Friday, September 9, 2011

A Whole New World

A new year, a new school, a new curriculum, a new attitude.

For the last 6 years, I have taught in a primary inclusion class in "the worst school" in a large urban district.  At the end of last year I was forced to transfer out of the building due to low enrollment. I spent the summer in anguish, crazed over the uncertainty of what would happen in the year to come.  I had so many questions: Where would I end up? What grade will I teach? Will the staff accept me? I also had conflicted feelings over leaving my students. I felt as though I was abandoning them. There aren't too many teachers willing to work in that kind of high stress environment and quality teachers are hard to come by.  I do have to say that my former co-workers have been nothing but supportive. They said, "you've been given a golden ticket to get out of here." We used to refer to our building as purgatory. I've referred to it as "Hotel California", you can check in, but you can never check out. I don't think anyone EVER has been able to successfully transfer out. So I learned to look at the situation to "get out of Dodge" and seek a place where "the grass may be greener". (Cliches can be fun)

At the close of the first week, what have  I learned?

There is a huge dichotomy between the more middle class neighborhood within the district, and the "inner city" or gang infested neighborhood where I previously taught that greatly angers me. The kids in the "bad neighborhood" are given a building that is falling down and rightfully should be shut down for OSHA violations (Leaking roof, flooded basement, mold on the walls, broken stairs, rats, you name it). In fact the building in so dark and gloomy it's hard NOT to feel depressed just walking inside. They are given the worst principal, someone who failed at their last two assignments, and fought the placement. They have teachers with very low morale because they feel they are fighting against the world and losing. They are micromanaged, and stripped of all autonomy. The neediest students, who come from the most harrowing of home lives, are given the worst support and weakest opportunities. It perpetuates a culture of failure.

So what makes the difference? I have discovered the secret ingredient. LEADERSHIP!

There is a school down the road from my old building in the same neighborhood servicing similar families, similar students with similar problems, with equally qualified teachers, and the same curriculum. They may not have passed according to the test scores, but they made considerable improvement. What was the difference? LEADERSHIP and a positive atmosphere.

At my new building I see again, similar teachers, and somewhat similar students (they are no more intelligent but they have the home support that my old students generally didn't have). Again what is the difference? LEADERSHIP, high expectations, and a very positive atmosphere!

My new principal runs a tight ship and expects absolute discipline from the students with high expectations for behavior. Teachers are NOT micromanaged and given the autonomy to do their jobs. Yes, they must meet all district mandates for curriculum, and they are now expected to follow the script of the new "canned" reading program, but they can relax in that nobody will be constantly looking over their shoulder. The adults are treated like adults and professionals capable to their work. I used a copy machine for the fist time in 6 years, and it was disconcerting how something so simple could make me so happy. For the first time in a long time I feel like I am being allowed to TEACH. Also, the leadership of the building has created a positive atmosphere where the staff are friendly, helpful, and supportive of each other. I in fact found their friendliness almost disconcerting the first few days. (In my old building there were a few teams that worked well, but in general, misery loved company)

Now when I say leadership, it doesn't necessarily mean only at the building level. Leadership includes the superintendent who assigned a poor leader to a needy building and allocates resources to less needy buildings. It includes a state Education commissioner making bad decisions and politicians, without any education training or understanding, making even worse decisions.

So here's my idea for improving our inner city schools. First, we have to stop treating kids from the "ghetto" like "bastard red-headed step children" as my grandmother would say. Our neediest students need the most support. They need a beautiful building where they can come everyday and feel joy and safe. They need discipline and high expectations. They need the BEST principals and great teachers. They need teachers who feel empowered to make a difference and who have the autonomy to do whatever it takes to make those kids successful as opposed to being micromanaged by someone else's idea of what is best for the kids (especially by those who haven't been in a classroom in a great many years). They need good early childhood education to make up for those deficiencies before they even enter school.  They may need extra tutoring and support. They don't need vouchers or charter schools, or crazy evaluation systems or merit pay for the staff. They just someone to honestly and truly care about what is best for them, all of them. They need good leaders!

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