A Fair Contract

We loathe tests because we understand that testing isn’t good for kids. The state tests are unfair. They’re culturally and socially biased. They don’t measure what children know or what they are capable of knowing and doing. They don’t allow us to teach what we want, what we know the kids need to learn to be worth something in life. We know it is criminally insane to replace the study of literature, ideas and reasoning with the bubbling of sheets to be filled with answers to insignificant questions. The way teachers are evaluated is as ludicrous as the tests we are asked to administer. But we persist. We teach. Some of us bend and twist and crouch and hide to give the kids what our conscience tells us is our job to teach, dodging bullets, like we are the enemy of the state, when we are, in fact, its saviors.

There are tests that matter to teachers. There is a depth of knowledge that guides us, even though it isn’t quantifiable because it is immeasurable. Every day, we evaluate our own effectiveness, holding ourselves to higher standards than any rubric could, even if it had twenty-two assessment components.

Hopefully, this administration is better equipped with knowledge about the teaching profession to actually let us teach. But maybe it’s too late to hope for a change when the nation as a whole is herding teachers and students in the direction of quantifiable results in knowledge acquisition and the business of learning. We worked years under a mayoral dictatorship that left us voiceless, and often without hope. Now we’re being offered a contract many of us dislike. We will probably end up collectively ratifying it because although imperfect, it is far better than the nothing we had before de Blasio and Fariña’s proposal.

Should we settle for the first offer? Aren’t we worth more? Isn’t this a decent enough administration to eventually give us what we deserve? Should we stand our ground? Or should we be grateful for what they are giving us and accept it humbly because we know that no money in the world can ever compensate us for the work we do anyway? (Yes, even though we do only work one hundred seventy days out of the year.)

We don’t mind answering questions. After all, we get paid, in part, for doing just this. So, it’s okay to ask us what we could possibly manage to do with all that time off to earn a full-time salary. Go ahead: Ask. But only if you have time to hear the answer. Only if you can answer this: How long should a resume be? How long would it get if we bulleted everything we do and don’t get to do because we are teachers?

➢ Student engagement.
➢ Differentiation.
➢ Special needs.
➢ Learning differences.
➢ English as a second language.
➢ Assessments—diagnostic, interim, formative, summative, informal, required for acceptance or graduation.
➢ Entry points.
➢ Interrupted formal education.
➢ Low to no native language literacy.
➢ Dual language.
➢ Immersion.
➢ Push-in.
➢ Pull out.
➢ Integrated co-teaching.
➢ Self-contained classrooms.
➢ Language through content.
➢ Understanding by design.
➢ Reading strategies.
➢ Writing tools.
➢ Common Core.
➢ Regents.
➢ Lesson plans.
➢ Rubrics.
➢ Grading that never ever ends.
➢ Seating charts.
➢ Back-up plans.
➢ Mediation.
➢ Conflict resolution.
➢ Evidence-based claims.
➢ Counterarguments.
➢ Seminar discussions.
➢ Data.
➢ Debates.
➢ Community service projects.
➢ Clubs.
➢ Test prep.
➢ Do Nows.
➢ Exit Slips.
➢ Attendance.
➢ Bathroom passes. (Or not.)
➢ Field trips.
➢ Permission slips.
➢ Snacks.
➢ Birthday celebrations.
➢ No lunch.
➢ No prep.
➢ No time to pee for hours on end.
➢ No such thing as a weekend.
➢ Early morning and afterschool tutoring.
➢ Interventions.
➢ Restorative justice.
➢ Circles.
Advisories.
➢ Recommendation letters.
➢ Personal statements.
➢ Job search assistance.
➢ FAFSA.
➢ College applications.
➢ Socio-emotional supports.
➢ Gangs.
➢ Foster homes.
➢ Rape.
➢ Incest.
➢ Shelters.
➢ Fear of deportation.
➢ Depth of knowledge.
➢ Danielson.
➢ Bloom.
➢ Observations—formal, informal, scheduled, unannounced.
➢ IAs.
➢ DYOs.
➢ SBOs.
DBQs.
➢ Quality reviews.
➢ Phone logs.
➢ Grade books.
➢ Progress reports.
➢ Superintendent visits.
➢ Staff meetings.
➢ Professional development.
➢ Parent teacher conferences.
➢ Student surveys.
➢ Fire drills.
➢ Lockdowns, soft and hard.
➢ Referrals.
➢ Ladders of consequences.
➢ Chancellor’s regulations.
➢ UFT contract.
➢ Discretion.
➢ Confidentiality.
➢ Patience.
➢ Positivity.
➢ Ingenuity.
➢ Endless faith in every child.
➢ Faith in the self in the face of everything and everyone that makes you question yourself every day.
➢ The night spent in the psych ward with a student whom I had found cutting herself with tacks and paper clips on the staircase, and whose mother said nothing when her daughter finally mustered the courage to tell her that the reason she hurts herself is because her uncle had raped her. All those years. All those times he had visited and had too much to drink to drive home.
➢ Holding a student’s hand, my other hand cupping the tiny fist of her four-pound baby inside the incubator in which he fought to stay alive. He was born three months before due time to a teenage mother disowned by her family and her people. She had not been able to carry her baby to term because she had chosen to stay in school, and a kid had accidentally tripped her in the hallway during a hectic recess. I wasn’t there when the baby died. But I was there when she laid her child to rest and looked for a roof over her head once the hospital stopped being their home.
➢ The hours in a funeral home in the Bronx, comforting students who will never understand how their friend died from a simple cold in what would have been a malpractice scandal had he been a child of a different couple in another part of town. But his parents were undocumented, so all they could do was weep, and all we could do was collect money, bring food they couldn’t eat, and remind them how kind and funny their boy had been. The principal didn’t go to the funeral. He sent no wishes. He didn’t even sign the card. I’ll never understand, even if I know his reasons, petty as they were.
➢ I spent two years working for a man who, among many things, didn’t know how to read or write well in any language, didn’t know the difference in meaning between cities and countries, and called all black students African Americans, even though ours was a school for recently arrived immigrants, some of whom were from West Africa and the Caribbean. The man offered that I do a presentation on Muslim culture, when I complained about having eaten too much on Easter Sunday. He wrote a letter to the Superintendent, claiming that I had told him that a tumor I once had in my brain had traveled down to my ovaries. The letter was asking that I be evaluated for mental fitness. The Superintendent ordered that I be evaluated as per my principal’s wishes. The latter threatened us openly, and repeatedly got away with inhumane and illegal treatment of teachers. But he never suffered consequences and dodged formal quality reviews of the school because this was a scandalous case of nepotism that had found a spotlight for a mere few minutes in a local newspaper, then gone away without any regard for whether justice had been served. Mayor Bloomberg honored this man with an award for something having to do with administrative excellence.
➢ Waited for four hours to see a student on Rikers Island on a Saturday I had promised to spend with my own children. But I had made the promise before the third dream of the student’s mother had driven me to a detention center where my student was locked for charges that had nothing to do with who he was or what he had done and everything to do with the color of his skin and the position of his family. As I struggled to memorize the phone numbers of his family and girlfriend and lawyer because I had nothing to write on, he interrupted my chants of number combinations and panicked sketches of what we could do, what we would do to get him out. He kept smiling and saying, “Wow, miss, I can’t believe you came to see me. I’m so sorry you have to see me here. Don’t worry, miss. I’ll be okay.” Six and a half feet tall and with a scruffy jail beard on his suddenly thin face, he said, several times, “Can I just get another hug?”
➢ Wondering at least once a day what I can do better, how I can serve them better. Asking myself whether I am hearing them when they tell me what they want to learn, how they learn best. Sometimes, feeling like I am good at teaching. It makes me happy to have these moments, since they are rarely ever days, or even hours. But even on these days, I wonder how it is that being a good teacher is of absolutely no help when it comes to teaching my own child. With him, I do not rank as an effective teacher on any rubric. Always confused by the fact that there seems to be no correlation between professional development and success on the home educational front. Always finding myself back at the question of how what I am learning in life—as a mother, a wife, a friend, a citizen of the globe and of the Universe—might enrich my teaching and hone my craft. How the latter might help me mother better.
➢ A foster mother accused me—in front of the student, our principal and the case worker—of caring too much, calling too many times to ask why the student’s attendance had gone from perfect to abysmal. A couple of weeks before, she had told me it ain’t none of my goddamn business why the girl wasn’t in school and later left a message saying I needed to slow my roll. She filed a complaint against me with the school and the social work agency. When my principal asked me to cease all contact with the family, the student disappeared altogether. You can’t save the ocean, Maryam, he said, the most you can do is take out a couple of shards. I knew he was right that for the student’s safety, as much as for my own sanity, it was time to let go. I wonder all the time whether she is on a bench in the park with her father, at home with her mother and another one of the men who should be father figures, but treat her like their lover instead, or worse still, with the woman who had her stay home from school to care for her many foster siblings.
➢ There was the day at the mosque for the funeral of a student’s four-year-old brother. The child had accidentally hung himself when his hood had been caught on the shelf he had been trying to reach to turn on the television. My student was on the computer in his room; his sisters doing homework in theirs, the mother making dinner in the kitchen—each assuming someone was taking care of the youngest. By the time they went to the bedroom to let him know it was time for dinner, he had taken his last breath, probably wishing he could have screamed for help. After the service, as my students and I huddled outside the mosque among strangers in mourning waiting to see off the hearse, my student wept from behind the tinted windows, “Miss Maryam, please come here. I want you to see him.” He begged the imam to lift the lid off the coffin and unwrap his baby brother’s face, so I could see him for the first and last time. I tried to say there was no need, but found myself in the back of the hearse, holding my student’s shaking body in my arms, and looking at the face of a little boy who had died in a way that brought to question everything I hold to be true and good about the universe. I waited until the hearse turned the corner, walked my students back to school as if there was anything left to learn, went into the bathroom, and wept for all the mothers in the world who have laid their children to rest. Years later, I still pray for this mother’s peace.

Our day begins long before we greet our students in the morning and ends long after the door closes behind the last kid, the one who prefers our classroom to the shelter or the place he’s supposed to call home. It’s not about how few or how many days a year we work, how short or long our days are, and what the numbers say we do or don’t give to our students. It’s about our presence of mind and our presence in spirit for every child who looks to us in ways she doesn’t even realize. It’s about teaching what matters and in whatever way it makes sense. It’s about the strength and humility it takes to give as much as we get, to be as kind as we are firm, and to accept that, at the end of the day, we are only as good as the lessons and memories our students will carry out of our classrooms and into their lives.

All this to ask: What is a fair contract for a teacher?

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