As I watched Kristin Damo teach one day at Locke High School in Watts, then watched Cynthia Castillo the next day at Augustus Hawkins in South Central, I suddenly understood why I was so often dogged by the suspicion that I was a fairly crappy teacher.
I mean, I know I’m passionate about my subject matter (who else would blog so much for no reason at all?), and inexplicably enjoy the ridiculousness of teenagers, but I’m gonna be honest: there was a lot that I was really, really bad at, and when I was in the classroom, it was all coming at me so fast that I could not pull apart and analyze how, exactly, I’d gone wrong. Now, watching Kristin and Cynthia, I suddenly see my key problem:
I am horrible at creating and implementing systems.
Systems! Who thought teaching was about systems? I thought I’d waltz in brimming with enthusiasm, give my students some great books, lead some raging discussions and everybody would be reading and writing like demons! I mean, all you really need is to work as hard as you can, know your stuff and never give up on your students, right? Isn’t that what good teachers do?
Wrong. It’s all about systems. At least it is if you’re teaching in an underserved, under-resourced community where kids are coming in at very low reading levels and very low trust levels. And what I’m seeing is that this job is much, much more complex than teaching in better-resourced communities—not just because of the emotional demands, but because you have to create and implement all of these systems on top of everything else.
The thing is, in high-performing communities where kids come in at the beginning of the year reading at or near grade level, with a good bank of trust from years of positive experiences in school and at home, a teacher can comfortably stand in front of the room and lecture or lead a class discussion; the job is not simple by any means, but relies primarily on a teacher’s curriculum, literary insight, questions, commentary on papers and ability to connect with students. All of this takes talent and a great deal of work.
But if you’re looking at a roomful of students of widely different reading levels, many of whom are living in chaotic conditions and most of whom have spent years in dysfunctional, sometimes frightening schools where bullies were dominant and many teachers were burned out, you have a totally different job. On top of all of the jobs listed above, you also need to define, in your students’ minds, what education is, create trust in that idea, an idea that has failed them every day of their lives—and then enact that idea faithfully and transparently in a way that meets the extremely different needs of every student in the room, from the kid in Special Ed with extreme dyslexia who can’t read a word you put in front of her to the boy with his head bent over his AP Calc textbook, looking up at you only occasionally with disdain like, what, is this the five minutes when I have to listen? Which means you need systems. Lots and lots of systems. Because without them, you will have chaos.
Basically, you need to create order for your students, not only externally, but internally, so that they can begin to maintain that order themselves. These systems are not intuitive. They involve a step by step breaking down of the habitual practices of reading, critical thinking and class interactions so that you can describe them to your students. You need to engineer from scratch, in other words, a healthy educational micro-system.
At some schools, you are handed a variety of systems, sometimes with instructions to enact them precisely or face negative evaluations. These systems can be very useful. Or not. They rarely meet the needs of the particular class in front of you, so you have to adjust them accordingly for each class you teach. Often the following year, you’ll be handed an entirely new set of systems. Most teachers I know, whatever their instructions, take what’s good and ignore what won’t work for their students. It takes experience to know how to distinguish them, which is one of the many reasons, when I hear some charters talk about a vision that includes burning out teachers every three years and replacing them with fresh ones, I just want to weep.
To give you an idea, here’s a sampling of just a few of the systems I saw in action:
1. A classroom management system – Cynthia’s is a class contract they’ve all written and signed. Every single day, they recommit to this contract in writing. Kristin uses a point system, as I mentioned in my last post. These systems are posted, verbally reinforced continually, and need to be maintained through grading and occasional phone calls home.
2. A system for students who read far below grade level. If students come in reading at 3rd grade level, you can’t just throw The Great Gatsby at them and tell them to come back ready to discuss Chapter Three. There are a blizzard of techniques out there to encourage struggling students to tackle challenging texts. The last time I was there, Cynthia Castillo used a method called “Talking Partners” in which students are matched up with different class partners for each character in the book. Kristin Damo makes extensive use of reading circles and group presentations. All of these are extremely complex and time-consuming to plan, oversee and grade—far more time-consuming than leading a whole-class discussion. And you need to change up these systems regularly to build different sets of strengths.
For every reading, both Kristin and Cynthia also need handouts with prepared questions for students so that everyone is fully engaged in the reading; a whole-class discussion leaves too many kids out. These handouts also need to be scaffolded with options for various skill levels. And graded. And tracked.
3. A system for engaging resistant or hesitant students –, Cynthia and Kristin need to make sure that quiet students are not neglected or forgotten. They can’t just call on kids who raise hands; they need a system for making sure every kid answers most of the questions and has a chance to speak publicly. This is harder than it sounds; it involves at a minimum the creation of another tracking system, as well as developing ways to encourage shy or demoralized students.
4. A system to handle students with serious behavior issues – both Cynthia and Kristin have students in their class who will not sit down for longer than ten minutes at a stretch and who openly refuse to do work. As I mentioned in my last post, these students affect the entire class in a very negative way and cut into the work time and confidence of other students. After a while, even good kids can get demoralized and start acting out. I’ve seen teachers completely lose control of an entire class once this happens; it’s very hard to go back afterwards.
5.A system for getting, demoralized, resistant students to engage in class regularly and turn in writing assignments – Okay, I’m lying. Nobody has one. But this is a job expectation, and, like the blogger Shakespeare’s Sister, if you’re in a school where a significant percentage of students do not engage no matter how much you beg, tap dance and stay up all night developing a new system, your own personal struggle to overcome your sense of failure will become an ongoing battle. The many teachers I’ve talked to all have the same strategy: do your best and let it go. Please tell me if you have a different one (if it works) and I will post it in all caps.
What I mean is, as we start to talk about “merit” pay and accountability, I’d like to factor in the systems aspect of the job. How many systems does the teacher need to design, implement and maintain? The more you have to use in order to meet the complex needs of your students, the more complex and challenging your job is—the more you should be paid.
I mean, we’re all talking about business models, right? So why not start by paying teachers that way?
For some tips on handling teacher burnout caused by working this hard, see my post today in LA School Report, “Ten Steps To Avoid Teacher Burnout.”