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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.

The Brooklyn Arts Academy was the brainchild of the principal, a man who openly talked about how he hated public school growing up and only found himself after discovering music. He wanted to create a school that promoted student self-expression via elective course offerings taught by professional artists and musicians. While a lot of planning went into this aspect of the school, less thought was put into developing structures to support the core-subject teachers.

As such, by the second year of the school’s operation, the staff found itself struggling to address problems retroactively — problems that might have been avoided with more proactive planning. In all-staff and small group meetings, we were so overwhelmed that our conversations would meander from one issue to the next without resulting in a coherent plan of action.

Then, midyear, the principal decided to change course dramatically after he visited an international school in Queens. I was invited along to observe this school, which used a “grade-level team” structure. I sat in on a “team meeting,” wherein a group of teachers who shared the same students met to troubleshoot. What struck me most was how coolly calm these teachers were in comparison to us. The issue they were addressing in the meeting I observed was a student who wouldn’t put away his iPod. If this was their most pressing issue, I thought, than this school doesn’t even make sense for us to observe.

But my principal came away with a different impression. He asked for my thoughts on our drive back to school, but he’d already made up his mind. It was full-speed ahead with new teacher teams for the start of the next semester, about one month away.

In order to make this work, our small staff was divided into three teams: a ninth-grade team, a tenth-grade team, and a combined ninth/tenth-grade team (on which, the tenth-graders were none-too-pleased to be placed). Each team was composed of four subject teachers, one elective teacher, and one school aide, and would be held accountable for the academic progress of around 70 students. I was placed on the tenth-grade team.

Teams more or less started over as smaller schools within an already small school. Each team was designated a specific hallway and given autonomy to develop distinct policies and procedures. We had a short time to plan together before beginning the process of informing the students of the coming changes.

Though I was an early skeptic, I quickly saw the ways in which this new set-up could work to my benefit. My team adopted the attitude that we could not rely on outside support and would need to do what we could to support one another.

We began by setting up a consistent day-to-day schedule. Previously, a single class of students I taught might meet second period on Monday, seventh period on Tuesday, third period on Wednesday, and fourth period on Friday. It was no wonder that student lateness was an issue.

Able to make our own schedule, my team took our 70 students and divided them into three groups, who met for the same classes at the same times everyday. This new schedule also freed up two teachers each period. One of these teachers could then function as a dean, special education teacher, or offer other support as needed, while the other had a prep period. This allowed us to run our own in-school suspensions. We were also able to team-teach one period each day — I helped out in the English classroom, while the math teacher helped me with discipline during my history classes. We even set up a mandatory after-school study hall for students who were behind on work.

Within my insulated team, student academic progress and behavior did improve. We had intense meetings each week and could get frustrated with one another, but overall we felt proud of the progress we were making. As a school, though, we had created three different sets of structures and policies, an inconsistency not lost on the students. Furthermore, as teachers, we had taken on a lot of responsibilities and it was burning us out fast — we wondered if this structure was sustainable beyond the year.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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