I was a NYC special education teacher. I lasted three years. Here is my first original story about my teaching experience. I think it's enjoyable as well as informative. Please do let me know what you think. To my spell checker out there, get to work!
District 75 Home Visits
My first job assignment in the NYC Public School system was as a Special Education Teacher in District 75. Some people call it the “Chancellors District”. The district is not defined by the specific location or territory it serves, as most school districts are, but the special needs of its students. These are the Chancellor’s kids and they come from all five boroughs. There are many of these schools placed throughout NYC. They are often small and discreet but they exist. The students in this district are further divided into two main groups. The first group consisted of the physically handicapped, which I had little contact with. The second group consisted of the learning disabled (LD) and the emotionally disabled (ED). My charge was the LD and ED middle school population. I accepted the challenge and went off to, if not save the world, at least save the “at risk” students in the Bronx. My job was to not to wonder why, but to do or die, and I gladly accepted the challenge.
Although the events in this “story” are my true life experiences I did alter the names of the students and faculty. This story is meant to be informative not vindictive. As an educator I do have a fiduciary responsibility to my former students. In addition, as always there are two sides to every story. Here is my side of the story.
It was my first week as a NYC Special Education teacher in South Bronx. I was young, optimistic and I was going to change the world. Looking back at the experience I can easily compare myself to a modern day Don Quixote. All I needed was my own Sancho Panza. My classroom consisted of about eight students and at least one para-professional. A para-professional might be more commonly understood if I use the title teacher’s assistant. Each District 75 classroom had at least one teacher’s assistant to help educate and control the classroom if/when needed. If a child was diagnosed as needing his own private Para, I could have additional para-professionals in the classroom. In my case, most of the time I had one. His name was Mr. Rodriguez. Little did he know I had a master plan? I wondered if I had found my Sancho Panza?
As is customary in any first week of school I laid down the law. There was a new sheriff in town. I posted my rules in BOLD CAPITAL LETTER on a large chart in the front of the classroom and defined my incentive program. I then unveiled my master plan by boldly announced; “If these rules are broken or if a certain percentage of class work and or homework is not completed timely, I will take time out of my life and personally visit your homes and inform your parents that you are not taking advantage of the free education the city is providing. Yes, you will see me having tea or coffee with your parents in your living room. Please feel free to test me”. I looked at my para Mr. Rodriguez and knew right away that he was with me. It was clear; he was indeed my Sancho Panza. It was decided we would show we cared by actually making home visits and personally informing parents if their children were not doing there work or acting up in class. I wanted my classroom to modeled society. There would be consequences to every action. My class was small enough where this was possible and I thought that extra mile of work on my time, with no expectation of monetary compensation, would show that I cared and intern promote order and learning in my classroom.
Needless to say, week one had gone by. On our hit list were Porsche and Tyrone. They had tested Mr. T, and Mr. Rodriguez and they were going down.
First on the list was Porsche. If there was on Olympic event for pulling teachers ties, spitting on teachers or kicking teachers in the shin when upset, she would have won the gold medal. Her mother was “away” so she was raised by her grandmother. Looking back it must have been an odd sight to see two grown men, one “white” about 5’10” weighing in at about 220 and one dark skinned Dominican about 6’4” weighing in about 260. I am sure at times people who saw us together wondered who was getting evicted or cuffed, due to the neighborhoods we were in. In hindsight, the scenario reminds me of the stories told by old school landlords during the “Wild West”, “Fort Apache” days in the South Bronx before tenant’s rights and tenant advocacy groups; when landlords would sometimes be robbed unless escorted or landlords would do things like take the hinges off a tenant’s front door for not paying their rent. How is that for an eviction notice? Looking back we saw none of this. We were just trying to make a difference. We were on a mission.
The moment of truth had arrived. Mr. Rodrigues and I were following through on our word. It was a neat well maintained one or two family brick semi-attached house with a driveway and backyard, in a lower middle class Bronx neighborhood. I took a deep breath and rang the bell. It was on. Porsche quickly opened the front door. She was amazed. It was as if she just witnessed a ten ton pink elephant or unicorn landing on the pathway to her front door. Her grandmother quickly came down the stairway as well. Mr. Rodriguez and I introduce ourselves. She was a concerned responsible grandmother who worked as a nurse. The house was neat and clean with middle class amenities. They took their shoes off and had slippers before walked up the carpeted stairway and entering the main living space of the house. I sternly ask Porsche; “do you know why we are here?” She replied that she did and told me she would be right back.” She went to her room and returned with a bag of items she had taken from my class room. There was a stapler, some pens, a box of crayons and a ruler. I had noticed that some of the items were missing but had no clue as to where they disappeared to. Without letting her know I had no clue about the items taken, we informed her mother why we had come. Porsche promised to do her homework and her grandmother thanked us for taking the time to come visit her. We walked away believing our first mission was completed and that we had won the battle. As we "high-five" each other I said; “One for Mr. T., zero for students who don’t do their work.”
We went onto our next pray. Tyrone lived in Highbridge. Highbridge is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx, if not the country, right above Yankee Stadium. There is a stone “high bridge” aqueduct connecting it to upper Manhattan that was completed back in 1848 as part of our extensive water system. It’s modeled after Roman aqueducts of antiquity. Eventually the walk path will be restored and you will be able to walk from Highbridge to Washington Heights, or visa versa. Most people wiz right by the tall stone arches when driving on the Major Deegan Expressway without much thought about the bridge or neighborhood. Lot’s of Puerto Rican flags everywhere and if you’ve seen “New Jack City” you saw the neighborhood in the opening scene. The housing stock is a mixture of mid-rise brick buildings, one major high-rise and many “Great Gatsby” Victorian style wood frame homes on 25 or even 50 by 100 lots. Much of the housing stock was built before the great depression. Our visit to Tyrone’s home was before the New Yankee Stadium or New Yankee Stadium Metro-North station was public information. Tyrone lived in some type of temporary housing situation in a 5 or 6 story brick building.
This time I rang the bell with greater confidence. Tyrone’s mother, like Tyrone was pleasant. Unlike Porsches home, this home had a transient feel to it. One could easily see them packing all of their belongings within a fifteen minute period and moving on if needed. The wood planks of the floor were bare. The windows had no blinders or drapes. Tryone was there with his two brothers. The youngest paid us no mind while he played some type of video game. The oldest looked right through us and quickly lost interest as if we were just another rerun he had no interest in watching. Tyrone was pleased to see us even though we were there to rat on him to his mother.
Tyrone’s mother had taken us to the kitchen and attempted to make us feel welcomed. If she had anything worthwhile to offer she would have offered it. I began telling her about Tyrone missing his homework assignments. He was not keeping up with reading or writing assignments. I told her she should sit down with her son and make sure he read each night and wrote in his journal. It was then that she began to tear and told me she could not help her son do his homework because she could not read or write. It was then that I realized I was not just dealing with one child missing a few homework assignments but intergenerational illiteracy. I had signed up for more than I understood. Even though I was born and raised in the same borough, educated in the same school system, walked the same streets and took the same subway, I was from an entirely different world. I had gone to teach but instead learned the very valuable lesson to assume less.
From then on Tyrone behavior and work ethic in class greatly improved. I even heard that when the other students were making fun of me during lunch he quickly straightened them out. After a few weeks of good attendance and academic progress he missed a few days of class. When I inquired I was told he had been transferred to a shelter upstate. I never got to give him an official goodbye, but I do sometimes think of him and hope he is safe and in good hands.
In time I informed my principal about my adventure. If Porsche had looked at me as if she had seen a ten ton pink elephant or unicorn, my Principals look was as if she had seen an entire army of both being ridden by winged monkeys. From that point on I had huge “L” on my for forehead with school administration. It stood for both “looser” and “liability”. What if something had gone wrong? I was a threat to every administrator’s job and pension. Where would the finger point? It was the beginning of the end and I had to be chopped down slowly. Later on I heard a NYC teacher had gotten shot doing the exact same thing. I blame my actions on youthful exuberance and naivety. If in the same situation, I would not do it again, but I would not change my past actions in any way. I sometimes wonder; was I a modern Day Don Quixote delusional in my attempt to educate modern day “at risk” students, much like Don Quixote delusional attempts when attacking windmills to restore chivalry in the society he lived in?