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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.