Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Day: January 24, 2010 (page 1 of 1)

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.


My first semester as a teacher – part 5

… continued from here ….

I didn’t spend every moment of my first semester in the classroom. We would go to a place called Teddy’s in Williamsburg every Friday to unwind.  Each Friday, in a ritualistic manner, we would get a bit drunk and complain the evening away.  Our students, our school, our administration, NYC in general, all of it was fodder for our discussions.  It was cathartic.  It kept us sane.  During these evenings we also began to meet the other teachers we shared the building with and since most of them had more experience than us, we got lots of great ideas on how to manage our classrooms.

The international teaching group I was a part of included a group of Austrian teachers.  They had been preceeded by another group the year before, and were living in a gigantic house in southern Brooklyn.  I hung out with a bunch of times, and we basically explored NYC together, had some fun house parties, ate dinner relatively often, and just watched movies occasionally.  I was really grateful for their company, for in many ways, because we all had left our home countries, that first semester I felt like I had more in common with them than with the teachers from the US in my school.  They also had their stories to share.

One of them worked in a school which had a bilingual program.  A Yemenese boy had been placed in this program automatically because he was ESL but was failing horribly.  Unfortunately the program was intended for native Creole speakers to learn their classroom subjects in Creole and English in kind of a weird mixture.  This boy, at the end of 4 years in the program, spoke perfect Creole and hardly a word of English.  I thought to myself, here’s a boy that if someone in the system had cared at all, he would be receiving a proper education.

I loved living in New York City.  It was so different than anything I had seen before.  Just going to the corner store and getting a really fresh deli sandwich was a treat.  Having someone else do my laundry for dirt cheap, or wandering around midtown Manhattan at night time.  All of these were really cool experiences which I will remember forever.  The sights and smells of the city kept me alive that first semester for sure, and made my time outside of school less depressing.

We also left the city a couple of times that semester.  I remember a skiing trip to Vermont one weekend, and a shopping trip to some retail outlet mall in the middle of nowhere.  These trips were my first introduction to the American highway system.  It was so strange to me that we could drive along these highways and not see any cities or towns or dwellings of any kind for miles and miles until my friend explained that a lot of the highways had these strips of green space left around them.  Quite a lot of things were strange to me that year, including my introduction to Canadian bacon.

I’m from the Western part of Canada where Canadian bacon is the same as anywhere else.  It comes in long strips and you fry it and as you eat it, you feel your arteries hardening.  At a diner one morning, one of my friends asked if I was going to order the Canadian bacon, which I had never heard of.  I asked him what that was and he laughed and said I should try it.  Apparently Canadian bacon means a thin piece of cured ham which is fried like regular bacon.  I can’t see the point, but I’ve since learned it’s a delicasy in Eastern Canada.

My American friends took my under their wing that year and really helped urbanize me.  I was still operating under the assumptions of my small town youth.   I went to parent teacher conferences in a t-shirt, thinking I would be that hip young unconvential teacher that everyone admires, instead one of the senior teachers came to me and told me to my face how stupid I looked.  The trip to the outlet mall previously mentioned was my friend’s offer to help cloth myself in professional attire.