2004-01-02 / Columnists

School Scope

Teaching in Today
By Norman Scott
School Scope By Norman Scott

Teaching in Today’s Schools: Have things changed that much? (Part 1)

"I have the answer to the problems with security and violence in the schools," my friend Al said recently. "Caning." Al will tell you the number one problem in the schools is the lack of respect kids have for the teachers. To Al, there is a war going on and the children are the enemy. If children are the enemy, then teaching has certainly become hell. I spent most of my time in the classroom basically enjoying the kids. Have things changed that much over the years? It makes me think back to the days of yesteryear.

I entered the school system in 1967 as an elementary school teacher. I had just completed a six-week summer course to become a teacher through the Intensive Teacher training Program (ITTP), sort of a precursor to the Teaching Fellows program. Filled with hundreds of men who were getting a draft deferment from the Vietnam War, this program pumped the schools with new teachers, especially filling the elementary schools with men. Because of the new contract with the UFT which put in class size limits and brought an influx of money, the schools were filled with new teachers. My school must have had 10-15 newbies.

In spite of a pretty good administration, my school was having lots of problems managing the kids and a number of classes were on the verge of being out of control. It was immediately clear that many of them were the ones with the new teachers. (Possibly a lesson and a contributing factor in today’s problems?)

Many of us had an incredibly difficult time managing children. Initially, we tried to be nice guys. The kids ran all over us. With little management skills, some teachers resorted to using muscle on the toughest kids. Sometimes it worked. For a while, at least.

Luckily, I was assigned to cover different classes every day (I was an above quota teacher—a permanent sub assigned to one school—a great idea for today’s schools). I was scared to death of having to manage my own class, which I knew I would fail miserably at since my 6 weeks of training hadn’t prepared me to have any idea what to do. This way I could start over every day with another class. Over time I basically figured out what I had to do to keep order even if I didn’t figure out how to teach. And make no mistake, keeping order was what the powers that be (administrators) were interested in. Teachers who kept order were good teachers. Those who didn’t were bad teachers. Plain and simple. Teachers who never bothered administrators with their problems were accorded the highest respect and were left alone to do whatever they wanted in the classroom. I admired these teachers immensely and hoped fervently to emulate them. The year and a half of subbing in the same school prepared me to at least do that. Or so I thought.

By February 1969, bored with subbing, I volunteered to take over a class from a teacher, an Ivy League lawyer who had gotten a good draft number and was leaving as fast as he could. I myself intended to leave teaching at the end of the school year to go back to graduate school but figured I might as well try do some real teaching while I was there. This was Class 4-8 out of 9 classes on the grade with kids much older than the average 4th graders. Some of them may have been 12 (going on 30). Low performing children with a number of disciplinary problems, class 4-8 had been raising havoc in the school and the assistant principal, a tough ornery guy named Norman Jehrenberg (who inspired fear, and sometimes loathing, from both children and teachers) was very leery of giving me the class. My performance up to that time had not exactly been stellar. But there was a new principal who liked me and he insisted and Jehrenberg backed down.

This entire scenario was taking place in the aftermath of the three month ‘68 strike and we were working a longer day (I believe from 8:10-3:15) to make up for the time lost during the strike. (Similarities between then and now abound.) The weather was brutal, cold with snow all over the place and I had developed a bad cold and a hacking cough that all new teachers in elementary schools seem to get in their early years. (Of course, from then on they are immune to everything that can be thrown at them, including Ebola virus.) Someone should have smacked some sense into me right then and there.

The very first day with the class I confronted Jose, the most difficult problem, by grabbing him by the shirt, putting him up against the wall and threatening him. This was one of the only techniques I really knew how to use. He only became more hostile and wary but it may have given a brief pause to his tough "I’m a punk" act. It gave me an initial, though temporary, advantage while I got my "sea legs." Later I found out he was threatened like that every day at home, so why would my puny threat work other than for a very short time? Clearly, I would have to get to him another way.

By the end of the first week I was reeling. The class was still disorderly and hostile and we seemed to be involved in the kind of student-teacher war that Al talks about. Jehrenberg asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this and offered to put the other above quota teacher in the class while offering me easy street for the rest of the year school. "Give me another week," I said, seriously considering taking him up on his offer.

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