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The Elephant In The Room

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.

The beginning of my fourth, and final, school year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy started with a bang. At our first staff meeting, shortly after introducing the new teachers, the principal brought up what he characterized as “the elephant in the room.” Near the end of the last school year, he’d received the results of our school’s annual “learning environment survey,” and he took them quite personally. According to the survey, 71 percent of teachers strongly disagreed with the statement that “the principal is an effective manager who makes the school run smoothly.” Another 24 percent disagreed, and only 5 percent, or one teacher, agreed. What did he do, he wanted to know, to deserve such low ratings?

Before any teachers spoke, the principal introduced a couple people who were in the room, including our school’s network leader. This individual was the head of one of numerous networks that provide institutional support to city public schools. He told us that, of over 500 schools surveyed, our results were better than only four. He went on to say that our school was doing well on paper (meaning credit accumulation, test scores, attendance, etc), and that his own observations suggested that the teachers here were generally positive and hardworking. He accused us of “passive aggression,” and said that if we had a problem with our principal we needed to talk it out “in-house” rather than taking it out via the survey, the results of which are public. At this point, the principal again asked for teachers to speak. He expressed a sincere desire to know why we felt the way we did.

There was stunned silence for a moment, and then, having determined to be a vocal advocate for teachers this year, I spoke up. One thing that I think bothered us, I said, was that there was a perception that specific teachers were targeted for U-ratings. I explained that this made people afraid to speak up or talk about the issues we saw in the school because we were worried that we might be next. The principal at first responded by claiming he only gave one U-rating and that it was for attendance-related reasons, but then pivoted and started talking about how teacher-turnover isn’t necessarily a bad thing because not everyone is cut out for this type of teaching. In defense of this argument, he cited Geoffrey Canada, the well-known president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, who purportedly had a very high teacher-turnover rate every year. The fault I saw with this comparison was that our school was losing good teachers every year, not just the ones who struggled.

The network leader, acting as a mediator, asked if I meant that there should be greater transparency about teacher observations and the criteria used to judge teachers. I concurred. Other teachers spoke up about the need for the administration to stand unequivocally behind teachers in matters related to student discipline. The new teachers must have been shocked to find out about this history of teacher-administration tension, but nevertheless expressed enthusiasm about working in a place where we could speak so honestly. The principal ended with a plea that we communicate our feelings with him, promised that he would make an effort to accommodate our wishes and suggestions, and pledged to be more transparent about his decision-making.

As the year got underway, he seemed to make a conscious effort to follow through. On one occasion, he asked the teachers to reach our own decision regarding whether or not to hold advisory for the year. He wanted us to do so, but it would have required us to work beyond our contracted hours. As a group, we decided to hold office hours with individual students during lunchtime instead of meeting with a larger group of students after school. Though he was skeptical that we’d actually hold the office hours, he honored our choice.

On another occasion, he sought me out during the day and asked to speak with me after school. He’d gathered together a group of four or five older teachers and approached us to say that a grievance had been filed with the union, and asked if we knew anything about it. He appealed to us to ask the other teachers to address their concerns with him first before going to the union. We respected his effort not to react emotionally and defensively, as he had in the past, and the situation was ultimately defused.

For my part, I continued to speak up about ways I felt the school could be improved, but did so diplomatically. I was once again a grade-level team leader and met with the administration once a week. I was often skeptical of the principal’s ideas, but he seemed to respect my point of view. He once told me that he was glad to have me around because my outlook and personality were so different from his own. For a while in that final year, it really seemed like administration-staff relations were improving.

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