Two Teachers Talking
By D.F. Wharton
Pamela woke up to the sound of her alarm clock. She slept a little longer than usual because today was not going to be a regular day and she was not looking forward to it. She would not be teaching. No, this was worse: she would be participating in a day of professional development. A chancellor’s professional development (PD) day. Yea, she thought to herself sarcastically.
Pamela Green had been a public high school teacher in New York City for twenty years and she had taught in district 99 for the last twelve. District 99 was the alternative district of the city. Supposedly, it was alternative to the regular standard of measurement – state standardized testing – but in reality it wasn’t, because testing scores were still pretty much the only thing that administrators agonized over. Pamela Green was a teacher in the newly re-named Greatness Academy, which was a school for juvenile offenders detained in secure detention. The facility was called The Vista Confinement Center, and run by ACS (Administration for Children’s Services). This Vista was located in the South Bronx and offered a lovely panorama of bodegas and fast food restaurants and elevated subway tracks and liquor stores and 99 cent stores and a park and a crack den, that the New York Daily News had dubbed: The South Bronx Shooting Gallery in a May 20, 2017 article. In the shooting gallery, junkies could be seen on video (in case you miss it in person), plunging and emptying syringes of heroin into their necks and between their toes. Daily News journalist Rich Schapiro wrote that, Discarded syringes… hundreds of them… blankets the patches of weeds and dirt. Pamela Green walked these pastures to and from work each day.
But not on this day. Today she would have to traverse the Whitestone Bridge and attend an all-day PD in Queens. So she got ready and drank some coffee and got in her car. She called Cristal Roberts to see if she was ready. Cristal was a new teacher at The Vista and was going to catch a ride to the PD with Pamela. Pamela wasn’t very excited about this because she usually listened to an audiobook during her commute, but Cristal had asked because she lived nearby and didn’t have a car and Pamela said that sure, that was fine.
When Pamela pulled up, Cristal was waiting. She looked wide awake and she had a big bag full of stuff. Too much stuff, Pamela thought.
Good morning, said Cristal as she got into the passenger seat.
Good morning to you, said Pamela. Looks like you didn’t forget anything.
Pamela pulled off and began making way to the Whitestone Bridge.
I hope I can derive something helpful from the PD today, said Cristal. I’ve had such a hard time in class. The students keep cursing me and ignoring me and refusing to listen or do any work. It’s been so frustrating.
Pamela turned her head toward Cristal for a moment, one eyebrow raised, a look of measured bewilderment, and said, You think this PD is going to help with that? Then turned her head and eyes back to the road, holding the bewilderment.
What? said Cristal.
Pamela took a deep breath and slowly shook her head from side to side. She didn’t know how to reply to that. Listen, said Pamela, don’t expect much insight from any PD’s. Not one of the administrators that are leading this PD would even consider going back into the classroom to teach. Especially at The Vista.
You think so? said Crystal.
I know so. I know two of our administrators from when they were teachers. Teaching was a nightmare for them. The students would run all over them. They wanted to quit but couldn’t afford to, so they did what every teacher in the DOE (Department of Education) does in that scenario: become an administrator.
Come on, said Crystal. It’s not like that, come on. Really?
There’s and old saying, said Pamela: If you can’t teach, teach gym. If you can’t teach gym, become an administrator. That’s pretty much the whole of it.
Your being silly, said Crystal.
Think about it, said Pamela. Supposedly, we’re going to a PD where the administrators think of themselves as instructional coaches. They lead on as if they are, or were at one time, master teachers and we’re the apprentices. But when a master carpenter has an apprentice, does he send the apprentice to a job and disappear? only to emerge 6 or 7 times a year with a clipboard and then disappear again? then schedule a meeting with the apprentice, removed from the work site and materials? and proceed to only talk about how to do the work but never show, never demonstrate to the apprentice how anything is done?
Well, I guess not, said Crystal. I suppose the master carpenter would show the apprentice how to do the job.
There’s no supposing to it. The master carpenter demonstrates. Do you know what you will never see our administrators do? Demonstrate. You will never see them come into your classroom, and teach, and let you observe them teach, as they observe you. And do you know why? Because they haven’t the slightest clue how to do it, how to show how it’s done, Cristal. They can talk about it all day. They love to have conversations about it because a conversation is much more convenient. But don’t let them fool you. Anybody can talk about teaching. Anybody can take a Charlotte Danielson rubric, or a Marzano book, or any other material from ASCD, and repeat and read aloud what someone else says. That’s not teaching, Crystal, and it has nothing to do with what we do. It doesn’t apply to teaching our students.
Wow, said Crystal. You sound passionate about this. Now it was Crystal who was giving Pamela a little bit of a strange look. I think you might seem a bit cynical about this. There was a pause and Pamela shrugged her shoulders. Then Crystal asked, Did somebody not get enough sleep last night? And tried to laugh and lighten the mood.
Pamela, realizing she had indeed come off strong, smiled and said, You’re right, I’ve got to chill. I always get so annoyed at these PDs. They just feel like such a waste of time. I would rather teach my regular schedule. The way I see it, if somebody has some teaching advice for me: come in the classroom and show me, model it. Don’t talk to me about it. Anybody can talk.
Well, regardless of what we get out of it, I sure am glad we’re are having a PD day, said Crystal, because I needed a break from the students.
I would guess that that’s the reason at least 70% of administrators get into administration: they needed a break from the students. You’ll probably be an administrator soon. Pamela smiled and winked at Crystal.
I would love to be an administrator, said Crystal. I can’t lie about that. Not being held accountable for in-class behavior and academic performance of students who continually disrespect me and won’t listen to me? Not having to come up with lesson plans for every class? Not having an evaluation hanging over my head every period of every day, never knowing when the boss is coming? That would be nice.
Better to dish it out than to take it, uh? said Pamela. Well, you hang in there and you will be able to dish it out before you know it. You’ll be doing drive-bys in no time.
Drive-bys? What’s a drive-by? asked Crystal.
It’s the name some of us old heads have given to describe the unannounced evaluations by administrators: a drive-by. Like when the gangsters do a drive-by and shoot up an enemy with guns. It’s the same concept, both are out for blood, except the weapons the administrators use are the rubrics of the Charlotte Danielson teaching framework.
I don’t think it has to be like that, said Crystal.
Pamela didn’t say anything. She looked on while driving.
Indeed, these PD days must be long days for you, said Crystal. Do you ever talk to the administrators about how you feel?
Absolutely not. No way. The best thing I can do in these PDs is to keep quiet. Good soldiers are always the ones who go unnoticed. My son told me that and he has been in the Army for eight years now and he is doing well, so he would know.
Well, it is true what you said, said Crystal.
I have never seen an administrator teach. At least never teach the kind of students in my class.
And you never will.
That’s crazy, when you think about it.
And that’s the way it is. Think about our PD today? Will there be any students around?
No, there won’t be.
Of course there won’t be. No students will ever be around for a PD. When students are in the class, the teacher is in charge. Administration would never put themselves in a position of having to teach under the scrutiny of the teachers that they routinely tear down for not teaching effectively. I can’t say I don’t blame them. It’d be suicide.
Cristal paused for a moment and thought about it. A real helpful PD, she said, would be if my administrator would utilize my teaching program and have me follow her and let me observe her teaching my class. Then she could show me what she expects, as opposed to talk about it with no students around.
Wouldn’t that be something, said Pamela with the appropriate sarcasm. They were nearing the Whitestone Bridge.
How do you do it? Crystal asked.
Have good classes? I mean, your classes seem good. The students don’t appear to give you much trouble, you never complain about students in the meetings; it seems like you have everything under control? How do you do it?
I have a School Building Leadership master’s degree, said Pamela. I spent a summer as an administrative intern in a school as well as a summer interning at the district level for a network. I know what administrators need to see to feel somewhat comfortable. I do what I have to do to get the students to give me that.
Crystal didn’t say anything for a moment. She finally settled on, You have a masters in School Building Leadership?
Are you trying to become an administrator?
If I ever feel like it, said Pamela, maybe. But not anytime soon. You said so yourself, I look like I know what I’m doing.
But why not? Why not get out of the classroom? And get more money?
I think, said Pamela, that right there is a major problem in the city schools that we face today: teachers becoming administrators because they are trying to get out of the classroom. Teachers seeing the classroom as a dead-end position they suck at, yet they still need the money, so they stay in education. I couldn’t count on my fingers the number of teachers that I have known that were miserable in the classroom and escaped by becoming an administrator. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as those teachers become administrators, they act as if they never had a problem in the world as a teacher, and give teachers harsher evaluations than they had received when they were teachers. The whole thing is crazy. I’d rather teach.
But they are out of the classroom… and getting paid more… said Crystal. So why not?
It never turns out as easy as they think, said Pamela. They find out that it is just as much stress and pressure as before, only a different kind. In many cases it’s more stress and more pressure. Longer hours too. If you’re looking to be an administrator because you want to escape the classroom, you’ll be disappointed. There’s no such thing as escape. That’s only a dream. That’s why the lottery always does so well: they sell the ultimate dream: You can escape the grind of the world! But you can’t. There is no escaping life. Not like that. Not by running that way, avoiding what’s in front of you. If you can’t face your problems where you are, chances are you’re not going to face them where you go.
So how then do you make it appear that you know what you’re doing in the classroom? asked Crystal.
Pamela inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. They had crossed the Whitestone and were making way on 678 to Grand Central Pkwy. OJT, she said. On-the-job training. The real rules of teaching will forever be trapped between the lines. Teaching at The Vista is kinda like being one of those old-time sheriff characters from south-western towns that always make their way into literature. Like the sheriff in East of Eden or No Country for Old Men.
Crystal broke in: I don’t see how teaching at The Vista could possibly be like being a sheriff. I don’t have any power over these kids. They’re already arrested. There’s nothing more we can do to them? No other way to punish them? ACS doesn’t hold the students accountable for anything. The teacher is always to blame for anything the student does wrong!
That’s the point, said Pamela. That’s what I’m getting at.
Crystal was confused.
Have you read East of Eden? or No Country for Old men? asked Pamela.
No, said Crystal. I haven’t.
For a moment, Pamela marveled at how so many of the young teachers and administrators of today were not readers of books. They didn’t read literature: classics or modern novels. Most of them, as far as Pamela could tell, if they did read, only read the non-fiction reform based materials that served as the play books for administrators: Charlotte Danielson, Marzano, Schmoker, Lemov, or any other material from ASCD. But these materials gave administrators and teachers false confidence: confidence that did not translate to the actual teaching of juvenile delinquents incarcerated at The Vista. But ambitious administrators always seemed to be controlled by the fashion of the day, and companies such as ASCD were the fashion police for educational leaders. It was too bad they didn’t seriously read authors like John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. For if they did, Pamela felt, they would have a better chance of understanding the things between the lines. Nevertheless, these were thoughts she kept to herself.
Pamela said aloud, In No Country for Old Men, the sheriff explained, It takes very little to govern good people. Very little. And bad people can’t be governed at all. Or if they could I never heard of it. That’s what Cormac McCarthy wrote. And that’s pretty much how the sheriff in East of Eden saw it. Steinbeck had written about how the sheriff had to live with and among the people he was supposed to look after and if the sheriff tried to make the people in his county live up to certain laws and standards that they didn’t feel obliged to live up to, then that sheriff wouldn’t be sheriff for very long. You see, the sheriff had to adjust his methods to the people he was supposed to look after, and therefore the lines he had to draw always depended on what his people expected of him. You recognized for yourself that ACS is hands off. So a teacher has to get along with her students. At the Vista, students play a major part in how the teacher determines where to draw the lines, if any peace is to be had. The sheriff in East of Eden said, If I told some of the things I know, this whole goddam county would go up in smoke. I feel the same way about teaching at The Vista.
Crystal thought about that for a while. I don’t know about that, she said. It sounds like you’re making a case for organized crime.
People are not as organized as you think, Crystal. Law abiding or criminal. People always want to credit a manifestation to an organizer, great planning, or some mastermind. I don’t see it that way. There are political pressures and things happen and human nature is what it is. Many administrators of ACE and the DOE are secretly scared of the students because there are plenty of career activists looking to make a name off modern oppression. So I try to see what is, and what isn’t, and position myself accordingly.
I still don’t see exactly how what your telling me helps you get your class in line enough to give the appearance of a good class, said Crystal.
Look, said Pamela, there’s no way I can lay it out any clearer than I am doing right now, because your solution is going to be specific to you. There is no way to standardize it, put it in a book, sell it, and then give a chancellor’s PD on it. Real success is not a ticket out of the classroom. On top of that, you need to understand that, for all practical purposes, you teach in a jail, and there is a power structure in place that the administrators refuse to acknowledge because it is born of the streets. And vice versa, the law of the streets refuse to acknowledge the power of low level administrators in government municipalities. But they both exist and we have to deal with both. The teacher is stuck in between two irreconcilable worlds that continuously disallow each other. But if you want peace in your classroom, it is just as important to deal with one as it is the other. We spend far more time with the students, so I would suggest addressing what makes them tick first, then trying to find a way to make it work for the likes of administrators. There is no PD for this. You have to unearth it on your own.
How do the administrators get to ignore the power of the street influence in the classrooms? The gangs? asked Crystal. Is there not a PD for principals? the other administrators?
As far as I know, administrators go on retreats, not PDs. PDs are for the teachers. But even if we could give administrators a PD, it wouldn’t do any good, unless we could make them actually teach the students, and let us observe them teaching the students. I have been doing this a long time, and I can tell you that everything outside of actually teaching is all talk. Talk doesn’t help when you have to deal with the students, in the classroom, under scrutiny.
So what’s the point of these PDs? asked Crystal.
The machine has to keep going, said Pamela. The PD is not for us. It’s for the administrators. We need to let them be the administrators just like we need them to let us be the teachers. The DOE is a big machine that provides a lot of jobs. The people who have those jobs want to keep those jobs. As a teacher, you don’t have to work hard to prove that you are doing something, that you are earning your salary, because it is obvious that you are. But an administrator, who doesn’t have much to do, really has to work hard to prove that she is doing something, that she is earning her salary. That’s why they are always coming up with crazy irrelevant stuff for us to do. They have to feel like they are doing something.
Crystal was not saying anything, and just thought about these things. They had taken the exit off Grand Central Pkwy some ways back and were pulling up to the school where the PD was to be held. After driving around a while they found a place to park and made their way into the building. They were early. They had some coffee and chatted with the other teachers that were there. And the machine went grinding on.