First Person

Students Direct, Drama Ensues: Lessons in Leadership

“I can’t do this, Ms. Q. These kids hate me.” Eleventh-grader Ruth presses her forehead to the wall in the corner of the art room and sighs.

When my colleague Andrew Simon and I teamed up with Ruth and several other high school students last summer to create the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy, we all knew we were taking on a challenge. The program serves about 60 kids in grades 5-12. The kids are expected to grapple with sophisticated texts spanning poetry, prose, theater, musical theater and original oratory. And the whole thing rests on a model of peer mentoring and student leadership that represents a pretty radical shift away from the rigid, top-down culture I found when I first came to Bronx Prep as a theater teacher eight years ago.

In the months that I’ve been mentoring Ruth and her peers as directors and designers for our first-ever student-led musical, “Aladdin,” she’s has been the model of grace under pressure. Now I watch her bury her face in her hands and cry.

“All I want to do is support them so they can put on an awesome show,” she says between sobs, gesturing to the room next door where she’s left the cast of 40 fifth- through eighth-graders in the hands of her 11th-grade co-director. “But they won’t listen. So I have to be the bad guy. I don’t know what else to do. I yell. I give them detentions. I threaten to call parents. None of it works. And now they hate me.”

Ruth (far left) directs a dance rehearsal.
Ruth (far left) directs a dance rehearsal.

I know exactly what Ruth is going through. My own trial-by-fire as a first-year teacher may have played out nearly a decade ago, but this current experiment in student leadership has catapulted me right back to my own early days in the classroom, reliving everything the young leaders are currently facing-all the anxiety, the fear of failure, and the frustration that comes from wanting to do creative work with kids and instead feeling like a glorified traffic cop, and an incompetent one at that.

Especially given how challenging their jobs are, Ruth and her team have been doing remarkable work so far. They’ve coached huge groups of inexperienced actors and singers, invented and taught choreography, sewn costumes, built sets, painted backdrops, organized ticket sales and coordinated complex schedules.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk somebody out of quitting.

I put a hand on Ruth’s shoulder, tell her that she’s doing fine, and reassure her that we’ll use our post-rehearsal planning time to troubleshoot. “And listen, honey,” I say, fighting to hold fast to my hard-won convictions. “I know you’re feeling some resistance from the kids right now, but believe me. They don’t actually hate you.”

At this precise moment, a sixth grader named Manuela bursts through the door of the art room, hysterically wailing, “Ms. Q! I can’t do this anymore! I HATE RUTH!”

The two crying kids lock eyes and freeze. And that’s when I realize that I’m in over my head, big time. Who knew that all the experience I racked up learning to lead in my own classroom wouldn’t translate directly to an ability to teach my students to do the same? I may talk a good game about the value of side-by-side learning experiences where the teacher becomes the student, but now that I’m actually back here in beginner-mode: I’m freaking out.

My natural instinct in this moment is to scrap the whole experiment, grab the reins from the kids and scramble back into my comfort zone-smooth over Ruth and Manuela’s hurt feelings, leap into the fray next door, sweep the high school leaders aside, restore order, get the middle school performers back on track and move the whole process forward.

But I think back to the lesson I got from the kids in the first week of rehearsals, after I’d interrupted a practice session a few too many times with what I thought was helpful feedback, and Ruth’s co-director Sahirah spoke up afterwards. “You know, Ms. Q, with all due respect, if you put us in leadership positions, it’s really hard when you don’t actually let us lead. I know you want to help, but it confuses the kids when you step in, because then they don’t know who’s in charge.”

It was a point well taken. Sahirah’s comment brought me back to my first year as a teacher and how miserable it felt when a well-meaning colleague occasionally swooped in to offer some “back-up,” bringing my wild classroom to order with a mere raising of eyebrows and unintentionally confirming my worst fears about my own hopelessness as an educator.

What was true for me then was true for my kids now: inexperienced leaders require a ton of support and structure from their mentors on the back-end, but ultimately they need to be trusted to muddle through the work on their own. They need to learn by doing, even when-heck, especially when-that means making mistakes.

So now I check my control-freak impulses. After a brief conversation, I leave Ruth and Manuela in the art room to work out their differences by themselves, step into the other room to make sure it’s not total chaos, and grit my teeth while the kids struggle through the rest of their rehearsal unassisted.

Then, as we do every afternoon, the battle-weary crew of leaders and I sit in a circle on the floor of the rehearsal room and wrestle with frustrations, come up with new strategies, celebrate small successes, and plan for the following day.

***

Weeks have passed since that low moment with Ruth and Manuela. There were lots more moments like it to follow.

Students performing "A Whole New World." Manuela is wearing yellow.
Students performing 'A Whole New World.' Manuela is wearing yellow.

But step by messy step, the kids pushed forward … and I gradually and painfully learned to do a half-decent job of keeping my mouth shut. We all did a lot of reflection about learning, innovation, commitment and leadership along the way. And at the end of the process, the kids put on a show that was bursting with energy and creativity.

When I sat down with Ruth and Manuela recently to look back on the whole experience, Ruth said that one of the biggest leadership lesson she’d come away with was this:

I feel like the kids respect you when you’re […] organized, and you’re calm and you show them you think they’re doing great. Then they do the right thing, mostly — not because they’re afraid of you, but because they’re excited and, you know, they want to make the show good. They’re willing to take a risk and go further than what they believe they can do. When they go beyond their own expectations, they get excited and the whole thing just flows.

Click here to check out our student blog to read student posts, see student photography and video from the show, and read a transcript of my whole conversation with Ruth and Manuela — now inseparable creative co-conspirators.

Co-directors Ruth and Sahirah take a bow.
Co-directors Ruth and Sahirah take a bow.
Ruth and Manuela.
Ruth and Manuela.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.