The Whiteboard Jungle

Jane Weir, American Renaissance, September 27, 2017

A report from an Atlanta slum.

A. Teacher, What It Is Like to Teach in Failing Schools: A Memoir, an Inquiry, and a Critique2016, 268 pp., Kindle $0.99, Paperback $12.95.

Back in the mid-1950s, novelist Sloan Wilson wrote a highly successful but discomfiting bestseller. It was about a man very much like the author of this book: a young writer who lived in a cramped, rundown house with his wife and three children, and worked an ill-paid job at an educational non-profit. He struggled to make ends meet, surviving on a combination of booze and white-knuckle desperation.

The book was called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. It was turned into an elegant movie about shabby-genteel desperation and starred Gregory Peck, and had a happy ending of prosperity and redemption.

No such happy ending seems likely for the anonymous author and self-publisher of What It Is Like to Teach in Failing Schools. “A. Teacher,” as he signs himself, is a white man in Atlanta who has been teaching in bad, mainly non-white, public schools for more than 10 years. Like the man in the gray flannel suit, A.T. hangs on from day to day, agonizing about his mortgage payments and his failing marriage, while drinking himself into a stupor every night. And this is not a novel; it is real life.

A.T.’s job in a slum school is a never-ending hell of violence and personal abuse. His middle-school “pupils” are bad enough—lewd, thieving, and destructive, mostly with names like Shaquon and Jamone—but they’re not the worst part of the job. Most of A.T.’s day is consumed by administrative minutiae, such as meetings in which teachers and administrators review things such as the “Response to Intervention worksheet.” This is a form on which teachers are supposed to document each instance of “objectionable misbehavior,” and the disciplinary action taken. A typical example: “On way out the door, Justin simulates giving oral sex to the male gender, and points at me, smiling.” A.T. notes his remedy: “Isolated to Mr. Teacher’s room; written up.”

A.T. describes “planning” sessions where nothing is planned, and sessions with “academic coaches” who are supposed to improve teacher performance, but only distract and demoralize. He is burdened with redundant teacher reviews, and is then forced to attend probationary meetings and classes when these expert outside “coaches” decide he “needs improvement.”

As part of his probationary “improvement,” A.T. must meet early each Tuesday morning with his principal, a black gorgon named Ms. Rawlings:

Rawlings was always completely unprepared for our meetings. She would invariably make me sit in her office while she read my book report [part of the weekly probationary requirement] for about ten minutes. Then she would discuss a point with me by reading a sentence I wrote and saying something asinine like ‘tell me more about the importance of procedures.’ . . .

Finally, she would review my students’ assessment data. To her chagrin, I consistently had the highest scores in my school . . . . Rawlings would never compliment me on improving. The meetings were always harsh and negative . . . . Rawlings would denigrate my appearance. She would denigrate my teaching practice. She yelled at me for parking my back left wheel over a parking lot line.

This memoir could be read as an oblique indictment of the contribution of blacks to failing public schools. Maybe it is. However, the author bends over backwards to defuse any accusation of “racism.” He repeatedly argues that the real problem in public schools is lack of local control, and white educators who don’t understand black people:

The dominance of school reform by White policy makers who are payed [sic] millions of dollars by majority non-white school systems is in itself unethical. Black researchers and local Black community leaders . . . should be in charge of reform in Black school systems . . . .

White people have a lot to learn from Black folks. Black folk can learn from White folks. But we should never dictate to one another.

On the plus side, What It Is Like often sparkles with an easy wit. One of the best parts is A.T. ‘s rundown of the social types who teach in his slum school. Here are a few:

The Burn Out. She is old and ugly, not too bright, and has worked at the school for 35 years. “The Burn Out has an infantile faith in Liberal Humanism and she wonders why things aren’t working out like Dr. King wanted.”

The Homosexual. “Very touchy-feely with students . . . .” He has a relationship with a male student, it comes to light, and he suddenly disappears.

The Great White Mother. “An upper-middle class White woman whose life mission is to uplift children . . . always well-groomed and tastefully dressed. I’d want her to be my mother but I wouldn’t want her to be leading a faculty meeting.”

The Pissed-off Black Woman. “. . . [she] doesn’t care half a damn what you think. She’ll never be a size six and you better like curves . . . . Her classroom is a testament to Obama. He is everywhere on the wall, in the lessons, and on her shirt, everywhere.”

A.T.’s true-life tale is so full of repellent situations that it is sometimes hard to read, and would be much less disturbing if it were disguised as fiction. The author certainly invites sympathy, but the reality of his situation raises distracting questions: Why do you persist in torturing yourself by working with disgusting creatures in an unspeakably vile slum school? You have three degrees, A.T.; shouldn’t you be doing something more congenial and useful?

Perhaps A.T. would say he is motivated by a love of teaching, or a need to make the world a better place. My gut feeling is that he’s so lacking in self-awareness he can’t face up to the damage he’s doing to himself.

Another flaw—or at least unexpected feature—is that A.T. stops telling you his horrifying adventures about halfway through the book. Perhaps he felt his self-published book was too short and decided to fill it out. Whatever the reason, the second half is a review of recent educational fads and fashions, particularly those pushed by his three favored arch-villains: James Stronge (a “teacher evaluation consultant”), Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford professor and head of the Learning Policy Institute); and Michael Barber (head of an educational testing subsidiary of the Pearson Corporation).

All have little or no experience with K-12 public-school teaching, yet all have established themselves as successful education theorists. A.T. complains that they are ivory-tower experts, obsessed with test standards and abstract metrics, with no real idea of What It Is Like to Teach in Failing Schools.

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Jane Weir
Jane Weir is a former journalist and current (unpublished) novelist now living in New York City. She has been published in Punch, The Spectator, Food & Wine, and San Diego Home-Garden Lifestyles.
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