First Person

First Period

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

My morning routine never wavered during the years that I taught at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I woke at 6:30 a.m. and was out the door at 6:45. I walked briskly to the 110th street 1 station, took the downtown local two stops, transferred to the 2/3 express to Broadway/Nassau, and then switched to the A/C into Brooklyn. This put me at school around 7:40 a.m. with time enough to make copies, prepare my white board, and hopefully have a few precious minutes for breakfast and the newspaper before it was go-time.

Despite having one of the longest commutes, I was invariably one of the first people in the building, often arriving to empty hallways and a dark, locked main office. Most teachers and staff arrived around 8 a.m., with a few notoriously late exceptions. Students were not allowed in the building until 8, but few came this early anyway. Early birds mainly consisted of students who came for free breakfast, who wanted to escape from home, and/or scholarly types, who came to study in the peace and quiet of a sparsely populated cafeteria.

First period attendance was an intractable issue. There were days during my second year when I would start my 8:30 a.m. class with as few as four students present. Most of the other students would trickle in throughout the period. A few never made it at all. Even after shifting the start time to 9 a.m. in subsequent years, a clear majority of our students were tardy for their first class.

Our school had no official lateness policy. Staff called the homes of consistently late students, and the grades of those students suffered, but there was no rule about only being allowed to come late X number of times. A student could come late every day and still pass the class. Some of mine did.

When we broached this subject in staff meetings, the principal often suggested that teachers needed to give students a reason for wanting to get to school (via more engaging instruction). The dean believed teachers should call homes more often. The tardy students, for their part, gave the typical excuses about bad public transportation and long lines for the elevators (our school was housed on the seventh and eighth floors – heaven forbid taking the stairs). But then, those same students might show up late with a McDonald’s breakfast, so they obviously did not feel a tremendous urgency to show up on time.

For my part, I strived to change student attitudes and behaviors within my own classroom. For instance, I started each class period with a “daily quiz.” This quiz always consisted of five multiple-choice questions related to the previous day’s lesson, with a bonus critical-thinking question sometimes added. The students were given five minutes at the beginning of class to complete the quiz. Students who missed the beginning of class missed the quiz, though I usually folded and allowed them to make it up at lunch.

I also set up an incentive system, which I called “my global rewards.”  The concept, inspired by “My Coke Rewards,” was that students could earn points to redeem for prizes. I posted a big chart with all the students’ names on my classroom door. Anytime a student earned a perfect score on a daily quiz, completed a homework assignment on time, or maintained perfect attendance for one week, she earned a point. The points were recorded with star stickers on the chart.  Points could be redeemed right away for small prizes (such as a Jolly Rancher) or saved up and cashed in for bigger prizes (a McDonald’s lunch, a book from Amazon.com).

Interestingly enough, the program was wildly popular with high-level students and low-level students, but not the ones in between. Furthermore, the incentives did not entice chronically late students to change their habits. I ultimately decided the system required too much recordkeeping and did not continue it into my third year.

It was difficult to fight off feelings of defeatism when I started class with so few students.  Every morning, I put on my game-face for my first-period students and started class as though everything were normal, as though we weren’t going to be interrupted repeatedly during the next 50 minutes as their classmates arrived, one by one, and had to be caught up.  No matter how much lip service I paid to the virtue of punctuality, however, the students knew as well as I did that we would go through the motions again the next morning.

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.