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Ideas On Paper

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.

When a school is starting out, big changes mark each new year. The Brooklyn Arts Academy, where I taught 10th-grade history, added an 11th grade and around 100 students in 2007, my second year at the school. Over half the teaching staff was new and we also had a dean for the first time. Compounding these changes was a drastic revision of the school’s structures.

The principal presented these revisions to the grade-level team leaders (me and two newly-hired teachers) at a special meeting just before the start of school. He explained to us that he had spent the summer putting together a staff handbook which outlined “structures and deliverables” for the coming school year. He asked us to familiarize ourselves with the handbook, and said we should go over it during our first grade-level team meetings.

All staff members reported for work the following day. The principal gathered everyone together for introductions, after which he distributed copies of the handbook. He told us that we could find the answers to all our questions about the operation of the school within its contents. Then, we were dismissed to go meet as grade-level teams.

The handbook provided information about student expectations and teacher responsibilities. It came with a CD-ROM containing instructional templates (for lesson plans and curriculum maps), behavioral referral forms, charts that showed behavioral infractions and their associated consequences, and many other documents. On paper, it looked like our school would be far more structured this year.

But how do you turn ideas on paper into a systematic plan for a school, particularly when those ideas are not original but adapted from a different institution? The handbook was taken whole cloth from another school (a fact the principal did not try to hide). This school was similar to ours in size and students served, yet had achieved better results. So the Brooklyn Arts Academy began its third year with an experiment in the transferability of a school roadmap for success.

However, many of the new policies detailed in the handbook were never actually implemented. In some cases, this was because the policies didn’t apply to our school to begin with. For example, according to the handbook, “every spring, we take week-long field trips.” This was patently untrue.

Other policies were not implemented fully or correctly. For example, we were supposed to set up a system of “accountability and incentives” to reward positive student behavior and provide consequences for misbehavior. But it was never clear who bore responsibility for tracking behaviors or where the awards would come from. Consequently, the system never got off the ground.

Our principal was particularly enthusiastic about one new structure, though, also adopted from the other school. This year, he would require all teachers to develop a “teacher portfolio.” The portfolios were supposed to chart our “growth as a pedagogue(s).” We were asked to document our curriculum maps, peer observations, successful and unsuccessful student work and periodic self-evaluations. Our year-end evaluation would be based, in part, on the work presented in this portfolio.

Though I am thorough with documentation as a teacher, I disliked maintaining this portfolio. It felt like extra work that detracted from my attention to the classroom. More to the point, the portfolio was never actually used to help me develop professionally. I never received feedback about the work I put into it. It was more a way to hold teachers accountable than a tool for growth.

Thanks to a few of the procedures we did implement, the school year got off to a much better start. The presence of a dean and the implementation of behavioral referral forms did wonders for my classroom management. In stark contrast to the year before, I was elated after my first lesson of the year. I had students taking notes on day one, and my more structured approach, combined with the new disciplinary policies, helped set a serious tone from day one.

So I had mixed feelings about the start of my second year at the school. I was more confident about the direction of my own classroom, but burdened by many additional responsibilities (for which I would not be monetarily compensated). In addition to creating my personal teacher portfolio, I maintained a grade-level team binder that documented data on our students’ academic progress, behavior and attendance. I facilitated two grade-level team meetings each week to discuss this data, and communicated our findings at weekly “grade-level team leader meetings” with the principal. He was always happy to hear my reports, as I made it a point to meet his expectations. However, I would soon be reminded that the principal wasn’t so happy when his leadership was challenged.

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