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The New Ninth-Grade Leader

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.

In my first year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, I never once was able to command sustained, attentive silence from my 10th-grade students. So I’ll never forget the way a guest speaker walked into my classroom and engaged their rapt attention.

The speaker, Mr. G, was a middle-aged Dominican man who’d had a troubled youth but turned his life around, becoming a pastor and teacher of incarcerated teenagers. One of our school aides attended his church, and subsequently invited him to speak with our students about his experiences teaching in a juvenile detention center. He talked about the consequences of making bad decisions, the hard work it takes to build a successful life, and the grace of second chances. His speech clearly resonated with my students, as they hung on his every word and peppered him with thoughtful questions.

Watching them watch him, I thought to myself that this man could turn our school around. Unlike most teachers at our school, he could speak authentically about living in and overcoming poverty as well as turning away from a life of crime. He had a commanding physical presence as well, yet never once raised his voice. Most importantly, he balanced his intimidating persona with charisma and a sense of humor that let students know he cared.

My principal recognized that Mr. G would be a huge asset to our staff, and set about negotiating to hire him for the next year. I don’t know what agreement the two men made, but at the beginning of the next year my principal told me that Mr. G would be the ninth-grade team leader. Unlike me, however, he would have limited teaching duties. His main responsibility would be to run the ninth-grade as an almost separate entity from the rest of the school. The goal was to establish a different, more serious tone than had been set in previous years for the other two grade levels.

As the year got underway, it looked to me like Mr. G was succeeding. He was a constant presence in the hallways and a source of support to many of the new ninth-grade teachers who struggled with discipline issues. I often saw him talking to students outside of classrooms, as well as joking with them and asking after their families. The ninth-grade teachers I talked with told me that he ran no-nonsense meetings but knew the students well and gave good advice.

My own interactions with Mr. G were limited to the weekly grade-level team leader meetings.  He treated me well and offered advice whenever I asked for it. I appreciated that he sometimes backed me up in meetings, bringing weight to my comments. For example, we once had a disagreement about the necessity of having a homework policy. My principal believed that student effort should be self-motivated and thus questioned the usefulness of mandatory homework. I believed that assigning and assessing homework helped promote organizational skills and responsibility (in addition to reinforcing lesson objectives). Mr. G sided with me in this debate.

Our weekly meetings followed a predictable pattern. The three grade-level team leaders would each give a short report and then the principal would share information he wanted us to communicate to our team members. We discussed issues or questions as they arose. We sometimes had differences of opinion but the meetings were generally amicable. Then, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a seemingly trivial comment sparked an outburst, the roots of which remain a mystery to me to this day.

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.