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
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 Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal
Jennie Carey knows everyone. At least it seems that way. She’s been the L.A. Education Partnership’s Community School Coordinator at Cesar Chavez Learning Academies since the school’s beginning in 2011; before that, she did the same job at nearby Sylmar High. “The overarching idea is that my job is to find out what are the barriers to student success and come up with strategies to try to overcome them,” she tells me as we talk in her office, an empty classroom whose walls are covered with giant post-its scrawled with notes from meetings. “I very much view my job as a strategy creator.”
Jennie started as a teacher, but after four years in the classroom, went to Harvard for a Master’s in School Leadership. “I liked the idea of studying leadership from the place of being a non-authority,” she says, a view that permeates her role here, where her main job is to connect people, listen and create infrastructures that allow constructive conversations. “My question is, how do you create relationships?” Continue reading How Do You Create Relationships?
This post is second in a series of one on one conversations with students in order to hear their stories. Who are our students? What does their education mean to them? What effect do teachers have on them?
Today’s interview is with Genesis, a student in Cynthia Castillo’s class at RISE Pilot school at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles.
“I’m the one in charge a lot of the time,” Genesis tells me early on in our interview. We’ve pulled two chairs into the quiet, clean hallway at Augustus Hawkins outside her English class, and she’s telling me about her home life. Latina, with blond-highlighted hair, an easy smile and a diamond piercing that glitters above her upper lip, Genesis is confident and charismatic. She is president of her class, something that seems to come naturally to her because she runs her household at home as well. Her mother is debilitated by migraines and, according to Genesis, has to stay in bed much of the time. Her stepfather has two jobs, one as a baker and one as a chef at a supermarket, so is home only on Saturdays from 4 till 8. Continue reading Give Students A Chance by Getting to Know Them
Starting with this post, in addition to interviewing and observing teachers, I’m also going to be talking one on one with students in order to hear their stories. Who are our students? What does their education mean to them? What effect do teachers have on them?
Leo is a gangly, extremely friendly 17-year-old white kid with a buzz cut and diamond earrings; he agrees immediately to an interview, shaking my hand and helping me set up chairs outside of class. He lives nearby with his parents and two older sisters. “My mom made me come here,” he says with a shrug when I asked how he chose the school. “It was the closest one, and it’s free.”
He freely admits he was not always a devoted student. “In fifth grade I was the bad kid,” he says. “I’d steal things, candy bars, I was the leader of a little group who’d steal.” But in 6th grade, his parents sent him to a Catholic school, St. Mark’s. “That’s what changed me to who I am now. They whipped me into shape, they set up strict rules and guidelines. In 8th grade I had this teacher who sat me down and said, this isn’t a game any more. You’ve gotta get your stuff together, high school is not a joke. I was like: I’ve gotta be on top of my game!” Continue reading Developing an Identity: A Student’s Story
The mood has changed in Cynthia Castillo’s class since I first visited in October. The kids are quieter, more settled; the energy is calm. When I first arrive, a guest speaker is talking to the kids about a summer internship, and they listen attentively. There are no side conversations. When Cynthia transitions to their vocabulary assignment, they do it quickly and smoothly.
The class is significantly down from its initial enrollment of 45. Today, I count 29 students, though Cynthia tells me there are about 35 enrolled. Several kids were pulled out at the semester because they’d failed so many classes that they needed to be put on a track where they did much of their classwork in APEX, an online credit recovery program. Other students, having failed even more classes, were transitioned to continuation school. A few “checked out,” leaving school without transferring anywhere. Though none of these moves are positive, the students who remain in the class seem on the whole more focused. Unlike other days earlier in the year, no one wanders around the room during a lesson. Continue reading It’s Been Tough Breaking Down Walls My Students Have Built
No, I haven’t just eaten a madeleine. I’m talking about the idea of time, passing even as you read this–time, unstoppable, incessant, inextricably equated in our minds with money. “Every minute matters,” warns teaching guru Doug Lemov in his seminal teacher effectiveness text Teach Like a Champion. “Time is water in the desert, a teacher’s most precious resource: to be husbanded, guarded and conserved.” He exhorts teachers not to waste a single instant of class time, extolling the virtues of teachers who pepper their students with questions as they stand in line to enter class. “A walk to the bathroom is the perfect time for a vocabulary review,” he says, though I cannot imagine there are many who share this sentiment, certainly not anyone who’s been swilling from a Big Gulp cup of iced coffee for the last two periods.
Not wasting time is at the heart of the current canonical view of effective teaching. Time is the central unit of value, a commodity from which a maximum of measurable, testable instruction must be wrung. To spend the last minute or so of class relaxing and chatting with your students is to “leave value on the table,” the moral equivalent of walking away from a deal without reaming your opponent for every last nickel. Continue reading In Search of Lost Time
They drove me nuts. Smart, chatty, gregarious, popular, Gerardo and Katia talked incessantly to the people around them in class, a river of disengaged, casual gossip that stopped flowing only when I stood next to them glaring with all my powers, and even then sometimes they wouldn’t stop.
They did no work.
Gerardo and Katia, for all their considerable charm, did not do work no matter how much you begged, called home, commiserated or threatened. They did no work in spite of the fact that they were extremely intelligent—Gerardo was one of the highest-testing kids in the school–and extremely courageous; they were the first students to come out at our school, starting a gay-straight alliance and supporting their younger LGBT classmates. Though if asked, Gerardo and Katia would say that they did no work because they were lazy, in fact their refusal to do work was more like Bartleby’s existential “I would prefer not to,” a renunciation of all that we begged them to believe about themselves and about the world. Continue reading Four Years Later–Part II
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I sent my children to private school, something I did for reasons that in part were rational–when my oldest went to kindgergarten, the local school was truly terrible and there were no charters at the time–but also in large part irrational: I was driven by the vague conviction that they would get a good education at a private school, though I could not have said exactly what I meant by a “good education,” only that I felt on an instinctual level that whatever it meant, it was what I owed my children, something that literally kept me up at night with worry.
Several years later, as I’ve also mentioned repeatedly, I became a teacher at a charter school in South Los Angeles for similar reasons: to be part of providing a “good education” for children in the community, a drive that again I could not have entirely explained but that also frequently kept me up at night with worry.
But what exactly was I worrying about? Continue reading Four Years Later–What Stays With You From High School?
Happy new year! This post marks the second half of my search to learn about education by watching great teachers in the classroom. Four months in, with the opportunity to reflect, I’m realizing that despite my epiphany in October that great teachers are not alike, the teachers I’m following do share five common practices. And in the end, these practices are rooted in the same state of being.
Warning: I am about to drop the F-bomb. No, not the one you’re probably thinking of. I am going to drop even more fearsome F-bomb, a word so noxious and incendiary that I did not even want to use it in the title of this post.
That word is “faith.”
Wait—don’t block me from your inbox! First of all, I’m not referring to a religious faith. I have no idea whether the teachers I’m observing identify with any religion at all. For all I know, they’re all die-hard Satanists, though that does seem kind of unlikely. (But if it’s true, please let me know immediately. There’s definitely a bestseller there, along with a blockbuster movie, a killer app and a ton of smoking-hot merchandise.) Continue reading What Great Teachers Have in Common