Teaching in Davonte’s Inferno: A Must Read Summer Book

Former New York City public school teacher, Laurel M. Sturt, tells it like it is. Refreshingly, she’s real with us in her no-holds-barred memoir Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years In The New York Public School Gulag, a heart-breaking and humorous exposé of the farcical – and often terrifying and depressing – working conditions in a Bronx public elementary school. Like Sturt, I have substantial experience teaching in a Title I public school located in a low-income New York City neighborhood. Luckily I’ve never worked for tyrannical principals – as was Sturt’s fate – but I did relate to much of what she describes in her book.

For my own personal growth as a teacher (dare I say ‘professional development’?), Davonte’s Inferno shed more light on the social and emotional problems facing a number of our kids in Title I schools: abuse of all forms, neighborhood violence, and chaotic, unstable homes, the most shocking Sturt calls “houses of horror.” Her scientific research details the ‘toxic stress’ associated with poverty that negatively impacts student learning. Reading it served, in part, as a reminder to offer my students more unconditional love and to provide them with a safe space in which they can speak freely without fearing any judgement on my part. Due to the lack of much needed wraparound services in our public schools and in our neighborhoods, combined with the dearth of individualized instruction as a result of overcrowded classrooms and cuts to academic intervention services, Sturt’s book motivated me to spend a few lunch periods each week with angry fifth grade boys I fret over. We teachers wear many hats.

For the wider audience, not only is Davonte’s Inferno a crucial read for those entrenched in the corporate education reform debate, but it’s also relevant due to recent anti-teacher tenure initiatives such as the Vergara v. California decision and, here in New York City, Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, which, among other efforts, has filed a lawsuit in New York to remove “poorly-performing” teachers from the classroom. The lawsuit cites low test scores as “evidence” that New York City students aren’t getting a sound education and claims that “far too many students every year find themselves stuck in classrooms led by ineffective teachers. It’s a problem that affects families in every corner of the state, but the sad truth is that the students who need great teachers the most—those who grow up in low-income communities—are often the least likely to get them.”

Sturt’s book acknowledges that ineffective teachers exist.  In fact, she describes the follies of one teacher who abused the system by faking an injury, among other misdeeds. She also tells on herself when she loses her cool with a student, something that EVERY teacher struggles with.  However, contrary to Campbell Brown’s argument, there are far fewer ineffective teachers in our schools. Similar to what I see at my Brooklyn elementary school, Sturt writes that, “Where I connected with everyone was my desire to help the kids.  I had never been around so many people who loved children as much as I did.”  “As vilified as public school educators had become,” Sturt remarks, many of the teachers in my school were in fact accomplished and committed:  I would have gladly put my own son in their care. Just like in the rest of the system there were, however, a handful of hacks, protected by favoritism, whose incompetence had never been questioned.”  Note ‘handful.’

What education reformers like Campbell Brown fail to fully consider are the exacting conditions in which we work.  In addition to the above-mentioned examples, New York City public school students and teachers are demoralized by excessive, high-stakes testing and the narrowing and standardization of pedagogy and curriculum as a result of the Common Core package and the NYC Department of Education’s application of Danielson’s Framework for Teaching for teacher evaluation purposes.  Some, unfortunately, also face vindictive principals like the four administrators detailed in Davonte’s Inferno: Cruella, Guido, Principal Dearest and Rosemary’s Baby. Countless administrator horror stories have been shared with me and I consider myself lucky to work at my school and to have due process rights as a tenured teacher.  Sadly, the capricious behavior of the principals at Sturt’s school led to the unjust firings of several promising new teachers.

If all stakeholders in public education could be honest with themselves and truly put children – not ego and profit – first, then perhaps we’d experience real progress in addressing the problems in our public schools, namely the achievement gap. Laurel Sturt’s authentic book moves us closer in that direction.



The Opposite of Unity

Today I heard someone discussing possible antonyms of the word ‘unity.’ It was not in an education context, but for me the visual that came to mind was a giant boulder hanging over my head like a dark storm cloud. The boulder – the opposite of unity – represented the government and their corporate partners that are imposing their will on the group, our school communities. Their educational policies – in large part – do not benefit the group. Rather, they set out to destroy it: inadvertently or not. There are many directions I wish to explore with this image in mind. Today, though, I will share with you my thoughts as I mentally prepare for the upcoming work week.

It is the last week of NYSESLAT testing (a four-part, lengthy standardized test that is administered every spring to our ESL students). This Friday – May 17 – is the last day the test can be administered, and the listening and reading grids (those bubbled-in Scranton-type sheets) must be handed in by noon. From a compliance point of view, what’s most pressing on my agenda is testing the remaining students and transcribing students’ answers onto grids (for grades K -2), all in a short period of time. It is a race-against-the-clock, nail-biting experience, and the bubbling and organization of testing grids is both mind-numbing and tedious. The opposite of inspiring.

But from a teacher perspective, what is weighing most heavily on my mind (besides the above-mentioned boulder) is the well-being of two students. In addition to wrapping up the NYSESLAT, I feel compelled to do everything in my power to ensure that a mother shows up to a referral meeting so that her daughter – a second grader who still doesn’t know all of the letter sounds – gets her academic needs met next year. I am also troubled by a mild-mannered first grade boy who is academically capable but lags behind – he’s a potential holdover – because he’s absent more than he’s present at school. I suspect that his needs are not being met at home, but outreach to his mom has proven futile.

Both students have terrible attendance records and must take make-up NYSESLAT exams next week, if they come to school. I have not done any teaching since April 11 and don’t expect to be back in the classroom until May 27. Next week my colleagues and I must score the writing section of the NYSESLAT and then we have to organize test booklets to ship back to Questar Assessment, Inc., a large scale assessment company whose experts include ‘prominent psychometricians.’ Maybe that’s a career my students could explore.