If I could go back…to the classroom (part 2)

by guest contributor Jen Chau, originally published at The Time Is Always Right…

Not even the most well-designed and sparkly lunchbox could have emotionally prepared me for my first week of school. I guess what works as a kid doesn’t always translate to adulthood. :) Here you will find stories from my first week, but I also give you some flashbacks that span my whole first term — January through June.

Once I was accepted into the New York City Teaching Fellows, I was given the opportunity to start in an earlier class (in January 2002), rather than starting in June. The earlier cohort (around 30 of us) would all be assigned to Special Ed classes. Even though I thought I would be starting my training during the summer, I was excited by the prospect of serving New York City’s most “needy” population of students. The program was intense and time-consuming, but for the purposes of this post, I will merely offer you flashes of my experience. A scene here, a scene there…flashes of what was most striking to me.

Flash 1: Our date with destiny. I mean…the principal.
After a few weeks of training, we were all assigned to specific schools within District 75 (“the Special Ed District). Along with two of my fellow cohort members, I was placed in a school in the North Bronx that had a few different sites. During our first day there, we met with the principal and we observed classes. Our meeting with the principal looked like this:

Principal: So, I’d like to get to know you…talk a little bit about your experience, where you came from, etc.
Me + Cohort friends: Blah blah blah good stuff blah blah blah…
Principal: Great, and what are your hobbies? What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
Cohort friend 1: I am really interested in computers. I like to surf online, learn new programs, etc.
Cohort friend 2: I am into literature and reading.
Me: I like to cook, but I am into anything that involves making things by hand — I like drawing, photo, art.
……..and POOF! Just like that….

Principal waves hand over the 3 unsuspecting, slightly prepared teachers and turns them into:
POOF! The Computer teacher! (and out of the smoke emerges Cohort friend 1 with a mouse and its limp cord in hand)…
POOF! The Drama teacher! (out of similar smoke…Cohort friend 2 with an unwieldy, dusty set of Shakespeare plays in hand)
and…POOF! The Art teacher! (the smoke is truly thick now…me, with a packet of faded blue construction paper and pack of broken crayons in hand — ok, no joke, the day that I taught my first class, this really was all I was actually tooled with…)

One might argue that it wasn’t the best way to determine our assignments, but it happened so quickly that it almost seemed to make sense.

At first, I was truly disappointed. I wanted to teach English or Math, a core subject with which the children would really need support. But, I didn’t really have a choice, so I decided to make the best of it and started to think creatively about what I would do…which was actually a good idea since I was now the art teacher for 3 different schools (which amounted to about 200 children, kindergarteners through 8th graders). Find out how I got creative in part 3 of this series…

Flash 2: Marble notebooks to the head.
I’m sad to say that in the very first class I observed, I witnessed staff-on-student abuse. This was a class of about 8 autistic children, with one teacher. When I entered, they were all copying the day’s assignment straight from the board. I can’t completely remember how old they were, but I think somewhere around 7 or 8 years old. The children were quietly seated at a large semicircle table and working diligently. The teacher was going around and looking at their work, but she kept returning to one student in particular. The first time she approached him, she picked up his notebook, yelled, “Write on the line! What the hell is wrong with you?” and slammed his book back down on the desk. “Do it again!” she demanded. He started over, and a minute later, she returned, picked up his marble notebook, and once again, displeased, closed the book and slammed it down — but this time on his head. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She ripped out the page he was working on and threw the book back down to him. Besides the mere fact that she had hit a student, one other thing had disturbed me. She didn’t hesitate to do this with a brand new teacher in the room (she actually hit him a second time, even harder). What did this say about the situation? Her? The school? (Well, I would learn quickly…) Find out what I did after observing this class in part 3 of this series…

Flash 3: A class of under-achievers.
This sounds harsh, so let me tell you right now that I am not referring to any students I had. I am referring to a Masters class I took while I was in the program. For those of you not familiar with the New York City Teaching Fellows — while I was in it (not sure how the program may have changed since then) — you were given several weeks of training, then began teaching while simultaneously taking Masters class towards a MEd. My cohort was assigned to City College to take our Education classes. I had not been that impressed with the level of education I was receiving, but it hit an all-time low at one point. We were taking a class on reading instruction. Now, I will be the first to say that I didn’t care much about my classes in college — I was heavy into student activism, and that was my classroom. I strongly felt that was where I was learning everything, and yes, I was pretty loud about it. :) But here I was, a brand new teacher, arguably more mature than I was as an undergrad :) , wanting to soak up as much as possible. What I was learning had a direct and immediate impact on my life. Hell, whatever I learned in class could be put to use the very next day. This upped the importance of the classwork to me. I wanted as much info as I could get so that I could best serve my students. Reading instruction was of particular importance. I would say that one-third of the students in the junior high school at which I was teaching were unable to read a newspaper (let alone comprehend it).

This class was not where I would learn though. The professor was excellent, and an expert in the field, but he catered to the lowest denominator. He didn’t push us because he saw that most of the 80 teachers in the room didn’t want to work too hard. It was a miserable semester — people complaining about work, not participating in class, etc. It was a struggle for him, and I think he gave up at the end. It was a few weeks before our final. He determined that it would be open book. I tend to have a love-hate relationship with exams (they give data on what students have learned, but sometimes don’t test in the most effective ways possible), but I can say for certain, that I hate open-book tests. I’m not sure I see the point. Two hours of merely copying your notes into a blank form. All this does is tell your teacher that you took good notes. I would like to think that we should be able to show more than that in a masters level EDUCATION course. But it gets better.

The professor reminds us that we are having our open-book final in two weeks. He asks if we want him to give us the questions first. A resounding YESSSSS comes from the otherwise quiet class. I roll my eyes at my desk. Then, and this is what really sent me over the edge…. He asked if we should also go over the answers starting today, and during our next class. And as I am sure you could imagine, an even louder YESSSSS. This time, though, I didn’t stay quiet, and yelled a counter NOOOOO. My no lasted much longer than the yeses, which was pretty funny. It’s not that I was trying to be a goody-goody :) , but imagine how much more learning we could have done with an extra class — that would now be spent going over every single exam question and its corresponding answer. :| Find out what I did after yelling NO in part 3 of this series…

Flash 4: “Why are you smiling?”
And I thought the marble notebook incident was bad….I hadn’t seen anything yet. The junior high school I taught in was a SIE 8 school. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terminology, SIE 8 was supposed to include the “most needy and most dangerous kids” (this is how it was explained to me when I first started). Many of the students there had been placed there because of their “behavioral problems” (aka, they would get into a lot of fights), and many were there because of their “learning disabilities” — I had many eighth graders who couldn’t read on even a kindergarten level.

During my first week at this school, I saw a para-professional (special ed classes are all equipped with at least one para, and most in this school were built like line-backers so that they could handle the similarly built student body) throw a student against the wall and then down to the ground, knee on student’s chest, in order to discipline him; I walked through the hallways and saw most teachers reading the newspaper or taking a nap (during class time) while students created their own boxing matches or freestyled/rapped/beatboxed or tried to do schoolwork; I overheard a “morning circle” discussing (at the teacher’s prodding) who one boy had gotten his hickies from the night before; I fended off sexually inappropriate comments thrown at me by male staff (and sometimes students after seeing staff model the way); and I forged ahead and taught my classes despite the anti-Asian comments made by my students.

The most disheartening thing that I experienced though, was the frequent question: “Why are you smiling?” Several staff members asked me this during my first week. It’s such a small thing, but so very telling. No one had anything to smile about. I responded that I was happy to be there, and asked, didn’t our kids deserve to be in a place where the adults who are there to support them are happy to be doing so? Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well (remember? I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed). :) I continued to smile, but behind it all, I was also very concerned. Between the student abuse and my rocky start with the students, I wasn’t sure how all of this would turn out. This school came to be my favorite one, though. Find out how I dealt with all of this in part 3 of this series…

Flash 5: You have now entered the Twilight Zone.
For those of you who know me, you know that I have a deep love for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone — a television series that ran from ’59-’64, but that has run on repeat ever since. To my brothers’ shared chagrin, I buckle down every New Year’s and consume as many as possible during the 48 hour marathon that the Sci Fi channel graces this world with. :) If you don’t know, now you know. So, I love watching the Twilight Zone, but actually entering it myself is another story completely.

All teachers need to attend an all-day DOE training on child-abuse prevention. While most other teachers seemed to groan about how boring this would be, I had a real stake in obtaining this information. Again, it could be directly applicable to my current situation. The instructor, a veteran at the Dept of Ed, gets up there and passionately speaks about the welfare of all children. He demanded that we all consider how much we are willing to do to protect children and asked that anyone who wasn’t willing to step up to protect a child leave the room immediately. His main message was that no teacher should be turning his/her head to any kind of child abuse. I thought, here’s my ticket! He’ll be able to help me figure out what to do in my schools. Most of his talk was around parent-on-student abuse — how to recognize signs of abuse, how to approach the situation. My ear was finely tuned, listening for even the smallest mention of what to do when this is happening at a school. Nothing. You know why? It’s NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPENING AT SCHOOLS. Obviously. So I decided to approach him in the middle of the day when we all broke for lunch. As the auditorium of about 200 raced for the back doors, I swam upstream and headed straight for him.

I briefly explained the situation of violence in two of my three schools as he quietly nodded and stroked his beard. After I finished, he paused, then said, “This is what you do…” I grabbed my pen and paper, excited and ready to take notes. He said, “You go to the Superintendent’s office” (yea, the Superintendent!), “and you demand…” (yea, demands!) “to be placed in another school.” I can’t tell you how my heart dropped and I became enraged all at once. I said, wait a minute. You just spent the last two hours telling us that if we weren’t willing to stick up for chil— he cut me off. “I’ll say it again. This is what I would advise my own daughter. You go to the Superintendent’s office and demand to be placed in another school.” Was I hearing this correctly? I was pissed. Of all people, HE is saying this? He is training every teacher in the city to look out for child abuse and he is telling me to turn away? The hipocrisy was unsettling. Find out what happened after the lunch break in part 3 of this series…

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One disclaimer before I leave you for now… I know this is all one teacher’s experience. There are many out there who have had amazing experiences, tough experiences, all of it. I don’t claim to speak for teachers everywhere, nor do I believe this situation to be the same everywhere (and thank goodness for that!).

I’ll leave you with my 5 flashes for now…and will write the conclusions shortly.

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Any other teachers out there who want to share their experiences? I’m sure that there is lots of great and hopeful news to give…considering that this is graduation season. :) ….please do!

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To be continued on Friday…

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