When I was a first-year teacher, I thought my second year of teaching would be unimaginably easy. By year two, I reckoned, I’d have it all figured out: a year’s worth of lesson plans and perfect systems for grading and classroom management. As a result, I’d have all kinds of free time on the weekend.
Of course, that wasn’t the case. Sure, a few things were easier, but every year brings new kids, new ideas to try out, and new “asks” of educators. And then there’s simply the pursuit of excellence: as a teacher, Sundays were about reading over student work and planning. I learned to be more efficient, but I spent the same amount of time planning because I was always learning how to teach better.
The same goes for being the founding principal of a school. Continue reading
Watercolors by 9th graders line our hallway
In most high schools, something very dramatic happens every 45 to 60 minutes: students transition from one class to another. A school that seems peaceful and quiet while everyone is in class, suddenly erupts as hundreds of teenagers are in the hallway.
When my school first opened in 2011 with 90 students and 4 classrooms, those transitions were easy. However, as we grew to almost 400 kids in 16 classrooms, 2 floors, and multiple hallways, transitions became harder to manage. Students would engage in longer and longer conversations with their friends, or kiss each other on both cheeks and squeal as if they hadn’t seen each other for years. Some kids would just stand, and not move. (That drove me crazy.) Continue reading
Student playing a board game at lunchtime.
Every year, there seems to be a class that gets a bad rap-“that class,” which teachers say is tough to teach. Recently a few teachers met with me about this year’s “tough class.”
The teacher’s solution: they wanted to invite the students’ parents into the classrooms to witness how the students were behaving.
I was surprised: why would the teachers want the parents to see the kids behaving badly? In fact, wouldn’t the kids just be good on that day? “Well,” said one teacher, “if the kids are good, then we can say, ‘See, you were good when your parents came in so why can’t you be this good everyday?’”
I remembered my first years of teaching middle school. When I struggled with a student, I would call parents about the problem. In hindsight, I see that I was asking—and actually wishing for– the parents to solve the problem. But in fact, the problem was mine.
My answer to the teachers’ request was no.
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
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
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 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