My first experience teaching children in a public school started in 1997 in the Bronx. I taught adult education for five years prior to working with kids due to the fact that I couldn’t obtain a position in a public school without any actual experience, and lacking a personal connection willing to take a chance on me. The two certifications that I held were just pieces of paper that didn’t hold enough clout to secure a job offer working in my areas of certification.
Working in the Bronx was a real eye opener for me. It was the kind of experience that I wish policy makers or “reformers” could go through for themselves. If only they could walk in my shoes for a day and see the reality of what teachers experience. As a new teacher I had grand ideas for the lessons I created that would inspire students and help educate them in ways that would have a profound effect on their future. In reality, I was the one that got an education.
I’ll never forget the day after Halloween my first year. I was reminiscing over my memories as a child relishing this kid-friendly holiday. I was looking forward to seeing through the eyes of the children as they described the costumes and treats that they collected staying out late on this special occasion. My first stop of the day was in a second grade class. Perfect I thought. Halloween is especially magical to a child of seven or eight years of age. You can imagine my shock when the stories emerged. One little boy explained that as he roamed the streets with his friends the previous night someone started insulting them. They must have experienced this before and in anticipation of just such a conflict the child told me how he had slipped a knife into his pocket before leaving his apartment. He told me how he displayed his knife to the accoster and then proceeded to chase the insulting hoodlum down an alley. Unfortunately, further down this alley were some associates of the perpetrator who whipped out a handgun. If I had caught my reflection at that moment I’m sure that my face was losing its luster. My mind was spinning and I was questioning my rationale for accepting a position in this neighborhood. I had grown up in the suburbs and had experienced my fair share of insults, however the worst weapon ever drawn upon me in my life as a child on Halloween was an egg, a rotten tomato, or a can of shaving cream. I remember running away back then with my heart pounding, but I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that these second graders were living this kind of reality in the Bronx.
My second class that year was a special ed class. It was near impossible to teach in the chaos of that room full off children with IEPs so I attempted to bring my group of students to the end of a hallway where there was a bench. In my mind the bench would offer a comfortable space for these students to place their bottoms on. In their minds they saw the planks and decided that these boards would make a terrific platform from which they could vault their bodies off of. One particular day after trying my best to guide them in a reading lesson I promptly returned them to the classroom. I was exhausted from trying to corral these energetic leaping students through a lesson, but my circumstances were a drop in the bucket next to what was going on inside the classroom. An argument was escalating between a voluminous fourth grader and the petite first year teacher leading the class. A couple seconds after I entered the classroom the student wound up and punched the teacher square in the nose sending her back a couple of feet. Prior to teaching I worked as a bartender in order to pay for college and had experience breaking up fights with adults, however I wasn’t sure of the proper protocol for separating a fourth grader from the teacher she was trying to obliterate.
Once this “situation” was under control I proceeded to my next class. My next assignment was supporting a fourth grade teacher. There were thirty six students in this class. Fortunately the teacher was in her second year having survived her first year. I was drawn to a student in this class that they called “Big Al.” Al had been retained so he was physically larger than his peers. Al’s dilemma was that he couldn’t read. I tried lots of different techniques with Al ultimately discovering pattern books that he could read independently once he grasped the pattern. The first book I saw him read by himself was Five Little Ducks followed thereafter by Five Little Monkeys. I don’t think I could adequately described the feeling of pride that this boy displayed when he was able to read an entire book on his own.
The obstacles I encountered working in the Bronx were formidable. It wasn’t just the face-to-face encounters with the students. Another obstacle that I had to contend with was parking. I was lucky. I found a man who charged me a mere $5 a day back in 1997 to valet park my car. This amicable man’s image reminded me of Fidel Castro. His appearance was slightly intimidating, but he was such a godsend in that neighborhood. One night I had a dead battery after staying after school much too long to work with students. He was able to jump start my car when I was stranded, a favor I am forever grateful for. With parking taken care of I simply had to walk slalom style four blocks to the school trying my best to avoid the dog poop that littered the sidewalk, a challenge dragging my suitcase on wheels. Unfortunately I wasn’t assigned a space, a high commodity, in the school for my belongings and depended on my suitcase to shuffle resources from class to class. In that neighborhood in the Bronx many of the residents kept a pit bull for protection or a Chihuahua for its size, however I never witnessed anyone picking up the waste.
I made a dear friend at this school who refused to pay the $5 a day for parking so he would arrive extra early in the morning to park on the street for free. Well, it seemed to be free anyway. One day I noticed that he was upset so I asked him what was bothering him. He explained that he discovered that his car was stolen when he went out for lunch. He told me that he had a club on the steering wheel but ultimately it didn’t protect his car from the thieves. He borrowed his son’s car the following week and this time he placed two clubs on the car determined to park on the street for free. Even two clubs weren’t enough to protect his son’s car. It was stolen as well.
On top of all this we had special codes that came over the PA to warn us of “situations” that occurred within the building. This was before “lock out” or “lock down” procedures became a part of our reality post 911. I remember hearing the code go out on more than one occasion that warned us that someone was carrying a gun inside the school. There was a security guard at the door, but we didn’t have metal detectors. On two of these occasions it turned out to be a child who brought a handgun to school. Shocking, at least to me, more so because this was a K-4 school.
After all this time I still remember a boy named Justin. Justin was a bright boy who was doing well in school for the first half of the year. Then one day his abilities started to decline. The teacher scheduled a parent-teacher conference and we found out that Justin’s father had been arrested and incarcerated. Justin became very angry over this turn of events and was never the same for the rest of the school year
My first year teaching was quite a while ago, but I will never forget these memories. I was the one that received an “education” because I was thrown into the deep end of the pool without a floatation device. When I interviewed for positions in the suburbs later I was much more marketable. I was offered three positions the year I left. I had experiences and stories to tell. I learned how to take a running record. I learned about guided reading, shared reading and how to evaluate writing using a rubric. When I chose the school that I would ultimately stay in for the majority of my career the decision was made based on this experience in the Bronx. You see, I was offered a position in the town I grew up in, but ultimately I chose a poor neighborhood in Southern Westchester. I wanted to make a difference.
I share these memories with you today as I contemplate my future in education. What is to become of public education? I wear my first year’s experience on my sleeve today like a badge of honor. It nearly killed me, but I survived. I was stressed out beyond my limits that year and it cost me dearly in my personal relationships. I wasn’t much fun to be around after work. I was irritated most nights. Today I wonder if I would have survived that first year in today’s climate of “accountability” and the hostility that is garnered toward teachers. I survived and I like to think I made a difference, then and all the years since. I made a decision seventeen years ago to teach in a poor neighborhood. Now that my effectiveness as a teacher will be based on developmentally inappropriate test scores and a drive by evaluation I seriously worry about the future. This future that I worry about is not isolated to my own circumstances. I worry about the young (and older) professionals that are completing their requirements to become a new teacher with ridiculously unfair systems waiting to punish them and the lack of support that is needed for such an important position in our society. A new teacher that has grand ideas for inspiring their students is about to get pummeled by society.