First Person

At My “Persistently Low-Achieving” School

I work at one of the 33 schools Mayor Bloomberg has publicly stated that he wants to “turn around” — or close. As part of this plan, he is also seeking to replace up to 50 percent of the teachers at each of the schools, including mine.

I have worked in the same school for the past nine years. I can dismiss the sensationalistic claim from Bloomberg that 50 percent of teachers are ineffective, because it is simply not true. Likewise, when I hear defenders of educators claim that all teachers do great work, I know this is not correct either. The answer lies somewhere in between — in the case of my school, much closer to the defenders of teachers.

I want to describe the thankless service being done everyday by my colleagues and mentors. It is my hope that readers might share these personal profiles with friends, family, colleagues, and politicians to spread the word about the great work being done by educators in the schools the mayor has targeted.

At my school — labeled “persistently low-achieving” and slated for possible closure — there are several teachers with doctoral degrees. They could have pursued careers at selective high schools or even at colleges but chose to work at our school. Most have dedicated 10+ years to the school and are respected as the academic authorities in our building by both students and staff. They are able to translate their advanced content knowledge and make it relevant and exciting for our students.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there are many teachers who give up their lunches, preparation periods, weekends and vacations to work with students — for free! While this is not always a popular position with hard-line union supporters, these professionals put their students ahead of their own personal interests. Just last week, I saw teachers:

  • work an entire period with a senior on a college entrance essay, leaving the teacher with no lunch break between teaching four classes;
  • use their professional period to meet individually with seniors who are behind in credits, but hope to graduate this June;
  • come to work 45 minutes early to host a celebration recognizing students with outstanding attendance;
  • stay late on a Friday afternoon to tutor a student who needed a little extra help this marking period;
  • discuss how to differentiate instruction to reach all students in their classes during lunch; and
  • seek out other teachers for advice on effective material to use with their students.

And to think, this is just what one person witnessed in a single week — the same week that all of the teachers found out they might be losing their jobs.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — a teacher coordinates a leadership class, which has created a culture of service among an impressive portion of the student body. Students:

  • donate blood through on site blood drives, several times a year;
  • collect food, money, toys and clothing for those in need;
  • fundraise for cancer research;
  • translate for non-English speaking parents at parent/teacher conferences; and
  • host after school sessions advocating tolerance and respect.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — there is a teacher who has successfully implemented a peer mediation program.  Student volunteers work to help their peers resolve conflicts through discussion rather than fighting.

At my school — labeled persistently low-achieving and slated for possible closure — I have had students who went on to attend Columbia University and Rollis College on full scholarships and law school at Temple and Georgetown universities. Some of my former students have gone into pre-med programs, and others are finishing up with teacher training programs.

And last week I received great news during this otherwise difficult time: a student in my jazz band with whom I have worked for the past three years was accepted on full scholarship to play Division I football at West Point.  Another was accepted to two colleges —one on scholarship — but is waiting to hear back from her top choice.

Does this sound like a failing school?

In fact, the student attending West Point is the second student we have had in the past three years to go on to play football for a Division I school. An impressive feat for any program — and especially for ours, where the coach built a program from scratch only recently, several years after I came to the school. The coach has also helped hundreds of our athletes to improve academically; he established after-school study halls to make sure all keep up with their work.

When I found out about about my students’ achievements, I immediately found myself texting family and friends to share the great news. I also took a stroll down the halls to tell anyone who would listen. Out of nowhere, I found myself welling up with a mix of emotions.

One of my colleagues saw that I had tears in my eyes. She congratulated me on my students’ successes and gave me a hug. When she stepped back, I saw that she had begun to tear up as well.

“It’s just too bad, isn’t it?” she started. “We have such a great school with so many great students. It is sad that this may be the end of an era — the end of something that has been great for so long.”

“I think we just had an Oprah moment,” I told her.

For that moment we were able to share a much-needed laugh, at a time where there is little to laugh about.

Michael Albertson is in his ninth year teaching instrumental music at a large public high school in Queens. A version of this piece originally appeared on his blog, Urban Education: Music and Beyond.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.