Friday, March 02, 2012

Christopher and the Measure of a Teacher

 -by special guest blogger Citizen Doe

The release of Teacher Data Reports in NYC has focused attention on evaluating teachers with the use of numbers derived from complicated algorithms that are said to measure the “value” teachers “add” to their students.  These algorithms pivot on the use of student test scores.

Numbers do tell stories, and the public is being told that it can trust the story these numbers will tell about public school teachers, and that these numbers provide a scientific “measure” of the people who work with children in the public schools.

Here is a story offered as an alternative measure of what teachers do, things that stubbornly do not fit into an algorithm. While all the participant’s names have been changed, it is a true story, and the single quote is verbatim.  It’s offered in tribute to a courageous young man, his family and his teachers, and in the hope that other public school teachers will successfully fight to have their and their student’s stories told:
Christopher came to New York City from Peru as a teenager, and graduated in 2009 from a NYC public high school that specializes in educating immigrant English language learners. Short and slight of build, he was smart, insightful, hardworking and had a dry, understated sense of humor. But starting in 2007, he was frequently absent and started  to fail his classes.

It was only weeks later, during parent-teacher conferences, that Christopher’s teachers found out that his frequent absences were the result of hospitalization for cancer treatments. What began as soreness and pain in his leg had been diagnosed as a late stage cancer. When his teachers asked why he hadn’t told them, he stoically and with great dignity said it was because he didn’t want any sympathy, and didn’t want to use his illness as an excuse.

From that point on, however, Christopher completed all of his work despite frequent hospitalizations and grueling treatments. He never once asked for any special accommodations for his illness.

When in school, Christopher would gravitate toward his teachers, whom he felt could understand better than his peers what he was going through, though his travails would largely go unspoken. The students in our school are very supportive of each other, as they grapple with the difficulties of adolescence, a new school, culture and language. They treated Christopher well, but in the uncertainty, fear and discomfort his situation could cause, many of them treated Christopher almost like a mascot. Thus, his cleaving to his teachers.

When his hair fell out due to the cancer treatments, he would go to the library instead of the cafeteria for lunch, where he would help Natalie the librarian sort books, answer the phone and assist other students. He would hang around after my class, with a palpable yearning to connect, and talk about that day’s class discussion, sports or the Japanese manga he loved. His low-key determination and lack of self-pity were a source of wonder to his teachers.

By the end of his senior year, Christopher was in remission, had passed all of his classes and Regents exams, and was ready to graduate. It was Natalie, unbeknownst to him, who paid for his senior prom ticket, and it was Natalie who accompanied him to the prom as his date. Shortly thereafter, he graduated and we sent him off to a four year CUNY college. During his freshman year, he returned occasionally to visit, catch up and offer thanks to his former teachers.

 Last spring, Natalie received a call from Christopher’s father. He told her that Christopher’s illness had reappeared, that he was doing poorly and was asking to see his teachers. The father said that if they were going to visit, it would have to be soon.

The next day, three teachers, Natalie among them, went to Christopher’s home, located in a two family house carved up into warren-like apartments, in an immigrant neighborhood a fifteen-minute walk from the subway.

Christopher’s hospital bed took up half of the largest of the apartment’s three dark rooms. In it, he lay attached to a respirator, shrunken, sedated and unconscious. His teachers held his hand, told him they were there and that they loved him, and sat down to chat with his parents. As people often do in those circumstances, they told stories. They told stories of Christopher’s acting out scenes from a play in class, stories of his helpfulness and companionship. They told Christopher’s parents of their deep admiration and affection for their son.
Within a few minutes of the teacher’s arrival, Christopher stopped breathing. His teachers were there as his mother sobbed quietly, and as his father alternately begged him to come back and to go with God. His teachers were present to share the most awful and intimate moment a family can have.

 After offering what support and condolences they could, they excused themselves and went out into the bright spring sunshine, where life in NYC roared on. One of the teachers, who had suffered a grievous personal loss just months before, broke down crying, saying that he felt like an intruder. His colleagues comforted him by saying no, it was OK, that Christopher had wanted him to be there.

The next day, Christopher’s father called Natalie at the school library. He thanked her and said that Christopher had waited for his teachers to arrive before leaving us.

The staff of the school raised over two thousand dollars for Christopher’s funeral and burial. He had explicitly told his parents that he wanted to be buried here in the US, not  Peru. At his wake, he was wearing his New York Yankees cap as his family, classmates and teachers came to say goodbye.

One of Christopher’s social studies teachers, herself an immigrant, later said that, painful as it was, she had to go to Christopher’s wake because, “he was my student and I am a teacher.”               
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