Stuck in rush-hour traffic on a Friday afternoon, a fellow teacher and I vented through a laundry list of frustrations that had accumulated over the course of a school week. When you work in a tough school system, such airing of grievances will resurface every so often, albeit with minor details altered and cast of characters changed. Usually, such exhaustive complaining is unproductive and outright annoying for unaffiliated listeners. But on this particularly despairing day, a spectacular idea emerged from our gripes. What if, one of us jested, Cathie Black had to be a substitute teacher for a day?
While our conversation eventually shifted to matter more appropriate for the weekend -- holiday parties, college sports -- I continued to muse on idea of NYC's new Chancellor working as a sub. As the cogs in my head churned, I dreamed up a fantastical narrative about how her experience might just play out. It looks something like this:
At 7:55, Black arrives at the school. She'd planned on arriving closer to 7:15, but had been unprepared for the irregularity of train service in the more remote outpost of New York City. In and of itself, the train ride was miserable. While she'd intended to scrub up on the Financial Times, an exuberant patron of the MTA had been miraculously moved to sing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" upwards of 12 stops, only pausing for the occasional instrumental interlude performed on the kazoo.
Standing before the school, Black is unsure of what entrance to take. There are about 75 kids in a line to get through two metal-detectors. She wonders, "Do teachers go through metal detectors? At least school budgets don't allow for advanced imaging technology." Every few minutes, the line is stalled by a vehement argument between security and a student over a cell phone. Security invariably wins and the suddenly enraged student then sulks across the street to the bodega, pays the clerk a dollar to hold the phone for the day, and jumps into the back of the line. Checking her watch, Black queries, "How will these children making it to first period on time?"
There are four high schools in this building and Black's assignment is on the third floor. After climbing over a pool of children playing guitar at the mouth of the elevator, she finds herself at the shockingly inconspicuous main office. Sporting an off the rack costume of khaki Gap slacks and half-priced J. Crew sweater, Black easily looks the part of layman. Sans the power-suit and pricy ear-studs, her coif screams Midwest mom more than no-nonsense business tycoon. Still, the office secretary gives her a curious look before handing her a schedule and classroom key, and saying, with faltering convection, that she is looking for the sub plans.
First and second would be the easiest of the day. The kids trickle in slowly, sleep still present in the corner of their eyes. They've yet to conjure up the gusto to challenge her request and besides, are far more interested in consuming their breakfast sandwiches. The sub plans, as it turns out, were sitting on the desk. Black glances at the agenda. It reads: Test Prep; Reform Movements. Below sits an extensive list of multiple choice exercises and essay practice.
"Well," Black says to herself, "This doesn't look like fun. Reform movements? I can make this exciting!"
Calling upon her innovative spirit, Black decides to bring history to life with the power of spoken word (commonly known as lecture). Unfortunately her insightful monologue on the muckrakers is continually interrupted by a persistent child demanding to see the nurse for an eye twitch. Suspecting the blink to be voluntary, Black declines the request, only to be further pestered by two students arguing over a bathroom pass. In all her years of managerial dominance, never has her power transcended determination over the right to visit the loo. After a moment of indecision, she picks the girl threatening to use a McDonald's cup. Needless to say, the lecture and subsequent writing activity did not go as she'd intended.
Minus the batch of pseudo-flatulence noises emanating from the back corner, third period goes without a hitch. Black is starting to feel good about herself as a teacher.
Fourth period, she is awarded a prep and decides to glance over papers. Few students actually completed the essay she'd assigned in full. While most wrote one of two phrases copied from their notes, one student, wrote a verbose and shockingly inaccurate near dissertation, in which they proclaimed that the Meat Inspection Act did, in fact, give women the right to vote in 1920. Scratching her head, Black could have sworn she taught that better in her 40 minute lecture. Or did that child have the review book with bubble-gum sticking the pages together?
Shattering any newfound confidence, fifth period resembles a scene from Dante's Inferno. Hunger pangs, now appearing in the children's abdomens, serve as a catalyst for anarchy. Black's lecture, which had initially had the same impact as Ambien, now affects the children like to a 32 oz. Mt. Dew. A particularly excitable child who goes by "Big Mac" has engaged in a process of periodic seat changing. Every table he visits either erupts with laughter or an expletive-laced shouting match. Relieved to have a sub, two girls pull out nail polish and promptly begin a process of self grooming. Black would have said something, but she felt the pencil tossing war in the back corner deserved more immediate attention. Before she can reach the students, a copy of Crime and Punishment ironically whizzes past her left ear.
"ALLLLRIGGGHT!" Black shouts, silently lamenting the idea of Dostoevsky turning in his grave.
The children are suddenly quiet. She pauses. Next move, introduce the Progressive Era. But just as the word "Progressive" forms on her lips, every student in the class simultaneously drops their pencil and erupt into uncontrollable laughter.
Sensing her panic, a sweet, quiet girl looks at Black and says. "You should call the Dean."
"How?" Black asks.
"The phone." She replies, pointing to a box on the wall. Black opens the box, there is no phone inside.
The same girl shrugs her shoulders. "Yell into the hallway,"
Letting out a deep breath, and a significant amount of confidence, Black opens the heavy door and shouts the words every teacher dreads. "I need a dean!!!!!"
A spunky young teacher is the only person to be found in the hall. She approaches the door. "Oh, I'm sorry Ms. Black, there aren't any deans on this hall. We lost a bunch of them with the budget cuts. But good luck!"
Caving, Black passes out the boring multiple choice activity. In a reaction only Pavlov could have imagined, the children, clearly programmed for robotic test prep, begin bubbling in answers. Amid the quiet moment, Black scribbles in her notebook "revise budget priorities."
I'll cut the narrative here -- though I was tempted to include an afternoon episode marked by gross hyperactivity, bedbug sightings, and woes associated with textbook shortages. My point: teaching is hard job. And, as present in the rhetoric surrounding education policy, it is easy (and common) for outsiders to make judgments and even decisions about the work teachers do. To really understand this profession, you have to experience it in the day-to-day. When superintendents and school board personnel enter a school, a large production ensues. They are invited into the very best classes with the highest performing children. Unfortunately, such controlled visits do not give a full picture of what is going on in a school and its classrooms.
So, why doesn't Cathie Black perform a little covert operation and spend a day as a substitute teacher. At the very least she'd get a real idea of what the schools in this system need.