First Person

School is for Humans: A Teacher’s Response To The Current Climate

I teach eighth grade humanities in a New York City public school. This week, we began preparation for the state English language arts exam — the very beast responsible for the now famous, much debated teacher data reports recently published by several city news organizations. Sitting in my classroom, I find I am also seated in the midst of a political and ideological firestorm. As various voices in the news duke this out, we teachers quietly choose for ourselves how to respond on the ground.

In my class this year, we have a motto: “You are not a number. You’re a human being.”

It’s meant to be silly and serious at the same time. Around here, we encourage 13-year-olds to embrace their silliness. So, on Monday, we took a moment to acknowledge and release a bit of the pressure created by the impending state exam. On the agenda, I wrote “Celebration of ELA-related Creativity.” I gave my students the instruction to create something that would help us kick off the test preparation unit. The only guidelines: It must be creative; it can be funny if you like, and overall, it must be positive.

Among other things, my students composed a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style singalong song, performed a re-written Shakespeare scene, showered the audience with paper airplanes containing a mathematical formula that determines the odds of getting a good score by guessing on every question, and choreographed an interpretive dance. I can tell you, for last-second projects with no grade attached and 30 minutes to create, they were awesome. This never fails: I am always humbled and amazed by the outpouring of creative energy that occurs when kids are given the space to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.

Going forward, of course, I shall dutifully instruct them on reading skills, comparative essay writing, and test-taking strategies. Is it possible to make this instruction interesting and engaging? Sure, to a certain extent. But for those moments when the boredom borders on painful, we now have a poster to point to and sing (to the tune of B-i-n-g-o), “There once was a cow who went to school and studied for the ELA…”

The score I received on my own teacher data report is based on the two years I spent teaching seventh-grade English in the South Bronx. I’m not too concerned with the results: The magical math placed my teaching abilities in the “above average” range. Lucky for me. Also quite fortunate is my current position in a school where I am respected as an educator and an individual and allowed to be thoughtful and creative with my teaching. And, certainly, there are other advantages. I tell people, “Getting this job was like winning the teacher lottery.” Due to the school’s popularity, we evaluate and hand-select each student who comes here. The parents are supportive, their kids motivated and cooperative. We have all the materials and technology we need. I readily admit that these factors make some of what I describe much easier to achieve. But I’ll ask my readers, just for the moment, to please suspend your conclusions until I have reached mine.

Teaching such academically inclined, successful students presents a different set of challenges from those encountered in many public schools. Our kids, quite frankly, are far too stressed out for their age.  The system of high school acceptance in New York City creates a focus on grades and test scores that approaches fanatical among students vying for spaces at the “top” schools.  It begins in elementary school: Fourth-graders are made aware that their state test score will be a determining factor in their middle school acceptance. If they want to come to a school like mine, they had better receive a “top” score and “top” grades.

Imagine your sweet, intelligent, talented 9-year-old child going through the following thought process: I mean, if I don’t get into the right middle school, then I won’t get into my first-choice high school, which besides proving that I’m not as smart as I’m supposed to be, will prevent me from going to the college I’ve had picked out since kindergarten because my genius older sister goes there and then my parents won’t love me as much as her and I’ll end up working at McDonald’s and my life will be ruined forever. Obvi.

An over-dramatization for effect?  Perhaps. But believe me, it isn’t so far from the truth. I watch my eighth-graders spin those wheels for months out of the year. Soon they’ll have similar thoughts about college, and on and on it goes. Some people will tell me, well, that’s just life: Be realistic — if you want to be the best, if you want to be successful, you have to be competitive. This, Ms. Lacey, is “the way the world works.”

I am so over that argument. The world is hardly static. Things change so rapidly that our slow adult brains need kids to explain the continual shifting of popular Internet memes. Yet, people still seem to think we should be educating for the way the world once was, or is right now, and so we unwittingly limit our children as we have limited ourselves. A poignant symbol of this phenomenon is the education community’s obsession with quantifying people’s value. We have been reducing students to data points for years, but now that the same has been done very publicly to teachers, people seem ready to have a real conversation about it. I have no problem with using valid data to measure performance and help us improve, if we can find a way to do it wisely; Bill Gates already made that argument for us. The consciousness of our culture is clearly tuned into this issue at this moment, so my hope is that we will use the momentum to move in a positive direction.  A possible first step in that direction?  Let’s adopt my classroom motto and begin our conversations from there.  “You are not a number.  You’re a human being.”

Teachers are human beings; usually, the types who feel compelled to do something beneficial for the rest of humanity. You can’t reduce to data the complex human exchange that occurs between teachers and students. Where do you account for the value of teaching empathy and service to community? Of celebrating a child for her own quirky personality, talents, and uniqueness? How about the building of self-awareness and esteem? Sparking an interest in something that will bring a student joy for the rest of his life? You know as well as I that this list could go on forever.

Teachers are in a position to plant seeds for a positively evolving future. We chose this job because we understand the need to educate our fellow humans in a way that nurtures their potential, compassion, and vibrant inner lives. In my school, I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to act on this understanding. Students need to be respected, supported, and appreciated in order to grow and flourish; their teachers need the same. I choose to envision a future in which we all receive those things in abundance.

Trina Lacey is an eighth-grade humanities teacher at East Side Middle School as well as a writer.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.