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.
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
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.”
Students making origami at lunchtime.
This year, my assistant principals and I committed to being the “first responders” for student behavior issues. In the past, as the principal, I personally did not respond to most behavior issues. Teachers would call an office extension and another staff member or one of my assistant principals would respond to the issue.
This year, we created a system where the teacher directly texts the three administrators (my assistant principals and me) on “What’s App.” One of us then goes immediately to the classroom to support the teacher.
In being the “first responders,” we have our pulse on what’s happening in the school. 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.
Mr. Omolaja is a presence.*
The other day, I was in the cafeteria with Mr. Omolaja, and our radar went to Manuel, a student with his pants halfway down his thighs. He was slouching.
Mr. Omolaja gestured for Manuel to come over. Manuel ambled over cowboy-style, the only option for walking given the level of his pants.
Mr. Omolaja gestured to his own belt, which was at his waist.
“Manuel, pull your pants up,” he said. “Be like Omolaja.” Continue reading
Miguel,* a 12th grader, has the peacock of backpacks, a thing of color that is wildly beautiful and proud.
Miguel himself is like a peacock, colorful, dynamic, a born leader. He arrived in 2012 from Dominican Republic halfway through 9th grade and at that time, used his leadership to lead himself and group of other boys into trouble.
Between 9th and 10th grade, though, he suddenly matured. He started to study, passing the state Algebra exam in 10th grade.**
However, in the 11th grade, he stopped attending school, and started working full-time in a restaurant. We tried hard to get him to return, with little success.
This year, he suddenly came back with a sense of urgency. Continue reading
Eric is running to his third period class, weaving between throngs of students.
He sees me. He halts. He stands squarely in front of me.
He bows deeply.
“Anyong haseyo sunsengnim,” he says with perfect Korean pronunciation. Good day, honorable teacher.
“Anyong haseyo, hakseng,” I reply. Good day, honorable student.*
He grins and walks to class. Continue reading
“There’s a yellow M&M in stairwell six, on the second floor,” I said to a staff member. “Could you find a student to clean it up?”
He smiled at me, but nodded. I could tell he was thinking, “An M&M? Only an M&M?” We’ve had much worse in our stairwells: milk cartons, used napkins, and my personal un-favorite: ketchup smeared on the banisters.
“Only” an M & M is progress: it means my staff is enlisting students to clean the stairwells throughout the day, which is exactly what I want them to do. Continue reading
Yesterday, when I visited Mr. D’s English class, I didn’t notice Jose.* This is notable.
I always notice Jose. Jose is a student who normally disrupts classes, or wanders the hallways to avoid class. We have spent countless hours trying to support Jose in behaving and learning.
Yet in Mr. D’s English class, I didn’t notice Jose. Why? Because Jose was sitting at a table, quietly annotating a text. He worked throughout the period, causing no disruption. Continue reading