The Most Important Lesson Won’t Be On The Test

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 The Most Important Lesson Won’t Be On The Test

Teachers Can’t Be Effective Without Professional Working Conditions

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 Teachers Can’t Be Effective Without Professional Working Conditions

What I Learned In School

From 2013-2014, I visited high school English classes across the socioeconomic spectrum in Los Angeles in an attempt to understand what makes a great teacher and what we mean when we say “education.”  This is one of the most important lessons I learned: that we need a new language to talk about poverty.

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 What I Learned In School

Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped

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 Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped

Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students

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 Lesson 2: Merit Pay Is Unfair to Our Most At-Risk Students