By the start of my third year of teaching, in 2007, half of my New York City Teaching Fellows cohort had quit teaching. Some for health reasons, some due to differences with their school’s administration, and some due to the difficulty of teaching during the day and going to graduate school at night. Teaching poor students, writing fifteen-page papers on pedagogy and compiling lesson plans proved to be too much.
The day before classes began that year, the principal told me that our students needed to earn an economics credit to fulfill graduation requirements. He asked if I wanted to teach the class. I hadn’t taken economics since freshman year of college, but I reluctantly agreed. The principal said he had an economics curriculum in his office and he would return shortly with the material. He didn’t return and never gave me the material. . However, I was able to develop a curriculum on the fly. I had read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and watched Gopnik’s Lighting Up New York documentary. I got the idea to make a curriculum based on Gopnik’s four theories of New York City crime reduction: Broken Window, Abortion, Child Boom and Korean Immigration. To supplement my curriculum I read Freakonomics and Park’s The Korean American Dream. I didn’t have to teach math anymore, because I was teaching economics, but I was still teaching English. My class focused on reading poetry and short stories and writing short essays.
By that time I had earned my Master’s degree from the City College of New York, and had learned two principles that proved helpful. During an evening class, an African-American female professor, who insisted we call her Doctor, advised us to use the don’t ask, apologize principle to get around policies with school administrators. For example, instead of asking if I could take my English class to read poetry in Central Park, I should take them knowing that I could simply apologize if I were reprimanded by an administrator. She also told us about a research study done by Lisa Delpit, an education researcher, who advised teachers not use please with inner-city male students. According to her study, when students in that demographic hear the word please they feel they have a choice. For example, a teacher should say, “Go back to your seat,” instead of “Go back to your seat, please.” In my experience, she was right. The command without please worked better.
I can’t recall using any other teaching techniques that I was exposed to during graduate school. There should have been more instruction on how to motivate students to study and how to get parents to make their children do their homework. Talking to my students, I learned that, when they get home, most of my female students took naps and most of my male students played video games. Very few of them did any homework, read or studied.
I didn’t give any homework or quizzes in my English class, which had about 20 students, because most of my students didn’t do any schoolwork at home. I had my English students do all of their writing assignments during class time. I didn’t give any homework in the economics classes as well, which had about 30 students, but I had felt compelled to give quizzes to assess how well the students understood my lessons. I knew that the majority of my students weren’t going to study at home, but I hoped that I had explained the material well enough that they would be able to do well on quizzes. I initially did a quiz review the day before the quiz, but that didn’t seem to help the dismal passing rates. I tried doing the quiz review immediately before the quiz, but that didn’t help. I eventually moved to telling my students exactly what was going to be on the quiz, but surprisingly even that didn’t help. When students don’t understand a lesson or do well academically, teachers are supposed to take responsibility, but that’s very difficult to do when most of the students are very apathetic.