First Person

Long lines, few supplies, fearing the boss: One teacher says his Bronx school was ‘just like Poland, 40 years ago’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Tomasz "Tomek" Krzyzostaniak sharing his story

At first blush, the New York City school system and Communist Poland would seem to have little in common. But Tomasz “Tomek” Krzyzostaniak, a Bronx teacher whose family emigrated from Poland in 1991, says his dad saw many similarities between the two— from long lines to a shortage of supplies.

Tomek drew the comparison during Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for New York City teachers. Held in June at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share stories based on the theme “Best (Blank) Ever.”

Here’s Tomek’s story on the Best Bulletin Board Ever.

This story has been condensed and lightly edited.

When I was thinking about the topic for today, I was thinking a lot about the early years [at my previous school], the beginning, when things were really tough. Everything was new. It was difficult. And I would call my parents and share stories, and my dad would consistently say the same thing. (If you didn’t know, I am Polish. I was born in Poland.)

In his thick Polish accent, my dad would say, “Just like Poland, 40 years ago.”

Now to put that in context, Poland 40 years ago was in their final dictatorial communist regime that was corrupt beyond imagination. So I would talk about, for example, the long lines waiting to pick up the ELA [English Language Arts] test. How many of you here have done that? Wait for 40 minutes. You have to sign a stupid form and all you get is a stupid test back. And I would say, “Just waiting in line.” And he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.”

I would talk about the shortage of supplies, or copiers. “Poland, 40 years ago.” I would talk about favoritism and nepotism. “Poland, 40 years ago.” Same thing.

I would talk about the symbolic walkthroughs — the superintendent is coming! All of a sudden, schools have to have everything in order, just for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

But with all that said, I would talk about the close friends I have, the colleagues that support each other and love each other, helped each other out, and he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.” When times were tough, and you were part of the resistance, you made friends and you did the best you could.

So, with that in mind, my biggest nemesis in the public school system was the dreaded bulletin board.

I hated the dreaded bulletin board, not because of philosophical ideas about bulletin boards — it could be a beautiful thing, sharing our students’ ideas and beliefs. The way the bulletin boards looked, at least in our school, was you could only put up not-actual work, because you had to put up perfect work. Everything had to be spelled exactly right, all the standards had to be there, all the descriptions. The work wasn’t authentic. It was all for show.

They would make you put up this bulletin board, they’d make you stress out over it, come around, and give you feedback: “Oh, I like the color,” or something. That’s it. It didn’t have any meaning, it wasn’t done for the kids. It was done for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

So, with my friends Ruben and another teacher, who we’ll call Sloman, we were over it. So, Sloman and I made a bet on who could create the best bulletin board.

Ruben volunteered to be our judge, and as Ruben would, he created rubrics, thought very closely about what it would take to make this very personal, progressive bulletin board.

[And I] worked so hard on it. Put out my students’ best work on it. My bulletin board was 3-D. It was interactive! Second grade social studies. We made longhouses from the Native American tribes here in the Northeast. They were so cool. They were so beautiful. Kids did such a great job on it.

So the day came, and Ruben came with his clipboard. He looked at my bulletin board first. He made some notes. I think he was impressed by the 3-D nature of it. Unlike anything seen at the school previously.

We went upstairs. I looked at Sloman’s bulletin board. And I didn’t win.

Sloman didn’t have a three-dimensional board, but Ruben’s feedback — which was more feedback than we had received from any administrator ever — talked about transformative skills, authentic work, the level of rigor, a lot of really smart stuff that we missed in my bulletin board.

The Best Bulletin Board Ever, the title, went to Sloman. But after that feedback, after that authentic feedback, I’d like to think that my bulletin boards after that were the best ever.

Tomek Krzyzostaniak is the lower school academic director at Girls Prep Bronx Elementary. Originally from Poland, he has worked as an educator in New York City for 10 years. He started as a second-grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx.

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.