When I was first accepted into the NYC Teaching Fellows in 2010, I received a near-constant stream of emails and documents preparing me for my new career as a public school teacher in the city. Among them were repeated entreaties to “dress and behave professionally.” Being the kind of person who takes these things seriously, I took them for their word. I showed up to every event, session, and class wearing dress slacks, collared shirt, and tie. I shook hands professionally, made professional statements, and turned in professional work.
Later in the summer, I went for an interview at what would become my workplace this year. I had exchanged a series of highly professional emails with my future principal, Dr. H, tactfully and sensitively inquiring about my future position as a special education teacher and about the learning environment of the school. When, at last, I came in for my official interview, I was a bit taken aback:I had to wander confusedly in search of the entrance of the building, which was obscured behind streets littered with garbage, construction crews, and abandoned parking lots. I knew the school was in a bad neighborhood, but I expected it to be a shining light of hope and learning amidst the chaos outside. Nevertheless, I brushed off these misgivings and went into the building.
As I walked inside, I saw a disheveled janitor leaning over a trashcan slurping haphazardly on a plum, large portions of it pitter-pattering all over the plastic lining. An oversize shirt hung un-tucked halfway down his thighs. “Um… excuse me sir,” I said, “Have you seen Dr. H anywhere around here?” “You’re talking to him, kid.” I stood in disbelief, not because I mistrusted this janitor’s words, but because I could not comprehend the fact that this man, wearing a tattered shirt and leaning disgustingly into a trashcan, was, not a janitor at all; he was, in fact, the principal of the school. As he wiped away the remnants of his meal on the backside of his pants and leaned forward to shake my hand, I took an uneasy step forward and accepted.
To make a long story short, I ended up interviewing well and accepting the job here. What can I say? Job prospects are pretty thin for new and inexperienced teachers. In addition, he promised me that this was the best school in Harlem and that during the actual school year everyone wore uniforms with collared shirts and ties, addressed each other respectfully, and regularly witnessed top students getting accepted into Ivy League Universities. “Great,” I thought, “Maybe this place is not so bad after all.” Looking back, I can’t believe I bought it.
As the summer came to a close, most of my peers were hearing back about more specifics for their new jobs. Virtually everyone knew what grade they were teaching and most had some idea about the subjects and schedules that would make up their workday. Despite my continuous emails, though, Dr. H had not even replied to tell me they were working on my schedule. When I finally received a reply (now 2 weeks before I was actually supposed to begin teaching) Dr. H called me down for a “brief chat” in which he would fill me in on those long-awaited details.
I headed down to the school building, leaving behind company who knew they would probably not have to wait more than 15 to 30 minutes. I kid you not, I waited for over 2 hours in the main office before ever even seeing the principal. When he finally arrived, he told me to wait a moment before he would be ready for our “brief chat.” After that, I waited another 30 minutes before he returned.
When we finally sat down to have our “chat,” Dr. H plopped down on the couch beside me so that his excessive girth spilled through his shirt buttons and out onto his lap. He then whipped out a piece of dental floss and began cleaning his teeth, all while having a chat with me, his new employee. “Your case is interesting,” he said, “we don’t know where we’re gonna put you yet. So come to school on the first week and we’ll give you kids that haven’t had their schedules made yet. After a couple weeks you should have some classes of your own. As of right now, you’re just babysitting.” As he said this last line, he yanked out a large white chunk of gunk from his teeth, stared at it, and then ate it off of his piece of floss.
I wanted to gag, not just from the disgusting action I witnessed, but from the tremendous breach of professionalism this man had perpetrated. He had failed to answer my emails, held me in his office for over two hours, flossed his teeth while talking to me, and then reported succinctly that my job was to babysit kids until they figured things out in the scheduling office.
Now, I’m not the shining example of professionalism in the world of education. Sometimes I go several days without shaving. I occasionally forget to reply to an email or phone call. I have even been a few minutes late to a class when held up by the weather. That said, I have never kept anyone waiting over two hours just to meet with me, and I have never EVER flossed my teeth while talking to a colleague or employee. In a career that straddles the line between professionalism and incompetence, I have thought it best to follow the advice of the NYCTF program that recruited me: dress and behave professionally in the workplace. Others out there – including my principal – would beg to differ. When a few members of our profession treat it like a part-time job babysitting rather than a white-collar position that they’re proud of, the reputation of teaching is denigrated for all of us. Much worse, when our principals – those who should be our leaders – fail to maintain professional standards, an unfortunate tone is set for the entire system.
With that introduction, I direct any interested readers to this NY Times article by Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari, who discuss teacher salaries and ask us why we blame our teachers rather than our administrators when student performance is poor. If we want to elevate the teaching profession, we not only need to set higher standards for our students and teachers, but for those who set the tone for school culture. Any principal who behaves as mine has does not belong in the lead role of our children’s schools.
Oh, and to all you principals out there: Do not floss your teeth in front of new employees. It leaves a bad impression.