always be learning

Some city schools look for support to boost teacher leadership

For many of the city’s strongest teachers, moving up professionally means moving out of the classroom and on to jobs in school management, consulting, policy, or academia. That was the conclusion of a recent survey from the New Teacher Project on the challenges districts face retaining teachers who have hit their stride.

The Department of Education is in the early stages of several experiments to encourage those teachers to stay in schools, offering higher-level professional development and sometimes higher pay. But some school leaders don’t want to wait to give their teachers opportunities to improve their leadership practices.

Enter the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, a fledgling training program for teachers who have already demonstrated strength and commitment to the profession, but want to improve even more. For the past two years they have offered teachers around the country an intensive leadership training workshop tailored to the experiences of classroom instructors. This year, six city teachers joined a cohort of 50 in Chicago, for a two week long summer seminar series.

The curriculum is split between teaching skills and leadership skills like public speaking and improvisation, and peppered with business school-style case study reading assignments, according to Deborah Levitsky, the program director. The idea is to help them to think deeper about non-supervisory leadership roles, such as grade-level team leaders and department chairs. The program runs for two years, with a winter weekend-long meetup and at-home reading and writing assignments.

One reason teachers leave the classroom, according to the TNTP study, is that they feel their talents are going unrecognized. The study authors posed paying teachers more based on merit as one solution. But in lieu of that option, school districts were encouraged to find ways to help teachers to refine their teaching approaches through special programs.

Jason Griffith, the only district school principal to send a teacher to the academy, said the stakes are particularly high for small and selective schools like his, Brooklyn Latin High School, where a smaller number of teachers makes up the total staff.

“We spend an awful lot of time trying to find great teachers and then supporting and developing them. If we do have a teacher who leaves after three or five years, we’re losing all their knowledge and skills they have built,” he said. “If there’s a program that can keep teachers in the schools for any amount of time longer, that’s a real benefit for us.”

Griffith,who also sent a teacher last year, said the program was worth the cost of about $5,000 from the school’s discretionary budget.

The teacher “came back with more tools in his toolbox to be a better teacher and a better facilitator in meetings,” Griffith said. “Budgets are tight right now, but as we grow as a school—we’ve almost doubled in the last two years—there’s a major need to build capacity and leadership.”

The other city participants hailed from local charter schools, including Explore Charter School and schools from the Democracy Prep and Achievement First networks.

John Huber, who has been teaching 9th grade literature at Achievement First Brooklyn for the past two years, said his supervisors nominated him for the academy at a turning point in his four-year teaching career.

“I’ve been given a great deal of responsibiltiy this year—I’lll be the department chair, and doing a lot more curriculum design work,” he said, noting that this would be particularly challenging this year with the citywide push to align curricula to the Common Core State Standards. “What I had the opportunity to work on at NAATE has enhanced by ability to meet some of those responsibilities.”

Huber rattled off a dizzying list of instructional and classroom management strategies covered during the summer workshops that he continues to think about as school year approaches.

“Issues such as, what does really high quality classroom discourse sound like? Issues surrounding test efficacy, and making sure each child is receiving the same high quality education despite different ability levels,” he said. “And selecting the best strategy to use to achieve a particular objective, whether the teacher is trying to decide if a teacher-led discussion is the best way to go, or a seminar, or small group discussions.”

Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, a seventh-grade reading teacher and grade-level team leader at Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Harlem, said one lesson that particularly stuck with her was a case study about a teacher called Mr. Chen.

He was highly regarded by his fellow teacher she said, and ran a tight ship in his classroom. But when he encountered a student whose learning style didn’t fit into the structure of his classroom, confrontation ensued. The moral of the story was to reconsider tools you use to help students who struggle.

“There are moments in the middle of February when you’re exhausted, and waiting for mid-Winter recess, that you don’t always see the best in your students,” Ramkellawan-Arteaga explained. “But the student [in the reading] was trying to pay attention. This forced me to take a step back and remind myself that I need to attempt to see the best at all times.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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

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