2005-07-01 / Columnists

School Scope

Being NICE
By Norman Scott

Manchester, NH

June 24 – I’m in the land of Boston Red Sox territory for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition in Science and Technology) summer training session for volunteers from around the world who participate in FIRST robotics events. I’m up here with the great crew from New York City FIRST, people who put enormous amounts of volunteer time into making sure robotics events for kids in the city go smoothly. My roomie and co-worker in Region 4 Robotics is a Cleveland Indians and Mets fan and legendary Yankee-hater, but talk about building soccer and pool-playing robots overcomes all.

We are getting an advanced peak at FIRST LEGO League’s “Ocean Odyssey” challenge (not released until September 11th), where teams of kids aged 9-14 will build robots to accomplish missions in a simulated ocean. We had a lecture from a Woods Hole Oceanographer who talked about how after years of failure as a student and seven years as a shoe salesman, an interest in oceans as a child was suddenly rekindled by a National Geographic article he read and led to a PhD and a major role in exploring the oceans, 99% of which remain unexplored – lots of lessons there for kids who are supposedly failures in school.

Since this is my last column of the school year (look for a mid-summer column if there is any interesting ed news) I will just forget all about BloomWeinKlein despite all the incoming calls about teachers getting unfair U-ratings and cancer patients getting letters in their file for excessive absences. Let’s think NICE.

Speaking of which, Nice on the French Riviera is very NICE. Our recent journey to Provence was fabulous, as we celebrated out 34th anniversary in Avignon. So what if we paid $25 for a drink at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo? I couldn’t find any freedom fries no matter how hard I looked. Contrary to what many Americans believe, every French person we met treated us very NICE-ly. Rene Jean, our great French guide, gave our tour group quite a trip. Of course he looked at me as the typical crass American when I didn’t have flowers waiting for my wife the morning of our anniversary. “We never get flowers because our cats eat them,” I protested. “I don’t see your cats here,” was his rejoinder. Ooof! Or, better yet, oaf! NICE.

We left for France the day after the massive UFT gathering at Madison Square Garden on June 3rd, which a number of people felt was long on entertainment, speechifying and screechifying and short on rallying. People were already leaving as others were arriving. The Manhattan high school chapter leaders had a different idea as they organized a march from Union Square to the Garden with a couple of hundred people. This at least had a sense of militancy. It would have been better if the UFT had forgotten the politicians and the entertainment and gathered everyone at the Garden and just marched out together 20,000 strong – maybe over to the now-defunct site of the Jets stadium, to be forever known as “Bloomberg’s folly.” Sorry, I’m breaking my promise to be NICE.

I returned to beautiful weather, having just missed a heat wave. The weather in Nice was also NICE. Before being home 24 hours things heated up in email and phone calls over school stuff – reports of shenanigans at this school or that school. A particularly disturbing email from a young teacher facing a U-rating in her second year at her school after having enjoyed a successful three years of teaching at another school led to one of my rants at the final UFT Executive Board meeting of the year (any UFT member can speak for 10 minutes) in which I accused the UFT leadership of being too distracted by the three P’s – politics, public relations and patronage – to adequately give attention to teachers under attack.

The UFT reps had told this teacher to a) “file a grievance but you probably will lose”) b) “keep a log” c) “you can respond to the letters in your file if you want” but no assistance or guidance was offered. We hear more from the UFT about how they want to help the DOE get rid of teachers than strategies of defense. The teacher met a few of us and we urged her to file grievances immediately and attach a response to every letter in the file. We also recommended she consider fighting a PR war in the school by going public with some of this stuff, but taking this step requires a very strong stomach, as there will be retaliation. The fact that her file is full of satisfactory reports from the old school that was run by one of the most respected principals in the city is an important point to make in any defense. We urged the teacher to enlist the support of the former principal as proof that you don’t go from being a competent respected teacher to a U-rating without there being something wrong in the state of Denmark. Oh, excuse me! – I am not being NICE to the UFT again.

But I can’t resist this one last one. When an amendment to the Taylor Law calling for time limits on bargaining (so BloomKlein’s refusal to bargain on certain issues would force non-binding fact-finding at an earlier date – note the non-binding, which doesn’t exactly make this a meaningful modification) was proposed in the State Assembly at the urging of the UFT, we got the following missive from Randi Weingarten: “All we do now is fight about a contract instead of focusing on the kids. Imagine how high the test scores will be if we weren’t fighting all the time. What does endless bickering accomplish as far as the kids are concerned?” Basically, Weingarten is saying that teachers are so focused on getting a contract they are not doing their best to get test scores. Oy Vey! Just what we need. Sorry, BE NICE.

June 27 - I’ve been back for 2 days enjoying the great Rockaway weather but am heading for the National Education Computing Conference (NECC) in Philadelphia for a few days. This is one of the premier conferences in the nation on the use of technology in education. The workshops are always worth checking out, but my favorite place is the giant exhibition floor where every vendor who wants to sell something to schools sets up wares. I spend hours wandering the floor collecting enough pens to write a thousand Wave columns by hand. Maybe a few novels too.

Speaking of which – I start my fiction writing workshop in a few weeks. But then again, I’ve been accused of writing mostly fiction all along. In the latest edition of my newspaper “Education Notes” I wrote about the new Tier 5 pension: “Details of a Tier 5 pension plan as reported in Ed. Notes last year has been modified by the mayor. Teachers still will not collect a pension unless they work 3 years after they die. The pension will be reduced by 50% if they are caught sitting down at any time during the 3-year period. They will lose another 25% if they do not use the Workshop model. UFT officials protested that the percentages were too high.”

I received calls from two teachers complaining about the accuracy of my newspaper. “How can you collect a pension after you die?” they asked.

Double Oy vey!!

Have a nice summer.

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