First Person

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New York

On Gestalt: A School Is More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Schools are complex environments, strewn with relationships amongst adults with a multiplicity of roles and allegiances, complicated by the volatile and competitive relationships of children striving to understand their place in the world. To work in a public school is to daily navigate treacherous political and interpersonal waters, work on various teams, alternately pressure and commiserate with parents in meetings and on phone calls, and conference with children to steer them through issues they encounter in their relationships with others. Relationships comprise the foundation on which the real work of schools reside. Teachers meet with one another to plan curricula and assessments (or at least, they should), examine and share student work, analyze data, and share resources and ideas on how to manage children with challenging behavior or inadequate academic progress. Students often have strong relationships with multiple adults in the building, such as the security guard, the secretary, another teacher down the hall, or a trusted paraprofessional or school aide. Teachers use tricks to capitalize on these relationships, distracting students in crisis by asking them to deliver pretend “mail” to other teachers, or sending them to a corner or outside the classroom with a co-teacher or paraprofessional to “de-escalate” and engage in a problem-solving conversation. As a special education teacher, my students often engage with a number of adults on any given day as part of their services delivered via their Individualized Education Program (IEP), such as counseling, speech-language therapy, one-on-one tutoring (SETTS), or occupational therapy. Many of my students are also English language learners (ELLs — gotta love all the acronyms, eh?), and are also pulled for small group English as a second language instruction. This year, I am teaching in an inclusion, co-teaching classroom, and my general education students are also sometimes pulled for academic intervention services (AIS) and dance practice for a school performance. Many of them also attend after-school programs most days of the week. Now think of how many adults contribute to the education of the students I am responsible for. And the farce that is value-added accountability becomes apparent. How can you possibly disaggregate my individual impact on a student from the collective impact of the school environment and that individual student’s work with other adults?
New York

When Turnaround Came To My School

A week ago, as I walked into Flushing High School to start my day, there was a strange energy in the air — a mixture of anxiety and strangely, a little optimism. In the mailroom there was a colorful bulletin board of pictures from a recent rally held by teachers and students on the sidewalk in front of our school. The images were uplifting: smiles and enthusiastic faces marching together for a common cause — to save our school from possible "turnaround," a form of closure. The reason that morning stands out so vividly in my mind is that the public hearing about the city's plan was to take place that evening. The fact that this was real — and that this was really going to happen — set in when I passed the auditorium around 1 p.m. and saw the final adjustments being made to the tables, chairs, and microphones that would facilitate the contentious meeting. I was unexpectedly hit with feelings of sadness and resentment; the auditorium where I had participated in so many concerts, plays, poetry readings, and awards ceremonies was being “invaded” by bureaucrats who had never visited our school, or interacted with any of our students. I joked with my students that it felt like the penultimate scene in "E.T." when scientists set up shop in Elliot’s house. As I recount the details of that evening, there will be one recurring theme: I am so proud of my students! An hour before the hearing began, about 15 students gathered at the end of a hallway to make posters supporting our school. The posters expressed many different ideas: “Save Our School," for example, or “You Can’t Destroy our Dreams" and “137 Years Strong, We Belong!”  The poster-making session was accompanied by lively discussion that included anger, optimism, pessimism, and cynicism. “How can they close our school?” one student asked. “Mr. Albertson, do you think there is any chance that they may vote to keep our school open?”  In a nearby office, students helped each other draft and edit speeches that they would present at the hearing. We walked to the auditorium as a group and immediately signed up to speak. Some of the students meandered through the growing crowd and were collecting signatures on a poster reading: “Save our School!” Within minutes there was no free space for any additional names.