I got a job substitute teaching at charter schools in New York City, and I’ll be blogging about the experience every day or so for the next couple of weeks. While it’s easy to tell the story about the dysfunctional urban charter school, just like it’s easy to tell the one about the urban public school, I’m not trying to rehash either of those old, tired tales. That said, the charter distinction is important; though they are not pedagogically monolithic, charters suck resources away from public schools, erode the power of labor unions, fuel racial and class segregation, feed corporate influence over schooling, and promote the hiring of novice white teachers in communities of color, over black and brown teachers who are actually invested in and live in those neighborhoods. And more. With all that in mind, these stories attempt to reframe the conversation on public education through a cultural lens. What happens in schools, and why?
Before I entered my sixth period classroom the principal noticed me in the hall and told me it would be a “tough group.” She was stationed out there in the hall, watching for problems to arise. We were the only ones out there but I could tell the danger was looming. I could hear those students in the classrooms, their voices rising like fighter planes. Soon there would be trouble. But I couldn’t wait with her for combat, noble as that might have been. I had an economics class to teach.
The bell rang and I walked into an empty room. I set my papers on a desk. “Look,” a teacher said, catching me off guard. She had come out of nowhere–a real slick maneuver. “Look, this is a spicy class. They’re tough. But you’ll be fine.” I had been getting worried, but I took this advice to heart. I was relieved to know they had faith in me. I sat in the chair and studied the materials they’d given me. It was a six-page multiple choice worksheet on how to tell the difference between “market economy,” “command economy” and “traditional economy.” There were at least one hundred questions, most of them exactly the same but rephrased cleverly. This little puzzle would keep them busy for sure.
The students started to file in. A couple students asked me where their teacher was today. Most were quiet with their heads down, marching in as though to the gallows. There was some lively discussion about the substitute teacher: this was me, I realized. It is an odd feeling to be gossiped about with excited disgust by complete strangers who are standing right next to you. When the classroom was nearly full a teacher strode in and wasted no time, shouting at those tough kids, “Alright, you all need to shut up right now. If the volume level in this room gets above a whisper I will start marking people down.” She gave one long glance all the way around the room, scowling hideously for all to note, though no one looked up at her. They were almost bored by her remark, which was puzzling to me in its theatrical severity. Having presumably made her point, she turned around and strode back out.
I began to introduce myself but the female principal barged in before I could get in a word. “Alright,” she announced, “listen up.” A few students heeded her. The ones who had been talking began to talk a little more quietly. The ones who had not been talking diverted their gazes even further away, which I did not think possible. “Mr. XXXXXXX is not here. You all have a sub.” The volume level rose an octave at this admission; she fought their zeal. “Listen!” she declared, the hubbub waning again as she upped the ante. “That does not mean you should act up. You need to act how you’re supposed to be act. And you all know how that is.” No one answered her; clearly they knew exactly how to act. The female principal took their silence as an affirmative response. She left the room abruptly, yelling over her shoulder, “This door stays open,” as she forced it against the wall, the way it had been already, emphasizing its openness.
At this point the mood in the room had gotten so cantankerous I could not hear my own voice when I tried to open my mouth. I tried to talk a bit louder, but only the students sitting to my immediate left and right even noticed that I was speaking. Luckily, I had my worksheets. I began distributing them to all the students. The docile students downed the medicine silently, taking a number-2 pencil to those appetizing blank spaces. They knew the drill. The students who were Bad took one look at the document and responded in inventive variations of defiance, including pushing the papers away, crumpling them up in their hands, tossing them on the floor, throwing them at their friends, pouring water on them from water bottles, ignoring the paperwork entirely, or actually not noticing that I had passed it to them.
Having been somewhat acclimated to the school by now, I knew it was my cue to antagonize these Bad individuals. What should my approach be? Should I goad them for their laziness and reliable ineptitude? Should I threaten to downgrade them numerically? Should I inform them that I will report their names, once I had figured them out, to the regular teacher and to the principal? Should I simply get in their faces and demand they do the paperwork? All the options seemed feasible; when I eventually chose to do nothing–actually ignore their noncompliance–one Bad student shouted that I was “the nicest substitute teacher we ever had.” I wondered if the compliment meant that these students were no longer Bad? Or were they still Bad, and suckups to boot. Clearly they were playing mind games with me.
At this point the volume level was somewhat manageable so I thought I would give an introduction. As I held up the worksheet I began to tell them what my name was. I did not get past the first syllable. One student looked at me straight on and said, “We’re not doing any work today.” His statement put in me a bind. If I had said, “Okay,” they would have taken my reasonable nature as condoning what was a certain wish for a life of hedonistic irresponsibility, nihilism and criminal violence. If I had contested the statement, I would have been the Bad sub–certainly not anyone’s favorite anymore. I chose to sidestep the remark by ignoring it, reasoning that he could not speak for everyone. In fact I had discovered in my earlier classes that day that the students generally did not even know each other’s names. I wondered if their lack of cohesion as a group played to their rebellion, or if it actually prevented a concerted attack against authority. Did their fragmentation facilitate chaos, or did it actually promote the school’s order? But these were weighty questions I could not afford to consider in that hectic moment. It was my cue to regain control.
I moved to a different side of the room, imagining that maybe if they looked at me from a different angle they would be more interested in what I had to say. Most of the students waited impatiently for me to talk; two kept talking themselves, turning their backs to me, being comically loud. I wondered if it was something about me that they didn’t like; how could they judge me so extremely without even knowing me, without even letting me say a single sentence? It felt unfair. Was it because I was male, or the only white person in the room? Was this that reverse racism I had being hearing about? “Hey,” I said, with a satisfying pop to my voice. “Will you all let me talk for a second?” Now pretty much the entire class was angry with the two students who were ignoring me. “Shut the fuck up,” many of the students said to the Bad students. “Let him talk.” But the Bad students persisted.
“Hey, shut the fuck up,” I tried. The bad students turned around, laughed, and got quiet. I felt bad for cursing at them but I had been mad and couldn’t help myself. “My bad,” I said. “I just kinda got angry.” I had everyone’s attention, it seemed. “So we can do this worksheet if you want, or we can do something else.” Everyone erupted with their own opinion at once, very loudly. Should I not have posed it open-endedly? Perhaps they had not expected that if they all talked at the same time no one would be able to hear anyone’s ideas. But I realized that this was naive thinking on my part; they probably had anticipated that their opinion wouldn’t be audible which was why they had all tried to shout theirs as quickly and as loudly as possible. They wanted very much for their ideas to be heard.
It was clear to me that we needed some classroom rules for civil discussion, against all the odds. I asked one student to my right if there were any such rules I could refer to. “Yeah,” he said, “but Mr. XXXXXXX isn’t here.” “What?” I said, “How could Mr. XXXXXXXX be the rules?” The student did not seem to understand the question. I wondered if we were not allowed to rewrite the rules in Mr. XXXXXXXX’s absence. The first thing I would do is ask all the students to introduce themselves. I would get them to learn each other’s names and then suggest we make some community goals toward a democratic environment. “Hey,” another student called to me, interrupting my reverie, “let’s just do the fucking worksheet. Get it over with.” Some other students who were listening to her piped up in concurrence. I reasoned there was some consensus, though I wouldn’t have chosen this route if it had been my call. We only had about a half hour left in the class. I figured we had better just plough forward with the tried and true paperwork.
The male principal then walked in behind me; the class grew silent immediately and I had the peculiar feeling they were all watching me about to get pummeled by an axe murderer. I faded to a remote corner of the classroom, assuming he wanted to address the class. The principal did not speak but just stared at individual students. “C——,” he said finally, forebodingly but, strangely, smiling at her. “Do you need me to hold onto that phone?” “No,” C—— replied. Satisfied with the answer, he stared a couple more students down. “What you want from us,” one student said. “Just checking in,” the male principal said, and then walked out of the room, propping open the door that a student had shut during our first attempts at class discussion.
Personally, I wanted the door shut. They were quieter that way, we were more of a group, less connected to the outside of the classroom, which I had quickly learned to irrationally fear. When the door opened the students got nervy and bellicose. Other adults inevitably poured in, reminded them how Bad they were, and then fled the scene–pushing a reset button on our whole classroom dynamic, so to speak.
As the male principal left the class predictably resumed its cacophony. I noticed that many of the students were moving along with their paperwork nicely–without my instructions! It was like they had been programmed. Did these students even need me? Why were they here? Couldn’t they have done the paperwork online, while caring for their younger siblings, or helping parents cook dinner? Couldn’t they have done it during a free hour on the weekends? One boy came up to me and brought me back to earth; he thrust me his paper and pointed to the terms at the top of the page. “I don’t know what any of these things are,” he said, meaning “market economy,” “command economy” and “traditional economy.” “Alright,” I said, moving to the front of the room again. “Let’s talk about economy.” I was excited about such a discussion, having anticipated that we would need to have it. I, too, wanted to learn what “command economy” meant, and if “traditional economy” actually meant anything at all.
Most of the students seemed excited too. The Bad students were having their own conversation off to the side, which I was learning to appreciate for how it provided them a space in which to be Bad without me having to waste precious time reminding them. It appeared they could have their Bad conversation while the rest of us could talk economics. Every so often a new adult face appeared in the doorway, making sure all was well. Sometimes the door was closed, and the face appeared in the window. We were all settling in. “So what is the economy,” I asked. Hands shot up. There were a few very good answers to my question. They mentioned markets, businesses, distribution of money and resources. I began to ask them to go further: what did “economy” even mean? How was economy a historically constructed facet of society that naturalized itself through discourse and policy, and encouraged an uncritical view of material inequalities? Before we could begin to penetrate these urgent questions, suddenly the first teacher stormed into the room from behind me. I shrank back to my corner. Mysteriously, the teacher said nothing to the class–perhaps she just needed to grab an important item that she’d forgotten?
The teacher sat down in an empty desk in the far corner of the room and began to watch us all, demonstratively. It is difficult to demonstrate to people that you are watching them–watching usually just involves looking with one’s eyes–but this teacher was diligent about leaning forward toward the individuals that she was setting her eyes upon. She heaved her body toward them and her eyes grew wide as she entered some scribblings down on her own paper with each student movement or vocalization. I was sure she was not taking notes on economics. For a moment I watched her watching everyone. I wondered if someone else was, in turn, watching me–a covert network of surveillance! It was kind of thrilling to think about. Still no student paid her any attention, and in fact the volume level in the room doubled instantaneously. Was her goal to completely derail her absent colleague’s class? Did she have a vendetta against me, somehow?
It had become almost impossible now for me to facilitate the conversation on economy. Through the uproar we tried to compile notes on the board contrasting free market capitalism with state-regulated socialism, but it was slow going. Every economic revelation was punctuated by several minutes of non-economic banter. The Bad students and the good students alike were interested in economy–hands were raised by both factions–but there was too much happening at once. The Bad students still felt a need to show that they were Bad. Tables were overturned, water was sprayed, students were shoved, music came on and off. The good students knew that they needed to complete their paperwork before the class ended or else they would fail shamefully and possibly edge closer to becoming Bad. The silent, watchful teacher was still taking names. Faces appeared in the window like ghosts. And I was at the board, still brainstorming economy, when the bell rang.