Friday, January 11, 2008

Author Returns to Class: Tales Out of School Lead Teacher Back

Union chief-leader

January 11, 2008


It would be a perfect Hollywood story arc if the day when first-year Teacher Dan Brown terrified his out-of-control fourth-graders by putting his fist through the blackboard was the turning point in the school year. But there were no such epiphanies at that chaotic elementary school in The Bronx four years ago.

The Chief-Leader/Adrienne Haywood-James

TRIAL BY FIRE: Dan Brown spent a year teaching at a high-needs school in The Bronx and recently published a memoir that details the grinding struggles of a new Teacher and the fourth-grade class that tormented and inspired him. 'The kids would benefit so much more if rookie Teachers were looked at as valuable assets,' he said, 'as opposed to lambs to the slaughter.'

An unlikely and initially indefatigable Teaching Fellow, Mr. Brown left the public-school system after that bone-draining year and recorded his experiences in a recently published memoir, "The Great Expectations School." It chronicles a harrowing 10 months, compounded by an incompetent and negligent administration.

Came Back for More

At the center of the story are the institutional barriers he faced trying to teach his sporadically violent, often maddening and frequently heroic children, who made such an indelible mark on him that, three years after leaving, he has returned to the city's public schools to give it another try.

Tossed into a classroom that had been consciously and somewhat sadistically loaded with the students boasting the previous year's most intractable discipline problems, Mr. Brown - an NYU film student who turned to teaching on an impulse - repeatedly flails about in the absence of desperately-needed resources. At times he faces off with administrators who pummel his morale, less concerned with the daily struggles of their educators and more attuned to the pressure from the Bloomberg administration, which has just launched its first major school-reform initiative.

"There's an unspoken understanding that you will get hammered and, if you love it, you will stay," said Mr. Brown in an interview last month. "The kids would benefit so much more if rookie Teachers were looked at as valuable assets as opposed to lambs to the slaughter."

'Still Use Trial by Fire'

Currently student-teaching in The Bronx as part of his degree program at Columbia University Teachers College, Mr. Brown said he has gotten numerous e-mails from Teachers who identify with his experience and have thanked him for telling his, and their, story. "I'm absolutely certain that trial by fire still exists," he said, qualifying his assertion by noting that some schools, including the current incarnation of P.S. 85 now managed by a different Principal, take a different, more supportive approach.

The book is peppered with moments during which a young, eager and inexperienced Mr. Brown - whose mother was a secondary-school Teacher in Cherry Hill, N.J. for 34 years - is drowning and pleading for assistance, only to meet a cold, highly anxious set of administrators. There is the Assistant Principal, Sonia Guiterrez, who derides his explanation of what his children will get out of a planned Social Studies unit.

"Mr. Brown, does it really matter if the students understand the lifestyle and culture of the Iroquois people?" she asks, then answers for him: "It doesn't matter. What matters is literacy ... Do you think it will make a difference on the Test if your students know a lot about Iroquois lives?"

(Ms. Guiterrez's name, like many of the others in the book, have been changed to protect their privacy.)

'Creates Testing Fanatics'

It is the Test - the standardized math and English tests fourth-graders are required to take - that guide most of the administrators' actions, according to Mr. Brown. He believes that in a different environment, given different mandates, the administrators would also have been different people. "There is so much pressure on standardized testing," he said, "that it turns people into testing fanatics regardless of their personal feelings."

But there are other reforms mandated by the Department of Education that also torment the Teachers, especially the new ones. For example, the emphasis on elaborately illustrated bulletin boards. "You've shown improvement, Mr. Brown, but not enough," Principal Kendra Boyd tells him at one mid-year meeting. "What I caught of your lesson this morning was superb ... [but] your classroom environment is bare-bones. Look at this bulletin board ... I took a chance on you, but the proof is in the pudding." Threatened with a U-rating, Mr. Brown is constantly scrambling to keep his classroom presentable according to DOE standards, even as the central obstacle to his students' progress is his inability to manage the discipline problems in the classroom.

(In the latest re-organization, bulletin boards have lost their importance and are no longer emphasized as a central part of a Teacher's assessment.)

Students Are the Story

But the book showcases more than the problems with unsupportive administrators. The real drama is the students themselves and the gap between the amount of resources and assistance the mostly-impoverished children need and what is available at the school.

Most of Mr. Brown's fourth-grade class cannot identify what country they live in or the planet on which that country sits. Some write beautiful essays, while others do not understand that George Washington is not alive, even though they know he was president more than 200 years ago.

Staff are told that they cannot refer students to special education. As a result, children remain in Mr. Brown's classroom who can barely get through a week without punching another child in the face. Others disrupt the class continuously and can find no meaning in the lessons since they can barely read a sentence.

Building Ties That Bind

Mr. Brown believes that the multi-faceted problems exacerbated by poverty - a lack of housing (one child lives in a homeless shelter), substance abuse, parents who care deeply but don't have the time or skills to assist their children academically - could be addressed by the school if it put resources into hiring more guidance counselors and tutors and creating smaller class sizes. "When kids feel that they have relationships with adults that they have to live up to, that produces accountability; not the testing," he said.

His experience is only made more stark by comparison to the private city school, Collegiate, where he taught for two years after writing his book. Every class had 22 students and was managed by 2 teachers. When the kids went to science, art or music classes, only 11 of them left at a time and those remaining received attention from both teachers. "That's where kids' breakthroughs would come from," Mr. Brown said. "If they were falling behind, that's where they would catch up."

'Made Each Other Better'

Just as important for the still-new teacher, the instructors met several times a week to share and develop lesson plans. "It was so huge - everyone made each other better," he said, suddenly animated. "There was none of the adversarial stuff between teachers and administrators. It removes so much of the stress, and you get the idea you are supported instead of on the chopping block."

While there were gutter-low moments at P.S. 85, there were enough times when students excelled, against all odds, to convince Mr. Brown of the possibilities of academic progress within the city's toughest schools. There were hugs at dismissal on a Friday that made enduring a week of classroom fist-fights seem worth it. There were students, like Sonandia, who handed in superb homework assignments and pored through the books Mr. Brown got from his mom.

There was Asante, whose mother cried as she told Mr. Brown how much his class had meant to her daughter, a student he had thought was otherwise engaged most of the time.

Kids Surprised Him

Those moments kept a mantra alive that another Teacher had told him at the beginning of the year: Something comes across. "In the moment that Asante and her mother turned to leave, the far-reaching influence of teachers upon children took tangible heartbreaking form," he writes in the book. "This job was going to kill me."

But even though there were weeks on end when he felt like he was giving everything he had and still failing, his children managed to perform. His class became more manageable after the administration redistributed a few children who had made it impossible for him to get through a lesson. He started an after-school visual arts club. He led a field trip during which the children behaved and thrived, which would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the year.

And all but two of his students, both of whom were severely troubled, passed the state English tests. In fact, he had the fewest failures in the entire fourth grade. Mr. Boyd and Ms. Guiterrez never said a word to him about that accomplishment. At the end of the year, when the new assignments came out, he wasn't given a classroom, instead banished to teaching "on wheels," with students to rotate into his class throughout the day. That conclusion, which he acknowledged he reacted to with a mix of anger and relief, sealed his decision not to return to the school.

'Like Abandoning Them'

"I felt really conflicted about it. Whatever good I had done, I had gone," he said. "I hate the idea that I left the kids in some way. It was just impossible to stay."

Mr. Brown taught in Harlem last semester and will be teaching honors English at DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx this semester. He will go on the job market this year to find a permanent position beginning in the fall when his coursework ends.

While he has a positive opinion of the United Federation of Teachers, he said that to his detriment, the union did not play much of a role during his tenure at P.S. 85. "I really like the union, but it didn't have much to do with my year there," he said. "There's a New Teacher Advisory Committee, which is doing great stuff, but I just didn't know about it." He also believes that the union's power to affect the day-to-day functioning of a school is dependent upon cooperation with City Hall, the DOE and individuals at the school.

'Talk to Veterans'

"The Great Expectations School" fills in the details and the daily struggles that graphically explain why about 40 percent of new Teachers leave the city's public schools within three years. But it also explains why the majority stays.

Mr. Brown's advice to other new Teachers, or those considering entering the system, is to take the plunge, but to make sure they have support. "Reach out to other Teachers," he said. "Talk to the veterans. There are so many incredible, uncelebrated people in the schools. Don't go it alone."

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