On the Intolerable Conditions of Many NYC Public School Buildings- A Teacher Comments
I had gotten into the habit of wearing polyester, or heavy, cotton blouses by mid May, fabric that should spare me the embarrassment of unsightly sweat stains left by pools of perspiration being seen by my students. It was ninety two degrees and my classroom, was not an oasis of learning as it should be but rather, a prison. Kids were forced to stay against their will, as we teachers were told to do everything in our power to ensure the students stayed the entire three hours to complete their exams. It was Regents week, and instead of students using all of their allotted time, several attempted to leave within the hour, only a third of the time provided to answer several multiple choice questions, constructed response questions, and in the case of English and History, two essays. The day before, I had proctored the Earth Science Regents and could not help but think of the water cycle as my skin baked: my sweat being the precipitation, my back, a mountain with a high gradient experiencing surface run off, and my shirt, the earth in which the precipitation that becomes ground water absorbs.
It was the third time that Karina attempted to hand me her exam, but I refused the exchange, as we were instructed to do; once an exam was handed in, a teacher could not give it back to the child. Nor could I speak directly to one student about the exam, so I generalized and began the usual reminder to “Make sure you’ve completed the entire test before handing it in” to the whole class while looking directly at Karina, signaling her to sit back down, though she did so reluctantly. After about fifteen more minutes in the sweltering heat, she couldn’t take it anymore and stormed to my desk, throwing down her exam.
I checked her exam and realized she had not completed an entire essay. “Karina, you didn’t even write the DBQ!”
“I don’t care. I’m irritable. I’m hot. I just want to leave now and take a freakin’ shower. I’ll take it again in August. At least summer school will be somewhere else.”
She was right. Schools that weren’t air conditioned always held summer school at a different location, which seemed to be the humane thing to do. Unfortunately, the powers that be failed to consider the days that reached July temperatures in late Spring and late Summer, when schools reopened for business; our students have experienced many a miserable day in when temperatures had reached ninety degrees or felt like it with high humidity. In my eleven years of teaching, I had seen my share of nose bleeds and fainting spells in the classroom due to lack of ventilation and air conditioning. We were told to tell students to “rise to the occasion,” despite the fact that the heat often made them want to put their heads down. When we would complain, we’d always be told that schools built in the fifties were not equipped to sustain the level of electricity required for air conditioning. The next common sense move would then be to rewire the school; however, individual schools were expected to fork out the thousands of dollars that would fund such a project. School principals complain they don’t even have enough money for books and supplies, forcing teachers to spend thousands of their own dollars to create a classroom environment that would be deemed effective according to Charlotte Danielson. Expecting school administrators to use their budget to rewire their school buildings so that their students can learn in comfort was as ridiculous as expecting for teachers to be supported rather than torn apart by the government and the media. We were all expected to grin and bear it.
But in recent years teachers are choosing not to stay but instead to leave, leave to places that are easier to teach in because ultimately, we are evaluated for more than just our performance these days, but by the performance of our students more than ever. With forty percent of our rating being based on student exam scores, exams that are developmentally inappropriate, deliberately tricky and exceedingly lengthy, teachers who teach in the inner city already have enough on their plates to have to deal with failing, old infrastructure; trying to get students who are several grade levels below and often cannot or will not put more effort into their studies to be present, both physically and mentally, in a building that is uncomfortable to be in for more than twenty minutes is a headache that is sure to have many teachers sprinting toward the exit door.
Old school buildings lack appropriate cooling systems, sometimes lack heat on frigidly cold winter days and have hideous cracks in the walls that are often in serious need of paint jobs. Plain and simple, they are ugly. My students look at the building in disgust, labeling it a “bum ass school” because of its glossy cement walls and prehistoric chalk boards. When we do get heat, it’s heat that we call, “project heat,” that cranks up the pipes with loud banging noises that disturb learning and warm the rooms beyond the point of relief from the cold, getting so hot that we attempt to open our windows to average the temperature out. Mice and cockroaches seem to lurk inside the walls that have so many more nooks and crannies to reside in than newer buildings would. The job of beautifying the learning environment is always bestowed upon the teacher, who spends tons of money on pretty bulletin board paper and borders, and time crafting beautiful artsy “stuff” to hang and stick all over the place, but it’s no more of a disguise than a silk hat on a pig.
Charter schools have managed to make our school “living arrangements” even more uncomfortable by taking many of our classrooms and offices, forcing students and teachers into tight spaces to teach and learn. Our students have to share communal spaces like the cafeteria and gym with them, adding insult to injury because the space was already shared with two other schools at our site. Many students ask teachers if they can eat with them in their classrooms because there is no room to sit down in the cafeteria since our school has been assigned to 6th period lunch while 4th and 5th periods are the designated lunch times for the other schools in the building. Teachers, though in dire need of a break away from the kids, consent because they empathize with their students. Because the charter school is taking our office space as well, I will be moved to a new location to complete my IEPs and other special education coordination duties, a room that just so happens to be next to the cafeteria. With all these lunch periods, the loud noise will surely distract me from doing my work, as will the students who receive extended time on exams which I will proctor. Still, I will be expected to complete all of my IEPs on time and my students will be expected to pass their exams and not be frustrated at the loud screams from the cafeteria, or the sweat trickling down their backs from lack of air conditioning or excessive heat, or the potential vermin that may scurry across their feet.
The temptation to teach somewhere else that is new, clean, beautiful and comfortable is strong. However, when I think of the students who can’t leave, it makes me stick around. Still, sharing in their misery just doesn’t seem like a sufficient form of action. I feel like I should be doing more, finding a way to lead my students to a more promising land, a new school that they can ooh and ahh over as they walk through the halls; a school that will allow them to escape from the scorching heat on hot spring and summer days instead of the other way around; a school that makes them feel not only safe, but comfortable; a school they can feel content to call their own. Surely I am not the only teacher who thinks of leaving in this way, that is, leaving together as a school community, thinking of not only herself but the best interest of her students. If it was possible, to move one’s students to a new school, it would have been done already, wouldn’t it have? Or are all teachers so used to shit that no one’s even tried?