The OG Manhattanites


“General view, looking southwest to Manhattan from Manhattan Bridge, Manhattan” by Abbott, Berenice (1898-1991) is licensed under CC0 1.0

“As he stood on the waterfront on May 11, 1647, watching a skiff approach from four newly arrived ships at anchor the strain and darkness had to show in his eyes and face his breath must have fairly stunk with it. It was a cerulean spring day, and, like characters at the end of an act of a play, all the residents of the community were gathered alongside him, headliners and minor players alike: Joris Rapalje and Catalina Trico, along with their children and grandchildren: Anthony “The Turk” van Salee and his wife Griet Reyniers-both respectable now, but still cantankerous-and their four daughters: Anna van Angola, a widowed African woman who had just received a patent for a farm on Manhattan, as well as Antony Congo, Jan Negro, and other black residents, slaves and free assorted Danes, Bavarians, and Italians, and a handful of area Indians: Cornelis Swits, son of the murdered Claes Swits; the English refugee leaders Lady Deborah Moody and the Rev. Francis Doughty: Everardus Bogardus, the beer-swilling minister who had assisted the colonists’ effort against Kieft by excoriating him from the pulpit: the activists Kuyter and Melyn: the company henchman, Cornelis van Tienhoven, who had slaughtered and tortured Indians while in Kieft’s service and was hoping to be kept on in the new administration. And there, too, on the cobbled quayside stood Adriaen van der Donck and his English wife Mary-it is from Van der Donck that we have one of the extant descriptions of this scene. The mood was festive. Shouts went up: celebratory cannon blasts were fired. The day of deliverance had come.

Then, slowly, like gray rain, the silence fell upon them. From a distance they would have seen first the hardness and smallness of the eyes, like sharp pebbles set in the broad plate of the face. Then the flash of the sun on his breastplate must have caught their attention, and the sword at his waist: the efficient, meticulous, militaristic parcel of him. Finally they would have watched him unpacking himself from the boat, and noted at once, as people do such irregularities, that curious movement of his, an unnatural stiffness, and no accompanying grimace or flinch, as if in defiance of pain itself. And all eyes then naturally moving down, and seeing it, the leg that wasn’t there.”

Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World



It was a Saturday afternoon, 3:30. I was returning from a long overdue run, a habit I have difficulty maintaining in winter. I could tell something was going on in the courtyard in front of my apartment building, because people were ambling over to it, as people are wont to do when drama is occuring in public spaces. I circled around them and approached around the side. Some guy in a baseball cap was screaming at a girl.

My mistake was in not taking the situation seriously enough. It was my building, after all, on a Saturday afternoon. This guy and his problems were in my way.

These are mere excuses.

Think of how I must have looked to him. A white boy, wearing strange running clothes, my old lightweight jacket much too small. Vibram FiveFingers on my feet. In the midst of the gathering handful of Dominican men, I was the one who stood out. I’ve learned, since moving to NYC, that I am much smaller than the average city male. I was a perfect target in that moment.

In that moment, as men gathered to watch him in his turmoil, his eyes locked on mine. His face was bloodied. He had been in an altercation. He was charged with anger and shame. He was taller and heavier than I.

“What the fuck are you looking at, white boy?”

He charged. I backed up, not quite believing that anyone would just begin assaulting a stranger without any reason. He did.

I ducked and backed up and ran a little bit. Apparently, this was an invitation to him for full on onslaught. On hindsight, the smart thing would have been to run completely. I would have easily outpaced him. But part of me was outraged. This was my building! So I stopped and faced him, as he commenced swinging. He missed most of his punches, but grabbed my jacket and threw me down on the sidewalk and dragged me down to the corner of the street.

I managed to mostly maintain my balance and get back to my feet after landing on my knees, but he was on me, kicking and punching. I was able to avoid any serious blows, but I could sense in that moment that I was utterly overpowered. I was a victim.

“Fuck you, cracker! Fuck you, cracker!” he shouted with every attempted blow. I was the representation for him of everything that had gone wrong in his life. The vessel for his release of anger, shame, and fear.

Before he could cause any serious damage, a couple of the bigger bystanders chased him away.

“Never come back here again!” two of them shouted, as the guy backed away down the street cussing them out.

One of them made sure I was OK, and continually assured me that this sort of thing doesn’t happen around here (unfortunately, not entirely true. My neighborhood isn’t exactly the pinnacle of peace. My wife witnessed a man stabbed in broad daylight last year). I nodded and shook his hand. I wasn’t all that shaken up, all things considered. In my last 2 years in the classroom, aggression and violence were unfortunately somewhat common, so perhaps I wasn’t as prone to getting emotionally aggravated (at least, not immediately). I was bleeding in places, but otherwise intact. He seemed to have landed a kick or punch to the back of my head, and a few on my body, but nothing on my face.

It turns out that he had been in some kind of fight with his “friends” who lived in my building, and had been beaten up with a glass bottle (hence the bleeding face).

Later that night, as I lay in bed, I kept reliving those moments in my mind. “Your heart is racing,” my wife told me.

This was the worst aftereffect of senseless violence, the replaying, over and over. Asking myself why I didn’t immediately attack. Angry at myself for letting myself get into the space of a person who was obviously in a heightened state of aggression. I recognized that if this hadn’t happened in the middle of the day, I knew that I would have been seriously hurt.

I could tell myself that I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the fact is, I let my guard down and I walked into a situation without better assessing the danger. This could have been avoided.

Lesson learned.

Growing Awareness of History

Public school door knob

I recently did a research writing unit with my students, in which they explored the history of their school building and neighborhood through an interview with our school janitor, on-line web searching, and a trip to the public library across the street. Our janitor, who has been in the building for over 20 years, told us that our school was 126 years old (I don’t know how accurate that figure is, but I have no reason to doubt him). We learned that our building used to be connected with the firehouse next door. The firehouse part of the building was a church, while the school part used to be a psychiatric hospital for children. Also, we learned that our cafeteria used to house a pool!

We weren’t able to find much on-line. I hadn’t realized how complex and difficult finding out the history of any given building in NYC was. So I then expanded the scope of our research to our neighborhood.

The library across the street has also been around for a hundred years, one of the original Carnegie libraries. The librarian showed us historical pictures of East Tremont, and we discussed pictures of the old police precinct headquarters, which looked like a mansion, and pictures of Italian immigrants dressed in hats and formal attire, all lined up to get into the library. Pictures of farmland and fences. A Texaco gas station with gas for 11 cents a gallon. At first, the students said they didn’t see much of anything in the pictures. Then as we began discussing it, the history opened up before them in all of the little details, the old cars along the side of the road, the cobblestones in the streets, the pigtails the girls wore, the way their dresses were cut.

Richman (Echo) Park

It opened up history for me as well.

I’ve begun paying more attention to the sights around me as I walk from the subway station at Grand Concourse down the hill. The glaciated rocks at Richman Park. The Tremont Baptist Church perched on the winding hill above the chaotic traffic circle of Webster Ave and East Tremont. The stone masonry at the base of some buildings that seems to denote historical longevity. It has made me begin to appreciate the Bronx in a new context. I don’t just see urban decay anymore (though my growing awareness of the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway has set a context for that as well). I see a community of newer immigrants, striving to make their way, just as generations of immigrants before them have done. I’ve begun to become aware of a rich, underlying framework of history all around me, requiring only attention to become aware of. This growing awareness of the cultural beauty of this community somewhat assuages some of the gap left in my heart after living for years in the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe,

Tremont Baptist Church

California. When I used to bike the 9 miles in and out of work in my last year there, I remember always reminding myself to try to absorb the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains, ringed in pine. I knew that someday I might not live in such pristine beauty and wanted to try to savor it while it was there, and hold it in my mind, however fleetingly. That has turned out to be prescient, and those images come back to me still.

Similarly, I know I may not always live or work in a place with such a rich and dynamic history, and it is my task now to savor it, to take it in and build my awareness of it.

Simultaneous to this growing awareness of history all around me, I have begun reading The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass to my students. I had downloaded the book from Project Gutenberg, waiting the 2 months it took to receive print-outs from my school, and downloaded free questions and vocabulary for each chapter from The Core Knowledge Foundation. The language of the book may be well above the reading level of my fifth graders, but they comprehend the content deeply, in a way atypical to much of the content that I teach them. The oratory grasp of the power of words emanates from Douglass. There are two paragraphs in Chapter 2 in which his articulate voice rings through the ages, impassioned, as he reflects on the songs that slaves traveling through the woods would sing. These songs of the slave, Douglass wrote, “represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” And suddenly, his outrage at the inhumanity of slavery lashes out from the page, lashes out from history. It’s a powerful moment.

There is never enough time to teach much of anything deeply in school. It’s hard to be consistent when schools are disorganized, schedules change on a moment’s notice, and there are constant interruptions from phones, loudspeakers, and children’s emotional outbursts. But reading this book is one thing I want to follow through on, because at some point, our children require us adults to make a decision on what is most important, and home in on that thing and stay true to it.

I have begun to feel the weight of history, and appreciate the power of a narrative in conveying the sense and awareness of that history. Our children, just like most of us adults, suffer from a disconnectedness from the wider context they live within. Though I may not be an inhabitant of their community, I can certainly make it my goal to become more aware of that community’s history and to help grow that awareness in my students.

Like much of the things I teach, I find that I learn the best material alongside of my students, discovering new ways of looking at the world and growing my own awareness.

EWA Conference: The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession

My summary and account of an Education Writer’s Association conference on The Promise and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession.

Every now and then, I get a chance to attend a conference or seminar on some issue in education. Some teachers I know hate attending conferences, but I see them not only as an opportunity to gain new knowledge and to network, but also a chance to retain my sense of sanity and perspective. The everyday life in the self-contained classroom is one of high stress, and as much as I love my students, sometimes I need a break. Conferences are a way for me to thus gain a “mental health” day, while developing professionally at the same time. Also, as a friend of mine who works in the software engineering world put it, conferences are a great chance to “geek out” with other people who work in the same field. How often do I get to talk shop with like-minded folks?

I attended a conference put on by the Education Writer’s Association (and sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation) on the topic of improving the teaching profession. This event was primarily for journalists, but some teacher bloggers were also invited.

The chance to meet with other teachers is always an opportunity I cherish, whether simply within the confines of my school, within my district, or more broadly such as at this conference. When teachers get together and really start to talk about education, it helps to alleviate the sense of isolation that one often feels in a classroom. We don’t tend to agree on everything, but when it comes to the everyday reality of teaching, we find our common ground. Another area of consensus amongst teachers is that we all want to be included in the national conversation on education, whether within the political or policy realm. We want the world to know what teaching is really all about.

I also enjoyed meeting education journalists and speaking with them. I knew in the abstract that the world of news is undergoing a huge rupture in the industry due to the rise of digital information technology, but it wasn’t until I  heard some of their stories that I understood the impact this is really having on the lives of journalists. The writers I met were well-spoken, knowledgeable, and interesting individuals.

This conference was set up typically, in that there were sets of panelists who discussed issues related to the topics of schools of education, teacher recruitment, and professional development. As they held their discussions, I jotted down notes about things that struck me. I will share those notes below in the hope that they may be useful to other educators or writers on education.

The Strategic Management of Human Capital

(side note: this was a term that was apologetically depicted by the presenters themselves as a bit technically overwrought, though I don’t have any problem with the terminology myself. We’re talking management here.)

Speaker: Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Carnegie Corporation of NY (On a sidenote: did you know that the Carnegie Corporation was responsible for funding HeadStart and Sesame Street?)

Solutions (these are all my own, which I was thinking about as counterpoints to some of the traditional data and perspectives of education reform being presented. For a better summation of the data, check out EdBeat’s post)

  • The improvement of schools needs to occur most fundamentally from within. Empower teachers with voice, feedback, time to collaborate, and leadership opportunities outside of their classroom.
  • The notion of an effective teacher must be counterbalanced with an understanding of the context of effective teaching (i.e. support within the building, resources available, etc.)
  • We need to partner with teachers to implement true reform, not simply apply pressure from outside via regulations or mandates

Teaching Teachers: Education Schools and Alternative Pathways

Panelists: Hamilton Lankford, SUNY; Sharon Robinson, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, Kate Walsh, National Council on Teacher Quality

Moderator: Linda Perlstein, EWA


  • Journalists can do a better job of identifying what kind of impact a school of education is having on their local districts
  • Schools of education are completely inconsistent in their standards, syllabi, and demands
  • Schools of education see their role not simply to provide short-term “practical” knowledge, but furthermore the longer-term concepts of “life-long learning”–this frankly seems to me like an academic retreat from the harder conversations around what kind of content would actually be deemed “practical”
  • There is tension between what schools want in teachers and what schools of education teach teachers
  • Teachers are demanding knowing more about assessment, technology, and classroom management, according to surveys of graduates
  • Regulation does not seem to have a beneficial impact on teacher education programs
  • Lack of selectivity of candidates is a big issue
  • But there is a large shortage of teachers, and thus the rigor and quality of teachers is diminished
  • Teaching is not seen as being a competitive field to be in, especially by minorities
  • There is a dearth of research linking preparation programs to effective practice
  • Kate Walsh made an interesting and impassioned comment about teaching being one of the only industries where we seem to downplay being smart as a desired quality in candidates


  • Communication must be built between the local school districts that are fed the graduates of schools of education
  • Content schools of education teach needs to be standardized
  • A larger pool of high quality candidates must be developed, and then effective screening measures must be used
  • Concept of “teaching ordinary people to do extraordinary things” by Deborah Ball
  • 4 foci presented by Sharon Robinson:
  1. Enrich clinical performance
  2. Document candidate performance
  3. Develop feedback within the state between schools of ed and public schools
  4. Create a level playing field


  • Ariel Sacks, a teacher in Brooklyn, made the critical observation that the conversation should really not be about the recruitment of teachers, but rather about the retention of effective teachers – I couldn’t agree more
  • One of my thoughts during this conversation, when someone brought up the inevitable data about Finland, Singapore or South Korea: Why are we always so busy looking at international comparisons as opposed to the knowledge and experience that teachers within our own classrooms have to offer?
  • Mark Roberts, a teacher in Washington D.C. made the point that we don’t put someone in a courtroom and after a few years expect them to be an effective lawyer–we have extremely high standards that they have to meet prior to even entering into training. Why should it be any different for teachers?

Bringing in the Best: Recruiting and Hiring Practices

Panelists: Vicki Bernstein, NYC DOE; Dan Goldhaber, Center on Education Data & Research; Spencer Kympton, TFA

Moderator: Caroline Hendrie, EWA


  • Relative wages of teachers have decreased when you account for inflation
  • Research from the private sector suggests that compensation matters
  • There are no solid predictors of a recruit’s performance in the classroom


  • Leverage technology to recruit–it is cheap and it can be targeted
  • Institutes require incentives to change
  • Creating a competitive, viable market for teaching could influence change in schools of education
  • Elevate the prestige of the teaching profession
  • Though there are not sure predictors, we can still weed out the “bad bets”
  • Hiring from the top 1/3rd means the top 1/3 in terms of results, not where you came from or prestige
  • Refine the recruitment process based on nuances, not “silver bullets”–Vicki Bernstein pointed out that because of the complexity of teaching, it is hard to use any artificial construct to judge a potential recruit
  • Spencer Kympton pointed out that one predictor TFA has found from its data is the level of a candidate’s achievement beyond academics–such as the ability to set and meet goals


  • Samuel Reed, an educator and consultant from Philly, inquired what kind of recruitment efforts were made to target minorities to enter the profession. TFA rep. Spencer Kympton responded that they seek to foster conversations with minority students upon entrance into college, not only when they are about to graduate, in order to build interest in teaching as a profession. He also stated that TFA obtains 40% of its recruitment pool from low-income backgrounds
  • Dan Brown, a teacher in Washington D.C., gave his personal story and used it to articulate how compensation and wages do matter. He also pointed out that accountability in education renders it an unattractive field to work in
  • David Ginsburg, an educator and consultant, pointed out that based on his personal experience, the survey instrument (Star Teacher Selection Interview) used in Haberman’s research is highly effective as a predictor of teacher performance. Dan Goldhaber responded that the survey still could only account for 10% predictor success. Vicki Bernstein may have indicated that she has used Haberman’s survey instrument as well.
  • Richard Whitmire (I think this was who said this, but I may be mistaken–please correct me if this is inaccurate information) stated that compensation should be restructured to provide incentives for teacher performance, such as by raising the bar for tenure and making it much more difficult to attain
  • Kenneth Bernstein, an educator and union rep from Washington D.C., responded to this comment with an opposing view in support of teacher pensions. He also pointed out how checklists used to gauge teacher effectiveness were superficial.

During lunch, Michele Cahill, vice president for national programs and director of urban education at Carniegie Corporation, presented some research and perspective on education reform.

  • Cahill stated that there IS a silver bullet when it comes to one area of education policy–the MDRC study on small schools of choice demonstrates that small schools of choice can improve graduation prospects for disadvantaged students
  • She pointed out that school conditions are of extreme importance, such as teaching what students need, getting an effective group of teachers together, scheduling time for teachers to collaborate together, etc
  • Routine cognitive jobs are changing or being replaced in many industries–this will inevitably occur in teaching as well
  • Technology is a potential avenue to give effective teachers greater loads of children


  • Stephen Lazar, a teacher and union rep in NYC, cautioned that scaling such use of technology in the field of education–such as in NYC’s Innovation Zone–too quickly could be detrimental
  • Cahill agreed, and said that we have to be smart about scalability and look at the sustainability of any reform, such as by paying especial attention to the concept of renewal, wherein networks collaborate and reflect on what is working well and what needs to be modified
  • Mark Roberts questioned the fads in the education industry, and asked how we can better increase teacher involvement
  • Cahill responded that one way of doing this is for teachers to look at data and collaborate in the form of inquiry teams
  • Talia Milgrom-Elcott made a comment about how we need to battle against monolithic thinking and ideologies as we seek to improve the teaching profession

Learning on the Job: Improving Professional Development

Panelists: Karen Hawley Miles, Education Resource Strategies; Ted Preston, Achievement Network; Judy Zimny, ASCD

Moderator: Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week

This was my favorite panel of the conference, as the kind of solutions all of the panelists presented corresponded with what I know is effective as an educator.

  • Differentiate PD for teachers
  • There must be strong leadership in a school – that leader must assemble a strong team and provide the vision and goals for the school
  • Teachers only get better in the contexts of their jobs, which leads to continuous improvement and professional growth
  • Time within the school day is needed for teacher teams to meet and collaborate
  • School leaders must establish common planning periods and–at first–force collaboration to happen
  • Clarity in communication is important from school leaders
  • Judy Zimny also advised that school administrators should reduce announcements made during the day, as well as put all their emphasis on teaching by reducing time spent on extras
  • High performing schools spend 3 times more time collaborating than low performing schools
  • The focus on evaluations of teachers needs to include collective accountability by focusing on teams rather than individual teachers
  • As schools struggle to improve, they must retain the perspective of where they are developmentally as a school, and therefore develop their organizational contexts at a realistic pace
  • Take the focus off of “superstar” teachers, and instead look for “synergistic” results–focus on school-wide goals that include all school staff
  • The whole organization of a school should be focused on learning, not individual goals
  • Professional Development is often cut due to funding spent on reducing class size
  • There must be people within the school who possess strong content knowledge


  • Jose Vilson, an educator in NYC, asked how we can development environments in schools that foster teacher leaders?
  • I asked the question of how we can measure things like the relationships and contexts within a school, given the current focus on accountability. Karen Hawley Miles responded that there is a survey instrument available that can measure the “trust” within a school. However, she noted that when tied to high stakes consequences, this data becomes skewed. I think she said that it was the”Fry” survey, but I can’t find anything when I try to Google this. If anyone know what survey she was talking about, please clue me in! I’ll try contacting her directly in the meantime and update here when I find out. UPDATE 2/23/11: I must have misheard “Schneider” as “Fry.” The survey is part of the book that I had already happened to link to under “trust” above! Guess I’ll be heading downtown to check it out in the library. If anyone is further interested in this topic, Deborah Meier also has a book on trust in schools.
  • Peter Meyer, a journalist and editor at Education Next, questioned how an effective curriculum–such as one based on ED Hirsch‘s research–can be provided to teachers
  • Stacey Snyder, project manager for Teacher Quality Partnership out in Iowa (one of the few to rep for rural schools at this conference), brought her concerns for rural schools to the table. In the face of dwindling community resources and declining enrollments, Stacy inquired about what innovations the panel saw coming in the arena of PD that could help to alleviate their sense of isolation and promote technology?


Here are links to blogs or sites from educators that were in attendance at the conference:

Here’s links to the journalists’ sites that were in attendance:

Goin’ Crazy

The interior of the Francis M. Drexel School i...
Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I feel like this profession is driving me crazy. Just about 80% of the other educators I meet I find either plumb crazy or I just simply can’t relate to them. The very few I can relate to are still pretty darn weird. Now, I ain’t exactly making any claims to normalcy myself. I have what could politely be called eclectic tastes. I drink weird herbal liqueurs and hate watching anything but depressing movies and listen to Norwegian electric guitar jazz or Senegalese mbalax. But I have worked with a pretty diverse amount of people in my time on this here earth, and once I got through my bitter misanthropic phase after college, I’ve mostly gotten along pretty well with the folks I’ve worked with. And I get along with most of the people I work with now, too. But I secretly find them all just frankly weird. I mean this in the sense that I just don’t find much of their actions nor dialogue intelligible.

I’m still confused about whether that’s because teachers in general are crazy or if it’s because public education is crazy and it drives people crazy. But it must be the latter, because now I think I’m goin crazy. I mean, how could you not? There’s so many conflicting values and directives and ideas being thrown at me that I never know which way is up. And I try to do what I do best, which is to examine the system as a whole and then enter into the fray with a structured vision which I then seek to implement. But then it’s like the rug gets pulled out from under me just when I think I’m achieving something.

Eventually, I’ve begun to understand why so many of the teachers I’ve met are such hot messes. They’ve become focused narrowly upon that point on which they know they can achieve something positive, and they lash out at anything that might threaten that unstable piece of manna. They cradle it like a flame from the wind. Because the fact is that the world outside of the classroom–even within the school itself–does not generally have the best interests of the teacher nor students therein in mind. And even when they do–the fact is that some things get very gray when they enter into the realm of classroom reality. People want to go on and on about “students first.” And no one would disagree, of course. But most of these folks have not actually stepped foot into the reality of a classroom in a high poverty district. Try it, folks. Please. See if you can take the abuse that many teachers undergo for an entire working day. Then step back and see if you can keep talking about accountability and high expectations from such a pristine moral vantage.

Schoolwork is messy, in the same manner that work in the ICU unit of a hospital is messy. At least in the NYC public school system in the South Bronx it is. Does it have to be? No. But in the meantime those of us who are crazy–or who are destined to become crazy–are the ones out on the front lines trying to dredge out a garden in the midst of a hailstorm on the precipice of a cliff. Welcome to reality. It can drive you mad.

Another Jolly Night in Ye Olde Neighborhood

A Thanksgiving reflection on my wonderful environs of Inwood

If you amble down Broadway at 10 o’ clock at night on a Thanksgiving eve in my neighborhood–Inwood, Manhattan–you may be treated to some heart-warming, charming visual delights from some colourful local characters, such as by the thrilling sight of a half-naked older overweight woman with cropped hair lumbering extremely inebriated and/or drugged through the middle of the street, swinging her shirt brazenly, her wrinkly breasts bobbling in the frigid cold.  Or perhaps the pleasant sight of an old homeless woman frantically grabbing a roll of paper towels from her rolling suitcase and hurriedly waddling over to the most well-lit, visible window in front of the Bank of America and popping a squat, her white ass emblazoned in the franchise bank’s flood-lit display.

It is sights such as these that make me oh so very delighted to be living in New York City. Truly a phantasmagoria of inspiring humanity!

Accountability in Public Education

In this era of accountability, why is it that all of that burden falls squarely upon a teacher’s shoulders? In this post, I examine those who should more justly be held accountable to the public for failing schools.

Last year, as I entered the world of urban public education, I was overwhelmed not only by the engulfing responsibilities of a pedagogue, but also by trying to wrap my head around the complex and convoluted inner workings of all the differing political factions involved, such as the networks of city, state, and national teacher’s unions, all staking their claims alongside the sprawling but somewhat business-minded bureaucracy of the NYC Department of Education. Not only that, but within my building itself it was often hard to discern exactly who had what affiliations, and there was always this sense of paranoia, with teachers sometimes oddly whispering to each other, pointing at the intercom on the wall.

I also recall a disturbing training session over the summer before I began teaching, when our teacher brought in a weird subversive with tenuous ties to the city union, who whispered to us about the terrible things that administrators might do to us, and who would stop in mid-sentence and look petrified whenever the door was opened, as if some lurking officiant from the DOE would walk in and taser him.

As someone coming from the ‘business sector’–if that’s what you can call having worked in the retail and hospitality industry–I was initially quite skeptical of teacher’s unions. After having spent a wee bit of time in the field now, I remain critical of them, but more appreciative of the work they are doing to protect teachers in a climate in which teachers are all too often blamed first for a failing public education system.

There are some horror stories out there about administrators who abuse their power and plow under perfectly decent teachers, and I can attest to the reality of this, because it happened to a friend of mine last year. It leads to the perfectly common sense realization that we can’t point the finger at failing teachers if we don’t go further and acknowledge the greater culpability and responsibility of their immediate supervisors.

In the business world, if employees fail to perform adequately, then the person that gets grilled is their direct supervisor. A good manager never blames her employees. She takes responsibility for ensuring high performance from those that she supervises. That’s her job.

Similarly, good teachers will acknowledge that they are responsible for all of their students’ learning. If one of their students fails to learn, it is not because the student is incapable of learning, it is because the teacher failed to deliver it to them correctly.

If multiple teachers are failing to reach many of their students, then their administrators must therefore be held accountable. It is the responsibility of administrators to create and implement school-wide systems and policies that support their teachers’ development–and thus, that of their students. In an era of accountability, it should be the administrators that are held to the flame first, not the teachers. (And there are indeed systems out there that administrators can easily draw from, such as PBIS, Response to Intervention, SWIS or OORS referral tracking, and assessments that can explicitly notify the building of needed intervention).

It’s easy to blame teachers, because it makes it seem like all we have to do is get some better trained teachers in there and then the problem will be solved. But you could have some of the best teachers in the world in some of your classrooms, but if there is no school-wide system of communication and support, then inevitably many will continue to fail. Flowers need tending. Workers need nurturing. Teachers need administrators who are able and willing to put in the hard work necessary to create an environment of professionalism, hard work, respect, and collaboration.

This is not to say that teachers couldn’t be trained better. They could. The hard, practical reality of teaching is not often acknowledged in the removed academic programs of undergraduate and graduate schools. In an ideal world, teachers in training would work directly in the field alongside an experienced teacher, gaining experience and knowledge through working with real students as they receive feedback and guidance. This is why the TFA and Teaching Fellows programs are somewhat successful–except that you’re just thrown in there without that experienced teacher alongside you to guide you.

I think there are a lot of terrible teachers out there. I know, because I had a lot of them. And I’ve worked with some of them. And I think that if we had an education system where administrators were truly accountable, then we could remove those protective barriers around teachers and say, “off with their heads!” But in the system we currently have, with its muddied waters of political back rubbing and schmoozing, you can’t trust all administrators to make the best decisions.

By all means, teachers must be held accountable. (And believe me, a teacher worth their salt already feels the burden of accountability from those populations that they answer directly to: their students.) But that accountability must run all the way to the top. Until it does in a manifest and transparent manner, we need teacher’s unions to protect their rights and interests from public officials seeking to divert blame to easier targets. A good school is a good system, not just a collection of good teachers. A good school fosters excellent teachers, just like a good company fosters high performing employees.