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?
- The Do-Now
The big, white, smiling teacher reached for my hand as I entered his classroom. “I’m Mr. W——,” he said, giving me two pumps. I gave my first name, feeling naked without a title. I imagined looking him in the eye and adding, firmly, “That’s, Mister Jer.” It was what my dad used to call me affectionately, but Mr. W—— didn’t have to know that.
“Just make yourself comfortable,” Mr. W—— said, gesturing to his hideous, blighted classroom. There were eight or so desks pushed together haphazardly to form a carved-up rectangle. Two students slouched at the rectangle fiddling with their phones, waiting for the session to begin. Four or five other students were just sort of standing around them, watching our cordial greeting, also waiting for the class to start. A fleet of black IBM desktop computers circa 2006 lined three-quarters of the room’s perimeter, four of which were claimed by students. These four occupied computers happened to all be in the far corners of the room; the students were hiding from Mr. W——, from the center of the room, or both. The other 15 or so computers were vacant. The dusty linoleum floor was strewn with papers from previous classes; the walls covered in how-to charts and random factoids that no human would ever consider outside this room. The windows half-shuttered with crooked French blinds. The blinds, the walls, the papers on those walls, the linoleum floor and the ceiling all various shades of whitish-yellow, the color of pale cheeses you suspect are beginning to mold over.
I thought Mr. W—— would tell me what we were doing, or how I could assist him in the run of the class, since we were officially team-teaching this period. But immediately after I released his hand Mr. W—— began announcing the instructions to the class, and I felt useless enough to sit by a computer on the periphery. “Here is your Do-Now,” he said, holding up a stack of papers that were indistinguishable from every other stack of papers I had seen or been asked to brandish that day. “You’ll be achieving this objective–” he pointed to the smudged, off-white markerboard, where the following words were written:
SW: analyze the parts of a paragraph
Assessment: paragraph structure
From these codes I gleaned that the students were going to do some sort of paragraph dissection–it seemed Mr. W—— was creatively fusing English composition and biology class. W—– decided to explain the exercise for clarification. The students would underline, highlight and annotate all the different “parts” of a paragraph, which included:
–Supporting sentence 1
–Supporting sentence 2
–Supporting sentence 3
–Minor detail A
–Minor detail B
–Minor detail C
All three example paragraphs on the page were so boring and clunkily written that they are not even worth mocking. Nothing good can come out of reproducing them in this blog; the blog is already tedious and longwinded enough. Suffice it to say they were the kind of paragraphs you read in a school textbook–paragraphs that would never appear in a real book you might buy with money at a store. What made the paragraphs especially bad was that they were set up with all these “supporting sentences” and “minor details” that would make the English-biology dissection exercise simple for any half sentient being. More than anything else, the exercise was designed to get teenagers to detest writing.
It worked. The students took one look at the paper and reacted with passion and honesty that was both admirable and brutal. “I hate this shit,” one student said. He put his headphones on and pushed the paper away; it danced in the air like an autumn leaf and ricocheted off his computer monitor, the back of an empty chair, and settled lovingly onto the floor to join the others that had come before it. A few students chuckled and, in the petulant boy’s support, commented on how boring all this was. They chatted quietly, laughed, and drew constant rebukes from W——. Two students decided to do the assignment. They sat back in their chairs and glanced idly at the words they were underlining, lost in a daze, reminiscent of someone lazily filling out the Sunday crossword on a summer afternoon. The loudest student, J——, stood up out of her chair and, completely ignoring the English-biology assignment,” demanded to know her grade in Mr. W——‘s class.
“What’s my grade, Mister. I want to know my grade in this class. I turned in three assignments yesterday and my grade still the same as before.” She pointed to a computer screen, implying that one could readily access their evolving course grade at a moment’s notice, just by logging into the computer. I found out a few minutes later that this was indeed the case.
2. Mr. W——-, a White Neoliberal Educator
Before we go any further in this story it is crucial to describe how Mr. W——- reacted in the face of his students’ full rejection of the assignment. But in order to understand that, it’s important to understand what kind of teacher Mr. W—— was. He was rosy-cheeked and taller than me and wore a stylish, colorful button-up shirt open at the top, with the short-sleeves tight to accentuate his biceps, which were considerable but not overwhelming. He had neatly gelled, short hair and he tried to smile as much as he could, even when he was under his students’ verbal attack, which was the entire time I sat in that room. He looked about 29, the kind of teacher who chaperoned the prom and volunteered his lunch hour to supervise the weight room, because he wanted his students to like him. He talked quickly and informally to his students, and this was his way of trying to show them that he was approachable–you could tell he would have been excited to join his students’ conversation about the basketball game, or the weekend’s party, or whatever. He let his white slang drift toward his students’ black English, appropriating a word every now and then, but he did not adopt their inflection (though I wondered if he would have, had he had the ear–did he have the ear?).
He was a Likable Teacher, but he was also a Rules Guy–a man who believed in the sanctity of the system’s logic and thus never fudged the score for anyone’s benefit. He was the kind of guy who trusted in the fairness of whatever system he was a part of, as long as that system was stable. After all, that system had made him who he was, for better or worse. He thrived on stability, which is why Mr. W—— reacted to his students’ opposition with his composure completely intact. No doubt this was also a move that facilitated the constant construction of his own white neoliberal masculinity. He was stoic, calm, rational, and, when it mattered most, resolute. He stood at the front of the room with his hands in his pockets, frowning weakly, as though trying to decide if something he’d just taken a bite of was in fact bad or potentially good if he ate enough of it.
Aside from satisfying the need to feign order in the room, his composure served to depersonalize his relationship with the class. I mean that he was trying to convey the idea that it wasn’t his problem if they didn’t do their work. Not in the sense that they could decide to do it or not do it because it was their right to decide, but in the sense that the consequences to doing it or not doing it would be felt by them and not him. It’s your loss, he seemed to be thinking.
It literally was their loss because in Mr. W——‘s room they were getting graded on their every action. The way Mr. W—— “held students accountable” was by making everything both measurable and evaluative. Everything that happened counted on their record. And as Mr. W—— walked around the room industriously he reminded his students of this. “This is due in ten minutes and it will count for your Do-Now grade. And don’t forget, there’s class participation points at stake too. Those are different from your attendance points and your holistic daily class grade. There’s a lot happening right now!”
As he said it I could feel the vectors of racial capitalism and extreme human measurement flying around the room like jet streams. He made his remark with the lively spirit of a sports announcer or a game show host, not at all like a disciplinarian. He was a statistician; an auctioneer. It was almost like he was having fun–except for that weak frown he kept sporting in order, I suppose, to convey the gravity of the consequences of not doing the assignment. The students received all this with complete nonchalance. Headphones buzzed. The kids in the corners kept their eyes on their phones, their pens stored safely away. They couldn’t care less.
3. The Battle
Except they did care. The students cared deeply, even though they didn’t want to. They hated that this ratfuck setup of a school system forced them to care about the most excruciating trivialities. While the ten minutes of Do-Now time dwindled, J—– persisted with her appeal for her grade. A Likable Teacher, Mr. W—— welcomed his student’s interest, and invited her come up and look at the records herself.
“What’s this,” she said. “I got an F for the class? How is that possible?”
Mr. W—— didn’t know how to answer that. For it was not his problem; she had an F for her own reasons. As my own administrator used to say, back when I taught at a public high school, “When the kids ask me why I failed them, I tell them I didn’t fail them, they failed all by themselves.” This was Mr. W——‘s stance too, though he had no such rhetorical pith, yet he was such a Likable Teacher that he was filled with white neoliberal guilt at J——-‘s distress and felt the need to try to explain it to her with a good, old-fashioned paternalistic shaming. First he speculated on why she might have had some of the zeroes that she was seeing on the grade report: “Looks like you didn’t do any work this whole week,” Mr. W—— said. “That week looks a lot like all these other weeks,” he persisted. Then he re-explained the grading procedures, which were so excessive and convoluted I couldn’t follow what he was talking about and focused solely on their body language. He was using his arms to explain life; she was stepping and stepping forward to signal agitation. He used his empathic face to show concern, responsibility, apology, encouragement, regret, resignation. Clearly at a power disadvantage, J——- did not have the luxury of presenting empathy, and instead, acted in genuine anger. He shook her head, looked away, looked back at him, grilled him, shouted at him, appealed to the class, shouted to her peers, clung to the straps of her backpack, let go of the backpack and threw her hands up, paced around, got in W——-‘s face and pointed at him, laughed at him, erupted in hysterics at his words.
J——‘s contention was that she had not been required to sit for many of the grades he had logged as zeroes. That in fact she had tested out of that segment of the grading regime and had been off doing something more useful with her life. They argued and J——‘s voice continued to rise in her anger as Mr. W—— made it clear it was out of his control–it was already logged into the computer! And J——‘s anger was real anger; those zeroes counted in J——‘s life even if Mr. W—— could depersonalize his own teaching so that he could never feel its effects. As J—— grew emboldened in her defense, the other students contributed their support by joining the argument, pointing out inconsistencies in W——-‘s explanations. A Likable Teacher, Mr. W——- allowed the debate to press on, even as his case began to sound more and more flimsy. He didn’t have it in him to shut the whole thing down, but he also couldn’t bring himself to take J——‘s side, because the correct score was on the line. If he fudged the numbers not only would he be bursting the legitimacy of the system, but he would be disserving his students down the line. In Mr. W——‘s white savioristic neoliberal imagination, if the students were permitted to graduate without knowing the appropriate material, they’d be unprepared for college or the professional world, and they’d be in even more trouble than they already were now, failing his tenth grade class. Not only would they be underemployed, racially targeted, and potentially disenfranchised by the erosion of democracy–they’d also not know how to perform the biological dissection of an English paragraph.
I watched the spectacle for a good half hour, as the students became mutinous and W—— swiftly became the least likable Likable Teacher on the faculty. He had lost the argument but he would win the war; he simply did not have to back down from the F grade he was giving not only J—— but many of the other students as well. They all hated him and I hated him too. I was excited to watch him go down in flames.
Now the students asked me for my take on the whole argument, and as I weighed in I could feel Mr. W——- hanging on my words. I kind of felt bad for the guy. He had reached the point at which he had less credibility than the random disheveled substitute teacher who had spent the majority of the class slouched in a student’s chair, picking his cuticles and scribbling furiously in his journal. W—— was waiting for the classic Neutral Party response, in which the other adult on the scene throws up his hands and says, in deference to the authority, “I can’t be the judge of this,” or, “You all better work it out yourselves.” He was waiting for me to play Good Cop to his Bad. Such a response would have simply reinforced W——‘s power advantage because he had no need to cede his higher ground if I didn’t challenge it. I decided to make it harder for him to win, but not take the students’ side in such an obvious way so as to lose my job so soon. So I summarized everything I’d heard in my own words, making Mr. W—— sound like an idiot but not actually saying that.
“Thank you!” J—— said and sat down. This apparently was good enough for her. Mr. W—— went back to his computer to look things over.
“I can’t change the grade,” he restated, “but I will say that if you were to turn in all your work this week with extra care, some of these zeroes could be changed.”
“Fuck that,” J—— yelled, and the others echoed her defiance. The entire time I’d been impressed by their fortitude and also completely embarrassed for Mr. W——, who didn’t seem to mind that he was being eviscerated by all of his students.
W—– stood at the board at smiled. “Well, that’s that. I can’t do anything else.” He paused for a moment, then got in one parting shot. “You know, a little attitude adjustment could go a long way for some of you.”
4. Lessons Learned
The students had spent the entire class making their teacher look like a fool while the teacher, Mr. W——-, a White Neoliberal and formerly Likable Rules Guy who would become Likable once again at lunchtime when he watched some male students lift weights and make feel-good comments, stubbornly let them bash him while yet not changing their failing grades. Enduring their abuse, Mr. W—— insisted that those students would Fail On Their Own.
If there were any lessons learned during this incident they were not learned by Mr. W——-. After the students left the room, I asked him if he wanted to talk about what had just happened. He was sweating, out of breath, totally flustered; I figured maybe he wanted to try and make sense of it, or maybe ask me for my take. Instead he said, “You know, this is really a good school. Most kids here are really Good. Not like that.” Sure, I said, and walked out of the room.
Teachers like Mr. W——- think they are doing right for their students, who are literally all young folks of color caught in a viciously segregated educational geography. Mr. W——- believes that it is just hard accountability for meaningless busywork that will help his students overcome structural forces of social inequality. Furthermore he thinks that he is a Good person because he’s nice to his students, is “real” with them, and wants the best for them. He’s preoccupied with how he feels and what he believes his intentions are, and he’s blind to the outcomes of the cruel educational world he helps manage. He is a classic White Neoliberal Teacher with “High Expectations” that are low as fuck. He has been trained to ignore the violence unfolding before his eyes. His job requires him to play a small part in destroying people’s lives.