Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bykofsky: Teachers, students both victims

PHOTO: JULIA FOURNIER Think Philly teachers only work seven hours a day? Overbrook High teacher Robert Fournier and his basementful of teaching and research materials beg to differ.
PHOTO: JULIA FOURNIER Think Philly teachers only work seven hours a day? Overbrook High teacher Robert Fournier and his basementful of teaching and research materials beg to differ.
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IN SOME school districts, teachers track former students' achievements - honors in college, marriages, job promotions, elevation to positions in the church.

Robert Fournier, 58, fills his scrapbook with newspaper clippings about his former students from Olney, Martin Luther King and Overbook high schools - their arrests, their convictions, their murders.

In "Blackboard Jungle," the 1955 movie starring Glenn Ford as an English teacher in an inner-city school, Ford is determined to "reach" the kids, while another teacher describes his role as sitting on the lid of a garbage can.

None of the teachers I talked with sees students that way and none was physically attacked. An amateur boxer in his youth, 13-year history teacher Fournier occasionally has had to stare down students, but says schools are more dangerous for students than for staff.a

"I was only in danger of being hugged to death," says Ellen Weber, who spent 24 mostly happy years teaching English to foreign students at Key Elementary in South Philly. At 60, she just left Key with "a bad case of burnout."

She didn't go alone. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers reports "close to 1,000 retirements this year, which is much higher than usual," says spokesman George Jackson. Many just can't take it anymore.

Rosa Rosado, 56, spent the largest stretch of her 29 years teaching at North Philly's Roberto Clemente Middle School, where she was both teacher and disciplinarian.

Rosado believes in "tight" and "no-nonsense" discipline, and supervised three of the school's four lunch periods, periods that can turn into free-for-alls. They didn't. She was called "Queen of the Lunches."

When Fournier was at Martin Luther King, he ran a tight ship, but he changed when he got to Overbrook.

"At King, I was an a--hole and gave them a hard time" by enforcing the rules.

Enforcing the rules makes you an a--hole?

"These kids are victims," he says. "I used to believe if they followed the rules and did what they were supposed to, that's it, but it's more complicated than that. They do really annoying things, but they can't help themselves."

Rather than continue as an a--hole, Fournier now sees himself as a "talent scout. I notice what they're good at, and I get them to develop that talent."

 

A school isn't a monolith; it is an organism composed of different parts - some heart, some brain, some soul. Think of human complexity. Now transfer that to a school, where students' intellectual and psychological and social needs must be fulfilled.

How do you do that when art, home economics, music, athletics, libraries, counselors and nonteaching aides are cut? It's like being told to drive a race car with flat tires.

In long conversations, each of the three teachers I interviewed mentioned school-district "politics" as a bane, and related a very high stress level. Fournier takes sleeping pills at night.

Let's put aside the current demands from the Philadelphia School District that teachers take a pay cut of 5 to 13 percent, and work a longer day, and dismantle seniority, and pay for their health insurance. (Teachers sense that free health insurance will be gone; the union already has agreed to a wage freeze.)

The stress comes from the people who are supposed to be their protectors and supporters.

"The demands the district started putting on - extra paperwork, forms that had to be filled out," says Weber. "The high-stakes PSSA [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment] test took time away from teaching."

Fournier says he's asked to do things "I can't do," like getting kids who can't even read to pass the hard Keystone Test. "Kids are unfocused, and there's a lack of resources," he says, complaining of a "conservative agenda about how things should be done. They are pro-charter school - the governor, the mayor, Dwight Evans . . . ."

Rosado (who has a doctorate and has been a principal) sees a lack of "consistency," the district changing what it wants done from year to year as "administrators second-guess you along the way."

Noting poor test scores over the years - common to big-city school districts - the school district identified one culprit in the education crisis: teachers. It responded by cutting resources and increasing demands. (See Page 2.)

Some members of the public condemn teachers for short days, high salaries, long vacations and generous benefits. That criticism gets on teachers' last nerve.

The average teacher's salary is $70,790, which means that some earn more, some less. If it seems like a lot, we ask a lot: educating and sometimes inspiring our children.

Ignored is that teaching is a skilled profession. Many teachers have advanced degrees. Almost all have postgraduate credits.

The school district paradoxically says advanced degrees don't boost student achievement while advanced credits are required to maintain certification.

The 10-month year is what it is, but the 7-hour day is highly misleading. That's just time in the classroom. Unrecorded are the hours in the evening and weekends when they prepare lesson plans, grade homework, do research and call or visit parents.

Fournier, Weber and Rosado had varying opinions, except on the last question: Would you recommend that anyone you know become a Philly schoolteacher?

The unanimous answer was a punch to the gut and a warning for the future:

"No."

 


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

" @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky

 

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