“That’s what you get for giving a f— when it’s not your turn to give a f—.”

Posted: November 4, 2010 by trevorinmidstream in Episode 1, Season 1, The Wire

by Trevor Przyuski

On first hearing the idea of drawing parallels between the world of teaching and the world of Baltimore’s drug trade as portrayed by HBO’s now famous TV series, The Wire, I imagined it would be, at best, an exercise in stretching one’s metaphoric muscles.  Analogical push-ups, perhaps – trying to create links between dead junkies and RIFed teachers, dishonest cops and department chairs, street corner surveillance and cafeteria duty.  The more I thought of it, however, the more it seemed to make sense.

The Wire is, among other things, an examination of how systems, both legitimate and illegal, are created, protected, sustained, corrupted and, in the end, their own worst enemies.  It also points out – and this is it’s unique genius, that those systems, however corrupt, are filled with human beings whose intentions are alternately noble and insipid, whose convictions are strong and/or misguided, and whose families need to be loved, clothed and fed.  In short, it examines how the worst systems are often made up of the best people and vice versa. In that realization I found the motivation to take on the challenge of watching one episode of The Wire each week and commenting here on the similarities, the differences, and the sheer brilliance of a TV show that I watched religiously and a profession that sometimes causes me to lose my religion.

In the very first episode, the show’s creators, Ed Burns and David Simon, carefully set up the parallel hierarchies of the Baltimore City Police Department and the city’s Westside heroin cartels.  It becomes quickly evident that in both worlds, young and unproven apprentices risk their lives and reputations in order to impress their superiors with the hope of rising to the same prominence as the people who currently make their lives more or less unbearable.  The police captain teaches the young cop how to properly search a car for weapons while on the same block an experienced drug dealer explains to a young runner how to prevent being caught with cash and drugs at the same time.  In both worlds the higher ups depend on the young grunts to do their jobs well, but resent the aspirations of those same subordinates who seek to unseat them from their positions of power. This, the show seems to suggest, is the way of the world – or at least of our society.  While the comparison is apt, one similarity seemed to jump out and it’s there that I was reminded of something I see in our schools.

In the cops-and-dealers world of The Wire, the meritocracy is more authentic on the side of the dealers.  Where Dee, the young drug dealer who messes up business by shooting someone he shouldn’t have shot, gets demoted immediately by the gang boss, Young Detective McNulty is threatened with demotion for actually going beyond the call of duty and creating more work for his superior officers.  Where one is actually punished for inefficiency and bad judgment, the other is punished for being too efficient, for, as Detective Bunk puts it, “giving a f— when it’s not your turn to give a f—.”  And here is where the comparison likely strikes at the nerve of hard-working teachers everywhere.

In the real world of the private sector, hard work is often (not always, but often) rewarded with advancement, a bonus or a raise in compensation.  The guy in the mailroom becomes a junior sales associate, the store manager gets a region to oversee, the Vice President becomes President.  In public education, the hardest working, the most innovative, the most deeply committed teacher has the potential to become…a veteran teacher.  Merit raises don’t exist.  Promotions don’t really exist, unless one considers taking on the added responsibilities of a Department Chair for an extra thousand bucks a year to be a promotion.  There is no functioning meritocracy.  There are lots of theories and reasons for this, but that’s for another time.

The uninitiated will argue that the best teachers can become Principals, where pay is higher and advancement is more attainable.  The assumption of course is that a successful teacher would be a natural leader of a school or a division.  But even the most skillful administrator will admit that the skill set required to be a successful building leader is far different that the skill set for teaching kids.  In fact, most administrators I know are called to becoming principals because of a recognition that their talents suit them more for organizational structure and policy development than helping Suzie understand quadratic equations or motivation Johnny to study for a test.  So this leaves the teacher with nowhere to go but sideways.  Advancement in education requires the teacher to actually leave the profession that they are called to in the first place.  So if the goal of a school system is to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, something is going to have to change.  I mean, why would Detective McNulty, or any other cop, keep being a cop if there was no hope for anything beyond busting bad guys?

Imagine if you will an education system where young teachers (or old ones for that matter) who prove ineffective or inefficient are, like young Dee, moved from their posts and placed under the watchful eye of a veteran teacher until they prove that they’re ready to move back into their own classroom.  And imagine that the veteran teacher given the charge of mentoring the young buck is given a considerable raise for taking on the responsibility of whipping the kid into shape.  Imagine too a system where teachers are advanced to Master Teacher positions as a result of their innovative practices, their engaging modes of instruction, their measured ability to help kids learn.  Imagine if schools ran as efficiently as the drug gangs in the West Side Towers of Baltimore’s ghetto.

What a world it would be.

  1. […] “That’s what you get for giving a f— when it’s not your turn to give a … […]

  2. Tucker Winter says:


    Your comments are dead on. I was really impressed. I wish that you would submit this article as an op-ed piece to some major news organizations (NY Times? Huffington Post?)

    Well said!

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