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.”
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
A class of 2019 graduate’s cap.
The High School of Language and Innovation was founded in 2011, and this year was our school’s fifth graduating class, the Class of 2019.
Each graduating class has been unique in its personality. They have different quirks and different gifts. As I planned my graduation speech, I thought, “What make this class special?”
Many answers came up, but one word kept rising above all others, a word I didn’t expect.
When I actually stood up to give my speech, I asked the graduates themselves: “What makes you unique as a class?” Continue reading
Student artwork at the High School of Language and Innovation.
The path to graduation is different for every student, and so is our approach.
For some kids, we race to keep up with them: they excel in every course, so we look for new opportunities and train teachers to lead advanced courses.
For other kids, it’s a matter of holding their hand: we offer extra tutoring and pair them up with classmates who can support them. We encourage them. Sometimes, these students need a lot of support in 9th and 10th grade, and then turn into great students by 12th grade.
Finally, there are a few kids we drag towards graduation. Often, these are students who are academically ready to enter college, but find ways of failing courses at the last minute. It might be the fear of change and leaving high school forever, or maybe just needing some attention. For example, a student who has passed all required exams and courses might do everything they can to fail their last semester of gym.
A couple of weeks ago, Sami arrived at our school dance. Sami is a dynamic 12th grader who is passionate about basketball and Star Wars. He is a charmer and a social butterfly. He looked excited at the entrance to the dance, surrounded by his friends, ready to pay his $5 entrance fee.
The only problem was, he had skipped school that day. In fact, he had skipped many days of school this year: over 30 days.
One of the biggest predictors of student success is attendance. My school is comprised of 380 students, most of whom are newcomer English Langauge Learners. Missing even one day of school can throw learning off-course. Continue reading
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?
Last year in the 9th grade, Robert* had a rough start. He would argue with directions, wander hallways, and frequently cut classes. We were alarmed to see these habits so early in his high school career and did our best to address his behavior.
However, we didn’t see a major change until July: over the summer, Robert calmed down and got focused. He attended summer school and had a math class with a teacher he admired. In August, he passed the state math exam. He started his 10th-grade year well, arriving on time, participating enthusiastically in classes, and performing well.
Then, the cutting habits started to creep in again. We noticed he’d skip his last class of the day, history. This year, we started a much stronger approach to addressing cutting. We developed a system to stop students in the morning who had cut class the day before. We met with them and helped them re-think how and why they should stay in school all day. Continue reading
A school is a place where people interact. It’s easy to rush ahead and think these interactions don’t matter. After reading about the staff and students in Parkland, Florida, I was reminded of how much of an impact people can make in each other’s lives. I experienced this impact as I supervised a school dance yesterday.
The student government had planned the dance with a “Glow in the Dark” theme and bought hundreds of plastic glow sticks that students could wear like necklaces or bracelets. However, nothing was glowing, and not many kids were dancing. It was still daylight and sunlight was streaming through the large gym windows. My assistant principal gave a pep talk to the demoralized student government so they could get past their disappointment. It worked. Continue reading
“That’s my butterfly!”
Marcus pointed to a butterfly drawing, part of an elaborate book project displayed in the 9th grade hallway.
Marcus is a 9th grader with a semi-permanent frown who had recently been suspended for fighting. He’s originally from Honduras, has lived in New York for two years, and is self-conscious about his English– too self-conscious to notice that his English is far better than most of his classmates.* He gives the impression, “I’m a loner– don’t mess with me.” Continue reading
Usman is an adorable 10th grader originally from Pakistan, smaller than the other kids. He has huge eyes, straight bangs, and a lopsided smile, and whenever he sees me, he waves and says, “Hi Principal!” He also has an older brother, Saad, in 11th grade who now barely attends school, and is inches away from becoming a Code 39.
A “Code 39” is the code schools use for a dropout. Back in the first two years of our school’s existence, I remember when Code 39 wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. Now, we have more Code 39s than we’d like. We’ve started to watch for early signs of Code 39s, as in the case of Usman at our after-school Thanksgiving Potluck. Continue reading