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04 April 2011

Who Cares About Teachers Anyway?

Glenn Ford tells Louis Calhern, "Who cares about teachers anyway?" From Blackboard Jungle
        Who cares about teachers anyway? That is a line from a very famous controversial movie for its time. That movie, “Blackboard Jungle”, noted also for having the first rock and roll score, painted a bleak, often violent picture, albeit a hopeful Hollywood ending, of life inside the classroom. The film follows our hero, played by a very good Glenn Ford, in his struggles to reach a difficult class he has been assigned. The movie spares us nothing. It depicts a near rape, classroom assaults, a vicious beating of teachers, and a great line by Glenn Ford. Disillusioned and angry near the end of the second act, Ford laments that he ever became a teacher in the first place, declaring, “Who cares about teachers anyway?” In spite of the film’s upbeat ending, the darkness it depicts and the things the film teaches us about society in general, I could write a whole other blog about. Nothing matches Ford’s line, however. It stayed with me for a long time and all during my 28 year career as a NYC public school teacher.

        There was only one other line that eclipsed that one as one also to remember. It was my first rough day working as a NYC public school special education teacher. One of the veterans there took me aside and told me something I should always remember. “As far as the board of education (Back in 1981, we had a board of education, not a department) is concerned, you, the teacher, are shit,” this teacher declared, almost within hearing range of the students he had sitting inside his classroom waiting. “The sooner you understand that, the better off you will be.” He added. For the next 28 years up until the year I retired end of school year 2009, I understood what I had been told. I may have never accepted that I was shit as far as the city was concerned, but it treated me that way all the same. Who cares about teachers anyway?

        I understand, without having been there, what drove teacher Ms Milo of Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn to do the stupid thing that she did, threatening, in front of other teachers, that she was going to get a gun and kill people at her school. The worst thing to have, as a teacher, is a temper. If only the innocent knew the kind of abuse they were headed for as NYC teachers. If they did, they would put 10,000 miles between themselves and Bloomberg/Black. If they have the wrong kind of temperament, they should quadruple that to the 3rd power. I happen to be one of those blessed with a temper. How I was able to maneuver my way across the wasteland of the NYC school system without getting fired because of my temper is a matter of shear good luck. I came close a few times throughout my career and always managed to come through all right. One time, I got so angry at an unruly class, I picked up a table and threw it at a locker in the back of the room. Another time I punched through a window and still have the scar to show for it. There were a couple of other incidents. In retrospect, no matter how lucky I was that I finished my career, if I was principal, I would have gotten rid of me. No matter what, I had no right to show temper in front of children, especially in front of children who have never been properly raised. There should be a class for every student and parent in the public school system on how to treat a teacher. And as principal, I would fully understand the predicament, but I can’t have a short fuse going off, and even though I did not lose my temper often, when it happened, it made up for all the times that it didn’t.

        How was I ever able to survive to a well deserved and sweated for (in blood) pension? Here is where I identify with Ms Milo. I was popular with students; I worked at the school during my stewardship of the school yearbook an average of 35 hours a week; I ran PM dismissal. I volunteered (and got paid) to do “coverages” when a teacher was absent. I broke up fights at risk to myself. I made it very clear in all my actions that I wanted to be as helpful to the principal as possible; I taught a specialized minor subject talent called introduction to movies and media; I did the morning announcements; I ran audio visual. Except for this temper aberration, I was a very useful tool in that school. I minded my business. Did not rat people out if they talked about someone else important behind their backs; I was late once in my entire career, and up until the last decade I had good attendance. The fact I survived and finished my teaching career, I was lucky because I wasn’t the principal having to deal with a fool who can’t hold his temper. The other way I identify with Milo is the way she is described as a good teacher, but eccentric. I too was never able to march to the tune of everyone’s band. Considering what I got into as a career, I had to be a little off to survive. If it weren’t for the vacations and the time off in the summer (for which teachers don’t get paid), the profession can literally drive you dangerously mad.

        My problem was I had a late fifties and early to middle sixties idea of how a teacher is to be treated. In public schools I attended in Los Angeles, California, teachers and administrators were allowed to use corporal punishment on miscreants. Not only that. Teachers could lose their tempers and throw things. They could punish an entire class even if some aren’t guilty. I only saw one kid in my entire career tell a teacher to shut up. (He was from NYC no less), and they rushed his butt so fast out of the room it was like I could feel the wind as they hauled him out. When I entered the NYC system February 1981, I suspected that it would not be easy, but horrendous? That was a whole other thing entirely. By the last ten years of my career, I was feeling the fatigue, and by post 9/11, I discovered too that I had a chemical imbalance and needed to take an anti-depressant (my mother was severely bipolar). Thankfully, the medication also helped me manage my temper. Yet, I was run down. I was getting every illness under creation and ate away at my absent reserve days. I am not proud of this. I thought I was doing a good thing by staying home. Most of the days that I lost my temper were days I came in sick. I decided to stay at home whenever I felt under the weather and this too helped me keep my temper in check. In those later years, as you near retirement, you don’t want to do anything stupid like tell a bunch of colleagues that you are so sick and tired that you are coming to school with a trench coat and a machine gun and going Columbine on their asses. I was eccentric and a little crazy, but I was not that crazy and saved my temper tantrums for when I got home. By the time I walked out of those school doors for the last time, I had absolutely no sick days left. This was supposed to be my last year, but thanks to Eliot Spitzer, I got an early parole. He signed into law the new 25/55 retirement for teachers. I had 28 years in and more than enough. I am so grateful to Spitzer, I would vote for him if he were running for god.

        Who cares about teachers anyway? No one. They are the easy scapegoat in a society of children who have children and then don’t raise them. I tell anyone who wants to be a teacher to forget it unless they are able to put up with a lot of abuse. Some people, not me, are able to change diapers, even adult diapers. Others are able to take a great deal of abuse. I have never liked being abused by anyone.

        If society wants the best and the brightest teachers to stand in front of their children, they have to first raise their children and then be prepared to answer for their good or bad behavior in a classroom. If it were up to me, it would be illegal to interfere with a teacher during the performance of his duty. Violator’s parents would be fined every time their child disrupts the class. After 3 such incidents, the child is removed to a more restrictive environment where he will be forced to obey the rules or else never be allowed to graduate. I realize that such measures will never be taken. King Bloomberg and the like find it easier to blame public school teachers and their union, instead of placing the blame on derelict parents. He would rather close an entire public school and open a publically private charter school in its place rather than point the finger at those truly responsible for the wide spread plague of ignorance we have in this country today. By not blaming these parent bozos, he or his predecessor are guaranteed more votes. My generation (the dumb boomers) didn’t know of charter schools and the like. Our parents raised us then, and our teachers ruled over us with iron hands.

        A competent, bright, energetic, creative young person is not going to want to work in a Bloomberg public school or in most public schools for that matter. No normal person would put up with the abuse most teachers swallow for an average 25 to 30 years. Not only are the children allowed to routinely disrespect a teacher. You can also add school administrators, school secretaries, school custodians, and parents to the list. If you are a person who invested a lot of time and money in an education degree and expect to be treated as an adult in your school, forget it. I was always amazed and outraged by the depths teachers had to go in order to survive day to day in a typical NYC School: the moronic staff development days, the parent teacher conferences where the parents of the worst students in general don’t show up, the often nasty and not helpful assistant principals, the micro managing of your every moment, the constant and disruptive test preparation days. You like being spoken to as if you were a child? Attend a faculty conference sometime. Just remember the term “conference” is used in the Orwellian sense. I mentioned above that students routinely get away with disrespecting teachers. If I had a dollar for every time I was told “f--- you, I f—- your mother. You suck my d--k etc etc”, I would not need a pension or social security. I could live on the blessings of curses.

        I was the work horse in the minor subject pool. I served all the students that the band would not accept. I was given erratic schedules such as, I would meet 3 different grade levels of students every day. I would meet other groups 3 times a week. I would have others 2 times a week. I would have still others even once a week. Furthermore, I worked with mostly large groups of unruly students. My usual schedule: 10 classes to 13 over the course of a week with a total register(all the classes combined) of 250 to 300 students. I was allowed to teach something I thought up myself. I considered it a great privilege and opportunity. I really did want to teach students about the art and science of movies and how we can use them to also read our culture. Most of the idiots who made the schedules were the AP’s, most of whom were ex-gym teachers. It just so happened that the superintendant at the time was also an ex-gym teacher himself. Gym-teachers tend to have very large classes that meet in the gym of course. When scheduling my program, they forgot that I was trying to teach some kind of unique class. In their muddled minds, gym is a minor subject. G. Perl’s movies and media class is a minor subject. Gym classes have large classes; therefore, G. Perl’s Movies class will have large classes. There was an added bonus in all of this. I would never complain about how I was being screwed. Otherwise, and they knew this, they could take away my movies program. Not only were my classes large, many were, as I wrote above, outright unruly. At the beginning of a typical school year, I would already have a list of 15 parents to call, from one class. Imagine having five out of five bad periods every day for an entire school year from September to June? Imagine getting up five days a week from a warm peaceful bed, getting on your bike in a brutally bitter cold morning, and pedaling 2 miles just to be a baby sitter an entire day. The greatest stress that you live with is trying to do an honest job and keeping the hordes from swallowing you whole.

         In a typical year, I knew that I would basically be on my own without any recourse for help of any kind from my superiors. I ran my classrooms and kept my students safe. I always tried to interact with each class. I NEVER sat in front of my students except when I was exhibiting a movie (showing a DVD). I never read a newspaper when I was supposed to be teaching. I refused to have a desk in my room. I used a long table I had inherited and placed it at the front of the room to the left. I shared that table with students. The gym teachers who scheduled me thought that all I was doing was showing movies. In retrospect, I could have saved myself a great deal of stress had I not really tried to teach these students something. If you were a parent visiting me and you asked me what I was teaching, I could explain it to your satisfaction.

        No matter how hard I worked or tried to make a difference, ultimately I was treated like a tool. Tools have no feelings, but this one did. Imagine now day after day of being abused by the same kids over and over. Maybe you succeed in getting them taken out of your room, but sooner or later they are back again and doing the same thing. Now say, these kids were messing with you and when they are taken out of the room this time, they are given 10 smacks of the paddle on their BEhinds. Do you think they are going to return to your room with the same attitude? You and I know that is from an ancient age. Back then, we had to live under a benevolent and strict adult dictatorship until such day as we were deemed fit to become responsible free members of a free society because we have learned the responsibility of freedom. If Apollo 13 happened today, none of them would have returned because one of the crew gets up late for his shift and complains that it is the captain’s fault that he overslept. Now considering the above, wouldn’t you think that a normal human being would break down after awhile?

        There comes a day in the life of most teachers, especially those who work in difficult schools, when they simply burn out. I thought I would never burn out. Sadly, at the end, I did. Who knows how long Ms Milo has suffered from TBO (teacher burn out), but apparently long enough for her to experience extreme anxiety, anger, paranoia. Who knows when she reached her breaking point. I had the foresight to get medication. How many kids had cursed her out or how many of the administrative staff have not been supportive as they are supposed to be? Who knows. There is a lot of cliques among teachers. The advice I always give new teachers is to keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Never tell anyone your business, and never say anything about anyone behind their back in front of witnesses. Maybe someone went behind Milo’s back to a supervisor. This is all bad enough for someone just starting out, but someone with TBO? That is another matter entirely. Ms Milo had reached her limits and simply exploded. I know the feeling. I wish I had all the answers like the News has. Their editorial page demands that we put brand new teachers in front of these students instead of the old expensive ones and you’ll see a gigantic improvement. I hope that these new young cheaper teachers that the News and the mayor wants realize that they will be working longer and have a worse retirement tier to deal with. The parents aren’t getting any more responsible and the children are not getting any easier. I believe that no one takes TBO seriously. I predict this problem will worsen as time goes on, especially if collective bargaining rights are destroyed and teachers continue to be abused daily.

         Teachers cry out to be treated with respect. The least we can give them is a well behaved socially adjusted child. If not, the parent should take responsibility, not the teacher. His job is to teach, Sadly, this is not the last Machine Gun Milo. There are hundreds of others out there ready to go off. TBO must be dealt with, but it is society’s dirty open secret. How do we prevent TBO? What are the symptoms of TBO? How does a teaching professional get treatment for it?

       What the hell am I ranting about? There is no such thing as TBO, and who cares about teachers anyway?


Avi said...

Whoever would want to be a school teacher today, is either, super dedicated, or super crazy!

HowardBeal said...

And that is a true statement...I am relieved that I got out of the NYC system alive.

Philosopher said...

Great commentary about what it means to be a school teacher these days.