In the past few years I’ve seen the high end and the low end of education in New York City. I’ve taught in a private school (the kind the media like to refer to as “elite” or “tony” or “prestigious”) and I’ve taught in a New York City public school (the kind media currently hover over to see what the school’s next performance grade will be and if it is in danger of closing).
When I first arrived at the private school, thirty years ago, I was given a piece of advice by my department head, a long time teacher at the school. “Don’t stick your head up too high, or it will get chopped off.” It was my introduction in how to survive at the institution. It was a kind of shorthand to help understand an unwritten institutional contract. The students at the school were, by and large, the sons and daughters of the rich and successful. Their number was rounded by a few carefully selected, bright, minority children. The clear expectation was that these students would go to the best colleges. The faculty’s job was to get them there. While good teaching was not disallowed, and to a certain extent practiced, far more important was good grading. By good grading I mean certifying with an alphabet that began at A and ended at B that these were top students. A shorthand job description for faculty at this school would be, Enabling the Entitled. Ignore the blemishes. It was easier to ignore a problem than it was to confront it. Cynical perhaps, but with more truth in it than people would like to admit. The easy route for faculty was to place no obstacles on a student’s road to success. Student imperfections, if addressed at all, were often outsourced to expensive SAT prep courses, high priced tutors, private college admissions consultants, learning specialists and mental health professionals (Please keep the latter a secret.). The institutional scale tipped not toward integrity but toward ensuring kids got into good colleges.
The kids I worked with in the public school were designated Special Ed. As one of their teachers so graciously put it, “ They’ve got an IEP (an Individualized Education Program, mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), so that gives them a license to act retarded.” Student problems and problem students were best kept out of sight, out of mind. A shorthand job description for faculty dealing with these kids would be Enabling the Disenfranchised. Assume they are entitled to little or nothing. Prepare them for that position by asking nothing of them. Do nothing to explore their potential. Keep them together in the same room from year to year. Make sure they cause as little trouble as possible. Keep them under control. They’ll be out of school shortly. Rehearse them well to be non-participants in our society. Reward passive compliance. I worked with these kids because they were considered “at risk”. Money was being spent to help keep them out of the criminal justice system. The great irony is they were already incarcerated in a place called school. A place where no one ever really bothered to listen to them.
What the schools share in common is their steadfast adherence to the status quo.
Kids at both schools are like the mail. They’ve already been pre-sorted and classed. The teacher’s job, like the mailman’s, is to ensure the mail gets to its proper destination. The First Class/Special Delivery to be sped to destinations in Cambridge, MA, New Haven, CT, or Palo Alto, CA. Kids from the public school are bulk mail, delivered to every doorstep in their neighborhood. Like bulk mail, many were ignored, destined for recycling, attended to only when they created a disturbance that could not be ignored, or when they littered the street.
Good teaching and good teachers do exist. I’ve seen teachers willing to confront the entitled and to insist upon genuine effort from them. Telling them they didn’t work hard enough to deserve being on a team, insisting on a paper being handed in on time, determined to consult with parents and not let a problem fester. I’ve seen teachers ask special ed students to write and talk about their circumstances, often for the first time; to encourage a student, also perhaps for the first time, to perform their work in front of a group. To give kids who have been ignored a chance to make themselves and their work, public. To be seen and heard.
Great teaching gets done in places where people make or are given the room to be remarkable. Schools or classrooms that seek not to define who students are and what they should know, but ask who they can be and what they might create. A few teachers risk being the poets who write beautiful letters. The rest, alas, keep their heads safely attached and deliver the mail. Going home promptly at the end of the school day to lock in a deep embrace with mediocrity.