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

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.