Back to School Night: Part I
It was Back to School night at my son’s new middle school on Wednesday. As residents of Washington, DC and people who can afford neither the city’s high-rent zip codes nor private school, the move of our son to middle school has been a source of great anxiety for the better part of two years.
When I first started teaching, I taught at our neighborhood DCPS K-8 school. It’s three blocks from my house, but there is no way my son was going there. This is the place where an 11-year-old second grader once called me a white-ass bitch and I helped carry a parent out of the building after she assaulted one of the office staff. This sort of thing didn’t happen every day, but it happened enough.
No way is my kid coming here. We would move to the suburbs.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. We got into three public charter school lotteries and picked the one we thought best and that he seemed to like the most after visiting.
At Back to School night parents gathered in the cafeteria for some announcements and a welcome from the principal. Then we followed our child’s daily class schedule to meet their teachers and hear a little bit about their classes. With the exception of physical education and drama, which are in the cafeteria or out on the blacktop, my son’s entire entering class of 90 students spends their whole day in a trailer.
The trailer has a narrow hallway and five or six classrooms, each complete with fake walls and a cardboard door. It was a beautiful fall evening, but I bet the trailer is often way too hot or way too cold. The rooms are very small, crowded, and the lighting is bad. Some teachers share these rooms. Due to the narrowness of the hallway, walls of student lockers have been shoe-horned into the classrooms. There are no computers. Nor is there much space for teachers to write or work.
At Back to School night, each classroom I visited was stuffed with parents, some having to stand along the walls. Adult bodies had a difficult time shimmying themselves between the cramped desks. The parents were white, black, Latino, Asian, African and Jewish….Jewish! YESSSSS!!
(I’m sorry for that. You see, there’s a stereotype of Jews going to good schools and being high achievers. I guess I bought into that and I know it was wrong. But, honestly, that’s what was in my heart.)
The teachers there seemed as happy as midgets on a pony ride. With one small exception each teacher seemed to me to exude joy and enthusiasm. They love it there. One teacher just came right out and said “I’ve been here for three years and I love it. I plan to stay here for a long time.”
What the hell is that?
This isn’t at all like where I taught. I’m not sure exactly how I came across on Back to School night. I’m confident I exuded joy and enthusiasm for history and U.S. Government just like anybody would. But I’m less sure I was able to exude joy and enthusiasm for being there. As I recall, not many people did.
Aside from being in a trailer, the classrooms were weird in other ways. Here’s a tally of what I observed.
Data Walls: 0
Standards Trackers: 0
Standards/Objectives written out longhand: 0
Attendance charts: 0
Word Walls: 1
I might have missed something, but that’s what I saw. These teachers are mad, I thought to myself. Perhaps criminal.
At MY school teachers were required to have all these things and more in their rooms at all times or face sanctions. Detailed lesson plan templates, units, projects, tests and data collection schemes followed strict proscriptions and an unforgiving formula that applied to all teachers in all subjects at all times. This is what good teachers do, we were told. It’s important that we be good teachers.
I had a large, well-lit classroom with huge windows in a brand new building. I had 6 or 8 computers in my room, a big desk, file cabinets, regular cabinets, a laser printer, LCD projector, wet bar, 27-inch TV (remote control), two giant white boards and a closet. We had PE in the gym; or on the football field or the baseball field or the track. And we damn well didn’t have assemblies in the cafeteria. We had them in the auditorium with the plush seats and kick-ass AV system. Get this: If there was a big event, the back wall of the room would spin 180 degrees on a giant mechanical platform to make available another 200 seats which just moments ago had been the seats of a completely different room.
This is the place where DCPS gathers and welcomes its new teachers each year.
This is the place where President Obama comes to tape an education Q&A for Univision.
This is also the place that loses 45 percent of its teachers every year.
And this is the place where less than 50 percent of students test proficient in either reading or math.
At my son’s school, the teachers seem to love it. Students tested 84 percent proficient in reading and 77 percent in math.
What’s going on here? We’ll discuss some hypotheses next time. Meanwhile, you should chime in.
Incidentally, my son’s new school is the Washington Latin Public Charter School. I’m not sure what they’ll think about being associated with Mr. Teachbad, but we might as well just get it out there.
Unrelatedly, listen to a Teachbad interview on WAMU from September 21.