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An Introduction: Back To Civilian Life

There is a scene in the movie The Hurt Locker where a soldier who has just returned to civilian life after years defusing bombs in Iraq stands paralyzed in a grocery aisle full of cereal boxes. This scene resonates with me. This September is the first one in five years where I won’t be “in the trenches” in a city school.

From 2006 until June, I taught tenth-grade history at a small Brooklyn high school that I will call the Brooklyn Arts Academy. It was a relief to leave a struggling and at times dysfunctional school. Yet as I test the waters of the nine-to-five work world, I feel like something is missing and I find myself unable to let go. Plus, like the soldier in the cereal aisle, I don’t seem to know what to do with my newfound freedom.

So I have decided to chronicle the tumultuous four-year saga that marked my tenure at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. My blog is titled “Growing Pains” because that’s what the school experienced during my time there, which began at the start of the school’s second year, when only ninth- and tenth-graders were enrolled. Every new school must create structures, communicate expectations, and work to build an institutional identity and memory. This process is bound to be messy anywhere. But at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, which had a disorganized and at times hostile administration and an alarmingly high teacher turnover rate, growing up was especially problematic. I stubbornly stuck it out for four years, longer than every other teacher who started with me save one, and so bore witness to enough drama to last a lifetime.

Over the next year, I’ll revisit this drama from the shock of my first day to the bittersweet goodbye of my last one. In between, I’ll describe many initiatives that were instituted but fell apart, explain why my educational philosophy swung from progressive to traditional, tell stories about birth and death, take you ringside for administrator-teacher showdowns, walk you through chaotic hallways, sit you down for test-prep lessons in my world history class, and bring you along to student performances as well as teacher happy hours.

My experience at Brooklyn Arts Academy showed me what can happen when principals are given greater autonomy to run schools as they see fit — so long as certain results are achieved. I also saw that many programs promised to improve the way students learn, but I discovered that there are no quick fixes. Indeed, I learned that improving education is sure to be a long, hard slog.

What I learned most of all is that improving schools will require a collective effort and that teachers need the support of their administrators, local community and public at large. In New York City and nationally, much discussion is going on right now about education reform and teacher quality. But without the input of the teachers who deal with the failures and successes of these reforms firsthand, these efforts are sure to founder. By writing about my experiences at the Brooklyn Arts Academy — a troubled school, but one with potential — I want to add my own voice to this discussion.

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.