Here’s a comment from yesterday’s post that every LAUSD high school teacher can relate to:
I’ve been a teacher in LAUSD for 10 years. This year is my first year in a new school. My room is at the end of long hallway on the 5th floor. Most students take the stairs at the front of the hallway. Teachers take the elevator. Just outside my room is the back stairs, which is “no man’s land.” All the walls are tagged up and trash litters the ground. Nearly every day students smoke weed out there during lunch. Many a post lunch period starts with my students filing into my room, smelling the smoke from the back hall, and slyly commentating , “Mister, what have you been doing during lunch? ha, ha, ha” Kind of humiliating. I have emailed the Dean. I have spoken with my vice Principal. I keep bringing the back hallway problems up, and it is barely acknowledged. I get the feeling that I am getting an reputation for being a malcontent. Lately some students have been urinating back there, so that really helps the aroma. I’m not sure what to do.
And here’s my reply:
I feel your pain. I’ve taught in many classrooms that were next to “no man’s land,” and been subjected to the same humiliations of having my classroom smell like pot, or urine, or smoke bombs. The thing is, every inner city school has this place, and with the dramatic cuts to school funding and staff, we are less equipped to tackle the problem. Even the public high school I graduated from in 1987, which wasn’t a ‘bad’ school, had “stoner alley.”
Here are my suggestions:
1. Work on getting a new room for next year. In the meantime, bring some air-freshener.
2. Prop your door open with a chair. Eat your lunch in the chair and keep a blow horn next to you. Every time you hear anyone in the stairwell, blow the horn. Do this every day for two weeks, then at random intervals.
3. Find some students who need to clear detention hours. Have them pick up trash in the stairwell for five minutes every day after lunch.
4. Talk to the principal. Let her know that the smells of marijuana and urine are so strong that they’re interfering with you’re your instructional activities. Ask her what you can do to help.
5. Talk to the dean in person. If you’re new to the school it’s important to develop relationships with the people who can help you. Also, as frustrating as your problem is to you, try to remember that you don’t know what the dean is dealing with. Maybe at the same time he got your email, a homicide detective came into his office to get some information about a student, or maybe he just broke up a fight and had two bloody teenagers sitting in his office, or maybe he just found out that a student who is on probation brought a knife to school and now he has to call the LAPD. Deans in the LAUSD deal with this kind of stuff all the time and most teachers aren’t aware of it. So, when he gets a complaint about garbage/tagging/pot smell in the hallway, (that he probably already knows about) and doesn’t respond right away, it’s not that he doesn’t care, but he has to prioritize.
6. Keep in mind that taggers and pot smokers are two of the most challenging and time consuming non-violent criminals to find on a high school campus. They’re entire MO is being covert. They know the laws, they know what they can get away with, and they use this to their benefit. In order to legally cite a vandal or drug user, there has to be a reliable eye-ball witness who is willing to go to court, and there has to be evidence. Unfortunately, deans, school police, and other safety staff are often so focused on citing and/or preventing violent crimes on campus, that the non-violent offenders don’t get the attention they deserve.
7. Get to know the plant manager and maintenance workers. In my opinion, the plant manager of a school is just as important as the principal. She knows what’s behind every door and she has the keys to all of them.
8. I know you only get paid to work six hours a day, and you’re already working 10 hours and 40 minutes a day, so I don’t think you should work any more hours for free to help solve this problem. But, while principals no longer have the funding to pay teachers for doing extra work, they’re usually willing to get creative with the budget they do have. Ask your principal to buy you a sub for one period (this is actually free for her since the subs already working have a “free” period), get a can of paint and a roller from the plant manager, put on your overalls and get to work!
9. Whistle while you work. If you look like you’re having a great time painting the hallway, you might be able to convince a few other teachers to join in. Just imagine, if one teacher on each floor was willing to sit at his door with a blow horn during lunch and make some noise, y’all could have that place pristine by spring break. (Of course, there will be a break-in over spring break and you’ll have a whole new mess to deal with, but that’s another blog post.)
10. Keep your chin up. The first year at a new school sucks. But I’m pretty sure it always gets better. In the meantime, if you decided to try any of these ideas, take some pictures of your progress – I’d love to post them here.
If you have suggestions for Steve, please leave them in the comment section.
The mold in my classroom was already there the year I moved in, but it didn’t concern me too much. Throughout my 16 year teaching career I’d worked in two schools, several different classrooms, and several different offices in the LAUSD. I’d seen some weird stuff and had worked in much worse conditions.
But then it started to spread. I took some pictures and showed them to my AP:
Months passed and the entire perimeter of the ceiling contained mold and the tiles began to sag:
Then, one weekend, L.A. got hit with some unexpectedly hard rain and when I entered my bungalow on Monday morning, it looked like a tsunami had hit. Water had saturated every wall, ruining every poster, piece of student work, and bulletin board in the room. My classroom library, that I’d purchased mostly myself, had been displayed on the aluminum marker rail on my whiteboards and was in the direct path of the rainwater. Every book was soggy and warped, some of them sat in puddles on the floor. These were the books that my FBB** students, many of whom admitted they had never actually read a book, were reading.
The seven classroom computers, which were an integral part of my curriculum, had also been rained on. Moldy bits of tile littered the technology. Hard drives sat in pools of stagnant water. Again, and with a much greater sense of urgency, I told my AP.
Four hours later, one of our maintenance workers showed up with a bucket and mop. “I was told you need a clean up over here?” he asked me with a smile. (This was a guy whose wife had a baby about a year after my daughter was born. He was often the recipient of my daughter’s hand-me-down clothes and toys, and our families had become acquainted outside of school. He was always willing to go the extra mile for me.)
Before I could answer he took a visual survey of the room. “Holy sh!t. Your room got hit hard,” was his response after I’d already been cleaning up for four hours. He pulled the remaining bookshelves and file cabinets away from the walls, lined the floor with stacks of paper towels, and mopped the larger puddles. All of this was happening while I was supposed to be teaching.
He laughed and shook his head when he saw the bucket I’d placed on the floor to catch the water that was still dripping from the ceiling. It was the “emergency” bucket that every LAUSD teacher has in case the school goes on lockdown and students are forced to stay inside the classroom for several hours. The bucket is supposed to be used as the class bathroom, and teachers are encouraged to bring their own sheets from home to hang from the ceiling in case a “private” area needs to be created. (There’s actually a safety video out there, somewhere in the LAUSD, that demonstrates different ways to use the sheets as walls so that students can poop in the bucket without their classmates watching.)
The janitor left as the tech guy (another friendly person who always gave me a heads up when there was a sale on diapers at amazon.mom) arrived. He spent the rest of the day dealing with my soggy electronics and had everything dried out and working by the week’s end. The rain stopped and I was able to put the emergency bucket back in the closet, but nothing else happened to fix the ceiling problem. It bugged me, but I had some teaching to do. The battle of the moldy, saggy ceiling was one I had neither the time, nor the energy, to fight.
But then, a few months later, it started to rain again. Coincidentally, a colleague/good friend/the guy who was in the bungalow the year before me, stopped by that morning to talk about lesson plans. He looked at the ceiling and said, “Wow, they still haven’t fixed that? I reported it to the AP when I had this room last year. My students kept getting sick and I think it could have been from the mold.”
Infuriated, I bypassed AP, found the principal, and told him that I thought the reason I kept getting upper respiratory infections was because of the black mold growing in my classroom. I showed him the pictures. He said it was the first he’d heard of it and that he would take care of it.
Fifteen minutes into my next class, AP showed up (the one whose head I’d gone over). He would not look me in the eye. ”You’ve got five minutes to get your things together. We’re evacuating your classroom indefinitely.”
“Five minutes? But I teach a computer-based reading program. There is nowhere else I can teach these classes that you mandated I teach.”
He shrugged and mumbled while I grabbed my purse, my lunch, and my lesson plans. My textbooks weighed at least 34 lbs. each so those were left behind. That day I taught my classes on the football field. The next day it was my responsibility to find empty classrooms to use, and I had to travel to a new one for each class.
One week later I was given the green light to return to my room. Turns out the mold wasn’t toxic. That same day an animal (that turned out to be a raccoon) died under my bungalow. The smell of the rotting carcass was so intense, one of my student’s threw up. Again, I was displaced as the LAUSD carpentry department was called in to rip up the floor and locate the dead body. We also had to wait for animal control to remove it.
Weary of our circumstance, but relieved to get some fresh air, my FBBs trekked back to the football field to read, “The Lady or the Tiger?”.
* a quote from Diane Ravitch in her speech on Public Education, Privatization, and Professionalization.
** Far Below / Below Basic: This level represents a serious lack of performance. Students demonstrate little or a flawed understanding of the knowledge and skills measured by this assessment, at this grade, in this content area.
First question: How did he make it through his first three classes and nutrition wearing that?
Second question: California Standards Test – does he have an app for that?
This bathroom is a two seater. It wasn’t big enough for me to get a photo of the stalls, but they’re opposite the mirror. It was built in 1927 and this photo was taken in 2010. The window on the far wall has one of those crank handles that only allows the window to open about 1/4 of an inch. So, we have an 84 year old bathroom with no ventilation that is shared by about 75 staff members.
Here’s a close up of the desk you see under the tampon machine:
In case you can’t read it, it says, “Please leave table in bathroom so teachers can sit here and do their work.”
I am not making this up.
Are you wondering why a teacher would choose to work in a bathroom? Here’s my theory:
The year I took this photo we had thirteen traveling teachers. If you’re not familiar with educational parlance (if you’re not “in the know”), this means that the school didn’t have enough physical space for thirteen teachers to have their own classroom. Most teachers get one period off (a conference period) to get stuff done: grading, lesson planning, meeting with parents, making bulletin boards, xeroxing, tracking down an administrator to complain about the litter of feral kittens living under their bungalow, ordering textbooks, going to IEP meetings, banging the dust out of erasers, updating their facebook, etc. Since each teacher has a student-free classroom for 50 minutes a day, it can be utilized by a homeless teacher.
In 2010, our school offered six classes per day and most teachers taught five. If we do the math (13 multiplied by 6) that makes 78 class periods per day in which a teacher didn’t have to teach, but had no classroom to get the other stuff done.
You’re probably thinking, why not just go to the teachers’ lounge? As far as I know, teachers’ lounges only exist in the movies or on Welcome Back, Kotter. Why not the library? Because it’s booked with about twelve classes per day so students can do do research or use the computers (or because your librarian got RIF’d, the library is locked, and you don’t have a key). What about the cafeteria? It smells worse than the 84 year old bathroom and you’re always at risk of sitting next to the crochety old guy who wants to talk about the 1970 teachers’ strike.
I imagine this teacher did what any public school teacher would do: found a tiny desk and brought it into a stinky old bathroom in order to get sh*t done.
Do you work in a school that has non-traditional or smelly work environments? Please share.
I wrote my first book, Who Am I?, in the second grade. The book was bound with cardboard pieces wrapped in red contact paper. On each page I wrote one clue to help the reader guess what I dreamed of being when I grew up. I began, At my job, I will wear a dress, and illustrated myself as a stick figure wearing a triangle, holding a balloon. I will write on the chalkboard, the book continued. I will read to kids. I will be nice to them. The final page revealed my fantasy: Who am I? I am a teacher.
My father taught high school biology and, up until my adolescence, he had to work two jobs to support our family. Even with the supplemental income, we were poor. In spite of being teased for wearing hand-me-down clothes, and my mother’s eventual pleas that I major in accounting, I never considered being anything else.
Two decades later, I was in graduate school for education studying the pedagogical theories of Vygotsky, Piaget, and Kozol. I learned all about classroom environment; that it’s a teacher’s responsibility to create an ambiance that enables students to easily enter their Zone of Proximal Development, where optimal learning can take place. I meticulously drew fictitious classroom maps detailing each desk’s position, the location of supplies, and where educational posters would be hung. I discovered that successful teachers must ensure a room’s cleanliness, organization, and warmth. But my diagrams and plans were conjecture.
The first, real-life obstacle between my teaching and my students learning was the temperature.
During my first year I worked at a year-round school, which meant my summer semester started in July and continued through October, the hottest months of the year in Southern California. For all of July, the air conditioner in my bungalow remained broken, and even with the portable fans I brought from home, temperatures hovered above 90 degrees. My classes were interrupted with statements like, “Miss, I feel my butt wet,” or the sound of my inspirational posters falling from the walls because the double sided tape had melted.
Our school had seven assistant principals, one whose responsibility was the maintenance and repair of the school’s physical plant. Like most APs, Mr. D wore a dark suit, sunglasses, and a serious demeanor. Undeterred by my intimidation, I informed him of my climate problem, and he told me fill out a Repair Request Form and leave it with his secretary. He did not appear to share my sense of urgency about the heat rash my students were developing in my class.
In mid-August, the air conditioner was replaced and a clear plastic box enclosed the new thermostat on the wall. The box was locked, and I was offered no key. My students’ sometimes bragged about being able to hotwire cars, but they were not able to hotwire the thermostat lever, which was set at eighty-four degrees. Occasionally, we would hear the initial chug of the unit, followed by the buzz of the fan, but we were always disappointed to discover only hot air blowing from the ceiling vents.
Once again, I sought out Mr. D. Remembering the Oreo Cookie Method of criticism that I’d learned in school, I first thanked him for getting my air conditioner replaced and flashed a smile. Then I delivered my complaint about the ongoing heat in my classroom and solicited a key. I ended by telling him how much I loved working at the school. Unmoved, Mr. D. informed me that only administrators and the custodial staff carried these keys – they were off limits to teachers.
The following morning, Mr. D was waiting for me in the main office. He took me outside, leaned in so close that his mustache almost grazed my forehead, and whispered, “Here’s how you get your AC on. First, take a large paper clip and unfold it until it’s a straight line.” He pantomimed this like a magician performing a trick. “Get a lighter and heat up one end of the metal.” He lit the imaginary paper clip with an imaginary lighter. “Push the long pin into the side of the box until it pierces the plastic. You should be able to slide the wire through until it reaches the switch that controls the thermostat. Tap on the clip until it moves the lever to the temperature you want.” Then, with his mustache still almost resting on my head, he added, “This conversation never happened.” I would have kissed him, but I was still in my probationary period.
That day, full of new-teacher excitement and naïveté, I announced to my students that I would be fixing the air conditioner… tomorrow. I expected a round of applause, but instead received badgering: “Miss, if you’re going to fix it, do it now!” “Miss, I can’t see, my eyes are sweating!” “Miss, why can’t you do it today?”
I chided, “Fine, I’ll do it today, but I need a lighter.” This was my twelfth grade class, many of the students were eighteen and most of them, I knew, were in possession of smoking paraphernalia. They paused and looked at each other.
“Is this a set up? Are you going to rat us out?” I shook my head, no.
“Okay, Miss, turn around.”
I faced the chalkboard and heard hands rustling through pockets and backpacks. When instructed, I turned back toward the class.
A blue Bic sat on my desk and I now faced a conundrum. My ethical responsibilities as a state employee prohibited me from committing small acts of vandalism in front of my students, yet, the practical need to save us all from heat stroke and possible death prevailed. Plus, I thought, Mr. D said I could.
I grabbed the lighter and insisted they all turn around and face the opposite wall. Using the same exaggerated movements as Mr. D, I flicked on the lighter to heat the metal. When the wire pierced the plastic and reached the thermostat control, the air conditioner kicked in and actual cool air began to flow from the vents. I received the applause, hoots and hollers I’d hoped for, but mostly, I felt relief that finally I might be able to teach.
Fifteen years into my career, I’ve learned that kids in the inner city don’t always arrive at school ready to learn. And if they do, classroom temperatures that are more suitable for baking a turkey than diagramming a sentence can cause them to become unenthusiastic. For me, teaching is fun and easy. But getting students to become teachable is agonizing, and it’s what I spend most of my time doing.
Even though I was able to gain control of the thermostat that first year, I was probably a bad teacher. Despite having a master’s degree in education from what was, at the time, one of the country’s best schools for education, and being armed with years of Madeline Hunter lesson plans, I knew nothing about managing a class of forty-five fourteen-year-olds. I was anxious to become a better teacher, but my obstacles seemed insurmountable. My daily fifty-minute planning period was spent searching for supplies, tracking down textbooks, or finding one of the few working Xerox machines on campus.
To make matters worse, I had no knowledge of what, specifically, I was supposed to be teaching (even today, there is no mandated high school curriculum in any subject within the district). When I asked the English department chair if their was a curriculum I needed to follow, he produced a poorly Xeroxed list of books and plays and told me it would be hard to find enough copies of each of the texts, but that no one would be checking to see if I taught those books. Essentially, he gave the green light to anarchy in my classroom.
I faced other difficulties that are common to teachers in inner-city schools. We had gone on lockdown a couple of times, once because a man came onto campus brandishing a gun, another time because a student suspect who was detained in the school police office decided to make a run for it. He ran all the way home, hands cuffed behind his back, while helicopters searched for him and the entire school waited for him to be found. Once a boy threatened to rape and kill me, and as he was being walked to the police car with hands cuffed behind him, he still managed to throw gang signs in front of me and his probation officer, ensuring he had the last word. Many students were arrested for possession of drugs and weapons during random school searches. A high percentage of my students could not read, but because of social-promotion, I was told they belonged in the ninth grade. And did I mention that the majority of students in our school were living at, or below, the poverty level? I wish, during the years I endured those working conditions, the LA Times would have written the article, “Who WANTS to Teach L.A.’s Kids?” or “When Good Teachers Try to Succeed, But Can’t.”
Instead, on August 14, 2010, The LA Times printed “Who’s Teaching LA’s Kids?” which evaluated over 6,000 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and published their first and last names, along with an effectiveness rating, based solely on their ability to raise students’ standardized test scores. On September 26, 2010, Rigoberto Ruelas’ body was found after an alleged suicide. The Huffington Post reported that Mr. Ruelas was distraught after the Times labeled him a “less effective teacher.” According to the article, Ruelas’ students respected his dedication and saw him as a teacher who changed young lives. Who’s right, Mr. Ruelas’ former students (many of whom he inspired to stay out of gangs, or go to college) or the LA Times?
I’ve survived the hazards of my job, and still managed to teach. I may have even become good at it, but I have no way of knowing for sure. In the fifteen years that I’ve worked for the LAUSD, I’ve never had an administrator visit my classroom for more than twenty minutes per year. No one in an evaluative position has ever looked at my students’ work, and I’ve never been asked to submit a lesson plan. Every one of my evaluations told me that I’m an outstanding teacher, but with the knowledge I’ve gleaned, I know these evaluations are hollow. The only thing that’s motivated me to remain in a virtually thankless profession, and the litmus test I’ve developed to rate my own effectiveness, has been the relationships I’ve created with my students.
In my first year, one of the heavily tattooed gang members in my twelfth grade class said to me, “Miss, you’re like Glinda the good witch.” Not understanding the comparison, since I had brown hair and never wore my tiara to school, I asked him to elaborate. “It’s like you floated down to the ghetto in your magic bubble, and you really want to teach us.” Another student, after writing a five page narrative about her life, commented, “Miss, this is the most work I’ve ever done for school. I’m going to keep it forever.” And just last year a student wrote me a note that said, “Before I took your class I hated reading. You changed that, and now I think anything is possible.”
Despite the demoralizing effects of the LA Times article, despite the evidence that teachers, students, and school communities have not benefited from the ratings, and despite the flawed methodology used in the study, on February 24, 2012, the NY Times rated almost 18,000 public school teachers, and they named names.
Am I a good teacher? It depends on whom you ask. But, LA Times and NY Times, when you decide to evaluate me and publish your findings, please make sure you get your story straight. Our lives depend on it.