Honking towards graduation

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Student artwork from the High School of Language and Innovation

Zamir* was a 12th grade student, originally from Albania.  He had come to New York with his older sister when he was in the 10th grade, and hadn’t seen his parents for almost 3 years.  His sister did her best to support him, but didn’t seem prepared to manage a teenage boy.  She also had her hands full with a toddler and work.   

Zamir developed a habit of coming extremely late to school, if he came at all.  My assistant principal Shira and I had a meeting with him.  We tried the usual motivations: “What do you want to do after high school?” and “Think of going back to Albania and showing your parents your high school diploma.”

In the past, Zamir would respond, “Yeah,” or “OK,” but something was different this time.  He spoke honestly: “Those things don’t motivate me,” he said.  Continue reading

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1”

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Watercolors by 9th graders line our hallway

In most high schools, something very dramatic happens every 45 to 60 minutes: students transition from one class to another.  A school that seems peaceful and quiet while everyone is in class, suddenly erupts as hundreds of teenagers are in the hallway.

When my school first opened in 2011 with 90 students and 4 classrooms, those transitions were easy.  However, as we grew to almost 400 kids in 16 classrooms, 2 floors, and multiple hallways, transitions became harder to manage.  Students would engage in longer and longer conversations with their friends, or kiss each other on both cheeks and squeal as if they hadn’t seen each other for years. Some kids would just stand, and not move.  (That drove me crazy.) Continue reading

We don’t call parents to complain

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Student playing a board game at lunchtime.

Every year, there seems to be a class that gets a bad rap-“that class,” which teachers say is tough to teach. Recently a few teachers met with me about this year’s “tough class.”

The teacher’s solution: they wanted to invite the students’ parents into the classrooms to witness how the students were behaving.

I was surprised: why would the teachers want the parents to see the kids behaving badly? In fact, wouldn’t the kids just be good on that day? “Well,” said one teacher, “if the kids are good, then we can say, ‘See, you were good when your parents came in so why can’t you be this good everyday?’”

I remembered my first years of teaching middle school. When I struggled with a student, I would call parents about the problem. In hindsight, I see that I was asking—and actually wishing for– the parents to solve the problem. But in fact, the problem was mine.

My answer to the teachers’ request was no.

Continue reading

“I no longer want to be a teacher”

Kids writingI was sure Sophia* was going to become a teacher.

Sophia was a 12th grader who had shown a passion for teaching.   Last summer, she tutored a group of classmates in history and did a great job.  After the experience, Sophia told me she wanted to become a math teacher.  I told her to reach out to us after college to teach at our school and she loved the idea.  I even wrote about Sophia, calling her The First Hire of 2023 (link).

So this past June, I was surprised to see that Sophia had changed her mind. Continue reading

Being the adult

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Street art Mott Haven, Bronx

As I’m hiring for the next school year, I’m starting to see a key teacher quality I hadn’t recognized before: the ability to be an adult around teenagers.

This may sound obvious.  What I mean is that the teacher knows that they are the adult, and that the student is a kid who may not yet possess all of the politeness, life skills, and behaviors they need to be productive and have good relationships.  The teacher knows that as the adult, they have the main responsibility for creating a respectful relationship.

As I’m interviewing teacher candidates, I see two ways of approaching teens:

The first way is the adult/responsible way, and it ranges from a calm neutrality—“Teenagers are teenagers, they have their ups and downs, let’s keep teaching and not take it personally”—to compassion—“It’s tough to be a teenager and we need to guide kids through this time in their life.”

The second way is the victim way, a constant skirmish between the teacher and student: “They’re making it difficult for me to deliver my lesson” or “I’m not letting Student X back into my class until he apologizes.” Continue reading

Walking out with respect

20190325_174235.jpgThe New Zealand mosque shooting had particular resonance for my students.  My school is for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners and many of our students are Muslim.  The day after the shooting, a girl who is not Muslim came in with a poster she had made on her own stating “We stand with our Muslim neighbors.” It was the first of several events last week that showed me a new level of leadership among my students.

Our school is housed in a building with five other public high schools.  Students from one of the others schools decided to organize a student walkout on Friday in response to the New Zealand shooting to protest hate crimes, gun violence, and show support for the victims.  It would be peaceful, no longer than 40 minutes, and take place on the athletic field.  Students from our campus had participated in last year’s walkout around the Parkland school shooting, and it had been safe and organized.  All seemed fine.

On Tuesday, my assistant principal called me: “Julie, did you know that our students were planning on walking out tomorrow– Wednesday, not Friday? Apparently there’s a big thing on social media.   Continue reading

I can tell you anything, right?

20190202_122445.jpgJeetu, a 12th-grade boy, sat in my office, eager to talk.

“You’re the principal, so I can tell you anything, right?”

I was tickled by Jeetu’s question.  A lot of kids might have the opposite thought: You’re the principal so let me choose my words carefully and make sure you don’t find out whatever I’m hiding.

Jeetu took New York State Regents exams* in January.  I was meeting with every 12th grader who had taken exams and experienced at least one disappointment in failing an exam.  Continue reading