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Former CPS Teacher Debuts Play About Teaching Under Testing Pressure

By Serena Dai | April 17, 2014 7:58am
 Cassy Sanders as Kay and McKenzie Chinn as Shelley in "Principal Principle"
Cassy Sanders as Kay and McKenzie Chinn as Shelley in "Principal Principle"
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Emily Schwartz

LAKEVIEW — Forget the narrative of movies like "Dangerous Minds" or "Freedom Writers Diary" — teaching students takes more than a naive, young, white teacher to save a mostly African-American school, playwright Joe Zarrow said.

Zarrow would know. He's a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, and his new play "Principal Principle" — based on his experiences in the city — tries to turn that narrative on its head. It debuts Friday at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

It shows that the principal "zealously" introducing new standardized testing has pressures, too, he said. A "burnt out" teacher on the brink of retirement is not just a "demonic figure," he said. And Kay, this play's idealistic young white woman who enters a new school, does not save the day in the end.

Joe Zarrow joins DNAinfo Radio to discuss his play, "Principal Principle:"

Real teachers have more politics and pressure on them than the "savior narrative" films show, he said.

"It’s really tough. It’s really weary," he said. "The play is about the question: How do you hold on to what makes you a good teacher despite all the heck you have to go through?"

Zarrow taught English and drama at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park for four years.

The core of the play is how teachers face a "new Draconian standardized testing system" at the school, he said — inspired by one of his first experiences.

A test prep company took over curriculum at his school and demanded that they teach Kenwood's mostly African-American students the book "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

But Huck Finn had issues. It uses the n-word, and the driving narrative gives the African-American character limited agency, Zarrow said. Plus practically, some students struggled with the phonetics of the old-timey language in the book, he said.

"I could see that this was driving the [veteran teachers] nuts," Zarrow said. "'Who are these idiots coming in and telling us what to do?"

"As a new teacher, you're receiving stuff from all sides. Your boss is telling you to follow this thing in this binder, and your colleagues are telling you, 'No, this is ridiculous.'"

The play is fiction, but many of the characters were inspired by his experiences.

There's the teacher a year from retirement who's burned out and not doing as well at work. There's the department head who "survives by the path of least resistance" and tries to keep everyone happy. And there's a more "radical" teacher who's usually most in conflict with the principal, who's actively implementing new standardized testing standards.

"Those are totally the dynamics, the weird politics of teaching," he said.

Kay ends up facing more practical problems in the play, too: The copier is broken, so teachers must use overhead transparencies. But the school doesn't have enough paper towels, so wiping the transparency is a struggle, too.

"There are material realities that you face as a Chicago teacher," he said.

"Principal Principle" never shows the teachers in the classroom. Zarrow wanted to focus more the teachers themselves and raise a question about how they deal with the politics and pressure of the job.

Zarrow quit being a teacher. For him, his "big, dorky teddy bear" personality didn't work for disciplining students, he said.

"I don’t think there’s a clear hero to the play, a clear person to root for," he said. "Hopefully it gets [people] talking — what are the realities and challenges that teachers face?"

"Principal Principle" opens on Friday at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. It runs until May 18. Tickets can be bought online.