THE TEACHER: Blackboard Jungle, Dallas Style

IT IS 7:50 A.M. MY DAY begins. I enter through the cafeteria, where the children on the free breakfast program are eating. Eighty per cent of the 600 children in this East Oak Cliff school are on the free or reduced-price meals program. Most have working parents, though many come from broken homes. It is not unusual for a child to be living with a sister, aunt, or grandmother.

The cafeteria is full. And noisy. An aide is yelling at a child seated across the room from her.

“You’ll get your fool head knocked off, Derrick, if you don’t sit down and shut up.”

I cross the cafeteria, returning “good mornings” to the children who greet me, and enter the main hall of the school. This is an “open concept” school, one of the great innovations of modern education, which did away with such old-fashioned ideas as walls and classrooms. In front of me, in the middle of the hall, is the media center, marked by three-foot shelves arranged in a large square. To the right of the media center is the PE area, an open space with a portable basketball net on one side and other PE equipment stored on the shelves against the wall. To the left is the reading resource area where the special education and resource teachers hold their classes for children requiring special help. There is also a piano in the hall for music classes, and during the day it is not unusual to have children playing basketball next to children reading in the library, while the special education teacher tries to teach a second grader the alphabet, all accompanied by a piano and off-key voices. Even in a school where the children are achieving on level, the open concept presents problems; in a school like this, where there are severe discipline problems and children are far below level, the open concept becomes a fiasco.

After I sign in at the front of the school, I walk to my center, a large, poorly ventilated room where five teachers and approximately 140 children gather daily to attempt the process of education. How do you arrange five teachers in one room? Simple. One in each corner and one in the middle. Each teacher has an area set off from the rest of the center by blackboards and five-foot shelves. I’m lucky. My area is one of the back corners. My team leader, a principal-appointed teacher in charge of the six third grade teachers, is on the other side of my coat rack.

Two of the teachers in this room, including Mrs. Ward, the team leader, will resign before the next school year, and another will request a transfer. Throughout the school there will be eight resignations and five requests for transfers.

8:00. The children begin to arrive. I put three assignments on the board and return to my desk. The children call “good morning” as they enter, many coming to my desk to tell me what’s happened in their lives since 2:20 the previous day. One girl has brought me a flower. I hug her and send her for a vase. Another child, Tiffany, stands near my desk, silent, eyes cast toward the floor. A tear rolls down her cheek.

“Tiffany, what is it?” I ask. “What’s wrong?” She doesn’t reply, and I don’t really expect her to.

“Why don’t you sit down and then let me know when you’re ready to talk to me.”

I hear a commotion in the room and look up.

“Don’t you look at me like that, you big mouth!”

Denise and Bobbi are at it already.

“Well, your mama’s big and fat!” Denise yells. They are standing with fists poised in the air; the other children are egging them on. I walk over, hushing the others, and demand to know what the problem is.

“She called my mama fat,” Bobbi says.

“She was meddlin’ me!”

“I was not! She was meddlin’ me!”

“Meddlin’,” I’ve discovered, can be anything from casting dirty looks at your opponent, to insulting his family, to poking, pinching, or other forms of physical abuse.

I would talk to these girls’ parents several times that year about their behavior and their poor achievement. Both sets of parents, as well as many other parents I would talk to, would inform me that they had taught their children “not to take nothin’ from nobody.” If another child “meddled ’em,” they were to hit back. Fighting among the children is an everyday occurrence within the school.

Now I speak harshly, though quietly, to them about behavior in the classroom and order them to shake hands. They refuse, so I give them their alternatives: Shake hands now or stay after school until you do. They shake hands.

8:15. The morning devotional comes over the intercom and we stand to say the pledge. When it is over, the children sit down to resume their work. I take roll. All 29 are present.

I remind them to finish their work so they will not have to stay after school. Getting the children to do their seatwork requires constant supervision. I check the papers of several of the slower students. Most of them have not even started, so I stand over them until they open their books and begin.

I call the first math group to the corner. This is my top group, which means they are working in a third grade math book. There are ten children in this group. It takes them three or four minutes to carry their chairs over and get settled. Tiffany does not come. I am watching the clock. 8:25. I always feel as if I am in a race against time.

“Ms. Mecke, Tiffany’s not here!”

“Why do we have to come and Tiffany doesn’t?”

“That’s not fair!”

Tiffany is sitting with her head on her table, coat pulled over her head.

I tell the children to ignore Tiffany, that she is not feeling well.

“Tiffany does this every day!” one of the boys complains.

Tiffany’s mother had insisted that I paddle the child when she does not cooperate. I did a few weeks before, when Tiffany had been yelling at another child in the classroom. I had tried to talk to her, but she had ignored me. When I spanked her she hit me back. As I filled out the principal-referral form, she had run out the back door, insisting she was going home. The principal suspended her for three days, but let her back in the school after one day. Her mother came to the school for a conference. She had been working and going to night classes, she said, and had not been able to spend much time with the child. Her older daughter had been suspended from the junior high the week before for fighting. Her solution: Spank Tiffany.

I know it is useless to waste time forcing Tiffany when she is in one of her moods. I would like to give her the attention she needs so desperately, but there is simply not time, and there are so many others who also need attentio

I watch the clock as we work on word problems. I have only 20 minutes for each group, and I am already behind schedule. Halfway through the lesson, Tiffany comes over, face streaked with tears. She stands behind some of the children. We all ignore her and continue with the lesson. When we are finished, I send them back to their tables, chairs in hand. Tiffany comes to me shyl

“Are you ready to talk to me, Tiffany?” I ask her.

She stares at the ground. I repeat my question. Still no reply.

“All right, Tiffany, you tell me when you’re ready,” I say, “but I’m going to call the next group now.”

“I didn’t bring you a flower,” she says, almost inaudibly.

Suddenly I understand. She is upset because another child brought me a flower and she didn’t. Tiffany is always telling me about presents she is going to buy me, or vacations she is going to take me on.

I laugh and hug her, assuring her that I still love her, even if she does not bring me a flower. She seems happier, and returns to her seat to do her work.

“Ms. Mecke!” a girl screams from across the room. “Rodrick’s feelin’ on me!”

I call Rodrick over. He tells me he won’t come because he’s “done nothing.” I stand up, and he comes over quickly. I talk to him about “feelin’ on girls,” and remind him that his mother will not be pleased if 1 have to call her again about this subject. He sulks, fists clenched. I tell him he had better straighten up, or he will have to explain the problem to Mr. Stevens, the principal.

He merely shrugs his shoulders at the mention of Mr. Stevens’ name. A visit to his office is an opportunity to miss class. Besides, I’ve already sent him twice this week.

I try a different approach. I will take him to the office and we will call his mother and tell her to come get him. This works. Rodrick calms down, and I have him apologize to the girl.

Before the year is over, Rodrick will be suspended for three days for “attempted rape”; he and another third grade boy will be caught on the school grounds trying to molest a second grade girl after pushing her to the ground.

I walk around the room and check the work. I pick up three papers and throw them in the trash, telling the children that I will not accept such sloppy work. The papers are illegible. One of the children yells at me. His name goes on the board.

“Nathaniel, I know what neat work you can do when you try,” I tell him. “If I hear any more complaints, you’ll do twice as many problems as the others.”

So much for psychology. I’ve tried all the textbook approaches-and found that they do not work in a classroom with the time restrictions and the number of behavior problems I have to deal with. I simply try to teach the children that there are certain rules they must follow in the classroom; if they break those rules, there will be consequences. The major problem is finding enough “consequences.” Some children do not mind getting “licks”; others cry if they have to stand in a corner.

Now Nathaniel is muttering under his breath.

“Ms. Mecke, he called you a honky bitch!” the children at his table call out.

“He sure did!”

I call Nathaniel over once more. He is innocent, of course. I make him apologize in front of the class. He says it angrily, so I make him repeat it until he says it without hostility. He sits down, still angry, and I warn him once more about his temper, assuring him that his aunt will hear about his behavior. When I called Nathaniel’s aunt about his behavior, she told me, “I don’t want none of that. You just paddle him good when he starts acting silly like that.”

But Nathaniel, like Tiffany, becomes more violent when spanked. On a couple of occasions, he had held his fist up as if to strike me. This is not the first time he has called me a honky bitch.

I call on David and Kevin; their names are already on the board four times each for. talking. I call Kevin over and tell him he will get a paddling if he doesn’t behave.

When I had told Kevin’s mother about his disruptive behavior, she had responded that I wasn’t hitting him hard enough.

I finally call the circle group over. This is my low group, working on first grade level. There are eight children in this group. By the end of the year, four of them will still not be able to perform basic addition and subtraction, even though they will receive extra help from the math resource teacher three times a week. But because of the DISD policy of social promotion, they will all be passed on to the fourth grade.

The children sit down, squabbling among themselves. I quiet them and begin the lesson. Then Camilla lets out a yelp.

“Kevin kicked me!”

I put Kevin in the corner, another daily occurrence, and continue with the lesson. The children are listening and responding well. Then Bettina slugs David.

“He pinched me!”

I stand David next to me. I am sure he deserved the clout, though I must reprimand Bettina for responding violently. David must be watched constantly, or else he will start throwing books, talking, pinching, hitting – anything for attention. By year’s end, he will have spent many hours in the corner. He will also be found engaging in sexual activities with two other children, and his father will ask me how to discipline him.

1 hurry to finish the lesson, but I have to watch all the children, including those at their seats, to keep them from bothering one another. At 9:10 I send this group back to their seats and call the middle group. There are 11 children in this group, and they are working in a second grade math book.

I hear yelling in one of the other areas. A child has just called one of the other teachers a bitch. She is paddling him, and he is screaming that he will tell his mother and she’ll come up and “take care” of that teacher. We have had teachers threatened by parents, though it is uncommon.

My children are out of their seats, laughing, straining to see what is going on. 1 tell them to sit down and get on with their work. They sit down, but continue watching. I send the math group back to their seats and look at the clock.

9:25. Math time has been over for ten minutes.

The children clear their tables and prepare for science. Today we are discussing amphibians; we list their characteristics, and the children label a worksheet. Science is a relief, since we teach the children as a group. There are few behavior problems, because I can watch them and walk around among them

After science I give the children reading worksheets and begin putting the reading, spelling, language arts, and handwriting assignments on the board for the three groups. It can easily take 15 minutes to write and explain the assignments. There must be enough work to keep each group busy at their seats for an hour and a half, and it must be work they can do independently, since I will not be able to help them while I am teaching other groups.

As I am writing out the assignments, a girl appears at my side, complaining of a headache. I tell her to sit down and see if it feels better in 30 minutes. She complains of a headache every day. It is not unusual for children with emotional problems to complain of physical pains. In Sharletha’s case, the nurse had discovered that she had jumped from a second-story window the year before to keep from getting a spanking from her mother

“Try and get her to open up to you,” the nurse had told me. “She’s obviously fond of you. It doesn’t make sense to me that a child would voluntarily jump out of a second-story window

I was never able to learn more about the incident, but as the year progressed Sharletha’s headaches seemed to improve.

Two children come to me from Mrs. Ward’s area, bringing my total number to 31. They have progressed beyond their teacher’s bottom group, which is working in the middle first grade reader. My group is just beginning their second grade reader. There are now 12 children in this group.

As one child brings her chair, she accidentally brushes another child, who promptly turns around and slugs her. She begins to cry

“Michael hit me!” she wails.

“She was meddlin’!” Michael insists, scowling fiercely. I call them over, remind Michael that accidents happen, but that it is not cause to hit somebody. We settle it, apologies are exchanged, and the group is seated. Meanwhile David has ended up in the corner, and Kevin is standing next to me, arms folded across his chest (to prevent him from hitting the others)

I look at the clock. 10:10. My head is throbbing. We go through the lesson, but half my efforts are directed toward holding the children’s attention and keeping them from bickering and fighting among themselve

10:35. The lesson is over. I send the children back to their seats, six at a time. To send them all back at once is to ask for trouble. When they are seated, I call my middle group. These children are in the middle of the second grade reader, a year below level. Again, I have 12 children in this group. We pass out readers and open them.

As I call on the first child to read, a hush comes over the center. I look up to see the principal. He comes to my area, black notebook and pen in hand, and walks slowly through the classroom, checking the seat-work the children have been given, asking them questions. I feel my anger rise. This is the third consecutive day that he has been in my area. And I know why.

Three days before, all the third grade teachers had received written reprimands from Mr. Stevens for not having some paperwork in on time. One of the resource teachers had claimed we were late. We insisted that she had only casually requested the work at lunchtime, and agreed that we could turn it in that afternoon. Yet the next day the reprimands were in our boxes, and would be put in our files.

Furious, Mrs. Ward and I had gone in to complain to Mr. Stevens. Why hadn’t he checked with the teachers? Mrs. Ward was the team leader and had a right to know ahead of time if there were any complaints about the third grade team. The paperwork had been completed on time because teachers worked three to four hours a night at home. In typical fashion, he gave no answers, though he did agree he should have asked if the teachers had their work ready before writing out the reprimands. But the reprimands would not be revoked.

So every day since he has been in my area with his black notebook. He stays for about 20 minutes, never addressing me or even acknowledging my presence. When he leaves, I send the children back to their seats. I look at the clock. 11:10.

I would later have another disagreement with Mrs. Doyle and Mrs. Thompson, the resource administrator, about resource teachers discussing my students’ progress with their parents without consulting me. Some of my parents had been complaining about receiving conflicting reports.

“You tell me one thing and she tells me another,” one disgruntled parent complained. “Who is in charge

In this case, the resource teacher was not even working with the child. I never understood where she got her “facts.”

Another teacher was asked the same question by a confused parent.

“She is just the classroom teacher,” the reading resource teacher had replied. “I am the resource teacher.”

After futilely attempting to discuss the problem with the resource teachers, I went to Mr. Stevens.

“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” I told him. “The reading resource teachers don’t even know what skills we’re working on in the classroom, yet they’re supposed to be reinforcing them.”

During the next few months, at least a half dozen other teachers would tell him the same thing. But nothing ever changed. He would answer the questions, one at a time, defending the resource teachers and reaffirming their position within the school. After my second disagreement with the resource teachers, Mr. Stevens appeared daily in my room, notebook in hand.

Now I call my top group over. These children are “on level,” or reading at the appropriate level. There are only seven in this group, and a couple of them are having difficulty keeping up.

At 11:20 I interrupt the reading group to line up the half of the class that goes to music. (They alternate days of going to music or PE.) The reading group breaks up around 11:45, and the children return to their seats.

I remember that this is my hour to check up on the boys’ bathroom. The bathrooms are at the back of the center, and the smell has become nauseating because some of the boys relieve themselves on the floor. To combat the problem, we agreed to take turns checking the bathroom.

When I return, the music group is coming through the door. I watch them carefully. Some of the other classes are running through the center. One teacher is yelling.

I line up the PE group and send them on their way. Thirty minutes until lunch, I remind myself. I sit at my desk and pull out | the Granowsky tests for my bottom reading group.

These tests have caused an uproar among i the teachers. Each child has a Granowsky test, a booklet containing basic competency skills for each grade level. Each child has three booklets-one for reading, writing, and math. They are extremely time con- i suming. There may be up to 31 skills in each | booklet. The teacher is expected to give i each child a pre-test on each skill, deter- | mine which children need to work on that skill, teach those children, give the others reinforcement work, then retest them until the skill is mastered. Then the whole process begins again for the next skill. The teachers must test groups according to the level at which they are working. In other words, if a child is reading in a second grade reader, he is tested in a second grade Granowsky test, even though he could be on first grade level in writing and third grade level in math.

But the actual testing is only the beginning of the paperwork involved with these tests. Each child has two progress forms on which the results of the pre-tests and post-tests for each skill are recorded. The teacher must take all the progress forms, 60 in my case, and record and date the results of each test in a profile book. With some children, it is necessary to test them five or six times before they master a skil

One teacher who complained about the amount of time these tests were taking from her teaching was told by the resource administrator that she took her teaching “too seriously.” She would have to learn to use her class time to get the work done, like everyone els

“That’s right,” another teacher remarked. “You don’t get a pink slip (reprimand) for not teaching

The profile books, Granowsky tests, and progress forms are checked three times a year by resource teachers and facilitators. Most teachers receive notes like the followin

You checked the correct answers rather than circling them on your spelling tests. Go back and circle them.

In Anthony Garrett’s writing booklet, you did not date the pre-test

In your profile book, you checked the skills that were mastered. You are supposed to write a “3” when the skill is mastered.

Then the resource teachers come back and check the “corrections” to be sure they are carried out. Mrs. Ward, who spent an entire weekend working on her forms, received a list of nine such “errors.”

It is 11:55, and I begin to call students up, one at a time, to read some of the sight words in their reading booklets. “Sightwords” are words the child recognizes immediately without having to sound them out. The second grade booklet contains two lists of sight words, each with at least 100 words. Testing a child, particularly a slow reader, requires a great deal of time. Today I will test the children on the first 50 sight words.

Since the group I am now testing has just begun their second grade readers, I must begin new test booklets for each of them on second grade level. The previous week, I had not held reading circle for this group because I had to spend the time retesting first grade skills for those who had not mastered them. Even now, five of the 12 students have not mastered all the first grade skills. But 1 cannot hold back the other seven.

12:15. The PE group returns, and I have the children clear their desks and put their heads on their tables. The two students from Mrs. Ward’s class hand in their work and return to their class. In 30 minutes, I have had time to test only four students on their first 50 sight words. And this is only half of one skill in the booklet.

When the class is quiet, I hand out the free lunch tickets to three-fourths of my class. They line up quietly. Three of the other classes have already left. We start across the center toward the door.

I buy my lunch and go to the lounge, grateful for the break. We have 30 minutes for lunch, but by the time we get the children into the cafeteria and buy our lunches, we have about 20 minutes. This is the only break we have all day. If a teacher needs to use the restroom, she must leave her class unattended.

In the lounge, one of the teachers teases me.

“We saw the big bear in your room today, Ms. Mecke,” she says. “He sure has been in your area a lot this week. What’s he on you about?” We all laugh.

Lunch is over, and we return to the cafeteria. The children are noisier. My patience is thin. Only an hour and a half left, I remember.

We go back into the center but the noise is uproarious. I try to teach social studies- another subject we do as a group – but my children tell me that they cannot hear me. Some are beginning to complain of headaches. One teacher is called to the phone, and her children are out of their seats running around the room. Mrs. Ward goes over and quiets them. Her class remains in their seats, working. Another class begins yelling when their teacher steps out of the room; some are turning cartwheels. I go to their area and quiet them. I’ve given up any attempt at teaching social studies orally. Instead, I pass out worksheets and write the instructions on the board. My head is throbbing.

Mrs. Ward pokes her head over the bookshelf.

“This is like a three-ring circus, only with five rings”

I have to agree with her.

1:20. My bottom reading group goes to the reading resource teachers. They go twice a week for special help, provided the resource teachers are not busy doing something “more important,” such as checking teacher profile books, or making centerpieces for luncheons. It is not unusual for them to cancel classes for an entire week to check up on teacher paperwork. In the course of the year, they take my children about 60 per cent of the scheduled time.

While one reading group is gone, I teach language arts to the other two. The center is still noisy and my head is pounding, so I don’t try to talk over the commotion.

I had planned to teach punctuation skills, but because of the noise we practice handwriting. Both groups are working on cursive.

I sit down to help the children individually. At 1:55 the other group returns from the resource teachers. Kevin and David come in scuffling, so I walk them to their seats. Denise and Bobbi have another quarrel, so I put each one in a corner. Other children need disciplining, but I’ve run out of corners. They must stand behind their desks, arms folded. Many are angry and pouting.

I start an art project for those who have finished their work and don’t have their names on the board. Only eight children meet the requirements. The rest must finish their work or write lines about their behavior.

2:20. Those who are ready line up to go home. Today I keep nine children after school to finish their work. Mrs. Ward has eight. Some are crying, some are going to tell their mamas on us.

Overall, the children were with me in the classroom for six hours, but the amount of actual instruction time each child received, excluding PE, music, and art, amounted to only two hours and 20 minutes -20 minutes for math and 30 minutes each for science, reading, social studies, and language arts.

Mr. Stevens comes over the intercom. There will be a staff meeting at 2:40.

“You are lucky,” I tell the children. “Hand in what you have done.”

The staff meeting lasts more than 30 minutes. Mr. Stevens discusses routine policy: teacher paperwork that is not being handed in on time; the noise level in the centers; our responsibilities as educators to help cut back on violence in the black community; the district’s policy on corporal punishment.

We all know the district’s discipline policy: “Don’t spank, but don’t feel bad if you have to.” The rule is as ambiguous as its enforcement, and every school has its stories about principals who do not support their teachers. One of the teachers at our school, voted Teacher of the Year by her peers, received a written reprimand from Mr. Stevens because a parent had accused her of child abuse. Her crime: She had pulled a child from under a table when the child refused to come out. Later the mother came to the school, pointed to a small mark on the child’s arm, and claimed that it was a carpet burn.

A teacher raises her hand and asks what he suggests we do when so many of the children need so much discipline. He rambles on about giving them enough work to keep them busy. A couple of teachers laugh out loud. He offers the questioning teacher a book on disciplinary procedures. No one is surprised at his response. If you have a question about discipline, just read a book on the subject.

After the meeting I return to my room to straighten up my desk and shelves. It is time to go. I haven’t had time to grade a single paper, so I pack them to take home with me. We are seldom able to use our planning time (2:30-3:35) to plan because there are always staff meetings, team meetings, special program committee meetings, meetings to discuss new procedures, testing, and anything else that might arise.

Teachers have complained about the situation numerous times to Mr. Stevens. His response: Meetings are to be considered part of planning time.

As I gather my papers, Mrs. Ward comes over to say good-bye. Later in the year, after handing in her resignation, she will tell me that she hoped her experience in the DISD had not destroyed her desire to teach.

“I taught five years in another city and I loved it. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a teacher, but here the administration treats us like we’re the children.”


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