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Why I Stayed, Again*

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.

I had a lot to think about as my third year of teaching at the Brooklyn Arts Academy wound to an end. In mid-May, I’d received an email from a friend who taught in a well-regarded public high school in Manhattan. Her school had an opening for a history teacher, and I applied. After an interview and a demo lesson, in mid-June, I was offered the job.

Under most circumstances, I would have accepted this position without thinking twice, as the school clearly functioned much better than my own. However, I was planning a temporary move to China following the end of the next school year. So I had a difficult decision to make. Should I start all over at a new school or commit to the Brooklyn Arts Academy for one final year?

I felt the urge to leave for many reasons. For one, the relationship between teachers and administrators at my school continued to be strained. Some teachers were seemingly targeted for U-rated observations, creating tensions for everyone. The principal, moreover, had recently reacted combatively to current and former staff members. For instance, I heard about a dispute between the dean and the principal. The dean had wanted to attend prom and take pictures of our seniors, but was told he could not. When he showed up anyway, security reportedly barred his entrance. In a different case, a couple of former teachers from the school reported that the principal had made them feel that they were not welcome to attend the school’s first graduation.

The school itself continued to be chaotic, a result of inconsistently enforced rules and a lack of clear policies regarding student discipline. In one instance, a computer was stolen from a senior classroom. The principal responded heavy-handedly by cutting the locks off of student lockers and searching them. But the computer was not found. More typically, students engaged in disruptive behaviors and used hats, headphones, and cell phones in class. Teachers and administrators were inconsistent, and too often lax, in how and how often we addressed these issues.

But despite all this, I felt pretty good about my own year of teaching. After three years as a 10th-grade global history teacher, I’d learned a lot through trial and error. I was now confident in the curriculum I had painstakingly developed. The new history position, however, was ninth-grade global history and 11th-grade American history. I knew that the transition to these two new preps would involve a great deal of work.

In truth, I had known all along that I wouldn’t walk away from the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I had already developed strong relationships with students and staff members. It takes time to become integrated into the community of a school, and I’d worked hard to build up a reputation as a reliable and professional teacher. Furthermore, I was in a position to become a leader among the staff. Next year, I’d be one of only two teachers with four years of experience at the school. I felt as though I owed it to my students and colleagues to stay and share the wisdom I had gained thus far. I also felt primed to have my best year of teaching.

When the assistant principal of the Manhattan school offered me the job, I told him I needed a few hours to think it over. But I believe we both knew my decision had already been made. He told me he understood my choice and respected my commitment.

As it would happen, the school year ended quite positively. We had a wonderful first graduation, complete with a tribute to Michael Jackson, who’d just died the day before. Many former teachers ultimately did attend the ceremony, and we all went out later and reminisced about the first four years of the school.

Earlier that day, the assistant principal had organized an end-of-year breakfast for the teachers. She’d gotten gifts for those of us who were leaving. Even teachers who felt that they had been pushed away from the school were sent off with a show of respect. This was the first time that our school had ever done any kind of closure activity, and it made me feel good. I hoped this could become a tradition, believing that such rituals affirm teachers and the worth of what we do.

I was given an S-rating for the year and granted tenure. The principal told me that I was the one teacher on staff who he “couldn’t read,” but otherwise had little feedback. The assistant principal, however, agreed to have a more substantive conversation about my teaching and thoughts about the school. She couldn’t find time to do this during the last days of the school year, but we scheduled a phone conversation for the day after graduation.

In that discussion, I gave my own self-assessment and we talked about how I might incorporate more literacy-focused activities into next year’s lessons. But after about 40 minutes, I shifted the focus of the conversation and told her I wanted to share my thoughts about how the school could improve. I put my cards on the table was totally honest about my critiques, including those concerning the principal (though in as diplomatic a way as possible). Without saying so explicitly, she acknowledged my comments and seemed to take them into consideration. She encouraged me to be vocal going into the next year. Having decided to stay, I’d already vowed to myself that I would be.

* I also decided to stay at the Brooklyn Arts Academy after my first year, despite the fact that half the teaching staff left that year.

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