Public Education’s Dirty Secret


Bad teaching is a common explanation given for the disastrously inadequate public education received by America’s most vulnerable populations. This is a myth. Aside from a few lemons who were notable for their rarity, the majority of teachers I worked with for nine years in New York City’s public school system were dedicated, talented professionals. Before joining the system I was mystified by the schools’ abysmal results. I too assumed there must be something wrong with the teaching. This could not have been farther from the truth.

Teaching French and Italian in NYC high schools I finally figured out why this was, although it took some time, because the real reason was so antithetical to the prevailing mindset. I worked at three very different high schools over the years, spanning a fairly representative sample. That was a while ago now, but the system has not improved since, as the fundamental problem has not been acknowledged, let alone addressed. It would not be hard, or expensive, to fix.

Washington Irving High School, 2001–2004

My NYC teaching career began a few days before September 11, 2001 at Washington Irving High School. It was a short honeymoon period;  the classes watched skeptically as I introduced them to a method of teaching French using virtually no English. Although the students weren’t particularly engaged, they remained respectful. During first period on that awful day there was a horrendous split-second noise. A plane flew right overhead a mere moment before it blasted into the north tower of the World Trade Center. At break time word was spreading among the staff.  Both towers were hit and one had already come down. When I went to my next class I told the students what had happened. There was an eruption of rejoicing at the news. Many students clapped and whooped their approval, some getting out of their seats to do a sort of victory dance. It was an eye-opener, and indicative of what was to come.

The next three years were a nightmare. The school always teetered on the verge of chaos. The previous principal had just been dismissed and shunted to another school district. Although it was never stated, all that was expected of teachers was to keep students in their seats and the volume down. This was an enormous school on five floors, with students cordoned off into separate programs. There was even a short-lived International Baccalaureate Program, but it quickly failed. Whatever the program, however, the atmosphere of the school was one of danger and deceit. Guards patrolled the hallways, sometimes the police had to intervene. Even though the security guards carefully screened the students at the metal detectors posted at every entrance, occasionally arms crept in. Girls sometimes managed to get razors in, the weapon of choice against rivals for boys’ attention. Although I don’t know of other arms found in the school (teachers were kept in the dark as much as possible), one particularly disruptive and dangerous boy was stabbed one afternoon right outside school. It appears he came to a violent death a few years later. What a tragic waste of human potential.

As the weeks dragged painfully into months, it became apparent that the students wouldn’t learn anything. It was dumbfounding. It was all I could do to keep them quiet; that is, seated and talking among themselves. Sometimes I had to stop girls from grooming themselves or each other. A few brave souls tried to keep up with instruction. A particularly good history teacher once told me that she interrupted a conversation between two girls, asking them to pay attention to the lesson. One of them looked up at her scornfully and sneered, “I don’t talk to teachers,” turning her back to resume their chat. She told me that the best school she ever worked at was in Texas, where her principal managed not only to suspend the most disruptive students for long periods, he also made sure they were not admitted during that time to any other school in the district. It worked; they got good results.

This was unthinkable in New York, where “in-house suspension” was the only punitive measure. It would be “discriminatory” to keep the students at home. The appropriate paperwork being filed, the most outrageously disruptive students went for a day or two to a room with other serious offenders. The anti-discrimination laws under which we worked took all power away from the teachers and put it in the hands of the students.

Throughout Washington Irving there was an ethos of hostile resistance. Those who wanted to learn were prevented from doing so. Anyone who “cooperated with the system” was bullied. No homework was done. Students said they couldn’t do it because if textbooks were found in their backpacks, the offending students would be beaten up. This did not appear to be an idle threat. Too many students told their teachers the same thing. There were certainly precious few books being brought home.

I tried everything imaginable to overcome student resistance. Nothing worked. At one point I rearranged the seating to enable the students who wanted to engage to come to the front of the classroom. The principal was informed and I was reprimanded. This was “discriminatory.” The students went back to their chosen seats near their friends. Aside from imposing order, the only thing I succeeded at was getting the students to stand silently during the Pledge of Allegiance and mumble a few songs in French. But it was a constant struggle as I tried to balance going through the motions of teaching with keeping them quiet. 

The abuse from students never let up. We were trained to absorb it. By the time I left, however, I had a large folder full of the complaint forms I’d filled out documenting the most egregious insults and harassment. There was a long process to go through each time. The student had a parent or other representative to state their case at the eventual hearing and I had my union rep. I lost every case.

Actually, the girls were meaner than the boys. The latter did not engage at all. They simply ignored me. Except for the delinquents among them, the boys didn’t make trouble. The girls on the other hand could be malicious. One girl even called me a “fucking white bitch.” It was confidence-destroying and extremely stressful. I was often reported to the principal for one transgression or another, like taking a sheet of paper from a student. Once I was even reprimanded for calmly taking my own cellphone from a girl who’d held on to it for half an hour, refusing all my requests to hand it back. The administration was consistently on the side of the student. The teacher was the fall guy, every time.

The abuse ranged from insults to outright violence, although I myself was never physically attacked. Stories abounded, however, of hard substances like bottles of water being thrown at us, teachers getting smacked on the head from behind, pushed in stairwells, and having doors slammed in our faces. The language students used was consistently obscene. By far the most commonly heard word throughout the school, literally hundreds of times a day, like a weapon fired indiscriminately, was “nigga.” The most amazing story from those painful years was the time I said it myself.

Sometimes you just have had enough. One day a girl sitting towards the back of the classroom shouted at some boy up front, “Yo! Nigga! Stop that!” I stood up as tall as I could and said in my most supercilious voice, “I don’t know which particular nigga the young lady is referring to, but whoever it is, would you please stop it.” The kids couldn’t believe their ears:

“Yo, miss!  You can’t say that!”
“Why not? You say it all the time.”
“Uhh…  Because you’re old.”
“That’s not why. Come on, tell the truth.”

This went on for a bit, until one brave lad piped up: “Because you’re white.” “Okay,” I said, “because I’m white. Well what if I said to you, ‘You’re not allowed to say some word because you’re black.’ Would that be okay?” They admitted that it wouldn’t. No one seemed to report it. To this day, it’s puzzling that I didn’t lose my job over that incident. I put it down to basic human decency.

Of course my teaching method had to be largely scrapped. The kids didn’t listen to me in either French or English. But they had a certain begrudging respect for me, I think because I told them the truth. I’d plead with them, “Look, kids, you’re destroying yourselves. Yes, the system stinks, but it’s the only show in town. Please, please don’t do this to yourselves. Education is your only way out.” But it was useless. I didn’t possess whatever magic some teachers have that explains their success, however limited. 

Aside from the history teacher from Texas, other Washington Irving educators stood out as extraordinary, and this in an unimaginably bad learning environment. One was a cheerful Lebanese math teacher who had been felled as a child by polio. He called himself “the million dollar man” because of his handicapped parking permit, quite a handy advantage in Manhattan. Although he could only walk on crutches, he kept those kids in line! His secret? A lovely way about him and complete but polite disdain for his students. Where he came from, students were not allowed to act that way. Another was a German teacher, the wife of a Lutheran minister. Her imposing presence—she fit the valkyrie stereotype—kept those mouths closed. You could hear a pin drop in her unusually tidy classroom, and she managed to teach some German to the few hardy souls who wanted to learn it. 

The most impressive of all was a handsome black American from Minnesota. He towered over us all, both physically and what the French call morally. He exuded an aura that inspired something like awe in his colleagues and students. I think he taught social studies. He was the only teacher who got away with blacking out his classroom door window, which added to his mystique. He engaged his students by concentrating their efforts on putting together a fashion show at the end of each school year. They designed and produced the outfits they strutted proudly on the makeshift catwalk, looking as elegant and confident as any supermodel. To tumultuous applause. They deserved it.

Although the school was always on the verge of hysteria and violence, it had all the trappings of the typical American high school. There were class trips and talent shows, rings and year books—even caps and gowns and graduation. High school diplomas were among the trappings, handed out to countless 12th graders with, from my observation, a 7th grade education. The elementary schools had a better record. But everyone knew that once the kids hit puberty, it became virtually impossible under the laws in force to teach those who were steeped in ghetto and gangster culture, and those—the majority—who were bullied into succumbing to it.

Students came to school for their social life. The system had to be resisted. It was never made explicit that it was a “white” system that was being rejected, but it was implicit in oft-made remarks. Youngsters would say things like, “You can’t say that word, that be a WHITE word!” It did no good to remind students that some of the finest oratory in America came from black leaders like Martin Luther King and some of the best writing from authors like James Baldwin. I would tell them that there was nothing wrong with speaking one’s own dialect; dialects in whatever language tend to be colorful and expressive, but it was important to learn standard English as well. It opens minds and doors. Every new word learned adds to one’s wealth, and there’s nothing like grammar for organizing one’s thoughts. 

It all fell on deaf ears. It was impossible to dispel the students’ delusions. Astonishingly, they believed that they would do just fine and have great futures once they got to college! They didn’t seem to know that they had very little chance of getting into anything but a community college, if that. Sadly, the kids were convinced of one thing: As one girl put it, “I don’t need an 85 average to get into Hunter; I’m black, I can get in with a 75.” They were actually encouraged to be intellectually lazy.

The most Dantesque scene I witnessed at Washington Irving was a “talent show” staged one spring afternoon. The darkened auditorium was packed with excited students, jittery guidance counselors, teachers, and guards. Music blasted from the loudspeakers, ear-splitting noise heightened the frenzy. To my surprise and horror, the only talent on display was merely what comes naturally. Each act was a show of increasingly explicit dry humping. As each group of performers vied with the previous act to be more outrageous, chaos was breaking out in the screaming audience. Some bright person in charge finally turned off the sound, shut down the stage lights, and lit up the auditorium, causing great consternation among the kids, but it quelled the growing mass hysteria. The students came to their senses. The guards (and NYC policemen if memory serves) managed to usher them out to safety.

Once, on two consecutive days, enormous Snapple dispensers on a mezzanine were pushed to the floor below. Vending machines had to be removed for the students’ safety. On another occasion, two chairs were chucked out of the building, injuring a woman below. Bad press and silly excuses ensued. Another time, word spread that a gang of girls was going to beat up a Mexican girl. There was a huge crush of students who preferred to skip the next class to go see the brawl. The hallway was packed, there was pushing and shoving, causing a stampede. I was caught in it and fell to the ground; kids stepped over me elbowing each other in the crush of bodies. Eventually, a student helped me to my feet. Badly shaken, I was taken to the nurse’s office. My blood pressure was dangerously high; I was encouraged to see a doctor, but declined. My husband came and brought me home.

Shortly thereafter, the teachers union (United Federation of Teachers, or UFT) fought the Department of Education, which had recently loosened the already lax disciplinary rulings. They organized a press conference and asked me to speak at it about the worsening security situation. The principal refused me permission to leave even though my supportive assistant principal found a fellow language teacher to take over my classes. As soon as school was out, though, a union rep implored me to rush downtown with him as the press conference was still going on. Questioned by reporters in front of the cameras, I spoke about the stampede. There was a brief segment on the local evening news.  The principal was furious, and the next morning screamed at me in the lobby that I was a publicity seeker who just wanted to give the school a bad name. However, the UFT was successful in this case, as the former, less inadequate disciplinary measures were restored, and things went back to their usual level of simmering chaos.

Although it was clear that my generally robust mental state was deteriorating, I did not want to quit. The UFT encouraged me to go into counseling; I didn’t see the point but acquiesced and agreed to see one of their social workers for therapy. Her stance seemed to be, “What is a nice girl like you doing in a place like that?” I started to write about the situation to people in authority. The UFT president Randi Weingarten and the DoE head Joel Klein were among the recipients of my letters detailing the problems we faced. I visited my local city councilman, who listened politely. I did not receive a single response.

Soon thereafter, my beloved husband died after a brief illness. The students knew, so were somewhat subdued when I returned to work. But one afternoon a girl, I forget why, muttered “you fucking bitch.” I finally broke. I screamed at the whole class and insisted that they all get out of the classroom. Furiously. Any physical contact was strictly forbidden between staff and students, so my voice alone did the job. It was also strictly forbidden to send one student out of the classroom, never mind the whole class. The good-hearted teacher next door came to my aid. The administration took pity on me and did not press charges.

In the meantime, the UFT somehow found the “nice girl” a job at Brooklyn Technical High School. There was one going for a French and Italian teacher, as there were not enough classes for another full-time French teacher.

Brooklyn Tech, 2004–2009

Brooklyn Tech was considered one of New York’s “top three” high schools. Students had to test in. My first principal was a big, jolly black man, but he got caught on a minor offense and was sent packing. His misdeed was bringing his daughter to school in New York from their home in New Jersey, which, although against the rules, was hardly unheard of. There was a $20 million restructuring fund in the offing for his replacement. The new principal ended the unruly after-school program that purportedly prepared underprivileged children for the entrance exam. Disruptive behavior subsequently dropped considerably.

The new principal ‘s word was law. Under the last-in-first-out system, my job was never secure. Most students were the children of recently arrived immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. A minority were from older Irish and Jewish immigrant families. The many obvious cultural differences were fascinating.

Our assistant principal was an amusing old cynic who loved a hassle-free life. Under him, teaching was a pleasure. It was hard work, as classes were large and students handed in assignments to be graded, but it was rewarding. On Friday afternoons he would announce, “Okay, girls and boys, it’s time to go to the bank,” our signal that we could leave with impunity before the legally stipulated hour. However, some teachers always stayed behind for hours on end to avoid bringing work home.

Despite the disruptive students at first, the classes were manageable. What the youngsters lacked in academic rigor, they made up for in verve. However, as the years passed, micro-management became more burdensome. Supervision became stricter, with multiple class visits and more meetings. Some “experts” up the DoE ladder decided that we had to produce written evidence that our lesson plans conformed to a rigid formula. The new directives did not take into account that foreign-language teaching requires instilling four different skill sets (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and therefore a different, more flexible methodological approach. Unfortunately, our easy-going assistant principal had his fill of the worsening bureaucratic overload and retired. Instead of an eccentric opera buff with a sense of humor, an obedient apparatchik would enforce the new rules. 

In the spring of my 5th year there, he informed me that I had been chosen to replace the Advanced Placement French teacher, as her results were poor. I did the AP training course and prepared for the new challenge that would begin in September. The day before school began, however, he phoned to say that my job was terminated. “There wasn’t enough interest in French” to justify my position, apparently. This was despite vociferous protests from students and parents. I would like to know if, as a member of the UFT’s advisory council, I had asked the principal too many questions. He was so kind as to find me a place at a “boutique” school way down in Brooklyn’s Flatlands.

Victory Collegiate High School, 2009–2010

Victory Collegiate High School seemed promising. It could boast of Bill Gates money, and was one of only two or three new experimental schools co-located in what was once the venerable South Shore High School. It served the local, partly middle-class, partly ghettoized black community. The principal informed me proudly that the students wore uniforms, and no cellphones were allowed. The classes were tiny in comparison to other high schools, and there were no disciplinary problems.

Despite the devastating blow to my career, I set out hopefully on the long commute to Canarsie. The metal detectors should have clued me in. Any pretense of imposing uniforms was eventually abandoned. Cellphones were a constant nuisance. Administrators turned a blind eye to the widespread anti-social behavior.

It would be repetitive to go over the plentiful examples of the abuse teachers suffered at the hands of the students. Suffice it to say, it was Washington Irving all over again, but in miniature. The principal talked a good game, believing that giving “shout-outs” and being a pal to the students were accomplishing great things, but he actually had precious little control over them. What made matters worse, the teaching corps was a young, idealistic group, largely recruited from the non-profit Teach For America, not the leathery veterans who constituted a majority at the two previous schools. I was a weird anomaly to these youngsters. What? I didn’t feel pity for these poor children? I didn’t take it for granted that they would abuse us? The new teachers were fervent believers in the prevailing ideology that the students’ bad behavior was to be expected, and that we should educate them without question according to the hip attitudes reflected in the total absence of good literature or grammar, and a sense of history that emphasized grievance. 

One example of the “literature” we were expected to teach was as racist as it was obscene. The main character was an obese, pregnant 14 year-old dropout. The argot in which it was written was probably not all that familiar to many of the students. Appalled, I asked an English teacher why the students had to read this rubbish. She was shocked at the question: we have to teach “literature the kids can relate to.” Why on earth did the school system believe that such a depraved environment as depicted in this book was representative of the very mixed group of families that inhabited the area, many of whom were led by middle-class professionals from the Caribbean? The “language arts” department (the word “English” was too Euro-centric) made one obligatory bow to Shakespeare—a version of “Romeo and Juliet” reduced to a few hundred words. It was common knowledge that the Bard was “overrated.” 

My small classes faced a large photograph of Barack Obama displayed proudly in front of the classroom over the title “Notre Président.” The picture resonated as little with the students as the Pledge of Allegiance. Like at Washington Irving, all I managed to do was to get them to stand for it and sing some songs. I did have the rueful satisfaction towards the end of the year, however, of being told after the class trip, “Mary, you won’t believe it! The kids sang French songs all the way to Washington!”

In the classroom, the children did as they pleased. Since the classes were smaller, some students managed to learn a bit of French, but most obdurately ignored me. One memorable 16 year-old fresh from Chicago loved French but was contemptuous of me. She was tall and slender, quite beautiful, and in love, it seemed, with another girl in the class, who was not blessed with similar beauty. Throughout the year they were an item. I finally managed to separate them, insisting that they change seats when it became increasingly difficult to stop them from necking in the classroom. That was when, despite her love of French, the Chicago girl left my class never to return, except once, when we were watching a movie. She came in, sat down and watched with us, breezing out again at the film’s end. This was not unusual behavior. Some students had the run of the hallways, wandering around as they pleased.

As before, students engaged fully in the ancillary aspects of high school life. As before, I tried to encourage them to engage in the learning process. On one memorable occasion, I said to them: “You are not here to play, you are here to develop your intellect.” The puzzled stares this remark elicited spoke volumes. It seemed an utterly new concept to them.

The school had an exceptionally good math teacher, among other excellent ones. In November, students sat for the preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test that all juniors were required to do in preparation for the real thing in the spring. I had to proctor the first half. As instructed, I walked up and down the aisles keeping an eye on things. It all went smoothly. When the language section was over and the math part began, however, students stopped working. They sat there staring at the desk. I quietly encouraged them to make an effort, but the general response was, “I ain’t doin’ it, miss, it’s too hard.” I could not get them to change their minds; they sat doing nothing for the rest of my shift.

The preliminary test results that came back in the spring were abysmally low—despite the fact that every single response bubble on the math test had been filled in. Either the next proctor forced the kids to randomly fill in the bubbles, or some administrators did so, another example of the rampant deceit the school system indulges.

After the terrible 2010 earthquake in Haiti, a number of Haitians joined the school. These youngsters were remarkable for their good manners and desire to learn, for their outstanding gentility in fact. They provided a most refreshing change, but it didn’t last. They quickly fell into the trap of hostile resistance.

By June, things were really depressing. Not only was the academic year an utter failure, word spread that 10 girls had become pregnant. Since there were only about 90 girls in the school, this represented over 10 percent. The majority of the pregnant girls were freshmen, targeted it was said by a few “baby daddies” who prided themselves on their prowess and evolutionary success. One of them, however, was the beautiful “lesbian” from Chicago. As her jilted partner moped around, cut to the quick, it was impossible not to feel terrible for her.

Once again, I finally and suddenly broke. The threat was from an unlikely source, a big lad who was always subdued. He was in the special education program, and never gave any trouble when I substituted in that class. But one afternoon, for some unknowable reason, this usually gentle giant came up to me and said, “I gonna cut yo’ ass.” That was the final humiliation I would suffer in the New York City public school system. 

I left that afternoon never to return. I left much behind: trinkets I’d brought from France, hoping to use them as prizes for the highest achievers; my beautiful edition of Les Fables de Jean de la Fontaine; class records, French magazines, CDs and other educational materials. But I brought away something priceless: an insider’s knowledge of a corrupt system.

One teacher phoned me to say that in her culture “I gonna cut yo’ ass” should not be taken literally, it just meant that he would teach me a lesson. “I don’t care,” I replied. Another called to express her astonishment that I would abandon my students. Why on earth did that matter, I answered, they hadn’t learned anything anyway. The school would hand out passing grades no matter what I did. 

*     *     *

It is not poor teaching or a lack of money that is failing our most vulnerable populations. The real problem is an ethos of rejection that has never been openly admitted by those in authority.

Why should millions of perfectly normal adolescents, not all of them ghettoized, resist being educated? The reason is that they know deep down that due to the color of their skin, less is expected of them. This they deeply resent. How could they not resent being seen as less capable? It makes perfect psychological sense. Being very young, however, they cannot articulate their resentment, or understand the reasons for it, especially since the adults in charge hide the truth. So they take out their rage on the only ones they can: themselves and their teachers.

They also take revenge on a fraudulent system that pretends to educate them. The authorities cover up their own incompetence, and when that fails, blame the parents and teachers, or lack of funding, or “poverty,” “racism,” and so on. The media follow suit. Starting with our lawmakers, the whole country swallows the lie. 

Why do precious few adults admit the truth out loud? Because in America the taboo against questioning the current orthodoxy on race is too strong and the price is too high. What is failing our most vulnerable populations is the lack of political will to acknowledge and solve the real problems. The first step is to change the ”anti-discrimination” laws that breed anti-social behavior. Disruptive students must be removed from the classroom, not to punish them but to protect the majority of students who want to learn.

Mary Hudson is a former teacher and the translator of Fable for Another Time and The Indomitable Marie-Antoinette. She has a PhD in French Literature from CUNY Graduate Center, and got her late husband Jack Holland’s last book, A Brief History of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, published posthumously when Viking Penguin abandoned it upon his death. It has recently been reprinted. You can follow her on Twitter @merrycheeked1