First Person

School is for Humans: A Teacher’s Response To The Current Climate

I teach eighth grade humanities in a New York City public school. This week, we began preparation for the state English language arts exam — the very beast responsible for the now famous, much debated teacher data reports recently published by several city news organizations. Sitting in my classroom, I find I am also seated in the midst of a political and ideological firestorm. As various voices in the news duke this out, we teachers quietly choose for ourselves how to respond on the ground.

In my class this year, we have a motto: “You are not a number. You’re a human being.”

It’s meant to be silly and serious at the same time. Around here, we encourage 13-year-olds to embrace their silliness. So, on Monday, we took a moment to acknowledge and release a bit of the pressure created by the impending state exam. On the agenda, I wrote “Celebration of ELA-related Creativity.” I gave my students the instruction to create something that would help us kick off the test preparation unit. The only guidelines: It must be creative; it can be funny if you like, and overall, it must be positive.

Among other things, my students composed a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style singalong song, performed a re-written Shakespeare scene, showered the audience with paper airplanes containing a mathematical formula that determines the odds of getting a good score by guessing on every question, and choreographed an interpretive dance. I can tell you, for last-second projects with no grade attached and 30 minutes to create, they were awesome. This never fails: I am always humbled and amazed by the outpouring of creative energy that occurs when kids are given the space to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.

Going forward, of course, I shall dutifully instruct them on reading skills, comparative essay writing, and test-taking strategies. Is it possible to make this instruction interesting and engaging? Sure, to a certain extent. But for those moments when the boredom borders on painful, we now have a poster to point to and sing (to the tune of B-i-n-g-o), “There once was a cow who went to school and studied for the ELA…”

The score I received on my own teacher data report is based on the two years I spent teaching seventh-grade English in the South Bronx. I’m not too concerned with the results: The magical math placed my teaching abilities in the “above average” range. Lucky for me. Also quite fortunate is my current position in a school where I am respected as an educator and an individual and allowed to be thoughtful and creative with my teaching. And, certainly, there are other advantages. I tell people, “Getting this job was like winning the teacher lottery.” Due to the school’s popularity, we evaluate and hand-select each student who comes here. The parents are supportive, their kids motivated and cooperative. We have all the materials and technology we need. I readily admit that these factors make some of what I describe much easier to achieve. But I’ll ask my readers, just for the moment, to please suspend your conclusions until I have reached mine.

Teaching such academically inclined, successful students presents a different set of challenges from those encountered in many public schools. Our kids, quite frankly, are far too stressed out for their age.  The system of high school acceptance in New York City creates a focus on grades and test scores that approaches fanatical among students vying for spaces at the “top” schools.  It begins in elementary school: Fourth-graders are made aware that their state test score will be a determining factor in their middle school acceptance. If they want to come to a school like mine, they had better receive a “top” score and “top” grades.

Imagine your sweet, intelligent, talented 9-year-old child going through the following thought process: I mean, if I don’t get into the right middle school, then I won’t get into my first-choice high school, which besides proving that I’m not as smart as I’m supposed to be, will prevent me from going to the college I’ve had picked out since kindergarten because my genius older sister goes there and then my parents won’t love me as much as her and I’ll end up working at McDonald’s and my life will be ruined forever. Obvi.

An over-dramatization for effect?  Perhaps. But believe me, it isn’t so far from the truth. I watch my eighth-graders spin those wheels for months out of the year. Soon they’ll have similar thoughts about college, and on and on it goes. Some people will tell me, well, that’s just life: Be realistic — if you want to be the best, if you want to be successful, you have to be competitive. This, Ms. Lacey, is “the way the world works.”

I am so over that argument. The world is hardly static. Things change so rapidly that our slow adult brains need kids to explain the continual shifting of popular Internet memes. Yet, people still seem to think we should be educating for the way the world once was, or is right now, and so we unwittingly limit our children as we have limited ourselves. A poignant symbol of this phenomenon is the education community’s obsession with quantifying people’s value. We have been reducing students to data points for years, but now that the same has been done very publicly to teachers, people seem ready to have a real conversation about it. I have no problem with using valid data to measure performance and help us improve, if we can find a way to do it wisely; Bill Gates already made that argument for us. The consciousness of our culture is clearly tuned into this issue at this moment, so my hope is that we will use the momentum to move in a positive direction.  A possible first step in that direction?  Let’s adopt my classroom motto and begin our conversations from there.  “You are not a number.  You’re a human being.”

Teachers are human beings; usually, the types who feel compelled to do something beneficial for the rest of humanity. You can’t reduce to data the complex human exchange that occurs between teachers and students. Where do you account for the value of teaching empathy and service to community? Of celebrating a child for her own quirky personality, talents, and uniqueness? How about the building of self-awareness and esteem? Sparking an interest in something that will bring a student joy for the rest of his life? You know as well as I that this list could go on forever.

Teachers are in a position to plant seeds for a positively evolving future. We chose this job because we understand the need to educate our fellow humans in a way that nurtures their potential, compassion, and vibrant inner lives. In my school, I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to act on this understanding. Students need to be respected, supported, and appreciated in order to grow and flourish; their teachers need the same. I choose to envision a future in which we all receive those things in abundance.

Trina Lacey is an eighth-grade humanities teacher at East Side Middle School as well as a writer.

guest perspective

I’m an education reformer, and Betsy DeVos is going to kill our coalition. Here’s a game plan.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / jeweledlion

At her Senate confirmation hearing this week, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos failed to answer basic questions about civil rights, measuring student growth, and children with disabilities.

Her answers also validated what left-leaning education reformers have suspected for months: DeVos embraces school choice as an education panacea, while grasping little else about federal education policy. That philosophy will likely lead her to prioritize some of the least promising, and most divisive, components of the education reform agenda.

When that happens, she and Donald Trump will kill the bipartisan education reform coalition.

Having participated in that coalition for 15 years, as a nonprofit president and member of President Obama’s 2008 education policy committee, I will be disappointed, though not surprised, to see it dissolve.

The coalition was surprisingly durable. By the early 1990s it was attracting centrists frustrated with their political parties and enthusiastic about results. At the time, the right blamed weak school performance on things like “family values” and resisted sweeping changes on the basis of respecting local control. The left blamed poverty and was similarly resistant to change, based on an allergy to holding schools accountable for their results. For most of the years since I entered the workforce, the reform coalition was an ideal home for a technocratic public school graduate who realized that the system had worked for him, but not for kids with less privilege.

DeVos, however, is no technocrat. The glue of the reform coalition has been an orientation toward results and accountability. DeVos has shown that her real commitment is to an ideological position, dominated by a faith in markets and the economic theories of conservative economists like Milton Friedman.

The nomination of DeVos signals that our country’s Republican leadership will abandon the technocratic agenda in favor of an ideological one. DeVos’s own history indicates that her department of education will prioritize federal funding for private religious schools, a laissez-faire approach to school accountability, and a hands-off approach to the enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Those priorities would shrink the federal government’s role in safeguarding equity and increase the flow of federal dollars to unaccountable private entities. I don’t think low-income families should take that deal, and frankly, neither should tax-averse conservatives.

In the meantime, DeVos’s nomination should be a wake-up call to the left-leaners of the reform coalition. We’re about to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, where pushing away from DeVos’s education policy agenda could mean getting subsumed by the traditionalist agenda of our own party. That agenda still hews to the positions of management interests and labor leaders, and not closely enough to the needs of vulnerable families.

To avoid that trap, left-leaning reformers like me need to build a legitimate reform agenda of our own — one that can both improve students’ lives and garner motivated, popular support in the coming years. I think that agenda must consider four things:

First, we must put the perspectives of the families and children of our most vulnerable communities at the center of our work. If we can’t explain to a mother why a policy will make her child’s life better, it’s not a good enough policy. To the extent that families view other issues as critical – like healthcare, poverty, civil rights, and jobs – we should be allies in those fights.

Second, we need to hold the line on accountability, academic standards, and making teaching one of the most valued professions in the country. Year after year, research finds that these three factors are the foundational elements of successful education systems. While standards and accountability have been central to reform since the 1990s, both are now under assault. The third leg of this stool also is a political nightmare, since reformers and traditionalists disagree about how to elevate teaching. That doesn’t mean we can give up.

All of that means that the third thing progressives need to do is spend more time talking to teachers. Teachers, and their unions, have been some of the most outspoken critics of reform. Some of that pushback has been political. Much of it, though, is a genuine response to feeling like the teaching profession has become unmoored from joy and creativity. Great teaching cannot flourish while our country’s teachers are miserable. That’s bad for children, and we need to help fix it.

Finally, reformers on the left must continue to support ideas that get results, even when other progressives push back. For example, huge segments of the left despise charter schools, but there are amazing charter schools that get stunning results under adverse circumstances. Those results are worth defending.

Whatever happens to the reform coalition, the Trump-DeVos regime will cause a significant realignment in education politics. If the coalition does survive, it’s likely to limp along in a diminished form.

The realignment will offer challenges and opportunities to everyone with a stake in improving public schools for all children. If reformers on the left want to be key voices in these debates, we’ll have to focus less on accommodating DeVos’s views and more on building power for our own coalition. Students will need it.

Justin C. Cohen is a writer who focuses on the intersection of education and social justice. Before that, he was president of Mass Insight Education and a senior adviser to the chancellor of the DC Public Schools.

First Person

What a refugee student from Iraq taught me about reaching newcomers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Some days, Fahad looked like defeat, his tight face tucked into a red hoodie and folded over his thin legs. Other days, he looked like chaos, a screaming fit of flailing limbs.

My role in this scenario remained the same. Each day, I failed to get through to him. Each day, I tried anyway.

I’ve spent years of my teaching career in rooms with refugee students like Fahad, who, for months, responded to only a handful of English words. He mumbled hi and yes and no. He didn’t make eye contact and walked on his tiptoes, gazing at the floor. He avoided human touch. Fire alarms were cause for an immediate meltdown.

He was placed in my classroom for newcomers, a community with 19 students encompassing 16 languages and six world religions, in the hope that it would be what he needed. And after spending so much time with students like Fahad, I’ve realized a few things outsiders should know about teaching students like him.

One is that these students protect their peers with everything they have.

I’ve watched as other students draped their arms around Fahad’s shoulders, physically coaching him toward the appropriate task without adult cues. I’ve watched as they chose him as a math buddy, as they rotated bully-defense duties in the lunchroom, and as they cheered for him when he succeeded. Perhaps the other students understood something about Fahad that only other refugee students could.

The other is just what it feels like when you do get through to a student like Fahad.

One day, walking through the hall, Fahad reached for my hand. “Mrs. K, you hold my hand, OK?”

I smiled. “Fahad?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know that I care about you and that you are safe with me?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Can you look at me, buddy?”

Fahad comes to a complete stop. He faces me. Eight months after our introduction, our eyes meet for the first time. I blink quickly, struggling to restrain my emotion.

“Yeah, Mrs. K. But you have to keep holding my hand.”

Days later, we took a class playground break. As an afterthought, I brought along a box of colored chalk. The students charged the swings and monkey bars, making up for two hours of classroom time with a few seconds of unleashed energy.

Except Fahad. He reached for the chalk and set to work creating a mural along a sidewall of the playground. After some prompting, he explained.

“See, Mrs. K.? Those things in the sky have the guns. And here are guys on the floor with trucks.” (By things, he meant helicopters, and by trucks, tanks.)

“They have guns. You see this people over here? That people is hiding. The other people already die. Who is hiding? It’s me! And my baby sister and brother and my mom. No dad. He over here, see? By the guns, Mrs. K.”

Conversations with Fahad’s mother, through an Arabic translator, paint a clearer picture. Fahad’s father helped the U.S. government in Iraq, and a price was put on his head as a result. Fahad’s mother fled with their children. In the process, Fahad was kidnapped and held hostage by soldiers. After a few days, the soldiers relented to his mother’s incessant pleas for his release, and the family was eventually reunited and granted asylum. Twelve days after arriving in Denver, Fahad passed through our school doors.

His story is a reminder that teachers’ jobs are so much bigger than math, reading, and science. We are detectives, lighthouses, listeners, and foundation builders.

Fahad has a long road ahead, but he doesn’t hide under desks anymore. He hugs me every morning. He writes in full sentences and is working through multiplication. On occasion, Fahad is brave enough to read aloud. He wants to be a scientist — not just any scientist, he says, but an American scientist … of rocks.

Best practices in newcomer education have evolved significantly since my time with Fahad. But it’s always been a tough balance to strike between focusing on academic gains and creating safe spaces for children who have sometimes unthinkable backgrounds, and not all teachers get the help they need to make those minute-by-minute decisions. As an education community, we have a lot of room for growth here.

Now, I am working to help other teachers in positions like mine and to support other schools and districts in meeting these students’ unique needs. Fahad and his classmates continue to be my best teachers.

Louise El Yaafouri (Kreuzer) is a veteran teacher at Place Bridge Academy, Denver’s refugee magnet school. She is also the chief refugee/immigrant consultant at Sterling Literacy Consulting and the author of The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition.