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Friday, February 22, 2013

Failing Schools Become Dysfunctional When Put On The List For Closure

David Hedges


Dedicated To the Rights of ATRs 

(Absent Teacher Reservists) in NYC


What's wrong with bagging groceries?

A failing school becomes a dysfunctional one after it learns it is slated to be closed.  They take the failing principal out and replace him or her with someone worse: an inexperienced one who had been excessed from a school that had previously failed, become dysfunctional, and closed.

Everybody  makes mistakes, but the lesser experienced principals can be counted on to make the more foolish ones.  Many of them become principals because they were Assistant Principals in schools that were failing and have already closed.  What they bring to the job defies the imagination of the sane.  The replication of the familiar, failure as the comfort zone?

FACT:  I was assigned to cover a class within my license.  The teacher had been injured in an automobile accident back in November, almost 5 months ago.  The students have been getting a different English teacher every week.  Sadly, the principal could have reassigned a senior member of the staff to cover the class since that teacher only teaches one class per day, but he didn't think that far ahead.

I met with the principal before starting this long term assignment and shared my lessons and ideas for addressing the fact that the student hadn't had a regular teacher (most of them are juniors and will need to take the ELA Regents Exam) in months.  The plan was to develop writing skills through a unit on how to apply for a job.  The course would cover reading the help wanted section in the newspaper, writing a resume, a cover letter, and speaking and presentation skills that would be useful at the job interview.

To start the unit off I asked students to study a very long list of occupations- something to give them an overview of the kinds of careers they might like to pursue.  To break it up I included a "WordSearch" puzzle.  They were to select the job that interested them and then try to find it on the word search grid.  "Search for the career in the grid after you find it on the list."  That gave me the time I needed to set up my SmartBoard PowerPoint presentation.  Students talked about all the possibilities life could offer!

I initiated a class discussion about what kinds of jobs would be available to high school students who hadn't any work experience.  I want them to encourage them to apply for jobs that they wouldn't be rejected from on the basis of their lack of work experience.  We discussed how to compensate for lack of experience with a surplus of positive thinking and constructive energy.  For example, suppose you see a sign in the local grocery store or super market advertising for a job as "bagger."  You decide to apply.  The manager says the job was just filled and she'd forgotten to take down the sign.  What do you do?  Do you walk away or do you find something positive to say that shows how serious you are about the job?  The class decided that it would be a waste of time just to walk away.  Better ask the store manager if the job of assistant bagger had been filled.  If two can work together bagging groceries, twice as many customers can be checked through, doubling profits.  The class went to work creating a cover letter for "assistant bagger" and stressing the advantages of the new post.  The power of positive thinking!  The idea is that work, or a job, isn't an activity that you take something away from in the form of remuneration in exchange for your time, but a place where you can make a difference and a contribution.  Your discover what your value as a person is through the task you have and the attitude you bring to it.  There is no such thing as a bad job, just a badly done job.  

Two days after the lesson and the progress made by the students, the principal, you know, one of those I.A, principals who are assigned to close the failing school... inexperienced, except as an assistant principal in a school that had already failed and been closed... So, said I.A Principal called me into his office, closed the door, and began interrogating me, pressuring me to confess my crime, for it seems, according to his word,  there had been complaints about my lesson.  From whom?  What about?  Students?  (Doubtful, since they were totally engaged!)  Another teacher?  The one who had been upset with me because I hadn't erased the board fast enough as she settled into the classroom to teach her one class, and were there more than two students in the room?  We will never know for sure, perhaps the principal was  just exercising his dysfunctional discretion?  He said to me that it is inappropriate for students to consider applying for a job as bagger, let alone assistant bagger at a super market.  I am not really sure why not.  One of my favorite students worked everyday after school, first as a bagger, then as cashier.  In fact, the example, since it came from the students, was most useful.   If anyone found it insulting or demeaning, it wasn't anyone who was present in my classroom.  In an upper class private school, I can imagine the head master calling one of his young teachers into his office to remind him that the parents of the students, who pay his very generous salary with the very high tuition costs, might not appreciate their children learning about job opportunities in areas where their lessers are employed, but supermarket work, like the fast food service sector, is a rite of passage.  

Again, maybe it was just the ghost of a dysfunctional school that haunts them after they've already failed and are being closed.  Failure becomes a comfort zone when it is repeated so often.  After all, whatever we do in life, the more we do it, the better we get at it.  That is true with developing skills, but it is also true with being a jerk.  The more a person acts like a jerk, the better they become at being a jerk.  Don't you find?

Then again, maybe the example of the supermarket checkout bagger hit a little too close to home.  Some of the untenured faculty and administrators may be  projecting their fears onto this example- a specter of a future position as assistant bagger.  Unfortunately, they didn't understand the lesson:  Even if your job application is rejected, don't be dejected, come back with an optimistic retort:  Show 'em spunk!

Of course it's humiliating when your school fails, is closing, and becomes self-destructive and dysfunctional.  Humiliation is one of those things that when it goes around, comes around.   

In any event, the principal took a particularly humiliating tone with me:  told me I was not allowed to go back to the class and told me to go sit in the teachers' lounge. 

When a school has failed and is being closed, it turns into an auto-destructive, dysfunctional setting- all at the tax payers expense!  And in the meantime, the students don't get to develop their skills about how to compete for any job, even an entry level one.  We all had to start somewhere.  Why make kids feel self-conscious about starting out at Keyfood? 
Mr. Principal, were you afraid of what people might think if a teacher dignifies the job of bagger at Keyfood?  When children learn to walk, if they cared what other people think, worried about other people laughing at them or criticizing them each time they fell down, then the whole human race would still be crawling, wouldn't we?