Remember my friend Lauren the English teacher? The one my former student Gerardo said had turned his life around because she refused to give up on him?
I just found out that 16 of her students from last year passed the AP English Literature exam. Four of them scored “4’s.”
In the case of Lauren’s class, we are talking about students from one of the highest-poverty communities in Los Angeles, who until high school had attended some of the most infamously terrible schools in Los Angeles, many of whom came into 9th grade reading well below grade level. The AP English Lit exam, for those of you who haven’t taken it, relies heavily on a student’s knowledge of the entire body of English and American Literature. Of the many things I learned this year, one of them is that students who live in very high-poverty communities like South L.A. or Watts live in a kind of isolation that segregates them from exposure to other socioeconomic groups, making tests like the AP Lit exam, which tests upper-middle-class cultural knowledge as much as writing skills, particularly difficult. I’ve actually never heard of such a large number of kids passing the AP Lit exam at a school in a high-poverty community.
I know, because Lauren is incredibly modest, that she is going to want to kill me for writing about her, but she’s going to have to deal with it, because what she did is amazing—and it helps me understand the most important lesson I learned all year, which is that great teaching is much, much more than a set of techniques. I know that Lauren has incredible skills, honed after years of classroom experience. But when Gerardo talked about her years later, those skills are not what he talked about. What he talked about was how much she cared about him and believed in him.
In my year of talking to great teachers, no matter where they taught, whether at the wealthiest private school or in the most severely impoverished community, one word came up consistently. That word was “love.” Continue reading
I recently interviewed for a teaching position at a really good charter school in a low-income community. The principal was smart, idealistic and dedicated; so were the other teachers I met. They spoke fondly of the students, who seemed to love the school, which was clean, safe and welcoming to parents.
When I drove away, I almost had to pull over because I could hardly breathe.
I was having a panic attack. Continue reading
I recently worked with three groups of 8th and 9th grade students. All of the groups are comprised of students of color from families in poverty, which means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under a California program whose cutoff is for a family of four is an income of under $30,615 (free), or under $43,568 (reduced-price). Students from families like these who qualify for free and reduced lunch are generally the students we talk about when we talk about children in poverty.
My three student groups all meet this criterion. In addition, they all are highly motivated and academically proficient, with supportive parents who have enrolled them in an after-school college-prep enrichment program. They must all be alike, right?
Wrong. Continue reading
Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting. Continue reading
I’m the best teacher in the world. I just spent four days teaching a writing workshop and you would not believe how much those students improved in an incredibly short time. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m awesome. I deserve a giant raise!
No, wait. I’m the worst teacher in the world. Two years ago, I taught a class for an entire year and even after a whole year with me, many of those students demonstrated no growth that could be measured. In fact, most of them didn’t even graduate from high school in four years. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I suck. I should be fired or put on an improvement plan.
Say what?! How could one teacher—me—be so highly effective in one class and so grossly ineffective in another? Continue reading
I’m excited to report that my post “Why Teachers Teach” from L.A. School Report won the L.A. Press Club award for best individual blog post! In case you missed it, here it is:
Why Teachers Teach
We talk about their success stories, the kids who text them from college, invite them to their weddings, grow up and become teachers themselves. We talk about their heartbreaks, the kids who for one reason or another don’t make it, who drop out, who disappear. We talk about their frustrations, the kids with behavior issues, the bureaucracy, the testing. Here’s what we never talk about: money. Continue reading
You know how they say that people come to look like their dogs? A parallel truism is that any organization comes to look like its leader. For some reason, though this idea is axiomatic in corporate life—who would attribute the success of Apple to its highly effective programmers?—when you get to schools, I rarely hear it said that every school embodies the values of its principal. But it’s meaningless to talk about teacher “effectiveness” outside of the context in which he or she works. One of the biggest lessons I learned this year is that a teacher cannot, repeat, cannot be effective for long in a dysfunctional community. And whether that school community is or is not functional is entirely dependent on the leadership of the principal. Continue reading
Kyra will go to UC San Diego, her dream school. Danny will go into the army. Raquel will go to Berkeley. A boatload of kids are going to community college, another, slightly smaller boatload, to UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis and UC Merced. Another boatload to various Cal States. Jonathan will go to Vassar, the second graduate of our school ever to attend a private college out of state. Manuel, who last year sat in my classroom crying because his parents refused to allow him to go to college so he could work to help support the family—Manuel will go to Cal State L.A. I guess he talked his parents into it.
There they are, my juniors from last year, now seniors in cap and gown crossing the stage and getting diplomas. The audience is cheering like crazy. Somewhere in the crowd is Ernesto, who drove us all crazy because he was so out of control and who somehow, miraculously, managed to graduate last year. He is now in community college. On another side of the room is Yesenia, one of my brightest students, who did not attend college because she had a baby, now on her lap bouncing up and down and watching Yesenia’s brother graduate.
A year has passed since I left my job to start this journey. Continue reading
The recent ruling in the Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which Judge Rolf Treu struck a body blow against the power of teachers’ unions by declaring that five of California’s laws protecting teacher tenure, firing and seniority were in violation of the state constitution’s guarantee of equal education to all children, has implications so broad I don’t think we can even fully comprehend them yet.
I’ve written in earlier posts that though I absolutely think that bad teachers should be fired—and that last in, first out policies should be re-thought—they are not the core problem in the fight for equal education. I’m troubled by the witch-hunt zeal, the purge mentality, of this lawsuit, which implies that the layoffs that caused so many eager young teachers to be fired in the first place were some kind of natural disaster inflicted upon us by the gods that we should have diverted onto the heads of bad teachers.
But let’s be honest, California: those layoffs occurred because of budget cuts—and those budget cuts were our collective decision. And they were so radical that even if we had first fired the small percentage of bad teachers, we would still have been laying off a large number of excellent teachers. Continue reading
Sure, we all want to get rid of bad teachers. Who doesn’t? But the legal implications of this decision are deeply troubling. What we all want (I think) is an effective teacher in every classroom. But what does that even mean? And if we’re not sure what it means, how can we judge it? Here’s my take, from an interview on “Press Play” today:
I’ll be posting more about it later this week.