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On Your Knees, Teach

09.10.2001 | SOCIETY

A line snaked out of the Brooklyn Marriott, uniformly composed of dapper young men and women dressed sharply. The people both inside the hotel and waiting to enter numbered somewhere between one and two thousand. LIU students stared out their sunglasses as they plodded through the malls of the MetroTech campus, wondering if this was a velvet rope queue for an early morning dance club. In truth, it was a far less glamorous event: a job fair hosted by the New York City Board of Education.

A quick survey of the throng showed that this was not a random sampling of job seekers. Many had taught before in some capacity, either in New York City or elsewhere. Those who hadn't had at least gone through some kind of collegiate teaching program, with a degree to prove it. Although a sagging economy may have chased them into the public sector, no one appeared to be a stranger to the teaching profession (whether that meant taking a class on Piaget or inculcating the joys of Chaucer to 10th graders).

Those familiar with New York's public school woes are probably perplexed by such an event. Since last fall, pundits have loudly proclaimed a massive shortage of teachers for the upcoming academic year. Estimates vary wildly, with mid-range guesses coming in at around 5,000 vacancies that will need to be filled. The Teach NY program was initiated to recruit non-teachers into the school system, urging homemakers and stockbrokers to shed their careers and take up the toughest job they'll ever love. Foreign teachers were to be bussed in from Europe and elsewhere to fill the gaps.

And yet, several hundred natives stood there on Myrtle Avenue, beading with sweat in the pre-noon sun. All of them qualified to teach, all them willing to do so, and asked to wait outside until schools deigned to speak with them.

This situation is indicative of the general attitude of the New York City Board of Education, an entity that constantly bitches about its lack of funds and teachers, yet does nothing to make the job of teaching, or acquiring a teaching job, anything less than exhausting. It treats those who approach it with so much contempt it suggests they get tax write-offs for how many people they successfully alienate.

Perhaps I am too close to the subject to write objectively, but I write from experience, having spent the last two months attempting to find a teaching job somewhere within the five boroughs. I have a Bachelor's degree in English education, and although I have not yet taught professionally, four years of my life were spent studying for such work. I did not enter the job-seeking process believing I was owed a job merely for wanting one, but in a city with a highly publicized teachers' shortage, I figured a job could be easily had.

Instead, I found a surrealist universe that made Salvador Dali look like Grandma Moses. Like any good bureaucracy, no one in the Board of Education (or any of its myriad subdivisions) knows who's in charge. Whenever trying to contact a high school superintendency or community school district to learn about vacancies, I was greeted with blank stares and indifference, as if the people behind the counters were upset with me for disturbing their rest. Departments referred me to each other, everyone claiming ignorance as to their role in hiring teachers.

Schools that I knew on good authority had vacancies (on info given to me by friends who worked there) could never give me a proper answer. We're not sure, leave your resume, we'll get back to you. Schools where I had interviewed, and who swore they'd call back regardless of their decision, would become huffy when I called to ask how the process was proceeding.

Most perplexing, however, were the plethora of schools that had no one to talk to at all. In any other seasonal business, especially one hard up for employees, it would make sense that someone, anyone, would be around to take resumes or schedule interviews. This wisdom does not prevail in New York City's schools, and most of them are unreachable until the week before the start of the academic year.

This abuse--and it is abuse--is accepted as par for the course. Most folks assume that, to be a teacher, you must be an insane masochist who craves attention for your suffering (this is true to a certain extent). The Board of Education has raised the execution of this attitude to the level of an art form, meting out punishment to all who dare ask it for help. Schools Chancellor Harold Levy has appointed himself head tough love dominatrix, ordering $150 million in cuts for the upcoming academic year. 'Revenue shortfalls' were cited as his reason, though one can just barely hear the whispers muttered under his breath: You want to teach? Here's the crap you'll have to put up with. Don't cry about it; you know you love it.

Candidates for the upcoming mayoral election operate on the same wavelength. New York is the only place I know of where politicians compete to be 'tough on education,' and scramble to see how many teachers they can crush underfoot. Republican hopeful Mike Bloomberg plastered subway platforms with slogans such as, "If the subway system were run like the school system, you'd be going nowhere." All of the Democrats vying for the nomination produced education-oriented commercials, all of them vowing to hold teachers to strict 'standards'.

So far, there has been no talk of holding the Board of Education to any kind of standard. Any standard of behavior toward its employees, current or potential. Any standard of simplifying its bureaucratic morass. Any standard of helping those who want to teach with clear information that will make their tasks easier. Regardless of the quality of teaching in New York's schools, I question how anyone could thrive by treating its hires like supplicants at the DMV.

As I stood on line to enter the job fair, for what seemed like the billionth time this summer, I looked around at my fellow travelers. All of them seemed calm, not at all anxious as most line-waiters are. They read, they smoked, they chatted pleasantly among themselves. They all knew they were trying to enter a profession that requires quiet submission to your fate, in the tradition of Greek tragedy.

It was as if we were all in high school again, all collectively in love with the same distant girl. She has good qualities and intentions, but she makes bad decisions. She goes out with guys who are clearly bad for her, even though all of us know we'd treat her right. She always makes the same damn mistakes, knowing that she'll have our shoulders to cry on when everything falls apart. And all of us stay friends with her, hoping for just one word of thanks.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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