All figured out

Jeffrey Zeldman NYCWhen 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

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1”

wp-1578258105548.jpg

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

We don’t call parents to complain

20191011_064634.jpg

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.

Continue reading

Choosing summer school

summer flower 1

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.

Continue reading

Being the adult

street art photo

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

No school, no dance?

glow sticks dance.jpgA 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

No, you’re sitting here.

20181019_063223-1.jpg

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.”

Continue reading