An Interview with Robert Foley: What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

Oct 3, 2013 by

Consequences of Playing God Tales from Lingor High SchoolMichael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Robert, first of all, tell us a bit about yourself, your education, and your experiences.

Well, to begin with I am a retired teacher but a very much alive educator, the inclination to share and educate never having really left my system. I hold Masters Degrees in English and Psychology and minored in college (what is now part of New York City University) in Speech and Theatre. After graduation, I went directly into secondary school teaching which was what I always wanted to do with my life and spent 34 years in the classroom and on the stage, having taught English and Drama for virtually all of those years.

For the last 15 years of my career I ran a performing arts program and directed well over 100 productions in the New York Metropolitan area. I became passionate about directing not only because of a love of theater, but because the role of director drew me closer to the young men and women whom I taught; spending countless hours of rehearsal time with them put me in a position where I could truly guide and mold them in so many other capacities than as simply a classroom teacher.

From the inception of my career, I was actively involved in my local branch of the AFT and NYSUT and spent almost 30 years of my career as a union activist and shop steward. In that capacity, I came to understand the problems of my colleagues and, to use a polite word, the ‘thinking’ of my administrators. It was a role that put me in a contentious position with administrators since I firmly believe in due process and fought to defend many of my colleagues even when they were , in my personal opinion, wrong; of course, with equal vigor, I fought many administrators when they were wrong.

In retirement, I continued to explore teaching as an adjunct professor, but that was never truly satisfying. The urge to write about my experiences and use satirical fiction to inspire those going into a teaching career led to the novel which has occupied two years of my life and has finally been published – The Consequences of Playing God: Tales from Lingor High School. Yes, it is fiction, highly satirical at that, but the experiences are uncomfortably parallel to truth; and from it, I think young men and women considering the profession will get a true sense of the travails and joys that await them. At least, I hope that intention will be fulfilled.

2) I suspect that many teachers at some point in their careers ask ” What Have I Gotten Myself Into ?” Are they just all poorly prepared or do they just get theory in the teacher education programs?

I would slightly amend the question to include all teachers (and probably all men and women embarking on any career). That said, I’ll give you my thoughts on how teachers might view that question. With the possible exception of actual student teaching (and possibly observation), I don’t think there is any course that can adequately prepare the teacher for what’s in store. You learn in your first days in the classroom that most of the theory, history, methodology, etc., etc. that is taught simply does not cut it in the real world.

I remember my very first weeks as a teacher in a suburban school district (which refused to admit that it had urban problems) being given classes of students who, shall we say, were ungifted or at least uninterested. I shudder to mention it, but the classes were tracked as ‘terminal’ students, hardly PC in today’s world and a pretty awful designation in any world where they tell us that students will respond to what is expected of them.

That aside, I opened the book cabinet to find the reading curriculum: Jane Eyre, My Antonia, Ivanhoe, and Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King”, and, of all exciting books, Ethan Frome. I promptly went to my department chair (an uptight, well meaning lady) and my principal (a man who had probably read not a one of those books) and told them that my ‘terminals’ could hardly be motivated by a book in which the climax occurs when a cat knocks a pickle dish off the cupboard.

It was my first big confrontation as a teacher and, miraculously, I won – got a small budget for books and a lot of mimeograph paper and introduced the kids to some naturalistic shockers (When Ya Comin’ Back, Red Ryder, Albee’s “Zoo Story”

The next battle, admittedly harder, was to get rid of the ‘terminal’ designation.

The point of all this is that a young teacher has to have belief in self and be prepared to battle from the very first day. You’ve gotten yourself into something that can be a nightmarish world of bureaucracy and hassle, but it is also a world in which glorious things can occur every time you set foot in your classroom.

3) Many teachers voice exasperation to me when they discuss a child being inappropriately mainstreamed or included. They indicate “this is nothing I was ever trained for “. Are they all psychotic, or in good touch with reality?

They are certainly not ‘psychotic’ – assuming you are referring to the teachers. With labeling being challenged everywhere and dwindling financial resources to deal with the extreme student on either side of the spectrum being the current fashion, it is not unusual to enter a classroom and find the gamut of aptitude and interest., a problem compounded by large class sizes. There is no panacea to solve this problem.

I think each teacher must come to realize that heterogeneous grouping is the rule in many districts. I’m not passing judgment as to whether this is preferable to homogeneous grouping (There are arguments, advantages and disadvantages to both.), but a young teacher needs to realize that this is the job and it must be taken head on for what it is.

Teachers themselves make up a heterogeneous group: there are those who are born to teach, there are those who can (to a point) be taught to teach more effectively, and there are those who will never really be able to teach effectively regardless of the situation.

Obviously, the last of these three groups needs to be encouraged to leave a system; they probably hate young people and don’t really want to be there at all. The reality is that you have to find the approach that works for you and your students. The first group always will. The second group, with good apprenticing and support can approach that goal. The third group, as I said, will neither make it nor be very happy.

4) Other teachers are very happy- except for the fact that they are doing remediation all of the time. Is this what they went into teaching to do ?

I don’t know what a particular young teacher may have in mind when pursuing a career in education; however, remediation may well be the job; certainly, if the students require it, it is the job. If young teachers aren’t prepared for dealing with remedial students, then they weren’t prepared properly. Remediation and the probable need for it somewhere along the line is something that should be stressed somewhere in the teacher education curriculum so that students will not go into the profession and be blind-sided.

What I can offer up from experience is that, regardless of a young teacher’s ‘ideals’, teaching remedial students is far more rewarding than teaching an honors program. In the long run, there is nothing more gratifying that connecting with a student who is an underachiever. Reach them, and those students will be grateful to you for the rest of their lives.

5) Paperwork, forms and meetings—many teachers spend a gargantuan amount of time attending IEP’s, 504’s and FBA’s and BIP’s. Is this all wasted time ?

This is one area in which teacher education courses can go a long way toward preparing the FTA (Future Teacher of America) for the classroom role. Like everyone else in the profession, I used to cringe at acronyms; they invariably meant paperwork, nuisance, busywork, ‘not part of my job’, etc. But often, they have a purpose, and often they are worth the effort. Filling out an FBA doesn’t really take much of a toll. (I acknowledge that teachers of ‘special’ children have a far greater burden here.)

For the average teacher, how difficult is it to note that X gets up from his seat screaming, walks three times around the room and utters expletives every time I say, ‘Take notes.” The problem lies in the follow-up, the teacher, administrator, parent, psychologist meetings that may lead up to a child being placed, diagnosed, self or partially contained.

If the follow-up is not there and the results prove ineffective, then a teacher has a right to feel that valuable time has been wasted. Worse, if the teacher does not have administrative support or when parents are aggressively resistant to labeling, the process can be threatening to a young teacher.

Here is one of those areas wherein the ‘union’ (which has for many become a negative word) can or should be helpful in terms of providing legal support for the teacher and also securing time in the teachers’ schedules for dealing with these forms and consequent meetings.

6) Lingor High School—real place, with real people with real problems or a fictitious utopia where all the students are highly motivated, interested and above average in intelligence?

Lingor High School – Oh, yes, it is a very real place. Fictionalized, yes; but I believe it is very real, as real as any urban high school in America. My book is a long book – spanning some 40 years in time – containing every conceivable type of student, teacher and administrator. Names are not real, of course; many characters are composites but nonetheless recognizable as ‘types’. But young teachers will meet them in the flesh, will recognize them, and have to learn to cope with them. Like all satire, it is based on truth; like all satire it is poignant, pointed and hysterically funny if it were not so pitiable.

The book deals with the changing face of education in America, though perhaps that verb should be ‘changed’. As educators, we all play God (or play at being God); and all that playing has consequences which can often be horrifying as well as rewarding.

7) Teaching—is it all about politics and classroom management and standardized tests? Or is it about the great historians, great pieces of literature, excellent math skills, critical thinking skills, and good writing?

It is about balancing both. The presentation and exploration of subject matter should be paramount; nothing should be allowed to interfere with the teaching process. As a shop steward, I did have at least a period or two in the teaching day when I was free to deal with union business; but I had to make a hard, fast rule for my colleagues (and administrators!) that I would not take time from my students’ time to deal with politicking and grievance problems; in other words, don’t come to my door while I am teaching a class. The vast majority accepted and honored that rule. As for classroom management, I was on my own; and I hope I succeeded in establishing and following rules and routines. I made a point of never teaching for a test; I taught the curriculum well enough so that my students did well on any test confronting them, and I believe it is in the power of any good teacher to do that. I realize that today, in some districts, there is the expectation that X must be taught on a particular day using a particular worksheet, and that – ideally – every teacher in the country should be teaching the same curriculum in the same way at the same moment on the same day.

An exaggeration? I fear that that is where we are headed. I am glad that I don’t have to buck such a ridiculous trend that leaves little room for individuality or creativity; but, if I were still in the classroom, buck it I would. One rule I would pass on to young teachers is to never, never, never give up on a job because of a poor administrator. In the long run, you will be there, and the administrator will have moved on. That’s not faith; that’s reality.

8) What are the students at Lingor reading? And what are the teachers reading ?

I could be flip here, and answer that they are reading their IPODS, but the honest answer is that I don’t really know what the students at Lingor are reading. I know what they were reading (and not reading) when in my classroom, and I can only hope that they are still reading works that will build character, works that are well written, and works that speak to them in language that elevates their humanity.

I hope they are making friends with the characters about whom they are reading and that they will read works that make them dream. If I were teaching today, they would be reading Joyce Carol Oates, they would be reading Camus’s The Stranger (the singly most thought-provoking and accessible work of fiction I ever taught), they would be reading Stephen King whom I believe will be read 150 years from now as a chronicler of our contemporary culture.

As to the teachers, I hope they are reading The Consequences of Playing God: Tales from Lingor High School.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I hate to end with a plug or self-promotion, but where can teachers and students contemplating a career in education find my book is a missing element.in the interview.

For more information, readers can find information on my website: www.robertjosephfoley.com, The book can be ordered from that site or from my publisher at www.Xlibris.com. Reviews can also be read on these sites. The book is also available on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and can be ordered from any major book store.

You might also have asked what nurtured me as a teacher and I would have answered ‘the same things that continue to nurture me’. Great literature is right at the top of that list as is the humanity which great literature reflects. Travel, interpersonal relationships, music and the joy of continuing to educate and be educated.

Strive for the infinite ideal; that is the goal that will keep all of us young and fresh.

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