Sunday, December 12, 2010

Introduction to "As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in The Bronx "

Dr Mark Naison
 Professor of African American Studies and History
 Fordham University

   At a time of crisis and upheaval in the NYC School system, when tests, assessments and school closings have left students and teachers feeling battered and demoralized  and when leadership of the system has been handed from a prosecutor to a magazine executive, perhaps people concerned with education should begin listening to voices like Janet Mayer's. Mayer, the author of As Bad As They Say?: Three Decades of Teaching in  The Bronx wrote her book not only to highlight the heroism of Bronx high school students and teachers in the face of poverty, violence and shockingly decayed and understaffed schools, but to denounce the educational reforms coming out of Washington  in the last ten years, which, Mayer feels, have made matters much, much worse.   Among the many critics of the two great national education initiatives, "No Child Left Behind" and "Race To the Top," Mayer stands out for embedding her critique in a detailed portrait of teaching and learning in one of the nation's poorest urban school districts. No one has ever written more eloquently than Janet Mayer about what it takes to spend a large portion of your career teaching children in poverty. Those who read As Bad As They Say will be inspired by her stories of fortitude and creativity on the part of students and teachers, but they will also come away enraged that voices like hers have been marginalized in the debate over how to improve America's schools. Veteran teachers like Janet Mayer are the forgotten moral compass in America's educational reform movement. We ignore what she says at our peril.

     Mayer's arguments have a special resonance with me because of the experiences I have had organizing workshops, lectures and neighborhood tours for Bronx teachers for the  research project I direct, the Bronx African American History Project, During the last seven years, I have spent time in  more than thirty Bronx high schools, elementary schools and middle schools and have come away from the experience incredibly impressed by the dedication and creativity of the  teachers and administrators I have met, many of whom were, like Mayer, products of Bronx public schools themselves.. These educators, put under immense pressure to raise test scores of their students lest their schools be closed and their jobs placed in jeopardy, still found the time to use the information we presented organize displays, performances, plays and festivals that celebrated community history, often involving students parents and grandparents to help with the research.  Their dedication made a tremendous impression on me, and when Janet Mayer came to me with a early draft of her memoir, I saw an opportunity to give to give a whole generation of under appreciated  Bronx  teachers and principals a voice.

     As you begin reading As Bad As They Say prepare yourself for a view of teaching and teachers that is radically different from the contemptuous one often put forward by educational reformers, business leaders and print and broadcast media  Janet Mayer grew up in a time, the late forties and early fifties, when working class New Yorkers revered teachers, and were proud when one of their children decided to make teaching their career. Janet Mayer came from such a family and becoming an English teacher in the New York public schools was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. She started teaching middle school in the early 60's when she was only 20 years old and nearly quit several times because the job was so difficult, but with the support of older teachers, and her own tireless efforts to discover new ways of helping students appreciate literature, she became a highly successful English teacher in largely white public high school in the Northeast Bronx. Mayer's almost legendary popularity in that school derived from a few key things- her ability to get students excited about reading and writing by creating an electric atmosphere in her classroom supplemented by individualized assignments for students,, and her willingness to defend students and colleagues against the excesses of an authoritarian and vindictive principal who ruled the school with an iron hand. Mayer approached these twin missions as a  sacred  calling, working long hours into the night and on weekends, protected in her efforts  by that much maligned institution, the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had become the official bargaining agent for New York City teachers in the 1960's. Because the UFT had proven its power in several long strikes, Mayer points out, teachers could demand better treatment for students and teachers without getting fired, something  Mayer demonstrated by filing  grievance upon grievance against her principal   and even bringing his conduct to the attention of the press.

   Finally, in frustration at the Board of Education's refusal to remove her principal despite massive evidence of  irresponsible conduct, Mayer decided to transfer to another Bronx High School, this one a vocational high school with a nearly one hundred percent Black and Latino student population.  It is Mayer's experience at this school, which she calls "Carter High School" that inspires the major story line of  As Bad As They Say. The working conditions at Carter High School almost defy description. Elevators don't work. Windows don't open. Classrooms are so filled with mice that teachers have to scream when they enter to scatter the vermin!  Teachers bathrooms are filthy and never have toilet paper, while student bathrooms are unusable. Crack vials fill the schoolyard, which has been turned into a teachers parking lot and gunshots periodically ring out in the street outside the school. Teachers who park there risk having their car window broken. And for Carter students, conditions ware worse. There are two guidance counselors- who are both college counselors and social workers- for the more than 2,000 students at the school. Except for a three year period when the school got a grant- there was no Music, No Theater and No Art- since all the Music and Art teachers in the City  were fired during the fiscal crisis of the Mid 70's. The students who came to Carter, for the most part, were children of immigrants or products of the Bronx's poorest most troubled families. Most of them were at Carter because they could get in to no other school.

    And yet Janet Mayer loved teaching there!  In As Bad As They  she explains why-because for many of the students she worked with, it took heroic efforts to even come to school, much less pass courses and graduate. Using real life stories, with names that are changed, Mayer explains what these students are up against. Parents and siblings murdered. Families evicted. Apartments without heat and hot water-for years. Pregnancies.  Debilitating illnesses.  Language problems due to recent arrival in the country. Work responsibilities as the family's only wage earner. Fear of coming to and from school, or even walking through the hallways less they be set upon by thugs and bullies. Reading and math levels more appropriate for a fifth grader than a high school students.  And in the face of all these things, students persevere, with the help of teachers like Janet Mayer, and  on more than a few occasions manage to graduate from high school and go onto college, in some cases ten or fifteen years after they first entered the school

  As Bad As They Say not only tells several stories of triumph over adversity, it reveals what a great teacher does to help such students succeed. Teaching, Janet Mayer style, is a 24/7 job. Let us see how she gets students with 5th and 6th grade reading levels to pass English and in the process learn to love reading, She creates folders filled with magazine articles on subjects students are interested in- ranging from sports, to dance, to space exploration- to get students to read outside of class. She tutors students after school to help them pass standardized tests. She creates a new course called Multicultural Literature, to help students of color, from multiple cultural backgrounds, see their experiences reflected materials they are given to read She starts a letter exchange with a  high school in South Africa, in the years following apartheid, where the South African students all ask their Carter counterparts "Is the Bronx really as bad as they say" ( hence the title of this book!)  And she is available at all hours, on weekends as well as weekdays, to help students deal with life changing issues,  from helping them get apartments when they are homeless, to finding them therapists if they have emotional problems, to getting them private training in music or dance when the school can't provide it, to helping them choose colleges when the school guidance counselor doesn't have time. And that involvement inspires lifetime loyalty. Janet Mayer students are her students for life, still asking her advice fifteen and twenty years  later, and thanking her over and over again for having faith in them when the world seemed to be against them

  How do you assess this kind of teaching?/ How do you measure it?   How do you grade it?  The answer is, of course, you can't, and when the federal government, shortly after Mayer retires, passed "No Child Left Behind," which requires school districts and schools to meet arbitrary standards of performance, Mayer was both enraged, and deeply suspicious.  She was enraged because she knew that neither student learning or great teaching cannot be easily quantified because much if it involves emotional growth, life lessons, and the unleashing of creativity, but she was suspicious because she believed that  when test performance becomes the sole criteria upon which schools are evaluated and teacher salaries and job tenure are determined statistics  can and will be manipulated.  Mayer's final chapter, a devastating critique of business driven education reform models currently in favor in Washington and New York City, begins with a chilling description of how the landmark Federal Education initiative "No Child Left Behind" was based on  allegedly revolutionary results achieved in the Houston public schools that, future studies revealed, were based entirely on bogus data.  The chapter ends with a critical analysis of Mayor control of New York City schools, which among other things  points out that Bloomber Administration claims of dramatic improvements in test scores and graduation rates were only achieved by "dumbing down" state tests and that greater success was achieved meeting national standards before Mayoral Control than after. It also points out that the closing of large high schools and their replacement with small schools, something which Mayer had familiarity with as a teacher mentor in James Monroe High School in the Bronx, often created mass chaos in school buildings where it took place and left young teachers without the guidance of department chairs and assistant principals that helped new teachers adjust under the old system.

   By the time you finish reading As Bad As They Say   you may well become convinced, as I am, that putting business people in charge of public schools may have been the single worst policy decision of the 21st Century  and that performance assessments devised by American business are not to be trusted ( think of the Triple A ratings  given packages of sub prime  mortgages from Moody's and Standard and Poor's!)

   But even if you don't agree with everything Janet Mayer says about "No Child Left Behind," "Race to the Top" and Mayor Control of New York City public schools, you cannot help but be moved by her portrait of the heroism of Bronx students and the life changing power and extraordinary dedication displayed by great teachers. At the very least, after reading As Bad As They Say, you will insist, in the strongest possible language, that teachers like Janet Mayer are given a place at the table when school reform is being discussed. It is through the efforts of teachers like Janet Mayer, inside and outside the classroom, that the lives of students are transformed.

1 comment:

Dr. Sanford Aranoff said...

This story is wonderful, hearing about the heroism. I wish to add one thing, which too many teachers fail. We must stress basic principles. Teachers must understand how students think, and build from there using the principle and logic. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better". Check it out on amazon. This is true not only for teachers, but also in society in general. E.g., politicians often make irrational statements. Rationality means starting from basic principles, and talking about empirical verification. See the new book, "Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living".