The Milk of Human (Un)kindness


My friend J., who has taught for 20 years in the public schools in Camden, New Jersey, the nation’s poorest city, often complains about the many small frustrations of her job, all of them subordinate to a larger one: an administration that won’t listen to her. If she voices a complaint or offers a suggestion, she is either ignored or punished, her only recourse to grit her teeth and wait until retirement.

Here’s a recent example:

All the students in J.’s classes are served free breakfast, a service that has been outsourced to a private catering company. Every morning, representatives from the company deliver the meals to her classroom. They tell the students that, even if they don’t want the milk provided, they must open the cartons and spill the contents into the plastic bucket placed near the serving cart. After a week of seeing dozens of cartons of milk wasted, J. told her students to put the unused milk back on the cart. The next day, she was reprimanded by the reps, who repeated their instruction to her students: open the unused containers and spill out the milk.

My friend complained to the principal. He said there was nothing he could do; the vendor’s policy was to discard unused milk. She then wrote to the superintendent, explaining the situation and noting the principal’s response. The next day, the principal confronted her. Her email had been forwarded to him by the superintendent. He reprimanded her going over his head, even though he had acknowledged that there was nothing he could do about the milk policy. As a last resort, J. contacted her teacher’s union, which also brushed her off, claiming the milk problem didn’t fall within its jurisdiction.

The problem here is not only the policy of the vendor, which seems asinine in a community where people regularly go hungry. It is also the way J. was treated. One would think that a veteran teacher who takes the trouble to write the superintendent—particularly after having spoken with an intransigent principal—would be respected enough to warrant a personalized response. Even if the policy has to stand, there ought to be an acknowledgment by this top administrator that the teacher has reason to be upset.

The sense of being trapped in a system that won’t heed feedback—that’s what J. feels most acutely. Directives are continually given from on high—whether it’s about milk or about test content; meanwhile, teachers in the classroom, even if they have a long record of service and accomplishment, are often ignored or even punished if they speak up.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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