First Person

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Ruben Brosbe

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers.

At a recent event held by Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for teachers, Brosbe told a story of one of his favorite recent students, and how he incentivized the third-grade troublemaker to pay attention in math. Held at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share their stories of the “Best (Blank) Ever.” (Brosbe is also a former Chalkbeat contributor).

Below, you can read Brosbe’s story on the Best Incentive Ever.

This story has been condensed and lightly edited.

A kind of open secret among teachers is that we do have favorites. We’re not supposed to have favorites, we’re not supposed to have teachers’ pets — we try our best not to have them and treat everyone fairly — but we do have favorites. And there’s always someone who, no matter what, no matter how fair you are, you love that kid.

And this is a story about a kid, we’re going to call him Chris, for anonymity. And you know, for me, the favorite in my classroom is always the troublemaker. I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think for a lot of us that’s true. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not a good enough teacher and they demand my attention and so I give it to them. Or I don’t know if it’s my pride, I want to be the one teacher who breaks through and saves him. Or it might just be that I was a pretty good kid, I followed most of the rules, I didn’t get in that much trouble, so I might just envy him. You troublemaker! You go! You break all the rules. I love you, you shiny diamond.

For whatever reason, I love the troublemakers. And Chris last year, my seventh year teaching third grade, he was my favorite.

Third grade is funny because developmentally, physically, they’re not quite broken out of being babies. So Chris was this round, baby-fat adorable Dominican kid.

We were having this conversation last year about the Oscars and how they were super white, and he just does this impersonation: “Oh yeah, I’m a white Hollywood executive, I’m only going to make movies about white people.” And I’m cracking up, because one, he was right, and two, it was hilarious. And OK, you’re a third-grader but you’re also 40 years old.

But he was a troublemaker and had a hard time. Because he knew he was funny and he loved being funny, he loved getting attention. Raising his hand, which is a very important thing in third grade, was not his thing. Every time a thought was in his head, he would share it. He was also very moody. He would get into fights on the playground and when he was in other classrooms.

And math was his least favorite, it was his struggle. I remember one time it just became such a struggle he broke down, he wanted to run out of the room. I tried to stand in front of the door to block him and he ran into me, cursing at me. He didn’t run past me but just broke down into tears.

This is a kid who school is not easy for, and I did my best to figure out what was going on with Chris. I talked to him and sometimes he would just be very closed, he wouldn’t let me know what was going on at all. But at other times I felt that he had low self-esteem. He would say things like “I hate myself,” “I’m so stupid,” “I wish I wasn’t even here,” and those kinds of things that break your heart as a teacher, no matter what age you’re working with, especially 8- or 9-year-old kids.

But he was my favorite, so I worked with him. We had lunch together and I figured out what mattered to him. And he showed a lot of progress that year. He tried a lot in math even though it wasn’t his favorite, and he raised his hand when he wanted to share something and followed along with his classmates.

But June comes around, and things start to slide back. It’s the end of the year, and that’s kind of the time things are hardest. For whatever reason, maybe kids are worried about the summer, maybe they’re just ready for school to be over, maybe they’ve been ready for school to be over for a long time. And Chris forgets to raise his hand. He’s given up on the idea of raising his hand. Homework is also a done concept. There is lots of arguing, arguing with me, arguing with his classmates, and I’m just like, “Chris, we’ve come down on this long journey. Let’s not end it like this.” So I think, “What can I do to help Chris care?”

I know that person’s brain. I know they love being the center of attention. I say to Chris, “If you can make it through the day without interrupting me or arguing with me, I’ll give you one minute of stand-up in front of the whole class.” And it’s hard. He tries, he asks me, “Did I get it?” And I have to tell him, during math, you said, “No, I don’t want to do this,” so not today. But eventually, he gets it. He earns the one minute of stand-up time.

And so kids are packed up, it’s time for closing circle. I get out my phone and time it for one minute. He gets in front of the class and the kids, they’ve all been waiting for this moment, too.

He’s hilarious. He’s the Chris Rock of third grade. They’ve been waiting for this moment, and he gets up in front and they’ve made signs, like “Go, Chris.” He gets up, he is commanding the space with his mannerisms. But once he’s there, the comedy is very physical, this funny dance thing. And the kids are cracking up, they have tears streaming, and I’m cracking up.

It’s not my sense of humor, it’s just not for me, but it’s hilarious. To see the class laughing at him, to see him getting a laugh in.

I’m at a new school now and I miss him. Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, “I see you,” “I care about you,” “I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.”

I’m grateful to him for that, and I’m going to probably have to relearn that lesson a few more times. But the best incentive I’ve come up with is that one.

Ruben Brosbe is a teacher at P.S. 194 The Countee Cullen School in Harlem, where he will teach fifth grade next year.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.