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Why I Stayed

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.

After my project-based learning experiment failed to produce significant gains in my students’ understanding of history, I changed course for the second semester. I adopted a highly structured curriculum, built around one-week mini-units, covering a chronology of world history from the Enlightenment through the Cold War.  My tenth-grade students would take the Regents exam in global history at end of the school year, and I needed to make up for a lot of lost time with them.

Each mini-unit focused on an era (the Enlightenment, World Wars) or a theme (industrialization, imperialism). I created a packet for each one, and handed it out to the students during class on a Monday. The students would have four class days to work through the packet before being assessed on Friday.

I spent hours creating those packets. Each one asked students to define and use key vocabulary, answer comprehension questions about main ideas, and reflect on connections between the topic and their own lives. I also offered “extension” exercises to higher-level students who finished early. The packets represented my best attempt to satisfy competing demands: differentiated instruction, student-centered learning, covering content, and forging the path of least resistance in terms of my own classroom management.

The students responded positively. Everyone was able to do something each week, and the Friday test scores were decent. I even successfully engaged my students for 5- or 10-minute mini-lectures at the beginning of some classes, since the packets helped them stay grounded within a single topic long enough to develop some curiosity.

I was and am proud of those packets, and received positive feedback on them from students long after they left my class. But looking back, I can’t help but shake my head at the amount of unnecessary labor I expended in their creation. I was essentially reworking the textbook for my students’ varied levels. Additionally, encapsulating eras and themes in isolated one-week units is no way to teach history. The knowledge my students gained was often superficial. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about the type of structure that would help me succeed at this school in the future.

At the end of the year, the Regents results were predictably abysmal. Only a third of my students passed the history exam that year. I did not take these scores too personally, though, since the students did not perform significantly better on their math exam (40 percent pass-rate) and performed worse on their science (only 15 percent passed). Plus, I’d been told not to worry about the Regents over and over throughout the year. In any case, I already had ideas about how to improve my test prep for next year.

Despite a difficult year, I felt I had made progress and I never seriously considered leaving. In fact, I decided that I wanted to teach the same group of students the following year. Eleventh-grade New York City students take American history, and this was my own strongest subject. Plus, as the only returning history teacher, I thought I had the leverage to request this placement. Near the end of the year, I had a meeting with my principal and made my case.

He told me that he didn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to teach American history next year. Additionally, in my end-of-year review meeting with him, he told me that I’d done an exceptional job given the circumstances, and even apologized for not being more supportive.

The school year itself ended somewhat bitterly. Many of my colleagues were leaving for other schools, but instead of being honored for their service during the year they were treated to a cold shoulder by our principal on the last day. He called only returning teachers to a meeting about summer school and the next year. There was little or no reflection about the year coming to a close.

So the teachers got together for our own end-of-year bash. We drank and reminisced and wished each other good luck for the future. That summer I went to Hong Kong to work in a summer school program, but I brought with me American history textbooks and began to plan.

Then, on August 22, 2007, just two weeks before the start of the fall semester, I got an email from the principal informing me that I would not teach American history after all.  He explained that a new teacher hired for history was more “experienced” and had had success teaching my students during summer school. He was picking her to teach them American history.  As a consolation prize, he asked me to serve as the tenth “grade-level team” leader.

The email cut deep, implying as it did a lack of faith in my teaching. But even respecting his decision, I was maddened that he’d informed me so late. I had spent a lot of time planning for American history, and now that would all be for naught. I deliberated about what to do, and sought counsel from my fiancé and father. My fiancé was outraged, even suggesting I should quit. But my dad, an administrator himself with years of experience in office politics, told me I had to swallow my pride. On his advice, I sent a short, curt reply to my principal: “I’ve given it some thought and decided that I’d be happy to accept your offer.”

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.