First Person

Fear And Self-Loathing In The Classroom

Earlier this month, my ninth-graders read the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Whenever I teach Shakespeare, I like to have my students do some acting. When I teach the balcony scene, I push the students to take this process very seriously. I look for enthusiastic volunteers who can read the lines with aplomb. This is, after all, one of the great scenes in world literature.

In case you’ve forgotten, teenagers are extraordinarily self-conscious. A few of them put their hands up right away, ready to stroll up to the front of the room and try on some Elizabethan English, but they’re a small minority. When I ask for readers, most students aren’t even thinking about Shakespeare’s language; they’re worrying about the pimple on their nose or their changing voice. So when I ask for volunteers, it’s never surprising that many students simply slump down in their chairs and try to hide.

I teach in Brooklyn now, but my hunch is that this response, this hiding, is universal. Some years ago, I taught at a private school in Ann Arbor, Mich.; my students there used to hide too. What are these kids hiding from? What are they so afraid of?

It’s clear to me that they are afraid of failure. In many cases, they’re absolutely convinced that they will fail. Day after day, dejected students tell me that they can’t do things. They can’t write a paragraph; they can’t draw a tree; they can’t multiply fractions. Very often, our job as teachers is simply to push students to engage in tasks that they already know how to complete. It might not sound like hard work, but many of our students are so demoralized, it’s a wonder they even get out of bed in the morning.

Here’s the thing: They’re not just being moody teenagers. These students are expressing a hopelessness that’s been drilled into them for years. Day after day, year after year: our students hear the same message: that they are failures.

The 2010 film “Waiting for Superman,” which played like an informercial for charter schools, exemplified this message. It’s subtitle was “How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools,” and a widely aired preview made a point of telling the audience that American students lag far behind their international counterparts in every significant area but one — confidence. In other words, not only are our students failing, but they’re too dumb to realize it.

Granted, this little dig said more about the filmmaker’s attitudes than any educational reality, but these attitudes have been embraced and repeated for years. President Obama has said our students are failing; President Bush said they were failing. How many times do our students have to hear they’re no good before they start believing it? (Both presidents and pretty much every other prominent education reformer ignore the fact that when you control for poverty, our students are keeping pace with their international counterparts.)

Despite assertions to the contrary, academic overconfidence is not a big problem, at least not in the four schools I’ve worked in over the past 13 years. Fear and self-loathing most certainly are. I’ve counseled a weeping ninth-grader who couldn’t bear to be in the classroom because she felt like she wasn’t smart enough for high school. I’ve watched a student shake so violently that she could not complete the recitation of a 14-line poem. I’ve proctored a high-stakes trigonometry test where a student became physically ill because she was so terrified of failure. (She had to be excused which meant that she failed the exam.)

Which brings me to my next point: On top of all the nasty rhetoric about our students, our educational leadership has actually created a system designed to make our students fearful. I’m writing, specifically, about the fear induced by years of repetitive, stressful, high-stakes testing. In a system designed almost entirely around these tests, how could all but the few who excel on these tests feel good about themselves? The fearfulness we teachers encounter on a daily basis is a predictable consequence of this system, not some surprising side effect.

And this brings me to my final point: The fear is not only predictable, but is in fact desirable for a small number of people. Specifically, fear is very useful for the people who will employ our students, if those students are lucky enough to make it through high school. A frightened, malleable workforce, desperate for approval, is far more agreeable to some of these employers than a confident workforce that demands its worth be recognized.

Sound too conspiratorial? It’s exactly how our schools treat their workers. From allowing unreliable Teacher Data Reports to be published to leveling vicious anti-teacher rhetoric, the city and state have worked hard to create a climate of fear.

Earlier this month, the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher was published, and its findings suggested that fear is the dominant trend in American schools today. According to the survey, fear of all kinds — from teacher fears about job security to student fears about family finances — pervade American schools. In an excellent analysis of the survey, teacher Dan Brown writes, “Pessimism and worry are pervasive in American schools. Contending with elimination of services, suffocating poverty, more layoffs, larger classes, and an accountability regime at odds with genuine teaching and learning, America’s teachers are freaked out.”

This type of fear has no benefit for our students; it certainly has no benefit for our teachers. As long as a submissive workforce is a priority, we’ll all keep suffering in the classroom — and our Shakespeare performances will suffer too.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.