April 8, 2001

A View From the Trenches

Justin Lane for The New York Times

A public school in New York City - the president wants more tests, the courts want more financing, the mayor wants a new system, the teachers want to survive.

In September 1999, motivated by altruism and a need to redirect my life, I took a job with the New York City Board of Education. I have a master's degree in education from Teachers College at Columbia and taught the fifth grade for three years in Long Island long ago.

After renewing my teaching license by answering exam questions like "Why would you take a class to the library" - and resisting the temptation to crib from the bank robber Willy Sutton and say, "Because that's where the books are" - I was considered qualified to start.

One remaining detail was to take the child abuse workshop given by the union, the United Federation of Teachers, and required by the state for certification.

The class was instructional and well taught. First, we were told that under no circumstances were we to touch a child, no matter what we thought we saw. We should instead tell two supervisors - probably the principal and guidance counselor or social worker - about our suspicions.

"Why is this necessary?" someone asked.

"To cover yourself," said the instructor, introducing a phrase I would hear with incredible frequency from teachers over the next year.

A discussion followed. Some principals might not want to do anything about a problem because there are so many already that one more would put the school over the top and make the principals look like poor managers.

"But if this is a serious concern, can't you go around the principal to a higher authority?" someone asked. There was laughter and the rolling of eyes.

"That's one reason we advise you to tell more than one person," the instructor said. "The more the better in this case." Further discussion revealed that many in the classroom had had just this experience. They wanted to help a child but ended up only harming themselves by making an enemy of the principal. I thought this sounded disgruntled and exaggerated.

But I was new.

On to the Board of Education's recruitment hall, then housed at 65 Court Street in Brooklyn, where I was one of only a few certified teachers in the room. I was signed on the spot by a friendly assistant principal from a school in the chancellor's district, a special district of 43 failing schools under the chancellor's direct control. I was sent to the main office at 110 Livingston Street to get my papers signed.

After an hour, I was called.

A man looked at my papers and told me to go to Room 102 at 65 Court Street to get them "processed correctly." Back at Court Street, I waited another two hours. When I was finally taken, it was the same man from 110 Livingston Street! He took 30 seconds to review my papers and signed the bottom of one.

"That's it?" I said. "You saw me three hours ago. Why couldn't you sign before?"

"The procedure is handled here in this office," he said.

It was a taste of things to come.

School systems - and classrooms - are riddled with such processes: redundant, complex, ineffective. Many propose reform. President Bush has focused the national spotlight on low-performing schools like those in the chancellor's district, calling for more assessment tests and vouchers and tax credits for parents. State courts, most recently in New York, have ordered new thinking on redistributing aid to urban schools. New York City's mayor wants to eliminate the Board of Education. The board frequently changes chancellors. The chancellors criticize the superintendents, who criticize the district officials. They turn their wrath on the principals. Teachers are on the lowest rung of the ladder and are criticized by all.

During my year at a failing school in the South Bronx, I kept a journal. Since then, some things, including the chancellor, have changed. But much has not. Here are selections from my journal.


"Twilight Zone" begins the minute I enter my new school, in Soundview, the nation's poorest Congressional district, and see that every clock has hands pointing to different times. In a place where at least half the children cannot tell time, no one seems concerned about the clocks.

"You get used to it," says one veteran teacher. "Wear a watch. Work around it."

The building has been reorganized to contain three schools, with three principals, three offices and three separate student bodies. Mine is second through fourth grade. In addition to being in the chancellor's district, the school has been under registration review by the state for some time and is under constant observation.

On the first day, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew visits. Any other day would be welcome, but the first day of school is hectic for everyone. Yet what better time to have a photo op and get on the evening news?

The principal, who is new this year, gives a pre-chancellor's-visit speech, heralding the themes that become unsaid rules during the year: If we see anything that looks out of place, like a box, hide it. If we see a child running down the hall, grab him and keep him in a classroom until the chancellor leaves.

There is a mix-up in the office. Some new parents are trying to find their children's class but their names are not on anyone's list. The children are dressed up, expecting to attend the first day of school but are put on the back burner and told to go home and try again tomorrow. For some, the same thing will happen the next day, and the next.

Dr. Crew arrives with TV cameras ready for taping. He doesn't seem to notice the broken clocks or crumbling plaster in the back stairwell. He is taped watching part of one brief lesson taught by a pretty young teacher. The students are well behaved. He is treated like a superstar, not to be disturbed.

"Hey, what about the clocks," I think as he walks past one that says 6:15 and another that says 11:20.

Learning On the Job

I decide to wear two watches, fearing the battery on one might die. A child spots them on my wrist and announces that I am wearing two because I stole one from another teacher. Her friends eye me suspiciously. When she leaves I put the extra watch in my purse.

During my prep period (50 minutes for paperwork), I ask several teachers about their experiences. They all tell stories of the many programs they have seen come and go. They complain that training is poor because the supervisor, also new to the program, is only one page ahead of the teachers, who are one page ahead of the students. In other words, always learning on the job. When they finally feel confident after two or three years, the program is changed because of disappointing results. Some students have been hit with three or four new programs before the eighth grade!

The new, more expensive flavors of the year are Math Trailblazers and the reading program Success for All. S.F.A., developed at Johns Hopkins University, was a program ready to happen in New York City. When Rudy Crew decided to make changes in the curriculum for his chancellor's district, he decided, like so many others, that problems had to do with the reading program rather than anything within the classrooms. The core of S.F.A. is a daily 90-minute reading session. Teachers use a repetitive, structured script to guide students through reading activities.

I am to have an S.F.A. group. I receive no training and am given the manual to read. Some teachers learn the system quickly, but for most of us it seems rigid and complex. A staff member dubs it "Stress for All."

Down on the first floor I see a textbook graveyard. Books ordered last spring to accompany the former reading program have arrived, and now that that program is discontinued, they are piled on the floor. When I tell other teachers about the free books they share stories from other years. One year, cartons of unopened books were put in a closet. No one knew where they were so they had to be reordered. What a waste!

I take a few excellent books to help me plan lessons.


I am one of a half-dozen cluster teachers. Clusters dread when teachers are absent, because they are used as in-house subs. It is difficult for chancellor's schools to get substitute teachers.

When not subbing, I teach supplemental math to grades two, three and four. During that time, the regular teacher is having a prep period. But if a teacher is sick, a cluster teacher picks up all her children for the day, and the regulars lose their prep periods.

The minute the regular teacher leaves the room the emotional climate escalates. It especially energizes children who are forced to sit without a break from 9:15 to 10:45 during the S.F.A. reading period. The principal treats this time as sacred - no interruptions, no deviations and no bathroom! It gets worse the following period, 11 to 11:50, when students who haven't eaten a thing since 7:45 a.m. know that lunch is next. Some parents supply an 11 o'clock snack, but not all. Being hungry and watching others eat causes friction. Some children steal their neighbor's candy and fights break out.

From the minute I enter the 11 o'clock class everyone has to go to the bathroom. They have just finished their uninterrupted hour-and-a-half S.F.A. period. I make a list for the pass.

A typical scene:

"Why did you put his name before my name?"

"I saw his hand go up first," I answer.

"My hand went up first. That's not fair."

"Next time I'll put your name first."

"What are you looking at?" I hear one child say.

"Teacher, he's bothering me, he's looking at me," says another, exhibiting the supersensitivity of so many who turn looks into fights.

"No one should be talking to anyone," I say. "I brought you all a special story."

"We heard that story before," some say without even seeing the book.

"We don't like that story."

"What else have you got for us to do?"

Another frequent scene:

"Teacher, he took my pencil."

"He said I could borrow it."

"I did not. You took it off my desk. I saw you."

"Yeah, we saw him do it," several say. A fight is about to erupt.

"Lucky for all of you I carry my own pencils," I say. "Who needs a pencil?" Several hands shoot up.

"Teacher, she put her pencil in her desk so she could get one of your pencils."

"It broke," explains the child, smiling.

"Mine is broken, too," says another girl, realizing she can get a free pencil.

"Teacher, the pencil you gave me just broke."

More children are now hiding pencils in their desks. I pass out paper.

"Teacher, I cannot write on this paper because it has wrinkles. I cannot write on wrinkles."

"Me, too," several say.

"Anyone who does not have a pencil and paper is getting a zero and I am going to call your mother."

I whip out my cell phone and pretend to dial. "Busy," I say. "I'll call later."

I take the names of a few children whose parents I will call. They are masters at playing the odds that I will not reach them. They know I have about 85 students a day, and chances are I might not make the call.

"My phone is disconnected," says one child.

"We don't have a phone," says another.

As I later learn, they are telling the truth.

An experienced teacher tells me, "I had parents actually give me the phone number of a bar and grill or a gas station. Once I was given a 900 number."

Some don't want to be bothered. Some are afraid the police are looking for them, or who knows what else? "My mother is in the Dominican Republic" - or "Puerto Rico," "Ecuador," "dead," "don't know." I make some calls.

Check each of the above.

In the Teachers' Room

A second-grade teacher announces that a particular student is finally on medication. "He's like a zombie," she says. Cheers go up.

"Sounds like the dose is too high," says one teacher.

"Or too low," quips another.

I ask a senior teacher nearing retirement how he keeps order in the classroom.

"I scream in their ear," he says.

"I scream in their face," adds an intimidating looking second-grade teacher.

Keeping the Lid On

The second mantra after "cover yourself" is "don't ask, don't tell." This unwritten rule is because a teacher fears the common and unfortunate practice of being shot as a messenger. Teachers are kept in line by threats of "U" (unsatisfactory) ratings by principals and are boxed in between instruction and discipline. If you talk about disruptive students, administrators say the problem is your fault: If you had stronger control, the child would not have brought a knife to class or stolen your wallet.

Harder work is more interesting to teach, but academic challenges can be threatening to insecure children. Acting out masks ignorance. Work that makes students comfortable and feel successful causes fewer discipline problems. New work is introduced piece by piece at an agonizingly slow pace. Dumbing down is a discipline technique that keeps children who prefer entertainment to instruction orderly and safe.

Some parents do not see certain types of behavior as unacceptable. "I acted that way and I grew up just fine," they say, or "I tell my child to stand up for his rights and fight back." Some get annoyed when notified a second or third time that their child has acted up. Some say they'll have to beat the child again, and you're sorry you called. And some low-income parents encourage bad behavior so their children are labeled disabled and placed in a special education class. They can then receive Supplemental Security Income.

Immediate discipline is delayed by a time-consuming, six-step procedure, copies of which are distributed midyear. The teacher is to repeatedly write up a problem child's behavior, followed by parent meetings that must also be written up, and a 7- to 10-day cooling-off period. That's only up to Step 2. At Step 4, reports are given to the guidance counselor. They don't reach the principal's desk until Step 6. The procedure doesn't sound unreasonable but becomes increasingly ineffective as time passes and nothing but talk and report writing has taken place. Teachers have time and energy to get action on perhaps one disruptive child; many more slide by. Instruction time is lost, too, as the teacher writes down each incident.

This technique can keep problems away from the principal's desk for a long time. Of course, if something really terrible happens, the principal can say, "Why wasn't I told of this before?" Then the principal is covered both ways, and teachers are left holding the bag every time. Teachers keep notes to cover themselves.

Eventually, the problem child hears a lecture he has likely heard before from the assistant principal and is sent back to class. The child might later be transferred to another class, sometimes two or three during the year.

A common punishment for a serious infraction like bringing a weapon to school is a week's suspension - a welcome break from classes.

Troubled Children

One adorable 7-year-old boy always comes to school angry. He enters the building scowling. Today he is late. He walks down the hall kicking doors, punching the wall and fingering a bulletin board ready to rip something off. He is all muscle and appetite.

This year there is no gym program or playtime after lunch. After eating, children sit in the auditorium until lunch period ends (principal's orders). When they return to their classrooms they sit again doing the afternoon's academic work. A pass for the bathroom is their only escape.

"Good morning," I say as we pass in the hall. "Do you have a late pass from the office?" He takes a deep breath and picks up speed.

"Shut up!" he shouts. He kicks the swinging doors with both feet, his body parallel to the floor.

In my 11 a.m. class he is already out of his seat circling the room, doing choreographed hand chops and leg kicks picked up in a karate class. It is only a matter of time before his limbs connect with someone.

"They're all yours," says the exiting teacher.

"Get back in your seat," I say. I am surprised that he does. I start the lesson. Eyes go to the boy. He has put his head in one of the plastic bags that the teacher keeps workbooks in and is breathing deeply saying, "I want to die. I want to die." I yank the bag off his head and stuff it in my purse. He runs to the window and starts to climb up. Luckily we are on the third floor, where there are protective grates on the windows. There are no grates on the fourth or fifth floors.

"I'm going to jump out and kill myself," he shouts.

A girl throws her workbooks on the floor. She puts a plastic bag over her head and yells, "I want to die, too." She gets up from her seat and throws her body repeatedly against the coat closet door. It shakes but does not break, proving that these old schools were built to last. She is a very big girl, having been left back, and although she is just in the second grade she is almost as tall as I am - 5 feet 1. I grab the bag off her head and order her to sit down, but before she does she takes a pen and carves her initials into the closet door.

Seeing that the attention has shifted, the boy climbs down, circles the class one more time and sits down. The class period ends. Miraculously, all the children are sitting quietly in their seats.

I am shaking. I tell the permanent teacher, who says the boy always says he wants to die but has never acted on it. As for the girl, she looks for every opportunity to get into trouble. She tells everyone her mother works in a sex club. In fact, when I mention one day how pretty she looks, she says it is her birthday and her mother is planning a big party for her at the sex club. How parents make a living is not something to ask about. It is their business. During a parent-teacher conference, her mother, who is trying to work her way off welfare, is horrified to learn what her daughter has been saying. She leaves with her daughter in tow, mumbling about a beating.

I write up the death-wish episode and give one copy to the principal, one to the assistant principal and one to the guidance counselor. The parents put the boy into therapy with medication but, as with many others, there are days when it is administered erratically and doesn't work as well as it should. You never know what mood these children will enter the school in on any given day. Some run around saying, "Ha, ha, I didn't take it today," meaning their medication.

The boy goes through three teachers this year, one of whom reports to administrators that he has attacked her. He is suspended twice. At year's end he is promoted to the third grade.

Time Stands Still

"Have you noticed that none of the clocks in the hall work?" I ask a teacher.

"None of the schools I ever worked in had clocks that worked," she says.

I decide to see the custodian about the clocks.

"See the bulletin board behind me?" asks the custodian. "When I fill out a request form for something to be fixed and send it out, I use the blue paper. When it is taken care of I take down the blue paper. How many colored papers do you see behind me?"

"Three," I say. "Blue, pink and white."

"Wrong," he says. "They're all blue. First the blue fades to pink and then the pink fades to white. That white one is about the clocks."

Literacy, aka Reading

I check my mailbox. Since the beginning of the year, I have received three completely revised schedules from the principal without time to inform the teacher that I won't be there for her prep period. Instead of math, I will teach supplemental "literacy" (formerly known as reading) in addition to S.F.A.

I have no time to prepare lesson plans for my new classes. I use some of the free books I picked up downstairs. I give second-grade work to the fourth grade by adding one extra step. Surprise! Many find it difficult.

There are bright and motivated students in this school. They are able to read and write while others scuffle nearby, inching their desks away from offending neighbors. More than half the students in this school behave themselves. You go over their work with them, correct their tests and homework. You hope.

Consultants from S.F.A. make periodic visits to see how we are doing and provide technical help. We are always doing very well by their standards. But as well as we seem to be doing from the point of view of the S.F.A. organization's staff, that's how badly we are doing according to the Board of Education S.F.A. staff. The principal marches around with an unsmiling S.F.A. coordinator from the board. She is not a happy camper. She stresses that S.F.A. is a business and wants to keep us as clients so it is their job to tell us good things, but the school is not doing well. Teacher morale is low. It could take years to master this program.

A defender-of-the-faith teacher points out that reading scores have gone up on the S.F.A. tests.

"It's true," another teacher acknowledges. "All new programs get a bounce in the beginning. But wait for the state test. You'll see, they will either not go up or go up very little." When we see our school's reading scores printed in the newspapers, the number of students meeting state standards is up four percentage points.

Because of overcrowding, three S.F.A. groups are held in the auditorium, with another one held in the space between the auditorium and cafeteria. All three groups are on different lessons, and it is distracting when one does choral reading aloud. With so much open space, discipline is also difficult. Some children hide backstage and behind the stage curtains. Irresistible. The groups struggle without desks or blackboards. Some write on their laps, others on the floor. Clothes get dirty. In May desks are set on the stage.

Print Rich, Art Poor

This school likes the literacy buzzwords "print-rich environment." Practically every square inch of wall display space, plus clotheslines hung across classrooms, is filled with student writing or S.F.A. posters. A visitor will see proof of how hard everyone is working by observing the fruits of our labors. The children spend hours copying compositions over and over to correct grammar and spelling and penmanship.

Many children never leave the neighborhood. They rarely, if ever, go to a museum, theater, ballet or even the circus. This year's principal does not allow field trips. Geography, history, music and art are low priority, with social studies and science taught on alternate weeks. In a teachers' meeting, the principal tells us to focus on decoding skills - phonics, grammar, spelling, mechanisms that allow children to figure out the printed word - not on content.

Younger students especially must constantly analyze and answer questions about myths, fantasies and animal stories. I wonder why they can't also be reading about the world around them. Why can't they learn the names of and how to spell the five boroughs of New York City, information they are not getting at home? I get a glare from one of the teachers responsible for ordering books for the teachers' resource room. She tells me the five boroughs are not on anyone's spelling list.

When I go up to the resource center asking where I can find a map of Canada I am told the center has no maps. Nor does the school library. I copy and enlarge one out of an encyclopedia.

A few classrooms have rolled-up maps and a globe, but rarely does one see a map displayed - not of the city, state, country, world, let alone the stars. The library has one picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and of the Earth seen from space. But there are no pictures of famous buildings, of national monuments, of geographic wonders. There are no reproductions of fine art or posters of historic events that could stimulate imaginations and motivate questions beyond the neighborhood. There aren't even pictures of athletic heroes. There are some children's illustrations of the fantasy and animal stories they almost exclusively read. Too much art displayed might suggest too little reading.

"This must be what a Communist classroom looks like, with different words," says a teacher.

Each of us must create a bulletin board every month. A fourth-grade board might, for instance, be filled with biographies of famous people the class is studying.

A new teacher has brought in store-bought materials for her bulletin board - not as good as homemade displays that take teachers hours and hours to make. A lazy teacher copout. She is directed to remove most of the items.

Teachers burn out not just from problems with students but from the many projects that create the illusion of learning. Showing what we're doing can take as long as doing what we're showing.

Although the children rarely look at the bulletin boards, the visitors from the district, city and state put great stock in them and spend a long time looking at them. Bulletin boards must have signs indicating what educational standard is illustrated. After one of our state reviews, we are to add a sign stating the board's purpose. One teacher has to redo her "purpose" sign three times. The teacher assigned to checking bulletin boards thinks it has too many words. (It brings to mind the scene from "Amadeus" when Mozart is told his work contains too many notes.)

In fact, the principal goes around the school ripping down bulletin boards without consulting the teachers who made them. They do them over again. It is no joking matter. Teachers are threatened with a "U" in their permanent file if their bulletin board is not up to snuff. Teachers stay many afternoons till 5:30 gluing and stapling papers to walls. They spend their own money on colored paper and markers to make their displays attractive.

"Just make it look pretty, that's all they really care about," says an old hand.

My Troubles

Two weeks ago a second grader was suspended for bringing a knife to school. Today, she and another girl are whispering in the back of the room. The class's Junior Master of the Universe and his chief courtier tell me the girls are lesbians because he has seen them touching each other's private parts.

"Do you really know what the word lesbian means?" I ask them. They know.

One of the girls is holding onto the back of a chair and pushing it around the room. It never leaves the floor but it does bump into a number of other students, who do not appreciate it. A fight breaks out. I make the girl stand near the front door away from everyone. She runs out. I call on the class phone to report that a student is out of the room, but, as usual, no one answers - no doubt putting out larger fires elsewhere.

I am teaching my next class. The principal comes in waving a piece of paper. "What happened?" She is referring to the chair incident. The girl apparently ran to the nurse and told her someone hit her with a chair in my classroom. She says this loud enough so the entire class hears. I quickly relate my version. A paper is thrust into my hand. "Fill out this accident report and bring it to my office."

I finish the report during lunch and take it to her. She tells me my classroom discipline is not strong enough. I have written reports on the angry-boy-who-wants-to-die three times.

I ask if during staff development time the more experienced teachers could share their expertise.

"We are not here to teach you Education 101!" she says.

I tell her I have tried motivations, like the school's scholar dollar program, but the students lost interest.

Scholar dollar was a reward program for good work or behavior. Teachers were given a certain number of scholar dollars to pass out to deserving students - 30 scholar dollars got you a pencil, 100 got you pizza for lunch. In the beginning it worked like a charm. But the whole thing slowly became perverted.

First, some teachers were extremely generous and others stingy, leading to cries among students that it wasn't fair. Second, it was impossible to get a new supply, so teachers started to run them off on the copy machine.

Once the children realized that, they started to counterfeit their own. The scholar dollars' value cheapened dramatically. End of program.

The principal gives me two weeks to "shape up or ship out." I lock myself in the bathroom with a friendly, more experienced teacher while I cry.

My friend reminds me of the warnings in the child abuse workshop - that writing a lot of negative reports makes the administration look bad and I should be careful.

Although a "U" can be contested with the union, teachers fear things will be made worse if they complain. From then on I never write a report that I pass on, unless someone asks me to document an incident so he or she can remove a student from class.