David Pitone’s career in education lasted all of two and a half days. When the 41-year-old computer engineer and lawyer signed up this past fall to teach, he had no way of knowing he’d last less than a week and end up suing his own principal and school district. Then again, he says that nobody at orientation told him he’d spend most of his class time just trying to maintain order in a high school with a rough reputation in troubled South Philadelphia. (Because Pitone’s version of events is his own, the school’s name is being withheld.) No mentor told the nascent computer science teacher that on his way to class, he’d have to dodge students’ feinted punches or that he’d be threatened by students referring to him as “bitch.” And none of his teacher-education classes covered subjects like what to do if, after your assistant principal tells you that you can’t send chronically misbehaving 10th graders to the principal, she sends you to the office.
Fired teacher David Pitone is suing his former school district to make classrooms a disruption-free zone.
By his own admission, Pitone left the building after that confrontation, and the district fired him for leaving school without permission. He then filed a lawsuit seeking the power to eject unruly students from class. Pitone now lives off his savings and the salary of his wife, a rookie teacher at a different South Philadelphia high school. He spends his time preparing his court case, which is scheduled for trial in September, and working with Teachers and Students for School Civility, an initiative launched by the nonprofit Center for the Community Interest, Pennsylvania state legislators, and others in response to Pitone’s classroom travails. As part of the project, he talks to angry teachers who call TASSC’s toll-free hotline [(888) 201-6625] to share stories about dangerously disruptive classroom environments that they’re afraid to report to their administrators. Teacher Magazine recently talked to Pitone about why he still wants to teach and why he would still recommend the profession to others.
Q: What kind of teaching preparation or mentoring did the school district give you before you started teaching?
A: We went for four mornings a week for four weeks. It was all about classroom management, cooperative work groups, things of that nature.
Q: Did they cover anything like the discipline problems that you ran into?
A: No. The teachers [leading the training sessions] were not from those schools. People were coming from my [education master’s degree] program, Teach for America, a couple other programs—we were all getting funneled into the more difficult schools, so people were always turning the conversations toward what we do if a student starts cursing at us. And that was never really handled in the curriculum.
Q: Did you have any preexisting expectations about what the class would be like or whether it would be different because it’s in a different kind of neighborhood or a different kind of demographic?
A: Kids are kids. It’s not that they’re not smart. But they certainly don’t have any skills. A lot of them couldn’t read. Not one of my 10th graders could do better than long division. Not one kid out of 55. That’s what was burning me up. That’s why I went to court.
I was expecting that it would take me about two weeks to get the class into a productive mode, and I think that would have turned out to be true. I was expecting it to be pretty bad but [thought] I’d be able to, with the administration’s assistance, create order. The problem was, I didn’t get the support, so you’re just kind of in there by yourself.
Q: When you walked through the classroom door on that first day, what was your first impression?
A: [Students] started getting on computers and playing video games or playing music videos, and nobody would pay attention to me when I spoke. That’s how it went for the two and a half days. One kid, I asked him to turn off a music video. He’d turn it off and then I’d turn around [and] he’d turn it on again— it would go on five times in a matter of a minute and a half. And if I was in the hall walking around it would be very typical for someone to say, “Get the fuck out of my way, bitch,” or make a move like they were going to take a punch at me. This would just regularly happen...at least 10 times in two and a half days.
Q: You sent [misbehaving students] to the principal’s office?
A: I called up the office, and security came. Fifteen minutes later, the assistant principal came back with the students and said, “You’re not allowed to remove students from the class—that’s the policy here.” So I tried to talk to her about it. I said, “You just can’t operate this way....We have to figure something out here. Can I go home for the rest of the day?” She wouldn’t let me go home, and then I had to go to the next class after they undermined my authority in front of everyone, and I just couldn’t do it. I wrote a note to the principal that I wouldn’t be returning—that I was going to bring them to court.
Q: The administration seemed to think discipline was your job.
A: It is my job, to a degree. My understanding is that on the union contract, it says discipline is the joint responsibility of teachers and the administration....The [judicial] order I want is to be able to maintain order in my classroom. The students that are the most difficult, who make it hard for everyone, you get rid of them. I don’t want to kick them out—expulsion to me is the worst possible failure. But you kick them out. Let them sit quietly all day for three or four days until they get so bored they ask to go back.
When I grew up, I felt like if I wanted to learn in high school I could....None of these kids have that hope. Even if you were the greatest teacher or a veteran teacher, you cannot get the class to focus all together and teach them skills. Because [the administrators] don’t give you the basic support even to do that. To me, that’s an emergency situation. I couldn’t let it go another minute....That’s why the next day, I went and filed the suit. People were like, “You were only there two and half days—you should’ve given it more time.” There is no more time to give.
Q: When teachers have called the TASSC hotline, what kinds of things have they told you about their own experiences?
A: It mirrors what I went through: It’s bad in the class, but if you send a kid out of class too many times, you get disciplined, and if you complain, [the administration] will just start putting together this dossier against you and then use it as a basis to get rid of you. I have hundreds of people that claim that happened to them....The thing is, teachers have difficulty unifying....They don’t feel empowered to do anything about it.
Q: Do you still recommend teaching as a career choice?
A: Definitely. I just happen to have had a school that was difficult. The intrinsic reward is that you can teach kids. I had one kid after my second day ask me if I would help him get ready for the PSATs. He was a very quiet, very polite kid, and he did everything I asked him to do in the two and a half days. He’s a smart kid, but honestly, he doesn’t know any math. He’s not going to do well on the SATs— that’s very frustrating, but if you can help someone like that, that’s an intrinsic benefit. You’ve got to ask yourself: Is that enough? Do you get enough benefit extrinsically and intrinsically from teaching? I think you can, and that’s why I want to do it.
—Scott J. Cech