Working (now)

A Conversation with Daniel Bortnick and The Wax Paper

In 1974, Studs Terkel published, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. In the spirit of that landmark publication, The Wax Paper editors have gone into the field to continue asking Mr. Terkel’s original question.

The following text was taken from an informal conversation with Mr. Bortnick, high school math teacher in Chicago.

Let me tell you my classic first year teaching story. Being my first year, I was a mess. My classroom management wasn’t there, and the content wasn’t where it needed to be to keep students engaged. There was a particular student that was coming out as gay, and he was taking a lot of heat within the school for being out. He just hated school. He didn’t work on a day-to-day basis, and he would not pay attention in class. He would try to get attention by causing disruptions. He was very disengaged with the school, and it didn’t have anything to do with me. On this particular day, we were having a quiz. Because he hadn’t been doing homework for a while, he wasn’t going to do well on the quiz. My minimum expectation for him is to sit down and shut the fuck up and let everyone else take the quiz. But he would not stop talking. It’s silent in the room, and he would not shut up. I asked him to come with me into the hallway. We got into the hallway, closed the door, and I kept my eyes on the room to make sure nobody is cheating. I told him, “Look, I know you don’t want to take this quiz, but at the bare minimum, I need you to sit down and let everyone else take this quiz.” I don’t remember the rest of my speech, but I’m sure there was a little more inspiration in it than that. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember that at the end of our talk, I felt that we really got to the same page. I felt that he was going to be able to do this. We open the door; He takes two steps into the room. He looks at his bag, and at the top of his lungs, he screams, “You stole my fucking condoms.” Everybody looks up. He runs to his bag at the back of the room and dumps out 200 condoms onto his desk and onto the floor. I just lost the class at that point. There was nothing I could do. The quiz was over. He had bested me for the day.


Academic education needs to be about the bags of tricks. There’s not one answer to the problem, but the more I can pull out of that bag of tricks, the more likely I can find something that is applicable to the situation. 

There are not many schools focused on urban education. I’ve been very lucky to work with the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program for the past couple of years. That has been amazing. It’s very much about the bags of tricks.

Part of the difficulty of teaching high school in Chicago is the enormous scope. At my previous school, we had 200 ninth graders coming in every year from about eighty different elementary schools. They were coming in testing anywhere from a third grade to an eleventh grade in math. We had spots for four sections of freshman math, and trying to figure out that differentiation within those four classrooms was very difficult. 

There’s also the cultural aspect. I had students from different gangs. I had students of different cultures that were experiencing being mixed for the first time. There are a lot of things that they need to navigate. A huge difficulty for students is code switching; the notion that you need to behave differently in a different space. If you were at a school where a certain behavior was normal, and you never thought about your behavior. And now you’re in a new school, 14-years-old, and the school expects you to behave completely different. It’s one of the many things for the students to navigate, and many of them fail.  It’s much more of a strain for students from different cultures to fit into accepted classroom behavior. It takes more effort. They need to be metacognitive about it. They need to realize that they need to change their behavior, and then change it.  


The school I’m working for now is part of a network of charter schools. My previous school was a stand-alone charter school. In Chicago, no charter school can be selective. Acceptance is by random lottery. The students don’t have to provide an eighth grade transcript. They don’t have to provide an address. Legally, if a student comes in and fills out a form with the student’s name and contact phone number, they have to be put in the lottery. Race, all that stuff, we don’t need to know any of that. Which is great. It works amazingly well for my school, because my school has a reputation for the good results our students are getting. My previous school does not have this reputation. So the difference to me is marketing. My current school has 200 slots for freshmen. We get 2,000 applicants every year. My previous school had to scrounge to fill slots every year. The schools get paid by the city and state on a per pupil basis. X number of students times x number of dollars per student equals the schools’ budget each year. If you don’t have the students, you don’t get the money. My previous school didn’t have a wait list. If they had 170 students, they were begging 30 students to come in. Who are they attracting? They’re not attracting the best students. A lot of the time they’re attracting the kids that kicked out of other schools. The principal must decide between making the budget and taking a kid who could potentially damage the culture of the school. This is why my previous school has a significant number of behavioral issues. At my current school, with their reputation and their wait list, if we kick twenty kids out because they’re not meeting the school’s standards, we have 1,900 kids on the wait list.  

Charter schools were Daley’s baby (Richard M. Daley - Chicago mayor 1989-2011). There were 110 high schools, and many of them were underperforming. So the city decided to open new schools with public money, and try some new ideas. Let’s see what works. And I’m all for that, because there’s no one right way to do something, and from a scientific perspective, the more things that are tried, it’s more likely that we’ll land on a few things that might work. It’s better for the profession. 

Some inside the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have a problem with the charter schools because of the per-pupil funding. So when students leave for a charter schools, the neighborhood schools, which were already underperforming, lose fundingand do even crappier. Which should have been obvious. The Chicago Teachers Union and other anti-charter people argue that the government isn’t giving the neighborhood schools a chance. The pro-charter people argue that the CPS had that chance, but they didn’t do anything with it. 


Differentiation is huge right now in education. I feel that fifteen to twenty years ago, it was about teaching to the middle and hitting the greatest amount of students. Now, schools are expecting you to be very deliberate about pushing the rigor of the higher-level students and meeting the needs of the lower-level students. I feel like that is the aspect of teaching that is the most difficult. Timewise, I could put in an infinite amount of time to tailor a lesson to every student in class. Trying to figure out the appropriate amount of time to dedicate to that is interesting to me. I feel it’s known that teachers work long hours, and differentiation is a big part of that now.


There’s more deliberate scaffolding involved. If we assign, for example, a problem-solving problem, as opposed to one where they just use a skill over and over again, it’s because we want to see that skill embedded in a context. For a lower-level student, especially if we’re talking about reading issues, even figuring out what the context is can be a barrier. So when I’m thinking about my lesson and my interaction with those lower level students, I’m thinking about questions I can ask. I’m thinking about, without giving the answer away, what can I do to get them on the right path towards the solution. I know some colleagues of mine who take that to the extreme. They won’t answer any questions. They tell their students, “Everything you need is in that notebook. You need to go take a look at that notebook.” They need to be resourceful and find what they need on their own. So it becomes scaffolding. How much is enough to give them to get them on the right track without giving it away. There’s an art to it. 

If I left my students at my old school on their own, they would not have had the perseverance to struggle a little bit. You need to have the perseverance in a math problem to think, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I might be alarmed that I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to stick with it and figure it out,’ as opposed to, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. Fuck it. Math class is bullshit’. There has to be some buy in. The question is how does that manifest within a classroom? How are you communicating that to the students? What about what you say is showing that expectation? 

One of the big things on my mind since starting at my current school, is the notion of whose job is it to make sure that the right answer is presented. This is my seventh year of teaching, and this is something that I’ve been struggling with since the beginning. If the answer on the board is wrong, somebody needs to speak up and say, “I didn’t get that. Can we talk about this?” As opposed to, probably the case in the majority of classrooms, a student writes the problem on the board and everybody looks at the teacher to see if it’s right. Is the teacher is the one who says it’s right or is it a classroom decision? I want to move it away from myself. I don’t want to be the one who says yes or no. 

Part of it is how do you get the competitive nature to be healthy, and part of it is how do make an environment safe for anyone to participate, especially for somebody who’s not sure but will still be comfortable sharing their answers.


 Last year, one of my students, for the first time in my six years, went on to become a math major, and I was so happy. I was ecstatic. I was smiling for three days. I had him as a junior and a senior. At the end of the first quarter of his junior year, he was involved in some in some gang stuff. He got robbed at gunpoint. They took him into a car and stole his bag, his shoes, his pants, his shirt, everything. Then they left him in his pair of boxers in a strip mall parking lot. After being involved in whatever it was that led to being robbed at gunpoint, for him to be enrolled as a math major at a major institution is fucking amazing.

Mr. Bortnick is a seven-year veteran of the Chicago Public School System