My first semester as a teacher – part 6

…continued from here

Not everything about living in New York city was rosy.  Failure in the NYC schools was systemic.  It seemed that at all levels the system just didn’t work.  I spent nearly 3 months waiting for my first paycheck because it took that long to process all the new teachers each year.  There was the option for emergency checks, but these had to be paid off from your first paycheck.  So I remember getting an emergency check so I could buy some clothes and food, and then a week later getting $0 on my first paycheck.  I was not impressed.  A couple of years later, I would count myself lucky, another teacher who arrived in the system waited 6 months for his first paycheck.

I also had to pass these exams for certification in New York.  I had two years to do the exams, but I had heard that they were "super hard" and that I might need to do them a couple of times, so I signed up for an exam as soon as I could.  The first exam I took was the Liberal Arts and Science exam, which as I wrote it, seemed to me to be a glorified reading test.  I finished it in an hour and a quarter and walked out of the four exam feeling a bit bewildered.  When I got my results a few weeks later, it turned out I had earned a perfect score.  I decided to wait a year for the other two exams I would have to take to qualify as a New York state teacher, confident I would pass them on my first try.

Our school had serious organizational problems as well.  One year, all of the 11th grade schedules had to be redone.  In another year, we lost 3 of 5 administrators.  During the 3 years I worked in my school, I had 4 different Principals, and 8 different Assistant Principals.  Each year saw 3 or 4 teachers quit in the first month, and our final year saw a greater than 50% staff exodus from the school.

Just getting supplies was difficult.  Every request for every pencil and piece of paper had to go through a man named Mr. Santiago.  After a couple of months in the school, we copied the other teachers who just called him Santiago, having dropped the honoriam out of a lack of respect.  Some examples.  We used legal sized paper in the school, not because we needed the extra 3 inches at the bottom of the sheet which made everything we printed or photocopied look amateurish, but because apparently legal sized paper is cheaper.  We had pens for use on our exams which didn’t work at all, or ran out immediately, until I discovered that you could fold the top of the pen over once, and "kick-start" the ink in the pen.  Incidently, this discovery rescued our exams at the end of our year when we had 5 boxes of pens carefully dolled out to us to use for the exams, none of which worked until my fix.

Attendance had to be done by pencil on bubble sheets at the beginning of every 3rd period of the day.  We waited until then to do attendance because it kept our numbers up as many of the students were chronically late.  We were a title 1 school, with 90% of our students eligible for the free crappy school lunches.  Every year I was there we also saw no suspensions at the school until some magical day in November when our allotment was calculated only because the suspensions counted against our allotment.  One day in January I remember 2 out 17 of my students showing up for class, and the following day, not a single student came.

Our school had very prescribed lesson plan structure.  I had to have an "AIM" written on the top left hand corner of the board, and my name and the date in the top right hand corner.  Every class was supposed to start with a discussion of the homework, and end with the assignment of more homework for the following day.  If I didn’t do these things, then I would receive an "Unsatisfactory" (or U in teacher slang) rating for my lesson, regardless of the success or failure of my teaching. 

My first U came in my first lesson.  I started the lesson with having students complete their presentations from the previous class (with the aforementioned information visible on the board already) and then when they finished after 10 minutes or so, got up and taught a short mini-lesson and assigned some exercises to do.  When I got my report back from my Assistant Principal, who incidentally didn’t work at my school but was actually covering two schools, he claimed that I had "started class" 10 minutes later than I had.  I pointed this out, he said that the presentations didn’t count.  He didn’t even include anything about the presentations at all in his write-up of my lesson.  It was a hatchet job, pure and simple, with no way to win.

That was one of the lessons I learned well while teaching in NYC.  There was no way to win, the problem was too big, and it was always someone else’s problem.  It still sickens me that people who do not care about the children of NYC are allowed to manage its schools, patrol its hallways and teach in its classrooms.  The people who really cared spent everyday being beaten down by the system and encouraged to quit or move on by mindless bureaucracy and rules.

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