First Person

Classroom Management, With Pigeons

Classroom management is usually at the top of the new teacher’s list of concerns. Excellent classroom management often takes years to master, and the only way to get there is through experience, largely because it’s nuanced. The things that disrupt your instruction in one classroom aren’t always the things that will disrupt it in another. Sometimes it’s the students’ attitudes; sometimes it’s a poorly planned lesson; sometimes it’s a fire drill; and sometimes it’s a pigeon flying around your classroom, pooping on desks.

It was a day in late March and I had planned a lesson to prepare my students for the Regents exam in USand Global History. The lesson involved a simple strategy for teaching students to find success on the document-based question (DBQ) essay. With pressure to prepare students for the exams increasing, I accepted teaching test-prep lessons, but my heart wasn’t entirely in it. This would not be a “Stand and Deliver”-style lesson.

I arrived to school sweaty and frustrated after having stood for over an hour on two trains and a bus to get to the school in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx from my apartment in Washington Heights. After passing students waiting in line to go through the metal detector, I turned the corner of the building and was blasted by a wave of hot air upon opening the door. I immediately took off my backpack, jacket, and hat.

“Why do they keep running the heat when it’s warm outside,” I had once asked.

“The budget for next year’s heat is based on the amount of fuel used this year,” another teacher had told me. Of course.

After gathering attendance and making copies, I pushed through the heaviest door in the building to enter the first of four classrooms I would teach in that day.

This one was on the second floor and had a massive furnace lining the wall opposite the door and beneath the windows. Although the door to the room was heavy, the hydraulics in the door closing mechanism created an extraordinarily slow swing speed until the last two feet, at which point the door would slam shut like a Venus Flytrap for slow-moving students. In addition to nipping any student taking his or her time on the way out, it also created a powerful gust of air that would consistently blow one student’s hair into the face of the student sitting next to her.

“Come on!” Enrique would say as he brushed Cynthia’s hair out of his eyes.

On this particular day, I walked in a few minutes early to what seemed like something of a commotion on the far side of the room near the window. After I told students about our activity for the day, I noticed Rosie in the back with a smile on her face like she had a plan. As I went back and forth between facing the board and the class explaining the DBQ activity, I noticed giggling around Rosie.

“Mister. Can we open the window?” asked Rosie. “¡Hace calor!

She wasn’t wrong. The room was hot. It was temperate outside and the heaters were going full-blast, often making a sound akin to a workman pounding on the side of an aluminum room with an oversized hammer. But there was something about the beginning of class and the way she said it that made me think she had more at stake in opening the window than just cooling down.

The school aide opened the door to grab the attendance.

“COME ON!” said Enrique as he had to refocus.

“No,Rosie,” I said, using my teacher instinct. “I think we’ll be okay.”

I returned to my instruction on using the DBQ strategy when the assistant principal opened the door to tell me I was needed in the office as the school’s chapter leader. Janet, another social studies teacher, would be covering for me.

I walked out of the room for what would be fifteen minutes discussing a contract issue.

“PPPHHHHHFFFffffttttt!” Enrique made a scene as we leave. I imagined a minor skirmish ensuing.

When I returned to the classroom, Janet gave me a sideways smile. The door closed and Enrique threw his paper and pencil over his shoulder in frustration.

“We have a visitor,” said Janet, pointing at the ceiling.

I looked up and saw a pigeon perched on pipes near the ceiling. Beneath it was an empty table with bird droppings on it. The five students who had been previously sitting at the table were now clumped with five other students at a table on the other side of the room laughing and pointing at the pigeon.

I looked at Rosie and knew exactly what had happened.

Janet offered a sincere apology, wished me good luck, and walked back out into the hallway. This time Enrique ducked and came back up with a smile.

Preferring to teach and worry about the pigeon after class, I calmed the class down and convinced them they could still learn even with the banging, the heat, the hair in Enrique’s face, the pigeon, the giggling with Rosie, and a frustrated and exahausted teacher who wasn’t confident of the utility in teaching students to pass a state test. I yelled the rest of my instruction across the room as the heater was as loud as ever. On the plus side, the window was open, so I wasn’t sweating as profusely.

Students strained to hear me during instruction and wore looks of agony and frustration as we moved into the work period. They complained of being unable to concentrate. But many worked hard to write something down in their second language despite the banging, the heat, the hair, the pigeon, the giggling, and the frustrated and exhausted teacher.

When the bell rang, I collected their papers and stuffed them into my backpack in a hurry to get to my next classroom.

By the end of the day, the pigeon had escaped unharmed. The students, I’m not so sure.

James Boutin taught in New York City for several years and now teaches in a small school associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools in Washington State. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Urban Teacher’s Education.

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.