Within Stone Walls: The Breeding of Teacher Apathy and Student Violence

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It was my first day of teaching, back in in 1983. Though that was nearly 36 years ago and I am no longer in the field, recent contact with teachers around the country have proven to me that not much has changed.

The following anecdote is relevant.

Brooklyn College had allowed me to effectively double the value of my new job, as an as-yet licensed speech-language therapist in a private Staten Island school for autistic children and adults, for credited student-teaching experience. To evade the state licensing requirements, they would call me a “teacher” with a degree in progress. Following an extensive series of prerequisite courses in Abnormal Psychology, I had begun coursework proper towards my Special Education major, so that caveat was easily provable.

They had expressed they strongly wanted another “guy” there, as they only had one, and were willing to game to system a bit to make that happen.

During a break on my first day on the job, I was ushered into a corridor for “help.” One of the more severe students, in terms of disability, was 12 years old and weighed in excess of 300 pounds. I was told after the incident that, though it was my first day, the primary reason I was called to help was not to initiate me in any way but because “no one else is strong enough to handle her anymore.”

Others have been injured trying.

“Aurora” (name changed) had sat on the floor and begun screaming and masturbating. She stuck her hands down her shorts then waved her fingers in front of her teachers and therapists to smell them. I was told this routine was her “regular behavior” when she was being “non-compliant.” I was disgusted, yet, again, it was my first day on the job and I thought turning down a request for help wouldn’t be the smartest of all options.

I helped lift her to her feet, with three other teachers, and escorted her into a padded time-out room. A primary teacher would sit in a chair and watch while Aurora rolled on the mats until signaling she was done.

Her hands, by the way, were by now tied with a zip cuff so she would be unable to touch herself.

Upon Aurora’s signal — a nod and a smile — the zip cuffs were removed, and Aurora returned on her own power to her classroom. I asked the teacher who sat with her how she and the other staff were able to emotionally handle incidents such as this.

I’ve never forgotten the answer: “You become immune to it like it’s just another day. Then you go home, get drunk and come back tomorrow. Friday you get your check.”

An hour or so later, I was summoned by the Principal. She had thanked me for my efforts, and expressed apologies that I had to see “all this” on my first day. I asked her how she handled it all.

“We get drunk.” She laughed, told me she was kidding, and thanked me again before I returned to my classroom.

Consider: If the preceding words were difficult to read, imagine what it was like to be an in-person participant. I asked myself, Why wasn’t I learning about these extreme possibilities in college? I had been taking coursework about all sorts of developmental disabilities, and nothing like this was mentioned. I asked around. According to disenchanted associates with whom I had shared the incident, theory and statistics were far more important in training teachers than reality.

Who could have been prepared for this?

P.S. The following day, by the way, the Principal reeked of alcohol. It seems she needed a regular release too.

What’s Changed?

Over the intervening years, I remained in touch with several teachers and informally conversed with many more. Many of the stories are staggering in their similarity.

I left the profession over 15 years ago, after teaching on and off for a decade, to pursue my ambitions as a working writer and multi-media producer. Many years since my self-imposed retirement from the field, two of my former students committed suicide and another was killed in a gunfight with cops. See here for the latter: https://medium.com/@joeleisenberg/his-name-was-daniel-7c0c590f3160

Despite what Aurora’s time-out companion had said, I had been unable to become “immune” to any of this.

2018. Teacher turnover is at an all-time high. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 17% of all U.S. public school teachers leave the profession after the first year, and 40% leave after five. Special education teachers, inclusive of private and non-public schools, exceed the national average of public school turnover by nearly 20%.

Males remain a scarce commodity in special education classrooms.

And school violence, including shootings, are at an all-time high. At the time of this writing, 55 people, including those directly responsible, were killed in U.S. school shootings. According to “Everytown,” a gun control advocacy group, 86 incidents occurred where a firearm discharged “a live round inside or into a school building, or on or onto a school campus or grounds, as documented by the press.” A U.S. Naval Postgraduate School pegs the incident figure higher, at 94 school gun violence incidents in 2018 alone. Regardless, both figures are the highest on record, year-to-date.

This essay, however, is not about school shootings. It is about what goes on behind school walls — the bullying, the fighting, what happens when an abject shortcoming on the part of many training or licensing institutions fails to express to prospective teachers certain realities of the profession, restrictive instructor regulations, parents being lied to, and a subsequent mutual degree of student and teacher apathy and resentment—that foments the issues at hand.

Analogous to the purpose of this piece is when one is ill. We go to the doctor; we get help. We take a pill. In other words, we handle the symptoms and do what we must to recover.

The U.S. school system, which I define as the training universities, and the collective of public, private, and non-public schools, has been lacking for years and is getting worse. To be clear, there absolutely are dedicated and effective teachers in the field. I am not convinced, however, that they are the majority. Also, as it regards private schools particularly, though many are effective as they do not necessarily follow statewide restrictive guidelines for student-teacher instruction and interaction, incidents tend be be more severe when they do occur for the same reason. I am including private schools here only in reference to those that do typically follow restrictive statewide guidelines.

Reality Hits Hard

We are all familiar with the term, “Let’s be real.” And so I will be. Our students are our future. They will be our leaders one day. Without effective teachers, our youth is being unleashed into a harsh world that may well become harsher under their leadership.

The system is failing our teachers, and our teachers are subsequently failing our students. The primary reason, as I see it, is that colleges are not preparing the teachers for certain brutal realities once a job is attained.

What is learned as theory had little to do with reality.

I was working at a non-public school, designated as such — as opposed to “private” — due to having to follow certain Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) guidelines for a substantial portion of their funding. I was teaching high school; my population was at-risk youth.

One of my students, “Lot” (name changed) was Israeli. She carried herself as goth, usually dressed all in black with the requisite (black) fingernails and lipstick, and was an immensely creative writer and graphic artist. One morning, she entered the classroom wearing a Marilyn Manson T-shirt. The shirt displayed only an image of his face, no words.

(It is important to note that this scenario was prior to the Columbine tragedy, where the musician found himself in the cross hairs as among the true parties responsible for possibly influencing the shooters. I do not believe that Marilyn Manson’s lyrics were sending covert messages, nor do I believe in any sort of underground network at play to where that horrific incident was part of a larger conspiracy. I believed then as now that Marilyn Manson was a convenient scapegoat. Yes, music can certainly influence our kids. Yes, video games can as well. And so on. It’s an argument that I will address at a future time but not in this piece’s opening chapter.)

The Principal entered the classroom. This was typical and I daresay even responsible, as she made her rounds to every class, every morning, to take stock of the numbers and mood of each room. What followed, though, was to me questionable:

“I need you to tell her to turn her T-shirt inside-out,” the Principal said, before turning her back to leave the room.

I followed her. “Why?” The person who asked was the artist in me, the individual who championed free expression.

“I’m sorry?” She was not happy. The students could not hear; by this point we were standing outside the door, and I was holding it shut.

I knew I was risking my Principal’s goodwill at this point. We had gotten along fine to then. “I don’t understand,” I said. “She hasn’t provoked anyone. Her grades are high. You asked me to have her turn her shirt — ”

Nothing more was said. The Principal reopened the door, told the student what to do and to do it in front of her. The student protested and refused, as the Principal argued that she was wearing other shirts underneath and warned her not to be “manipulative.”

The student looked at me. I didn’t publicly take her side but neither did I support the Principal, who in seconds called for crisis interventionists on her walkie-talkie to escort the student from class and into her office.

By then, the classroom was in an uproar over what they shouted was “unfair.” It was, actually. The student was quiet by nature, and tended to mind her business. She was placed in this specific classroom due to her parents having left her alone at 12. She lived in an on-site group home.

Two crisis interventionists arrived, the student panicked and knocked down desks in a subsequent (losing) battle to run away. This was her first incident in the eight months I had taught at this location, and it did not have to happen.

The Principal turned to me before she left, and told me I needed to speak to her at the end of the day.

That conversation never transpired.

I quit.

I returned, however, to the job nearly a year later following some exploratory phone calls on my side. I was confronting a personal pull. I felt that I had a lot to offer these kids. I was a writer, I was creative, and I had a big heart when it came to them. If only I could teach, I thought, while keeping school politics at bay, it would be worth the effort.

To my surprise, I was hired back. The student with the Marilyn Manson shirt had since relocated to another school, out of state. All was fine for about three months. Then, a similar occurrence transpired. A student took great offense at something he was blamed for by a therapist but did not do. I was a witness. Another student lied and said he touched her inappropriately. He had said something to her from across the room; she said in my presence she’d get him back. She left the room. Moments later she returned with a therapist, who called out the alleged perpetrator and asked him to come with her.

The student refused. Again, crisis intervention was called, and the student was forcibly dragged into an awaiting vehicle to be driven somewhere off-site (I do not recall where). The interventionist left, and the student began kicking the windows. I was asked to watch him so he didn’t leave the vehicle. The door opened, and he started kicking and punching me in a rage. He tried biting me and escaping the vehicle. I pulled him out so I could contain him …

And I was suspended for three weeks thereafter for ignoring my P.A.R.T. Training, physical intervention techniques we all needed to follow when the need called for it.

I returned from my suspension, and permanently resigned from the school a week later.

The second situation occurred at a non-public school in Sylmar. I was assigned another high school class after, once again, electing to continue my education career. If the prior school was tough, this one was exponentially amped.

I’m Jewish, and bore the brunt of anti-Semitism like never before. See my article linked above for more on that matter. Any epithet, racial and otherwise personal, that could have been conceived, was slung my way. I was not the only target, though. The majority of the teachers in the school were similarly disrespected. As for new teachers, most lasted only days on the job and frequently left in tears.

Administrators said we needed to “take it,” and emphatically not engage. This is not unusual psychology in dealing with difficult students. But students are difficult for a myriad of reasons, and working with them — in their individual modality — is where we fail them.

One school rule does not fit all.

My students were primarily African American and Hispanic. Many if not most were gang kids: Crips, Bloods, and Cholos. Though the majority of the students lived on-site, substance abuse was common; drugs and alcohol both made their way to the group homes and the classrooms. More than once, a teacher or teacher assistant, or other staff member, was considered the responsible party and summarily dealt with.

In the midst of receiving personal insults the likes of which may be considered too severe even for a hard-R-rated film, I noticed something. Those insults were creative. Not unlike freestyle rapping, a talent which (for better or worse) all of my students were skilled, that name-calling came from a place down deep.

A place most teachers who had not experienced their backgrounds may not have been able to survive.

With permission from the Assistant Principal, I went off-curriculum and began a creative writing class. In that 45-minute period daily, you couldn’t hear a sound. The class became hugely popular, as these students could not wait to get to their notebooks and write about their lives.

Few have ever read such heart-wrenching material. Some wrote poetry, others short stories, others autobiographies. All of them focused on aspects of their past environments, who they were as individuals and what they needed to do to survive. All of this checked out when I poured over student files. The kids were neither lying nor manipulating on paper.

They were being honest.

The class was pulled from me when the Principal read a selection of the work and was aghast. I was threatened with my job if I continued. The kids were angry when I told them I could no longer continue the writing class, and they knew straight away.

Two of them asked for a meeting with the Principal. Two Bloods. After the meeting, which I was told was civil, the Principal again, this time passive-aggressively, threatened my job.

“Mr. Eisenberg, you know what happens to teachers’ jobs when they engage the students?”

“Yeah,” I said. I was angry. “Peace. Calm. Not being called a ‘Jew bastard’ or my ‘girl’ being called a ‘cocksucker’ for 45 minutes. Yeah, I know exactly.”

“But you’re married,” she said. “They don’t know. Why take it seriously?”

The rest of the conversation didn’t go well, but we parted with the mutual understanding that I would “follow the rules.”

The next week, I had my yearly physical. I was in my late-30s, and my blood pressure was 167/110. The doctor said I was headed towards a heart attack. I was of normal weight and I had thought in good physical condition.

I left on disability, returned three months later … and quit when a student (as referenced in the linked article) threatened violence with a knife. The administration dismissed the threat.

I couldn’t do it anymore. I was looking forward to beginning my writing career in earnest anyway.

I’ve been thinking over the years of writing a book with the main title of this series of articles: “Within Stone Walls.” I still may, as I’ve been speaking to far too many teachers or former teachers of late who have undergone similar experiences. Message on repeat: Without our supported and effective teachers, what will become of our students? In 2009, I executive produced a film, “April Showers,” that was based on the Columbine tragedy but, being honest, barely made a blip in the national conversation.

It was time then to get serious about the issues. It’s far past time now.

To Be Continued

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