First Person

My kingdom for a parking space. Oh, never mind

My first teaching job was in a pretty rough school. So imagine my surprise one day when one of my colleagues said, “This is a great school to work at.” I waited for him to elaborate and tried not to fall over. He added, “Because of the parking!” He was right about that. We had a small section of the street that was reserved for teachers, but there was also ample street parking. The issues at that school were too vast for me to consider staying, but I still miss the ease of parking there.

Being a perpetual early bird, I didn’t find it too difficult to park when I transferred to my current school 10 years ago, even though there was a lot less street parking that wasn’t reserved for the school. I had my placard and usually had no problems, save for the very rare occasion when there was an accident on the Cross Bronx Expressway and I arrived later.

Much as we loved the city, my husband and I decided to buy a house and were unable to afford the city. We decided to head north, to Putnam County, where our daughter could have a yard and a small-town childhood. Since I loved teaching in the city, and still do, I didn’t look for a new job. Once I’d left Queens, I found myself leaving earlier than ever, but I wanted to make sure I could get a parking spot. And I have always relied heavily on that hour before school to get myself mentally ready for the day and set up any materials I needed. I am also neurotic about punctuality and am almost never late.

This worked well for me until last fall, when Mayor Bloomberg decided to strip most of our parking passes, citing abuse and a desire to see more people using mass transit.(I am not sure how one can abuse a Department of Education parking placard; I did once park in a Red Cross spot next to Martin Luther King High School in Manhattan, and I got towed faster than you can say “parking pass.” It was my own fault because I didn’t read the sign carefully enough, but is it abuse if you’re ticketed and towed?)

After our current passes were revoked, I found myself leaving home earlier than ever, but I still had to loop around the neighborhood until I found a space. More than once, I crossed my fingers and took a questionable spot, hoping I wouldn’t find a ticket when I got out. Sometimes I was lucky, more often not.

I suppose I could have paid to park in the lot near my school, but I have a philosophical problem with paying for something that suburban teachers get for free, even though our salaries are supposedly on par with theirs. And I was already spending a lot of money on gas. On average, I drove around for 15 to 20 minutes, wasting gas, looking for a spot, but more important, I wasted time that would have been better spent in my classroom. My commute, an hour from door to door, was extended substantially by the time I spent looking for a parking space.

Each month, I’d wait hopefully for my name to be pulled out of a hat so that I could take my turn with one of the eight passes we were issued, to be shared among 30 teachers who drove. Three times since the fall of 2008, the parking placard fairy smiled upon me. During those months, I got more work done. I drove up to the school, parked, and went inside, just like I used to, with a full hour or more to grade papers, organize my classroom, or write lessons. This left about 12 months during this school year and last that I did not have parking privileges. The number of placards my complex got from the city was also way out of line with the number of spaces we estimated ourselves — it seems like there is space for 10 more cars but of course, since we don’t have enough placards, we can’t use those spaces. My UFT chapter leader told me that the city estimated 20 feet per vehicle. Since most of us don’t drive stretch limos to work, that estimation seemed a bit high.

In February, fed up with the situation, I decided to start taking the train. Though I have to be out the door at 5:30 a.m., so that I can arrive in Melrose by 7:30 a.m., there are definite benefits. Most important, I get a lot of work done during the ride. It’s less stressful than driving, especially in the winter months. I spend about half the ride home reading a book of my choosing, which helps me unwind. When I get home, I’ve done nearly everything I need to do for the next day and can devote myself to spending time with my daughter. When I was driving, I would have to bring home the work I didn’t get done because I was looking for parking, which left less time for her. Due to the train schedule and the length of the train ride, I now arrive home an hour later than I used to, but my daughter gets 100 percent of my attention from the minute I walk in the door. I usually have to do a few minor things, but there’s time after she goes to bed.

Ironically, my commute by train is shorter and easier than it was by subway. When I lived in Queens, it took an hour and 45 minutes, and involved a bus, two subways and a walk of several blocks. Now, it’s two commuter trains and a very short walk and an actual lot where I can leave my car. Living and working in the same city does not automatically equal an easy public transit commute, especially for those who have children, attend school or have other obligations.

I am grateful that the train has worked out for me. It’s not perfect, though. If my daughter gets sick during the school day and needs to be picked up early, it may pose a problem because the trains run very infrequently from my school. My first train leaves from my town and the second from White Plains, but for two weeks in a row my first train had mechanical problems, which led to me missing my train from White Plains, which led to me being late. It’s ironic that I’ve been late more often using public transit than I was when I was driving. Fortunately, I have an understanding principal.

If our parking passes were restored tomorrow (I know they won’t be; in fact, I wonder what we’re going to lose next) I would still continue to take the train, but I would be grateful for the flexibility of being able to drive if I needed or wanted to. I had to pass up a music class that I wanted to take with my daughter because the train won’t get me home in time and the class is held on the worst parking day of the week. I still feel for my colleagues who were not able to find a solution like mine. They are still spending lots of time driving around, looking for spots — time that could be better spent on other things. If the situation weren’t so frustrating to so many of us, maybe we’d laugh at the fact that parking is considered a perk and not a necessity.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.