Finding My Way to Psychology

I wish I could say I had always wanted to be a Psychologist.  But in fact it wasn’t until I got to college and took a ‘Psych’ course by accident (It was the only elective which would fit in my schedule.) that I discovered Psychology. So I switched majors. Even then I had no idea what kind of Psychology I wanted to go into.  It wasn’t until I was graduating from college and trying to figure out ‘now what?’ that a friend who also was not sure what he wanted to do called me up and said “Let’s be teachers.”  “What?” I replied. Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 7.51.26 AM

At the time the city of New York, where I was going to college, was desperate for teachers in the inner city areas.  To fill their open positions, they placed ads in the newspapers.  I had no, that’s zero, education courses or training. But the city was willing to accept my Psychology, and probably a bunch of other classes in lieu of Education credits.  All I had to do was pass the exams (two parts: written and oral).  The results said I passed by one point.  Really? Maybe I did. Maybe I was a good guesser. Maybe Attila the Hun would have passed if he had taken the test.

So I found my self certified to teach K-6 in New York City and in an elementary school in the South Bronx not too far from where ‘Fort Apache, The Bronx’ with Paul Newman was filmed in 1981. (Google it.)

Excited, I arrived in September with the notion that all people living in poverty needed was some well intended white middle class kid like me to show them how to get out of poverty by cleaning up their neighborhood, coming to school, paying attention, doing their homework, etc., etc., etc..

I was assigned to the school as an ‘above quota teacher’.  I had no classroom assignment. “What?” I asked. “When do I get a classroom?” There were 10 or 15 or us who were in that category.  (Probably all guys like me who had passed the exam by one point.) I was told that as openings came up we would be assigned. There were about 150 classroom teachers in this K-6 school.  

We didn’t have to wait long.  Teaching there was so stressful and difficult that teachers would quit and not come back the next day; a few walked out in the middle of the day.

Four years later I, too, left.  I was no longer the kid with some unrealistic notions about how easy it would be to change things.  Although still a kid in many ways, I at least had a clearer understanding of the complexity of what happens in a school. I saw how poverty and family life affect learning and above all how difficult it is for kids, who are pretty powerless in the system, to change things on their own.

A few years later, I was accepted into a School Psychology program and then after a few years working in the schools as a School Psychologist, I completed my doctorate and went into private practice working primarily with families and kids.

My Teacher is a “Cook”

The unorthodox teacher was many things to many people, but for one 14-year-old boy, the unorthodox teacher was a “cook”. Yup, clearly etched into the top of his wooden oak desk read the line, “Mr. Danna is a cook”. To be honest, the engraved declaration was not as pedestrian as his Earth Science teacher working as a cook. Rather, the boy had creatively proclaimed in bold black number 2 pencil stained wood etchings, “Mr. Danna is a cock”. It was only through thoughtful editing by a colleague who chiseled the second “c” to an “o”, that the unorthodox teacher transformed from sexual organ (cock) to someone who could make a good burger (cook).P1040370

Kids scrawl into wooden desks the darnedest things, particularly when they are forced to be with an adult they detest one hour each and every day of a dreadfully long school year.  Micah was one of those angry struggling students during my first year of public school teaching. He saw me as part of a rigid and uncompromising institution, and I saw him as a pain in the “bass”. Truth is we earned each other’s disdain for a lack of understanding and trust. I had set an unrealistically high bar for him, and he rightfully put me in the same box he had put most of his teachers. We didn’t click. We didn’t understand where the other was coming from, and since I was the one in charge, he was forced to communicate in more subtle, creative ways.

During my two prior years at a small Catholic school, students called me “Dr. Detention” for the amount of after school detention I doled out on a daily basis. I had no tolerance for students not doing homework or goofing off in class, and “punished” any rule breakers with an hour after school cleaning “dishes” (lab ware) and completing assigned work. Detention with me was, in my humble opinion, a pretty good deal. St. Mary’s Academy students liked soaping up Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, and other glassware while I graded papers and made small talk with them, and they appreciated leaving with their class work done. Micah didn’t see things that way, and detention for him was a bad thing. He and I would have a bumpy relationship for most of the year, and eventually I grew to realize how little I knew of the boy’s difficult home life. And with that realization, I stopped assigning Micah detention, and Micah begrudgingly played the game as best he could. I would instead make calls home to chat with Micah’s mother, a woman who was rarely available to take my calls. The unorthodox teacher would learn a lot those first few years about poverty’s impacts on children, and he would become much more sensitive to the burdens of poverty on children.