First Person

On Picking Up Speed After Coasting To College

This piece is the fourth in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.

In a recent post in GothamSchools’ Community section, Nikya Medford wrote of her fears of being alone when on her college campus, without the guidance and support she found at home. Nikya is a student that I visit once a month at the State University of New York at Albany, and while Nikya quickly learned that she had much more support that she originally perceived, her fear is a common one among the college students that I work with.

Though there is a great amount of social and academic support to be found on most college campuses, many students have difficulty connecting to those resources. Working with college students across three New York campuses I have noticed that regardless of whether a student lives at home or on campus, rarely are students aware of all the services available to them, or that it is considered their responsibility to access these services.

Of the 19 college students that I work with across three New York campuses, about half are living away from home. In conversations with adults about my work, many are quick to assume that those students living at home have a much easier time transitioning to college than students who live on campus. However, students living at home often have a hard time acknowledging that expectations of their work have changed from what they were in high school and no longer will their teachers grade them based on effort and potential alone. Students who were once at the top of their class but coasted there on teachers who knew them well and knew how smart they were frequently have a very difficult time acknowledging when they are doing poorly; and thus they are less likely to seek help.

A part of my job is helping students acknowledge when and why they are struggling, and then planning for how to help them. I do this in several different ways, but a large part of it is getting students to visit the academic resource centers available on campus. Often, visiting the writing center or the math tutoring center is exhausting for students, as they must not only make time for these visits, but also follow up on the extra work they are asked to do by the center staffs. However, after papers are handed in, or tests are taken, my students have always acknowledged how much this extra step helped their performance. By helping students find academic resources and schedule appointments I can help my students find the help they need; and then by sending them reminders, and checking in after they have seen their tutors, I hold my students accountable for keeping their commitments to their own academic success.

In addition to having designated resource centers, most schools encourage students to visit with their professors. But few 17- or 18-year-olds are eager to take time out of their busy lives to meet with a professor for extra help. While I make it a priority for my students to introduce themselves to their professors and visit office hours more than once a semester, it is rare that a student is easily convinced to complete this task. In high school, students saw their teachers all day – in the halls, in class, at lunch – and an appointment was rarely necessary to discuss a paper or test. When an appointment is necessary, high school teachers are more likely to take the initiative to meet with students who are demonstrating a need for extra help, rather than expect vice versa. Once students enter college, it is easy for them to presume that if a professor wants to discuss something, he or she will let them know.

So when I suggest that my students visit office hours for the first time, I frequently meet resistance, as students are unclear why they should seek out a professor that does not seem to need to speak with them. This perception — that professors will talk to you if they need to, and office hours are only for if you have a question — is an unfortunate one, and something I work to change in my students. Often I suggest having a conversation with professors so that they can get to know each other. From these meetings the student will likely learn more about the class topics from the change in presentation format and the professor will recognize, and likely appreciate, the student’s eagerness to learn more about the topics. It can only improve the student’s class experience. Last semester, as we made finals study plans, I wrote specific office hour visit days in students’ calendars. This encouraged students to meet with professors as part of their finals preparation as well as to push them to begin studying early for finals, so they could have sufficient questions to speak with their professors about.

While it is important for students to be told that they will be successful in college, it is equally important to remind them of the changing academic expectations that will be placed upon them. First-year college students do not frequently have the background knowledge of how to approach professors or seek out academic support services on campus. These skills need to be taught to students before they begin school, and their development encouraged as students progress through college. More often than not, the support services that students need to be successful are available to them — students just need to be given the encouragement and guidance to take advantage of the assistance.

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.