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.'”
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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.