notes from "A Teacher in the Bronx"by Kyle Hall • July 22, 2009 Share:
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”—W.B. Yeats
Beginning just after Labor Day in September 2005 and continuing to the present day, I have worked full-time (and believe me when I say that teachers do work full-time) as a high school social studies teacher in the Bronx, New York. For the school year 2005-2006 I worked at a brand new small public high school on Webster Avenue, in the central Bronx.
In the school year 2006-2007 I worked at a different small public high school (within a huge public high school) in the eastern Bronx. I continued working at that same school again in 2007-2008, but the school shifted location to the northern Bronx, occupying the top floor of a new building.
Although I could definitely write a book on what it’s been like generally to spend three adventurous years in New York City, I will confine myself to certain boundaries. After all, this is a book about teaching in the Bronx. And don’t worry. This will not be a chronological, day by day journey with every obscure detail brought to life. What will actually be (relayed) is a compilation of stories from my first and second years of teaching in the Bronx, with the bulk of information coming from the 2007-2008 school year. I will be focused primarily on this last school year because an online log (“blog,” if you will) was maintained throughout the year and more specific anecdotes and stories may be traced than was the case in my first two years.
At times it may help to understand a chronology of when events occurred in relation to other events. I will then state specifically when and where things occurred. Other times, however, the reader may not know if something is happening in the spring of 2006 at my first school on Webster Avenue, in the central Bronx, or in the fall of 2007 at my second school in the eastern Bronx. Either way, both schools are public and serve similar populations of adolescents.
Lastly, before the real stories begin, I must say that since I am still a Board of Education employee and many students written about are still my students or in my school, the names of the schools have been excluded entirely. They will be referred to by location: School #1: in the central Bronx, on Webster Avenue; School #2, location #1: in the eastern Bronx; School #2, location #2: in the northern Bronx. Furthermore, the names of all people in this book have been changed to protect their privacy—not to mention the fact that most characters are minors and most have no idea I’m writing this book. Best of all, however, is that the stories are all real—for better and for worse—and there is no censorship in terms of language or events as they actually transpired. Where possible, I will quote directly as things were said. Be prepared, though, for things have not always been as pleasant as I would’ve (liked/hoped).
[Why do they change? Picture this: Orientation, the week before school begins. Students arrive with parents or other guardians and look around meekly, dead quiet. Scared looking. They then arrive at school on the first day. Most of them not knowing the others. Dead quiet. Their attention span is long, even with the monotonous housekeeping tasks that begin that first day. They are respectful. What happens after these first few days…I don’t know. It’s like they are slipped some sort of potion that transforms their personalities.
Soon, students begin bouncing off the walls—literally and figuratively speaking. Connections are made with new friends, flirting begins in earnest, and enemies are made just as earnestly. If the teacher does not establish good ground rules and control in the first few weeks of school, then there is serious danger of the students being lost for the rest of the year. Needless to say, it’s a tough job.
Granted, what’s happened so far is normal adolescent behavior. I’ve observed the same evolution of events while student teaching at a respectable public high school in Massachusetts and during a short stint substitute teaching at an elite, all-male prep school in Arizona. What made things even tougher for me here, though, was a complete lack of resources available in those first weeks teaching in the Bronx.
My first school was located directly in front of a gigantic complex of public housing. I soon learned, however, that our students in 2005-2006 traveled from elsewhere, although most lived within a couple miles of the location. A couple miles in New York terms, though, can mean an entirely different world. As early as that first week of orientation, some parents and guardians were expressing concerns about our school’s location, saying they would not allow their son or daughter to be in the area after nightfall. At least we had some pockets of space for our brand new school, although this was not saying much.
In this first year of our school’s existence we also had a first year principal and several first year teachers. Our entire staff consisted of about a dozen people. There was no Assistant Principal (A.P.) or Dean. There was no teacher’s lounge or science lab. A library was out of the question. No green space whatsoever existed anywhere on our “school grounds.” I quoted that because we were sharing space in a building that typically was not even used as a school (although it was used for various after school programs). The year before a Superintendent’s Suspension Site (for the most serious offenders of NYC school policies) was on the small top floor of the building, in one huge open room. Walls had not even existed there. I heard that some kind of stained carpet covered the floors.
Over the summer the School Construction Authority slapped up some walls, tore out the carpet, painted, and brought in new desks. That was the one great thing: new desks.
One big problem with Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to break up large underperforming high schools into mini-schools is that there is no space for more schools in NYC. When a school like Morris High School, in the South Bronx, was broken up a few years ago, a new mini-school with its own administration and policies was placed on each floor. But this occurred with the same student population and within the same building. Our school, however, was brand new entirely, in tandem with another part of the Mayor’s objective of creating all new high schools. Where would they put us, though? Unlike Kentucky, there are not many open fields or vacant lots sitting around unused. In a nutshell, this was how we came to be in an already occupied building.
The principal/secretary’s office was in a tiny room in the half basement. There were two classrooms down there as well. The entry level was where the security desk was, along with a full sized gym. That gym was the real shining star of the whole building. The guidance counselor managed to grab an office in that space as well. The next level up was the cafeteria space, which we were allowed to use half of because foosball tables were in the other half and even those were off limits to us. Up one more flight of stairs and one would reach my classroom first and then two more down the hall.
There were several windows in the back of my fairly large classroom but they were covered in a film and cordoned off by mesh gates. In those first weeks of school the A.C. in the window did not work and the room was literally an oven. In my enthusiasm as a new teacher I tried to teach at all costs, no matter what. I remember it being ninety degrees and humid outside at 2:00 in the afternoon. Inside it was much more deathly hot and with little ventilation. I was just dying, sweating bullets in my collar beneath my tie. Numerous kids were just passed out on their desks. Some stellar students were struggling to stay awake and alert. Meanwhile, I’m forcing a lesson, trying to get these freshman Global Studies kids to learn about ancient Mesopotamia.
Walking downstairs was a relief. Cross ventilation from the entry level and half basement had a cooling effect and the principal’s office—if you could call it that—had a door that could be propped open. That office, though, was such a sad sight. There was one desk at the far side of the room for the principal. Two feet from that desk, as one entered, was the secretary’s desk on the right. Behind his desk was a copy machine. There was a large set of beige filing cabinet drawers against the left wall and to the far right, behind the secretary and principal’s desks, was a long counter with a small sink and a few wooden cabinets above and below. The entire room, like the classrooms, was painted two shades of blue. The whole office was probably about twelve feet by fifteen feet. That was our “main office.”
Needless to say, a lot of action occurred in that space. Our first year principal was also our de facto Dean and A.P., confronted constantly with disciplinary issues while attempting to organize staff meetings, visit classrooms, meet with his bosses, and control his own litany of paperwork. The secretary was there to help with some of that business but tremendous amounts of work time was lost as students and staff alike used and abused that tiny office space.
Meanwhile, there were no textbooks. Luckily, I had some materials from student teaching that I photocopied for the students. A few of the other first year teachers were basically improvising in those first days, biding for time. One luxury given to teachers by the principal were brand new Board of Education computers—on loan, of course. I was able to use this in tandem with a projector owned by the principal’s family to show PowerPoint in my room. We did not have those official white screens, however, to pull down for films. I also did not have a whiteboard.
Initially, I would project onto a plain cinderblock wall. But once the art teacher, who shared my room for a couple periods a day, began hanging up work I had to project onto the chalkboard. This was challenging at times when I had a lot written on the board and did not want to erase things. Kids like to write on boards, whether teachers allow it or not, and periodically there would be some old graffiti in a small corner of the board that would show up nice and clear beneath the bright light of the projector. At those times kids would be looking at a slide of the pyramids and next to one of the wonders of the world would be “Fuck U.”
Another challenge was when the art teacher/gym teacher’s schedule overlapped with mine and she needed my room. This pushed one of my classes each day in that first semester down the hall into a room originally intended as a teacher’s lounge. It was a fairly large space, already carved up by the teachers before the first day. We actually thought we’d each have a little personal space. The room was very wide (much more so than the main office), but not very long. It had a chalkboard and some tables and chairs. Sometime during that first or second week, however, another teacher and I had to start using the room for regular class sessions. There were not enough extra desks to bring in twenty or twenty-five to this room, but some were brought in. Other kids were sitting in chairs—every last one we could scrounge up from other rooms—and everything was scattered horizontally throughout the space. Every day there was a different formation of the desks and chairs.
In the meantime, teachers began to complain—and rightfully so—that some of their personal items and school supplies were disappearing from the tables and desks on the right side of the room. Most of us were still struggling to hang on to some vestige of personal or storage space.