Those who can, Teach
On The Front Lines of Buffalo’s Public Schools and Loving It
By Anna Geronimo Hausmann

teachers
English teacher Anita Hanretty.
Photo by Jim Bush
Imagine you are a middle school instrumental music teacher in the City of Buffalo. Imagine—you teach on one half of a stage. The stage is divided by a six-foot high moveable screen. On your side, you have two or three kids playing the trumpet for the first time. On the other side is an English-as-a-Second Language class—students trying to do their math or social studies homework, their teacher trying to help them over the blare of the novice trumpeters.

This was the work situation for Patty Prokes a few years ago when she taught music at School 38 in Buffalo. Now she splits her time between Bennett Park Montessori and City Honors, and doesn’t have to share the stage with another class. Still, she says, at City Honors she has only a small room for preparation and only the stage for teaching space. And at Bennett Park, the area in front of her stage classroom is a play area for children so, she explains, “when the weather is bad, all day long the area in front is filled with kids playing and screaming and climbing on stuff. It’s a wonder my students can concentrate at all.”

Such is the existence of a teacher in Buffalo’s public school system. And it has been this way for so long that the teachers don’t even register these conditions as all that difficult or out of the ordinary. For so long, they have lacked space and resources, personnel and supplies, that it just seems normal to have huge classes with no help or to pay out of their own pockets for classroom essentials. Ever resourceful, constantly making do, the Buffalo teachers’ main concerns aren’t for themselves but for their students.

I spoke with several teachers from a variety of grade levels and schools, to try to get beyond the rhetoric and find out exactly what it’s like to teach in a large, urban school system. Without exception, these teachers were reluctant to criticize either their circumstances or, especially, their students. They insist that any hardships or challenges come with the territory of an inner city school. But the fact is, teaching is difficult work under the best of conditions, when you have adequate supplies, good equipment, and enough space. When you have students who come to class rested, fed, and ready to learn. When you have parents who are involved, engaged, and committed to their kids’ education. Lacking these, a difficult job can become nearly impossible.

The funding thing
Supplies, equipment, and space—the building blocks of a school. And yet virtually every Buffalo public school is so poorly funded that in order to do the job they’d like to do, most teachers make up for supplies and equipment from their own pockets. Buffalo Teacher’s Federation President Philip Rumore notes that while Buffalo has some of the poorest students in the state, it is the least funded district statewide. “It’s amazing what our teachers are doing,” says Rumour. “But imagine what they could do with more funding.”

In fact, Buffalo’s teachers have been making do for so long that many teachers take it in stride, as part of the job. Every teacher I spoke with told of filling their classrooms with supplies—basics as well as luxury items. Everyone played it down, but how many of us lay out several hundred dollars a year just so we can do our jobs?

Kerry Chiodo, who teaches art to fifth and sixth graders at the Frank A. Sedita Academy, School 38, on Buffalo’s West Side, reluctantly admitted that the school provides roughly two dollars and fifty cents per child per year for supplies in her art class. “That barely covers construction paper and paint,” she notes. Everything else she pays for. “I’ve learned to make do with very little,” she says, adding that she spends less now than she did as a novice teacher. “I’ve built up my library over the years so I spend less on books, and of course if I want something special, like a new poster from the Albright Knox, I pay for that myself.” After much hesitation, she finally estimates that she spends around $400 per year out of her own pocket. But she’s also developed a boondoggle business as a fund-raiser—her students make braided bracelets and lanyards and sell them to raise money for her classes. James Schweitzer, who teaches Regents chemistry at Emerson High School, simply states that he spends hundreds of dollars every year on books, materials, and supplies for his classes. He has even bought an overhead projector for his classroom.

Patty Prokes, who has been teaching strings for the last several years, relies on her husband to help out in her campaign to keep her students playing. “The district does have a process for getting instruments repaired,” she says, “but it takes so long I just bring the violins home and have Bob work on them.” Her husband, who is a violinist in the Buffalo Philharmonic, has even collected cast-off strings from his BPO colleagues for her students. “They aren’t good enough for the orchestra musicians anymore, but they’re fine for my kids,” she says. Prokes explains that there is no money specifically earmarked to fund music supplies, such as strings or resin. “Every music teacher finds ways to bridge the gap,” she notes. When she taught instrumental music at another city school, Prokes was given a budget of roughly fifty dollars for supplies. “For all of instrumental music, that’s just absurd. One box of reeds for wind instruments costs twenty five dollars.”

Because she is an elementary teacher, Leslie Stehlin spends more on her classroom. Stehlin, who teaches at Bennett Park Montessori, estimates that she spends upwards of $700 per year on her classroom: “I buy everything from materials for students to use, to storage containers for them to keep their stuff in. I buy markers, colored pencils, magnetic letters. I bought my big whiteboard that I use in teaching. I buy all sorts of books and commercial teaching aides. I don’t have to buy paper because we get paper donated by a few really wonderful businesses and we get a small amount from supplies. And every year my aide and I buy a load of hats, scarves, and mittens to keep a supply in the classroom for kids who forget or lose theirs.”

teachers
Kerry Chiodo teaches art
at School 38.
Photo by Jim Bush
Nurturing the whole child
While this kind of caring and dedication is certainly not unique to city school teachers, I think digging so deeply into their own pockets is. Also unique to city schools is the depth and breadth of their students’ needs. One could argue that well-off suburban kids can be as emotionally and psychically starved for attention and affection as inner city kids; but they probably aren’t also starved for breakfast or needing a coat.

Every teacher nurtures the whole child; that’s part of the challenge and gratification of teaching. But inner city teachers start out with so much less in terms of resources, and so much more in terms of what they have to overcome. Music teacher Patty Prokes, who also teaches private violin lessons, is keenly aware of the environmental disparities for her city school students. “It’s not at all like in the suburbs, where everyone expects that their kids will study an instrument, and they all come in with nice, new violins. At Bennett Park, my program is very popular, but it’s limited by the number of instruments. Typically I have a long list of kids who want to take lessons, but once I run out of instruments, that’s it.”

In addition, she explains, there’s not much of a tradition of kids taking private music instruction among her students. That said, though, Prokes is quick to point out that once the expectation is established, the kids and their parents rise enthusiastically to the challenge. Prokes organized a solo recital for her students last year with each child playing by himself or in a duet. “I asked the parents to organize a reception,” she says, “and all the parents brought food and punch. Every parent came; the turnout was beyond my wildest dreams.”

But more important to Prokes than the parental support is what such performances do for her kids. “The kids were so excited by it and they worked so hard. The most important thing is that they are up there and trying, that they get a chance, no matter how it sounds.” Often, she says, it’s the kids who aren’t achievers in other areas who really shine in music. “At the recital, other teachers would say, ‘I can’t believe so-an-so is up there on a stage for anything!’”

Kerry Chiodo echoes these sentiments. “I realize very few of my students will pursue a career in the arts,” she says, “but my job is to introduce them to one of the really good things in life. Hopefully, I’m teaching them to be more visually literate, to read their surroundings, and to learn about other cultures.” Even though her class is a requirement, Chiodo says that most of her students love the class. “I try to create a fail-proof class so that each child will feel a measure of success.”

With no aide, Chiodo doesn’t have a lot of time for one-on-one nurturing her kids sometimes need. Chiodo teaches five classes each day with thirty-two kids in each class—of which ten are special education kids. “I see 350-400 kids every six days so I don’t really have the time I wish I had to listen and talk. But getting too close to them would make teaching them harder too, because so many of their problems I can’t really help with.” However, Chiodo notes, when they work on a self-reflective piece, “they just pour it out.”

Leslie Stehlin says that since she teaches in a magnet school, she sees a cross-section of the city’s kids. For some, her classroom is “a place to be safe and stable and know what the expectations are, and for some it’s just a fun place.” But she also notes that for some kids the only thing she’ll give to them all year is emotional support. At her school too, there is no full-time school nurse, so she is nurturing the whole child—in fact, twenty whole children—all day long. “It’s normally twenty-seven or twenty-eight,” she explains, “but we’re working on a class reduction grant that allowed us to hire another teacher so this year I only have twenty. When the grant runs out, it’ll go back up.”

Stehlin says you can’t underestimate the importance of class size in academic success: “Class size makes a huge difference. You’re able to spend more time with smaller groups. It’s easier in terms of making sure everyone is getting what they need.” Stehlin says anyone who thinks teaching is just standing up and talking to the kids or working with a group of them at their tables has no idea. “Your role as a teacher is so much more than just teaching. They’re not just staring at me,” she explains, “they’re all around me, yanking and tapping on me.”

She tells of one day early in the school year when she was doing some preliminary work with the class for a research project on sunflowers. “We were writing down on the whiteboard everything we knew about sunflowers when all of a sudden this boy stripped down to his underpants. And while I was trying to quiet all the other kids—you can imagine the laughter of twenty five, six, and seven year olds—and get the kid dressed, another boy’s nose starts bleeding, just gushing blood. It was chaos.”

James Schweitzer, who teaches high school kids, is keenly aware of the discrepancies in his district and in his students’ lives. Schweitzer says schools should be “like McDonald’s, where the standard is the same in all the stores no matter where they are. But it’s not like that; the funding discrepancies are so great from district to district.” While Schweitzer laments the lack of amenities in his school, such as a pool or better library, he also cites the need for a full-time school nurse and school psychologist. “I teach inner city students. They don’t tend to be academic all-stars. They’ve chosen the vocational program and I’m supposed to be teaching them Regents chemistry, which is very demanding. I used to teach general chemistry, which I was able to gear toward the culinary program here. That was very useful for the kids and they could see the connections and were motivated. But the Regents course is very math intensive. Many of them just don’t have the resources to do as well as they did under the old program.” That said, though, Schweitzer says that the percentage of his students who passed the Regents exam in chemistry last year increased by 150% over the previous year.

teachers
Music teacher Patty Prokes.
Photo by Jessica Kourkounis.
The discipline thing
Although Schweitzer emphasizes that discipline is not a problem for him, he says that many of his students come from single-parent homes and many are parents themselves. He has several pregnant girls each year in his classes, noting “sometimes they come back and sometimes they don’t.” Schweitzer is blunt about the difficulties of his students’ lives. “What can I say,” he sighs, “I don’t want to talk down about my kids. It’s true, I have some kids that most people don’t want to be around, that they’d cross the street to avoid. But the reality is that the vast majority of my kids are just city kids who haven’t gotten as many opportunities as others and they are doing the best they can. It’s my job to help them, to socialize them, and to educate them. My job makes me feel like I’m being put to very good use.”

Schweitzer says that, despite the reputation of city schools as dangerous, he feels completely safe in his school. He notes that the school shootings of the past several years have taken place for the most part in large suburban schools where students can feel isolated and anti-social. He doesn’t feel his students are at risk for that kind of dangerous isolation. “My kids are very social,” he says.

Schweitzer, who has been teaching for fifteen years, also says that experience makes all the difference in dealing with the students and their needs. He said he hasn’t had to really discipline a student “in years” and that there aren’t really any fights in his school (though he notes that the girl fights are the ones you have to watch out for.)

But he, like the other veteran teachers I spoke to, acknowledge that this may not be the experience of beginning teachers. “Teaching in the city is overwhelming, initially,” he says. “You have kids who still need to learn how to exist in a classroom and how to learn. You yourself have to learn a whole new set of rules.” Schweitzer says it’s almost like being an entertainer, “You have to learn what works and what doesn’t, you have to learn to constantly adapt, to pick your battles, to ‘feel the room’ a little, and to nip the wise guys in the bud.”

Patty Prokes concurs with this view. “Discipline was an issue when I was a beginning teacher,” she says, “I didn’t know how to handle the students.” Prokes, who taught for a year in Williamsville before teaching in Buffalo, says that inner city students “come with a lot of baggage that affects who they are. They’ve seen a lot and it’s affected them.”

But for the most part, Prokes’ students are self-motivated. “It’s an elective program,” she notes, “so they know it’s a privilege to come and if they act up there’s someone else waiting to get their violin.”

teachers
Mentoring – modeling success
Discipline is the number one concern for new teachers, and the district has just launched a new program designed to help new teachers get a handle on it and the other challenges that keep them from returning to the city’s classrooms. Anita Hanretty, who has taught in the city’s schools for fourteen years, most recently teaching English at Emerson High, has been chosen along with four other teachers to run a city-wide program mentoring new teachers. The Mentor Teacher Internship Program selects ten beginning teachers to be matched with each mentor. The mentors, who include elementary, secondary, and special education teachers, will work one-on-one with the new teachers, regularly visiting their classrooms, and will run workshops throughout the year for all new teachers.

The program, which is funded by a state grant and initially targets teachers in those city schools currently under state review, is completely voluntary and supportive. “We’re losing way too many teachers,” says Hanretty, “The goal of this program is to retain people by giving them the skills they need for classroom management, the kinds of things you don’t learn in college.”

Hanretty and her four colleagues, who jointly designed the program with very little restriction from the central administration, first surveyed new teachers to find out their concerns. “Their number one issue was classroom management,” she says.

Hanretty says that new teachers are not prepared for the diversity in their classroom, for the cultural differences, and for the differences that living in poverty can create.

“In some cultures, it is rude to look someone in the eyes,” she explains, “and for children in poverty, there may not be much structure in their lives. You don’t know what your kids have gone through to get there in the morning; maybe they were up all night because their mother was at work and they had to watch all the little ones, maybe they had no breakfast and no dinner the night before.” New teachers need to know that issues such as these affect how kids are in the classroom, how they behave and how they learn.

Hanretty says that already the response of new teachers has been very positive. “We started in May and one teacher said, ‘I don’t think I can make it to June.’ But by the end of the year she said, ‘I can’t wait until next year’.” Hanretty believes that the program will eventually become mandatory for new teachers. “We’re trying to show them that with support and training they can learn the strategies to be successful.”

“I have an important job to do here”
If the Buffalo Schools District wants to create the perfect advertisement to recruit teachers, they should simply videotape some of their current staff. These teachers—experienced, dedicated, and clearly in love with their jobs—know exactly why they are where they are. Leslie Stehlin says that in her school, parental involvement makes all the difference. “I really like the kids I work with and their families. We have a very strong Montessori parent association that holds lots of fundraisers. The parents are very involved in the school.” She says that, with parental help, her class has published two full-color books of student work. She praises her school’s “open” library and beautiful garden. “I feel fortunate to work in a place that’s child-centered and thinks about what children need to thrive.”

Kerry Chiodo also feels she is accomplishing great things in her job. She had taught for three years and earned tenure in the Lewiston-Porter school district, until they cut their art program and she was let go. They called her five years later and offered her another job but she turned them down to stay in the city. “I have an important job to do here. For children that are so needy, it’s very gratifying to help them feel good about themselves.” Chiodo notes that the administration refers to art as one of the “specials,” and that many art teachers resent that. “But I feel we are special,” she says, “for these kids, and the challenges they face, art is that much more special.” Patty Prokes feels the same about her strings students. “I feel I do more good here. The suburban kids, for the most part, they’re going to get music in their lives one way or another. But I always feel good that I’m teaching kids, some of whom would never have held a violin in their hands if they hadn’t met me.”

For Emerson‘s James Schweitzer, it’s clear why he does his job. “I choose to work in the environment I’m in because I think I can make a difference,” he explains. “I’m more appreciated here than I would be in a wealthier district; these kids need me more, and I need them.”

Anna Geronimo Hausmann is a freelance writer and former university-level teacher living in Buffalo.


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