Monday, June 18, 2012

I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down

I've pushed off writing this for a while, but I think it's time I just say it: I'm leaving my high school to teach somewhere else next year.

In the spring of 2009, I left investment banking because I wasn't feeling fulfilled. I was miserable, pathetic and without passion. Teaching high school the last three years has offered me something different, something I'd never experienced. I didn't just feel fulfilled teaching, I felt passionate. It was honorable, righteous and ridiculously challenging. This was a job where you couldn't just do the same thing over and over again everyday, it required adaptation, improvisation and commitment.

I began my first teaching year at a transfer school also in it's first year, serving 17-21 year old students from all over New York City. We operated our small school within a larger high school complex and we shared this space with three other schools (one of which would phase out). I began my three-year journey with nine other enthusiastic teachers in one hallway. We have more teachers now, but only one hallway still. At our first full-staff orientation, I could sense there was a lot of talent in the room, with a mix of inexperienced and experienced teachers. We were all excited about the opportunity to create something new and special. I was among the young teachers and the only one hired through Teach for America.

As the months passed and I gained experience and exposure to the world of education inequality, my personal views on education, which were black-and-white, became gray. I increasingly questioned Teach for America, the organization that introduced me to teaching, and the ideas they officially or unofficially support (e.g. test-based accountability, charter schools, etc.). I thought re-routing young, driven top-tier college graduates into education would help "close the achievement gap," but that's not entirely the answer, and I think at this point might be creating another problem. I was against teacher unions and tenure in my first year, but that all changed. Working with the most marginalized students over the past three years, I learned something everyday, and it changed me.

The school I work at now is not the same school as it was when it was created. It's become a black-hole and if I'm going to be completely honest, the epitome of awful. There's no initiative from the top, no culture for collaboration, and worst of all, no spirit. It's dead. Personally, things are fine when I'm holding the reins and teaching my students, but as soon as the bell rings and they leave, I remember where I work and it dampens my mood. I'm pretty damn convinced the only reason my school exists is because our troubled students cling to their favorite teachers, often citing these people as the only reason they come to school. We've had cases where a student will show up to school for only one period, and that is only because they like that teacher and want to work hard in that class. If I were a principal, and I knew this about my school's kids, I would do whatever it takes to make sure my school supported a culture of camaraderie, collaboration and community. Getting kids into the building would be my number one priority.

Unfortunately, the culture that the NYC Department of Education has cultivated does not support a collaborative, fun experience in school for teachers or students. Principals are, perhaps unintentionally, pit against their staff in traditional public schools. It's almost like they're being trained to manage factory-operated machines (teachers) that design a product (students). When products fail, machines need maintenance or replacement. Many (not all) of these new and inexperienced "executive" principals forget there is no bottom line in education. In the last three years, my school community has lost many invaluable teachers to this toxic culture. This is a disservice to our kids, because students who come to my school likely come from homes (if there is a home) with no structure. They come to school expecting and seeking structure and stability, but that's not what they get here. Watching teachers come and go in a school one hallway long seems anything but welcoming and comforting. These kids are heartbroken when their teachers leave. When the time comes, some kids still seek out their old teachers for test-prep on their own time. High stakes testing, state standards and other rigid measures are replacing community.  And let us never forget that it takes a village to raise a child.

Around the spring of this year, I began to seriously consider leaving my school. My students were the only thing holding me back, because I like them, but professionally I was uninspired by this place. An opportunity came in the form of a brand new charter-transfer high school for over-age, under-credited students: the first of its kind in New York City. This charter-transfer high school would give preference to students that are homeless, living in group homes, involved in the court system, and former dropouts. To me, this seemed like a worthwhile experiment and in line with what charter schools were supposed to be, experimental. I was conflicted because I've been pretty outspoken against charter schools. If I left where I worked now, I'd be going to work for a public institution that received private money. This new school would co-exist with other public high schools in the same building, creating a visible contrast between public and public-charter. Diane Ravitch, an education historian whose opinion I value significantly, might not approve. But, I had to consider the atmosphere and most importantly, where I can make the most positive impact. Transfer high schools across NYC are under the microscope right now, and evaluation almost always leads to micromanagement, bad culture, and unhappiness. That's where my current school is at right now and it's suffocating.

My colleague recently wrote a great post about the importance of having a code and how important it is for principals to know what their teachers believe in and vice versa. During my interviews with this new place, I grilled the principal over and over again for his thoughts and beliefs on education and troubled youth. Ultimately, I was impressed by what I heard, and what he wanted to hear from me. I got the sense that this new place would be different. I got the sense that I would be working hard and that my efforts would not only be noticed, but mirrored at the top. A holistic approach to education would be favored over test-prep and drill-and-kill. After I received the offer to join the team, the principal and I continued to discuss my experiences and we've already begun planning the mathematics curriculum for next year. This school year isn't even over yet and he's excited about the next one. That's what I need.

As this school year winds down, I still feel a little guilty about my decision to leave traditional public schools, but I need to know if this will work. There simply has to be a place where smart, motivated educators can work together to serve the most marginalized students in this city and if that place is a charter school, I'm still young enough to try it. This country's education system is a mess, that is a true statement. But if I keep thinking about this problem on such a large scale, I'm going to forget about the kids I can help right in front of me.

A special thank you to my colleagues, old and new, for everything. Seriously, it was fun having a happy family while it lasted. To my current students whom I won't be returning to next year, if you're reading this blog then you're savvy enough to find me and reach out.

As for my school, I love you, but you're bringing me down.


Ahsan said...

Good luck with the move. Sad to hear that this place didn't work out for you the way you thought, but you're lucky that you have a new opportunity waiting for you.

juggleandhope said...

Thanks for posting this. You hypothesized that, "Getting kids into the building would be my number one priority."

That resonates with a line of thinking I've been working with - what do our particular students want and need from schools given their own situations/worldviews? Given the answer to that question we could figure out how to make curriculum and methods that meets their desires/needs and also fulfills many of the goals that citizens have for our public schools. But this question of the role of school in students' worldviews/situations seems generally treated as not worth discussing.

So I'll ask you - what do the students in your new school want & need from the school? What will keep them coming and on time? Stability isn't the only thing - they could get that from a minimum wage job.

Yo Mista said...

@ Ahsan:
Thanks, man.

@ juggleandhope:
Thanks for your comment.

That's a great question - and I'll be the first to admit that I don't have the answer. My answer is obviously biased from my own three-year teaching experience (I consider this very little experience BTW). From my experience, it's my belief that the national and state curricula we have set in place right now do not resonate with marginalized urban youth. It's very rare that I'll find something that does resonate with them and matches curriculum, but when I do, it's almost always a success (e.g. using systems of linear equations to visually determine which job will pay better [or break even], based on number of hours worked).

You are right - they need something that will resonate with their own lives, or something that resonates with their interests. This is where we begin entering dangerous territory, because as it stands right now, our country is moving towards the "standardization" of material on a large scale, right down to specific lesson objective sometimes. If curricula are dictated to meet everyone, then almost no one will completely relate to them - and then you're simply separating students by intrinsic motivation, i.e. those who will want to learn anyway, even though they don't really care much about the material and topic. It's my belief that we should have a very loose national curriculum that focuses on critical thinking, rather than granular, concrete objectives (e.g. NY P.I. A.M.3 states, "Calculate the relative error in measuring square and cubic units, when there is an error in the linear measure."). Specific objectives like these hinder creativity and restrict teachers from spending more time on topics that truly appeal to his/her classroom, esp. if they know this topic appears on a high-stakes exam that their kids have to pass.

Ultimately, I guess I don't really have a concrete answer to your question, but here's what I can say for sure: urban youth need strong, brotherly, and intelligent role models in their lives. Someone who won't judge them, but also won't hesitate to tell them how it is. If these "teachers" have a strong, connected, and personable leader who can push their creativity while simultaneously giving them the space they need to work - then maybe something good will happen. Maybe this group can come up with a way to get the students to want to come to school (without simply just paying them to come) on their own. Maybe the students will feel like they have another family waiting for them once they leave their respective homes in the morning. I'm sure there are schools that appear to be doing nothing about attendance, but there is a lot of work going on in the background (home visits, community outreach, parental involvement, sports, after-school clubs, exciting curricula, staff with high morale). My school had a small after-school program that worked with video editing last year - honestly, this program is the sole reason behind several students graduating next week.

Anonymous said...

Mista, I am extremely sad to see you go.You're a wonderful, invaluable teacher in our school and I will miss your intelligent discourse, suggestions, passion for our students, and sense of humor.

It has been an honor to work with you, and I'll keep reading your blog next year. I hope that your new school will be the kind of place where you will grow professionally and have great success with your students.


Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
Aw, thank you so much for your note! Seriously, it means a lot.

It has been an honor working with you and the rest of the staff and students.

Best of luck to you.

Teacher Man said...

Great commentary on the challenges facing emerging teachers in urban schools, especially those that serve the most challenging students.

I work with a similar population in Philly at what we call "alternative schools" and I totally understand the need for energy and personal satisfaction in working with this unique group. This new charter sounds like a great opportunity. Like you, I agree that the district must continue to offer opportunities for students who have been pushed out of traditional settings. Unfortunately, in Philly the district is increasingly trying to push this population into cyber schools and computer-based credit recovery programs.
Good luck in your new school and keep writing!

Yo Mista said...

@ Teacher Man:
Thanks for your comment.

I've been reading a lot about what's been going on in Philly, and I must say, it sounds terrible.

I feel like instead of giving more targeted interventions and providing a community-based support system, we are instead saying, "Those brought up in poverty are too much of a lost cause, so let's throw them in front of machines and place real humans elsewhere."

Keep up the good fight!