2009-12-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

The Good Old Board Of Examiners: I Never Thought That I Would Miss It!
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Perhaps now that I have reached 70- years-of-age, I long for the good old days. I never thought, however, that I would look back at the Board of Education's department called the Board of Examiners with something akin to longing.

I hated the agency back in the early days of my teaching career. It was the quintessential bureaucratic organization and it was the bane of many teacher's existence.

Now, I understand that it was a necessary evil and our schools would be much better off if it, or something like it, existed today. When I applied for a teaching license, there was more to it than breathing into a mirror and watching the mirror fog up - or not.

It was much more than simply taking some college courses and filling those requirements.

It was more than just a semester of student teaching and you're in.

I got a letter from the Board of Exam - iners telling me to be home at 9 a.m. on a specific morning. At 9 a.m. I got a call to report to JHS 180 at 10:30 a.m.

When I got there, I was met by the school's assistant principal and a city examiner - a retired principal.

They gave me a social studies topic. I believe it was the run-up to the Civil War, but this was 1962 - 47 years ago, so my memory might be a little faulty.

They gave me the textbook used by the class I was going to teach and 45 minutes to develop a comprehensive written lesson plan.

Then, I walked cold into a mid-level class (they still had tracking in those days) and taught the class my lesson plan with the principal, the assistant principal and the examiner sitting in the rear of the classroom, taking notes.

It was traumatic, but it gave them an indication of whether or not I spoke English and could handle a classroom situation. Of course, to get to that point, I had to take two comprehensive tests.

The first was on my knowledge of my subject area - social studies. It was a three-hour short-answer test that ranged from ancient history to the pres ent, and it was tough. Many college graduates failed.

Then, the same day, I had to take an English test to prove that I could read and write English. That might sound like a given, but if you think so, drop in on many of today's classrooms and you will find a teacher who cannot speak standard English and whom the kids cannot understand.

The English test was strange. You were marked solely on your spelling and grammar, so candidates were told to keep it simple. No compound sentences. No fancy syntax. Only after graduating with an education major and passing those three tests could you get a job teaching in New York City.

Today, that is replaced by the "Mirror test." If your breath fogs up the mirror, you're a teacher.

The same was true for supervisors. You needed to have at least five years as a teacher to take the coursework and then you had to pass a test that was so stringent, teachers spent months in study groups preparing for the test.

Today, a few months in the Tweed Academy and poof, you're a principal. No teaching experience required.

That's the administrative equivalent of the mirror test.

Sure, the Board of Examiners was a bureaucratic mess, but at least it in - sured that both teachers and administrators were qualified for their jobs.

An example:

I was thinking about moving from junior high school to high school, and that was a completely different license, with tests of its own. I took the three high school tests and passed them, and the Board of Examiners wrote and said that I had to resubmit all my college transcripts, even though they already had them for years.

Since I worked at 110 Livingston Street every afternoon after teaching in Rockaway as a curriculum editor for the special education division, I decided to go over to the 131 Court Street headquarters of the Board of Exam - iners, about two blocks away. I went into the office and waited about an hour to be addressed by a clerk.

"We need your transcripts," she said after reading the letter I received.

I had been there previously on a transfer from my special education license (three other tests) back to my social studies license, so I knew where my transcripts were, and I pointed that out to the clerk.

"Oh, I'm not allowed to go to that filing cabinet," she said, even though the cabinet was right across the room. "That's a junior high cabinet."

I left, and called my boss at the Board of Education, who called her boss at the Board of Examiners, and she was given permission to go across the room and copy my transcripts to put in my high school file.

That's what you had to go through, but in a perverse way, it was worth it to insure that only qualified teachers got into the classroom.

Teachers who know their subject.

Teachers who can speak and read standard English.

Teachers who have the proper certification.

Administrators who have been teach ers prior to becoming assistant principals or principals.

That is not true today, and it all began years ago.

There was a special education teach - er who lived in the Rockaway community who got a bilingual license to teach any subject to what are now called English Language Learners (ELL) because they can't speak English.

I walked into her classroom one day, and she had "Eugene V. Debs" written on the chalkboard. Despite the fact that Debs was a famous socialist activist and organizer, she was telling the class all about the Supreme Court case Eugene versus Debs.

That's what you get when you lower your standards to be politically correct and do away with the only agency that existed only to insure that teachers were qualified.

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