In my first month on the job, I’ve already heard all kinds of stories about the disaster zone that was Barringer High School in years prior. With horror stories from students pulling fire alarms multiple times each week to riots in the parking lot to students organizing fistfights against staff members, the Barringer of yesteryear––to say the least––was not a place of where a lot of learning took place.
For folks who have worked on the ground in low-performing urban schools, this sort of dysfunction is hardly surprising. With few exceptions, people who engage in education reform conversations agree that our schools in high-poverty areas are failing our students; the question is why. Today’s reformers argue that restrictive bureaucracy and a general lack of competence and accountability have led to these issues, while reform critics point to poverty as the explanation. With each passing day I spend inside Barringer, the more conflated all of these issues seem and the less interested I become in looking for someone or something to blame.
I know that my students face challenges that I never faced when I was growing up, and I know that the school and the district in which they are being educated are equipped with far fewer resources than mine was. But I also know that it wouldn’t take a month to get a working copy machine for teachers at the high school I attended and that teachers and administrators at my alma mater wouldn’t get away with saying or doing many of the things I’ve seen and heard in my short time teaching.
At this point, I’m not particularly interested in processing and compartmentalizing my thoughts and anecdotal experiences into any sort of clean or coherent policy prescriptions. My job is to teach my children; that is all I care about right now.
With that in mind, one of my main concerns of the past three weeks has been getting my students to actually do their homework. Before I share a little story about that though, I think it’s worth taking a moment to briefly discuss what’s going on at my school.
This past year, Newark decided to “renew” a number of its failing schools. A “Renew School” is basically a turnaround school that is still managed by the district, as opposed to a charter management organization, so it can best be characterized by lots of changes in staff and a few major structural changes. Barringer High School was split in half, into the Barringer STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Academy and the Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities; I work at the latter. Academically, the schools are entirely separate. They have different principals, staffs, and students, and they’re housed on different floors of the building, although they share common areas like the cafeteria and library and compete athletically on the same teams.
My principal was hired in June after she left her job as principal at a high-performing charter school in DC. She had very little time to put together an administrative team or hire a new staff, but she was determined and crafted what I think is a very strong vision, executing it both efficiently and effectively. Due to lack of resources in the district, our onboarding and pre-school year professional development was cut short, but she ensured that everyone on staff was well-versed in her “Culture Guide” and what her expectations and systems were.
The beginning of the school year wasn’t easy, but everyone followed the systems that had been put in place. Students adapted to the behavioral expectations fairly quickly, understanding that they would actually be held accountable for cursing out a teacher or being late to school or class. Many students noted in letters I had them write to me in the first week that they appreciated the structure the “new Barringer” was providing.
But while the more serious behavioral and safety issues diminished, students were still passively avoiding work in their classes. Many were checking out––across subjects and grade levels––at even a semblance of rigor. Others explained that they simply hadn’t really done much in their classes in previous years, when their teachers had been much more focused on dealing with nonsense going on outside of their classrooms and constantly redirecting misbehavior.
That all said, I’ve faced some difficulties in getting my students to complete their homework. By my estimation, homework completion in my classes in the first three weeks of school was around 25-30%. I had a student in one class explicitly tell me, “Nah mister. I’m not doing that. I don’t do homework… I haven’t done homework since 9th grade.” And to be honest, I sadly think that pretty well sums up the majority of Barringer students’ attitudes toward homework coming into this school year.
But last week, I saw a miraculous change. In my classes, homework completion shot up to about 80-90%. And sure enough, my aforementioned naysayer promised me at the end of our class together last Thursday that he was going to go home and do my homework that night. Needless to say, I was happy. And because I was happy, I decided to tweet.
Now, I don’t normally share stories about my students for a few reasons. For one, I don’t want to unintentionally perpetuate any stereotypes about them, as anecdotes that lack a lot of context can easily do. Additionally, I don’t think it’s fair to treat my students as characters in my story (which blogging about my experiences inherently does), when this is not about me; it’s about them. But as I said, I was happy. I thought my students’ change of heart warranted some celebration, and so I decided to tweet.
Here’s what I said:
Shortly thereafter, the one and only Gary Rubinstein decided to chime in. I think the brief interactions that ensued are worth sharing in their entirety:
And to wrap it up, Paul Bruno responded to Rubinstein with this gem:
At the end of the day, I honestly just found Gary’s tweets annoying. The only thing that actually made me somewhat angry was when he and another person implied my student––whom they’ve never met––was lying to me. But in general, the whole thing was just annoying. I make this little digression to point out that those little faux-”Gotcha!” moments all over Twitter and education policy aren’t really helping anyone. If we want to discuss the merits of something, be it Teach For America or something else, we ought to look at the data and engage in meaningful and concrete conversations that go beyond rhetoric and, instead, focus on how to actually improve things.
So why write this post? Why blog about my experiences right after saying that I generally don’t believe in blogging about my experiences out of respect for my kids?
Because I think it’s worth sharing just how much I’ve learned culture matters; relationships and investment matter. In the past few months, I’ve heard “Let’s be realistic…” before a discussion about urban school students too many times. I’m a person who deeply values pragmatism. But that pragmatism isn’t my pragmatism if it allows people to do less for or think less of their students.
I’m seeing change happen right before my eyes. And that change isn’t happening because I’m doing something particularly remarkable; in fact, it’s happening because what I’m doing is just a drop in the bucket. Indeed, it’s happening because my school, our staff, our students, our families, and our community have bought into it. I realize this kind of shift isn’t happening everywhere right now, but I also realize that it’s possible. No miracles, but progress. Palpable progress. Quantifiable progress.
So when I tweet in celebration of something great that happened in my classroom, understand that I’m tweeting not to pat myself on the back or demean someone else, but because I’m proud of my student and my school and because that little glimmer––despite all of the horrible, discouraging things happening right now––is reinforcing this incredible, growing sense of hope I’m feeling.
Before joining the corps, I worked on Teach For America’s recruitment team for two years, and as a part of my onboarding, I was brought to the Philadelphia Institute’s closing ceremonies. On the ride up from DC, one of the Recruitment Managers assured us that we would “cry basically every day” our first month in the corps. Almost exactly one month into school, I’ve cried not a single time, despite some rough days and challenging moments. And before leaving my room yesterday, my students all waited to walk out of the room at end of the period until I came over to shake each of their hands.
In a day and age in which there are so many damaging things being done to people of color and people living in poverty, from food stamp cuts to attacks on voting rights to widespread school closures, it’s easy to feel disheartened and pessimistic. But today, because of my students, I feel invigorated and hopeful.