On the first day back to school this week, I mingled with lots of teachers during breakfast and chatted for a few minutes with another math teacher at my school; I’ll call him Mr. Y. Mr. Y has been teaching for 33 years and over 20 at my school (for those who need a reminder, I teach at the last and largest comprehensive high school in Oakland).
Mr. Y and I started by chatting about what we are teaching this year. I’m lucky, and I’m teaching the same subjects I taught last year. He is not, he told me, because he is teaching CAHSEE Prep for the first time. The CAHSEE is the California High School Exit Exam, and to end up in a CAHSEE Prep course, you need to have failed the math portion at least once. Mr Y started, “At least you have a curriculum, I’ve got nothing.” That’s fair. It’s challenging to develop curriculum as you go for a class you have never taught. What Mr. Y said next floored me. “With those kids, I don’t even know what I’ll do. They’ll probably only take [instruction] for ten minutes, then it’ll just be … put on your headphones, play with your phone.”
That’s it. For the students that need the most help to pass an exam that tests 6th and 7th grade math standards and for our students most at risk to drop out of high school, Mr. Y plans to teach for less than 20% of the period. This seasoned veteran assumes that *those* students can’t learn. It’s *those* students that are the problem with our school. *Those* kids are failures already, and who has the time or patience to deal with *those* low achievers? Mr. Y already has a reputation at our school. He fails about 80% of his students, refers to himself as a “tough” teacher, and turns away students that come to him outside of class for help with suggestions that they start study clubs or hire a tutor.
As a taxpayer, this situation angers me. I wouldn’t employ a road crew that failed to fill 80% of their assigned potholes. I wouldn’t employ a prison guard that left the door open 80% of the time. But tenure has kept Mr. Y educating kids in Oakland for about 25 years while countless young and promising teachers have been shown the door every year as a result of our schools’ LIFO policy. As a teacher, it turns my stomach.
I should note that I don’t entirely blame Mr. Y for his mindsets or his actions as a teacher. I actually have sympathy for him. Can you imagine doing a job that you dislike for 33 years and being pretty terrible at it? By all accounts, his classroom is regularly a zoo. He has no expectations for his students, and they know it and act down to the standard he sets. Mr. Y was either never taught or never expected by his superiors to set high expectations in his classroom. He has never internalized that students in low income communities are just as capable as their peers from privileged backgrounds if they are given the tools to succeed. He has only been observed every three to four years by his superiors, and given the revolving door of administration at my school, no one has been around long enough to get him the development he would need to become a great teacher. No one has ever expected Mr. Y to take ownership of his students’ success; if they had, Mr. Y would refer to them as “my kids” rather than “these kids”.
Mr. Y is not the problem. A union that throws its weight behind the Mr. Y’s of the world is the problem. Administrators without the power or tools to help the Mr. Y’s of the world are the problem. The pervasive mindsets that low income and minority students will always be low achievers are the problem. For now, all I can do is work relentlessly for my kids in my classroom to make myself a better teacher. Maybe I and the other teachers at my school that really believe in our kids will even soon prove to Mr. Y that our students can be successful if we just expect the best of them.
My second year starts on Monday. This year will be a good one.