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January 23, 2003

Interview with Teacher X, Part II


I'm glad you liked the first half of the interview with Teacher X, a former corporate executive who has switched careers to go into teaching. After some prodding I got him to sit down and discuss his recently completed student teaching stint at an inner city middle school. Here is the second, and final half of his interview:


Friedrich: Why were all your kids in the 7th and 8th grade if their skills weren’t anywhere near the required level? Didn’t anyone notice that they were seriously behind?

Teacher X: I think that the school principals and teachers are perfectly aware that the kids aren’t at their grade level, and not just in math but also in reading and writing (perhaps especially in reading and writing). Why were the kids passed along? So they wouldn’t drive the teachers insane, I think.

Is this a covert admission on the part of the administration and teachers that they don’t think these kids will ever be able to handle academic subjects?

You won’t get anybody to say that explicitly, but I suspect that’s the case. If you could take these kids, and put them in a different environment, particularly from their earliest years, I think that would make a big difference in the outcome.

These kids come from homes and neighborhoods where there are very few people who have graduated from high school, and where almost no one has gone to college. There’s no money that the kids know of to pay for college (there may actually be scholarships, but the kids don’t know how to get those). They know they don’t have the academic performance to get into a college. And in their mind a college education involves learning skills of such abstraction that there’s no way these kids can conceive of ever using them. The best legitimate job that these kids can conceive of is working in a factory with good wages.

What’s the morale like among the teachers?

The principal was quite upbeat. I couldn’t tell how genuine her enthusiasm was, as I never got to know her personally. The assistant principal seemed to be in a state of depression. She was very far away from education issues—she had a lot of duties in the cafeteria, locating substitute teachers, dealing with discipline problems, etc. She was very put upon and wasn’t too happy, not that I blame her. I didn’t have much interaction with the teachers from the earlier grades. In my interactions with the middle school teachers—the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teachers—I wouldn’t say that I noticed many real enthusiastic teachers, but none of the them were derelict teachers. They all appeared to take their subject matter seriously, and they had hopes of being successful as they started each new school day. But “Z” school isn’t an easy place to keep your enthusiasm up.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here?

Pretty much.

Did it bother the teachers that the kids weren’t up to speed and were probably getting further behind with each passing year? Did they acknowledge or discuss this?

I don’t see how they could not care about it, but I think at this point in their careers most of the teachers approached each day’s activities as just a job, a paycheck-generating activity. But don’t get the wrong idea about their motives. Some people think teachers go into education because it has (at least in theory) a short workday, vacations spread through the year and a great big vacation in the summer—that is, they take the job because the hours are good. And some people do become teachers for that reason. But I think most people who get into teaching for those reasons probably leave it quickly. Most people who remain in teaching have some devotion to the idea of helping young people each step of the way, on to bigger and better things. And there are some students in this school who will amount to something, but not as many as I’d like. It is hard to see what was happening to them.

As an eighth grade teacher, the best you could do for most of these kids was to get them ready to take eighth grade math over with a realistic hope of success the second time around. I spent at least half my time prepping them for eighth grade material by going back to fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh grade material and trying to get them up to speed in computation, fractions, ratios, percents, the whole gamut. But at the same time I was prepping them to take this standardized test in January. I did this from a list of topics worked out for the semester, based on the subject matter I knew they’d see on this test, from having analyzed previous copies at the start of the year.

Didn’t you teach to a textbook? Didn’t that lay your curriculum out for you?

There were textbooks in this school, but not enough for each kid to take one home and do homework out of a textbook. So I created my own order of topics, and developed sample problems to work out on the board, other problems to work on in class and then homework problems.

Even if you didn’t have enough textbooks, couldn’t you have tackled the topics in the same order as the textbook?

I pretty much did. But you have to remember, these kids weren’t up to speed to deal with the material in the textbook. I had to keep going back to build the kids up from a fourth grade to a seventh grade level before I could even get to the eighth-grade topic of the week. The textbook was a potential source of sample problems, but I could pretty much think up a few on my own as easily as getting them out of the book. The real use of a textbook is that it comes with a lot of problems for each topic, and if you want to assign thorough homework, you don’t have to think all the problems up.

But I couldn’t make homework assignments very long in any event; I’d try to hit the important concepts in three or four problems and hope the kids would spend maybe 15 minutes working on them. There was no sense assigning them longer homework; most of them didn’t even do the minimal homework I gave them. But you can find other ways to reinforce the lessons. The first thing I did in class every day was go over the homework. If they hadn’t done it, they would still get to see it done.

So how did the authority figures deal with the fact that the kids weren’t learning?

I think they just accepted it.

Was it an exercise in self-deception?

No, I don’t think they had any illusions that they were getting through to these kids. I think most of the teachers were more familiar with this type of neighborhood than I was, and the whole phenomenon just seemed more normal to them. They didn’t think it was all that weird that there was a whole bunch of kids that weren’t picking up much from the instruction. Whereas, when I went to school, it was assumed that every kid would pick up a good bit in every class, and in fact had to pick up a lot in order to be passed on to the next grade.

What is the policy on “social promotion” of failing kids in this school district?

In theory, to get out of a grade, students have to pass an end-of-the-year-test. It turns out that the passing score on this end-of-the-year test is about 45% correct. You don’t exactly have to display mastery to get out. If you fail this test, you’re compelled to attend summer school, but if you do attend summer school you’re off the hook. So only the people that won’t go to summer school won’t get promoted, whether they’ve learned anything or not.

What do you see as a solution, or even a partial solution for the problems of this school?

The root problem is a lack of respect for academic achievement or learning among the families of these kids. Occasionally we’d get a parent who came in to deal with a disciplinary proceeding at the school. (I could write up kids for certain types of fairly serious infractions, and refuse to let him or her back into class until the parents showed up. Of course, in some cases that just meant you never saw the kid in your classroom again.) The parents usually demonstrated a responsible attitude toward their child during the meeting. Regretfully, I later learned that in many cases this was just a show for my benefit, with no consequences for the child once the meeting was over. But even when it isn’t a show, what is generally missing in these homes is a positive attitude towards learning and what learning can do for you.

The first solution would be, of course, for parents to encourage their kids to do homework and to be involved in some way at home in their academic life. That would make a big difference. Second, if the parents themselves had intellectual interests—like reading a book—that would also make a big difference. However, both of these things are completely out of the control of the teacher.

Instructionally, I believe the key is for grades kindergarten through three to teach kids the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. This must be done to a functional level without fail and the kids shouldn’t get passed on until they achieve that level. If necessary, kids should be held back until they possess these skills.

These kids are so far behind by the third grade. I was in a third grade classroom in this school for an entire month last Spring, and the kids were at a 1st or 2nd grade level in math, and barely at a 1st grade level in reading. In other words, by 3rd grade they are already one to two years behind. This just sets them up for failure for the rest of their school career. It’s pretty much impossible to “succeed” in teaching an upper grade student when they start out just years behind. The problem can only be cured, or forestalled, in the early grades.

Tell me about the kids.

From the standpoint of a teacher, the first thing you need to know about middle-school kids is that they’re going through a period where the sexes are exploring their power and attraction to each other. There was a great deal of showboating going on here, by members of both sexes. Guys were more outrageous showing off for girls, but it went both ways. Very often, misbehaving was a way to impress a girl or a guy. The boy-girl issues worked against academic success.

Would it make sense to segregate the sexes?

That might work. Then the competitive instincts of the boys, which are quite strong, might be channeled into a more productive dimension. The girls weren’t nearly as rowdy as the boys. A classroom of all girls would have been a pleasure.

What else would you say about the kids?

They are great verbal communicators. They are fun. They have a lot of personality. Almost all of them have an excellent sense of humor. Sometimes they make comments in class that are so funny it is almost impossible not to laugh, even though it’s usually counterproductive for the teacher to start laughing. One-on-one, in tutoring sessions or on the basketball court, they are just interesting kids. They are not at all impossible to get along with face-to-face, although many of them were very difficult to get along with in a teacher-student relationship. I enjoy their company. Unfortunately, just hanging out with them isn’t my job.

What would you do differently if you became czar of “Z” school?

I would stress the importance of learning basic skills in the early grades. Social studies, science, and foreign language should get reduced emphasis in elementary school. Reading, writing and arithmetic should get more emphasis. If all you get to all day long is reading, writing and arithmetic, you’re doing all right. No one wants to grind all day long on basic skills, so the kids need plenty of breaks in their elementary school day. As far as I can tell, kids today get fewer and shorter breaks than they did when I was in school. I was a student who liked school, and applied myself at school, but I loved to go run around at recess. The lack of frequent breaks actually works against teaching kids the basics--which is 90% of what any school can really do for kids--because restless kids need to be entertained more.



posted by Friedrich at January 23, 2003


Fascinating to get a glimpse of all this, thanks. And thanks to your source too. The kids are lucky to have him. I have no qualifications whatsoever for what I'm about to say, but ... Just from watching kids around NYC, the ones coming out of poor backgrounds, it always seemed to me that the worst thing an education could do for them would be to neglect the basics. Why? Because it was clear 1) that they'd never be able to master much more than the basics, and that 2) without the basics they'd be pretty lost in the world.

What's really needed? The ability to read pretty well. To write a few paragraphs of fairly organized prose. Basic math, up to but not including algebra. A couple of hundred history facts, if only so as not to appear too clueless when references come up. A little exposure to what science and art might be. I always fantasized about giving a quick and basic intro to how business and economic things work: what trade is, what a bank is, how to use a checking acocunt and a credit card, how savings work.

And that's about it. Am I forgetting anything? Or perhaps already overdoing it? I wonder what Teacher X would think of my proposed curriculum.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 24, 2003 12:27 PM

Wow. Powerful stuff, and a sobering indictment.

Question is, where do we go from here? It sounds like the group pod, number patterns, whole language, etc. are pretty entrenched. How does one set (or even 100 sets) of parents stand a chance against The Establishment?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on January 24, 2003 05:42 PM

Oh, that people (even educated college graduates) could have basic maths. I spend a lot of my time moaning about how journalists, who are overwhelmingly arts graduates, simply don't understand numbers, and get them wrong a lot of the time. But a couple of weeks ago it happened to me at the bank. One of the loan officers – a step up from a lowly teller – was trying to work out how much collateral would be needed to secure a loan of (say) $5,000. If the loan could be no more than 95% of the collateral, how much collateral would be needed? She had no idea what she was doing. She would type a number into her calculator, like $5200, multiply it by 95%, get $4940, realise that $5200 was therefore too low, and try a larger number. I didn't want to be rude, but after a few attempts like this I just pulled out my Palm Pilot, divided 5000 by 0.95, and told her to try $5263.16. She was rather taken aback: I think she thought I'd just managed to pull the number out of thin air.

Posted by: Felix on January 25, 2003 11:52 AM

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