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Fariña to principals: Increase rigor, but make schools ‘stress-free zones’

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña
Stephanie Snyder

Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s latest advice for principals is to relax.

“I know our goal is to increase rigor and lift the level of instruction in our schools, yet sometimes I worry that we are putting too much pressure on ourselves and adding unnecessary stress to the lives of our teachers, students, and families,” Fariña said in this week’s memo to principals. “I would like us to think about how we can transform our schools into stress-free zones, where the joy of learning and the satisfaction of collaboration nurture a trusting and harmonious community.”

Fariña suggests principals reduce stress levels by limiting homework for young students and having teachers work together to reduce the number of tests that older students take on the same day. She also encourages teachers to take one day each week away from school-related responsibilities.

The message reflects Fariña’s belief that high pressure doesn’t yield the best results. As Fariña has worked to exchange competition for collaboration among schools, she has eliminated school letter grades, instituted new programs for principals and teachers to visit each others’ schools, and urged principals to reduce their test-prep regimens. Those moves have also sparked criticism of Fariña and Mayor Bill de Blasio for not insisting on faster or more ambitious achievement goals.

Fariña’s tone is much different from the one de Blasio took on Monday as he unveiled a new plan to improve 94 city schools and promised to hold them accountable for their improvement over the next three years. “We will demand fast and intense improvement, and we will see that it happens,” he said.

Her full message:

Dear Colleagues,

As I visit schools throughout the five boroughs, I am heartened to see so much emphasis on improving student performance. I know our goal is to increase rigor and lift the level of instruction in our schools, yet sometimes I worry that we are putting too much pressure on ourselves and adding unnecessary stress to the lives of our teachers, students, and families. I would like us to think about how we can transform our schools into stress-free zones, where the joy of learning and the satisfaction of collaboration nurture a trusting and harmonious community.

One way to achieve a healthier home-school balance is by rethinking how we assign homework. Homework for students at any age should not be overwhelming or a burden to families but instead should be an opportunity to practice and extend school learning as well as to strengthen the home-school connection. In addition, it should be work that students can do independently so that parents don’t feel like it’s their own homework. For our youngest learners, in particular, we must ensure that “homework” is age-appropriate. Knowing that they cannot sit still or focus on one task for long periods of time, we should ensure that homework includes activities that make joy an inherent part of the learning process. Activities such as counting, measuring, singing songs, reciting poems, rereading familiar books, and talking about school experiences not only reinforce vocabulary and concept development but also foster a love of learning and provide opportunities for families to bond.

I urge you to work with your School Leadership Team to create stress-free homework policies for each grade that set realistic expectations for the amount of time students should spend on assignments outside of the classroom. In first grade, for example, I suggest no more than 15 minutes for math homework and 20 minutes of at-home reading. In middle and high school, teachers should work with one another to set alternate test days—for example science on the third Wednesday of the month and math on the fourth Tuesday. This will reduce test anxiety by spacing out the time students have to engage in test preparation and will help students plan their time more effectively.

And please, do not forget about yourselves – this homework edict applies to you as well. While I know that your workday does not end at the closing bell but often goes into the wee hours and takes a chunk out of your weekend, I encourage you to strive for balance between your work and home life. As a rule, I try to take at least one day off a week, usually Sunday; if I must work, I wait until after 6:00 p.m. Allowing myself at least one day without any commitments helps me to start the next week much more focused. I cannot emphasize this enough – everyone (from principals and teachers to students and families) needs at least one free day a week.

Let’s continue to celebrate our students and teachers. Random acts of kindness go a long way toward building trust, and sincere compliments are also a great way to initiate positive dialogue during upcoming parent-teacher conferences. I encourage your teachers to work together to create index cards highlighting the special talents of each student in their classroom and to share them with parents to let them know how valued their child is in school. And if you have your own strategies for creating a stress-free environment in your school, please share them with your colleagues. I would also love to hear about successful strategies, and I thank you in advance for helping me restore a sense of joy and balance in our schools.

Warm regards,

Carmen Fariña
Chancellor

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