Years ago when I started this blog, a colleague asked me why I was writing it. She didn’t understand and for some reason, I felt embarrassed explaining. She kept asking, “But why?” and I kept giving reasons that were like bland, mushy oatmeal: “I like writing”, “It’s just a thing I want to try.” It never occurred to me to say, “Why not write a blog?”
I now have answers to both questions.
Why do I write this blog?
- I am in awe of my job as a principal, and I want a record of it.
- I write myself out of my worst disappointments.
- I am happiest when I am creating something.
- It brings my students to life.
- I want more truth to be available about myself than untruth.
As a principal, I usually operate with generosity. That doesn’t mean my mind isn’t stingy.
A student can enter the school system at any point in the year, September to June. As a Bronx public high school for newcomer immigrants, we take kids in at any time, no matter when they arrive. About half of our students come from an NYC middle school, and the other half arrive throughout the year, days after their planes landed at JFK. We’ll welcome a student whenever they arrive.
On June 1st, I got an email from the Bronx office of enrollment: a student, Makeda,* had just arrived from Panama and was being placed in the 10th grade. I forwarded the email to my school’s New Admit team and wrote, “We have a new student.”
That is what I did.
It’s been a quiet year to work in a school building: 10 or fewer kids per class seated six feet apart, wearing masks, while the other 2/3 of our students did remote learning from home. No more interruptions or discipline problems. I felt almost like I had an office job, hopping onto Zoom meetings and online classrooms most of the day.
Before the pandemic, we had a system for responding to discipline or other classroom problems: teachers would send a group text, and an administrator or counselor would respond. However, this year, we hadn’t received a single “need help” text.
Suddenly, one day in May, I got a text from a teacher, Ms. M. “Can you come to room 304? I need help.”
Students at the High School of Language and Innovation collaborating in science class.
The first week of school, I learned that most of my students didn’t know the word “integrity.”
As a tone setter, my assistant principals and I visited classes and did a presentation around our core values: integrity, perseverance, respect, and responsibility. We’re using a new approach, Responsibility Centered Discipline (RCD). In RCD, we coach kids to make choices that embody these core values, rather than simply reminding them of rules. An RCD conversation would go like this: “Jaime, I love when you participate in this class because you have a great sense of humor. Your participation makes a difference. When you stopped doing your work and put your head down, you weren’t showing perseverance. If you can keep showing perseverance and never give up, you’ll not only learn, but you’ll be a role model and leader for your classmates. What can you do when you get frustrated with the work and want to put your head down?” Continue reading
I cannot imagine a quiet high school cafeteria. Our cafeteria is noisy and chatty. We’ve managed to (generally) keep kids in their cafeteria seats, but we do not even attempt to contain their enthusiasm, their loud conversations, laughter, exuberant calls to each other, the release of seeing each other socially for 45 minutes a day.
Yet a teacher at another NYC public high school told me that a couple of years ago, their cafeteria became quiet. Suddenly. Why? Continue reading
I walked into a 9th grade art class the other day simply because it looked beautiful. Little tangles of red, teal, yellow, orange, and blue fibers covered each table and the students were gluing the fibers to paper to create a design. I asked one group of students who looked particularly engaged, “Are you enjoying this project?”
The students looked at each other, and seemed about to express enthusiasm—and then one girl shrugged. Following her, the others shrugged as well. They went back to work, fully engrossed—but not able to admit it. The girl who first shrugged seemed mesmerized by a teal fiber, pulling it out as if she had big plans for it.
Luciana is a 9th grader who arrived in the U.S. in 2016 from the Dominican Republic. She wears a sparkly pink headband, has perfect attendance, and occasionally causes mischief.
I saw Luciana in her 9th grade English class. The students were reading an article about bullying. When the teacher encouraged Luciana to answer a question about the article, Luciana immediately turned to several Spanish-speaking classmates with a panicked look that said, “Please translate! Don’t leave me hanging here!”
Last year, our graduation rate was 68% in June, and increased to 73% in August.
This year, our graduation rate is 60% in June, eight points below last year.
I confess, I would love to have handed diplomas to every student. For a week or so, I’ve felt as though the dog ate my optimism. I would like it back, please.
Yet it’s hard to stay uninspired for long when I come into contact with students, or listen to just about anyone. The other day, an 11th grade student from another high school in the Bronx called me on my cell phone to ask if she could take geometry in my school over the summer. I didn’t know her and don’t know how she got my number but was inspired by her research, resourcefulness, and chutzpah. Continue reading
Three times a year, our classrooms transform: round tables are replaced with rows of tablet-armed desks during the state testing weeks of January, June, and August. We call these desks one-armed bandits.
The change from tables to desks is a physically dramatic event. The classroom turns from an expansive, wide space with 6-7 round tables, to a tightly–packed, orderly box filled with metal and laminate desks. Continue reading
I started my teaching career in September 2000 at Intermediate School 33 in Brooklyn, a school that has since closed. I was hired to teach 8th grade English at the same time as Sara Milstein, both of us recent college graduates who quickly became friends.
On the first day, we introduced our rules to our students. “What happens if you break them?” asked a student. We weren’t sure.
The first several months of our teaching careers were an exercise in containing classroom chaos, and many times, we ended the day in tears.