Sunday, December 10, 2017

Pity the Fool

I have been a Substitute Teacher for now close to 10 years. I was a licensed Teacher and "retired" after three years and three different schools. Funny how everything old is news again when I heard about a fight with Cheerleaders at a school I was assigned to, Rainier Beach High School in Seattle it was a flashback to the past. 

The derision towards academics and to Teachers trickles down like economics. For the last decade of living in Seattle I lived in the South area. Mixed by both income and race, it was a neighborhood that held Howard Schultz of Starbucks and the late Kurt Cobain across the park. There was the gated community of Broodmoor where Mr. Schultz now lives in Madison Park; an area once marked with both working and middle class homes that dotted the landscape all the way to the South end of Lake Washington and in turn property values that declined the further South one goes.

The schools in the area are all fraught with problems as you go along Rainier Ave that runs adjacent to the light rail that envisioned and has had a push towards gentrification which is slowly pushing out the residents that runs a diverse color line as well.

When I taught at Rainier Beach (RBHS) it was 1999 and it was the last straw to the back in seeing how fucked up Education really is. I had been through three women Principals and all of them had been eventually fired by the district for having a no vote of confidence in the schools they administered.

The first school I worked at (and Student taught) Ingraham was at the time run by the horrific Gloria Izard-Baldwin (and my first flag to women who hyphenate their names = nuts) and at the time was the northern portion of the city's equivalent to RB.   This same school now acclaimed and respected for its International Baccalaureate Program (IB) which was implemented by the Southwest version of both schools and another school I worked out - Chief Sealth.  The last school I worked at was RB and two years ago  too implemented same program which has supposedly reclaimed the school and that was after its first year of existence with no measurement or info in which to compare.   But when you are desperate for anything you will do anything.  But this property is across from the lake which makes this school a value property with lake views and large grounds, and access to easy transport via light rail. Ah the dream school location with the worst school reputation.  What it could be could be many things but a school it has never been and it never will be. Sometimes letting things go is not a bad thing. 

The IB program that is a whopping success in revitalizing Ingraham with the Principal, who was the VP when I was there in 1996,  has flourished, the other two schools struggle largely due to the funding that program demands.  My understanding is that  Sealth doing better undergoing numerous programs in which to salvage a school with a struggling population.   But in Seattle the schools of the poor show a  neglect that marks a history of one failing concept after another.  And no school shows that better than RB with this attempt to foster an IB program.

This was the data about the school at the time the program began:

 Data from the schools "2014-2015 School Report" ( ):
11th graders with English grade-level proficiency: 23%
11th graders with Math grade-level proficiency: 12%
10th graders with English grade-level proficiency: 53%
10th graders meeting state testing req's for graduation: 37%
Students with FEWER than 10 absences during the year: 36%
Average daily attendance: 86% (1 in 7 is absent on any given day)
Families responding to School Climate Survey: 7%

So it tells you a school deeply in trouble and desperate for something.  And what it is an expensive program and respected one IB is and it may have offered some hope but my last visit to the school prior to my move was clearly a nope.  Another Principal switch (from that one in the article cited he was long gone) and his too also gone, so the school was helmed by the VP.  Add to that staff turnaround and funding issues proved that little had changed.   I walked out on day two of a week long gig as I watched class after class abuse me, ignore me and behave accordingly.   At that time the VP told me that I was of course the problem but that I needed to stay as no one would want the job.  Sure I see thanks for the support and vote of confidence and nope.  It is the closest I have come to seeing and experiencing what happens here in the Nashville Public Schools on a daily basis and what I now realize was my true introduction to what poverty does to children.  Later I saw it first hand at the World School which again was foreshadowing to what was to come.   It just did not register in the same way it did here as I lived in the pearl clutching Seattle that wanted to believe; However, when I walk into one after another school just like  RB only packed to the gills it takes a toll. RB was and is a dump. And when I was there in 1999 there was a massive fight where Students called their parents who arrived with bats, chains and other accoutrements to finish the fight. It was that day I called my husband after a year of endless fire alarms being pulled and our prep time patrolling halls and bathrooms that I decided to quit.  Little changed in that school, a revolving door of Principals, scandals and violence led a school that once could house 1000 students was down to 300 a few years ago. 

People in Seattle need to realize that the school needs to be closed. There are now charters coming and of course immediately in the vicinity as they prey on the minority family with the idea of a better education the will offer and it will bleed whatever kids who want to learn out. The reality is that the sports program is all they have and there is nothing wrong with turning the alternative school South Lake (another farce) into a small option high school and in turn have the kids be able to play sports at Cleveland or Franklin High Schools all reasonably close in proximity.  Or start one at the amazing million dollar community center that is a block away and open it for the charter kids and others who may want to join.   Sports is not the saving grace to that school, nor IB, nor the extensive theater and recording auditorium they built a decade ago. It is a failing school failing everyone in the community.

So when I heard of the Cheerleader fight this past week I remembered my time there 20 plus years ago. Marta Santos Hinze (spelling unsure) was the Principal and to say she was crazy is insufficient. I never worked for any woman in Seattle that wasn't. Then I came here. Nothing changes.  And today I finally get why, women are just angry, afraid and never feel safe to the do their job and those women of color that dominate the field of public education as any government job (municipal, state or federal) held to the idea of affirmative action and hiring faces of color is one of the reason today the white government wants to end it.  Not that they want the gigs they just want to make it tougher for those to get the jobs due to that mantra of equality and parity when it comes to hiring.  But what they did do prior to that was cuff these people via money. The funding and cutting of programs, the lack of support and offering programs that could help these demanding schools meet expectations were curtly cut off. This is the starve the beast mode.  And it works as one after another leaves as it is a set up to fail.   I have worked too long in the field now to see anything else regardless of a school unless a hefty tag is picked up by parents.   Think of the Walking Dead and that is what teaching in public education is like.  You are always on the run, running from Zombies who want to eat your brain.   Then fighting with others who are survivors just like you who are equally volatile and desperate.   It's Neegan without the club.

I found this old article about Nicholas Baker's book on Substitute Teaching. I found the book boring as hell but it does describe the daily rituals and mundane realities of teaching.  And it shows that there is nothing we can do unless we decide to and we don't. We only care about ourselves and our own.  Good plan.  Keep calm and carry on then!

Pity the Substitute Teacher

Nicholson Baker went undercover in the classroom. His resulting book delivers a message about education that Americans still need to hear.

By: Sara Mosle October 2016 Issue Education The Atlantic

Substitute teaching has to be education’s toughest job. I’m a veteran teacher, and I won’t do it; it’s just too hard. The role magnifies the profession’s biggest challenges—the low pay, the insufficient time to plan, the ordeals of classroom management—into an experience that borders on soul-crushing. At the same time, the job drains teaching of its chief joy: sustained, meaningful relationships with students. Yet in 2014, some 623,000 Americans answered school districts’ early-morning calls to take on this daunting task. Improbably, among their ranks was Nicholson Baker.

Baker has written more than a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction. Whether in pursuit of new material or because the economic plight of even acclaimed literary authors is more dismal than we knew (or both), he applied to be a sub in a “not-terribly-poor-but-hardly-rich school district” within driving distance of his home in Maine, where he lives with his wife. The criminal-background check sailed through, though you might wonder why a writer of novels so raunchy that he’s earned a reputation as a highbrow pornographer didn’t get any further vetting. Imagine the texted OMGs and weeping-laughter emoji had Baker’s students dipped into his notorious 1992 novel, Vox, an account of a man and woman having phone sex on a pay-per-minute chat line. (At one point, the guy runs into trouble xeroxing his penis for a co-worker he is trying to seduce—ah, the pre-sexting inconveniences!)
Baker calls the worst of the hectoring teachers “paid bullies.”

At 700-plus pages, Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids is a surprisingly hefty contribution to the life-of-a-teacher genre, especially given that Baker clocked only 28 days in the classroom—a place he’d love to liberate kids from. (He enjoyed a 1970s school-without-walls progressive education himself. ) Scattered across three months and six schools, grades K–12, each of those days is chronicled with the moment-by-moment vividness that Baker has made one of his trademarks. In his novel The Mezzanine, for example, he plumbs an office worker’s thoughts during an escalator ride; fireplace rituals receive punctilious attention in A Box of Matches. Well before his teaching stint has ended, Baker the substitute has shifted into saboteur mode—the reporter as mischief-maker.

Don’t mistake me, though, for a starchy pedagogue. I’m the first to appreciate Baker’s skill at doing what is too rarely done—and what his book convinced me all of us teachers should do at least once a year: follow a student through a whole hectic day in our own schools to soak up the experience. Baker often filled in for “ed techs,” aides who shadow students with special needs, so he was ideally positioned to get the kid’s-eye view. And the kids, in his telling, are mostly all right—funny, genial, and curious, even if exhausted. Start time for the middle and high schools in his district is an ungodly 7:30 a.m., and bus rides are long. How Baker kept all the students straight (a thousand names to learn!) while taking notes and juggling his official duties is beyond me—not that anyone could call him out on mistakes, since he uses pseudonyms throughout.

Baker describes a din sufficient to derail any train of thought: ceaseless PA announcements and interminable bongs between classes. (One school where I’ve taught replaced the bongs with classical music, a minor change with a major effect.) Teachers hector students constantly: “SIT UP STRAIGHT, EYES ON MRS. HEARN.” “IF I HEAR VOICES, YOU—OWE—RECESS!” Baker calls the worst of the yellers “paid bullies,” and he’s not at tough-love charter schools that swear by rigid discipline. He also captures the small silences, “those coincidental clearings in the verbal jungle.”

Baker transcribes the onslaught of acronyms, too: smile (Students Managing Information and Learning Everyday), fastt math (Fluency and Automaticity Through Systematic Teaching With Technology), smart goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely). The litany conveys the obvious: The proliferation of packaged pedagogical tools and rubrics is testimony not merely to the churn of reform interventions, but also to an enduring absence of actual reading, or much focused academic work of any kind. I will note that Baker doubtless saw a disproportionate share of vacuous handouts, from sites such as Busywork is just about all that teachers suspect subs can manage, a view Baker confirms as he struggles to keep a lid on the classroom chaos.

School-issued iPads provide portals to websites—BrainPOP, Quizlet, Edmodo—that supply further distractions. You needn’t be a technophobe to conclude that the machines, which he describes being “put away in their cases and swung around like medieval maces,” are more trouble than they’re worth. Baker isn’t even in school very often, and he finds the internet connection constantly down or too slow to be of use. Kids forget passwords to online accounts or are locked out for other reasons. An attempt to repair a software glitch erases one student’s work entirely. The result is yet more interruptions and hectoring. Sometimes the iPads get confiscated unpredictably, sabotaging the teachers who haven’t given up trying to design tablet-based lessons. And of course, when the iPads are actually functioning, students are primarily playing games, watching YouTube, or listening to music on them. That doesn’t bother Baker at all, given what he considers the deadening alternatives on offer—and his own allergy to goody-goody obedience.

As the book progresses, that allergy intensifies. Baker lets his rebellious inner Rousseau loose in an environment that, as he repeatedly remarks, is notably short on men. (We encounter no more than a couple per building.) When one student in a high-school remedial literacy class mentions an assignment on Rousseau, Baker duly notes the French philosopher’s sexism. Rousseau’s ideas about education “only applied to men,” he explains to the class. “Women were supposed to serve and prepare and make everything, and then the men would be able to go wild and have a free existence.” Yet Baker is curiously deaf to his own rogue-to-the-rescue style as he warms up to the task of second-guessing the mostly female school staff that toils away in what he considers a killjoy fashion. All the while, of course, he can look forward to resuming his wild and free existence as a writer.

Baker’s idea of good teaching seems to be showering students with empty compliments. When eighth-graders show him drafts of their papers on a short story, his constructive criticism doesn’t extend much beyond exhorting them to “tell the truth.” Blithely challenging the diagnoses of students with special needs, he makes his credo clear: Stultifying school is always the culprit. At various points, he wonders why this or that child is taking medicine for ADHD when, in his snap judgment, the kids don’t need it. (How could he possibly know, given that he’s seeing them on medication?) In the most egregious example, he takes it upon himself—after just one class with a 12-year-old who Baker has been advised has “some issues with emotional stability”—to urge the boy to cut back on whatever drug he’s taking. In this case, Baker does finally bring his concerns to the nurse—the only time he does so in the book—and she’s in no need of his wisdom. She’s already completely on top of the situation.

Baker starts actively undermining school routines, encouraging one girl in a middle-school math lab to flout the protocol of signing out of class. He tells another girl in the same lab, which is for struggling students, that she might be better served by homeschooling. For students who aren’t academically inclined, he has concluded that vocational education is the answer—and brooks no dispute. Two high schoolers, one of whom has already revealed that he spent time in “juvie,” are in a metal-tech class when Baker loses his cool. They are goofing around, playing on an iPad, and then they lie about having completed their work. Baffled to discover the teens are as disengaged in this class as they have been in any other, Baker gets furious. “This is a fucking screen,” he says, pointing at the iPad—not the real, hands-on stuff he endorses. He berates the boys for refusing the path that he is sure is best for them.

So much for Baker’s indictment of bullying teachers—though he seems to make excuses for the men in the profession. “I liked Mr. Walsh,” he confides late in the book, even though his arrival features more all-caps yelling: “SHOULDER UP, ELBOW OUT.” “WE ARE GOING TO MOVE ON.” Now Baker doesn’t mind the raised voice, which he perceives as macho, like something you’d hear on a shop floor. “The only way he could survive as a middle school tech teacher,” Baker reasons, “was to develop a voice like a union activist’s and shout all talkers down.” Suddenly I had to wonder: How bad were the female teachers he’d witnessed yelling earlier? Were they truly over the top, or in Baker’s head, did women’s raised voices turn them into harridans?
Baker wishes his students could be happy and more carefree.

Baker, a specialist in fantasies, can’t resist indulging some pedagogical ones, too—of school days cut back from six hours to two; of only four or five kids per class; of “new, well-paid teachers who would otherwise be making cappuccinos” driving in “retrofitted school buses that moved like ice-cream trucks or bookmobiles from street to street, painted navy blue.” Just kidding, he sighs, offering a bizarre verdict on K–12 education. “Ah, but we couldn’t do any of that, of course,” he writes. “School isn’t actually about efficient teaching, it’s about free all-day babysitting while parents work.”

Which is not to say that Baker envisages more-serious work getting done in the school of his dreams. He keeps saying “I love these kids” and wishing they could just be happy and more carefree. Even 15- and 16-year-olds, in his view, are too young and sensitive to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust, or read The Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War. But loving students—especially adolescents—is exhausting, time-devouring, demanding work, rather like parenthood. That’s also why teaching can be so rewarding, not that Baker sticks around long enough to find out.

Whether Baker is aware of it or not, his sub’s perspective on some very average schools delivers a message Americans still need to hear: K–12 education, as the province of children and mostly women, regularly inspires panic, but all too rarely receives the serious, sustained attention it actually merits. It’s not just students who sink under an onslaught of obligations in school, with no moment to think or have an unhurried conversation or discover a new approach to a lesson. So do the adults who “serve and prepare and make everything,” to invoke Baker’s paraphrase of Rousseau. His book is a reminder that kids and teachers are often in the same boat, and both deserve better.

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