First Person

Epilogue: Reporting Back To Duty

Collin Lawrence is a former — and now present again! — New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

This writing project stems from a conversation I had with my colleagues at the Brooklyn Arts Academy toward then end of my final year there. We were walking back from lunch one day, marveling at how crazy our school might seem to an outsider, and one of my colleagues said to me, half-jokingly, that I should write a book about it. Though I am not so ambitious, I did, upon reflection, agree that our experiences should be documented, and that I was just the guy to do it.

I had stayed on at the school longer than most and had witnessed a lot. I also have a reputation for being diplomatic, and although was disappointed by the school or the administrators more than once, I did not leave embittered or vindictive. While I do not know if my former principal has read my blog, I am sure he would find a lot to criticize. But for my part, I have set out to describe my four years of the Brooklyn Arts Academy fairly and dispassionately.

I’ve often wondered if the Brooklyn Arts Academy is representative of many struggling small schools in the district or if it is more of an aberration. Having written this blog, the answer remains elusive. What I do know is that as long as I was there, the school never came close to achieving its potential. It has certainly improved, but the progress has come haltingly and with a lot of collateral damage along the way. Even with certain structural limitations of the small school model and the pre-existing challenges facing many students, the Brooklyn Arts Academy should have achieved much greater success. In general, the small school model does help foster a sense of community and allows teachers to form more personalized relationships with students. Moreover, the concept behind this school in particular — to empower and impassion students through art and music — was inspiring. But a concept, just like so many ideas on paper, is not enough to make a successful school.

Administrators often imply that when students misbehave, it is because teachers are doing something wrong. By the same token, if the teachers at the Brooklyn Arts Academy were not staying long enough to provide a consistent educational experience for the students, the administration must bear some fault. I believe we would have been much more successful had teachers felt more supported and appreciated for their efforts. Instead, their calls for help when dealing with discipline issues were too often ignored and some were even pressured to leave.

To step back even further, if this same administration felt driven to maintain appearances but lacked creativity to address other problems at their roots, that says something about the challenges of providing oversight in a school district where the number of schools have proliferated, even as control over those schools has centralized under the mayor. Concerns expressed by teachers were met with pleas to keep negative feelings within the school and the sometimes heavy-handed leadership of the principal marginalized dedicated educators.

But despite the challenges I faced at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, I stayed year after year. When I finally did leave, it was to accompany my wife for a one-year move to Shanghai while she conducted research for a dissertation in modern Chinese history. My intention had always been to return to teaching in New York. I even entertained the possibility of coming back to the Brooklyn Arts Academy up to my final disillusioning week there.

As a global history teacher, it was fascinating to spend time in China, a country undergoing such rapid and contradictory change. My year in China also gave me an opportunity to reflect on my role as an educator within the larger public school system. After four years working in Brooklyn, I got to experience life without the constant stress associated with inner-city teaching. As a way to structure my days while my wife was at the Shanghai Library doing research, I took a job with an English teaching company. I was one of about 10 foreign teachers employed to deliver English instruction to classes of adult, Chinese students. Despite five contracted teaching hours a day, I never took work home, nor even thought about my work once I left school. I had a lot more free time to sleep in, exercise more, watch television, and go out in the evenings.

But while I appreciated the leisure time, I also felt bored and frustrated by my new job, which never challenged me. I was given lesson plans each day, and didn’t even have the pleasure of building relationships with students because they came and went all the time. I felt no sense of ownership over my work, nor did I feel like I was working for a purpose greater than myself. This wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life. Despite the craziness of the past few years, I knew that public school teaching was right for me. I began looking for teaching jobs in New York for the 2011-2012 school year as early as January.

My job search was complicated by a number of factors. For one, my request for a leave of absence from the DOE had been denied. I was informed that no leaves were being granted for “travel.” I’d had no choice but to sign a letter of resignation. This meant that I was now subject to any hiring freezes. I found this to be incredibly frustrating, as, having spent four years proving myself to be a quality public school teacher, I was now effectively being barred from future employment in the district where I’d served. So I began applying to charter schools, but quickly discovered that nobody was going to hire me if I wasn’t available to come in for a demo lesson or face-to-face interview. I also had the complication of not being able to ask my administration for a reference, due to this blog.

Meanwhile, I did have an opportunity for more meaningful work. I was invited to direct a summer school program in Hong Kong. The program, run by a non-profit organization, recruits high school and college students to teach summer English immersion classes to middle school students from low-income families. I’d started out as a teacher in this program and had worked my way up through various administrative positions over many summers, but had never served as director. It was a perfect opportunity for me to try and prove that I could successfully lead an organization.

So I left Shanghai early and moved to Hong Kong in June. As director, I was in charge of overseeing 24 young teachers, who were teaching around 80 students. I sought to lead in a very different way from my Brooklyn principal.

I communicated the vision of the program and my expectations of the teachers as clearly as I could and provided them with frequent feedback on their performance. I set goals for my staff and celebrated their successes. I sought to empower my teachers, while also maintaining focus on our common goal of creating an environment where our students felt comfortable expressing themselves in English. I was relentlessly positive, but also constantly seeking ways for us to improve. I believe I earned the respect of my teachers, and that we had a tremendously positive impact on our students.

Of course, there is no comparison between my responsibilities as director of this program and being a principal of an inner-city school. I have no illusions about how incredibly challenging it must be to lead a public school, and my experience, if anything, helped me gain some sympathy for the pressures my principal must have felt. I too felt defensive when teachers voiced critiques to me, and often felt pulled in multiple directions. I too realized that as a leader you cannot please everyone. Still, I proved to myself that it is important for your staff to view you as fair and transparent in your decisions, even if they disagree with you. And I confirmed my core belief that the successful leadership lies in rallying a group of people around a shared vision and common goals.

I enjoyed my experience as director and someday I may want to become a public school administrator. But for the time being, I view myself as a teacher and am ready to get back to the classroom. Throughout the summer, I continued to send in applications to schools around the city. As word went out that the hiring freeze might be lifted, I began to receive some replies. Yet being in Hong Kong made it impossible for me to seriously pursue those few available jobs. So I got back to New York as soon as I could, in mid-August, and found myself at a hiring fair in the Bronx, once again speed-dating for teaching jobs.

In a flurry of activity, I interviewed with eight different schools over four days and was offered two jobs. I have accepted a job at a small high school on the Lower East Side, and will once again be teaching 10th-grade global studies. I feel good about my interactions thus far with the principal, and I was very forthright in telling her about my experience at the Brooklyn Arts Academy.

When I decided to write this blog, I realized that it might jeopardize my future career prospects. But I concluded that any school that wouldn’t want to hire me on the basis of the story I have told over the past year might not be a school I would want to work at. During my first interview with my new school, the principal expressed concern about my having written a blog about my previous school. I asked her to read it before she made any judgments. She called me back the next day and invited me for a follow-up interview, after which I was offered the job. I take that to be a good sign.

However crazy my experience at the Brooklyn Arts Academy was, I do look back on it and know that it made me a better teacher. My first day of teaching in Brooklyn, I was completely out of my depths, and as the year went on, I struggled mightily to maintain control of my classroom and engage my students. But by remaining at the school for four years, I left more qualified and confident, and the performance of my students also improved. I’m looking forward to bringing my honed skills to a new school, and hopefully one where I’ll feel more like I’m part of a shared effort to bring quality education to those New York students who need it the most. I am ready to report back to duty.

* * *

I would like to acknowledge a few people who have helped me through this process. First, to Maura Walz, who suggested GothamSchools as a platform for my story. Second, to Philissa Cramer, who has provided editing suggestions and lots of positive reinforcement along the way. And finally to my wife, Liza Lawrence, who helped me revise every single one of my posts, and whose questions and conversations daily help me clarify my thinking about teaching and public education.

To the current and former staff of the Brooklyn Arts Academy, I hope these posts have fairly represented our shared experience.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.

First Person

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, 8 essays from educators who raised their voices this year

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

Teachers are often on the front lines of national conversations, kickstarting discussions that their students or communities need to have.

They also add their own voices to debates that would be less meaningful without them.

This year, as we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing some of the educator perspectives that we’ve published in our First Person section over the last year. Many thanks to the teachers who raised their voices in these essays. Want to help us elevate the voices of even more educators? Make a donation in support of our nonprofit journalism and you’ll have the option to honor an important educator in your life.

If you’d like to contribute your own personal essay to Chalkbeat, please email us at [email protected]

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

After racial violence erupted in Virginia last year, New York City teacher Vivett Dukes called on teachers to engage students in honest conversations about racism.

“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away.”

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

Too often teachers are blamed for bad curriculum, writes Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. And that needs to stop.

“It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human, and teaching is both creative and artistic, would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power.”

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

Two of Ilona Nanay’s best students started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. But their educational careers came to an end after graduation because both were undocumented and couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.

“By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. In this essay she shares what it’s like knowing that you could be the only thing between a mass shooter and a group of students.

“The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills.”

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

Alex McNaughton teaches a human geography course in Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, he decided to move up a lesson about how urbanization can exacerbate flooding.

“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.”

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers. In this story, he shares how he got one of his favorite pranksters, Chris, to go through a day without interrupting class.

“Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, ‘I see you,’ ‘I care about you,’ ‘I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.’”

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

Being a black educator can be isolating, writes William Anderson, a Denver teacher. He argues that a more supportive environment for black educators could help cities like Denver improve the lives of black students.

“Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.”

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

For years, Memphis teacher Carl Schneider walked his students home to a nearby apartment complex. Then a photograph of him performing this daily ritual caught the attention of the national media. In this essay, Schneider reminds readers that he shouldn’t be the focus — the challenges his students face should. His call to action:

“Educate yourself about the ways systemic racism creates vastly different Americas.”


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