Below is the preface to some verses I wrote, last Saturday, that might be of particular interest to teachers. I added this preface for those working in the schools here. Hopefully, they are off today for Thanksgiving, this being the last Thursday in November.
President Barack Obama, by the way, stood with his daughters yesterday, to publicly declare that he was using his executive powers to pardon, not just the usual one lucky Thanksgiving turkey, but two of them.
The word "pardon", though now accepted for this annual presidential event, seems very wrong. Surely, it is we, not the turkeys we routinely slaughter or have slaughtered for us without compunction, who need to be pardoned -- or perhaps not pardoned.
But who are we to quibble, who are set to gobble the poor gobblers? I'll be cooking salmon today, rather than turkey, and so will be needing my own pardon -- from the Big Fish in the sky.
In the early to late 2000's, when I was away on leave for several years for my parents, but subbing day-to-day whenever I could return to New York, I used to be called, quite often, to a local school that actually had a teacher's lounge -- a rare thing here in New York City.
Sitting in that lounge in my off-periods, I used to observe the teachers and at times chat with them. In those days, they were somewhat less hard-pressed than they are nowadays, although still of course continually busy. In that setting, I made the acquaintance of an amiable senior teacher, who made some remarks that I still remember. Let me call him Bob.
Bob told me about a past colleague of his, who had joined the profession, as quite a few did at the time, to avoid or lower the chances of having to go to Vietnam. This must have been in the 1960's or early 1970's. As also could happen, this young man was given some difficult classes, with rowdy students who made life very difficult for him. In addition, he faced the usual indifference or worse from the administrators and even colleagues.
One day, this young teacher came in rather late for work. When Bob asked him what had happened, this is what he said:
"I was sitting in my car for half an hour, wondering whether I should just go and sign up for the war, whether that might be less of a hell than this."
That young man probably made the right decision, however difficult, at the time, by coming in to face the daily, but hopefully not deadly, fire at the school job. After all, soldiers were coming back from 'Nam in body bags every day. And those who survived were at times damaged for life, physically or mentally -- or both. That can happen to teachers too, but less commonly than to soldiers during a war.
Of course, the foreign wars of more recent times, though lower in bodily casualties for our troops, seem to be wreaking just as much mental havoc among them, judging from the suicide rates. Most soldiers, like teachers, don't like to talk too much about their experiences, perhaps for similar reasons.
There was something else that Bob said, which might explain quite a bit about what we see around us. Once again, it applies to both soldiers and teachers.
"Oh, you've got to hang up your conscience with your coat, when you come into the building."
This was in response to a question I had, even then, about how we could go about our jobs in good conscience, given all that was set up wrong or was going wrong, even then, for the students -- and also for their teachers.
That remark of Bob's seemed cynical to me at the time, and still does. I never could do as he prescribed, which might explain a lot of my woes over the years. But perhaps what he summed up so picturesquely is how one survives in the schools, as a soldier might do in a war zone.
I learned, the hard way, to keep my mouth shut (most of the time), but I never could do the same for my heart. I don't think that this situation -- of a closed mouth, but an open heart -- is that uncommon among teachers, although sometimes I wonder.
Following conscience, one tries to do what seems right, but this can be a very hard path to take, both as regards the workload that ensues, and from the attitudes of one's "supervisors", many of one's colleagues and, as can happen more frequently than not, from quite a few of one's students. One can work and work and give and give, expecting little in return, except to be left alone to do one's job. But even this is rarely granted, and the psyche can only take so much punishment before it becomes discouraged or rebels.
Of course, there are always those, if one takes care to notice, in all of these three categories -- "overseers", coworkers and pupils -- that do no harm, do their jobs and might even be appreciative and supportive. But human nature is such that we notice, much more, those who behave in highly negative ways, often through no fault of our own.
So one has to continually tell oneself to disregard those folk, or at least not let their attitudes, words and actions unduly affect us -- and focus instead on the others.
One can act, to some very limited degree, as a therapist to one's troubled students -- but one can hardly do this for those who are colleagues and "supervisors" and act like mean-spirited bullies.
So this continual re-adjustment of perspective, to notice the good around us rather than the bad, is easier said than done. This is our work environment, where we are also expected to be productive -- and we have students who need to learn a subject and pass tests that might seem impossible, not only for them, but for those of us who want to be able to help all of them who are willing, not just the better-prepared ones.
The physical and mental noise around us, including in our classrooms, often drowns out the weak and faltering signal, however much we may labor to keep it extant. Part of that signal is the transmission of culture from one generation to the next -- including values -- the latter more by example than by speech. The other part, from our (teachers') point of view, involves the reception, on our part, of whatever our students, including the quieter ones, are trying to, or need to, communicate to us, often silently.
This is a conversation that needs some peace and quiet in order to proceed. We can neither speak in a meaningful way, nor listen and notice as we should, without this physical and mental tranquility.
I should note that not even speech and its comprehension can be taken for granted with many of our students, recently arrived from distant lands.
Some of us are fortunate to have found -- or made, with a bit of luck and quite a bit of effort -- a niche in which we can function. Others are not so lucky. I suppose it might be the same for those who go to war.
Be that as it may, as pressures mount in the schools, those of conscience or those faced with impossible working conditions might find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that young man sitting in his car.
Of course, the job pays much better than it did in those days, and there's no draft. We have drones now. But all the old problems and pressures in the schools are just as great as they were then, with naught having been done about them over the years -- and many new ones have been added, that tax even more our strength and our conscience.
So here are some verses, from last Saturday. I am sending them out today, on Thanksgiving Day, when one should perhaps also take a moment to think of the birds and the beasts, including us humans -- and our history on this and other continents.
I have worked for close to three decades as a teacher in the high schools in New York City, including several years on family leave, working as a day-to-day substitute teacher
and as a substitute para-professional (teacher's assistant). These many years in the schools, working with students of diverse backgrounds, have been a
learning experience -- and also a humbling experience.
Whatever successes I was able to glean for myself and my students did not come easily, except under the best of circumstances, which were short-lived for me and may elude most teachers. But what I did learn, and rather quickly, is that what worked for me might not necessarily work for other teachers -- and vice versa. And what worked with a particular subject, grade level and student group might not work with one that was different in one or more ways. Indeed, as teachers have repeatedly found, what worked in period 2 might not work in period 3, even though the factors mentioned above appeared to be basically the same.
a high school teacher teacher, I have taught, usually, close to one hundred and fifty or more students (mostly regular-ed) each day, usually in at least two subjects. Too often, I have had curricula to
teach that were far too broad, given the time available and the multiple
and varied educational deficits the students generally have.
These deficits become clear if one cares to
collect and carefully check homework, ask and encourage
questions to and from all students and get other kinds of feedback. But, as sincere teachers know, all of that takes a great deal of time and effort. Most of the advocated shortcuts give a very superficial picture, at best.
Given all of this, I rarely found
time to interact, closely, one-on-one, with any one student, during my
class-periods, for more than a minute or two a day. This was because other
students -- and the much maligned task of traditional "teaching"
itself, also needed attention.
The main exceptions to this were:
a) during small -group or individual tutoring, usually before or after school hours, with or without pay;
b) during silent reading and writing
assignments, provided the more restive students in the class allowed the
relative quiet needed for this, permitting me to circulate and quietly
be of some help to individual students or to pairs.
When I was "subbing" frequently in
schools where teachers were kind enough to leave such assignments, I got to know some students rather well. I learned much about them that was surprising, sobering and intriguing.
But if I were truly able to focus more on this individual interaction, I think I would have found yet more that would surprise me -- of individual strengths, weaknesses and varied human circumstances.
I have given this particular, individual history because it is all I truly have on which to base my understanding in these matters of formal teaching and learning in the schools. I am sure that the experiences of others will have been different.
Nevertheless, I will now dare to use my own personal experience as the background for, or springboard to, a rather sweeping general statement, with which I
think most teachers with some experience will agree:
learning are difficult enough, again except in the best of
circumstances. So it is best to let teachers and students find their
particular ways. There is no harm in exposing them to ways that are
different from the ones they use -- but one should exercise forbearance in this. Impositions do far more harm than good.
Again, what I say is based mostly on my particular personal experience teaching (mainly) the sciences in the New York City High Schools for the past 27 years. Others may or may not agree with the generalization I made above. That is all for the good. I would like to hear from them.
Teaching and learning, formal and informal, constitute the active, participatory transmission and development of human culture. This includes outlooks, values, languages formal and informal, skills of diverse kinds, disciplines and their organized knowledge, the wonder of exploration and questioning and the sincere and difficult search for non-trivial answers...
As such, teaching and learning are far too vital, for our collective and individual survival, to be left to the mercies of
fads, dogmas, zealots, careerists and yes-persons.
There are no substitutes for the
traditional virtues long recognized as needed to be students and teachers who are truly sincere and successful
(in the humblest sense of that last word). These
include, of course, sincerity, respect, attention and diligence on the
part of both teacher and student. The teacher, even more than the student,
needs to have an open mind and an open heart.
This may sound utopian. But without these things, or at least without these things as guideposts, we lose our way and wander into the deserts of cynicism and cruelty.
teachers nor students can succeed for long if the structures and
resources needed for formal education are lacking or counterproductive -- or if the social fabric
is torn beyond repair.
I have touched on these things earlier, for instance in the post:
http://subject-teacher.blogspot.com/2014/06/on-social-and-educational-pathologies.html I should remark here that formal education, with all its strengths, is no substitute for the
informal education that was traditionally obtained from the home and the
This was a comment I made in response to a perceptive article by Robert Reich (a former U.S. Secretary of Labor). That article can be found via the link at the end of this post. I have lightly edited my original comment and added the title.
On Social and Educational Pathologies
for making these points, Robert Reich. A word about the schools in
poorer (or even not-so-poor) areas: as part of the war against workers
in general, and public workers and public institutions in particular,
the public schools and those who teach in them have been targeted.
The scapegoating of teachers is so widespread that the real problems in
the schools, with causes both social and structural, are unaddressed
and even unacknowledged.
Those who suffer from this are
primarily the sincere students -- and, along with them, the sincere
teachers. Fortunately, there are still many in these two categories -- but they are both endangered species. The
recent punitive "reforms" might finally make them extinct.
The schools have little control over the
social pathologies that enter into the schools and doom them. This has
to be addressed by the communities -- and that entails sustained, collective effort to
stem and reverse the alienating social tides that have been generated,
largely, by commercial forces over generations and whose destructive
effects have been similar to that of hurricanes. This effort needs to be sincere, and yet humble, open-minded and open-hearted -- a genuine grassroots movement of recognition, healing and empowerment, rather than a "cure" imposed from "above".
This is not
an easy task -- but one sees little talk about this beyond the
occasional sermons in the local churches, and there appears to be no
regional or national organized effort to speak of.
do have some control over the structural problems afflicting K-12
education. These include, in the high schools, a long neglect of commonsense concerns about traditional things such as:
-- respect, civility and
-- warmth, nurturing and collegiality;
-- purpose and choice;
-- time and pacing;
-- familiarization and
-- feedback and correction;
-- diligence and perseverance;
-- success and the building of confidence;
-- reflection, questioning, exploration and application.
Unfortunately, the administrative layers in the school systems have
been more preoccupied with toeing the line to keep their jobs and
clamber up the ladders, focusing on surface appearance rather than on
content and humanity.
More and more time has been directed at mostly unnecessary supervision of teachers, dictating "methods" of teaching and at the same time demanding improved passing percentages and test results. From all of this, fraud, superficiality and outright cruelty -- to both students and teachers -- are becoming the norm.
This is not an atmosphere in which teaching and learning, both of which involve relaxed yet sustained attention -- and also, at times, playful creativity -- can survive, let alone flourish. Basic honesty, empathy, responsiveness and independent thinking are becoming increasingly scarce.
Two clearly observable (and linked) symptoms of the educational pathologies that have been generated by all of this are:
(a) the obsession with testing;
(b) the micromanagement and punitive evaluation of teachers.
The well-financed attempts to privatize the public school systems and to attack teacher tenure are part of what threatens to further demolish whatever remains of value and integrity in K-12 education in this country.
The schools, already afflicted with multiple problems that are almost impossible to handle without collective recognition and effort, are being made into even more hellish places, with all that has heart, tradition and value forcibly extinguished.
This was a response
to a Facebook Post reporting a recent assault, in Central Park, on a 31-year-old
jogger by four teens and a twelve-year old, being part of a recent pattern of
targeted violence there.
These kids are criminals. But one should also ask oneself
what kind of society produces such criminals. In India, there has been a spate
of horrible rapes and now a strong public reaction against this. But as in
here, the questions regarding what brought this about, what are the social
conditions that led to this -- these questions are rarely asked. This is not to
excuse the criminality, but to seek to cure it and prevent it by looking at its
causes, as one should do for any pathology.
social and economic situation, and the social ethics, in the parts of India
where the rapes mostly occur are different from other parts, as they are from
here. Turning to our own culture, why is there such a resistance against
strongly condemning (I am not speaking here of banning) the extreme and
unnecessary violence portrayed for so long on screens and the extreme misogyny
accepted as cool in certain forms of music? Shouldn't we teach children,
including by example, to turn away from such things, to despise them?
are highly lucrative businesses, and those dollars are coming from people
watching and listening to these things, accepting them as normal and shelling
out cash for them.
course, violence and its celebration as well as misogyny have been part of many
cultures, and ours has never been an exception in this. I am against political
correctness and all for free speech, but the transmission of ethics to the
young, along with the awakening of empathy, compassion, kindness and gentleness
have always been, in most human cultures, a part of the perceived duty of
parents and adults, best set by contact, caring and example.
include (and may be most clearly evident in) those cultures we (most mainstream
civilizations, including Indian) arrogantly view as "primitive" --
such as those of hunter-gatherers, even though (or perhaps because) the killing
of animals and, in certain cases, of plants, is something the tribals have to
do themselves each day in order to survive -- rather than having these things
done for them in mass slaughterhouses and farms, as with us.
would not necessarily tie this particular incident to the culture that is
transmitted and commercially exploited by our entertainment industry. But we are exercising, at best, a double standard here by accepting and even promoting that debased culture. This
includes, by the way, the "I, me and myself !" (or "Me and mine
-- and f**k the rest of you!") ethos.This is flaunted by many of our screen heroes, both in their screen
personae and in their personal, too often public, lives.And this is part of the reason they are
admired, even worshiped. And yet we find this attitude disturbing
when we see it evidenced in the way our children, neighborhood youth or
students speak and act.
In the absence or dissipation of the traditional cultures,
with all their problems but also their basic values and their histories and
mythologies, what many of our young imbibe is the culture (and manufactured
mythology and history, from Disney onwards) transmitted by the entertainment
media, along with, from their peers and older children in their neighborhoods
and schools, a "street culture" that is also degenerate, even
we have a disconnect between the generations, between working parents too busy,
unable or unwilling to teach their kids what humans have always taught their
young, and children who run wild, with their own (to us) strange ethical rules
and attitudes. The schools aren’t usually able to bridge that gap, and this
isn't even considered to be one of the duties and rights of teachers.
I have to be careful, except with freshly arrived ELL (English Language Learner) kids
who tend, in many cases, to be more receptive to such things, with less
hostility towards and distance from their teachers, viewing us more as humans
like themselves, gifting us with good intentions, sometimes undeservedly -- I
have to be careful, with the rest, of ever venturing, even by example, let
alone speech, into areas of right and wrong, or of duty and responsibility. I
know I will be quickly disciplined by the call, "Just do your job --
For teachers’ assistants (paraprofessionals) such a venture is even riskier.
I have long believed that, especially for high school regular ed. teachers with up to 170 students to teach each day (or more, each week, if one is a science teacher with many labs), that our main concern, as teachers, should be the subject (or, too often, subjects) we teach. To say otherwise may often be mere pretense.
But we cannot be oblivious to the human side of our job. We need to notice what's going on with our students, at least in the classroom and with homework, and that cannot really be isolated from what is happening in the rest of their lives.
Even basic teaching and learning cannot proceed without an atmosphere in which there is some degree of mutual respect and some commonality of ethical culture between the students and between students and teachers. I need not go into the details of all that transpires, making teaching and learning impossible, when these things are absent or badly frayed. It has been accepted that the establishment of this atmosphere is primarily the job of the teacher. I would differ with this, along with most other teachers, and say that the students have at least a shared responsibility, as do parents. So does the larger community, if such a thing exists in any coherent form.
If we have a situation in which some of the same things we find objectionable in students are also present in many teachers, then those of us who cannot deal with this have little choice but to leave the profession as fast as we can without landing up, quite literally, on the street.
Perhaps such teachers (who have imbibed the same popular mores as the kids) will find some commonality with their students, and so succeed. It will become, even more than it has been, all about the dollar and the show, like much of show business is, and school will become, even more, a place where only the savvy, slick and hard-hearted can hope to survive. And, even more so than now, it will be those who are best at this who will climb up and dictate to the rest.
If this isn't what we want, then it is up to us to publicly voice our concerns. Not to do this is to be as derelict in our duties as not bothering much about really teaching the subject or helping the kids learn it.
I had noted, in earlier posts and writings, that there are two main sets of issues that have plagued the schools, long before the current punitive reforms and the testing mania and privatization hit us. One of these sets contains the structural issues, over which we have some control, if not as individual teachers then collectively, although some would deny that. These include issues of purpose, choice, background, resources, sequence, pacing, time, focus, feedback, familiarization, habituation, success, diligence, confidence, application, connection, exploration and questioning. I will not elaborate on these again here. And there are other things one could add to that list.
This is not yet another list of what a teacher has to incorporate into a lesson, although some of these things do need to be considered in a unit plan. It is more the structure that the system itself has to at least acknowledge, consider and try to provide so that teaching and learning can proceed without the heartache, failure and misery that is so prevalent.
But there is also the set of social issues, over which we have far less control. These are the ones that have been primarily responsible for wrecking the schools. The chaos and tension they create do not allow the structural issues their due attention. On the social front, the most we can do is publicly voice our concerns, both individually and collectively. This does make a difference.
On both the structural and the social issues, no worthwhile, meaningful progress will be made unless we, the teachers and others in the schools, along with concerned parents and sincere students, bring these to the forefront.
I despair at times that there will be any worthwhile changes in the schools here (and perhaps elsewhere) -- changes that bubble up, instead of being imposed with deafness and blindness from above, as they usually are, with all the damage that does. I know it will not happen during the time I have left in the schools, but what bothers me even more is the realization that it may not happen for generations to come.
That doesn't mean one should not keep working towards that, in whatever minor way one can.
After all, it took hundreds of years before the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, and the repercussions of that trade are still visible to this day on both sides of the Atlantic. But at least it was abolished, and the slaves themselves played their part in that, however voiceless and disempowered they had been. And even the mighty colonial empires receded, at least to some overt degree, and not from the kind volition of the imperialists.
In the link below are some personal reflections on my decades spent working in the schools.
Walking to Work and Back, 2014 (Preface to Two Beings)
have often marveled at those who not only work full-time in the
schools, but also do second or even third jobs. I would count the
duties at home, of those who are raising children or taking care of
elders or the ailing, as at least another full-time job. This burden,
that has its joys as well as its sorrows, appears to fall most heavily
on women, who make up much of the teaching staff, especially in the
lower grades. But many men also carry this weight, in addition to their
workload from their teaching jobs.
For both men and women teachers, the
job-related work often eats up many hours beyond the official work-day
The travails of teaching in the public schools of a city
such as New York may or may not be known to the general public in this
country or abroad. It is often a difficult job, to put it mildly -- some
would say an impossible one. And experience does not always lessen
the difficulty or reverse the impossibility. But teachers adapt
and even find sustenance from
their work -- and not
just financially, vital as that is.
If they are unable to do this,
they quit, are forced out --
or somehow continue to teach, finding solace in other things. Of
course, many successful teachers also fall by the wayside, increasingly
so as the pressures mount on the schools. And success can be a transient
thing, especially in a profession where so many changeable factors are
outside one's control.
I describe, in these verses (in Two Beings), my own walks home after work in the
evenings. For many years, I used to travel back and forth from work
using public transportation, spending an hour and a half, on average,
each way. I was younger then, and I was able to cope.
the time, I was teaching my own subject (physics) and I felt that what I
was doing, even with less effort than I now put in, was more meaningful
and helpful to the students. So going to work and back used to be
different, for me, than it is now. The morning commutes, mainly by bus,
were relatively peaceful, with my mind settling on what exactly I was
going to teach that day, and how I would go about it. The long trek
back was fatiguing.
But things do change, for all of us.
Over the past
several years, I have worked closer to where I live, walking just over a
half-hour each way.
The walks back home in the evenings, even in the darkness and cold of
the winters, are now relatively tranquil (as the rush back home may not be for those with major family responsibilities or a second paid job). The
walks to work in the mornings, even in the brightest of seasons, are
very different. In the evenings and nights, I walk through the city
streets, tired from a long day at work, trundling my school things. But I notice many things, especially the changing skies and the
trees. In the mornings, I manage
to munch on a bagel and sip coffee while waiting at intersections. But
my mind is cluttered, racing, preoccupied and confused.
At work, the teaching instincts and habits take over, and I do what many
school-teachers do, seeking to notice and attend to the students while
still trying to maintain focus on the subject matter. But it is a sad,
mad rush, and, increasingly, a cruel, even criminal business, despite
whatever extraordinary efforts students and teachers may put in.
We are all different, and so no two teachers are alike. But there may be
some things that many of us have in common or may at least empathize
with. So here's one old teacher walking back from teaching, late in the
evening, and then going back to work early the next day -- and what he
sees, feels and thinks as he does this. Perhaps we shall hear from
Re: Work in the name of love Thanks, Steve. I read the article (at the link at the bottom). It is definitely worth reading.
While it is of course true that it is desirable to find a livelihood
that gives one some enjoyment and satisfaction, the sad truth is that,
in the setups that prevail in most economies the world over, most of us
-- indeed, the overwhelming majority -- have to labor at jobs or in
enterprises that offer little of either.
Given this fact, it is important that those who work have some
collective power to influence the conditions under which they work, to
limit the amount and pace of the work that they do and to ensure that
the compensation they get is fair and something they can survive upon.
(The word "survive" may be argued about. I suppose the best way to
understand it is to imagine oneself and one's family in the worker's
When this collective power is achieved, workers then have the leisure to
attend to their responsibilities to self, family, friends and the wider
community, and to explore and indulge in activities that are more
This also provides those who work the chance to do their jobs well,
attending to details, paying attention to beings and their needs, and
being creative, rather than doing things in a rush, cursorily or "by the rules". This
gives them some measure of enjoyment and satisfaction in the work that
takes up a major part of their lives on our planet.
Unfortunately, we see that workers have, all over the world, grown
increasingly disempowered. Here in this country, over the last three to
four decades, the amount of work each (average) worker does has
expanded, and the pace of work has correspondingly increased. Work is
carried over, in many cases, into after-job-hours, being basically work
done out of obligation or pressure, for free.
Slogans that sound appealing, such as the one this author discussed, have only furthered this disempowerment.
It is the focus on the individual to the exclusion of the collective,
which is the bigger picture, that lies at the root of this. Those who
are focused only on themselves may still thrive in such an environment,
because they feel little obligation towards others, especially the ones
that need the most help -- such as elders, the disabled, the ailing and
children -- and so do the minimum, efficiently, by the rules, making
sure they look good and rise up. They may even have more than enough
leisure for other things. Those with a conscience or those who by habit
attend to details suffer most.
In all things, there is a balance. It seems to me that the balance has
shifted in a direction that has been atomizing our societies and even
our families, putting impossible pressures on some individuals while
allowing others to avoid their basic responsibilities. I do not think
that this is a prescription for the long term survival or well-being of
our species, let alone of other species on this planet.
I recommend this article (reachable via the link below your note) to
others. There are insights and facts there that I have not gone into in
my long preamble above. While both the author and I have had this
country primarily in mind, the situation in other countries should not
be ignored. The author does draw some attention to that. Those in
academics might also find this article relevant.
From: Steve Brown <>
To: sjanah <>
Sent: Sat, Feb 1, 2014 9:53 am
Subject: Work in the name of love