Don’t know much about history

Don’t know much Biology

Don’t know much about a History Book

Don’t know much about the French I took..

Sam Cooke – “What a Wonderful World”

There’s a whole lot of talk about improving the education system in this country – A lot. And the truth is, while I agree that there is no excuse for the poor performance of students in this country verses students in others, I have to wonder, who really is to blame?

I have the unique experience of not only having worked for the Department of Education for four and a half years, but also, of having been a student in the system way back when and knowing some amazing teachers both past and present. What I’ve noticed, especially more recently is a huge divide between the bureaucracy and the folks they’re supposed to be working with to make things happen in the schools.

The thing is, there’s this unholy, totally irrational, and completely wrong trend of shit trickling down from the folks in charge placing the blame on the teachers.                                     

I’m not saying that there aren’t some bad apples. There are. But for every bad apple, there are a whole lot of good teachers out there who are shouldering the blame for poor performance where, truly, it’s not their fault.

Seriously, when the hell did teachers go from the folks who are supposed to impart knowledge onto young minds to glorified babysitters who are supposed to raise other peoples’ kids? Where the hell are the parents in all of this? And really, how are ridiculous test scores supposed to gauge any kind of real progress and how are business men even remotely qualified to judge teachers?

I’m not a full fledged product of the public school system, true. My mother, an immigrant, was fearful of the public school system in Brooklyn, so until we moved to Staten Island, which back in the early 80’s had the best public schools in the five boroughs (and I believe, still does), my mother sent me to private school. And true, I pretty much slept through the eight and ninth grades despite having been put in the ‘honor’s’ classes, and still managed to have an A- average (hey, my Spanish teacher hated me and gym counted – I wasn’t all in to the whole gym thing), I honestly think the system back then wasn’t so bad. But they keep screwing with it, trying to make it ‘better,’ and blaming the wrong people for it not working they way they’d like it to.

And yeah, I had some pretty bad teachers back then (hello Mr. Ralph Stefanile screw you and your lazy ass bull shit “I don’t give make up exams or accept make up home works, even if you did have chicken pox, and 104 fever for two weeks”). But I had some AMAZING teachers as well (Mrs. DeBetta, Mr. Nikides, Mrs. Iervese – You taught me well and I am eternally grateful).

But as good, or as bad as the teachers were, ultimately, it was my mother and her relentless drive to make me do better that fueled my success in school. The teachers were there to teach. And while some of them were better at it than others, my good performance in school was due to my mother.

I get extremely pissed off at the parents who whine about working all day and not having time to deal with their kid’s home work, etc. My mother worked too – as did my step father. They worked their asses off – Full time. They were both immigrants. They learned the language and did what they had to do to make their American dream come true, and still work at that to this day.

My mother, at one point in my life, worked three jobs, went to school and STILL managed to not only have a life of her own, but raise me and make sure I did my home work. Her attitude was: “If I can come here, an immigrant, and learn the language, there is no reason that YOU, who were born here, shouldn’t be able to do the same.” Basically, if I came home with less than a 90 in English or History, my mother considered it failing. I was allowed 85 in math and science only because, she knew those weren’t my strengths, but still, since they were taught in English, I should be able to at least understand enough to get B’s.

The woman was relentless when it came to my education. My mother was one of those parents who went to every parent teacher conference and followed up in the weeks between by calling the teachers to see how I was doing. Did I mention she had a full time job, and by the time I was in the sixth grade an infant to take care of?

My mother knew my grades before I did most of the time. She already had rewards/punishments in place depending on how well/poorly (by her standards) I did.

I remember in the ninth grade, my first report card. I did well in English, History, Math and Science, but got a 75 in Spanish. I went to my friend’s house after school and basically told his mom that she probably wouldn’t see me until next marking period because my mom wasn’t going to be happy with my report card. She took a look at it and said “seriously, if my son brought these grades home, I’d probably buy him a car right now!”

My mother made school a priority. Nothing else mattered. I had to do well. That was my job. So when I was a senior in High School, the last semester I’d ever have to walk the hallowed halls of Wagner High, I took Economics, with the absolute worst son of a bitch teacher – Mr. Stefanile. He told us at the start of the semester that he did not give make-up quizzes or tests or accept late home work assignments, no matter the excuse.

Lucky me, first, I got Strep throat, making me miss a few home works and a quiz and then a few weeks later ended up with Chicken Pox, making me miss about ten more home work assignments and the mid-term exam. So when the report card came out, and I had a failing grade, my mother literally almost murdered me. She totally blamed me and didn’t believe that any teacher would be THAT bad. We fought, I mean FOUGHT, to the point where I actually cursed at her for not believing me and dared her to call him. I then ran out of the house deciding to stay at a friend’s house (a ballsy move, considering my mother had ‘grounded’ me for the failing grade-and the cursing).

The next day, after school, I came home, to see my mother at the kitchen table. She called me in and started ranting about the lazy son of a bitch! She said she’d spoken to him and he’d confirmed having received both doctor’s notes, all the home work assignments I had attempted to hand in, but said that he would not break his rules, that in his experience, students could cheat on home work assignments and make-up tests and it wouldn’t be fair to the other students. My mother suggested that he create a different test, or quiz me or give me some form of make-up assignment. He said he didn’t have time to cater to one student just because I’d had the misfortune of ill health. Then, my mother, her voice getting louder said,(and please try to imagine this being said with the “Natasha” accent – cause really, my mom’s got the best accent ever!), “I told him, MY Taxes pay YOUR salary, either give my daughter make-up exam or I WILL speak to your supervisor!!” Apparently the douche bag told her she was free to speak to the AP, and then told her if I aced the final exam, that he would consider giving me a passing grade so I can graduate (oh yeah, I couldn’t graduate without Economics). Clearly, I graduated (thanks to the AP, who knew my academic record and refused to let a lazy teacher screw it up) and went on to New York University, but still, that dude was a BAD teacher.

But that was ONE teacher in FOUR years of High School.

As I got older and saw so many of my friends and relatives who decided to become a part of the Education system, because they LOVE kids and wanted to shape young minds, being so mistreated by not only the Department of Education, but by their own Union as well as students’ parents,  I honestly couldn’t understand.

Folks like to think that a teacher only works ten months a year and that their days end around 3pm. I know for a fact this is not true. The teachers I know are forever working. When they aren’t in the classroom they are thinking about the classroom, planning lessons, or, even during their summer breaks, planning for the coming year. Teachers have such a difficult job to begin with. They are underpaid, under appreciated and overwhelmed by class sizes that would drive any normal person crazy. And then on top of it they have to deal with a bureaucratic system that treats them as though a) they were all some uniform drones, and b) as though they, the least paid folks with the most responsibility, are all complete morons. And parents who think that somehow it is up to THEM to raise their kids.

One of my friends told me a story about a student in her class who was doing poorly. She tried to contact the parents in every way possible, to no avail. One day the student became violent and threw a chair at her. The student was suspended. Only THEN did the parents come in to the school and instead of sitting down with my friend, decided to attack her for not being a good enough teacher.

And then there’s the administration. Each year they give the teachers a new ‘plan’ by which to teach. Teachers now are so mired in paperwork, it’s insane. And while I know there have been reports of better test performances over the past few years, I’m not sure how much the kids are actually learning.  Add to that the fact that so many arts programs and extra curricular programs have been cut thanks to crappy budgeting (really, how many millions spent on ridiculous ‘consultants’ have there been? Had you consulted actual principals and teachers – you know the folks dealing with the day to day, and the craptastic new ‘programs’ your billion dollar consultants and their spreadsheets come up with,  I’m sure they’d have told you where that money would have been better spent), what the hell are the kids really learning?

Sure they can read well enough to pass some stupid exam, but do they really understand anything? And the writing? OH MY GOD! One task I had to perform while at the DOE was editing student submissions thanking teachers. I have never in my life seen so many poorly written, misspelled notes in my life. And the grammar – A tragedy! If this is our future, I am very much afraid.

And then there is the wasting of money on the bad teachers. This is one area where neither the parents, nor the DOE are to blame – the Union has been responsible for the retention of really bad teachers for years. I know that recently there have been steps taken to expedite the removal of bad teachers from the classroom and the payroll, which is one of the most positive steps I have seen taken by the DOE. The bad apples in the bunch seem to ruin it the most for the good ones. It’s heartbreaking to see the good teachers being compared to the bad ones and put, essentially, in the same position. I understand that the Union is there to represent all teachers, but they don’t seem to differentiate between the good ones and the ones that should never have been permitted in the classroom to begin with. It’s a travesty, how much money has been spent on trying to get rid of teachers that, essentially phone it in, or are barely doing anything for the good of the students. And the people that suffer the most for it are the kids themselves.

There’s that old adage “It takes a village to raise a child.” But what happens when the villagers are all working against each other? That’s what seems to be the issue here. The bureaucrats seem to be clueless, and in an effort to keep their jobs, tend to blame the teachers. The parents refuse to take responsibility and will either blame the teachers or the bureaucracy or, in some extreme cases, would rather have their kids misdiagnosed with ADD or some other disorder (and I’m not saying that there aren’t kids who genuinely are afflicted, what I’m saying is that too many parents would prefer that to be the case than try to work with their kids and educators). And the Union, well, from what I see, all they care about is getting dues paid.

It scares me, truly, when I hear awesome teachers say “that’s it, I give up, I’m quitting.” Not because they don’t love their jobs, but because they hate the system. Instead of laying blame and pressure on the folks who are actually trying to do right by the students, maybe folks need to actually start to care about the kids. It’s not about numbers, it’s not about blame. IT’S ABOUT THE KIDS! Any educator I know who has tried to stick it out while the right and left hands try to figure out what the hell they’re doing, has done so solely based on their love of kids and the desire to make things right for them. If parents, the Union and the DOE don’t figure out a way to stop pointing fingers and work together, the kids will suffer.

President Obama has urged parents to take a more active roll in their children’s education. In speeches given across the country, as early as his campaign, and as recently as this past July, President Obama has said “Parents, if you don’t parent, we can’t improve our schools. If your child is misbehaving at school, don’t curse out the teacher… It’s not the teachers’ fault that your child is misbehaving. That’s some home training. Don’t blame the teachers and the government and the schools if you’re not doing your job.”

Good students are raised at home. Good schools are run by folks who care. Good teachers should not be forced to leave out of fear of retaining their sanity due to bureaucracy, bad parenting and micromanaging. There has to be a way for everyone to work together to make things right for the kids that are going to be leading this country in the future. Folks need to figure out how to get past their own ego-driven bullshit and make it happen

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