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Teacher Interview

I met Tom Birosak while Long Term Subbing for an 8th grade ELA class at Owego

Apalachin Middle School. He stood out to me as someone to interview for this paper for many

reasons. First, he is a special education teacher. Second, he and I worked together closely. Third,

when he voiced his opinions about his journey through the education system freely, I found them

interesting. He kindly agreed to meet with me on April 4th at 1 pm to divulge his story further.

At 16 years of age, Birosak was sure he wouldnt attend college. Hired by peers to

perform as a singing drummer in their local band, Birosak made money enough to convince him

he could make a career as a musician. Yet due to his fathers sage advice, Birosak did decide to

attend college. He began at the Berkley College of Music in Boston, eventually finishing his

undergraduate degree at Marywood University in music education.

The best thing I did was follow my dads advice, says Birosak, reflecting on the

consequent three years he taught music in a small Pennsylvania school while attaining his

masters in education. Then certified in elementary, special, and music education, Birosak, at the

time, found himself in a critical position at home as a husband, father and provider. In 1995, he

took a job as a special educator at Owego Apalachin Middle school a serious decision that

meant foregoing his passion, music. There were two reasons I made that decision, explained

Birosak, Reason one: I always liked working with the underdog. Reason two: back then,

salaries were significantly different in NY than PA, and I knew I had to provide for my family.

Birosak, or Mr. B, as students know him, has been teaching for the last 22 years in that

very position at OAMS. When asked if he ever regrets switching from music to special ed., he

responded that there were aspects of music education that he truly loved that it was highly

visual and performance based, and he longs to be overwhelmed by the sound of the ensemble
once again. For these reasons, and that he was a self-proclaimed pretty darn good saxophone

player, his level of interest in the content was high. However, during our interview, Birosak did

not spend as much time reminiscing on teaching music as I expected. Instead, he quickly moved

on to explaining the changes hes endured as a special education teacher since he entered the

field in 1995.

Birosak was hired at OAMS seven years before the No Child Left Behind act passed in

2001. Spending his first seven years teaching students in a self-contained classroom, Birosak

took the changes brought on by NCLB as a huge blow. In reference to providing the best learning

environment for special needs students, according to Birosak, there is a right way to do things,

and a wrong way, and things back then were done right. Birosak explained the pros of the self-

contained classroom all fundamentally rooted in operating on the specific needs of the

individual kid. One of his favorite aspects of this system was that although all special needs

students started out self-contained, they were closely monitored, and could be moved to a regular

classroom quite easily. He explained that if he saw a student showing flashes of brilliance, hed

communicate with a parent to make sure they were on board with the decision, and then moved

the student to a regular education classroom. If the student thrived on the challenge, they stayed.

If they couldnt handle the work, they moved right back in with him, no problem. It was a very

healthy system, Birosak expressed, then the NCLB took that individual aspect of meeting

students needs away.

It is clear that Birosak wishes things could go back to how they were before NCLB. His

reasons are not selfish he genuinely believes the old system better suited students needs. He

fondly recalled teaching students life skills like balancing a checkbook, filling out a job

application, counting change. They didnt operate on a bell schedule, and the curriculum that was
developed by him it had true meaning for those kids. He much preferred that over the

Common Core which, in his words, tells the kids, this is not just what you need to do, this is

who you are.

When OACSD took away the local diploma, they robbed many special education

students of an accessible graduation goal. Putting all students on a Regents track, Birosak

explained, also negatively influenced administrators focusing them on how to change 1s to 2s,

creating competition among students, and stress among teachers. Unfortunately, those lower

numbers tend to be special education students. It breaks my heart, Birosak said, when those

1s just cant be a 2. You cant pick up a rock and say Im going to make this a feather. Ive

come to learn over the years that there are simply students who get overwhelmed with the

Regents track.

Although most of his comments on the NCLB shift were negative, Birosak did attest to a

few pros brought about by the inclusive movement. He explained that there is increased

opportunity for students who desire to perform better to compete with regular ed. students, and

that pushes them. What the inclusive classroom does is unites special ed. and regular ed. kids in

the same setting, and the important thing he has to acknowledge is, that some students perform

better than he expected. The old system relied on his judgement, and this system gives everyone

the same chance to prove themselves in a challenging setting. Although he claimed, its a

system thats worthy, its an extreme turn from what was working before.

But reflecting back on the good old days seems to be a trend for Mr. B. When I was in

school, I can remember getting spellers, readers, completing sentence diagrams, practicing

cursive fundamental things that other countries were trying to emulate within the American

Education system things that he doesnt see in schools anymore. He believes there is an
educational component to why the USA is no longer on top of the world. One big part, he says,

is our incessant need to push progressive technology into schools. When you put an iPad in the

hand of every student and an Apple TV in every classroom, you may just be complicating things.

According to Birosak, the education system is advancing problems when they try to fix things

with a technological Band-Aid, rather than replacing the lot of crappy teachers out there who

dont put their best food forward every day for those students.

The second flaw Birosak sees from his vantage point in the education system is, what he

refers to as a parental problem. Prefacing the following with an honest apology, Birosak states,

I truly believe some people should not have kids. Some kids, their parents come in to the

classroom, and they suck! In a perfect world, kids would sit at the table to eat and do homework,

but thats not reality. With Birosak working in Owego, NY, he likely does encounter many

parents who simply cannot afford to spend time on their childs education at home. According to

Data USA, 13.4% of the population for whom poverty status is determined in Owego, NY

(3,735 people) live below the poverty line. This is lower than the national average of 14.7%.

Birosak explained, We have a LARGE number of students just look at our numbers in special

ed. with parents who dont care about the education system.

Birosak ended his musings about changes within our education system with the

following statement:

Spanish has been a pastime of mine for many years. I like to read Spanish news,

and in Peru they are, of late, going through huge floods. Their president is

questioning how some bridges are still standing that were built so long ago, and

the modern ones are collapsing. That is just like our education system. If the one

weve created now is not producing intelligent engineers like they were years and
years ago when students had to use pen and paper and write formulas long hand

there was obviously something about that that simply made things better. He

builds a house and it doesnt fall down. These new bridges in Peru are falling

down because were doing something wrong.

Birosaks anecdote captures his firm belief that the old way is better than the new. Just

like those old bridges withstanding the floods, there are old systems in place that continue to

withstand even the most progressive changes in our education system. And just like the modern

bridges in Peru fail in the storm, Birosak foresees technology and inclusion as modern, unstable

structures that will one day give way, creating chaos.

I ended our interview asking Birosak what would his best advice be for my class of pre-

service teachers. His response: Go back in a time machine and research this education system.

See where it was where it had substance compare the old with the new, and decide for

yourself what works, whats right, and dont be afraid to express your opinion, step out.

Recalling the days he was a percussionist at Berkley, Birosak explained the invaluable lesson he

learned from listening to a myriad of ancient drum recordings. Anything from bosanova, jazz,

funk, rock, bee pop what it did was made his musicianship diverse, as he incorporated all those

ingredients, even classical percussion, to make himself a unique musician. If you focus on one

style of playing, you may get great at it, but youll be very limited.

It may seem, at times, like Tom Birosak has fallen out of love with teaching. But that

couldnt be further from the truth. When asked if anything has ever made him want to quit, he

replied that all he expressed was not meant to be negative, its just reality. All these changes have

made him want to try harder to figure out how to incorporate his ideas, and have made him
ultimately grow as a professional. In the end, he continues to ask himself, how can I take

something difficult and make it a happy thing thats accessible for a student. Anyone who has

the pleasure of talking to him will come away, as I did, with a deeper understanding of what it

truly takes to be a teacher today.