A Teacher's Day

The day in the life of an inner city large urban school district teacher after the high stakes testing ends and there is still three more months left before summer vacation.

Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

I have taught school for over thirty years always in the inner city and for the most part always upper grade students. I have two children and I have been married for twenty years.

Friday, October 27, 2006


a growing fire begins in your nose
and somewhere at the back of your neck,
an intangible.

--the first four lines of HOW IT CAME TO BE THIS WAY,
Michael H. Brownstein,
written crossing the great empty lot near the 43rd Street Station, Green Line

And so it begins again.

The boy in the first floor primary room so terrified of walking home by himself, he flinches at the wind, the flutter of a piece of paper, the movement of an adult holding her son’s hand. And I am asked to make sure this child gets home safely.

Where is the danger? I need to know this. Why is he so frightened?

He cannot even wait for me. He walks ahead. Stops. Walks a few more feet. Turns at an imaginary sound. Stops.

I am reminded first of the only time I was unlucky enough to see a cat play with a mouse it caught. I can never forget the look in the mouse’s eyes. There was something there. A real something. A great fear? A lost soul? This boy has the same look. Only it’s not just in his eyes, its in the movement of his arms, the way his legs drag suddenly, the quick turn of his head as if the drizzle raining on both of us can cause blood to run down his nose.

Then I remember another time. A young girl leaving DuSable High School. She had long blonde hair and the look of someone who belongs anywhere else. It was her first day in that school—and her last. She had chosen to change the fabric of the school integrating it—the first white student.

I can’t tell you what started everything off. I don’t know why three older girls chased her down the street. All I know is I was walking to the tutoring center after my teaching day ended—this was a few years back (maybe fifteen years or so)—and there she was near the hardware store on 51st, frozen, the three girls getting ready to lunge at her, and she standing too still, her eyes like the mouse, her arms shaking visibly at her side, no expression at all on her face. Just a terrible fear, a terrible horror, a tangible smell. I blocked the girls—and grabbed their victim—but she was not whole. She had no weight. She could not move. I was forced to physically lift her out of harms way and I carried her into the store. She was no longer flesh and bone. No. She had become a piece of cardboard. I waited with her until the police came and drove her to safety.

Now I am with this child. He must be in third grade. This is my second encounter with him. The security lady tells me everyday other students attack him. Everyday she has to walk him home. She can’t this day. This day she has another fight to contend with. It becomes my responsibility.

I walk him home and he walks ahead of me. I tell him to slow down. And I understand his fear. Others from his class rush up and hit him. When he stumbles, they lash out with their feet. They swing their book bags to close to his face. I look for the head of this gang of boys. They are small boys, primary students, fast and quick. They fling books at him, slap his head, hit him on his back. One boy is orchestrating the entire event. I watch him for a few seconds. Then I move. I grab him by the arm and tell him enough’s enough. He tries to pull away, but I’m bigger. I’m stronger. You will leave him alone, I tell him. You will go home.

An adult in a nearby car opens his car door. What are you doing? He yells—not at the child, not at the gang of boys who have just now decided to leave their tormenting behind—but at me. I think I should explain myself, but the child I’m to protect is walking away. He reaches the corner. He crosses the street. I watch him as traffic stops me from crossing with him. Every ten yards he stops and turns around. Every ten yards. He is alone now on the other side of the street. Every ten yards he stops. Every ten yards he turns around. Every ten yards. Then he reaches Calumet and runs to his house.

Only then do I feel he has let go of his terror.

The man in the car curses at me when I walk by. I allow it to happen. This is how it begins.

The fight between parents making their children fight other children brought me back into the position of security. I stopped them from fighting twice—once with my presence and once with security. Today it is drizzling. They are not out. The children terrorizing the child have already been named to the assistant principal. Before I even enter the school, she tells me she has made a few calls to their parents.

This morning it is still drizzling. No one is out. I cross the great field full of puddles on my way to my school. Everything is colorless. I have already made arrangements for the child to come to my room at the end of the day.

I can still see the eyes of the mouse begging for something. I can still feel the teenager turning to cardboard, her very body corrugated paper, not the flesh and blood of a person. Nothing deserves to be this frightened.

Nothing and no one.

a great fear rising at the hairline,
the useless limbs at the end of the shoulder,
time a patient fool...

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I don’t understand what has happened. When I went into teaching thirty some years ago, I knew I wasn’t going to become the richest man in America. In fact, I knew I was going to spend a lot of my own money, spend hours volunteering, and end up doing a lot of things to assist my students with no hopes of ever being compensated.

Yesterday I asked a few teachers if they would like to do the After School All Stars Program after school for two days a week and two hours a day. I’m the coordinator. I’m rather excited about the entire project. We’ll have creative writing classes, dance, drama, and a whole lot more. I’m paying the teachers thirty dollars an hour. Yes, that’s correct—thirty dollars an hour.

“I wouldn’t work for thirty dollars,” one of them told me.

“I never do anything for the Board if it’s not my hourly pay,” said another.

“After School All Stars. No way,” said a third. But then she was told her work on Wednesday nights would be for no pay. She would have to volunteer. “No,” she replied, “I’m supposed to get my hourly pay.” When she was told this would not be happening—the board did not fund her position—then she said, “Oh. OK.” I offered her an hours pay. “But the program is an hour and a half.”

I’m sorry.

At what point did teachers decide this was really just a job, the students customers, and the value of teaching a paycheck?

Thirty years ago I knew I’d make a comfortable living as a teacher. I never aspired to be a principal. I went after my masters to become a better teacher. I write grants to make my classroom and school a better place. I even pick certain workshops to assist me in doing a better job. School starts in an hour. I’ll be here past four. I always am.

Somehow the passion of teaching has gone to the wayside.

This may be the biggest problem in teaching today—at least in the large urban inner city school system I work for.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Is there a connection between high schools and elementary schools? I just attended another one of those meetings where you wonder why you are there and even after it is over and you have found one or two things you can value, you still wonder why you were there. At this meeting, I learned there is really no connection between what I do and what goes on in 9th grade.

Do you remember POWER WRITING? That waste of time style of writing with transition words? The writing that was staged so every paragraph by every student was fairly the same?


To begin with, I ate three things last night. First, I had soup. Secondly, I ate some meat. Finally, I had ice cream.
To start, the soup was chicken noodle soup. First, it tasted good. Secondly, I used some more salt.
To continue, the meat was beef. My mother fried it on top of the stove. It was not tough. Furthermore, you could cut it with a fork. After that, it tasted good.
Finally, I had ice cream. It was vanilla. I like ice cream.
To conclude, I ate soup, meat and ice cream last night.

We were mandated to teach this style of writing just a year or two ago. How sad for our students. (How sad for us teachers who wanted to teach writing.) Now the powers that be have changed their minds. (Just once I’d love it if they would ask us teachers for our input before they waste everyone’s time. Do you know how difficult it is to stop a child from writing “to begin with” ad nauseam?) POWER WRITING is out. Writing with an authentic voice is in. (But wasn’t it always?)

So here’s what I learned at my meeting:

There is a great gulf between 8th grade and 9th. Writing skills is at the apex of the gulf. (Why should this surprise us? We’ve been teaching POWER WRITING and high schools want writing that makes sense.)

When you write, the thesis is important. (Duh.)

Analyze what you read. (Second duh.)

Think. (I love that one.)

Practice giving your students timed rough drafts. (OK, I haven’t really done too much with this one.)

Have the students write without using POWER WRITING transition words. High school English teachers have to reteach writing to almost every 9th grader they receive. (So I’m allowed to teach writing the way it should have always been taught. Yayyyyy!)

Middle school teachers are students oriented; high school teachers are academic oriented.

And that concludes the six hour long meeting for today—but breakfast and lunch were really grand.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


So it happens. You think of something aloud and it comes true. So far I have not had to send a single child out of the classroom until yesterday. Friday morning I wrote about how nice my class is and then I had to make a negative home visit. Monday morning I wrote about the bully from Friday and the bully acts up in class. So everything comes to pass.

We no longer have a special needs department for upper grade students. We have inclusion. (For those of you who do not know what this means, inclusion is when special need students are placed full time in regular education classrooms with some kind of support.) I wrote the Least Restricted Environment Grant for my school, so I feel I should be able to model an inclusive classroom. Some of the time it’s too hard.

I have been trying to teach my students to ignore negative behavior. Too often negative behavior is the only behavior that gets certain children’s attention. I remember a student from long ago who always got a dollar when he was bad. After awhile, no teacher wanted to call his mother for a conference. I asked him once, “If you get a dollar for being bad, don’t you think you’d get a much bigger award for being good?” He told me it didn’t matter. Being bad always worked. Why ruin a good thing. The postscript to that tale is he is in jail for life as is his sister and mother. What did he do? A few murders. The sister and mother? Just about everything else.

Anyway one of my students could not ignore the negative behavior and this set one of her classmates into a cursing fit. It wasn’t that the classmate wouldn’t stop. It appeared that he couldn’t stop. So I asked another student to get security and security came and took him out. (In the afternoon, the child was much better behaved, but that may be because we were dissecting sheep eyeballs.)

At lunch I went to check my mail and there was a kindergartner having a full weight temper tantrum—kicking and crying and waving his arms all over the place. The principal asked if I could calm him down, and I succeeded for over a half hour, but then he went back to wanting to have his own way which included running out of my classroom—yes, we were back in my room by this time—and causing all kinds of confusion. When his mother came to pick him up an hour later—after I recruited two adult volunteers to help me with him, the child’s older brother and one nurturing student—we escorted him downstairs to the office (and he was very reluctant—trying to run the other way, etc.) to where his mother waited, belt in hand, wanting to know where she could find the nearest bathroom with a door that locked.

So how did I end my day? I walked one of my students home—for good news. The man who answered the door was one of my former students. I told him how will his sister was doing in school and he broke into a smile as large as his face.

All in all not a bad end to a day.

Monday, October 16, 2006


One year I was the Resource Teacher, a cushiony job. I had extra breaks and sometimes I would be freed up to do other kinds of things. At 2:20 each day, while other teachers were getting their students prepared to go home, I had outside duty. Little me. I’m barely 5’8”, maybe an inch more. Many of my students are taller than me, stronger than me, bigger than me. Yet this outside duty was something I actually grew fond of doing.

That was a rough year for my school. No Child Left Behind had turned us into a receiving school and all of the sending schools sent us the worst children they had. There was almost a fight a day. I got so I could smell conflict before it even started. And that’s why I enjoyed it so much. I became THE MAN WHO BREAKS UP FIGHTS. (Even wrote a book about it. Hint. Hint. It’s in needs a publisher.) After awhile, the students would see me coming toward them and the fight would end. How easy was that?

So last Friday, on the way to my first home visit of one of my students (this after I wrote a blog on how I was no longer making home visits because my class was so together), I had to jump a chain link fence and stop seven or eight boys from kicking one boy when he was down. Just like old times.

Everyone ran when they saw me. It’s nice to have the touch. The downed boy got up and ran towards the school. I followed him with my eyes, saw him reach security—where he remained until the other boys dispersed—and then I went on my way.

The boy is a bully. Some time’s we as professionals don’t even know if he has the true concept of right and wrong. He had started a food fight in the lunchroom. He did get in trouble. Could it be he was blaming these boys for his mishap? Could it be he jumped on them as a group thinking his loud abrasive self would be intimidating enough?

I don’t know.

People tell me quite often the best cure for a bully is a quick and painful beating.

Was this what this was?

Monday morning. The student comes to my class at 10:40. A few of his attackers will be in the room too. I guess we’ll see what develops next.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Nicest Class

I usually have to go to a student’s home the first day or two of school. I’ll be honest: I try very hard to get to a student’s home the first few days to set the mood for the school year. Inevitable someone gets three checks and so off I go walking them home.

This definitely sets the tone.

As a rule kids don’t want you walking them home to meet their parent because they are in trouble. Especially not the first day of school. But it does make a very powerful statement. And it works very well, too.

Not this year. I’ve only been to two houses since school started—two in six weeks. (And they were students from another classroom.) This has to be a record for me. I’m going to begin going for good news starting Monday, but I may go tonight. Haven’t really decided yet.

My class and I had some fun with sheep eyeballs yesterday. We discussed the culture around them, how some people pickle them and eat them as snacks and some of the children decided they had pits in them—like olives (I made that suggestion myself)—so it was a bit hard for them to make the leap and see them as the lens of the eyeball.

A few of the girls were scared at first, but then they got into it. (And I have to be truthful again—I had a lot of fun with their fears. Changing the configuration of the classroom, sitting next to them, etc., etc., etc.)

Our mold experiment is going very well, but our protist culture froze in the last few days. It’s close to 32 outside and the school’s boiler has not kicked in yet. (I had to allow the children to wear their coats inside and I’m wearing mine as I write this.) We’ll be looking for life forms in the soil specimen next week.

I’m putting out my dissection specimens today. A whole table dedicated to the materials we will be studying. I have brains and hearts and even half of a goat’s head.

This is how I always thought school should be—all of us engaged in learning, me not having to discipline so much, and everyday leaving the school knowing I have benefited from being there.


Thursday, October 12, 2006


The other day a man with a gun climbed over the small fence surrounding my school and walked over to the window of one of the primary classrooms. He knocked on the windows of the first classroom, but the teacher was only annoyed. Her shades were down and she could not see who was there.

The second classroom does not have a full supply of shades. In fact, just recently the Board of Education fixed a window smashed by a large rock. This same window was broken another time by a bullet. No shades on three large windows and the man with the gun used his gun to knock on the windows of that classroom. He could see everything. He could see everyone.

The teacher was reading a story to her class on the story carpet. Her back was to the gunman. He knocked on the window again. The teacher ignored the interruption.

“Excuse me,” one of the children raised her hand. “There’s a man at our window with a gun.”

The teacher looked at her.

“I swear it,” she said.

The teacher believed her. All of the children immediately flattened themselves against the carpet. The teacher turned. The man smiled at her, showed the gun and knocked it against the window. The teacher screamed, ran to the door, her students behind her. Together, with help from the administration who was notified by the scream, all of the children were safely evacuated from the room.

Did the teacher have time to press the security button? I don’t think so. Could she have handled it better? Probably. Calm and composed is how we are supposed to act. But what if you have never seen a gun close up? What if you have never seen what a gun can do? What if you believe you are safe in your classroom and you are keeping your students safe?

The police were called, but by the time they arrived, he was long gone.

Once in my life I crossed a large field to get to a classroom. Near the front door a security guard tackled me. I didn’t understand what was wrong. She pointed to a window and said, “Sniper. He’s been shooting at you.”

So that was what was making the mosquito noise. But how could he have missed so many times? I don’t know. Bullets had whizzed directly next to my ear and I swatted at them with my hand thinking they were just a bunch of irritating flying insects.

If I had known he was shooting at me would I have acted differently? Of course I would have.

Many years ago when I first began teaching I taught in a school with numerous false fire alarms. After awhile, I just thought of them as an opportunity for a dose of fresh air. But one time there was smoke. Was I calm and composed? Of course not. I rushed my class outside as if all of our lives depended on my quick speed.

On the other hand, I lost a tooth breaking up a gang fight and one of the gang bangers had a gun. I made a decision then without making a decision. I let one of my teeth go protecting a student. The fist that hit me hurt, to be sure, but the gun vanished into folds of clothing and even though the gang bangers got away, and I lost a tooth, no one died that afternoon.

Friday, October 06, 2006


OK. So I tried to get my two children into Niles North High School. I tried. I really did. And just like that old trusty train that we all read about when we were young—guess what?—I finally succeeded.

First I asked about getting into the Chicago Public School High School, Hirsh. One phone call. Bring in their transcripts, proof you live in our area and we’ll start them up right away.

Niles North in Skokie District 219? That was an entirely different animal.

Bring in original birth certificates, the lease to prove you are renting here, their transcripts and we’ll sit down and talk.


We’re here from 7:00 to 3:30.

(I like to get to work around seven and I’m never out of here before 3:30.)

I made an appointment to see them at seven. By 7:45 AM, I was finished. The application must have been at least ten pages.

So where’s your wife? How do we know you did not kidnap your children?

Call 911, I said. Then I explained that she would be arriving in a few days. (She had some last minute stuff to do in Jefferson City, Missouri.)

It didn’t matter.

No, they answered. Bring us an original copy of your marriage license. State law.

It took me a few days to get everything together. I faxed the marriage license. They told me everything was OK. Now we just have to do the home visit. They will bring you a packet to bring with you when you register your children.

He came the next night—over a week after we started the process. Asked to see me and the two kids. The apartment is fairly empty because we haven’t really begun to move things in, but it’s comfortable.

Do you need to take a tour? I asked.

Nope. Just have to see that you live here. Have to meet the two students.

No packet. Didn’t tell me I needed to bring one.

He dropped that off the next day.

And then: no physical within the last six months. That’s a problem. Get that and we’ll make an appointment.

Thank God for a friendly doctor. They saw them on Tuesday and they entered high school on Wednesday. Will not quite that easy. First I had to play telephone tag. Then I had to fill out more stuff. Then I had to meet with the registrar. then I---

Almost three weeks after we started the entire process—and two Jewish holidays later.

Now let’s talk about fees.

I thought public schools were free.

The combined bill for my two children is over a thousand dollars.

This is getting to be interesting.