First Person

When showering students with support backfires, it’s helpful to step back

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki

I realized early on that Paul needed more support than some of the other seventh-graders I worked with. Even in my small-group tutoring sessions with five or six students, he had a hard time concentrating on his work. When he found the assignment for English class too challenging, he would crumple up paper and shoot it into the trash can as if he were a star basketball player, play with the windows in the room, or bother another student until I eventually came over to assist him.

Paul, whose name I changed to protect his privacy, was one of 15 students I worked with this past year. As a corps member with City Year, an AmeriCorps program, I worked with a teacher at the start of the year to identify students who struggled with English, then met with them daily for individualized tutoring and mentoring.

Working in a school for the first time this year, it was easy for me to assume that more time with students was always better, and that more support would always lead to better results. A lot of programs designed to support struggling students do so by giving them extra time and attention from teachers or people like me.

In some cases, I saw the additional attention I was providing pay off as students’ attitudes, grades and test scores improved. Yet for some students, including Paul, I worry that too much support might actually be detrimental in the long-run. With so much individual attention, students risk never learning to push themselves to succeed on their own.

I tutored Paul in a small group nearly every day of the school year. I attempted to build his confidence by reminding him that he was intelligent and could accomplish tasks independently. But inevitably, I ended up sitting next to Paul and helping him think through the answers to each question on his assignments.

When Paul was reading, I asked additional questions to make sure he understood the text. When he was writing an essay, I broke down the process into manageable chunks and helped him find evidence that supported his argument.

Under my careful watch, Paul participated in class and completed most of his classwork. When he was assigned to write an essay comparing themes in Langston Hughes’s “Thank You Ma’am” and Francisco Jiménez’s “Inside Out,” he got off to a good start in class.  We worked on the first part in class together, but things fell apart when he needed to finish the essay at home.

My City Year has ended, and Paul will probably work with another City Year corps member when he enters the eighth grade in the fall. In the short term, corps members can keep supporting him. But I’m concerned about Paul’s long-term success. At some point, likely in high school, he won’t get this one-on-one support anymore. And I don’t think I’ve prepared him to succeed on his own.

The solution is not straightforward. I observed Corps members and teachers alike struggling to determine what kind of support is most effective for each student, particularly students who really struggle with schoolwork. Often, we end up holding their hands temporarily, with the hope that they will eventually learn to work on their own.

With Paul, the “I Do-We Do-You Do” approach my mentors at City Year recommended to me ended up looking more like an “I Do-We Do” exercise. The “You-do” rarely happened. Other corps members on my team also expressed concern about students who relied too much on them and who were struggling to motivate themselves.

What did work well for Paul was when I stepped back and helped him see that instead of always relying on me, he could ask his peers to help hold him accountable for finishing his work. His classmate Theresa, who had the organizational skills that Paul lacked, agreed to help Paul finish his essays when I wasn’t around. Though Paul’s grades and test scores didn’t increase as much as he or I wanted them to, the fact that he was interacting with classmates around academic work and asking for help seemed to me a step in the right direction.

Those of us tasked with supporting students—and organizations like City Year that make our work possible—need to remember that too much support can backfire, even if students seem to be making progress in the short term. We need to keep working on finding creative ways to support students while still pushing them to stand on their own.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.