First Person

A Snow Day Revelation: Teachers Need More Time

Yesterday’s snow day brought me a revelation about teaching: teachers need more time to engage in the kind of intellectual activities that we hope to engage our students in.  

We teachers need more time to read, write, investigate, research the big questions about our lives, discover new books and new perspectives on those questions, and work on new theories about how we live and work in the world. To be better teachers for our students, we need more time to be learners and seekers of knowledge ourselves!  

There are two categories for the kinds of learning a teacher should engage in. First, teachers need time to learn and explore in order to grow in our practice — to increase our pedagogical knowledge. We teachers need more time for this kind of learning because the necessary pedagogical knowledge for urban teachers is so vast; it is so much more than experimenting with new practices regarding instruction and classroom management. Our pedagogical knowledge also involves being up to date on research on how teachers can best obviate the hindrances to learning created when students are dealing with the foster care system, housing issues, inadequate access to quality healthcare, drugs, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, and the myriad of other outside factors that make learning difficult or impossible for them. Some teachers will see upwards of 150 of the city’s neediest children per day. There is literally no limit to what one can learn to become a better teacher for such children.

Second, teachers should be engaged in meaningful learning related to our content areas — not only to increase our content area knowledge, but also for the sake of being engaged in the kind of learning we want our students to be engaged in. When teachers are excited about our own content area learning, our students are more likely to catch on and become excited about what is going on in our classrooms. Our classrooms come to life when we are energized by the inquiry and discovery process; learning becomes contagious.  

I was reminded of the importance of content area learning — and the need for teachers to have more time for it — through having extra time on my hands due to this week’s snow day. I decided to spend my snow day time completing an assignment I gave to my students in an AP English class I teach at a high school in East New York, Brooklyn. 

Students in my AP English class are currently reading “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf; and I am asking them to write “dialectical reading journals” as they read. In a dialectical reading journal, the student uses Woolf’s novel to develop a big question that genuinely troubles and intrigues her; she analyzes that question within the multiple contexts that are opened up by the primary text, secondary texts introduced through research, and class discussions; and over time she attempts to construct a theory in response to her question. The journal, in this sense, is a space for the kind of serious grappling with ideas that can lead to an interesting research paper and sometimes even to a transformation in the student’s thinking about language, literature, and life.

I decided the best way to spend my snow day was to begin my own dialectical reading journal on Woolf’s novel. I started out by writing about and questioning a psychological theme that a student identified during a class discussion. I explored my primary questions about that theme in multiple contexts and was inspired to do some research on the Internet to see how scholars in the field have addressed the same ideas. As I continued to research and write, I began to realize that my inquiry process may lead me to some profound discoveries about Woolf’s text: Thinking and struggling through my writing about the central motifs in the novel may have the power to transform the way I think about gender roles, gender-based experience, and how these function within the individual psyche.  

I printed out my first journal entries along with two of the texts I researched on the web and plan to bring them to school tomorrow. I am very excited to share my inquiry process and discoveries with my students during our next class session.  

Reflecting on all of this now has me wondering, Isn’t this why I became a teacher in the first place, to share the joys of learning with young people? This is, in fact, one of the reasons I became a teacher. But working in a New York City high school, it is often difficult to find time to engage my own content area learning in meaningful ways. While teachers have a free “prep period” every day, that time is usually spent preparing lessons, tutoring, or, if we are lucky, finding a quiet space with which to regain the peace of mind that is prerequisite to being patient and understanding for our students. There is also substantial time allotted to professional development activities. Unfortunately, though, teachers spend most of this time being inundated with urgent and complicated policy mandates that are designed to create the appearance of quality education and make politicians look good — policies and practices that do more to obstruct teachers’ genuine efforts to reach our students than to bolster them.  

We teachers, therefore, need more time. As any teacher will tell you, we do have lives outside of school. We have families, friends, and hobbies of our own; and unless we compromise the time we normally devote to these things, we will always encounter difficulty in pursuing inquiry and discovery of our own. It is true, as some social theorists tell us, that teachers are being molded into deskilled clerks rather than transformative intellectuals.  

The amount of time and resources that teachers are given to assist them in their job of educating young people is a reflection of how much our society cares about the education of particular groups of young people. In the case of minority and poor children, a more potent compassion needs to become a component of our society’s moral conscience if we are to see an increase in resources that go into their education. Until that happens, we teachers in NYC are likely to encounter more obstacles than support as we work to develop our practice of sharing the love of learning with our students.

First Person

I dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.