First Person

How to Fix a Trailer in 17 Easy Steps

If you work for the NYC Department of Education, getting small things done can often be a large task. But I’ve been doing it since its inception, and I have some advice for those who are bewildered, or simply discouraged. Even if you’ve been exiled to the most filthy, decrepit, and crumbling trailer in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, you can do it. Just follow these simple steps.

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A trailer at Francis Lewis High School. By Arthur Goldstein

First, try all the normal channels. Go to the custodian and explain how cold, how wet, how malodorous and revolting the trailer is. When that fails, go to administration. Fill out the forms, make the requests, and do whatever official policy dictates. Go in every now and then to remind them when nothing gets done. Demand luxury items, like soap.

Repeat every year, as necessary.

Don’t give up when you discover bar soap instead of liquid soap, even if it grows a curious oozing black crust the kids refuse to touch. Just pick it up with a piece of paper and interrupt a Very Important Meeting to show the assistant principal. The soap bars will soon disappear. While no new soap will replace it, you can make yourself feel important by boasting to the kids about how you got rid of those grungy soap bars.

After the fifth year or so, you may find your trailer’s desk filled with fast-food garbage.  Throw it out yourself. If you wait, you’ll only learn the hard way that no one else will. Stop dumping the trash when someone finally pours soft drinks into the drawers, as your hands will get sticky and there’s no running water in the trailer bathroom.

The day you find the desk covered with ice cream, with paper plates stuck to it, it’s time to throw in the towel. At this point, you can’t leave anything inside the desk, and you can’t leave anything on top of it either. Have someone help you carry it outside. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the custodians locate and remove it. When they ask whether you want a replacement, say yes, no, or whatever comes to mind. You won’t get one anyway.

Next, run for UFT chapter leader. This can hasten the negotiating process. While assistant principals throw teachers out of their offices within a minute or two, they tend to wait five, sometimes even 10 minutes before evicting the chapter leader. Of course, your opponents will viciously battle you for those extra minutes, but don’t give up. In my experience, the best way to win is to get the Daily News to call your home and ask you to write a column opposing mayoral control. When it comes out, make copies, drop them in staff mailboxes, and many of your colleagues will vote for you.

After you win, unfortunately, the trailer will look the same. Don’t hesitate to take further action. First, call Sandra Dunn-Yules from the UFT to do a health and safety inspection. Spend hours exploring the entire school, and then show her the trailers. “I’ve seen worse,” she may say, even as she agrees they are abysmal. When she returns with people carrying fancy-looking equipment, be sure to express gratitude rather than disappointment they aren’t wearing Hazmat suits.

The next thing you have to do is get UFT Vice President Leo Casey to visit your school. Show him the overcrowding, and the trailers. Have him set up a meeting with Elizabeth Sciabarra, the director of the Department of Education’s office of enrollment. Whatever you do, don’t forget to have him tell you to file a grievance. Make sure he emails you to specify the grievance be under Article 10, E, 1 of the UFT Contract — that the DOE is failing to meet its responsibility “to provide the appropriate recognized standards of workplace sanitation, cleanliness, light, and noise control, adequate heating and ventilation.”

That’s pretty much it. Your trailer should be fixed by the following day. The faucets will be repaired, the heat and AC will work (at least for a while), the floors will be cleaned (as best they can), and you’ll have more frequent toilet paper, paper towels, and filled soap dispensers. In a few days, you’ll even get a new used desk.

It takes a little doing, but it’s worth it. Once you’ve done this, you can focus on how to get a real classroom (I’ll submit a follow-up just as soon as I work out the details).

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.