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First Period

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.

My morning routine never wavered during the years that I taught at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I woke at 6:30 a.m. and was out the door at 6:45. I walked briskly to the 110th street 1 station, took the downtown local two stops, transferred to the 2/3 express to Broadway/Nassau, and then switched to the A/C into Brooklyn. This put me at school around 7:40 a.m. with time enough to make copies, prepare my white board, and hopefully have a few precious minutes for breakfast and the newspaper before it was go-time.

Despite having one of the longest commutes, I was invariably one of the first people in the building, often arriving to empty hallways and a dark, locked main office. Most teachers and staff arrived around 8 a.m., with a few notoriously late exceptions. Students were not allowed in the building until 8, but few came this early anyway. Early birds mainly consisted of students who came for free breakfast, who wanted to escape from home, and/or scholarly types, who came to study in the peace and quiet of a sparsely populated cafeteria.

First period attendance was an intractable issue. There were days during my second year when I would start my 8:30 a.m. class with as few as four students present. Most of the other students would trickle in throughout the period. A few never made it at all. Even after shifting the start time to 9 a.m. in subsequent years, a clear majority of our students were tardy for their first class.

Our school had no official lateness policy. Staff called the homes of consistently late students, and the grades of those students suffered, but there was no rule about only being allowed to come late X number of times. A student could come late every day and still pass the class. Some of mine did.

When we broached this subject in staff meetings, the principal often suggested that teachers needed to give students a reason for wanting to get to school (via more engaging instruction). The dean believed teachers should call homes more often. The tardy students, for their part, gave the typical excuses about bad public transportation and long lines for the elevators (our school was housed on the seventh and eighth floors – heaven forbid taking the stairs). But then, those same students might show up late with a McDonald’s breakfast, so they obviously did not feel a tremendous urgency to show up on time.

For my part, I strived to change student attitudes and behaviors within my own classroom. For instance, I started each class period with a “daily quiz.” This quiz always consisted of five multiple-choice questions related to the previous day’s lesson, with a bonus critical-thinking question sometimes added. The students were given five minutes at the beginning of class to complete the quiz. Students who missed the beginning of class missed the quiz, though I usually folded and allowed them to make it up at lunch.

I also set up an incentive system, which I called “my global rewards.” The concept, inspired by “My Coke Rewards,” was that students could earn points to redeem for prizes. I posted a big chart with all the students’ names on my classroom door. Anytime a student earned a perfect score on a daily quiz, completed a homework assignment on time, or maintained perfect attendance for one week, she earned a point. The points were recorded with star stickers on the chart. Points could be redeemed right away for small prizes (such as a Jolly Rancher) or saved up and cashed in for bigger prizes (a McDonald’s lunch, a book from Amazon.com).

Interestingly enough, the program was wildly popular with high-level students and low-level students, but not the ones in between. Furthermore, the incentives did not entice chronically late students to change their habits. I ultimately decided the system required too much recordkeeping and did not continue it into my third year.

It was difficult to fight off feelings of defeatism when I started class with so few students. Every morning, I put on my game-face for my first-period students and started class as though everything were normal, as though we weren’t going to be interrupted repeatedly during the next 50 minutes as their classmates arrived, one by one, and had to be caught up. No matter how much lip service I paid to the virtue of punctuality, however, the students knew as well as I did that we would go through the motions again the next morning.

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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