If you’re a teacher, if you have kids, if you care about public education, if you care about the future of democracy in America, or if you’re generally a good human being, you need to watch this. It’s a big deal.
Also, if you work at a school and you’ve got juice with the people in charge of PD, suggest they show this video to the entire faculty and staff.
(The sound quality isn’t great so I suggest turning on the auto caption. Sometimes it messes up though and when she says “ed reformers” it translates as “ed farmers”.)
Dr. Diane Ravitch on Public Education, Privatization, and Professionalization
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.