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Seniors In Triage

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 administration of the Brooklyn Arts Academy made what was, in my opinion, a strategic blunder when determining teacher placement for the 2009-2010 school year. The veteran and more established teachers were placed in the lower grades, while the senior class was left with just one returning teacher.

In fact, to start the school year, the seniors had no science teacher. A month went by before one was hired. The new English teacher had previous experience, but not at an inner-city school. But the new social studies teacher had several years of previous teaching experience in Queens and was very enthusiastic about joining our staff. By midyear, all three of these new teachers had left the school. Replacements were eventually found, but meanwhile the students in the senior class interpreted the absence of stable teachers as neglect and began a process of seeming self-destruction, some of them even refusing to do work necessary to meet graduation requirements.

This situation may have been avoided had the administrators provided more support and guidance to the new senior teachers at the start of the year. There were a couple of senior students in particular who were responsible for a large share of classroom disruptions. As I understand, the new senior teachers asked for help in disciplining these two students, but were more or less informed that the problem lay in their instruction or management styles.

The history teacher, who was probably in her fifties and had at least 15 years of teaching experience, was observed one day and reportedly given a U-rating on the basis of poor classroom management. This teacher had never received a U-rating in all her previous years of teaching, and was apparently deeply insulted. She allegedly stormed out of the principal’s office after the post-observation debrief and didn’t come back the next day. She took an indefinite leave of absence, and ultimately decided to resign.

The English teacher didn’t leave as hastily, but had decided by mid-year that this school wasn’t for her. She gave advanced notice to the administration that she would leave at the end of the semester.

The students learned science from the career counselor for the first month of the year. She was unqualified to teach the subject but got lesson plans from the other teachers in the department. The certified teacher was eventually hired seemed to have no idea how to connect with teenagers. She taught in my classroom during my prep period, so I observed her first couple of lessons and was instantly alarmed. She made no effort to learn student names, and talked to the students as though they were in grade-school. To their credit, the students remained relatively well-behaved for her first few lessons, but I knew this was not going to last. Sure enough, the teacher resigned of her own volition within the month. So it was back to lessons with the college counselor for a few more weeks until another science teacher was found. Thankfully, that teacher was very talented, and quickly gained the trust and respect of the seniors.

The replacement English teacher was also fairly well-respected, but the new social studies teacher, who I believe came from the ATR pool, had even less control over the students than the previous teacher who was given the U-rating. She plowed through lessons seemingly unaware of whether students were paying attention to her. The administration essentially decided to leave her alone, though, and approached me about teaching an after school Regents prep class for the seniors who hadn’t yet passed that exam. I agreed and had as many as 20 seniors in my classroom at the end of the day in the month leading up to Regents week.

In some ways, the senior class that year was quite mature. They were very close to one another and loved to hang out together. There was very little tension among the students themselves. On the other hand, the class as a whole was defiant. For example, their school day ended earlier than that of the juniors, sophomores or freshman, but they would refuse to leave the building. They preferred instead to hang out in the hallways and chill with one another. If one of the assistant principals succeeded in getting them to leave, some would just go sit in the stairwell and come back later in the day.

Some of the seniors also did not take seriously the threat of not graduating. Teachers would tell them what work they had to do to make up credit, or what exams they had to pass, and the students would disregard the information. Even a couple of seniors from my weightlifting class seemed to be in denial about the prospect of not graduating on time. The senior teachers spent so much time and energy in trying to cajole their students into doing this necessary work that they began to refer to their efforts as “triage.” So many students were in danger of not graduating that the teachers had to prioritize when investing time into individual students. The students who were closer to meeting the requirements were, of course, easier to convince. But a lot of the students continued to throw up defense mechanisms instead of buckling down.

Perhaps these students had never experienced any real consequences for not completing assignments, and so did not really believe they wouldn’t be allowed to graduate. Perhaps they had been allowed to goof off for so much of the year when faced with unqualified or unsuitable teachers that they forgot how to work hard. Or perhaps the students were simply paralyzed by the fear of the future, and didn’t know how to even start doing the work necessary to get to the next step.

Whatever the reasons, there were a number of seniors who didn’t get to walk across the stage that June. It is possible that these students wouldn’t have graduated anyway, but it remains an injustice that they were denied a consistent and quality education in what should have been their final year of high school.

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