This blog was started in reaction to the teaching profession and the public school system in Florida entering into the realm of the absurd. Many may argue that the teaching profession and the public school system have always been part of the absurd. To that, I wholeheartedly agree. Currently, however, it has turned into an absurdist nightmare.
When I went back to school in August 2011, I was committed to being a better teacher than the year before and excited to try out new techniques in my classroom. The first hard dose of reality slap in the face came when I looked at my class rosters and saw 52 students in my 8th period Advanced Placement World History class. When the Florida Legislature decided to exempt Advanced Placement classes from the twice voter approved class size amendment in the Spring of 2011, I feared my class sizes would swell. Having previously taught an ethnic dance class elective at my school, I knew how elective classes were treated. At one point I had 68 students in the room, 40 of whom didn’t even want to be there and I was pregnant. There was nothing I could do. There is no class size limitations for elective classes. That’s why I feared when the Florida Legislature decided to classify Advanced Placement classes as “electives” AP classrooms might begin to resemble Cambodian refugee camps. My fears were confirmed in August.
I scrambled to organize my room designed for 25 students (our new classrooms were created with the 25 student cap in mind) in a manner that might accommodate 52 students. There wasn’t a spare desk anywhere in the building. I looked around my room for any option that would give students the semblance of a classroom environment rather than a refugee camp. The computer table! But what to do with the computers that had been sitting in the back of my room collecting dust for the past four years? I always felt a deep resentment towards those computers. The same year the district told us they had no money for raises, three computers I never asked for were placed in the back of my room. They were never hooked up to the printer or had the necessary software installed so students could use them to check their grades online (the only two uses I could think of for three computers in a class of 25). But the district wanted to make sure our classrooms looked “21st Century.” I dreaded coming back to my class after having a substitute because the students always found a way to put extremely inappropriate screen savers on those computers. One time I came back to a “Cats that look like Hitler” screen saver. So needless to say, I was happy to have an excuse to get rid of those computers. I followed the district required internet request to the school tech guy to remove my computers. No response. I found the school tech guy and asked him in person to remove the computers. No response. So, like almost everything else in the teaching profession, I did it myself. It took three hours and one nervous breakdown to untangle all of the wires and place the computers on the floor. This decision would later come back to haunt me, my principal, and the superintendent.
By the first day of school, I managed to arrange seating for 40 students. The other twelve would have to sit on the floor. Those twelve, quickly turned into 14. I sent an email requesting that no more students be added to my 8th period class and that perhaps some could be transferred into a smaller class. I received no response and an additional two students the following day. Now I am in no way implying that this was an act of retaliation to my complaint over the 52 students. It just reflects the hopeless absurdity of the situation.
I felt horrible greeting incoming freshmen with a “Hello, welcome to high school and your first AP class! Now please take a seat on the floor.” 54 students is not easy to handle at any time, but compound that with the fact that they were 54 FRESHMEN after lunch and you have a recipe for total chaos. It took me twenty minutes to take attendance. Yes, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan,Mayor Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, Mitt Romney and all of the other ignorant pundits and blowhards who have never taught a day in their lives, class size does matter!!!
I survived my first week of school, waking up at 3 am every night fretting over how I would survive the year. I went to the neighborhood pool the first weekend and by chance ran into a friend who works at the Miami Herald. I told her my story and she sent my information on to the education reporter. That Monday at 3 pm she called me up and told me she was glad to speak with me because she was already working on that story and had spoken with other AP teachers across the district. I told her about my situation, she asked to come in and take photographs, but I had an uneasy feeling and told her I needed to speak with my principal first. The next morning I awoke to the front page of the Miami Herald with my name, the school name, and my class of 54 as the lead in the story. To my principal’s credit, I was not immediately transferred to the worst school in the district the following day. District officials showed up in my principal’s office that morning before she even saw the paper. I worked hard to have a good relationship with my principal and never intended to land her in hot water. The superintendent, however, does not like bad press.
It would get worse of course as the local news stations seized on the story. They showed up that afternoon with their TV cameras and the principal made an announcement telling the students to remain calm and positive. Only I never heard this announcement because I was blasting Kayne West’s “Power” (the non explicit version of course) as a reward for my students finishing the lesson early. I was about to leave school when a woman barged in my classroom, “Are you the famous AP teacher?” Ummm….I guess. I still thought she was a parent until I noticed her panty hose (nobody in Miami wears panty hose, especially in August). She immediately started snapping photos of those computers on the floor in the back of the room. Then she escorted me to the parking lot with her microphone and cameras in my face. I spoke my mind and went home. I didn’t even watch the news that evening. It wasn’t until my principal confronted me about what happened and informed me that I was all over the evening news that I bothered watching the clip. It wasn’t that bad except for the clips of the computers on the floor and my statement about sending a complaint email about 52 students and the next day having 54 students being taken as retaliation. The same day the computer tech finally arrived and hauled away the useless dusty computers that had made their debut on the internet and the evening news the night before. Given the current outrage over wasted taxpayer funds in the public school system and our superintendent launching a new media push for digital learning, dusty computers on the floor shoved into the corner of the classroom was not the image of “technology in the classroom” the district had in mind.
So the good news is, after my media escapade, I still have a job and my principal immediately transferred 15 students to one of my smaller classes. The bad news for me, I was still teaching an extra 40 students that year in a writing intensive course for no extra pay. But hey, my students had a place to sit and I could manage a class of 35 (though 25 students really is ideal). This brings me to my last point. If I had been working in a Charter school with no contract, I most certainly would not still have a job. Teacher haters like Michelle Rhee who claim to be putting students first argue that “tenure” (we don’t really have tenure in Florida, we have continuing contracts and due process) protects bad teachers and harms students. Well in this incident Michelle, continuing contract status and due process (and perhaps a few media contacts) protected a good teacher and helped ensure students would have a comfortable and productive learning environment. I stood up for student rights when administrators and the district were trampling on them because I knew I could. Teachers need to know that they have the ability to voice their concerns in the face of poor decision making without the fear of being fired. Giving teachers job protection, is not putting students last. They may be the only ones in the whole system who are actually in it for the kids.