Miseducation: Stories about what happens in the classroom

This week we present two stories from teachers dealing with wild experiences in the classroom.

Part 1: When his students keep having “accidents" during nap time, kindergarten teacher Alvin Irby investigates.

Alvin Irby received his M.S. in Childhood Education from Bank Street College of Education and his MPA in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy from New York University. He is a former kindergarten teacher turned award-winning social entrepreneur, comedian, and author. As Founder and Chief Reading Inspirer at Barbershop Books, Irby was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize. His TED Talk "How to inspire every child to be a lifelong reader" has been viewed over 1 million times. Irby's clever social commentary and humorous observations earned him a coveted spot in the StandUp NBC national showcase. His fresh perspective and smart brand of humor shine through in his 2018 comedy album "Really Dense." Irby’s debut children’s book, Gross Greg, combines his passion for early literacy and humor while capturing the hilariously gross behavior of kids everywhere.

Part 2: In Aida Rosenbaum’s first month as a high-school science teacher, a fight breaks out between her students.

Aida Rosenbaum is a high school Earth and Environmental Science teacher at the Bronx Latin School. She is also the science department team leader, a facilitator of the Youth Court, the Gardening Club teacher, a coach of new-teacher mentors, the school EDTech specialist, and a member of the Learning Partners Program working to share best practices between schools. Aida is a native New Yorker who earned her B.A. in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College and her M.P.A. in Earth System Science, Policy, and Management from Columbia University. She has been teaching for 16 years at four different high schools and is currently in her second fellowship as an MƒA Master Teacher. She comes from an entire family of teachers including her grandmother, mother, sister, and husband. In addition to teaching, Aida is a mother of two, a wife, an avid listener of NPR, a bee-keeper, and an outdoor sports enthusiast.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Alvin Irby

I was a kindergarten teacher and it was one of the best experiences of my life. But having a Master’s degree in Childhood Education from Bank Street, I learned a lot but there are certain things that I was not prepared for.

Accidents was one of them. I didn’t say ‘accident’. I said ‘accidents’. For those of you who have never taught kindergarten, I mean peeing all over the place, all the time. Like one accident, it happens. That’s normal. We all know that. But accidents, okay, this is what happened.

So one day during class, a little girl walks up to me and she's like, “Mr. Irby, I had an accident.”

I’m like, “Oh, are you sure?”

And she's like, “Yes, Mr. Irby. I’m sure.”

I’m like, “Okay, no problem. I can do this.”

But that wasn’t the thing. She started getting real aggressive. She was like, “Mr. Irby, where my jeans at?’

I’m like, “Excuse me?”

Alvin Irby shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in July 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Alvin Irby shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in July 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

She slowed it down like I was special. She was like, “Where-my-jeans-at?”

I was like, first of all, this is not cute. This is not cute to be peeing on yourself like this. This is not a game. This is not normal.

Now, in kindergarten, parents send the children to school with an extra pair of clothes in a big gallon Ziploc bag. So in my classroom I had a huge container full of Ziploc bags with extra clothes.

So I say, “Okay. Wait over here. Don’t touch anybody. I’m going to get you your bag with your clothes.”

Now, I go to rummage through and I find her bag, but it does not have jeans. It actually has some ugly gray sweatpants. But I’m an adult. I did not laugh at a child. That would be inappropriate to do that. I would not do that to a child.

I handed it to her but I did say, “Here are your jeans.”

So I send her out down the hallway with her large Ziploc bag and I say, “Don’t take a long time. I'll be waiting.”

And when I turn around, there were three students with their hands raised. I had not asked a question so I don't understand why they would be so curious or whatever was happening with all the hands.

One of them speaks and she says, “Mr. Irby, we had an accident.”

Now, I’m like, “Oh, you’re the little pee representative is who you are. You are the pee representative of the others. You're all synchronizing your peeing is what’s happening in this classroom. This is not normal.”

So at this point, I’m confused because I’m like when I was a kid, if somebody peed on themselves, everybody would just make fun of them. There was social pressure to like don’t pee. Not a good idea. Like don’t do this.

But this is like post-modern kids so you don’t talk about anybody. Right? I had to say, “Stop that. Don’t make fun of people. Everyone has accidents.”

Then one little girl wants to be all smart. “Mr. Irby, do you have accidents?”

“No. Mr. Irby does not have accidents. I’m grown. I’m not in kindergarten.”

Where were we? So I’m trying to figure out what in the world is going on in this classroom that everybody is peeing everywhere all the time. So, okay, I taught at a charter school and at this charter school everybody had to wear uniforms. You had to wear uniforms, just khakis and a little standard school shirt unless you had an accident. Then you got to change into your jeans.

So I was convinced at this point that there was like a little pee gang in my classroom. So what was happening is that they will get together in their little pee gang and instead of getting jumped in, like you were a Crip or a Blood, you get peed into the gang. That’s how it worked in my kindergarten.

So I was just imagining these little girls hanging out and saying, “If you want to be in our gang, you got to let it go. And we’re not talking about a little tinkle, tinkle. You got to change into your jeans,” because I was a very imaginative teacher.

Okay, let me explain. When I taught kindergarten, it’s my first time ever teaching kindergarten. They had nap time. I had no kids. One that I have climbed Machu Picchu. I even climbed little Huayna Picchu. That’s the little mountain on top of Machu Picchu. I have run three marathons. But you know what was more difficult than all of those? Getting a room full of four and five-year-olds to go to sleep at the same time. You're more likely to find a celibate crackhead. It’s just next to impossible is what I’m saying. What I’m saying is not likely to be able to make that happen.

So I’m brilliant. I decide I am going to play nature music. This is what I’m going to do. It’s very relaxing and it worked. The kids started falling asleep.

And I was like, “Wow. Well, if this will relax them and make them fall asleep, go and nap, I should just play nature music all day and just relax the kids. Right? All day.

Alvin Irby shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in July 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Alvin Irby shares his story with the Story Collider audience at Caveat in New York City in July 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Now, what I hadn’t anticipated was Pavlov’s Theory of Classical Conditioning, is what I’m saying. Nature music has certain sounds, like ocean sounds and creek sounds and river sounds, so I should have known. There were signs. There were warning…

Like in kindergarten, the only thing harder than getting all these little kids to fall asleep was trying to wake them up after they had actually fallen asleep. At first, I tried. You know the first week I was like, “Hey, time to get up.” I pat them real gently on their back but they were dead. They didn’t move. They didn’t breathe or nothing. They just stayed there.

And I said, “Okay, this is not going to work.”

So then I did some experiments, minimal risk. I learned that what you have to do to wake up kindergarteners is you just have to grab them under the arms, you just pick them up and stand them on their feet.

Now, they will lean over. If you've ever been to a 125th Street and Lexington you may have seen the motion. Now, I’m 97% sure none of my kindergarteners have ever done heroin however they would never fall. They would just lean over but they would never fall. They just leaned over.

And so I would pick them up and put them on their feet. So one of these kids, I picked him up and there was a puddle. Not a little puddle. There was a big puddle on his little mat.

And I said, “What were you dreaming about?”

And he said, “Niagara.”

I said, “What?” That’s when I should have known. I didn’t know. That was a flag, a red flag that he was dreaming about Niagara.

What I’m saying is that in my kindergarten classroom, I had unwittingly become like a young black Pavlov, is what I’m saying. I had played the nature music and induced the kids to pee everywhere. It was not my best moment as a teacher. It was not, but I learned a lot.

After that week of the pee epidemic, I decided no more nature music. We’re just going to play jazz from here on out.

Everybody you all are amazing. Thank you all so much.


Part 2: Aida Rosenbaum

I've been teaching for 16 years. I started teaching in one of those alternative teaching programs where they're going to teach you everything you need to know about how to be a teacher in one summer. I should have known there was a problem with this. I should have realized something was wrong when my literacy professor taught the class by putting copies of the textbook on the overhead projector and reading them out loud to us. Like, really? You're going to teach me how to help kids who can’t read by reading out loud to me? That really happened.

So September happened a lot faster than ever before, at least it felt that way to me. I got a job in the local zones school where I grew up. I never went to that school. I was terrified of that school. That school had a reputation for gangs and violence and drugs and I would do anything to not go there. So I studied after school every day and I placed into Bronx Science and I got the heck out of there. My friends were not as lucky.

So I consider this job as kind of my ability to redeem. I was going to have an opportunity to be part of the solution. I was going to go in and provide the highest quality education in a rough neighborhood. I was full of hope and optimism.

Aida Rosenbaum shares her story with the Story Collider audience at a show presented in partnership with Math for America at Caveat in New York City in May 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Aida Rosenbaum shares her story with the Story Collider audience at a show presented in partnership with Math for America at Caveat in New York City in May 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

One week into teaching at that school, I was really running short on hope and optimism. I was looking around like you cannot be serious. This is a practical joke, right? There's going to be like a Candid Camera somewhere. I’m 22 years old and I’m in a classroom with 34 teenagers all by myself. What am I supposed to do?

There was a kid in this class who was 19 years old and he reminded me every day of how close in age we were. He would come up to me and say, “Yo, miss. Miss, if we were in DR, you would be my wife.”

Like eww. But I kept this stone-faced, so strict, “Sit down. Do your Do Now. You have two minutes left. The Do Now is not done yet.”

Well, they sat down. They didn’t really do many Do Nows and they talked about whatever they wanted.

I spent pretty much every night up until midnight or more planning lessons and then the next day only doing 25% of the lesson. Then I go into my AP after the first month and I was like, “What am I going to do? Help me.”

And she said, “Oh, don’t worry. Don’t worry. You know what? We don’t really expect those kids to pass the test anyway.”

Wow. She actually said that out loud. That totally defeats the purpose of me being here.

So the next month, forget what that AP said. I decided I was going to take them to the school-based library and I was going to teach them how to cite sources and write research papers. I'd never taken any of the kids out of the classroom before so I’m super nervous. I was going to walk downstairs with 34 kids and we did it. I got every single one of them into the library and into a seat and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I was doing a good job.

And the librarian started talking and then I realized, “Oh, shit. This is really boring.” The librarian is defining plagiarism. I look around and I’m like, “Oh.”

Then out of nowhere, wham. One student grabs another student by the back of his head and smashes his face into the computer monitor. And this was 16 years ago so I’m talking really big computer monitors. The computer monitor didn’t break. The kid’s face broke and there was blood. The blood was pooling up between the keys in the keyboard.

And all the other kids went from half asleep to maniacal crazy creatures, jumping and clawing at each other. They jumped over chairs and they screamed at each other and they were like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, fuck him up!”

And I couldn’t see anymore. Now, it’s just this writhing mass of kids piling on top of each other.

I ran down the hall to the safety agents. A pack of safety agents came and broke up the kids and took them away and I was told to stay in the library. I don't know what happened to the rest of my class. I guess somebody covered my class but I was there alone. The library was eerily quiet and the chairs were toppled over. The handouts I had worked so hard to make were just fluttered all over the library like confetti and the blood was still there on the screen.

I had to talk to the police, the EMT, the ambulance, the principal, the school safety agents. I had to repeat the story to the dean. I had to write an official statement. And every time I told the story, every time I was like, “This was my fault. Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I know that there was something going to happen?”

In this state, I had to go to my college class. So it’s time to go. I walked to the subway in a trance and I got on the downtown 1-Train during rush hour. I squeezed in with everybody. I really didn’t want to go. I would have done anything else, like drink a lot at a bar or go beat up a punching bag in the gym or go home and cry or do all three of them but not go to college class.

But I went anyway. I don't even remember what the lesson was about but the professor was playing a video. I was late so the video was already on. The professor was playing a video and it was like students in a Colorado classroom. There were probably twenty white kids sitting in desks and they were taking notes. The teacher was teaching and it was so pristine and so calm.

How could there be only twenty kids? Where are all the rest of the kids? Why are the desks so clean? Did they spend like a million dollars on every classroom in this school? Did they pay students to raise their hands and behave so politely? What is this shit?

I looked around the room. I looked at my classmates and they're my friends. I went to class with them all summer and I thought they were good people. And I thought somebody else should be getting mad about this, right? Not just me. How could we just sit here and watch this? My class doesn’t look like this. This isn’t going to help me.

So I got up and I screamed, “This is ridiculous. This is not going to help me. This is nothing like my classrooms. These kids are not my kids. This strategy isn’t going to work for me. And if you want to tell me that the strategy is going to work, then you need to show me some statistics. We’re all scientists in this room right now, right? You're going to push this pseudo bullshit on me like I’m just supposed to swallow it and do it because you say it’s going to work. That is not my classroom.”

Aida Rosenbaum shares her story with the Story Collider audience at a show presented in partnership with Math for America at Caveat in New York City in May 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Aida Rosenbaum shares her story with the Story Collider audience at a show presented in partnership with Math for America at Caveat in New York City in May 2019. Photo by Zhen Qin.

And I looked around the room. Well, that’s what I thought I said. You know what? It’s been 16 years so I really thought I said these things and I’m like, “What about the variables like class size and income and parental education levels and poverty and,” blah, blah, blah and all this stuff.

But what I actually said was probably like, “This is bullshit and it’s a fucking waste of my time.”

I grab my bags and I sit up and I stormed out of the room before anybody could say anything to me and I never went back.

After a couple of weeks of realizing I’m going to fail if I never go back, I went to go meet with the dean of academics and she told me, “You got to stay in the program. Despite your grievances, you got to stay in the program. The kids need to see teachers who look like you.”

Well, I don't disagree with her on that. I also couldn’t stomach just dealing with the fake education in our program and going along with the charades of this is actually going to work.

I was really disappointed in my classmates. I thought like I know you’re new, right out of college, and a lot of them were not from New York, but they were all just trying to jump through hoops, get their certification, maybe some of them honestly were just trying to get their college loans forgiven, but I couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t want anything to do with it.

So I dropped the program. It ended up costing me a lot more money. It took a lot of time and I had to change jobs or change schools. Not by choice. But in the long run it was a lot more meaningful.

Now, after 16 years, I actually have lived in the same neighborhood where I've taught for most of that time and the people working in my local supermarket are pretty much all my former students. In the library, maitre d’s and waiters at the bars and the restaurants that I go to, they're all my former students.

I talk to them. A lot of them have kids of their own now and they're so unhappy. Their parents came here, most of them are immigrants, so that they could have a better life. And they graduated high school and they went to college but they're just punching the clock, collecting the check, living day by day and not really getting… they feel there isn’t any meaning to it.

About three months ago, a former student of mine, I call him Jose, he used to be the top kid in my AP class. He scored well enough on the AP exam to get college credit. And that was really important because he's undocumented. They don’t give undocumented kids financial aid. He had to pay for every college credit out of his own pocket.

He's lost. He tells me he feels stuck, he feels like he's done everything he's supposed to do, and he feels cheated.

I had to tell him like, “You can’t just get the degree. You can’t just do the program because you're supposed to.”

So I’m just wondering. I’m supposed to be a Master Teacher. I am. I have the title, Master Teacher. I know my shit. I can teach my curriculum really well. I know the content really well. I have great pass rates. I've congratulated thousands of kids that have crossed the stage at graduation. I've seen kids super excited about their college acceptance letters. I've got 90% pass rates on regions every year.

I've thought that they were successful because they passed the test. I thought they were successful because they graduated. And I thought they were successful because they got accepted to college. I thought I was successful because I got them to pass the tests, but now I’m not so sure.

I’m really questioning what else could I have done? What other meaningful thing am I suppose to teach them to help them to be successful? I don't think that we’re doing that necessarily. I’m not really sure how. You have to find purpose in your life and you're not going to find it necessarily by the time you graduate high school.

But how do we even begin thinking about that and helping students get there? I don't have it figured out. I don't have an answer to tell them but I feel like it’s a question that’s worth exploring. I just don’t know how I can help students thrive as people, not just survive, not just get a check. And I’m really questioning how to have faith and belief in an education system that’s constantly setting up teachers and students for failure.

Thank you.