Journalists are not allowed in. Teachers risk punishment if they speak out. School administrators will only share the good stuff. Most lawmakers? Clueless. So what’s really going on in our public school classrooms? Good question.
Elizabeth Rose recently wrote, Yo Miz!: 1 teacher + 25 schools = 1 wacky year. The book follows Elizabeth as she is assigned to teach at 25 Manhattan public high schools over the course of one crazy year. It's funny and doesn't hold anything back, giving a great look at the different types of issues facing teachers today.
“I vowed I would never follow the advice of my parents, both teachers, and become a teacher too,” says Elizabeth. “But in between creating music and comedy for stage, film and TV, I took a gig teaching songwriting in a NYC public high school. After raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in tech grants enabling the kids I taught to create DVD yearbooks and record original songs, my job was cut, and I was given the choice of substituting in a different school each week or resigning. I almost resigned. Then I realized that this assignment would give me access to a unique story, never before told.”
Ultimately, Yo Miz! is about the kids. From El Barrio to Wall Street, Elizabeth’s portraits of the students she meets are filled with empathy, humor and an incredible ear for dialogue. She hands them the microphone, turns up the volume and genuinely listens. Hip-hop classroom banter and haughty principals are juxtaposed with the challenge and honor of helping our most vulnerable students succeed.
Yo Miz! boils down to the following ideas:
- All students are naturally creative and should be given the opportunities during their education to explore their creativity
- All our children deserve a rich, rounded arts education
- There are tremendous inequities in resources between public high schools, not only in Manhattan, but throughout the U.S.
voices—and student voices too—need to be a big part of making
educational policy. Most lawmakers are clueless about how this
“education” thing works
I had a chance to interview the author to learn more:
1. How prevalent are stories like yours and other ATRs?
In September 2011, when I was sent out on this week-to-week rotation, I was only one of an estimated 2500 other NYC public school teachers who were assigned to rotate as ATRs. We were elementary, middle and high school teachers of all subjects. We were school guidance counselors, school social workers and some administrators. We were assigned to rotate in our own districts. I was in Manhattan. Others were in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. I can only imagine the number of stories that came out of this rotating group which had to change schools every week for one solid school years. I imagine, there were many similarities to my stories but, as far as I know, "Yo Miz!" is the only book published about this wacky experience.
Incidentally, the stories continue. This ATR rotation continues and I've heard estimates that there are over a thousand teachers still doing it. I am not sure what the precise numbers are. Just think about all of these stories.
2. As a former substitute myself, I actually see a certain appeal in that type of job. What are the benefits to schools?
In terms of ATRs, one of the primary benefits to the schools of our ATR rotation is that ATR's are "free" to the school. They are paid from the central NYC Dept. of Education fund so principals do not have to use their own budgets to pay for them. (That's also the main reason the NYC DOE created this rotation: they hoped we would get so miserable subbing that we would quit or retire, thus restoring their budget.)
In general, outside this ATR experience, a strong substitute, one who is reliable, professional, diligent and flexible, would be invaluable to a principal. Absences, school trips, special events "happen," sometimes unexpectedly. My former principal used to tell me that he dreaded 6am to 7am, when he would receive phone calls from teachers who were calling in sick. That was his biggest challenge: to get those classes covered. A decent sub was invaluable to him. Aside from coverage, a good substitute teacher can tutor students, teach interesting lessons, help with sports, arts, science projects and test prep.
3. What do you think parents would be most surprised about if they had the chance to rotate around their home districts?
I can only speak for my experience in Manhattan. I think that parents, if they had the chance to rotate around the Manhattan districts I subbed in, would be amazed at the diversity of the schools: their culture, administration, teachers, students and the almost incredible inequities in resources. I subbed in two schools, one block away from each other in the Wall Street area. One, Millennium High School, was a top public school that screened its applicants, accepting only the top students. The other, Richard R. Green High School, served students who came from the projects. They were vastly different in academic strength, student discipline and mission.
4. How can parents know that decision-makers for school funding and rules really have all the information they need to benefit students?
My feeling is that parents must be pro active, organized and willing to research these tough questions. One example: In New York State, many parents have rallied to opt out of the heavy dose of hyper testing that was initiated a couple of years ago. This year it is estimated that about 175,000 parents have opted their children out of the standardized tests.
Again, parents need to be organized, in contact with their elected officials, get copies of budgets for school funding, invite their representatives to speak to them. Parents should also be involved with their children's schools, volunteering and leading activities and keeping a conversation going with the school's administrators. Before I was a teacher, I was a coordinator for a college prep program in a Queens, NYC high school. On the principal's advice, I called every single parent. As a result, we had 70% parental involvement, invited families for dinner programs and informational sessions. It was great. Parental involvement is essential and, I believe, makes a significant difference in their children's academic success.
Many of the schools I subbed in during my wacky year that "Yo Miz!" covers were filled with students from the projects of upper Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Many of these children came from single-parent homes, usually a mother who was already working two to three jobs to get by. As teachers, we couldn't rely on parental participation. These kids have an uphill battle because they don't get good role models at home for why school is important.
The happiest, most productive kids seem to be those with parents who come home early enough to have dinner together, listen to their kids, are active in their child's education and, oh yeah...don't forget that bedtime reading!