Friday, June 29, 2012

Put It All Out There

"I'm sure you have some pretty wicked stories."

I was eating brunch at a dim sum restaurant recently with a large group of friends and friends of friends. My wife was telling someone about my career change from banker to teacher, which prompted the quote above. "Pretty wicked stories" - these words really got me thinking about a story I'd been wanting to write, but couldn't because I didn't know if he would be okay with it. "He" being Kareem, a former student of mine, now in college, but whom I've written about on this blog before (see here, here and here). After brunch, I wrote Kareem an e-mail asking if I could write this particular story. He wrote back, "Go ahead, put it all out there lol."

Three years ago, I had the pleasure to teach algebra to then 17-year old Kareem. When I first met him, he immediately struck me as an intelligent, motivated student with a lot of depth and personality. Here was someone you just couldn't help but keep talking to because you know he's going to say something you would've never thought about. I wanted to take him under my wing, so I offered him a position as my teacher aide, where he could grade papers with me after school.

Aside from grading, Kareem and I spent a lot of time discussing education, college, finance and life after school. In my Algebra class, his grades were amazing, so it wasn't surprising that he was part of a group of students whom I invited to my apartment to eat a home-cooked brunch with my wife and me. I remember at some point during the brunch, the apartment got super quiet for ten minutes. My wife and I were cleaning dishes, and when we turned to look at what was going on, Kareem was quietly going through every single book on our bookshelf, flipping through pages and reading the summaries on the back. My wife looked at me and smiled. My thoughts? Hope he doesn't find the book about penis-shaped objects in our everyday lives. Oh well.

One random Sunday afternoon in the fall, my wife and I were strolling around Greenwich Village and happened to bump into Kareem. He was with another boy, and they both looked stunned that somebody knew them. Kareem eventually said hello to the both of us, and then out of nowhere explained that he was in the Village looking to purchase a bong to smoke weed from. "Dude! This is stuff you aren't supposed to tell your teacher," I said. He grinned, and my wife and I walked off.

The next day after school, Kareem was quietly grading some algebra quizzes for me. We were sitting directly across from each other. "Dude, seriously, why the hell were you in the Village buying bongs? I mean, do they not sell that sort of stuff up in the Bronx, where you live?" I asked laughingly.

Silence.

"Really man, I don't get it," I continued. I was checking his graded papers to make sure he was correcting the quizzes properly. He was making some pretty careless mistakes. "Greenwich Village bongs are probably just as effective as Bronx bongs." I noticed he stopped grading the quizzes altogether. More silence. Then Kareem looked up at me and stared.

"I'm gay."

My response was fast, but not because I thought he was being serious. "I don't get what that has to do with buying a bong in the Village. Are you trying to change the subject?" I asked.

"Mista, I'm gay. I'm being serious," Kareem said.

"So?" I asked.

"You don't care if I'm gay?"

All of a sudden, it dawned on me what was happening. "Why would I care if you're gay or straight?" I asked.

"Because... I don't know. I was in the Village because that's where kids in the Bronx go if they want to like, you know, be themselves," he admitted.

"You mean, you can't be who you are in your neighborhood?" I asked stupidly. Completely ignorant question, in retrospect.

"No Mista, where you been? They be beatin' up on niggas like me up there. At least downtown nobody judge you. Don't tell nobody Mista, please. Nobody knows, except that boy you met yesterday. I ain't even tell my mother yet."

"Wait, so I'm the first person you've told this to?" Initially, I kept wondering why the hell this kid picked me. What made me so special, that he revealed this information to me? I couldn't come up with an answer.

"Kareem, I'll keep this a secret, but you need to learn to love and accept yourself. And, you need to tell your mother in time. You don't know how she will react, maybe she will support you through this, I mean, you already do a lot for her." When he finished grading, I locked up my classroom and took the familiar walk back to the subway.

It was the longest walk I'd ever taken in my life, as I kept playing the conversation over and over in my head.

I went home and had a few pints to chill out and reflect on what had just happened. It'd only been a couple of months since I'd started teaching, and it was already kicking my ass, but dealing with this type of knowledge was a different type of ass kicking. It broke my heart that this kid had to hide who he was. Simultaneously, I felt something pretty unreal about the fact that he chose to tell me about who he was. I suppose this was what teaching at a transfer school was going to be like, a healthy mix of getting my ass kicked with a side of warm hugs.

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.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Teaching to the Test

I saw this nifty graphic on a blog this morning and decided to re-post it in honor of Regents testing going on in high schools across New York state for the next two weeks. May the test Gods be with you.

Teaching to the Test