The other day, I found two boys hanging out in a small alcove in front of our school health clinic. I can always relate when I see kids hanging out and not wanting to be bothered– as a teenager, this was all I wanted. But now is now, and I have a job to do. “Hi gentlemen, nice to see you both. I’ll need you to go back to your classes now.”
“We have passes,” they said politely. Each handed me an official pass to the health clinic, waiting for me to profusely apologize to them and allow them to keep hanging out.
“Great, thanks,” I said. “The health clinic doesn’t open for 10 minutes. You can come wait in my office while I work so you’re not in the hallway.”
There was an awkward silence. “Oh, OK. Thanks.” I had taken away their privacy.
In the last unit of 12th grade English, our students write “100-word stories,” modeled after the New York Times column “Modern Love Stories.” At the end of the unit, each student submits their best story to the New York Times.
To be honest, I never took the assignment that seriously. I never thought I’d be the one to get published.
It all started with my class’s science fair. We were outside in the field for one of the science experiments. My friend and I were hungry and we wanted to eat burek, an Albanian food you can get at the pizzeria. We asked our teacher and of course she said no. I knew we shouldn’t leave in the middle of the science fair, and I had never cut class, but it seemed like such an adventurous thing to do. We were outside, there were lots of kids, no one would notice, and it was the end of our senior year.
So we still snuck out and ate burek. I felt a little guilty, but we didn’t get caught and I ended up winning the science fair.
A few days later in English class, I thought, why not write about that experience? I finished the story in 5 minutes.
As a principal, I usually operate with generosity. That doesn’t mean my mind isn’t stingy.
A student can enter the school system at any point in the year, September to June. As a Bronx public high school for newcomer immigrants, we take kids in at any time, no matter when they arrive. About half of our students come from an NYC middle school, and the other half arrive throughout the year, days after their planes landed at JFK. We’ll welcome a student whenever they arrive.
On June 1st, I got an email from the Bronx office of enrollment: a student, Makeda,* had just arrived from Panama and was being placed in the 10th grade. I forwarded the email to my school’s New Admit team and wrote, “We have a new student.”
As 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.
Returning from break, I was reminded of another layer of complexity: the parents’ pressure to punish.
The day we returned from break, I assumed that the student who wrote the email would feel remorseful. We would start off with discussing why the email was a problem, the student would apologize, and all would be well.
Nope: the student returned to school angry, sure that he was “right” to express his feelings in the email.
Three years ago, we started a tradition of having “cultural assemblies” in which students from each culture would lead a school-wide assembly sharing the history, music, dance, dress, and customs of their culture.
This year, we started with the Albanian assembly. Our Albanian population is relatively small, and deeply proud of their culture. My staff had always told me that the Albanian assembly was beautiful but at times, the most challenging to organize: the students are brilliant and dynamic. However, the students also have strong opinions and disagreements about their history and traditions. Continue reading →
Student artwork, High School of Language and Innovation.
As our 12th-grade students are applying for colleges, our staff writes recommendations for them. The students email the recommender a “brag sheet” of their accomplishments, goals, and life experiences. I have had the privilege of writing several recommendations this year, and love how much I learn about our students through the process.
One young man, who I see as a leader, described his only accomplishment as “good at sports.” He was totally unaware of his own greatness. I made sure to describe his leadership, such as the times I’ve seen him guiding 9th graders to do the right thing.
One young lady wrote an assertive brag sheet in organized bullet points. Reading it, I remembered how she had volunteered one summer to organize all of our classroom libraries and then ensured that I wrote a letter documenting her community service. This year, she started a dance club, which has become our most well-attended club. I felt appreciation for her ambition and how she has made the school a better place.
This year, my school is focusing on raising the achievement of boys. I’ve learned that supporting boys goes beyond good teaching: we need to show boys more options for how to “be a man.”
Most boys have an idea of what it is to be a man. It’s often a child’s idea of being “hard” or “tough,” “independent.” A principal colleague of mine said he and his staff consciously teach their 9th graders to lose the “tough guy” attitude and just be kids; be students.
This week, I found myself in a conference with a student, Hassan,* and one of my teachers, Matt. Hassan had hit another student who had been calling him a “little boy” and making teasing gestures towards him.
In the past, we might have said, “The next time someone teases you, tell a teacher or administrator.” However, we saw that an 18-year-old boy who sees himself as a man may not want to run to a teacher to solve his problems.
As 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 →