Brooklyn’s Finest and the Defeat of Teaching

About a week ago I watched the movie Brooklyn’s Finest and it touched a nerve.  At first glance it’s not my usual type of movie, but I liked Training Day and thought another movie by the same director might be just as good. For some reason I really connected with one of the characters in the film, and in a strange way his job made me think of my own teaching job.

The movie is really a character study of three NYC cops and follows them for a few ultra violent days in their lives.  All three are good at their jobs (one supposedly less so than the others), but they are also all depressed, stressed, and cynical.  There’s no separation from the cop and the man, or their jobs and their “real” lives. Their job is their life, and the people they work with–even the ones they are paid to infiltrate and betray–are their family. They have learned to do what it takes to survive in their jobs, and to accept that after years of sacrificing their lives and ideals, no one really cares. The people in charge make ridiculous demands and tell them they’re not working hard enough, even when they’ve sold their souls from giving so much.

These men are unappreciated, underpaid, and despised, and spend most of their days dealing with drugs, danger, and chaos.  In the end, only one man is left standing.  He survives by keeping his head low, not trying to be a hero, and is reminded several times that he’s really nothing special on the police force.  He’s one week away from retirement and he just wants to make it through.

Another cop is working undercover, trained on the streets where he grew up, snitching on men he’s perhaps known since childhood, and asked to turn traitor so he can get off the street and behind a desk.  He’s so entrenched in his undercover life that there’s no separation between his job and his “real” life.  The last cop is a narc with seven kids who steals drug money so he can buy a new house to replace the too small, moldy-walled one that sends his asthmatic, pregnant-with-twins wife to the hospital.  He needs money–fast.

Suffice it to say that these burned out, hardened men have seen the absolute worst side of humanity and still manage to get through the day.  These cops are hated and reviled by some, but they carry on and do their jobs. It’s what they do.

But this post isn’t actually meant to be a movie review. Rather, I recognized something in the face of the veteran cop a week from retirement that I see all around me.  I used to see it in my own face when I looked in the mirror.

It’s the face of defeat.

It’s the face of someone who knows they work within a system ruled by idiots, one that’s so broken it might not be fixable, a system that takes over every minute of your life, that takes advantage of your idealism and optimism and in the end turns it into cynicism and disbelief.  It’s when the bad guys turn the good guys into something worse than themselves, turn them into people who do things they know are wrong but are not strong enough to resist. The system may be broken, they tell you, but it’s all your fault.

I’m talking about teaching.

I might not have taught in NYC, or dealt with drug dealers, guns, and prostitutes in the classroom, but the jobs are nevertheless very similar.  The effects of the two jobs can be the same, and I’ve taught in some rough neighborhoods.  I’ve seen those faces on many of the veteran teachers I’ve taught with through the years.

Yes, you know them, the veteran teachers:  those women and men who are apparently failing our children, not teaching them as well as other countries around the world, the ones who supposedly have tenure and are living the good life off their generous retirement packages.  The ones with the short working hours and all the time off.  The ones who shouldn’t expect to keep their jobs just because they’ve given 10, 15, 20, or 50 years to it.

Those evil public school teachers.  I was one of those people for 19 years.

The veteran cop is given an assignment that is senseless and dangerous: he’s asked to take brand new recruits with him into the worst precinct in the city and act as a mentor. He’s portrayed as being uncooperative, burned out, biding his time, ineffective, a has been, and his methods are looked down upon and second guessed by the new cops–with unfortunate results for them.  This man knows what he’s doing, and has learned to pick and choose his battles. He’s not flashy, doesn’t pump himself up in front of others, and doesn’t ask for anything other than to be left alone to do his job.

Most importantly, even though everyone has written him off, you come to know he still cares deeply. You also realize it’s part of the reason he is such a broken man.

He is the true hero of the film, as are the teachers, police officers, fire fighters, social workers, and anyone else who chooses to work in a job that takes more than it gives. These jobs have never been about the money–no one gets rich being a teacher.

This summer I found a Facebook group of people who went to my elementary school. Someone is always posting old photos of the school and their classes and classmates from the 1960’s and 70’s. Almost to a person, everyone loved school and their teachers back then. No one comments on what they learned, or testing, or even the innovative curriculum that was used in the classroom. Back then, the teacher sat at a desk at the front of the room and everyone sat in rows. We did a lot of seatwork and the only time we got up from our desks was when we left the room. There were no collaborative groups, no differentiated learning, no multiple intelligences. We did a lot of rote memorization and a lot of answering questions from the textbook–what we would call “busywork” now. We read a lot of books, and we were always copying things from the chalkboard. The teachers were strict and didn’t put up with excuses, we had art, music, and recess, and it was a shorter day.  We all look back fondly on those years.

First grade: top row, under the candy cane

These days, if I had taught the way my teachers taught me, I would have been fired. I’m not saying things were better back then. I had some pretty bad teachers, especially when I got to junior high and high school. But my point is this: everything we hear these days about public education seems to say over and over that teachers are the problem, that they’re somehow failing our children, that they’re not doing their jobs, that you can’t get rid of the bad ones, that all they care about is preserving their retirement benefits and tenure, and that they’re unwilling to change. Are teachers really that much worse than the ones we had when we were in school? If so, why is that?

Teachers’ hands are tied by administrators and policy makers who don’t know the first thing about teaching. Every year there’s a new magic bullet, something that’s going to raise test scores and fix everything that’s wrong with education. Every new change means more paperwork, more restructuring, more accountability. By the time teachers start to get a handle on the changes, everything changes again. A new principal is placed in the school, teachers are indiscriminately switched to different grade levels or different subject matters, and a new cycle begins, over and over and over, until the next great thing appears.

There are a lot of good ideas out there, but the majority are never given a chance to work before they’re abandoned for the next big fix. Most of these fixes come from universities that are paid millions of dollars for something that’s nothing more than common sense repackaged with a new name and new jargon. Even when you do what’s mandated, and the students don’t do well, it’s still your fault, never the program or curriculum you’re forced to implement. Everything is data driven, and children become nothing more than a test score–and “proof ” that a teacher is doing their job–or not.

Everyone from Washington politicians to Steve Jobs seems to believe that teachers’ unions are the Death Star, that education is going downhill because principals can’t get rid of bad teachers (and I’m not talking about Cameron Diaz), and if we just treat education like a business it will solve all our problems.

My point in all of this: it wears you down. You give all of yourself only to turn around and see that you have become the enemy. You must be, because there’s no one else to blame.   You do what you know how to do, which is teach. You close your eyes and ears to those who’ve never spent a minute in the classroom, those who suddenly have all the answers, those who never take the time to visit schools and see firsthand what the problems really are, who can’t be bothered to ask teachers what should be done to save public education. Perhaps we should all be asking ourselves this:  is all this blaming and fuming really about education and how to save it, or is it more about the money–lots and lots of money that other interests would be only too happy to spend?

The system is broken, but the ones taking the fall are the only good, sane things left.

Like the cop who prevails in the end, the one who carries on despite the odds, you learn to do your job and not listen to the wolves howling outside your door. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares. You care, you give, you make a difference, until all you’re left with one day is the face of defeat looking back at you in the mirror.

School Budget Cuts: Educators Fear Deepest Cuts are Ahead


  1. Deanna Middleton

    Hi Angela,
    I enjoy reading your thoughts on so many different subjects-you are an intelligent, interesting lady 🙂 I completely agree with everything you have written about teaching. I long wanted to become a teacher after working in the business world for many years. I returned to school to earn my teaching certificate and taught for 6 years before choosing to leave. It was so disappointing to me to come to that decision, but I could no longer stand many of the situations that you mentioned. The time and effort was never enough, no matter how hard teachers worked, and I unfortunately, reached the point where the bad outweighed the good-and that is when it is time to leave. From your previous writings, I can feel your love for young people and education, as I do. Thank you for changing your students’ lives for the better. Best of luck to you.

    • Mind Margins

      Deanna, thanks so much for commenting and for your kind words. I sat on this post for about two weeks because it seemed so negative, and I didn’t want people to think I had given up on public education. I haven’t, but there is much that needs to be fixed. It does bug me that teachers are being blamed for everything wrong, though, and I don’t hear many people standing up for them. It breaks my heart to read that you had to get out after only 6 years, but I completely understand. It’s a tough decision to leave, especially when you care so much and come in with such optimism, but you know when it’s time to go. I bet your district lost a great teacher when you left. I hope you’ve found something else that’s fulfilling and makes you happy.

      • Deanna Middleton

        Hello again Angela,
        I don’t believe that your post was negative, but most thoughtful and articulate on a subject that you are extremely well qualified to share your feelings. I believe that most teachers are born optimists. And I, too, agree with you that the system ‘takes advantage of your idealism and optimism and in the end turns it into cynicism and disbelief.’ It was so unbelievably disheartening to me that I was told that I could not read aloud a novel to my students because ‘we don’t have time for that here.’ Instead of instilling a love of reading in children, I constantly ‘drilled and killed’ them on how to pass a standardized test almost from the first day of school. I felt like I was teaching them to hate reading!
        Like you, as a young girl,I also loved school and learning from the first day I stepped into first grade. Sadly, I don’t believe that many young students today feel the same enjoyment. I guess that is the thing that pains me the most from the whole experience. Again, I appreciate your writing.

      • Mind Margins

        So glad you understood the point that I was trying to make, that when we “don’t have time” to read novels because it’s not getting the students ready for testing, there’s something seriously wrong with what we’re doing in the classroom. The majority of my fifth graders were already burned out from testing by the time they got to me, and very few of them read anything outside of school. I bought hundreds of books with my own money for our classroom library, and made a big deal of talking up the latest books so the kids would get interested in reading. Everyone in my three classes, including me, read for 30 minutes every day, and they could read whatever they wanted. It was everyone’s favorite part of the day, and I’m certain it made a huge difference in their reading scores. However, I always felt like I “wasn’t teaching” or “doing my job” when we did silent reading, and I felt the same way when I read novels aloud. At the very least, I always hoped that my students were able to discover a love of books and a good story from being in my class, and I hope it counteracted all the boring reading passages I was forced to put them through.

      • A Wanderer

        Your post and comments remind me of a conversation I had with my niece a couple of years ago when she was in 4th or 5th grade. It was early April and I asked her how school was going. I remember this so clearly. After a big sigh, she said “It’s okay but all my teacher does is talk about taxes.”

        “Taxes, really?”

        “Yah she’s really worried and so all our time is preparing for taxes.”

        Ok I knew it was closing in on April 15th but it seemed horribly inappropriate that the teacher was sharing her personal tax issues with 11 year olds. Then it hit me. She wasn’t talking about Uncle Sam; she was talking about the TX Assessments. All I could think at the time was, how sad!!

        They say teachers make the single greatest impact on student learning and yet lawmakers demonize and demoralize them to the point that those who can teach have a hard time staying.

        Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They don’t seem negative. They seemmheart felt.

      • Mind Margins

        I’ve actually had parents make the same comment, that their kid came home and couldn’t stop talking about “taxes.” Alas, the TAKS tests are no more. This year everyone gets a free pass through to the next grade, and next year they will implement the new STAAR tests–which will, of course, be “significantly more rigorous than previous tests and will measure a child’s performance, as well as academic growth,” per the TEA website.

        An interesting thing to note is how the tests have progressively become more and more rigorous through the years, with scores continually rising and required passing rates increasing, but with little credit given to the teachers, students, and schools. Instead, they keep changing the tests and parameters, so nothing is ever good enough. More importantly, think of all the money the testing and test prep companies will make since all the old test materials are now obsolete. It’s not about learning–it’s a huge multi-million dollar racket, and the kids are the losers.

  2. skippingstones

    “Teachers’ hands are tied by administrators and policy makers who don’t know the first thing about teaching. Every year there’s a new magic bullet, something that’s going to raise test scores and fix everything that’s wrong with education. Every new change means more paperwork, more restructuring, more accountability. By the time teachers start to get a handle on the changes, everything changes again.”

    This post makes me think of almost every job I’ve ever had. I was just telling a co-worker last week that I doubt if any of our executive staff, the people making all the decisions about how our company is run, have ever worked a day in one of our stores. I often wonder if they’ve even been a customer before. The focus, at that level, is on cutting costs, increasing sales and profits – the new magic bullet, as you said – without any real understanding of what the customers want or what it takes to actually run the business at the store level. And yet, we are the ones who have to deal with the customers’ complaints, confusion and frustrations. We are the ones who have to accomplish all the tasks, no matter how many more are heaped on the pile, with continually reduced payroll.

    • Mind Margins

      I had several friends tell me the same thing, that this could apply to their nonteaching jobs as well. Maybe it’s the business model that’s at fault, or capitalism in general, but teaching has changed a lot since I first started 20 years ago, and there is more of an emphasis on student learning as “products” and on cutting costs, etc. I used to feel like my expertise in the classroom counted for a lot more than it does now. Also, principals and higher administrators also used to at least have a feel for the classroom and learning. Now they seem to spend little to no time teaching before they try to head up the pay scale and into an office of their own. The trend is also towards hiring people from outside of education to make educational decisions at the highest levels, and having CEO’s instead of superintendents. I think it’s the same in all jobs. The bottom line is: it’s all about the money.

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s