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So, You Get a Phone Call

Ohanian Comment: This is about what it means to be a teacher, and how sometimes students don't do well academically but still have a good year.

Norm makes the point that a teacher who makes teaching a profession and teaches in the same neighborhood for an entire career teaches whole families, coming to know the neighborhood and the people in it. Do you think a Teach for America or New Leaders for New Schools person will be around to receive a phone call 35 years later? (Not to mention a whole Popsicle farm.)

Norm asks a question at the end that should be sent to every corporate-politico merit pay proponent in the land. The only trouble is they wouldn't understand it, wouldn't have a clue.

by Norm Scott

Last night I received a phone call from a former student who was in my 6th grade class in 1973-74. He had just been released from a NY State prison after serving 27 years for murder and was in a shelter (not a good thing) until he finds a place to live. We stayed in touch all these years and I visited him twice in various prisons (he seemed to be in just about every state prison possible). He has been denied parole at least 6 times and he was somewhat shocked when it was granted so suddenly on the 7th try. He was released with just about nothing and with little time to notify people (though it turns out that the weird phone numbers popping up on out caller id were from the prison).

His family was even more shocked when he turned up at their door. Why he is in a shelter? It seems the family basically forgot he existed.

I knew lots of people in his family. I taught his brother and his nephew and knew his older sister, who was a political activist associated with the Progressive Labor Party. In the 1975 teachers strike, she came with a bull horn to rally community support for us.

A political note: These type of family associations are only possible when a teacher spends many years in one school, something that seems to be out of style with the ed deformers.

He had taken up a hobby in prison of building a miniature farm out of Popsicle sticks. He sent me the entire farm, which I still have in my basement. Beautiful work.

He was one of the more difficult kids to deal with and had disrupted many classrooms in the past years (that was before special ed). That class was very difficult, with more than a few kids ending up dead or in prison. I took his behavior issue off the table by buying lizards and some math manipulatives and freeing him from his seat or having to do any formal work in class, though he was free to join us when he wished. He had already been held back twice I think (the maximum possible - see BloomKlein, we didn't have automatic social promotion - but it was enough. You couldn't do it a third time and have a 13 year old sitting in 6th grade forever.

He dropped out at 14. He studied acting and used to come to my classes in later years and do acting exercises. At times he went on trips with us. Then came drugs. And murder. One time he called me on Thanksgiving from jail and said there were 9 guys from the projects in the same cell block. He put some of them who knew me on the phone.

His scores on the test the year I had him were awful, as expected. Obviously my fault. No merit bonus for me. And maybe even a firing for being such a bad teacher as to not get good results, other than to get a child who had disrupted every class to function effectively in a social setting. How do you measure that?

I can't tell you what he learned in class that year. Maybe to trust a teacher enough to stay in touch for 35 years. Obviously, the long-term results were not good. But I can only look at the year he spent with me as his teacher and I rate that pretty high. What would I have done if I had been offered more money for getting his score up? Or if threatened with being fired for not?

— Norm Scott
Education Notes Online





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