Monday, May 25, 2009

What Would It Take?

Last Sunday, we had a discussion on Conversations about alternative teacher certification programs, both pros and cons. Naturally, as usually happens, we digressed toward the end, discussing the reality of teaching in poorer districts. What does it mean for the students when the districts can't find teachers to work there? The neediest students end up with the least experienced, most dissatisfied teachers. These are teachers who rarely stay long and don't try to change the system in any way. They just teach, day by day, waiting for the opportunity to work in a better district, for more money, with more materials. And the haves and the have-nots spread even further apart.

Now, I know that it isn't always like this. Yes, there are some brilliant teachers out there who work in inner city schools and do amazing things. Both Adina Sullivan and Brian Crosby jump immediately to mind. But these teachers are rare.

You should know I have experienced this for myself. For the first three years of my teaching career, I worked in two different inner city schools.
My first year was in a different state. So as to not offend anyone, I will not name the state. I will tell you, however, that I worked with very unimaginative teachers. The state had a mandate for how we were to teach. The Six Steps of Teaching were to be in every single lesson. I only remember Step One - tell the students what they are about to learn. So each lesson had to begin with the aim being written on the board. The Steps was a great idea for teachers who really didn't know how to teach. For me, fresh out of college, I was confused. I did not learn this way and wanted to try my own methods. Luckily, I had a principal who allowed me freedom. She told me that when she observed me formally, I had to follow the Six Steps. Otherwise, I was to do what I was comfortable doing. I had great support from my administration and great animosity from my colleagues. I was seen as an upstart and things didn't get any better when our students' test scores came in and mine were the highest in the grade. I only know this because the teacher with the highest test scores was made grade level chair for the following year. I deposed a 12 year grade level chair. I didn't stay to take the position.

My next two years were in a New York City school. It was a district where nobody wanted to work. They were so desperate for teachers that one colleague was interviewed, hired, and placed in a classroom with students all in one day. The principal had two goals: discipline (which incidentally meant silence at all times) and higher test scores than comparative schools. We spent most of the year prepping for tests. When we were not prepping for tests, we were reading textbooks or writing in workbooks. There were no supplies and no support. We were not allowed to stray from the schedule of textbook pages and test prep at all - no exceptions. Okay, there was one exception. I managed to convince my principal to let me take my bottom 5th grade class (students were grouped homogeneously by test results) on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan - by subway. As we left the building she spoke to the students. "Remember, you are representing ________ school and if I get a bad report about your behavior, you will have ruined the chances of any other class ever going on another field trip." I spent every day of those two years looking for another job and was so grateful to be able to leave.

So during our show on Sunday, I said I often think about what it would be like to go back to that school, knowing what I know now about teaching, and teach those student
s. And then I was asked what it would take to get me back. So here it is. My solution to getting good teachers, innovative teachers, excited teachers, into these districts that nobody wants to be in.

First, offer money. I would not take a pay cut at all to move to a different school. But money is not enough.

Next, offer support. Hire me for what I have to offer and then let me do it. Provide me with enough materials or allow me to go after grant money. Let me open up the world for the children and don't block me while I do that.

But, most i
mportant of all, give me a place to work where everyone has the same vision. I want to work in a school/district where there is one vision, where it is my vision (because of course I was hired because I share that vision), and where there is ample time for PD and collaboration with colleagues in order to reach our goals. And please don't make test scores a goal.

I think if I had that type of school, I would be very willing to bring my expertise to an inner city school. I would love to work with the students who find that school is the only safe place to be. Give me the students who have nothing and let me show them what is out there for the taking. Let me try to connect with parents, even here. Because if parents can come into the school and find a safe haven too, then they will certainly help their children to stay there. I was not ready 23 years ago to fight the system in order to make a difference. Now I am but I want partners in that fight. Any administrators out there looking? ;)


'Six Steps'

'1963, Cooper St'



'Atlas, it's time for your bath'


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Summer is Coming

Recently, Michael Smith wrote a blog on Principal's Page about the ritual teachers have of counting down the days until the end of the year. (By the way, if you don't subscribe to Michael's blog, you should. It makes me laugh everytime.) And, very tongue in cheek as always, Michael sort of hinted at the bizarre idea of this act. Why do we count down the days? Why are we rushing to get through our life?

It really got
me thinking. I have been counting down since spring break. Now, the reality is I don't really have a countdown. I knew a week ago how many days were left but I've forgotten that number while trying to remember everything I still need to cover before the year is up. Last week I counted 7 weeks left. But I can't remember if that included last week or not. So I really don't even know about weeks. But give me a day where the kids are unruly, my colleagues are cranky, and the parents are calling and I will pull out my calendar again.

So why do I count? One reason is the obvious - I need a break. I have never worked in a 12 month a year job. Michael admits that working all year sort of negates the need to count down to the end of the year. After all, there is no end of the year. I have never experienced that. I have looped with two of my classes so the summer was just a long break before getting back to work but I still looked forward to that long vacation. I dream of sleeping for a whole day. I haven't ever actually done that but it's nice to know I could if I wanted to. I imagine floating in the pool, lazing on the beach, taking long drives, reading for a whole day. And sometimes I even do those things, without feeling guilty that I am not accomplishing anything on my to-do list.

But mostly, I realize that I look forward to the summer in order to accomplish all I want to do during the year but never have the time. Most of it is actually school related. I need time to revamp my units that didn't quite meet my expectations this year. I need time to read all the books my PLN had been reading all year that I could never get through. I need time to connect with collaborators and set things up for the new year. I need time to take classes, go to conferences, read online, watch presentations, read my education magazines, attend webinars...time to learn.

I need to say goodbye to my students, cry a bit at leaving them, and move on to the next class. I need to feel that anticipation of new students. Will this be the year I have that child I truly cannot handle? Will this be the year my students and I save the world? Will this be the year that I change the life of one student so drastically that a diamond is uncovered?

I feel that now my students and I are done. They have not learned everything but they've learned enough to support themselves in middle school. They have not mastered all the life lessons I have tried to instill, but they do think about them every once in a while. They are ready. And so am I. So we will try to make the best of the last 6 weeks (or 5 or...), finishing up projects, preparing for a new year, saying good-bye. And then I will grab a book and float in my pool. I really need the summer.

Wave Goodbye: