First Person

Measuring My Value

I came to teaching more than eight years ago by way of the law — having graduated from Fordham Law School in 1992. So I knew full well how intricate, malleable and unreliable evidence could be. When the New York City Teacher Data Reports came out and were touted as measuring my “value” as a teacher, I was deeply annoyed. Invalid, inaccurate and irrelevant, these data were no more useful in proving or disproving teacher value than the temperature on a single day could prove or disprove global warming. It’s not that I don’t think I’m a good teacher, I do. I simply measure it in ways that cannot be captured on a test. My reaction came as a surprise to some of my family, friends and co-workers because I was ranked in the 99th percentile.

As the first notes of congratulations began to arrive in my inbox, I understood that people meant well, yet I felt annoyed that anybody would and could delve into my professional life. Notably, I also felt grateful that my numbers would not force me to ashamedly try to explain them away. I was keenly aware that the rope that would have me swinging back and forth in jubilation could just as easily have been wrapped around my neck in humiliation. I felt sickened by the numbers next to the names of my colleagues who I know to be hardworking. I wrote back to those who sent their well wishes, disavowing the data and explaining that the so called “evidence” meant nothing because it could not measure that which makes a teacher valuable.

Now in my ninth year in the classroom, I understand the art of teaching, that is, those things not measurable by multiple-choice questions or by assessors armed with clipboards and checklists who believe the breadth and depth of learning in my room is revealed by the freshness of my bulletin board or the sheer quantity of newsprint hanging from my walls. I could teach in a hut with a dirt floor and be an excellent teacher because what makes me excellent is, in large part, an unquantifiable aesthetic that cannot be captured by a mathematical procedure. Inspiring students, giving them something to think about long after the school day is over, pushing and poking them to be their best selves, nurturing wisdom, stimulating passionate efforts, assisting discovery, facilitating connections, determining when to lead, guide or let go — these things cannot be found using an algorithm.

Armed with this belief about teaching and the positive responses of those I loved and valued, I reached out to other teachers in the 99th percentile to see if they felt the same. Many of them did and a group of us have signed a statement renouncing the data’s usefulness and publication.

Still for all the motivating anger I felt, I also felt demoralized and quite simply sad. The data had no power to prove my worth, yet, since it was being used for political purposes and to misinform the public, the data did have the power to make me feel worthless. And that is when a very unlikely visitor reminded me of the true value that I add to my students’ lives.

A wonderful hallmark of my brief teaching career has been a constant flow of former students who come back to visit me. I can always count on the previous year’s crop to return but last week a student whom I hadn’t seen since my first year came by.  Lena was the type of student a teacher could never forget and not for any positive reasons. She presented a world of problems at a time when I had the fewest skills to deal with them.  She was angry, oppositional, violent and absent a lot. She was the first student to call me a “bitch.” Once she was so mad about something, she put her fist through a glass partition at school. Another time, she and a fellow student got into a fight, which led to a suspension after she hit a police officer who had tried to break it up. And since teaching can generate wildly conflicting emotions, it should come as no surprise that I had loved this girl, prayed for this girl and had also been downright grateful when this girl was not in attendance.

I wondered if my face betrayed all these emotions when I saw her standing in my doorway. She was a bit taller and fuller in the face but otherwise unchanged. We exchanged a long, strong hug in front of my current students. I felt like crying as I thought to myself, “She’s still alive” (something I had wondered about many times over the years). She said she had business nearby but couldn’t miss her chance to see her “favorite teacher.” It was the use of that phrase that filled my eyes with tears. A veteran teacher once said to me, “All you can do is plant seeds. You may never know whether or not they grow.” Her words manifested themselves before me as I looked at this “seed” I had been uncertain would grow. Lena is going to school to become a dental hygienist. She has a 3-year-old daughter and reported that overall things are going well for her. I know there is more to her story that she chose not to share. I know her life is not perfect but still she was alive and working toward a stable future and quite frankly that is more than I had expected. On top of that, to have her call me her “favorite teacher,” well — that was unbelievable given how incompetent I was my first year, how troublesome she had been, and how often we butted heads. We spoke a bit longer and before she left, I tried to hug her long enough to last awhile, as if the strength of my embrace could shield her from trouble. I want so many good things for her.

After Lena had gone, I turned to my current group and said, “Teachers don’t get paid a lot, but when students come back to visit it’s like getting an extra paycheck. I want you to remember that when you are walking by this school one day. Come up to see me; it does my heart good. And to have Lena say that I was her ‘favorite teacher’ — well, that is why I work so hard, because 30 years from now when you have your own children and see me on the subway, I want you to say, ‘You see that woman. She was the best teacher I ever had.'” And as I stood there before my students, having made this confession, generous voice after generous voice said, “I’ll come back to see you, Mrs. Whitehouse.” For a little while, we were all a bit verklempt, me most of all for having been shown my true value.

Figure out a way to put that in an algorithm and perhaps I will accept it as providing some relevant evidence about the value I add to a classroom. Until then, keep your 99th-percentile rating. I prefer a letter of recommendation from one of my students.

Maribeth Whitehouse is a special education teacher at IS 190 in the Bronx. She is in her ninth year of teaching eighth grade.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk