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’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

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

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

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

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede