Reforming the Start of the School Year

It’s the start of a new school year! Teacher energy is high. Administrators are keenly focused on supporting their teachers to get off on a great start.

Unless you’re the English teacher in this situation.

I’ll call her Randi. Randi is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher with fifteen-plus teaching years under her belt. She moved to a new school four years ago and, once again, earned tenure. Randi is a team player in a school culture that is more every wo/man for him/herself. The school vibrates with stress. It’s in a poor part of the state. Kids’ families are often more like minefields than havens.

Randi works within a  professional code she’s developed over the years: maintain polite, collegial relationships, be kind, support colleagues to learn and grow professionally, work hard for her kids. On the request of the principal, Randi has run professional development seminars for colleagues– without compensation, although as a consultant, she could earn $300 or more for such sessions. She has made a practice of attending extra-curricular events. She has even volunteered– regularly– to chaperone dances and other evening activities.  Most important, her kids, usually the underachievers in the school,  have not only passed tests, they have gotten very good scores. Randi makes her principal look good.

Then why has Randi carted home two dozen boxes of her own books– books that used to be the classroom library her students could borrow from regularly– and stored them in her basement? Why has she packed up all the materials she typically uses, to build a learning community and teach kids to collaborate on high-level projects, and stashed them with the books?

Last year, after teaching in the same classroom for three years, Randi was asked to make space for another teacher, a long-term sub. This teacher was absent more than 30 days; when she did come in, she was chronically late; when she was chastised for not teaching the curriculum and verged on being denied tenure, she threatened a law suit.

She has Randi’s room this year. Randi has been assigned to travel between two rooms, her old room, and the room of an uber-traditionalist who marks the floor with masking tape to indicate exactly where students desks should remain and leaves notes in large letters on the board, complaining about the condition her room is left in.

Randi spoke to her department head, her assistant principal, her principal. Relatively new as a principal, he came to administration from corporate sales, by way of an alternative certification program. Randi has considered him a decent principal.

“Everybody has a good reason for needing their own room,” the principal said. “Why can’t you just put everything on a cart and move it with you?” he asked.  Randi stared at him. (Remember– two dozen boxes of books, plus more. Plus, no way to ensure that the books wouldn’t be stolen.)

“I won’t be able to teach the way I usually do,” she said, quietly.

The principal shrugged.

That afternoon, Randi left school feeling as if she’d been kicked in the gut. Her ability to motivate kids, to help them grow, didn’t matter.

Any classes or activities she designed to move kids in the direction of being more motivated to learn or to grow not only wouldn’t matter, but probably wouldn’t be actively supported, either.

She realized that in all likelihood, her work hadn’t been supported in the past years either — she simply hadn’t been in circumstances where support would be tested.

Her teaching schedule showed what mattered: five classes of students who must pass the state-mandated proficiency exam. Never mind that her past students achieved their test scores after a year of her activities, her teaching approaches.

Randi is a master teacher. She has learned how to circumnavigate the obsession with test scores while enticing kids to read, write, and even like learning. But in this school, where professionalism and genuine caring for kids is rewarded with a shrug, something snapped.

This year, Randi will do exactly what every other teacher in her school does. Kids in rows? Check. Reading and assignments straight out of the textbook? Check. Formulaic lesson plans that change little from week to week? Check.

On the second day of her 16th year of teaching, Randi gave up.

Let’s hear it for school reform.

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