Memoirs of a Misfit Ruler

Wherein we make like Marcel Proust and recall our humorous encounters with the trappings of power and authority in my local elementary school.

Click the triangle or mp3 link above to hear our tale, as broadcast today on Arts Express on WBAI FM NY and Pacifica stations across the nation.

Letter To A Principal

brown paper envelope on table

Photo by John-Mark Smith on


My last day of working in a NYC public school was in June of last year. I had been coaching teachers and working with students the previous four years at a public International High School in NYC, and I had been teaching for two decades before that as well. When I went to tell the principal at the end of the school year that I would not be returning, she asked me what my thoughts were on improving the school. I told her I would write her a letter. Here are some excerpts of that letter I wrote to her.


I greatly appreciated it when you asked me what my thoughts were about how the school could be improved. I wasn’t expecting that, and it shows a real commitment to education and the school to ask that…

As soon as one walks into this school, its greatest strength is immediately apparent: a sense of community and a sense of caring by teachers and administrators… That tone always comes from the top and is transmitted throughout the school, to the teachers first, a sense that their contributions and thoughts and lives are valued. That in turn is transmitted to the students, again, that their lives are valuable and that they are valued, that that is the whole point of this thing. And it’s not easy for the school leader, because in a very bureaucratic structure, one is always pressured to produce results with metrics and standards that are often meaningless to anyone but those in the bureaucracy. And the pressures can be substantial, as you well know. It takes personal courage and conviction to stand one’s ground in the face of those above as to what ultimately and really is most important for one’s school and one’s students, and the development of a democratic, egalitarian society. And when teachers and students sense that this is where the person at the top stands, a true community is born.

We live in the real world, so I must talk about the real world. Particularly with respect to our international students and the current political climate, I think it is important that our school forms alliances to protect itself from the vultures all around. First off, I think it important to build further alliances with the other public schools in the building. [The charter school in the building] is going to try to keep chipping away at any free space in the building it can. I’ve seen it happen elsewhere, we are not immune. I’ve seen it come to the point where schools which once had classroom space were squeezed out of their own homes and facilities. The alliance with other public school principals in the building is so important. We presently have a building-wide sports team; I think it might be worth investigating other areas where we can encourage other programs across schools. For example, we might be able to address the economics of Advanced Placement programs by having building-wide AP programs, one school supplying an AP English class for example, while another school provides an AP Spanish class (wouldn’t that be great for our students to be building on their strengths!) or AP Computer class. And building-wide orchestra and band classes, funded by outside grants…

It’s very important that the Network principals come to an understanding what they stand for, independently of what the Network Superintendent’s official position is. I will be very frank here: I do not know anything at all about the present Network superintendent, so what I am saying is not based on anything personal. I only say that Superintendents come and go easily, it is a politically sensitive position, and there have been times in the past when they didn’t even understand what the mission of our schools was, even while they were supposed to be leading it. It is up to you and the rest of the principals to keep that flame alive, and you can only do that by communicating and working together with the other principals and together taking the lead.

Frankly—and I’m probably over-stepping my bounds here, but here I go—I am very, very disappointed with some of the principals and the principal’s union in this city. Where are their voices??? Why is it only the teacher’s union that you see and hear consistently trying to get money for students and schools? Why is it only the teachers who are the public face of the pro-immigration and anti-charter movements here in NYC? Teachers have been so demonized in the public sphere that our clout on such issues have been lessened; but principals as school leaders should be talking out as a group about these issues and taking strong public stands about what helps to make their schools run best. Instead of fighting among themselves over a dwindling pot of money, dwindling resources, dwindling physical space, dwindling support staff, onerous bureaucratic rules, onerous amounts of standardized testing, and absurd evaluation schemes, principals, too, must stand together and say, “Enough. We are the experts. This is what we need, these are the conditions, money and resources for a school to run effectively, and for our teachers to teach our children effectively.” Which principals are going to speak up at a principal’s union meeting and bring these issues up to the union leadership and ask them to take a public stand for once? The principals should asking—demanding—that their resources and money not be stolen from them by the charters getting free space and disbursements at their expense. Principals could have great collective power, if they used it.

Okay, back to immediate school issues…

One of the most troubling things I have experienced at this school was the way that the boys’ bathroom was treated: continually trashed. Because that to me is a symptom of students not feeling as if they are a part of the community; it is a symptom of feeling that the school and teachers have one set of interests, but the students see their own interests are different. In no small part, the task of staff at most urban high schools is to effect that transition in students’ minds, where they go from seeing the school as an adversary, to understanding it as an ally for their future plans. In most schools in poor neighborhoods I have taught in, that shift does not occur until late junior year or senior year. I am happy to say that here at this school I see it happen more often in 10th grade or early 11th grade. And that is because after a disoriented 9th grade, students soon begin to see themselves as part of the school community. They pick up pretty quickly that we’re here to further their dreams.

But for some students, the idea of a better life just seems too impossible, and they don’t get it, and they try to put themselves outside the community by vandalizing. Our biggest ally in such cases are their older peers. When some 9th grade Yemeni boys were trashing the bathroom, the teachers figured out that we had to get to the 12th grade Yemeni boys, and explain to them, that just as they had matured from being knuckleheaded 9th graders who didn’t understand what the school was about, they had to explain to the present 9th graders how we do things in this school, and how the school has helped them. While it didn’t entirely solve the problem, some of the worst instances abated…

One last thing: one of the best staff building practices I encountered was the tradition we had at my old school to spend a morning set aside at the end of each school year to have staff reflections. Staff and admins would sit in a circle and read out loud their reflections about the year that had just past. They were the joys, sorrows, successes, frustrations, new ideas, hopes, dreams that we wished to share. There was no set format. Some wrote poems, some wrote essays (not as long as this, thank goodness!) most were serious, some were not. But we all did it, even as we complained and scrambled the night before, or morning of, to complete it. And it was one of the most powerful things we did: to sit and go round the circle and take the time to hear each other’s humanness, and understand how hard this thing we try to do is, and see each other and ourselves anew as the year wound down. It gave hope for the next year. The written reflections were all collected, photocopied, and a full set given to each member of the community.

I knew my old school was on the way down when the new admins did away with that reflection tradition “in the interest of time.” If you want teachers to go above and beyond, to do the real thing, then they have to be given a lot of autonomy, support, resources, and their deeper humanity has to be recognized.

Each teacher has so much more to give than may be evident on the surface. They would love to share their talents if given the opportunity, support and resources. Reflections provide a window into who each teacher is as a full human being…

I am confident that you have the strength to stand up for what you know is right in this time: to continue to build a vibrant democratic community of engaged and engaging human beings working to understand this world and each other.

Thanks again for giving me this opportunity to make my last years of teaching real and useful. That is the best gift any principal can give to a teacher.




Gun Shy


My friend Alan who is a prolific playwright asked me if I’d like to write a very short three-minute curtain raiser for his new play reading. I said yes, having no idea at all what I would write. As it happened, the Parkland school shootings and the government response were still on my mind, so out came this merry little sketch.


Gun Shy


Mother in the breakfast room; two children ages seven and eight (should be played by adults) offstage.

Mother: Justin, c’mon you’re going to be late to school.

Justin: (off) I’m coming.

Mother: You, too, Mercy, the school bus is going to be here any moment.

Mercy: (off) I’m coming. Give me a chance. (Justin enters with backpack on hand)

Mother: Look at you. Your hair’s a mess. And what about your sweater?

Justin: Yes, Mom. I have it.

Mother: And did you remember about your homework?

Justin: Really, Mom, you don’t have to remind us about every little thing. (Mercy comes down with her backpack in hand)

Mother: Can’t you get yourself together a little earlier so you don’t have to rush each morning?

Mercy: I’m sorry I was just packing up my backpack. We have a lot of equipment for our new class. And it’s so lame, they make us drag everything back and forth.

Mother: What class is that?

Mercy: Oh, the target class.

Mother: Target class?

Justin: It’s a new required class we have to take in school. We have to be able to kill 65% of potential intruders in order to pass the class, graduate, and go on to middle school.

Mother: How do they know if you’ve done that?

Justin: Well, a wound in one limb counts as a score of 30%, an eye counts for a score of 25%, for a kill you obviously get a 100.

Mercy: Well, unless someone else hits the guy first, in which case you only get 50% for an assist. It’s so unfair. So the thing to do is, if you can’t get a clean kill, try to mix and match so that it adds up to over 65%.

Justin: So two eyes and you pass.

Mercy: No you idiot, that doesn’t add up. That’s only 50—25 and 25.

Justin: I’m not good in math. It’s not my fault. My math teacher only has one eye. She was mistaken for an intruder.

Mother: Well all right, put on your backpacks. Wait a second. What’s that you got in there?

Mercy: Just a gun.

Mother: Oh. Okay. And what’s that?

Mercy: That’s another gun. Hi-powered, semi-automatic.

Mother: All right. (to Justin) You’re looking very guilty young man. And what’s that ?

Justin (ashamed looking down at the floor) Gum.

Mother: Gum? Gun or Gum?

Justin: Uh, Gum.

Mother: Oh my gosh. What is wrong with you? Hand that over young man. You should know by now you’re not allowed to chew gum in school. It’s not allowed. It’s really disrespectful to the teachers and staff. Didn’t I bring you up right?

Justin: I’m sorry. I just couldn’t…

Mercy: Ooh I’m telling.

Justin: Be quiet, you.

Mother: I am really, really so disappointed in you, Justin. Wrigley’s Spearmint. The most deadly flavor. In my day, you know what we did with students who brought gum to school? (pause) We shot them. Of course we were only allowed to graze them in my days. Old-fashioned I suppose, but the world has moved on. I guess you can’t stop progress. I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, Justin.

Mercy: (reluctantly) Ohhh…I guess you can have one of mine. But not the AR-15. Just one of the handguns.

Mother: That’s really kind and unselfish of you, Mercy. Maybe I did bring you kids up right after all. (Sound of bus horn honking) Okay here’s the bus. (kids run off) Don’t forget your lunches. Love ya. And children—No chewing in class! Knock ‘em dead!

Class Rules


(Click to enlarge)

Shandaken Historical Museum,

Pine Hill, New York

Thanks to Museum Director Kathleen Myers for drawing my attention to this. The museum itself is housed in a former school house, dating back to 1925.


Come Blow Your Horn


A few days a week I work at a public high school for new immigrants here in New York City, and one of my students, Lamine, asked me to act with him in a scene from a play for the school’s Talent Show. So we worked up the following which you can see in the clip above.

It was a lot of fun to prepare and perform. The student audience last Thursday really appreciated the dynamics of the father-son story: the son has just moved out of his parents’ house to his older brother’s apartment, leaving only a letter behind to announce his decision. He thinks he’s on his way to a hot date–but when the doorbell rings, it’s his father.

Notes From The Field: Anna Deveare Smith Explores the School-to-Prison Pipeline




Anna Deveare Smith portrays 17 different people—students, teachers, parents, judges, Congessmen, social justice workers—in her new, almost one-woman play, Notes from the Field. Your intrepid reporter reviewed it for WBAI radio yesterday.

Click on the gray triangle to listen.

Memorable Mathematics



I teach mathematics to new immigrants to the United States. Though the students are of high school age, some of them had not had any formal schooling in their own country. Yesterday, one student, a West African girl to whom I have been teaching basic arithmetic, was struggling with her twos and fives multiplication tables. We worked for a while with only some success, and then she turned to me brightly and said,  “Ask me 379 times 13.” I was a little skeptical, but I wrote it out on the paper in front of us, the 13 beneath the 379. She looked at the example quizzically, and said, “Are you sure that’s how you write it?” So I wrote it across in a line, and she became much happier. “Ahh,” she said, “that’s 4,927.”

I thought about it for a few moments and realized she was correct. I was stunned. A minute ago she was having trouble with five times six; now she was answering this difficult multiplication problem seemingly in her head. I asked her how she knew.

She smiled at me and said, “I saw it in a movie in my country. In the movie, there was a school, and the teacher in the classroom put that example on the board. I have been waiting for someone to ask me 379 x 13 ever since!”

Reflections On A Year of Teaching


(At the end of each year, in the urban public high school where I taught mathematics for more than a decade and a half,  we would write our reflections concerning what happened that past year. We always felt stressed out writing these essays, because it came at such a busy time: final papers and tests to grade, graduations to prepare, parents to meet, classrooms to clean; but, in the end, when the entire staff got together in one big circle, and each read his or her reflection to the rest of the staff, it was one of the most powerful, affirming things about the job. When a new principal ended this ritual in the interest of time, I knew the school was headed  downwards . . . Here’s one of those reflections. Looking back, it makes me smile at the guy who took so long to figure out the basics . . .)

 Jack’s Reflection 2003

After several recent rocky years of teaching, including taking a year off because I was so mentally deranged, I’ve come to my best, least stressful, and favorite year of teaching in a career of teaching in many different kinds of situations. I’m not sure I understand why this is. Some of the reasons lie outside of myself and were the result of happy chance: the advisory full of nice warm students, or the classes with the right mix of superstars and struggling but striving students. So, I think I’ve been lucky this year. But I also think there are reasons that lie within me, and perhaps, if I were able to articulate what those reasons are, I can continue to make things better for myself and perhaps pass on some ideas.

Something changed inside me this year: I made a few conscious decisions and a few less conscious decisions, which I have been trying to understand for myself.  I’ll attempt to lay out some of what I think I’ve figured out this year.

First the conscious decisions: I learned from Kathy [my math teaching partner] that 80% of this job, in this school, with this student population, is selling and cheerleading. I used to think this was beneath me, and besides I probably wouldn’t be very good at it. It turns out I’m pretty good at it, and it does make a difference, a huge difference, in student involvement and engagement. When planning a lesson now I spend three quarters of my time asking myself “How am I going to first engage these students in front of me in the lesson of the day? What’s the hook—what can I do to make them want to hear the story I’m about to tell?” At this point in my teaching career I don’t worry much about the rest of the lesson, I’ve been doing this a long time and it comes out automatically. But if I’ve figured out what the grabber is, then the lesson generally goes well.

The second conscious decision I made was to have fun. It became clear to me if I was bored by a lesson, or if I dreaded teaching a lesson then my students must really be bored. So, if I work to entertain myself, I’ll be entertaining the students too and create a better atmosphere in the class.

These two decisions I realize now were a groping to what I now realize is the basic principle that in teaching and learning everything depends on the student and teacher being in the correct relationship with each other in the correct environment. Gordon [our meditation–sitting History teacher] would say this is a Buddhist realization. This environment is the emotional tone of the relationship, and without a correct emotional tone very little is possible. It is the teacher’s job, perhaps the most important part of the job, to help create that tone.

The key to creating this environment is a basic principle that I was not able to verbalize until I listened to Laura [science teacher] at the Christmas party. She told me how her mentor was giving her feed back on her teaching. Her mentor told her a very interesting thing: you’re a very good teacher and have loads of promise, but your problem right now is that you love your subject too much. More specifically, you love your subject more than you love your students.

As soon as Laura said this to me, a bell went off inside me. This is what I was trying to express to myself, this is the understanding that I had been working toward. Love your subject, yes, but love your students more. This brought to mind two things that I had heard around the same time from Keri [a ninth-grade math teacher] and Harry [a ninth-grade English teacher.] Keri said that it was sometimes more important that her students knew she cared about them than that they knew how to find the slope of a line. In fact, it was that knowledge of caring that allowed them to want to find the slope of a line. And then at a different time, Harry said that in some sense our job is to find something to like even in the most unlikeable student.

So it all begins with the personal relationship with the individual student. Even when we get angry with a student we need to reassure them that we like them, that we’re still there for them. I watched Amy [the school social worker] work with some of our toughest students, and was always amazed with the trust with which they would respond to her. And I noticed that even when she had the harshest things to say to a student she always did it with a smile. Now this is because she’s a nice person but this can work even with those of us like me who aren’t so nice. So, now I smile when a kid makes me mad and I learn to pick my battles. It’s just a simple fact: anger is not a very efficient way of maintaining communication with a student. So now I smile and smile. You can get away with anything.

This semester I tried consciously to actively communicate to each student that I am more interested in them as full, interesting, lively human beings than as receptacles for learning my subject. I purposely ask students in my class on the side how they’re doing in their other subjects, and how their parents are doing. In a sense, I’m trying to say to them I see you. At the same time, I think it is important for students to see me too—and I try to show them that there are other sides of myself than just the teacher. It’s important for teenagers to know that you don’t have to give up your individuality to become successful in the world of adult work.

I guess it sounds like I haven’t talked much about actual teaching. I mean what does this all have to do with students learning the quadratic formula? Don’t kids just need to buckle down more and do more work and improve their skills and get smarter? Yes, of course. But what I am suggesting here is that our students are already pretty smart. What’s stopping them from learning is often not an academic issue but a social issue.

Rereading this I realize that this is getting pretty serious and I don’t mean for it to sound like a term paper but I just want to throw out a few more ideas:

1) The most successful people as adults were not necessarily A students in school. Keep this in mind before you get too exasperated with any particular teenager.

2) It helps to have a realistic definition of success and failure in this job: if a student goes from an F to a D, or a D to a C, that’s a success! Congratulations! Because a student didn’t move from an F to an A, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

3) Students consistently rate the most important quality of a teacher as fairness. Keeping your records straight and giving students frequent feedback as to how they’re doing really helps create trust.

4) For God’s sake, make it interesting for yourself. Use your power in interesting ways.