First Person

Yes, teachers do want safer schools, and ending suspensions is an important step

The author, sitting to the left of sign, at a Teachers Unite workshop for educators on restorative justice in 2015.

As an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, I applaud the mayor’s recommendations, released last week, for ending suspensions in kindergarten through second grade and reforming the Department of Education’s metal detector policy. As one of many teachers concerned about the future of New York City school children, I’m glad the city is taking this step to keep students in school. Schools are a place where children should be educated in every sense: academically, in civic participation, and in the development of social-emotional skills. All students should be encouraged to find success and support, not pushed out through suspensions or made to feel like they are criminals.

In several schools where I have worked, I’ve often heard the following rationalization for suspending students who present challenging behavior: “Should the needs of one or two students take precedence over the needs of the whole group?” Why instead aren’t we asking ourselves, “Whose needs are constantly being compromised for the needs of the majority?”

In a second grade class I once taught, five of my students were black boys. The only suspensions given to students in their grade that year were for three of these boys, two of whom were suspended multiple times by the administration for behavior like having a tantrum. Did suspensions change the behavior of these students? No. Did suspensions further alienate these students and their families from the school? Yes. Even in second grade, students realize when they aren’t wanted in a space, and it can become difficult for them to distinguish the adults’ responses to unwanted behavior from a feeling of exclusion, that they aren’t wanted in general. From talking to other teachers, students, and parents, I know this dynamic plays out in classrooms across the city. Black students in New York City represent less than 30% of the student population, yet in 2014-15 they served 53% of suspensions citywide. The lives of black youth matter, and we have to keep them in the classroom.

As I thought critically about my role as a white educator in an institution that actively pushes out youth of color, I chose to seek out instructional practices that matched my belief about children. This led me to restorative justice, a philosophy rooted in traditions that emphasize building community. In the life of a school, that means knowing our students and responding, when students misbehave, to the needs of everyone impacted by the harm done, rather than pushing out students who, often looking for community and acceptance, exhibit behavior as a result of these needs. I have successfully incorporated several restorative approaches into my classrooms, but it is challenging work that needs more district-wide support and funding.

The mayor has committed to greater funding for this work in high-need schools, including mental health supports and professional development, in addition to the policy changes recommended. But the Department of Education still lacks a comprehensive strategy for reducing racial disparities in discipline and policing. Far more schools need multi-year funding to directly hire their own dedicated, school-based restorative justice coordinators and cover program costs. Additional policy changes are also needed: We have to end suspensions for minor misbehaviors in higher grades too, like the highly subjective “defying authority” infraction, long opposed by Teachers Unite and the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York.

Even before the current conversation about institutional racism in the United States, the groundswell of activists fighting for black lives has resulted in local school district reforms in Chicago, Denver, Miami, Oakland, and elsewhere, that address the racial disparities seen in overused and ineffective suspensions. It’s about time New York City joined the list of cities beginning to answer the calls of their communities. The nation is challenging the widespread police killings of innocent black people through activism, protests, art and critical thinking, and community empowerment. Let’s ensure that New York City is really committed to the health and safety of black children. Greater investment in school climate will inspire academic success, rather than a foreboding sense of distrust and hostility.

New Yorkers deserve public schools that are adequately funded and resourced. If we want schools to be safe places for all students, we must ensure that black students are treated with dignity and acceptance.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to remove an incorrect reference to the school safety budget.

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.