On EducationHow Hard Can It Be to Teach? The Challenges Go Well Beyond the Classroom o Digg o Facebook o Newsvine o Permalink By DAVID M. HERSZENHORNPublished: July 11, 2007One of my all-time favorite moments covering the New York City public school system occurred just before Christmas in 2003, at Public School 28 in Harlem. About 50 or 60 second graders, onstage in the school auditorium, serenaded Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein with a perfect rendition of “Feliz Navidad.”When the singing stopped, Mr. Bloomberg applauded. “Children, that was beautiful,” he said. “Now, what I want you to do is say ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Happy New Year,’ first in Spanish, then in English.” The problem was not a language barrier — nearly all of the children at P.S. 28 are bilingual — but rather the mayor’s notion that he could give four simultaneous commands to a group of 7-year-olds, as if they were his aides in the bullpen at City Hall or executives at his company, Bloomberg L.P. Still, the students who had just finished singing so sweetly in unison dutifully tried to grant Mr. Bloomberg’s request. “Meyeow, weow, eowah, eiwash, iwah,” they mumbled. Or something like that. Working with children looks easy. It is not. In four and a half years on the city schools beat, I have often repeated this anecdote to principals. And typically they chuckle, grateful for the recognition that many people, including the mayor, may underestimate how difficult it is to work in schools on a daily basis, and not just because of the intellectual challenges of teaching. School professionals are called upon not only to educate children, but also to nurture curiosity and civic values, and even to teach the most basic manners. Once, while waiting to have lunch with my mother, now retired after more than 30 years as a teacher in a city elementary school, I stood in her school’s main entrance and watched a teacher walk by with her class, shouting: “Fingers out of your nose! Fingers out of your nose!” Not only do professional educators have to know how to deal with children, they have to be clever about soothing an even wackier bunch: parents. For example, on the first day of school last year, the principal of Public School 8 in Brooklyn Heights graciously invited parents to attend the first half-hour of class with their children. And simultaneously, in a brilliant stroke, he ensured that few parents would actually go to class and disrupt the start of the day by setting out a lavish spread of bagels, doughnuts, juice and coffee in the school auditorium. By the time breakfast was done, it was time for the parents to leave.Meanwhile, at Public School 101 in Forest Hills Gardens, Queens, the principal decided that parents interfered too much on the first day of school, so she insisted on not telling them which teachers were assigned to which class until after the students were inside. A near riot ensued, and the principal later apologized for her “bad idea.” The daily work in schools is so hard that most educators in the system do not distinguish between the chancellor’s office and the mayor, the labor unions and state government, the teachers’ contract and the federal No Child Left Behind law when they complain, frequently, that the “system” is against them. Forces above and beyond school level often make the work in classrooms more difficult. And the work in classrooms is difficult enough. My colleagues on tough foreign assignments often complain that 10 percent of the work is journalism and 90 percent, logistics — just getting to and from a given place in one piece. Education is a lot like this. Many of the obstacles are logistical, involving the physical and mental health of students and teachers. On the day of Mr. Bloomberg’s visit to P.S. 28, nearly all the children in the audience were bouncing in their seats with excitement about seeing the mayor. But I remember one boy, 8 or 9 years old, who was fast asleep. Was he up too late the night before? Had he had any breakfast? And if I were his teacher, with 23 or more other students in my charge, would I have time to figure it out? Even the weather is a challenge in schools. Chancellor Klein often says that one of his goals in restructuring the school system is to create the conditions needed for success. Many teachers would say that the conditions for success require, for example, air-conditioning in classrooms that can be so stifling that it is hard to breathe, let alone learn. In some wealthier neighborhoods, active parent-teacher associations may raise money to buy air-conditioners. But in poor neighborhoods, this is not possible. Chancellor Klein, in an interview, said, “I’ve got plenty of high-needs schools with air-conditioning.” He said he wanted to provide teachers with terrific working conditions and also to be able to offer them higher pay to accept assignments in some of the city’s toughest schools.“The most important thing in education is the quality of teachers,” Mr. Klein said.” The two major ingredients are what you get paid and a combination of working conditions and job satisfaction.”A great principal and veteran teachers who can serve as mentors are among the ingredients that Mr. Klein said were needed to create “a dynamic positive feedback loop.”In other words, happy, well-compensated, well-supported teachers make great teachers and great schools, even in the heat. Joseph Berger is on vacation; David M. Herszenhorn recently completed four and a half years of covering education in New York City.