The upset of praise

TrophyLast year in the 9th grade, Robert* had a rough start.  He would argue with directions, wander hallways, and frequently cut classes.  We were alarmed to see these habits so early in his high school career and did our best to address his behavior.

However, we didn’t see a major change until July: over the summer, Robert calmed down and got focused.  He attended summer school and had a math class with a teacher he admired.  In August, he passed the state math exam.  He started his 10th-grade year well, arriving on time, participating enthusiastically in classes, and performing well.

Then, the cutting habits started to creep in again.  We noticed he’d skip his last class of the day, history.  This year, we started a much stronger approach to addressing cutting.  We developed a system to stop students in the morning who had cut class the day before.  We met with them and helped them re-think how and why they should stay in school all day. Continue reading

The first hire of 2023

20181204_070536.jpgEach year, one of the most exciting things we do is interview and hire new teachers.  Now, in our school’s 8th year of existence, I realized a new possibility this year: we can hire our former students as teachers.

Since our school’s first year in 2011,* we have had students serving as tutors to other students. It started out as students tutoring each other over the summer: students who had passed state exams in math tutored those who had failed the exam.  The tutors earned a small stipend.  With the support of teachers and the tutors, many of the students passed the exam.

Over the years, we’ve shifted the tutoring opportunities.  Now, we give seniors who are on-track to graduate the opportunity to tutor their 12th-grade peers who need support or to serve as teacher assistants in 9th and 10th-grade classrooms. Continue reading

The Quiet Kid

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Student artwork, High School of Language and Innovation.

As our 12th-grade students are applying for colleges, our staff writes recommendations for them.   The students email the recommender a “brag sheet” of their accomplishments, goals, and life experiences.  I have had the privilege of writing several recommendations this year, and love how much I learn about our students through the process.

One young man, who I see as a leader, described his only accomplishment as “good at sports.”  He was totally unaware of his own greatness.  I made sure to describe his leadership, such as the times I’ve seen him guiding 9th graders to do the right thing.

One young lady wrote an assertive brag sheet in organized bullet points.   Reading it, I remembered how she had volunteered one summer to organize all of our classroom libraries and then ensured that I wrote a letter documenting her community service.  This year, she started a dance club, which has become our most well-attended club.  I felt appreciation for her ambition and how she has made the school a better place.

One young man, Samuel, * was a surprise to me.  Continue reading

I could do this job until I’m 90

20181104_114211.jpgBeing a high school principal is not glamorous.  Case in point: last week, there were way too many chicken nuggets on the student cafeteria floor.  Note to ourselves: re-teach cafeteria cleanup.

Chicken nuggets included, I love my job and would choose no other.  This week, as I watched a staff trainer work with a student, I realized my experience is unusual.

I hired the trainer to show my staff effective ways to coach students through challenges. I watched the trainer talk to a student named Samantha, who was struggling.  The trainer was skillful in getting Samantha to engage in the conversation.

Then the trainer said, “Samantha, I know you’re not excited to come to school today.  In fact, I don’t think any of us were excited to come to work.  Even I had to make myself get up this morning.  None of us really want to be at work.”

Wait a second, I thought.  Really?  Continue reading

No, you’re sitting here.

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At the beginning of the year, I did a presentation for a 9th-grade class. As the students walked into the classroom, I told them where to sit. “Good morning! You can sit here,” I’d say, pointing to a table.

One student chose another table than the one I had pointed to. “I’ll sit here,” he told me, plunking himself down. He smiled and folded his arms.

“No,” I said. “You’ll sit here.” I pointed to the original table. I smiled back.

“But I can work better here,” he insisted.

“No,” I said again. “I’m very happy you’ll be in this class today, and so I need you to sit here.” I pointed again and repeated myself: “Here, please.”

Continue reading

After a fight

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Student tracing a sketch in art class.

This week, two girls had a fight in the cafeteria.  We found that it had been instigated by other students, and stemmed from unkind posts on social media.

The issue for me wasn’t the fight; we quickly broke up the fight and held a mediation between the students involved that was successful.  The issue was that a large number of our 9th and 10th-grade students cheered on the fight.

Earlier in the year, we had spoken to our students about integrity and how it relates to not encouraging a fight.  I was disappointed that the students had cheered on the fight until a friend reminded me of “rubbernecking” in traffic: “That’s just what people do.  Remember how in traffic, people slow down when there’s a car accident because they want to see the accident.   It’s not always because they actually need to slow down, it’s just that human curiosity.” Continue reading

How to be a man

Sky view

This year, my school is focusing on raising the achievement of boys. I’ve learned that supporting boys goes beyond good teaching: we need to show boys more options for how to “be a man.”

Most boys have an idea of what it is to be a man. It’s often a child’s idea of being “hard” or “tough,” “independent.” A principal colleague of mine said he and his staff consciously teach their 9th graders to lose the “tough guy” attitude and just be kids; be students.

This week, I found myself in a conference with a student, Hassan,* and one of my teachers, Matt. Hassan had hit another student who had been calling him a “little boy” and making teasing gestures towards him.

In the past, we might have said, “The next time someone teases you, tell a teacher or administrator.” However, we saw that an 18-year-old boy who sees himself as a man may not want to run to a teacher to solve his problems.

Continue reading