Q&A

At P.D. day, teachers discuss challenges of their profession

Across the city yesterday, high school teachers hunkered down for a day of extra training. Some sat in on sessions at their schools, while others scattered across the city for sessions held in the offices of educational consultants.

I stopped by the Midtown offices of Math for America, a fellowship program for math and science teachers, and saw teachers working on student work to better understand why they thought the way they did. Here’s what some said about some of the topics dominating the policy agenda these days (interviews edited for clarity and brevity):

Bill Lamonte, Millennium High School
Subject: Science
Years: 10 (eight in New York City)

How long will you be a teacher for?

I may be a different case because I know I’ll be teaching until I die. But it is hard to see colleagues that start out putting in that time and then get frustrated and end up leaving.

I am challenged professionally, but some people don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy of the system. The DOE is a tough place. It’s very top-down. It’s hard. But if you have a supportive administration and you’re in a school that has ideals that you believe in, it’s easier to stay because you feel you can work with people and that you can actually make a difference.

Would you ever consider a school leadership position?

I know I’ll be teaching, but I steer clear of the administration path just because I see what happens to teachers when they become administrators. They take on another personality, in a way. Again, it’s very top-down, so they have to meet certain requirements themselves. In order to do that you have to put a lot of pressure on your teachers. When you have to have a checklist – are they doing this, this, and this? – I can see how it can become a struggle to balance.

Although I do find that a lot of schools struggle with having good administrators. There are a lot of weak principals out there. I’ve seen it first hand, especially at my old school in the Bronx. Luckily now I do feel that the administration is batter and that does make a huge difference. To feel supported in a school is really what’s going to keep a teacher there.

Do you think financial incentives are a good way to improve instruction?

I think it’s dangerous because it starts to put teachers against each other. We’re supposed to be helping each other grow as a community. I do see the value of incentives, but it’s also like, ‘okay kids, I’ll give you a treat if you pass this test.’ It’s not really authentic.

At the same time, there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed, too. There’s a lot of teachers who don’t do what they’re supposed to and should be targeted, but the union does protect them. But the incentive factor, it’s tough. I see the pros and cons on both sides, but I don’t think it’s going to fix the problem. I don’t think throwing money at it is going to fix it. I think smaller class sizes is important and I think just getting a whole school community on board is important. I think that’s how KIPP schools do pretty well, simply because every body is so invested in it. But again, the burnout there is probably pretty high.

Pete Diamantis, Urban Assembly for Design and Construction (and MfA fellow)
Subject: Math/Algebra.
Year: Six

Why do you think there is high attrition in your profession?

I definitely feel there’s something to be said about the public perception of the profession – the esteem with which we view the profession and the people who do the job. And closely related to that is what I’ve come to realize, more and more, is the general disparity between what people think it takes to be a good teacher and what it actually takes to be a good teacher. So you have this public opinion that teaching should be a relatively easy task, when in fact we should be viewing it as something as hard as medicine or economics.

The MfA program gives its teachers up to $15,000 more than the average NYC teacher. Is that why you’re still in the profession? 

No. I think a big component (for people staying in the profession) would be the role that Math for America is playing for someone like me; an outside source that’s providing cutting edge professional development that helps me to be in this constant state of reflection of what I’m doing, how effective it is and how much better I can get.

For me, being part of Math for America is less about the compensation that comes with it as it is about the support that I feel from the organization. And I can speak from a pretty unique standpoint in that I’ve been around for five years and I’ve seen the evolution of Math for America as a program that is supporting public school teachers and the responsiveness to our feedback.

Stephen Jackson,  PS/MS 278
Subject: Science
Years: 18 (eight in NYC)

How long will you be a teacher for?

Always. I taught in another country for over ten years, so when I came here, I think my love for teaching kept me in there. I love working with kids, to see them them grow. You know, the whole process. I think that helps bring out my creativity also in terms of different challenges working with different groups of kids, the gifted kid, the ones who are struggling, the ones in the middle.

Why do teachers deserve to be paid more? 

On any given day you’re not just a facilitator for learning, but you also need to deal with their social needs, their sociological needs. There’s so many different things you have to deal with. It’s not just presenting the information.

Should teachers be paid more based on teacher evaluations? 

I’m not sure where my position is. I think if you’re going to think about performance, there are some schools that get some very good kids. In these areas you have excellent parental support, you have a lot of social support. These kids are going to do extremely well even when they get out of the classroom.

There are also some very challenging schools where there are a lot of factors outside the classroom. I know there are excellent teachers who really work hard in these schools with some of the basic skills that are lacking, but you really can see growth over a period of time with these kids.

I think if we’re going to be fair across the board, if teachers are working in certain schools where they get all the good quality kids so to speak – the level threes, level fours – that school is always going to do well. What about teachers who are working at the bottom who chose to stay in those areas to really help those kids? They may not necessarily be reflected in a score in a short period of time, but in the long term they can turn things around.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”