Part I of this interview with Emily Talmage, former charter school teacher, was posted yesterday here. Part III will be posted tomorrow.
INT: How did the parents of these children feel about that [the rigidity with no accommodations]?
R: I don't really know because I don't really know if they were aware of what actually happened in the school. I never saw a parent actually come in and observe a classroom. I never once saw a parent actually in the school during school hours. I don't think they really knew what their kid was being expected to do, and why they kept getting in trouble. They just kept getting these phone calls saying, "So and so was talking during class. We had to mark it down four times. It disrupted everyone. Now you have to come pick him up." I don't think they really knew.
I do know that the one little boy that I was talking about earlier, his parents were getting angry with the school because the school was putting enormous, enormous pressure on them to have him medicated for ADHD. There was this idea that the only way he was going to be able to stay in his seat was if he was on medication. I'm not anti-medicine, but I have seen having worked with special kids up in the Bronx, kids that are way, way more extreme than this little boy was. The fact that everyone was pushing meds for him so hard, it just didn't seem right to me. He was the kind of kid that if I had been given the opportunity, I really feel confident that I could have found ways for him to succeed in the classroom. I don't think he was a kid that needed medication. I'm not an expert for that obviously, but I know that his parents were getting very frustrated and had stopped showing up for the meetings. In fact, I never really set them up. Our supervisor set them up.
. . . .
So we would have our first class of English from 8:30 till ten. Then we would have a twenty minute--once again silent--in that break, till 10:20. They had to take out their books, and silently read. We'd give them a little bit of Cheez-its or something. Then we would go right into math. Then they'd have the special. They didn't get a break until 12:45. So they've been at school from 7:30 to 12:45, literally have not been given any opportunity to talk unless it's for an explicit question that the teacher's asked them.
INT: What kind of specials did they have?
R: How many specials did they have? They had art a couple time a week. It was just funny, though, because I was an art major. The way art was taught blew my mind. Even art was like, "Now pick up your black pen. Draw a line down the center of the page." It was just like fear that if we gave the kids any freedom at all that somehow the school would collapse which I didn't think was going to happen.
INT: Every class was taught with this total compliance?
R: I Do. We Do. You Do. Do you have Doug Lemov's book, by any chance, to teach Teacher like a Champion?
INT: I've read about Doug Lemav. I haven't read his book.
R: He's got a chapter in there about it. Doug Lemov was the bible of our school. If Doug Lemav said it in his book, it was how it was going to be done.
INT: The world according to Doug?
R: If Doug Lemov says, "I Do, You Do, We Do," then that's how every single lesson's going to get done. If Doug Lemov said that call and response is a good form of teaching, where the teacher says, "Two times two is four," snap. There was a lot of snapping, a lot of repeating.
INT: You heard no resistance, or dissension among your colleagues?
R: The one teacher I worked with had come to this school. She'd been teaching through the Peace Corps in Thailand for a few years. She felt very similar to the way I felt. She was very shy. She didn't really say a whole lot. Her whole thing was that she was happy that she had a job at all. She had just come back from Thailand. She moved right to New York. I don't think she really wanted to argue with anything. None of the other two teachers in my group were. They just went with it.
How do I describe this? There was a sense among us of competition. I felt that in particular from this one teacher, that she was very competitive with the rest of us. She would send out these long emails to our supervisor for all us. I just got the sense that she was really trying to make herself look good all the time, and at other people’s expense.
There was, in fact one morning where I came into her room at seven AM to check in with her. We were both teaching the same math lesson that day. She looked at me and she literally said to me that she refused to speak to me if I ever came in her room after seven o'clock again, and that I needed to get out. I came to her later, and was, "That was so disrespectful. Why did you speak to me like that?" She was, "I realize what the scholars need." It was basically this whole thing of how she was doing it for the scholars, and I was being a slacker. Frankly, I was in at seven and I had left at seven the night before. I felt like I was doing a pretty darn good job. One of my colleagues told me to get out of the room, and that she didn't want to speak to me.
INT: The students got there at seven thirty.
R: They did.
INT: You guys got there at seven.
R: We would get there some mornings at six, some mornings 6:30, some mornings at seven. It just depended on how much you'd gotten done the night before. During the heart of the year, I would say the really intense part which was the period between December and April break, because we were so focused on getting them ready for the test, we would come in at six and stay till seven, seven thirty, eight at night. It was hard.
INT: You're doing twelve to thirteen hour days.
R: Yeah. It was a lot. It was a lot.
INT: Let's get back to our lunch time. They finally get lunch at 12:45, right?
R: No. 12:45 is when they get recess. They get recess only if they have completed the homework that we'd given them the night before. If they have even one little section missing of their homework, then they don't get recess. They have to sit at their seat. It was indoor recess. It was a maximum of fifteen minutes during lunch time. At the beginning of the week, they could choose one game. They had five different games like Sorry! or Connect Four. That was their one game for the whole week. They would get ten minutes to play because the last five minutes were for clean up. They get literally ten minutes to sit on the floor, and play one game. The same game all week. That's it.
INT: They'd play the same game for five days for ten minutes each day.
R: Oh, you've got it. That was recess. They only got to do that if they completely, one hundred percent finished the homework from the night before. It was crazy.
INT: How long did these children work on their homework? Would you estimate that they spent an hour? Two hours? Three hours?
R: I would say about one hour. That was what we aimed for, what they wanted us to aim to give the kids. I wrote this in one of the emails that I sent. For a while, they had all of the lowest performing kids, I think it was optional, the parents had to sign a form. Most of them agreed that the kids would come in either for an hour before school, or an hour after school to do additional test prep. For a lot of my kids, they would come in from 7:30. The school day ended at 4:30. They would stay an extra hour till 5:30. They'd have to go home and do another hour of homework. If they didn't get all of that done, the next day they wouldn't get that ten minute break. To me, I thought it was inhumane. I really did. I was, "For an eight year old child to have to spend that much time with that short of a break, is this legal? Can you really legally be doing this to these children?" I guess they could.
INT: Were you at this school for one year, two years?
R: Yeah. I was at this school until about a month ago. I'm not sure if you got that email. I didn't exactly get fired, per se. It was a mutual parting.
INT: I remember the story about your friend being gravely ill, right? You mentioned you had a friend.
R: Yeah. My friend had fallen down the stairs. I needed to take the day. It was the third day that I'd asked to take off the whole year. The other two times, one I was sick, and then another. I didn't feel like I was screwing anybody over by taking that day. My friend needed the help. My boss, our school Director, he didn't want to hear it. He told me that it seems that I had recently stopped being part of their mission, and that it wasn't helpful to have somebody on the team that wasn't part of the mission. He said that I should resign. I did, which was kind of foolish.
I kind of wish that I had actually just gotten fired because then I could be getting unemployment now. It was a big relief. It was sad. I had actually called him back, and I was, "We can work this out. It's not fair to the kids or me to go with this short of amount of time left." The teachers were treated with the same total compliance attitude as the children were. The fact that I had questioned things at times, or disagreed, or even said, "Wait a second. This doesn't make sense. I don't like this." That wasn't tolerated. At least I didn't feel like it was.
INT: The children have their recess at 12:45. At one o'clock, I assume that's lunch time, right?
R: One o'clock we did a whole class trip to the bathroom. All bathroom trips were whole class. We had to walk down the hall. I'm sure you've seen it at these charter schools. It's called Halls. What was it?
Hands by you sides,
That's how they had to walk down the hall. We'd walk down. We'd do a whole class bathroom trip. It was their opportunity to go to the bathroom, basically for the rest of the day. Unless they had an emergency, in which case we had a procedure for that. They'd go down to lunch at 1:15. I would say about fifty percent of the time they were allowed to have social lunch. The other fifty had to be silent lunch because the day before had been too rowdy or something like that. There were a lot of days where they had to have a silent lunch.
INT: I missed that part there.
R: About half the time they were allowed to have, we would call it social lunch. The other half they had to have silent lunch. It would be because the school Director had decided that the previous day's social lunch was too loud, or they had gotten too rowdy so the next day was completely silent. There were literally some days where they'd come in at 7:30, and not be given any opportunity to interact with one another through the entire day. Even after lunch, there was not. That was the lunch period.
INT: The lunch period is thirty minutes?
R: No, the lunch period went from 1:15, and we could pick them up at 1:35. That was also the teacher lunch period, from 1:15 to 1:35. We got a twenty minute lunch. We'd come back upstairs. If the kids were in my class, they'd have an hour of reading comprehension or math. After that, they did have PE. What was called PE. What PE looked like at our school was a structured dance class. We had a dance teacher rather than a gym teacher. The dance teacher would teach them these very choreographed routines that were really cute. They looked really great, but they were very, very structured. They had to learn all the steps. It was for a performance they did at the end of the year. Even PE time they didn't have a chance to kick a ball around, or play tag, or anything like that. It was still one row in front, another row in the back, these are how the steps go. Even PE was very, very structured and very controlled.
INT: Did they dress out, or did they go to the gym?
R: We had what we called the NPR. Brooklyn Ascend is not in a school building. I'm not sure what it was before it was a school, but it's more like an office type building that they had converted into a school. There wasn't a real gym. There was NPR downstairs, which is what they used for the cafeteria for breakfast and lunch. They pushed the tables to the side, and that would become the PE room. That's where they went for that.
INT: That happened after lunch.
R: After lunch, they would have a period of either math or reading. Which again, from December to May was a scripted test prep lesson almost always. They would have that, and come back for the last period of the day. If they had reading after lunch the first period, then they would do math the second, or we'd flip flop. That brought us to almost four o'clock, or 3:45. We'd pack up. They would get a snack, and again this snack was a silent snack. They'd get their book bags, one at a time.
We had a very strict procedure of how the kids went up and got their belongings. Each kid had what's called a snapshot, where we'd sign the snapshot. They got a zero, one or two for behavior that day. They got a zero, one or two for their homework, and whether they got a zero, one or two for attendance and punctuality. We'd circle that. Put it in their homework folder. They'd put it in their book bags. They'd have silent snack. Then it was time to go home. That was the day.
INT: They'd have math, reading and PE.
R: In the afternoon, yes. The higher kids, the kids that didn't do quite so poorly on the first mock exam were allowed to have a period of science in the afternoon. They got science for part of the time, and then I think they switched to social studies. My kids, because everybody was so panicked that they weren't going to pass the reading and math state exams, got no social studies and no science. Which wasn't very nice for them, because they were, "Why don't we get science? We like science? Why don't we get social studies?" It was quite unfair to them.
INT: If your children went home at four o'clock, why were you there until six or seven?
R: The kids were gone by 4:45, because from four o'clock to about 4:20 was pack up, snack, and things like that. We had to lead them outside, and wait for the parents to come. That would take another twenty minutes. At the end of the day, every Wednesday we would have a team meeting. That would usually take up at least an hour, hour and a half. How did it work? After a while they stopped actually scripting and handing us the lessons, and said, "This is what you have to write lessons about." We had to stay and write the lessons, and make copies. What else? There was all this paperwork, too. Also we had to make phone calls. At the end of the day, any child who left the day on Fix It or Stop. What we had in the classroom was a behavior system where every kid would start out at the top of the chart with a green circle that said, "College Bound." I think I described the behavior chart, where we had to mark down if they talked, or turned around in their seat, or this or that. Any time we had to make three corrections, we had to move their clip to Fix It. If you had to make another three, we'd move their clip to Stop. At the end of the day, any kid that was on Fix It or Stop we had to call home to the families and say that their kid had done this, that or this and left the day at Fix It, left the day on Stop. That took some time, too, making phone calls. What else? A lot of really mundane things. A lot of hanging out by the photocopy machine waiting for copies to come out. That type of thing. What was your question?
INT: How has your experience at this school affected you professionally and personally?
R: Great question. I hate to say this, but I think it was a big emphasis for the decision I made this year not to go back to teaching this fall. Part of that is something I've been playing with. The past two years I've been working part time at Teacher's College. I'm getting a Masters in Developmental Psychology. I thought maybe I'd end up wanting to go into psychology, or educational psychology, or something like that down the line. Before going to this school, I thought it would be a while down the line. I still really love teaching. I first saw myself teaching for maybe five, six years, and then applying to PhDs, going in that direction.
This year was so miserable that I don't want to go back. The idea of starting at a whole new school, it's too much. I don't want to do it. I've decided to take this summer and the fall. I'm not going back to a school this fall. I'm going to take the time to finish up my Masters full time, looking to applying to PhDs, and that’s everything. You could say that I decided to leave teaching at least a couple of years before I had intended to. Before this year, I was playing with the idea of, "I could really teach for a long time." I really loved it. I was getting this Masters in Psychology, but it was all very education focused. I had this idea that I could keep teaching, and I could start writing, and build a career that way. That all changed this year. I got really disillusioned with a lot of things. In some ways I'm really grateful that I had the experience because it really forced me to look into what's happening in schools. I've been doing a lot of reading. I don't think I would have found your web site. For example, the Schools Matter web site. If I hadn't had this experience, and I don't think I would have been doing the same amount of my own research. I've been reading a lot. I have Diane Ravitch's book. I'm reading that. I'm going to the Save Our Schools at the end of the month. I've really been trying to start conversations with my friends, too, about what's happening at these schools.
I've got another friend that's starting up at a charter school that sounds quite similar to mine this fall. I don't want to scare her, but I've tried to share what I've been through. It's definitely affected me. Definitely. In some ways, in a great way. In some ways, it's fueled my fire to actually do something. I have to say it's been a huge change. I admit I started out the year really not knowing I had been duped, to be honest. I hadn't really done my homework, and was believing everything that I had heard about how they're closing the achievement gap, and they're giving these kids these opportunities to get into college. Then I worked at one of them. Wait a second. This is not right. If this is what's happening to tons of kids, this is a really big issue. Something that really concerns me.