We found out yesterday during our weekly Wednesday staff meeting that our principal is being removed from our school.  He didn’t go into major details as to the stated cause for the central office’s decision, just stating that it wasn’t his choice.

Obviously, I have many mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I’m going to be gone next year, so shakeups at the school won’t have any direct effect on me.  And I have definitely had my direct disagreements with and criticisms of my principal at several steps of the way.  However, it can’t be denied that he’s been the leader of the school and instrumental in the turnaround of what was once one of the most notorious middle schools in the district.  No one is perfect, and given what I know about administrators across the district, it seems like it would be difficult to find someone who could be an improvement.

Maybe more insight into what happened will be forthcoming.  Many of the staff members are already taking up arms and planning how they can fight the system.  For my part, I wonder if its a winnable fight in the first place.  Our principal is being removed in his second year, which is a very unusual or severe thing.  In my mind, that can happen for one of several reasons:  very low  academic performance, extreme behavior management issues (better known in the district as you school being “off the chain”), misconduct, severe political misstep, or–somewhat more positively–the desire to “replicate” the relative success of our school elsewhere.  In my estimation, there’s no way this situation falls into either of the first two categories.  And as far as politics are concerned, our school has gotten nothing but the most glowing press, so if it’s political, it’s must be something that’s gone down behind the scenes.  And obviously we’ll probably never know if there’s been some sort of formal complaint that’s led up to this, but I’d like to think this wouldn’t b ethe case.  Lastly, it is quite possible that our principal is being reassigned to another failing school due to the amount of acclaim our school has received from certain sectors.  But, to me, this doesn’t quite resonate.  Our school is improving, but it’s far from demonstrating unequivocal success.  Why on earth would the district risk torpedoing one school on the chance that lightning might strike twice and they can turn around another school? Some of the central office decisions aren’t so bright, but I give them more credit than that.  So I’m stumped.

In any case, today will be the beginning of what could be a very tumultuous couple of weeks.  The kids are going to find out, so we’re going to be having a morning meeting to discuss what actions we’re going to take as a staff.  Most likely there will be an all-school assembly this morning, where some level of information will be revealed to them.  More updates to come…

Tribute to a Legend

“Only the hero himself knows the full triumph of his story”  –Errol Duncan

I just found out Monday that Mr. Duncan, the founding English teacher at our high school, died this past weekend.  Thankfully, one of my friends recalled this, one of many classic Mr. Duncan quotes, which couldn’t be more appropriate, in my opinion.

When Mr. Duncan left our school, I had the honor of being asked to write a reference for him last Fall, which I feel sums it up:

I am a colleague of Errol Duncan.  I taught 9th grade with Mr. Duncan, where we worked closely together as a collaborative team, along with the other 9th grade teachers.  As the founding team of high school teachers, we worked together on a daily basis to mold the atmosphere and structures of the high school.

Although I never had the opportunity to observe Mr. Duncan in his classroom, I have always had the impression that Mr. Duncan cares deeply about urban education.  He was always the foremost in our 9th grade meetings in bringing a data-driven, student-centric mindset.  He took great interest in the holistic well-being of the students, rather than restricting his concern only to their performance in his own class.  He discounted no student, and he lobbied strenuously for students to receive social services, such as counseling, to address their needs beyond academics.  Mr. Duncan’s homeroom, with which he spent an hour and a half of each day, had a familial culture, and they consistently outperformed the rest of the grade in all subjects.  I attribute much of this success to the rigorous expectations Mr. Duncan held for his students.  He spoke to them frankly about what they needed to do to be successful, healthy individuals.

Whenever I visited Mr. Duncan’s room outside of class time, it was evident, even without students around, that he used a multi-faceted teaching approach.  A wide variety of books could be seen on the desks around his room, as well as varied tasks for his students to accomplish.  I often overheard students talking outside of class time about the books they were reading in his English class.  In addition, Mr. Duncan is a reflective educator.  He talked often about the strategies he was applying to differentiate for his diverse learners.  He spoke with pride about the student achievement in his room.

Mr. Duncan also took great personal interest in supporting me as a first-year teacher.  He provided me with crucial advice on multiple occasions, and advocated on my behalf when he felt as though I needed additional resources to be successful in my classroom.

From my perspective, Mr. Duncan brought a wealth of knowledge and energy to our new school.  I am proud to have had the opportunity to have taught with him.

I met Mr. Duncan the first day I showed up to the school.  I had moved to Baltimore literally the day prior, and Mr. Duncan and I had been assigned to teach the two classes of the Summer Bridge program.  Much of my original knowledge about being an educator came from him.  And if anybody had my back on a consistent basis, it was Mr. Duncan.  There were several days where I sat in my room, shell-shocked and exhausted from the days events, trying to hold myself together while he talked me into coming back the next day.  And when he was suddenly relieved of his classroom duties, he took it upon himself to be the teaching coach I never had when I was absolutely drowning trying to prepare my students for the algebra HSA.  I think there’s a very good chance that his advocacy on my behalf saved my job.

In general, the first year at my school was war.  Most of our ninth graders hailed from middle schools infamous for being among the worst in the city.  In the beginning, for the most part, there was nothing but the five of us teachers running the high school.  During the school year, our upper school was a barebones operation, so everyone had to wear many hats.  To our team, probably more than anything, Mr. Duncan was the sage.  He had a way of stepping back to see the big picture, and the experience he brought was priceless.  And none of us think it’s a coincidence that Mr. Duncan’s homeroom regularly outperformed every other homeroom, thereby setting the standard for the upper school to live up to.

Ever since Mr. Duncan left the school, I have very much missed the philosophical conversations we would have during my planning period or after school.  I’m sad I never wrote down more of what Mr. Duncan said, because he had an incredible way with words, and he always had knowledge to drop.  He was a British intellectual.  Between his anecdotes, goofy Jamaican sayings, obscure literary allusions, and absolutely piercing metaphors, he had a way of communicating that was totally unique.  Whenever he had a profound thought, he expressed it in prose, just like in the quote above.  Most people didn’t understand what in the heck he was talking about, but in my estimation, he said more in one sentence than most people can say in five.   I was considered the de facto Duncan translator.  Sometimes, he would say something so outlandish, it would have me laughing so hard I would be in tears, but I’d be the only one laughing because no one else got it.  He was absolutely brilliant, and listening to him speak was like reading a great book.

I can’t quite shake the concern that events of the past year contributed to Mr. Duncan’s untimely passing.  I remember him being very shaken by his mother passing last June, and this was compounded by the drama that eventually led to him leaving our school, drama that, as I understand, continued until the end.  It pains me that his contribution to our school has not been properly recognized or honored in the past or the present.  Still, I know that Mr. Duncan didn’t put a lot of stock in accolades.  Mr. Duncan was compassionate, but he also didn’t take any crap from anybody.  He had ways of dealing with even our most challenging students.  He spoke his mind and did what he believed was best for the children.  When these students finally walk across the stage to get their diplomas in a couple of years, the work he did will be fully realized.  I’m just said he won’t have the chance to see it.

But, in the minds of everyone who knew him, Mr. Duncan will always be a legend.

Let’s Be Honest, Sometimes It Is The Kids

In TFA, and in teaching in general, I’ve heard frustrated teacher say so many times “it’s not the children that frustrate me, it’s the adults”–and that might refer to parents, other teachers, or administration.

Well, I’m going to keep it real and say that for me, sometimes it is the children.  I can honestly say that there’s not a single adult that I’ve worked with in any capacity that I don’t respect.  There’s only one person that comes close, and my collab-mates from Institute know who that is.  And even that person had a lot to teach me.  Obviously, everyone is flawed in one way or another, and the work we do has a way of exposing any flaws you might have.  That, you can count on.  You might be able to hide some of it from the kids, but we as adults can pick things out about one another all day long if we want to.  But I’ve also learned an immense amount about teaching and even life in general from every single person I’ve worked with, and there’s not a single coworker of mine, past or present, whose shoes I think I could step into and categorically do a better job than they do.

And speaking of admiration, some of the kids I teach have to endure hell just to get an education.  I don’t know what it does to the developing mind to be exposed to the profanity, the degradation, the disrespect, and the outrageous behavior that some of their peers exhibit on a nearly-constant basis.  No single kid is all bad, but you can count on someone stepping up to the plate to fill that role on a daily basis.  And there are definitely some kids that really seem to just revel in it.

I must admit, I have very mixed feelings toward the kids.  Sometimes, they can really amaze me with their persistence, their ability to radically change for the better, and even their thoughtfulness, every now and then.  But so much of the time, the good things they do are overridden in my mind by the overwhelming amount of poor behavior I have to confront on every day.  It’s not so much the show-stoppers that get to me, like when a student curses me out.  It’s pretty well understood that most students who would do that are unbalanced to begin with.  It’s those days when I see my good kids making choices they know are wrong, right in front of me.  That kid might not be cursing at me, but they might as well be.  Their actions speak much louder than words would have.  And when I have a class full of kids acting that way, it just makes me think “what is the point?”

Of course it’s not always like that.  There are rare days when you could hear a pin drop.  But most of the time, it’s not like that.  I can wait for minutes at a time until the room is absolutely silent, but as soon as I start talking, five kids start talking too.  It’s impossible get the entire class’s attention for long enough to explain even the simplest concepts to the point that all the students can do them.  It’s incredible, but what separates my best students from my worst has nothing to do with how good they were at math when I first got them.  It’s actually really simple.  My best students listen, and therefore they know what they’re doing.  And if they’re really good, they actually go on to try to complete their work.  And if they’re really, really good, they look at the examples and refer back to the notes they took to guide them in completing their work.

It’s just so sad that that is the standard of excellence.  I’ve tried so hard, but I can’t break the idea in the students’ minds that it’s okay just to show up, and that once you’re here, you can behave however the heck you might feel like behaving.  They’ve been conditioned to believe that they can play all day long and breeze through the process of growing into adults.  I deal with kids who won’t follow the simplest rules, like don’t eat, cell phones are not allowed, no hoodies.  I spend so much time and energy fighting these stupid battles, every single day.  Not to mention, I regularly have kids shriek, sing, or talk about the most profane things in full earshot.  I have kids I don’t even teach randomly pop in and out of the room without permission.  I’m sure this behavior didn’t start with this generation; it’s probably why we have so many childish adults.  And they want to go to college.  They look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that the same sort of behavior that goes on daily around this school would have you escorted off of a college campus in handcuffs.

Obviously, the world needs people who can step in and talk some sense into these kids.   It’s not going to be me for much longer, though.  I just can’t handle it.  Some of my students already know from the rumor mill that I’m not going to be back next year, and they seem genuinely upset.  Come class time though, I still can’t get those same kids to simply listen.  I guess I do serve some purpose in their lives, as some one who treats them with respect no matter what.  That’s really nice, but I’m here to educate them and get them to college.  The toughest part of it for me is that I still believe it’s possible, but I don’t think we’re heading in that direction, at least not without major changes.  At this point, I’m so weary of the day to day, which is so far from that dream that there’s no way I plan to wait around to find out whether it can be done or not.  No way, no how.

Great Success!

This past week, I had the pleasure of distributing to 4 of my brightest math students their invitations to a summer math research program at Morgan State University.  This is the culmination of weeks of conversations I have been involved with in collaboration with their math department.  As part of the program, the students will commute to MSU over a 6 week period in June and July, where they will be matched up with faculty mentors and they will experience first hand how math research is done.  How much will they have to pay for the experience?  Nothing!  In fact, Morgan State is going to pay them each $3000.  It blows my mind.

When I delivered the invitations, I congratulated the students of course, but I also took the opportunity to deliver some tough love.  I told them that while their math skills fantastic and are what got them this opportunity, that it’s their behavior skills I’m worried about.  I told them that this opportunity makes them examples to the rest of the student body, and that they need to make sure their actions uphold a high standard at all times.  I told them that they need to know that the impression they make during their time at MSU will determine not only whether they are invited back the following summer, but it will also determine whether MSU expands their involvement for the rest of the school as a whole.  Lastly, I told them that they don’t owe me anything for helping get them this opportunity, because other people freely gave me the opportunities that I had.  Instead, I expect them to make the most of it so that they can open doors for future friendship students and for today’s elementary school students, and that’s how we can start to turn this city around.  I hope they took what I said to heart, but I plan on reinforcing it over the next several weeks anyway.

To be honest, I am really concerned that these kids might blow it.  Two of them in particular I would consider to be high-risk.  But that concern is far outweighed by my hope that this summer program might be the start of a major positive change in the course of their lives.  Sometimes kids just need a chance to shine.  In any case, helping make the connection so that these kids would have this awesome opportunity is probably the proudest achievement of the past two years.

The Light At The End of the Tunnel

It actually seems as though my days are flying by as the end of the year is drawing near, and I can finally feel safe to say that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.  It’s sad to say, but in this fourth quarter, I’ve finally found a groove that lets me get my job done without the huge burden I’ve felt for most of my teaching experience.  Could it be that I have actually figured it all out and am considering another year in teaching?  Heck no.  I’ve just found new ways of meeting what I consider to be my minimum requirement–that come class time, I need to have a coherent plan to teach the kids to do something new.

I have learned that all the crap they tell us we have to do just isn’t necessary to achieve the results I’m achieving.  I could be working 3 times as hard, but for what?  Frankly, I’m happy with my results.  I’ve got kids who couldn’t multiply last year doing algebra problems that take almost a full page of work.  I’ve got special ed kids correcting my mistakes on the board.  What is working is that I’m breaking every lesson down to the basics, I’m putting huge emphasis on students understanding the notation of algebra, and I’m being an absolute dick (excuse my language) in insisting on maximal standards for completion of classwork.

My class is not exciting, but I firmly believe that it’s time for these kids to understand that to get what they want, they have to work for it, and life isn’t just playtime.  The kids hate how nit-picky I am, but they are stepping up.  And the next day’s lesson goes so much better when they learned the background material from the day before thoroughly and correctly.

It hasn’t all been fun in games.  Things seem to run in cycles.  For a few days at a time, the kids will be motivated and so productive.  Then for a few days, they will be juvenile and rowdy, and I have to fight for every second of their attention.  When that happens, it makes me want to choke someone.   This past Monday, most of my 2nd period class had to take the AP exam, and I only had 6 kids in my room.  Those 6 kids were off the hook.  They cursed, bickered, talked about wildly inappropriate subjects, wouldn’t sit in their seats, sang, wouldn’t put their phones away, wouldn’t do the drill or the work, and were just all around jerks.  When that happens, for all that I’ve learned, I don’t know what to do with them.  Fortunately, Monday seemed to be the end of an approximately 3 week streak of generally insane behavior, and the rest of the week was pretty painless.  Let’s hope this next week stays that way.

If I can make it through this week, HSA testing is next week, then two weeks of class, then finals, then done!