An Interview with Elizabeth Rose

Sep 14, 2015 by

bosstweed

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Elizabeth first of all, tell us about yourself, and your own education and experience.

Both of my parents were NYC high school teachers. With their strong encouragement to go into teaching, I vowed that teaching would be the last thing I would ever do. So, like my uncle, cousin and brother before me, all commercial musicians, I headed into entertainment as a singer, songwriter, actor, comedienne and playwright. I did theatre, co-owned a major recording studio at 1650 Broadway (a major music building) and toured with the Broadway cast of “Beatlemania” and lead several bands.

In 2001, I decided it might be fun (and profitable) to teach songwriting in the high school across the street from my Manhattan apartment, so that’s where my NYC public high school career started. I stayed at that small, progressive, democratic, creative learning community for 10 years, raising over $330,000 for the school. After being a teaching artist for 5 years, they offered me a full time position teaching creative writing, autobiography, music and documentary video-making. That position was cut after one year, but they were able to keep me in the school for the next 4 years.

Then, in late August 2011, the Death Star…I mean, Tweed (the central DOE office)… decided that “position-less” teachers like me were draining their budgets. There were approximately 2500 of us teachers, who were labeled “excessed” or “ATR’s” (Absent Teacher Reserve). \ The DOE wanted very much to get us all out. There was no “quick” solution as due process would take time and there would have to be strong reasons to oust us. So they devised a plan to send us as substitute teachers to a new school each week in hopes that we would become so miserable, we would voluntarily leave. Thus, began my journey.

2) Now, how did you manage to teach at 25 different schools in one year? Were you a sub?

This was the brainchild of the DOE as I said. My friend (who had become our school’s new principal) told me that he had attended a late summer meeting in 2011 where he was told specifically that the DOE hoped to “wear us down” so all of us “ATRs” would quit. I had planned to stay for a month and then, perhaps go back to my freelance life as a singer, musician, and writer. I had been developing a one-woman musical comedy about the life of a performing songwriter and thought it might make it to an Off Broadway stage.

However, two weeks into my first assignment (the DOE proscribed a one-month stay in the first school of the rotation before starting all of us 2500 teachers on their week-to-week trek) I had an “aha!” moment in the teachers’ lounge: “Elizabeth!” it went. “The DOE is going to send you to a new school every week. This is a call to adventure, an amazing opportunity. If you don’t take it, you shall be offending the gods of comedy.” What storyteller could resist such an opportunity?

So yes, I was a sub. I went in every day, hoping to give something of value to every school, every student. After every class, I “wrote” what transpired on my iPad so all the dialogue in “Yo Miz!” is from immediate recall. I sought to be kind, loving and, at the same time, tell my story authentically, throwing in a few jabs, here and there. I pretended I was a Daily Show correspondent – a fantasy, I still hold close to my heart. I also hope to become a child star.

Mid year, the Cherry Lane Theatre decided to produce “Relative Pitch,” my one-woman musical in their Mentor Project. I officially became a “playwright” and had a limited run Off Broadway…even though the NYC DOE refused to give me a week off without pay. I had to perform 12 shows over two weeks and remain a full time teacher. It’s all in the book.

3) Let’s start with the good–what good things did you see happening?

I saw schools which were incredibly rich with resources: fashion schools with runways, dress forms, sewing machines, imagination, student design ready for Vogue. One school had a giant video production studio with pre-production, production and post-production areas, a beautiful photography studio and students beating on the door to get to class on Friday afternoon at 3:10pm. In a “failing” school, I met a Living Environment teacher, also an EPA consultant, poised to take his classes on a trip to the beach to take samples of the sand and water to see if they can determine any pollutants. I was in a dual language school which wrapped its academic arms around some of our newest immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. I taught at another school that serves kids, who just came through international arrivals at JFK but who are a bit too old for high school. This school stays open till 10 at night and on weekends to provide these kids with a path to success, even though they may have to raise families or work day jobs. All of these schools showed great love and a passion for giving their students every single chance to succeed.

4) Moving onto the bad—what was the worst thing you encountered or saw?

Segregation by zip code. There was a small school in Washington Heights that serves about 600 students. Every NYC high school student is required to have one “art” credit for graduation so they had to create an “art” class. This school’s total art supplies equaled one cardboard box with a few colored pencils. All the pencils needed sharpening and someone had run off with the sharpener. There seemed to be no art teacher, just an AP who assigned a sub the art classes every week. As their “art” sub, I was given either no lesson plan or just a poorly copied outline of Picasso’s guitar player. These vibrant, naturally creative, funny high school students were expected to color in this outline for their 45 minute art class. WTF! That’s a kindergarten level class. Sister Wendy should hear this AP’s confession, word?

I conspired with these kids to create our own art project with prominently featured third fingers…it’s in the book.

5) By ugly, I guess I mean perhaps unethical or questionable or dubious or suspicious- what did you see in this realm?

New York City, like many great American cities, is wealthy in art resources: museums, concert halls, studios. For this school in Washington Heights, it’s a 20-minute subway ride to the Metropolitan Museum, the Broadway stages. Why aren’t these kids infused with the arts, taken on trips, to shows, given opportunities to tell their own stories in collages, paintings, songs, video?

Another example: there are 6 small schools in the Martin Luther King, Jr complex on Amsterdam Avenue, right across the street from Lincoln Center. Why isn’t every single student at all of these schools required to have rich programs inside Lincoln Center? Why can’t we get these kids across the street for Close Encounters of the Creative Kind? Why can’t we employ the thousands of artists who make their home in NYC in every single school as teaching artists? It seems that walking across the street…one street…several hundred feet…is easy.

I realize that I haven’t gone for the “unethical, questionable, dubious or suspicious” that you’ve asked in this very fair question. I just want to focus on the solutions, the kids, the resources we have available. I feel it’s my “job” to energize the possibilities and live in the solutions.

6) Here it comes–that word—morale—-what was morale like in those 25 schools?

Being assigned to a school for one week, it’s perhaps unfair for me to assess morale. However, I’ll just say that for my first impression, in schools where teachers and students felt their voices were heard and honored by the administration, morale was high. In one school, I met a principal who seemed to be plagued with regular anger explosions. I felt that most of the staff in that school kept their heads down. The AP at this school was given to high decibel screaming at students and running after them in the hall for wearing a ball cap. The students defied him, laughing at him. To me, he seemed like he needed his Guinness to reach equilibrium. But that’s just my conjecture. Maybe it’s more Jamisons.

At the dual language schools, the “screened” schools – where students are chosen from the top of their classes for admission, the arts and science schools in midtown and on Wall Street so rich in resources, the morale seemed high. Again – I was only there for a week so my observations may be somewhat superficial. However, as a substitute teacher, I was at the “bottom” of the, shall we say, power structure. At some schools, I was treated with great respect; at others, I was treated like I had a furuncle on my forehead. That was the most fun for me, I have to say. I kept writing imaginary letters to the DOE, thanking them for sending me on this rotation. They’re all in the book.

And – let me say, that today, 5 years later, there are still wonderful teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and APs in this ATR rotation. Many of them are suffering poor treatment, humiliation and can’t get hired because they have a great deal of teaching experience and a principal can hire two newbie teachers for the price of one experienced ATRs. I really feel for them. I also feel for all the students they could be teaching, helping into college and mentoring. Hello? Anybody out there?

7) Did you mostly visit elementary, middle schools or high schools ?

Only public high schools in Manhattan.

8) Let’s talk leadership—-what did you observe about principals and assistant principals?

I’ve covered some of this above. Principals and AP’s ran the gamut from warm, welcoming to dissassociative to thank you Comus, god of comedy, for giving me this screwy supervisor. One of my ATR friends, who also suffered explosion from this same principal I described earlier, told me this vignette in “Yo Miz!” as her “go-to place when she wants to howl.” [In laughter, I assume.]

9) Supplies—did teachers have adequate supplies? And what was the state of the buildings that you saw?

Again, I’ve covered this above. Some schools were rich beyond imagination in every conceivable supply. Others had next to nothing. Our schools are mirrors of the raging inequities in our communities.

10) Overall, it is tough to make generalizations- but in general, what was the “state of education” like in the city in which you taught?

I only taught in public high schools in Manhattan. If Manhattan is indicative of the rest of the US, the one word that sums up the state of education is “inequity.”

11) Special Education—does it seem to be working and were the vast majority of those kids getting an appropriate education?

Unfortunately, and I don’t mean to be glib, but to be a public school teacher in a Manhattan high school, no matter what your license area, you are a “special education” teacher. I got to sub in a number of special ed classes. Some of them only had 6 kids. I’m not trained in special ed and I found these classes to be the most challenging. I think the schools are following guidelines, providing team teachers, some small classes and resource rooms for these kids. However, in one school, I was assigned to be a team teacher for a young social studies teacher in a midtown high school. She was a licensed technology teacher with no experience teaching social studies. She had no administrative support, large classes and, get this: she had to teach the same fairly large classes of kids both Global History and American History concurrently – Global was 2nd period, American 4th period. She kept two lessons ahead of each class. And, to make matters more challenging, some of her students were coming to class reeking of weed, angry, wearing gang clothing or tattoos and highly insubordinate, to put it mildly.

I can’t say if special ed is working and if the vast majority of these kids are getting an appropriate education. I’d say that most of the special ed situations I participated in showed great resolve and courage on the part of the teachers.

I also saw respect and caring between special ed teachers and their young charges, as well as supportive administrators.

12) What have I neglected to ask?

Perhaps you have neglected to ask me where I am living, now that “Yo Miz!” has launched. Since I’ve named all 25 schools, if anyone asks, I am living in the Himalayas, planning to move to a river boat in on the Congo in a week or so.

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