Melting grudges

20190118_061350.jpg

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

The Smell of Oranges

orange peelAs the principal of a high school that serves newcomer English Language Learners, I track many pieces of students data: progress with English, attendance, participation in clubs and sports, grades, test scores, etc.

Yet sometimes, a seemingly insignificant moment teaches me more about my school than any piece of official data.

Last week, I was walking past the cafeteria while my students were eating lunch.  I heard the normal sounds of lunchtime: over 300 students talking loudly, the occasional shriek of laughter or flirtation.

And, the smell of oranges.  Continue reading

The upset of praise

TrophyLast 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

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

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

Sitting alone in the cafeteria

20180406_181850.jpgNothing makes me sadder than a kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.  Sometimes, a student is sitting alone by choice—he or she simply prefers to be alone, perhaps reading a book, or taking a break from interaction.

Other times, a student sits alone because he or she is new, and is the only person who speaks his or her own language.  The High School of Language and Innovation is a school for newcomer English Language Learners.  Most new students that have a large same-language, same-culture group—Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Albanian, French—will be quickly adopted into the group.  If a student speaks a language like Vietnamese or Chinese, which are both small populations in our school, they might be alone if their 1-2 compatriots are absent.   Continue reading

Contained Curiosity

20161114_095515.jpg

After-school drumming class.

A month ago, our school transformed at lunchtime.  Our noisy, boisterous cafeteria became almost quiet.  Half of the tables were empty.

It was the beginning of Ramadan and a large number of our students were fasting.  Some fasting students still chose to go to the cafeteria.  Many more stayed in classrooms supervised by teachers, away from the smell of food, playing chess, using computers, doing homework, or just sitting and chatting with one another.

About 40% of our students are Muslim.  Continue reading