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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.

It takes more than just teachers to run a school. By the time the Brooklyn Arts Academy was a full 9-12 high school, close to 20 non-teaching staff members served our 400 students in some capacity. As one of only three teachers who had remained on staff for three continuous years, I developed positive relationships with many of these individuals. Having proven my dependability, I was granted favors small and large that helped me do my job. At the same time, I was often mystified by the seeming dysfunction of our staff as a whole.

I began my third year as the 10th-grade global history teacher with a renewed sense of optimism. I’d achieved a significant improvement in my students’ Regents exam scores the year before, and I felt good about a couple of personnel additions the principal had made over the summer. A new assistant principal in charge of instruction seemed knowledgeable and personable. A special education teacher was also made an AP in charge of data analysis, and he likewise proved to be a responsive and diligent administrator. Our two new APs did a lot to help the school run more smoothly. However, it seemed as though both were coached to side with the principal during any conflict with the teachers.

The women who worked in the office were also in no position to challenge the principal. Predominantly Puerto Rican woman, many of them got their jobs through connections to the principal or to each other. The principal’s personal secretary had been with him from the beginning. She had little interactions with teachers but was in charge of scheduling among other responsibilities. I often felt frustrated by her placement of students into cohorts that moved together from class to class. Students placed in groups with chronically disruptive classmates never had respite. A colleague told me that the principal’s personal secretary has been taking night school classes and is slated to become an assistant principal next year.

Some of her family members also gained employment at the school. One was in charge of computers and technology. I liked him because he allowed me to keep an LCD projector in my room throughout the school year when most teachers had to request them for daily use. Another relative was a secretary in charge of transcripts. Last year, the daughter of the principal’s personal secretary got a job as an after-school tutor and this year she was made the new parent coordinator.

I thought of the other secretaries and school-aides as the church ladies. Most of them were congregants in the church where Mr. G was minister. The payroll secretary had also been with the principal since the beginning. She did not actually have the proper credentials to serve in this position but she was friendly and well liked. In addition to distributing paychecks, she was in charge of doling out resources and coordinating substitute teachers. She loved me because I was never late or absent, so always let me take whatever supplies I needed whenever I wanted.

Four other women worked as school aides. Their responsibilities included monitoring the lunchroom and hallways. I grew to admire and appreciate the aide that worked closely with my grade-level team. She did more to support my teaching efforts than any administrator. When I had a problem with disruptive behavior, I could count on her to pull the troublesome student out of the room and counsel him or her back to calm. She was often in my classroom and knew more than any other adult the effort I put into my lessons. As a result, she stood behind me unequivocally and touted my teaching to other students and staff, often telling them, “Mr. Lawrence is the bomb.”

The school-aides didn’t earn high salaries and had frustrating jobs. More than anyone, they were on the frontlines of our students’ drama and played roles as counselors, nurses, and disciplinarians as needed, while also sometimes being given additional secretarial tasks. Unlike the teachers, they had no union and little job security. So while they complained among each other (sometimes in my classroom after school), they had to bite their tongues around the principal. Perhaps, as devoted churchgoers, they were motivated by a sense of religious mission to serve our students.

In addition to the APs, secretaries and school aides, we also had a dean, though his position would be cut the following year. A guidance counselor functioned more as a social worker. A college-coordinator worked tirelessly to get our students through the SATs and the college-application process. A partnership coordinator worked with the school’s art and music elective teachers and wrote grants. A couple of paraprofessionals served specific students who required special education students. And the school safety agents worked in our hallways but were paid from a different budget.

With so many human resources in place, our school had the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of our students. But despite the best intentions of all of us, we never functioned in a cohesive or consistent way. The whole was not greater than the sum of its parts.

About our First Person series:

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