Category: Archive

And all to be a teacher woman

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Those flying signs were meant to give directions to crowds of sweaty teacher candidates who herded themselves from one line to another in shabby rooms and hallways.
I was there.
I told myself it was time to leave my teaching position in a posh, award winning Catholic school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and apply for a job in a public school.
With over fifteen years teaching experience in America, I wanted to help the non-English speaking immigrants who were newly arriving in the New York City school system.
Sweat ran down my face and neck as I trudged from one floor to another attempting to get forms signed, passport cleared and fingerprints recorded.
I spent a grueling two hour-long wait on the fingerprint line listening to an officer shouting at candidates as if they were criminals:
“Back, I said! Back behind that damn white line!” His eyes were wild and red.
Well, I felt I was auditioning for a role in a play called “Dante’s Tenth Ring.”
I examined a drooping arrow on a wall. It was pointing to the floor where it was about to land. It read: “Not Born in the USA.”
“Not born in the USA? That would be me,” I said to myself aloud. “I guess they want to make sure we’re legal,” I remarked to a man behind me, as he waited with passport in hand.
“Jes. They wanna make sure,” he said in a strong accent.
“Will you be teaching Spanish?” I asked him.
“Jes, in high school” he smiled, nodding.
“I hope to teach English in elementary school,” I said.
“Buena suerte!” he said, fanning himself with a manila folder.
When I finally reached the desk where I asked about making an appointment for the Board of Examiners’ test, the employee sitting behind the pile of papers and the tall MacDonald’s cup looked away.
“Sixth floor,” she barked in response to my question.
“Room number?” I asked. The eyes on the face above the shiny yellow blouse did not look at me. She gulped down the contents of her cup and yelled, “next.”
I pushed my way into the corridor past other frustrated candidates, dropping folders, and raising papers in the air asking where they should go to get this or that form signed.
Suddenly, out of a doorway, came the shiny yellow blouse lady. She was in bare feet.
“What the… Where are her shoes? Can you believe this?” a young candidate demanded of the cracks in the ceiling, her arms reaching upward as if for divine explanation.
As the shoeless woman reached the end of the hallway, with lime green paint peeling off the walls, she created a megaphone with her hands.
“Stop asking questions,” she bellowed. “Follow the signs!”
“Signs? What goddamn signs?” A man wandering in and out of doors shouted angrily.
I didn’t know if it was the frustration or the absurdity of the scene, but I burst out laughing.
Embarrassed, I decided it was time to get out of there.
“I’ll come back in the morning to finish up,” I told the warm bottle of water in my hand.
Teaching was my life. Heat or no heat, confusion and chaos aside, I was determined to see this mad process through.
Passing the test meant I could get hired by the Board of Education. After two years of successful full-time subbing, I would be eligible to get a position as a “regular teacher.”
When I asked why a degree in education and years of prior teaching experience didn’t eliminate some of the red tape, I was told: “That’s the way it is.”
After a few more sweaty days on long quarrelsome queues, it was time for the Board of Examiners test. But when I handed in the letter of approval to take the exam, the employee screening those forms stared at the words: “Place of Birth.”
“Passport,” she demanded.
“Passport? Again?”
“You got a passport?” she snapped.
“I didn’t bring it today. It was cleared already. Otherwise I wouldn’t have received this letter about taking the exam.”
I pointed to the notice approvingly, as if the clerk were going to be reasonable. She handed it back immediately.
“Wait, I have an appointment,” I protested.
But she was already reaching out her long painted talons for the records of the applicant behind me. I conjured up all the Irish curses I could think of, and mumbled them under my breath.
The next day, I returned with passport, transcripts and letters of approval from principals. I even brought my certificate of naturalization just in case.
I finally succeeded in getting hired by the almighty Department of Education. I taught English as a second language for sixteen years and learned to cut through the red tape by focusing on the fun and enjoyment that teaching a language brings.
Although bureaucracy continues to line itself up ahead of children, today’s teaching candidates are able to apply for jobs online.
However, in my recent work as a field supervisor for student teachers at Hunter College, a prospective teacher complained that technology glitches now force applicants to go back online repeatedly.
So, whether on line, or online, teachers still need to be prepared for continued chaos.
As Hildy, my late dear friend, said when she heard my story: “it’s time to issue a new edict called no teacher left behind.”

Mayo native Maura Mulligan lives in West New York, New Jersey, and is working on a memoir.

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