Choosing summer school

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I used to tell students, “Don’t plan on summer school.” I didn’t want kids to feel complacent during the year and figure, “Oh, well, I’ll just go to summer school if I don’t pass.” To create a sense of urgency, and scarcity, I’d say things like, “We might not be able to give you this class in summer school so you’d better pass now.”

Yet now, I’m reminded again of why summer school is special. For kids, they’re with their friends instead of being bored at home. Each classroom, blessedly, has a cold, blasting air conditioner.

For staff, summer school is a unique time with a small group of students.

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Melting grudges

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Student watercolor from the High School of Language and Innovation.

As a principal, I hear complaints from teachers and students about each other.  “Ahmed refuses to participate.”  “Ms. X didn’t help me even though I was raising my hand.”  I typically try to “solve” or mollify the complaints quickly so everyone can move on.

This week, coming fresh from a seminar on listening, I heard complaints differently.  Behind the complaints, I found hurt feelings and disappointment.

I came in for an early meeting with two teachers who are respected and even loved by their students.  We were deciding which kids needed extra academic support.

As we went down the list, the conversation seemed normal: “Jennifer could use more support outside of class.  Mohammed is doing fine in the class, he won’t need extra help.”

Then the tone changed, hitting upon two names: “Samantha doesn’t care.  She doesn’t do any work and when I talked to her about it, she said ‘whatever.’  Neither does Abdul.  He does nothing in class.”   Continue reading

Meeting Michael

Subway pictureI live in the Bronx only a 15 minute walk from my school.  One advantage of living close to school is that I have a beautiful, easy commute, and another advantage is that I sometimes see my students outside of school.

I saw one of my students the other day at the supermarket standing in one of the checkout lines.  Usually, I’m happy to see a student, but I wondered if this student, Michael,* would be happy to see me.  The last time I saw him, he had gotten extremely angry and physically shoved furniture in our school offices.  This wasn’t his first nor his last outburst.  Michael’s family had decided to send him to live with relatives in another school district to give him a restart.  We all knew Michael was a brilliant young man with lots of potential, but it seemed hard for him to control his anger.  Continue reading

My partners in the “demo”

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At the High School of Language and Innovation, part of our teacher hiring process is having the candidate deliver a 15-minute demonstration lesson (a “demo”) in front of one of our classes. A candidate can nail an interview but the demo is often the most telling part of the process because we see what the person would be like in front of real students.

I wrote in an earlier blog about the comparatively low number of Latino boys in my school who are graduating on time. When I expressed this concern to my leadership consultants Ariel and Shya Kane, they suggested that in every demo lesson, we include a significant number of Latino boys and take special note of how the teacher engages those boys. This suggestion has been invaluable– rather than looking narrowly for a certain “type” of candidate, we’ve shifted to simply seeing who our students become in front of that candidate.

Since summer school classes are smaller, we have sometimes needed to add boys from other classes.

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Slowing down in summer

20180601_073647.jpgAs a teacher, I used to look forward to summer vacation. As a principal, summer is precious work time. While I have a few weeks of vacation that I take here and there, I work for most of the summer. There’s a lot to do: supervising summer school, planning for the following year, hiring teachers.

There’s also a magic to summer school. While long-term planning for the year is intense, things also slow down. I have a tiny staff of 5 teachers and 3 support staff, and I get to work closely with them in a way that would be impossible during the school year with a much larger staff of 40 people.

The best part about summer school: some of the boys who struggled the most during the school year have transformed into fantastic students. Continue reading

I like you just the way you are

20170222_120237.jpgA friend was recently telling me about his experience when he was a child in the 5th grade.  “I used to get in trouble before the 5th grade.  But my 5th grade teacher, she liked me.  It was like, she never expected me to do anything bad.  So I didn’t.”

I recently saw the excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers and his children’s television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  One of the extraordinary things about Mr. Rogers was his obvious, unconditional love of children.  Like millions of others, I watched his program as a young child and I remember him saying, “I like you just the way you are.”

I realized what an unusual idea it is to be “liked” just the way one is.   Continue reading

Solving 90% of discipline problems at the door

Julie Nariman - Discipline problems at NYC schoolsI once visited a principal who greeted his students as they walked in the front door of his school.  He told me, “I solve 90% of my school’s discipline problems by standing here, greeting each student.  I notice who’s smiling and who seems to be upset, and I stop them, talk to them, see if I can intervene and catch the problem before they walk into their classes.”

I never forgot this statement.

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