First Person

What it took for me to start listening to my “difficult” students

On my first day of teaching English as a second language at a small public middle school in the South Bronx, I got lost trying to navigate the halls teeming with students of all ages.  At the time, five other schools occupied the building, and by the time I arrived at the room where I would teach my first class of sixth graders, the students were lined up and ready to start.

I shuffled through the keys to the six other classrooms I was assigned to teach in, juggling the plans and worksheets for my three other preps, and managing my own anxiety. Nyima, a student who stood separate from the others, side-eyed me. I felt as if she was asking, “Are you really my teacher?”

With only six weeks of training through the city’s Teaching Fellows program, I was asking myself the very same question.

It wasn’t until several months into the school year — after my relationship with Nyima had soured and she been suspended multiple times — that I began to recognize the role that inexperienced teachers like me could play in pushing students out of classrooms rather than finding ways to keep them in.

Clinging to control 

That first day in the hallway, I finally found the right key, let myself in, and introduced myself in both Spanish and English, assuming that I would reach every student that way. My speech patterned by deep breaths, I recognized Nyima in the back, anxious, staring with confusion as I rambled on.

She clearly did not understand Spanish, and, I later realized, was the only non-Spanish speaker in the room.

When I asked each of my students to share their names, Nyima was the only one who refused. The 21 strange new faces stared at her. We were both frozen. It was our first standoff.

Trying to implement the only classroom management skills I knew, I pushed Nyima to share.

I wanted her to recognize me as her teacher and to follow my directions.  I wanted the other students to quiet their whispers and understand my expectations. I had been told during training that my students should not be able to “opt out” because that would be “coddling” them.

She refused to participate that day. And she refused to participate for the first three weeks after that. Nyima thought that I was being unfair, and she did not want to take part in my class because of it.

Nyima’s vow of silence ended when she began defending herself against assumptions her peers made based on her hijab and her name.

I made efforts to draw her out by reiterating my expectations for participation, complimenting her on half-completed assignments, and placing brightly colored post-it notes on her desk. I attempted to find translation materials in her home language (Soninke). Most of these attempts at building a relationship resulted in Nyima sucking her teeth loudly or slamming the classroom door.

My responsibility to 67 other students across five grade levels with their own complex needs and skillsets made reaching out to Nyima in those moments particularly difficult.

Alongside the language barrier, I was not trained in how to read her Individual Education Plan, the document that outlines her learning disability and how to accommodate her needs. As a result, I was unable to offer her proper accommodations for her learning disability, such as offering extended time on assignments and reading aloud directions.

I was ineffective, stressed, and frantic. Constantly. Nyima participated less and less and became more and more tense when entering my room. Some days she would spend the majority of the period locked in the girls room. At times, that felt like a relief.

Lacking other models

During my first year teaching, I was also taking a class toward a master’s degree in the evening. Most of my classmates were also going through an alternative certification program, and most of them, like me, were middle-class, native English speakers unfamiliar with the neighborhoods where they were offered their first jobs.

We all seemed to have at least one “Nyima” — a student we characterized by lack of engagement, refusal to participate, and egregious disrespect. We spoke about how we “tried everything,” and how we had to “write them up” or “kick them out” to maintain any kind of respect in our chaotic classrooms.

To us, it looked like students like Nyima were causing the chaos in our classrooms. Our lack of training in positive behavior interventions — alternatives to asking students to leave the room, writing them referrals, and sending them to a disciplinarian office — made it very difficult for us to imagine taking a different approach to students like Nyima.

By December, Nyima’s folder was filled with dozens of half-completed worksheets and ripped loose-leaf papers.

Not surprisingly, many of Nyima’s teachers were — like me — first-year teachers who were enrolled in alternative certification programs. We filled Nyima’s personal record with a laundry list of write-ups: “derogatory” remarks to other students, constant physical altercations, “lying,” and inability to comport herself in a classroom.  Her record did not include any traces of successful strategies or interventions.

After accumulating referrals and threatening another student in the bathroom, Nyima received a superintendent’s suspension. During her time at the suspension site, she missed three weeks of the preparation for her state exam and the exit exam for ESL.

Restoring a relationship

At about the time Nyima was suspended, I started attending meetings with a group called Teachers Unite, an organization that works to dismantle punitive discipline policies in schools. Talking to teachers about their efforts to build supportive communities in their schools made me look at my classroom and my master’s classes with a new lens.

I began to see the connection between our so-called “impossible” students and our lack of experience teaching and exposure to varied pedagogical and classroom management strategies.

Working with the experienced educators in Teachers Unite, I learned new discipline models that gave me and my students the chance to communicate our needs and the ways we felt they had not been met.

I held conferences instead of writing up detentions and (when I was able to) facilitated mediations instead of calling the deans. If I listened closely during these moments, I began to hear what my students were saying: how I hadn’t been mindful, how I hadn’t recognized certain requests, and what I could do to restore our relationship moving forward.

During one of our conferences, Nyima told me that I “never heard what the other girls said” during class, that I always unfairly asked her to leave the room, and that I “never helped.” She admitted to feeling this way in some of her other classes and with her peers as well.

This is how I was able to begin transforming my practice. And while it’s an ongoing process, this year has felt like a different job.

For one thing, my relationship with Nyima is no longer defined by discipline. She frequently rushes to my classroom after school with her best friend Deana to hang out while she does make-up work. She helps me set up the desks and asks when she can take on more classroom jobs. Sometimes we get to talk about music, her desire to be a doctor, and the responsibility she has at home of caring for her four baby brothers and sisters.

I don’t think that alternatively certified teachers are necessarily fated to push students like Nyima out of the classroom. But I do think we need to be aware of the limitations of our alternative certification programs, and we need to seek additional training to help us understand the ways our own limitations can lead students to feel like they don’t belong at school.

In my case, moving outside of the Fellows program took the form of finding a new community of teachers and a new way of thinking about what it takes to meet each student’s needs. For others it may look different. However we get there, students need new teachers to take the time to find fairer, more comprehensive, and effective models to engage them.

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.