Are police facing their own version of VAM? This is the first in a series of columns for The Wave exploring the areas where teaching and policing intersect.
Published Dec. 19, 2014
Teaching and Policing
With the issues facing the police nationally and here in New York City, I began to think about the amount of policing I had to do as a teacher. From my earliest days, it was clear that a successful teacher was often defined as being able to control the kids and keep order in the classroom, in the halls, in the lunchroom, in the auditorium, and especially on class trips, which I took often, mostly on the subways and through the streets of Manhattan where keeping the kids in order was a primary matter.
Minimal teacher competence was judged on the ability to keep order. In some schools, that was the sole criterion and a few teachers focused on that aspect to the exclusion of so much else that goes into teaching. My school, in one of the toughest, high poverty areas of Brooklyn, also had a very large contingent of special needs children with emotional issues, many of them volatile. Thus, there were times when even teachers with good control might face situations where children were recalcitrant in following directions or showing respect towards the authorities in the school.
Thinking about the Eric Garner story and how he reacted to the attempt to arrest him reminded me of many incidents I faced as a teacher. “I’m taking you to the dean;” with a response “I’m not going.” Sometimes we called a supervisor. But, what if they weren’t available? I reviewed what went through my mind at these times, often anger and frustration, along with fears that my authority would be undermined if I didn’t take immediate action, especially when I was a young and inexperienced teacher. Saving face and maybe a bit too much testosterone at times made me take actions I came to regret, especially when I put my hands on a student, which immediately made things worse. Luckily I learned from my mistakes and evolved more effective tactics.
Special needs teachers I worked with taught me invaluable lessons. If someone is acting out with anger and irrationality, there are a whole range of reasons for those reactions and even without knowing the reason, a teacher must have an understanding and try to deal with the situation in a rational manner, with an eye towards consequences. That is not easy in the heat of the moment but try to imagine the outcomes for a teacher or group of teachers.
One of the first things I learned as a new teacher was not to let a child run out of the room. “What if they ran out of the building and into the street and got hit by a car,” was the mantra? So when that happened some teachers tried to restrain the children. Or if not possible, call the office. Before the witch hunts began against teachers under Bloomberg, a teacher had some room if they tried restraint. A former colleague of mine who covered other teachers during their preps was covering a class with an emotionally disturbed child who was supposed to get counseling during that period but the counselor never showed up. The girl ran out of the room twice and returned. When she tried it the third time the teacher grabbed her and sat her into a seat, in the process pulling a button off and grazing her cheek with the side of her finger nail, leaving a slight red mark. The principal, who hated that teacher, incited the parent to file charges and shortly after, five cops came to the school to arrest the teacher who was taken out in handcuffs and spent half the night in the precinct before being released. The case was dropped by the police, but not by the Department of Education, which put the teacher in the rubber room for years and brought her up for a 3020a dismissal hearing, which I attended. She was suspended for a year without pay. Stories like that sends chills down the spine of teachers, some of whom have faced charges for yelling at kids, now known as “verbal abuse.”
I’m not totally trying to equate the jobs police on the street do with teacher policing functions but there are some similarities in the process of how things can escalate, as they did in the Garner situation. Now with calls for police to face more scrutiny for their actions, they may face some of the same type of issues teachers have been facing – like attempts to use Compstat data to measure the performance of individual police. Recently there have been reports on the number of “resisting arrests” or lawsuits some cops have against them and that might lead to a measurement system one day, along the lines with the Value-Added Model evaluation being used for teachers. Police are also undergoing retraining.
I’ll explore some of these issues next time.
Norm blogs — with little restraint — at ednotesonline.org.