the bureaucracy and administration of the Department of Education. I’m thinking about this today mostly because I got an email from a teacher yesterday that practically broke my heart. And definitely made my blood boil. (Sometimes, yes, I feel rage.)

Here’s the story: my roommate works at the U.N., and among the various things he’s working on right now is the development of an educational project directed at youth in the U.S. He asked me if I could recommend any teachers that he might consult as he begins to put this educational project together, and I suggested a few of teachers I know. One of them, a teacher that I’ll call R., wrote him back, saying that she’d be happy to talk to him about the project. R. is an enthusiastic middle school teacher with almost a decade of experience. I’ve worked with her for several years, and in that time, I’ve seen her in action: she barely sleeps, she’s always interested in learning new stuff, and she’s capable of translating complex historical ideas into challenging but fun classroom activities. Most remarkably: even after years of working for the city, she’s got a positive attitude. Not to overstate the case, but I touch her feet in reverence. No way I could do what she does. I’m cranky—and misanthropic. And other things. So anyhow, last week my roommate took the subway to R.’s classroom, and met R. there, among the metal desks and not-too-large chairs that you find in NYC middle schools. They talked. And before my roommate got back on the subway, he pulled out his phone and called me, leaving a message on my voicemail, gushing about R. She’s so smart, she’s got such creative ideas, she totally transformed my understanding of this project. Etc, etc, etc. He elaborated later, over some food in the kitchen. Like me, was struck by her ability to translate complex historical and social ideas into consumable lesson ideas for use with young people.

A few days later, I wrote her a short email, thanking her for being so generous with her time, and telling her just how jazzed my roommate was to talk to her. And yesterday she wrote me back; she wrote the email that almost broke my heart. It was great for me too, she said. “I’m not used to being treated like an expert,” she said. “It's just so great when someone wants to hear about what I do as if it's so important, and [treats me as if] I have knowledge rather than being told what to do.”

Wh-what? I’m not used to being treated like an expert. Its possible that if I hadn’t worked with public school teachers for the past few years, I would have just been confused by that sentence—instead of enraged. How could a fully licensed, enthusiastic, smart, dedicated teacher with years of classroom experience not be treated as an expert? How, you ask. Why. The answer is complicated, probably more complicated than I’ll ever understand, but I think the core of it lives at the Tweed Courthouse, where the bureaucratic power of the DOE resides, and emanates out from there. The bureaucracy that is the NYC DOE is a complicated, labyrinthine mechanism, one that suffers as much from racism and corporate politics as it does from electoral grandstanding and the presence of scores of deadened, cynical hangers-on. Each of those features of the DOE has a hand in creating a climate wherein teachers are treated as if they are simply gears in a machine. They are made to go to professional development seminars where they are either handed scripts dictating what they are to say in the classroom, or monotonically lectured at on subjects of no relevance to their work. They are talked down to by administrators who are often barely qualified themselves to teach or inspire young minds. They are used as pawns by high-ranking officials on all sides of the debate.

Its true that there are bad teachers. There are, indeed, people working as teachers in this city who actually should not be permitted to go within 100 feet of any young person with the spark of life in them. I have met some of these teachers, and I’m here to say: yes, correct. Some of them don’t know what they’re doing. But this is not true of the majority of the teachers I’ve met. The majority of teachers I’ve met are either a)young and enthusiastic (if a little under-prepared for the work they’ve taken on—especially in the area of history education, which gets short-shrift from teacher ed programs, a subject I’m sure I’ll write about at some point on this blog), or b)all-around fantastic people whose dedication and smarts defy explanation. But all of them are used to being treated like they don’t matter, like they aren’t invested, imaginative, hard-working, intelligent souls.

When I told my roommate what R. had written in her email, he said, you know, when I was saying goodbye to her, I said: I want to say goodbye in a way that demonstrates the respect that I feel for you, and for the work you’re doing. I was raised to believe that there is no more important profession than teaching. And R. replied: you weren’t raised in the U.S., huh?

(Nope, he wasn’t.) OK but that gets into a whole other set of things, and that I don’t have time for, people. I gotta get back to work.

Dear R., if you’re reading this: you ROCK. I have no idea how you do it. And I have no idea how to remedy it.

Damn. That’s not an upbeat note to end on.

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