2004-01-16 / 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 2)

In Part 1, I talked about how my friend Al takes the position that "caning" is the answer to the problems of security in the schools. This led me to think about how things have changed since I became a teacher in 1967. I began reminiscing about the first class I had, a very difficult 4-8 class I took over on Feb. 1, 1969 and described my early, somewhat physical confrontation with Jose, the biggest discipline problem in the class. Dr. Norman Jehrenberg, the Assistant Principal, was not very happy with my performance and at the end of the first week strongly hinted I should give it up, offering me easy street for the rest of the school year. Since I was going to leave teaching that June anyway the offer was tempting. I asked for one more week before admitting failure.

The second week began much like the first. With the streets filled with snow, there were enough kids absent to relieve some of the pressure. Toward the end of the week I was lining the kids up to take them to gym. There were three or four big, seemingly tough girls in the class who had been shooting me glares of hostility since I had taken over. As we lined up Sandra and Carmen smiled tentatively at me and began to chat. As we walked through the halls we continued to talk, breaching the teacher/student barrier that had existed. Other children joined in. It was a little noisy, but I didn’t care. When I picked them up 45 minutes later there was a change in atmosphere as both the class and I relaxed a little.

That walk through the halls was a key event. The tentative relationship I forged with the girls quickly began to grow. Sandra and Carmen were the real leaders of the class and everyone, even Jose, fell in line. (Ultimately, I figured out other ways than putting him up against a wall to reach him and he ended up becoming one of my trusted monitors.) By the end of the week things were much better. I began to see the children as individuals and not as some mob out to get me. From then on discipline was relatively easy. As they began to trust me the mask of hostility fell. I, in turn, began to trust them and relaxed some of the rigid controls.

Dr. Jehrenberg became a rock. He was one of the most effective administrators I ever met. If he believed you were putting in the effort he was always there for you. (You can probably count the number of such administrators in today’s’ schools on your fingers without even having to take your shoes off.) He always came to remove a child within 10 minutes of a call. It got to the point where I merely had to take out the paper to send  for him and I  would see a change in behavior. One of the difficult children, Maria, told me constantly how much she hated me. One day I started to write a note to Jehrenberg to have her removed for a while. "Stop!" she said. "I’ll behave. I want to stay." "But I thought you hated me," I said.  "I do hate you," she said, "but I like the class."

With the class under control, all I had to do was learn how to teach. This turned out to be much harder than learning how to manage a class and I never quite figured out how to do this effectively enough to satisfy me through 16 years of teaching in the self-contained classroom. Getting a handle on teaching 4th graders who were reading at a 2nd grade level or below  was a hard mountain to climb and many of the new teachers spent hours arguing how one could do it, or even if it were at all possible.

Jehrenberg was also a rock when it came to teaching me how to teach, the true role AP’s should play but rarely do today (mainly because so many of them have done so little teaching). Once, I was having trouble teaching a math concept. He asked for my lesson plan, reworked it, and came in to do the lesson for me. (What are the chances of this EVER happening in today’s schools?)

One day in May I told the class that if they lined up nicely after lunch we would take a walk over the Williamsburg Bridge. This was my first trip with a class alone and I was very nervous. When I entered the yard Jehrenberg was racing around to all the teachers pointing to my class with pride. There they were, in the most perfect line I had ever seen before. We walked over the bridge that afternoon. The children were so happy and excited. Children who didn’t get along felt a sense of bonding. I was just as excited as they were and in future years made sure to take my classes on lots of trips. (I hear the ability to take trips has been made so difficult in today’s’ "progressive" DOE as to practically constitute a ban for many teachers).

As you can guess, I didn’t leave teaching as I had intended and ended up spending 35 years in the NYC school system. That walk through the hall was a turning point in making me a teacher. That class became a clinic for me as I learned more lessons about teaching from the children than I did in any education course. Who would have thought that a conversation with a few 4th grade girls in the back of a line would lead to a career that I never intended to enter?

If I were coming into the school
system today, what would my experience have been? I couldn’t spontaneously take an informal trip over
the bridge because I would have to round up numbers of other adults to go along. The school administration would probably deny permission arguing we should be practicing for some test.

Region and school administrators would be hassling me for not sitting in my rocker on the carpet and I would be reprimanded for walking through the halls with a noisy class. Carmen and Sandra might have kept snarling at me because they wouldn’t want their friends to see them sucking up to the teacher. My calls to an AP to remove a child would be laughed at. If my calls were answered, when the AP came in to remove Maria she would refuse to leave and curse us both out. I would be charged me with abuse for grabbing Jose by the shirt and the administration would send me downtown to sit in a rubber room. If I didn’t end up in jail I would be back in graduate school studying history. And I would say to my friend Al who claims that caning is a solution to security in the schools:  Sure! If applied to the "educrats" and politicians making educational policy.

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