First Person

Breaking From The Routine: What Happened When I Relaxed

Structure and routine is a refrain that starting-out special education teachers hear incessantly. The right classroom management strategy creates the perfect classroom, we’re told.

Yes, my second-grade special education students at Brooklyn’s PS 12 needed some sort of structure and routine to thrive. Yet so often, it seems as though structure is equated to teacher control. Exact routines. Little freedom. No down time. I knew my students needed something more, something different. There were moments when they excelled and shined, but it wasn’t when they were doing desk work, sitting on the rug, or taking part in skill and drill curricula.

Our escape from a teacher-dominated structure began with a field trip to the New York Aquarium that coincided with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. After our visit, I posted a few links to site and articles about the oil spill on our classroom wiki and invited my students to look around the websites. They were riveted by the images of the dirty water and oil-covered sea creatures. One of my toughest and overage students sat in front of her laptop and said to herself, “This is so sad. I want to help.” We brainstormed a few ideas as a class. How could we help? We contemplated sending toothbrushes, collecting pet and human hair for the booms (yes, my second-graders know what booms are!), and sending supplies like paper towels and heavy-duty bags. Ultimately, we decided to put our effort in closer to home, by creating a news broadcast about the spill.

The link to our regular classroom activities came from comic books, which my students had been reading. One of my awesome educational assistants, Janice Pierce, suggested that we create superheroes who could help out on the Gulf Coast. Our team of superheros, the Superpsychics — Environmentra, Bubble Girl, Dragon Boy, Diamond Woman, Heart Girl, Rainbow Girl, Green Hulk, and Superboy — was born. The students were at last engaged in writing. I’d never seen them work so intently.

By late June, we had completed two major projects — a video and a comic book. Our news broadcast featured a report on the cause of the oil spill, its effects, and what the everyday person can do to help. The students worked in partnerships to compose and rehearse each segment. As we revised our broadcast, we held “staff meetings.” Students got quite into the role play and some began “collecting the ratings” and saying things like “five minutes until we go live.” Even one of my non-verbal students participated in the broadcast by counting down very quietly “5-4-3-2-1 action!” The final video was not only informational; it showcased each student’s personality.

The same went for our classroom comic book. The students’ comic book characters proved their abilities to understand the consequences of the oil spill and devise creative solutions to help.  Dragon Boy burned up the oil with his fire breath. Green Hulk skimmed the top of the water to collect the oil. Superboy rescued and cleaned the fish. Heart Girl reached out to others to help out with the spill. Rainbow Girl ensured that the ocean would return to its beautiful natural state.

At our end-of-year party we “released” our broadcast, complete with a complementary menu featuring Oreo dirt and vanilla wafer sand that had signs in it reading “Think about our fishman” [meaning: fisherman] and “Make the world” (one of my little guys said he saw that on TV). It was a blast.

The release made my students briefly famous. A few days later, we were asked to spend the morning sharing our work with each grade. With more than 10 minutes of notice, I could have coached my students on appropriate behavior for public presentations, which they lacked. And because we had no time to rehearse, I was in the spotlight more than I would have liked. I wished the students could have run the show! Still, they answered questions from other students adeptly. And when we returned to the classroom, students from other classes passing through the hallway on the way to lunch congratulated my students. One of my little guys commented, “Everyone’s saying hi to me. I feel like a celebrity!”

I reached out to a few community news sources that expressed interest in featuring the broadcast. Sadly, my school administration did not support this move. It’s a shame that there seems to be so much red tape and so much fear of bad publicity that my special education students, even with parental support, cannot have the spotlight for a minute or so to share their good work.

Even so, the students now each have a copy of our DVD and the feeling of a job well done. All students need to know what it means to feel proud. Sadly, a special education classroom endures a lot of teasing and rejection throughout the year (by students and adults). One thing we special education teachers can absolutely, directly control is whether our students are exposed to high-quality instruction beyond the skill, drill, and control strategy.

It was when the school year began to wind down that our classroom began to thrive. I had time to do the things I cared about and knew would benefit my students. We were learning. It just wasn’t what our typical learning year had looked like.

Because I spent so much time establishing and maintaining structure, as I was told should be my primary task, I never got to try more involved projects that might actually keep my students engaged. I realized the best classroom climate didn’t come from the right management strategy. It came from interesting content and challenging and creative activities. It came from going with the flow and having a bit more give and take.

Interested in project-based learning? Here are some resources:

Lizzie Hetzer completed her first year of teaching special education at PS 12 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. In the fall, she will teach at PS 39 in Park Slope. Before becoming a teacher, Lizzie worked as a drama and creative movement teaching artist in NYC public schools.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.