Jon Hamm, in Parade magazine: “I got into acting because my teachers kept nudging me into it,” says Hamm, who taught school himself for a few years after graduating from the University of Missouri with an English degree. “The power a teacher has to influence someone is so great. I can’t think of a profession I have more respect for.”
from: Parade magazine
from: Parade magazine
I was a teacher in NYC for almost 35 years. I have close to 35 class pictures to help reflect on my long career. I had read in the UFT paper, "The New York Teacher," about the long career of Regina Sayres, who is now 100 years old. She was a teacher at PS 41M in 1968 during the time of that long teachers' strike. I was a teacher at PS 41M during that time when Ms. Sayres was there, and at a place when she was perhaps ending her career... mine was just beginning.
I looked through all the class photos in my collection, and I selected many for inclusion in this blog. They represent the four schools in which I taught... and the memories come flooding back. (please click on each photo to enlarge)
The year was 1973, and I was teaching grade 6 in a public school in the theater district of Manhattan. I entered my class in an essay contest sponsored by Bella Abzug and one of my students won. She went to Washington, DC to read her essay. I found this photo: Charity goes to Washington. And I also found the (now very wrinkled and faded) letter I received informing us that she won. That was over 35 years ago. It seems like so long ago. I guess it was.
This was my fourth grade class at PS 33 in 1986. The next year, when they were in the fifth grade, these students were chosen by Eugene M. Lang for his "I Have a Dream" college scholarship program. Over twenty years later... I am wondering: "Where are they now?"
And most bittersweet:
The year was 1974. I was teaching at a small school on West 45th Street. I had a wonderful 6th grade class. The students were bright, creative, and they had a real sense of humor. The school was on the same block as the Actor's Studio, the Manhattan Plaza had just been completed, and on nice days I could walk home. I loved going to work.
One day, a student named Christopher came to school a little bit late. I asked him the reason for his tardiness, and he told me that the night before he had attended an opening of a movie in which his father had a role. I asked him the name of the film, and he replied, "Godfather 2." "Oh," I said. I asked, "What part did your father have in the movie?" He replied, "Frankie Five Angels." I did know that Christopher's father was the playwright who had written "Hatful of Rain." But, I did not know that he was in the film, "Godfather II." So! Christopher's father was "Frankie Pentangeli;" interesting... Godfather II, was released and it opened at a Loew's theater on Broadway. It received phenomenal reviews and I couldn't wait to see it.
Soon thereafter were parent-teacher conferences. I am lucky Christopher was an excellent student. I do not think I would have had a comfort level sitting across from that father and giving a bad report. Mr. Gazzo had written a note to me during that school year asking permission for his son to be excused early on an October day and I saved the note. It was not just a signed note, it was an autograph.
A few months later, the Gazzo family moved to Los Angeles. Christopher kept in touch with all of us through letters he sent to the school addressed to me. In one letter, Christopher asked me if I was still singing because I was awful. I was a teacher who sang while she taught? He said he was going to a school 20 times better but he would rather be going to our school because he missed all of us.
I think about all of the students I had in so many classes over the years. Eddie, who died of a drug overdose. David, who fell off the roof of his building one hot summer day when he was up there with his brothers playing ball. Debbie, who was crossing 9th Avenue and was hit by a car. Brenda, whose mother we saved.
Larry David was asked why he still works. He clearly does not need to work. He said his mother had told him many years ago that we all need to always wake up in the morning and have a place to go. I had a place to go.
Didn't Mr. E's secretary leave out the 's' in comprehension in #4? He should have proofread that letter!
These were the two schools where I spent most of my teaching career. The first school literally was on the other side of the tracks... in "Hell's Kitchen." The other school was on the Lower East Side, "on the D." The parents loved me... they said "Miss Levine is the only teacher that can handle a class."
I was quite innovative. I kept the students seated in rows and I taught with a piece of chalk at the board. And I kept a quiet classroom where you could hear a pin drop. The students had basal readers and textbooks and notebooks filled with material. And I actually gave spelling tests on Fridays.
I recently was involved in a discussion with a man who used the expression "good teachers." That same day, a woman said it was "tragic" that students did not want to learn. That gave me a good laugh. She must have forgotten what school was like. I openly admit I never went to school "to learn." I don't remember any kids liking school. I hated school and so did all my friends. We loved summer vacations, snow days, weekends, and holidays. We loved when the teacher was absent. We tortured subs like all kids do. We all signed "Maynard G. Krebs" when the substitute passed around the attendance sheet. We never connected school with "learning" and like all kids, we wanted fun during school hours! I can remember sitting with my friend Roberta in the school cafeteria. We bought 8 Hostess Sno Balls that had pink and white tops. Just as lunch was ending, we "scalped" the Sno Balls and left the tops on the lunch table to annoy the teacher who was on lunch duty. We had such innocent fun in school back in the 60s. But, we also turned a chemistry room into total pandemonium when the bunson burner accidentally exploded in the teacher's face.
So what's this hand-wringing shtik about kids going to school these days and not "wanting to learn?" Most kids never connect school with learning. I think adults have to accept that scenario and also stop thinking that learning should be fun. The "fun" has to be taken out of the daytime equation. Schools should be like that old TV documentary "Scared Straight." Anything else sends the wrong message because in the 60s for me it was all about American Bandstand and today it is all MTV. School is not reality TV.
The latest hogwash is for school to be run like a model from the corporate business world, where the teachers who don't "produce" are "fired." That is an even bigger laugh. Obviously, none of those who advocate that agenda have ever been in a school in the role of a classroom teacher. One day in the classroom would be their total cure. They seem to think it is all about crafting excellent lessons where students sit quietly and attentively soaking up the subject matter like dutiful sponges. They believe that students regurgitate on standardized tests what they were taught and thereby show a teacher's merit. They do not understand that there are variables involved such as paying attention, studying and learning the material, and doing the assigned work to reinforce the lesson.
And the most important element of what makes a "good teacher" is the ability to handle and manage what often may be a difficult class with several disruptive students. The teacher needs to be able to manage the schedule of subject time blocks and to execute mandated mini-lessons that are easy to understand and follow. She must communicate with students and parents in a professional manner in soft and measured tones and never never ever "yell. " Yelling is considered corporal punishment.
The teacher has to handle many noneducational tasks and interruptions each day... such as students going to the nurse, parents coming to pick up students, the need for the bathroom all day, notes from parents, fights, missing books, students' needs (the sun is in my eyes, it's hot in here, it's cold in here, he took my pencil, my brother expects his notebook now, my mother told me to call her at 11:00, etc.) And then the class phone will ring and the school secretary is asking for a child to be sent to the office immediately with work for the week because he is being placed on an in-house suspension. During the call, everybody starts talking and when the call ends the teacher has to use all her energy to quiet everybody down again. Two minutes later, the principal booms into the class loudspeaker that a monitor should bring down the class record box. Then a fight from the hall spills into your classroom and the school security guard trips over the students while she is trying to break up the fight.
There are constant disruptions to be handled such as the nurse coming in with notes for immediate distribution, the art teacher returning unfinished paintings, the speech teacher picking up her group, the resource room teacher giving you IP reports to fill out, the computer repair guy coming to class, the principal asking for report cards, the school secretary asking for immunization record reports, administrators who march in from the district office and check bulletin boards for posted standards, the school-based team asking for student assessments, the custodian coming in to deliver new equipment, the testing digiteks arriving which have to be returned within an hour, your planbook is overdue and you didn't list the aim of every lesson, the science teacher comes in and wants your projects for the fair, the music teacher busts in and wants the chorus, a kid vomits in the back, a kid goes to the closet and rips a down coat and feathers fly all over the room, a kid chases another kid into the hall, the AP returns a kid who ran out of the room and she tells you it was because your lesson was not motivating... whew, can we come up for air?
And yes, indeed the teacher will be blamed for everything. There is not one incident for which the teacher cannot and will not be blamed. If an 11 year old student trips on his way to the bathroom, the teacher will be asked by the principal why she did not make sure his shoes were tied before he left the room. If a student does not eat his lunch during the lunch hour, the teacher will be asked why she did not realize the student was not hungry before the lunch hour and send him to the guidance counselor. If a student does not do his homework, the teacher will be blamed for not making the homework more interesting. If a student fights with a sibling on the weekend, the teacher will be blamed for not assigning more reading to provide more weekend distractions. If one student pushes another student on the stairs and they fall, the teacher will be blamed for allowing them to be near each other on the class line. You get the picture. The teacher will be blamed for everything that happens... even if she is not even there. And the teacher must value "instructional time" more than fasting on Yontiff.
Wait! I omitted the most important point for the evaluation and determination of who are "good teachers." She should be a good interior decorator because principals love love love rooms that look like super sweet sixteen parties. Her bulletin boards should have cotton and glitter and pipe cleaners and three-dimensional pop-out technicolor doilies and ribbons. And they must be covered in more plastic than my Aunt Sadie's Brooklyn sofa.
And if anybody asks about the school... teachers must always reply: "It's good," even if it resembles the prison in "Midnight Express" because TPTB hate hate hate whistleblowers. Teachers, be prepared to kiss principals' asses in Macy's window until retirement! OK, how do we determine who "good teachers" are? Well, at the least level she should certainly be able to multi-task! And on a few days along the way be prepared to go home by ambulance. :-D
That was the last fur coat I ever wore. Nobody should wear "Bugs Bunny."