First Person

Are You Perceptive?

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.

During my second year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, two students persistently acted out in their 10th-grade classes. One student, H, had a difficult time sitting still and staying focused, and he could turn on teachers in an instant if called out for misbehavior. He could be charming in one-on-one interactions but got into almost weekly confrontations with authority figures in the building, once even making a sexually lewd comment to a female teacher. The other student, V, had a physical disability that made him stand out to other kids. Perhaps to distract attention from this, V acted outrageously. He cracked constant jokes and roamed the classroom, rarely doing any schoolwork. My grade-level team tried many strategies to better engage these two students, but nobody (administration included) seemed able to reach either one of them.

In December, I was observing a 10th-grade English class in my role as grade team leader when I saw H standing at the door of the classroom. It wasn’t unusual for our students to leave in the middle of a class or show up in a classroom where they did not belong. The school did not have clear procedures to address this type of behavior.

The English teacher, Mr. J, was a first-year teacher who, though lacking experience, planned his lessons with great diligence. During my observation, his students were writing mystery stories. Mr. J was assisting the students as they worked in groups, so did not react immediately to the presence of H at the doorway.

H was motioning to his friend, Q, to come to the hallway. Seeing this, I told Q to stay put. H then walked into the room and whispered something in Q’s ear. At this point, the English teacher told H to go back to his own class. Instead, H resumed his post at the doorway. When Q started to get up, the teacher informed him that leaving the classroom would result in a referral. I also told him to stay in the classroom. “Guess I’m gonna have to take one for the team,” said Q as he defied our warnings and left the room with his backpack and coat. He did not return to English class and we later learned he had left the building.

Q was generally well behaved, so his open defiance struck me as peculiar. But again, students left in the middle of a class all too often, so I was not particularly alarmed and neither was the English teacher, who continued with his lesson. Later that day, I mentioned the incident to the principal, who concurred that it was strange, but did not say much about it at the time.

A couple of days later, on the Friday before winter break, Mr. J and I were called into the principal’s office. In our meeting, the principal told us that V had brought a gun to school on the day of Q’s strange behavior. Supposedly, the gun had passed hands from V to H to Q, and Q had it in his backpack during English class. When Q left the class with H, it was to take the gun out of the school. I do not know the principal’s source for this information, or if anyone ever actually saw the purported gun.

Having informed us of the situation, the principal proceeded to tell us that if anything bad had happened, it would have been our “names in the papers.” He suggested that, as young teachers, we needed to develop an ability to perceive when something was wrong in our classrooms. He further implied that if we’d had stronger relationships with the students in question, we could have kept Q in the classroom. When Mr. J pressed about what procedure to follow in the future if a student walked out of the classroom, he was told to notify the dean.

Q and H both received suspensions from the district superintendent of a half-year. Ironically, V, who allegedly brought the gun in the first place, got a more lenient suspension of one month. I don’t know what happened at the suspension hearings, but I heard that V’s parents actively defended their child from the allegations.

The incident raised some troubling questions. How can a teacher know what lies behind student behavior? Is perceptiveness indeed something that can be learned? What should teachers do if they suspect a student has a weapon? If administrators know that a weapon is in the building, should teachers be notified? If so, what steps should we then take to protect our students and ourselves? (Our school had no clear lockdown procedures at the time of this incident). And most troubling of all: what would a 15-year-old be doing with a gun and why would he bring it into school?

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.