The Pressure to Punish

Snowing in the Bronx

Right before winter break started, a teacher approached me, visibly upset. A student had sent him an email saying, “I hate you” and wishing the teacher a “horrible” winter break, among some other unkind things.

What had preceded this email? The teacher explained that he had called the student’s parents in for a meeting regarding the student’s behavior. Afterwards, the student had sent the angry email to the teacher. (On a positive note, the email was clearly written and formatted correctly, a “modern skill” we now teach in our English classes.)

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From Albania to Dominican Republic

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A student in traditional Albanian dress.

I am the principal of a truly multicultural school: almost all of the students in my school are newcomer immigrants from over 23 countries all over the world.

Three years ago, we started a tradition of having “cultural assemblies” in which students from each culture would lead a school-wide assembly sharing the history, music, dance, dress, and customs of their culture.

This year, we started with the Albanian assembly.  Our Albanian population is relatively small, and deeply proud of their culture.  My staff had always told me that the Albanian assembly was beautiful but at times, the most challenging to organize: the students are brilliant and dynamic.  However, the students also have strong opinions and disagreements about their history and traditions.  Continue reading

Anchored to a dream

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Students taking apart a computer in a computer science class at High School of Language and Innovation.

Eldan* is in the 10th grade. He’s charming, originally from Montenegro, and a talented soccer player. However, he frequently comes late to school and until we started to address it, he would often cut classes. We have a few Eldans in every grade: not openly resistant or disrespectful, but also not always able to see the point of school.

This year, I realized that rather than being frustrated by such behavior, I could be curious. Does Eldan see the point of school? Are we communicating that school is a “have to because you have to”? Or are we communicating that school is a “get to” that leads to possibilities?

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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

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.

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I’m here, and I hear you

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Student artwork sale at the High School of Language and Innovation

I remember my first interview for a teaching position in August 2000, part of the first cohort of New York City Teaching Fellows.  I was standing in line at a hiring fair at the Brooklyn Marriott Hotel.

When I got to the front of the line, a harried-looking man introduced himself as a district representative hiring for a position teaching 8th grade in a middle school in Brooklyn. Continue reading