First Person

Students Direct, Drama Ensues: Lessons in Leadership

“I can’t do this, Ms. Q. These kids hate me.” Eleventh-grader Ruth presses her forehead to the wall in the corner of the art room and sighs.

When my colleague Andrew Simon and I teamed up with Ruth and several other high school students last summer to create the Bronx Prep Performing Arts Academy, we all knew we were taking on a challenge. The program serves about 60 kids in grades 5-12. The kids are expected to grapple with sophisticated texts spanning poetry, prose, theater, musical theater and original oratory. And the whole thing rests on a model of peer mentoring and student leadership that represents a pretty radical shift away from the rigid, top-down culture I found when I first came to Bronx Prep as a theater teacher eight years ago.

In the months that I’ve been mentoring Ruth and her peers as directors and designers for our first-ever student-led musical, “Aladdin,” she’s has been the model of grace under pressure. Now I watch her bury her face in her hands and cry.

“All I want to do is support them so they can put on an awesome show,” she says between sobs, gesturing to the room next door where she’s left the cast of 40 fifth- through eighth-graders in the hands of her 11th-grade co-director. “But they won’t listen. So I have to be the bad guy. I don’t know what else to do. I yell. I give them detentions. I threaten to call parents. None of it works. And now they hate me.”

Ruth (far left) directs a dance rehearsal.
Ruth (far left) directs a dance rehearsal.

I know exactly what Ruth is going through. My own trial-by-fire as a first-year teacher may have played out nearly a decade ago, but this current experiment in student leadership has catapulted me right back to my own early days in the classroom, reliving everything the young leaders are currently facing-all the anxiety, the fear of failure, and the frustration that comes from wanting to do creative work with kids and instead feeling like a glorified traffic cop, and an incompetent one at that.

Especially given how challenging their jobs are, Ruth and her team have been doing remarkable work so far. They’ve coached huge groups of inexperienced actors and singers, invented and taught choreography, sewn costumes, built sets, painted backdrops, organized ticket sales and coordinated complex schedules.

But it hasn’t been smooth sailing. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk somebody out of quitting.

I put a hand on Ruth’s shoulder, tell her that she’s doing fine, and reassure her that we’ll use our post-rehearsal planning time to troubleshoot. “And listen, honey,” I say, fighting to hold fast to my hard-won convictions. “I know you’re feeling some resistance from the kids right now, but believe me. They don’t actually hate you.”

At this precise moment, a sixth grader named Manuela bursts through the door of the art room, hysterically wailing, “Ms. Q! I can’t do this anymore! I HATE RUTH!”

The two crying kids lock eyes and freeze. And that’s when I realize that I’m in over my head, big time. Who knew that all the experience I racked up learning to lead in my own classroom wouldn’t translate directly to an ability to teach my students to do the same? I may talk a good game about the value of side-by-side learning experiences where the teacher becomes the student, but now that I’m actually back here in beginner-mode: I’m freaking out.

My natural instinct in this moment is to scrap the whole experiment, grab the reins from the kids and scramble back into my comfort zone-smooth over Ruth and Manuela’s hurt feelings, leap into the fray next door, sweep the high school leaders aside, restore order, get the middle school performers back on track and move the whole process forward.

But I think back to the lesson I got from the kids in the first week of rehearsals, after I’d interrupted a practice session a few too many times with what I thought was helpful feedback, and Ruth’s co-director Sahirah spoke up afterwards. “You know, Ms. Q, with all due respect, if you put us in leadership positions, it’s really hard when you don’t actually let us lead. I know you want to help, but it confuses the kids when you step in, because then they don’t know who’s in charge.”

It was a point well taken. Sahirah’s comment brought me back to my first year as a teacher and how miserable it felt when a well-meaning colleague occasionally swooped in to offer some “back-up,” bringing my wild classroom to order with a mere raising of eyebrows and unintentionally confirming my worst fears about my own hopelessness as an educator.

What was true for me then was true for my kids now: inexperienced leaders require a ton of support and structure from their mentors on the back-end, but ultimately they need to be trusted to muddle through the work on their own. They need to learn by doing, even when-heck, especially when-that means making mistakes.

So now I check my control-freak impulses. After a brief conversation, I leave Ruth and Manuela in the art room to work out their differences by themselves, step into the other room to make sure it’s not total chaos, and grit my teeth while the kids struggle through the rest of their rehearsal unassisted.

Then, as we do every afternoon, the battle-weary crew of leaders and I sit in a circle on the floor of the rehearsal room and wrestle with frustrations, come up with new strategies, celebrate small successes, and plan for the following day.

***

Weeks have passed since that low moment with Ruth and Manuela. There were lots more moments like it to follow.

Students performing "A Whole New World." Manuela is wearing yellow.
Students performing 'A Whole New World.' Manuela is wearing yellow.

But step by messy step, the kids pushed forward … and I gradually and painfully learned to do a half-decent job of keeping my mouth shut. We all did a lot of reflection about learning, innovation, commitment and leadership along the way. And at the end of the process, the kids put on a show that was bursting with energy and creativity.

When I sat down with Ruth and Manuela recently to look back on the whole experience, Ruth said that one of the biggest leadership lesson she’d come away with was this:

I feel like the kids respect you when you’re […] organized, and you’re calm and you show them you think they’re doing great. Then they do the right thing, mostly — not because they’re afraid of you, but because they’re excited and, you know, they want to make the show good. They’re willing to take a risk and go further than what they believe they can do. When they go beyond their own expectations, they get excited and the whole thing just flows.

Click here to check out our student blog to read student posts, see student photography and video from the show, and read a transcript of my whole conversation with Ruth and Manuela — now inseparable creative co-conspirators.

Co-directors Ruth and Sahirah take a bow.
Co-directors Ruth and Sahirah take a bow.
Ruth and Manuela.
Ruth and Manuela.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.