Each month, NewsWorks presents a story from the First Person Arts Podcast. In this edition, public school teacher Jason Pittman relates a tale of a zoo field trip gone awry.
As part of a monthly series, NewsWorks presents this story from the Oct. 22 edition of the First Person Arts Podcast. It was told last summer at a story slam, where true-life stories are presented around a theme, no notes allowed. The theme that night was “criminal.”
It’s easy to see why teachers might be driven to distraction: lessons to convey, lively kids to contain, rules to follow. And then there are other adults to contend with. As Washington, D.C., public school teacher Jason Pittman relates a tale of a field trip gone awry, he gets sidetracked by the ineptitude of adults, who were supposed to be there to help.
Listen to the story in the audio player above. [Audio production by Kimberly Haas.]
So, I have just completed 10 years as a public school teacher in Washington, D.C. Don’t clap, actually, because I just quit.
It was a difficult decision. I hated leaving a lot of my students.
I had a student when I was a very young teacher. Ryan, in the middle of my lessons, would conduct these very wild conversations between his thumbs — who spoke their own thumb language.
Like: “Mee mee mee mee mee mee meep.”
“Mee mee mee mee mee mee mee mee mee meep.”
So when Ryan’s mother signed up to be the chaperone of our class field trip to the zoo, I was unhappy.
She gets the kids. We get to the zoo. She walks 20 steps from the entrance. She sits down next to the ice cream vending machine, buys herself an ice cream, announces to the three students that I have conservatively put in her chaperoning group that “It’s too hot to walk around the zoo today,” and just eats ice cream in front of the children and won’t buy them any.
I find out about this when I was summoned by the zoo staff to the petting area of the zoo because my students from her group have decided to ride the goats.
Now, look, I love my students, so I have to justify their behavior a little bit. They’re boys. These are boys who have eaten all of the soap in the soap dispenser in my classroom. So, like, wanting to ride a totally awesome miniature horse double-unicorn pony is, like, the most well-behaved and normal thing that they’ve done this year.
Look, as a parent chaperone on a school field trip, you have one job, and that is returning to the school with the same number of UNINJURED children that you started with!
We get on the subway, the Metro in D.C. The doors close, and Mrs. Hannigan, Ryan’s mother, says to me, “Mr. Pittman. I don’t think I have all the kids in my class.”
So I said, “Mrs. Hannigan, please count to three and tell me that you have all of the students in your group.”
After she gets to two and pauses, I realize we are missing a child. And of course it’s “Thumbs.” She left her own child in the subway station on the last platform!
I pull the whole class off the subway, ride back to the other one, pick him up. We get to the end of the line at the subway, get our cars out of parking…
D.C. Metro has just instituted the SmarTrip card, and you have to pay for everything on the SmarTrip card. She’s trying to get her car out of the parking lot. She says, “Mr. Pittman, I don’t have a SmarTrip card. I can’t get my car out —”
I said, “No problem, Mrs. Hannigan. I’m going to give you mine. You can get your car out with that.”
“But Mr. Pittman, I don’t have a SmarTrip card.”
OK, thank you for restating the problem for me. Now I understand much better. So how about this solution: I’ll give you MINE, and then you can GET OUT.
She said, “But, Mr. Pittman, it said I need a SmarTrip card. I don’t have —”
DOES EVERYONE IN YOUR FAMILY ONLY SPEAK THUMBS?
Meep f—ink meep. I’ll meeping give you mine and then you’ll have—
F— it. Forget it. I bought her a SmarTrip card. I give it to her. Get out.
Mrs. Martinez, who understandably actually does not speak English, sees this transaction and comes over and asks for her SmarTrip card to get her car out. And I figure I can’t do this conversation in English. Fine. Another $10. Here’s your SmarTrip card to get out.
Mrs. Martinez is a responsible chaperone, so she gets $10 out of her wallet to repay me for the SmarTrip card — unfortunately hands it to Mrs. Hannigan, asks her to hand it back to me, and of course Mrs. Hannigan POCKETS THE MONEY.
Mrs. Hannigan, however, is not the criminal element of this story — is NOT the worst chaperone of this story — because the worst parent chaperone this day GOT ARRESTED.
Mr. Jeffers shows up at the last minute asking to be a parent chaperone. I’m not sure we’re gonna let dad-who-just-got-out-of-jail be the chaperone for a group of kids, but I tell him sure, have a little father-son day with your kid. Decided it’ll be super entertaining to encourage the monkeys to throw their poo at each other. Causes such a ruckus that he is escorted out by the zoo security. Turns out he has outstanding warrants and is arrested.
His son has to walk — by himself — 10 miles from the police station home that night.
It was situations and students like that that kept me in teaching and wanting to be a better teacher for kids like that. It was the adults and the parents and the administrators and the legislators that drove me out.
Jason Pittman is a National Science Teacher’s Association early educator of the year, and has appeared on “This American Life” and Speakeasy DC’s “Top Shelf,” and he is the winner of Story League’s Story Tournament.
We asked him some questions about his most recent interactions with adults since he quit teaching.
What are you doing now? and why?
I’ve been doing a lot of freelance programming and web design. It’s what I did before becoming a teacher, and it pays pretty well. I’ve also done some consulting for educational training companies. I actually was contracted out to the same district I used to work for at 10 times what they used to pay me as a teacher. That was nearly crushing, after hearing so often that there is a financial crisis and teachers had to tighten their belts. It just made me feel like teachers are so poorly thought of, they couldn’t possibly be worth paying a decent wage.
But I’m also teaching at American University now, training rising science teachers to become better qualified and more successful in the classroom. I’m working with the Teacher Salary Project as well on their new governor’s challenge program to help improve teacher salaries around the country. So, I’m not giving up, I’m hopeful, and I want to be a part of the solution.
Why do you think you have such a sympathetic attitude toward kids?
I had really bad experiences with teachers growing up in Houston, where they still allowed teachers to hit students … because … Texas, I guess. Anyway, I was generally afraid of teachers, and eventually I just started to avoid school altogether.
By the time I made it to high school, I would skip classes in favor of a museum, reading a book alone on a park bench, or playing music. I understand what it’s like to be a kid in a classroom of 36, lost and alone, and totally unwilling to comply with this haphazard educational system.
But I had a few teachers who were a lighthouse in the storm, and I felt at ease. They cared and they really motivated me, and I never skipped those classes. So those teachers set the example for me when I became a teacher.
Why did you want to become a teacher?
Cruel poetic justice, I guess. I hated teachers so much when I was a kid, and I generally wasn’t very nice to them, so becoming a teacher, and loving it, was a pretty fitting punishment.
You said it’s the adults who drove you away from teaching. What would it take to bring you back?
I guess that was the short way of saying that our legislators and citizens needs to decide what they want from public education. Because this doesn’t work. I was very successful as a teacher with nearly a dozen national recognitions over the past few years — and yet my salary was cut twice during the same period of time.
I’ve had the opportunity to connect with Sal Khan of Khan Academy and he’s introduced me to Chris Balme of Spark, and they’ve included me on early conversations about the design of a new brick-and-mortar school. Chris really excited me when he asked, “If you could start over from scratch, what would it look like?” I’d be pretty excited about going back to teach in a system that I could help design from the ground up with two progressives like these guys, that simply fits the learner’s needs.
Philadelphia schools are having a rough time. All the adults are fighting, but the kids are still losing. What advice would you offer the people in charge?
It’s really hard for [all of the] stakeholders to make compromises. They each hold fast to a piece of what’s hurting the educational system. The only way to move forward is to make some major changes, and each stakeholder has to be willing to give on the precious issue that they’re clinging to. But that generally doesn’t happen. Selfish interests and status quo are held as top priority, often by well-intended groups and individuals.
In my district, these situations have caused record high levels of teacher dropouts and, as you said, the kids are still losing. Worse still, I think every one of these stakeholders already realizes that, so I don’t think I have an answer for the “adults.”
Kids, here’s my DIY recipe for education: Library. Museum. Books on a park bench. Musical instrument. Stay out of trouble.
Jason Pittman can be found on Twitter: @pittmanjason.