Schools in New York are good
Between gang wars and burnout: being a teacher in New York City
Thomas Strasser studied physics and PPP (philosophy, education and psychology) at the University of Vienna and came to New York in 2003 as part of an exchange program for Austrian teachers. He did his community service as a memorial servant in Auschwitz and he helps coordinate a get-together for German-speaking Holocaust survivors, which has been held weekly in Manhattan since 1943. Every week Strasser helps the hostess, a 94-year-old former Viennese, with the preparations and tidying up.
DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx
For his first eight years in New York, Strasser taught at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. In the early 2000s, it was the third largest school in the city with almost 5,000 students and located in the poorest urban convention district in the United States. 90 percent of the students had a migration background and had just arrived from the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Puerto Rico. "The unsuspecting young Austrian teachers were sent to the most difficult schools that nobody else wanted to go to. It was a complete culture shock for most of them. At Christmas there was a huge turnover every year. Many gave up and broke off their stay in the USA."
Not so Strasser. He enjoyed his years of teaching there and learned a lot. "I notice that many teachers lack this experience, if they only know the elite schools and top schools. Some of the teachers cannot deal with the more difficult children."
During the first few years the school flourished. Strasser built a very successful physics program and for a number of years he was able to offer so-called advanced placement courses (at college level), which was very unusual for a school like this. "There are less bureaucratic constraints in New York. You can build something like that, even as a young teacher. The students were enthusiastic and soaked up everything like sponges. The children who chose physics knew that education was important. They had the motivation and The interest. They were mentally starved because the curriculum didn't stimulate them enough and the level was otherwise very poor. In physics it was different and the level was higher. "
After 2008, general changes in the New York school system such as the creation of charter schools resulted in the rapid deterioration of the DeWitt-Clinton School. Better students were withdrawn to smaller new schools. Only the problem students remained. "From 2008 it was really massive. Every year more and more difficult pupils came to school. Many of them could not speak English and were also not literate in their mother tongue. Some came from war zones." Every year the level got worse. In its last two years, the AP program was discontinued. The students' willingness to use violence and lack of interest increased.
Violence was ubiquitous in and around the school, especially between gangs, and the incidents increased the further the level went down. "15-year-olds made gangsters," says Strasser. Brutal and bloody incidents were the order of the day, despite the fact that gang badges were forbidden in the school and the students had to enter the school through metal detectors. In the school building, bottles or chairs were used as weapons. Armed robbery, (attempted) rape, knife stabbing, car theft and arson were frequent events both inside and outside the school. "I once lost a classroom because it was set on fire and a wall burned down completely," recalls Strasser. In a subway station near the school, students were beaten up with machetes. The teachers were instructed never to intervene in such situations, but always to call security.
Shortly after Strasser's arrival at school, a young boy was shot right in front of the school. One of the schoolgirls' apologies for absenteeism, which Strasser saved, read: "Please excuse my daughter for being absent. She could not attend due to the… .murder of that boy."
There was a gang meeting point directly in front of Strasser's classroom because there were several escape routes in all directions. Often groups of school brawls fell through the door into his class. Sometimes he could call the security staff in advance because he suspected that a fight was about to take place.
His senior year at school was "wasted," as he says. In October there was a student riot in which the school completely lost control. "It was a rainy day and the children were waiting in the cafeteria. It started with throwing food around and then with the help of umbrellas it turned into a full-blown fight between gang members that hit all the children. School was open back then completely lost control, hundreds walked through the school hammering on walls. The teachers locked themselves in classrooms. Miraculously there were only a few light injuries. The reaction was enormous. Dozens of police cars were parked in front of the school, everything was cordoned off, the school flooded by police officers. There were eight police officers in front of my class. Students were arrested with handcuffs, "recalls Strasser. After that, he knew that he had to look for a new job.
At the elite school
Thomas has been teaching physics at Stuyvesant High School for nine years now. The school is considered one of the best public high schools in the city. It has 3,000 students who must achieve the highest score on the standardized High School Admission Test (HSAT) to be eligible for school admission. Stuyvesant is a feeder school for the top colleges in the USA, such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. "It's easy to be the best school if you can choose your students. The same goes for the top colleges here," says Strasser.
Over 70 percent of the students are of Asian origin and prepare intensively for the entrance test. They are "over-motivated students and parents and the pressure to perform at school is taking on extreme and unhealthy proportions". Ten school hours of 41 minutes each are offered daily, whereby the students should actually take one hour off for lunch. However, many do not take this break, but rather eat their lunch during a lesson. "Unfortunately the school allows that."
Many students have very long school days. Since a large part comes from other parts of the city, such as Queens, they have to cope with a one to one and a half hour drive. They have classes from eight in the morning to 3.30 in the afternoon and then attend extracurricular activities such as sport, music or debating. Then they drive home for at least an hour and then have to do their homework. As a guideline for teachers, Stuyvesant gives 30 minutes of homework per subject per day. With ten daily school hours, there are therefore four to five hours only of tasks.
Enormous pressure to perform and psychological problems
There is a lot of pressure on the children, they are "sitting in the middle of the pressure cooker" because of the upcoming college applications. The families demand challenging college-level courses. When the school tries to cut back, it meets with resistance from parents. Strasser describes completely overwhelmed children, many with lack of sleep, whose eyes fall occasionally in class. Massive psychological problems such as depression, the risk of suicide or panic attacks are also increasing among the students. "I have someone in almost every class who can no longer make it. Suddenly they no longer come. Various factors come together. Whatever the students bring with them will not improve due to the school and the pressure there." The school employs many social workers, but it is still relatively common for the children to end up in a psychiatric ward. An above-average number of students also suffer from autism or Asperger's syndrome.
Puberty and the associated finding of identity also put a strain on the students. In some cases the parents do not know about the identity of their children: "The pupils have a completely different identity at school than at home. Or homosexuality: everyone knows it at school, but the parents don't. That is difficult. Or the children use different first names at school, Chinese names at home and Americanized names at school. When the parents come to parents' meeting, it becomes difficult. Often the parents are not allowed to know. "
Strasser thinks that the level of a good grammar school in Austria is comparable to what he does in physics at the Stuyvesant, with the difference that the entire physics material is covered in one year. He sees the students every day, so they remember well the material they have studied. The year is very intense, so as a teacher you can work very effectively.
In general, the students at his current school are very creative, motivated and committed. For example, an entire musical is produced and performed by the students every year. The music and the text are composed and written by them; Stage technology and set design are designed. This then leads to a competition between different age groups with three performances and an evaluation by a jury. "The students are incredibly creative."
How is it going for him?
At the moment Strasser has no plans to return to Austria, but he visits his family there regularly. He enjoys traveling with his partner and also spends a lot of time in nature and in the mountains. He feels very much at home in New York. "The openness, diversity and energy of New York cannot be found anywhere in Austria." He doesn't do that very quickly when he's out of town. (Stella Schuhmacher, January 29, 2020)
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