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The Writing On The Wall

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

Despite the small number of teachers, the Brooklyn Arts Academy rarely held all-staff meetings. Instead, each teacher team appointed a representative to a weekly meeting dubbed “the central table.” This representative voiced his/her team’s concerns and reported back directives from the principal.

In my first year, central table meetings sometimes lasted long into the evening, fueled by the idealism and enthusiasm of the teacher-leaders. Sometimes, the meetings even continued long after the principal left.

This was the case at one meeting in mid-March when the agenda was to reflect on what had been going well and what improvements were needed in terms of the new teacher teams and the school as a whole. I was not in attendance for this meeting, but a few of my colleagues told me that they stayed at school past 7 p.m. filling up the walls of the conference room with chart paper. At the end of the night, there were one or two charts of paper listing the school’s strengths. The rest of the room was wallpapered with bullet points, each one documenting an area of the school that the teachers felt needed work.

One of these bullet points read “lack of principal presence.” Though I cannot speak for the teachers who articulated this statement, my own observation was that our principal often arrived at school well after the first class had started, spent a lot of time in his office with the door closed, and was not a usual presence during hallway passing periods. Also, by this time of the year many of the teachers complained openly about him at Friday happy hours. The general consensus seemed to be that the principal was a man who talked a great game but rarely followed through.

The teachers who wrote up the pros and cons, however, failed to anticipate how personally the principal would interpret them and how defensively he might react. When the principal discovered the lists the next morning, he left the building and did not return that day. We did not see him the next day either and had no idea when he might return.

We speculated wildly about what would happen when he came back. Some teachers thought he might quit. Others predicted a diatribe. When he did return, he scheduled a special central table meeting open to any teachers who wanted to come.

I was not planning to go, but was urged by my colleague to come and “watch the fireworks.” About eight of us, representing over half of the teaching staff, gathered around the table in the conference room that afternoon. We did not know what to expect, and I felt nervous. The principal had not arrived yet, but had left a bowl of fruit in the middle of the table, making us all the more mystified about what he was going to say.

The first thing I remember him saying upon entering was, “That shit was toxic.” One of the teacher-leaders tried to explain that the intent of the list was not meant as a personal attack on the principal but simply to raise points about how to improve the school. The principal’s response indicated that he felt the charts could only be taken as a laundry list of criticisms. Then, he presented charts of his own.

On each chart was the name of a class and a tally. Under tenth-grade history (my class), there were 15 tally marks. One class, music, had near 50 tally marks. Each tally, the principal explained, represented a student who failed the class based on the most recent report cards. He told us that his job was to understand why so many students were failing our classes. He went on to say that he only wanted to have discussions about instruction from here on out, and that we could expect a lot more principal presence at our team meetings and in our classrooms.

Having strained our relations with out administrator, the rest of the year was fraught with tension. Our principal did come to our meetings and pushed us to focus our conversations around instruction, but did not otherwise change his behavior or enact any new policies. Meanwhile, the disciplinary challenges I faced daily in my classroom and in the halls continued unabated. I did not feel that these challenges could be addressed through instructional practices alone or that students were acting out because my lessons were not sufficiently engaging. But I had learned not to openly raise such concerns.

By the end of the year, three of the teachers who served on the central table committee had decided to teach at different schools the following year. Four others also choose to leave. I remained and witnessed similar confrontations again and again over the next three years.

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