First Person

Driving Teachers Away

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.

The quality of teaching varied at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, but no single teacher ever stood out as a superstar and rarely was there a teacher who everyone agreed was incompetent. I can honestly say the vast majority of teachers who I worked with over my four years worked hard, meant well, and could have achieved greater success if they’d been better supported. Unfortunately, our administration, out of either design or neglect, left teachers to sink or swim on our own before they made decisions about our future at the school. In my third year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, administrators appeared to target four or five teachers (out of about 20) who they deemed as insufficient classroom managers for unsatisfactory ratings. Though I was not one of these teachers, I shared the stress and anxiety of my singled-out colleagues.

The stories of two teachers paint a picture of what happened that year. Mr. J was a math teacher who served on our staff for two years. He was a tall and mild-mannered guy who had a calming effect on those around him. In his first year, he was observed only once by the principal, and this observation was informal and undocumented. Mr. J reports that the principal had little constructive feedback about the content of the lesson, but instead advised him to make his room “sexier” and to make his aim and do-now “pop” more off the white board.

Ms. S was originally hired as a long-term substitute for an English teacher on maternity leave, but then kept on board for the rest of the year as a global history Regents-prep teacher. She was a chipper teacher who had a deep love of English literature and film. The next year, when she joined the staff as a full-time ninth-grade English teacher, she never had an official observation. At the end of that year, though, she was given a U-rating. According to Ms. S, the administration attributed the rating to frequent tardiness. But she told me she suspects that “the real reason … was to encourage me to find placement elsewhere. Along with several other teachers, I was told simply, that I was not a good fit. I had the ability to be a good teacher, with the ‘right students.'”

In Mr. J’s second year, he was observed once informally during the second semester. The principal noted his use of technology and the new assistant principal gave him a lot of constructive feedback. She told him that, had the lesson been formal, he would have received a U-rating because he was too passive in addressing student misbehavior. Mr. J took her advice seriously and asserted himself more in the classroom, but consequently felt like he was spending too much time reprimanding students and not enough focusing on content.

He was observed again in the spring, this time by the newest assistant principal. The observation was informal, but documented. The AP did not discuss his observation with Mr. J, but rather emailed him his report, which consisted of a list of student-behavioral infractions, including a number of students who arrived late to class, three students who used cell phones, and one student who wore a hat. According to Mr. J, “the observation did not discuss the content of the lesson nor how students were grasping that content. However, the report did conclude that my class was lacking academic rigor without any further explanation.”

After this observation, Mr. J started having conversations with the principal and AP about what they wanted to see in his classroom. They advised him to be more authoritative by directly and consistently reprimanding students for arriving late or violating other school policies. He followed their advice and felt that he effectively demonstrated improvement when he was observed again at the end of April. The AP said he appreciated the progress Mr. J had made but still gave the lesson a U-rating.  In the debriefing session with the principal and AP, Mr. J. said, “it was made very clear that I would be given a U-rating for the year if I chose to stay at [the Brooklyn Arts Academy] and an S if I were to leave. This was, of course, not explicitly said but the point was made abundantly clear in an indirect fashion.”

Ms. S, meanwhile, had been unable to find another school to work at and so had returned. The following year, though, she was not given her own classroom, and was instead shuffled around to wherever there was room and given a schedule that included senior English tutoring, a 10th-grade film elective, test prep, and even being used as a substitute teacher at times. She notes that she “felt embarrassed and devalued as a teacher.” A low point came when she was observed by the new AP and given a U-rating because students had earphones and hats on. “It was at this point, that I saw the futility in what I was doing,” she told me. “I had been pushed to the fringes, and then had to listen to meaningless criticism from a detached administrator.” She informed the APs that she would not return the following year, and was thereafter spared the humiliation of continued scrutiny. Her subsequent observations were positive and given satisfactory ratings.

In addition to Mr. J and Ms. S, other teachers, such as the science teacher on my grade-level team, shared similar experiences. But all teachers felt the effects. For one, none of us felt safe from similar treatment as we all had, to some degree or another, the same struggles with lateness, hats, and headphones. It seemed unfair that some teachers were grilled about this when others, including myself, were not. (Indeed, this issue would not even have mattered so much if the school had clearer policies and protocols for us all to follow). More to the point, the teachers who were encouraged to leave were not lazy or incompetent teachers. They were earnest but inexperienced ones. They were also my friends. It was gut-wrenching to hear their stories.

Mr. J. found a job at a different small public school in Queens. He notes that, in contrast to his last months at the Brooklyn Arts Academy when he “could just feel the stress upsetting my stomach as I walked into the building,” this year has been very positive: “Having an administration that I respect and that I know supports me has made a huge difference.” Ms. S, meanwhile, left the profession. Of course, many other teachers left at the end of that year as well. I, too, pondered whether I wanted to commit to another year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I had another option.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

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.