Thursday, September 3, 2009


It's September.

September, for teachers, usually involves a lot of shopping at the dreaded big box stores, a lot of cutting and gluing and laminating, a lot of making charts and lists and labels. And that's all before the kids even arrive, when the real work begins.

This year, September promises to be different for a lot of kids and a lot of teachers at my school. We have moved, and expanded, going from 350 students to about 575 in one year. The city closed a "failing" middle school and moved our "successful" pre-K - 8th grade school into their building. In addition to their space, we inherit their students: about 150 7th and 8th graders who have been learning, or approximating learning, in a school that was more like a prison than a garden. "Pre-prison" is what my principal called it when she visited last year: a school that's getting kids ready to fail, in the best-case scenario, or to be locked up or killed, in the worst.

Moving and expanding presents some challenges, to put it mildly. Doubling the size of our middle school, which was already the newest part of our program and probably the shakiest, seemed like a somewhat crazy idea. Taking on these students, whose reputation precedes them, sounded somewhat like professional suicide.

Don't get me wrong. These middle schoolers are not a different population of kids than those we've been teaching for years. But students at my school have been treated with respect, nurtured, and taught well for years. Our new charges have been in a failing school. If the rumors are correct, it was a chaotic, unsafe, and miserable place to be. High percentages of the students were placed in special education classes, wholly separated from the regular education students (a practice my school does not believe in, but which we will have to continue for at least the first year or two). These kids have been treated as if they aren't smart and can't learn and won't amount to anything. So, they've been acting as if they aren't smart, can't learn, and won't amount to anything. Go figure.

[I want to take a minute to be clear here that I don't imagine any of this was exactly the fault of the teachers or administration at the old school. I bet if you talked to those teachers and administrators, you would find a lot of committed, hard-working people who cared about kids. You would also find professionals struggling in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in this world of test scores and standards, where we are expected to force students to learn and meet arbitrary goals, but with no support and few resources. You would find teachers who felt disrespected and oppressed by the school department and the administration, and administrators whose hands were tied. Surely you would also find some deadbeats, who should have been moved out years before. But many of them would have become teachers for the right reasons, even if now, years later, they were disillusioned, exhausted, and helpless.]

Our school works hard to build relationships with children and families. So we've been trying to start making positive connections before the school year begins. (Instead of starting out by calling home Week 2 to say "Your son was disrespectful today"). Many of the new students and their families got home visits from current families of our school last spring. Over the summer, middle school advisers paid home visits to their advisees' families. Last week, they came back to tell us stories of these visits at a staff meeting. They talked about teenagers who wouldn't turn off the TV or put down their Game Boy, who had no interest in talking to this new teacher from this new school who had come to their house to get to know them before school starts. (Normal teenage behavior, no?)

But gradually, advisers found a way to connect with many of the students. They asked for stories about the old school, and found out that most of the students had experienced bullying by other students or disrespect from teachers. One girl told how some kids took her shoes and ran off down the hall with them and no one, not even the teachers, could stop them as they raced through the building. Another student talked about being yelled at by teachers, talked down to, publicly shamed. Kids dreaded coming to school.

The advisers told these students, "That will not happen this year. No one is allowed to make anyone feel unsafe at our school. It is our job to make sure that doesn't happen, and we will do our job."

Advisers connected with families because they spoke the same language (Haitian Creole, Cape Verdean, Spanish), because their families were from the same neighborhoods, or because they loved the same foods. If they didn't speak the language of the family they were visiting, they brought someone else from school who did. They asked questions, expressed interest, and shared stories about themselves. And the students and families who were supposedly checked out, out of control, and unable to learn started to check back in.

Some of the inherited students have been coming into the building to visit over the past few days. Their school has been transformed over the summer. Where once there were peeling walls, broken furniture, and doors hung askew, there is now fresh paint, spotless bulletin and white boards, and untouched furniture. There are brand new science labs, and motion sensor lights in the bathrooms. It looks beautiful. ("This is like a private school!" one teacher whispered to me in the sun-filled library lined with antique wooden cabinets.) It looks like a school, where people are expected to teach and learn, and where those teachers and learners are valued. Two middle school boys came in my room the other day to introduce themselves. They were delighted by the changes, and amazed. They barely recognized their old school. They were warm and friendly and excited.

School hasn't started yet, and I'm sure that it will not all be smooth sailing. (It never used to be last year, so why would it be any different now?) But these kids, about whom we have been hearing rumors for a year, seem just like any other kids, if you treat them with high expectations, respect, and humanity.

On the one hand, this is not surprising at all. It is something we know and believe in, which is why we treat students and families with warmth and an expectation of partnership. On the other hand, it makes me scratch my head and wonder what the hell other schools are doing. This isn't rocket science. It's not easy, but you don't have to be a genius to figure it out. It's common sense: treat students like you know they will learn, and they will. Treat teachers like you trust their professional judgment, and they will work hard and have good judgment. Create a building that feels like a learning environment, and it will become one. It's not nearly this simple, of course, but these are pretty good places to begin.

1 comment:

  1. Hooray for the return of the blog! I know it means your vacation is over, but for me it means more good reading.