Monday, September 3, 2012

Notes From A Teacher Fully Committed To Public Education Who Just Left The District.

What it means to be leaving / Why I have to.

I am not a stranger to heartbreak.  Being someone who loves with the intensity befitting my astrology, I’ve had my (overwhelmingly) fair share of break-ups.  I’ve stayed in relationships for months, even years, longer than I probably should have.  I’ve jumped wholebody into grief, cried with balled fists punching the ground as my friends watched in compassionate horror, documented the process and made art and journaled and participated in extended amounts of healing.

Like I said, no stranger to heartbreak.

But this is different. Nothing in my archives feels exactly like this one. Cuz this one isn’t about a torrid love affair gone wrong.

No.  This is about My Work In The World.
About a dream that I made up about the world I want to help build, the teacher I want to be, the level of community-based transformation I get to participate in.  A dream I believed in so fully that having to pry my fingers off of it to let it go has been excruciating.  And more heartbreaking than any relationship gone sour. 

How do we say goodbye to a dream?

This specific manifestation was working at my dysfunctional neighborhood public high school.  I know.  Not too many people’s dreams.  I get it.  But it was my dream. 

Over the past almost decade, an extensive coalition of students, parents, community members, educators, and alumni worked to build up a plan for comprehensive transformation at West Philadelphia High School.  You can find out more about it here:
As a teacher in the city, a supporter of youth organizing, an activist, and a committed neighbor, I became engaged with their work for school change back in 2007.  It was the closest thing I’d seen to democratic, community control of school reform.  And they were doing awesome things. 

They went from being a school where young people were in rebellion, literally communicating their outrage at the education they were receiving by trying to set the school on fire, to a place where Restorative Practices were being used to handle conflict, where they got to work on real neighborhood issues of land use and urban transformation, where the academies functioned like small schools, where the principal believed in her staff and students and allowed for distributive leadership. 

I went to volunteer there on my year out of the classroom.  I wanted to work there.

And I got to.  Two-and-a-half years, and a position cut, hiring freeze, lay off, and last-minute hiring process later, I was officially a teacher at West Philly HS.

Except, it wasn’t West Philly HS anymore.

The District had targeted the school as a ‘failure’ and under its Race To The Top era version of manifest destiny, the school was “Renaissanced.”  This meant it was put through a highly controversial and political process of nearly being handed over to a charter, and then, a year later, being restructured under a cookie cutter reform approach called a Promise Academy.  In this process, nearly 90% of the staff was lost, a wholly new administration was brought in, and an overbearing central office rolled out its litany of new mandates and boxed programs and scripted curriculum and test prep and extended day and checklists and observers and reporting and and and…  You get the picture.

It was their approach to school reform.  But it wasn't focused on the real things our students, my colleagues, and the school really needed. 

The school culture that had been taking shape was totally gutted. 
In its place, we got blank walls to cover with standardized materials, white and khaki and navy blue uniforms, and an extreme Discipline and Punish new order.

As you can imagine, my original enthusiasm and idealism about the kind of change we were going to make in our community through this school quickly hit the wall of bureaucracy, bad ideas, and such rampant demoralization as I’d never experienced before.

What does it mean if you FINALLY get to the EXACT place where you WANT TO BE, but it NO LONGER EXISTS? 

It, in fact, had been undermined, gutted, and replaced with a model of teaching and learning that was uninspiring, to say the least, and, I would argue, actually harmful to students and teachers and the future of our city. 

The whole year I tried my hardest to make the best of a bad situation.
Nod and smile, give lip service, and then try to go under the radar.
Like so many teachers have had to do.

But it got to me, seeing students treated like criminals, watching administration care more about the color of a student’s uniform pants than what they were learning in my class, being told to follow a script with fidelity, being threatened by the looming danger of the central office if I stepped out of line, trying to build up a wall to not notice how horrible student behavior had become as they met adults’ expectations for how bad they would act.
It got to me, not having leadership who wanted to talk about our mission for why we were there or our vision for what we wanted our students to be like in 4 years, not having the deeper types of conversations with my colleagues about the purpose of education or reflecting on our practice and giving professional feedback, not feeling like my energy was being met and expanded upon but that it was being shut down on most fronts.

Don’t get me wrong, my classroom was, for the most part fun, creative, and critical.  My students grew, became more reflective and analytical, developed more empathy, tried things they’d never tried before.  My students’ parents for the most part knew me, were excited about what their children were learning, and were surprised with how many times I called just to say that their child did something amazing in class.

And, in all truth, even though I took more sick days this past year than I ever had, and even though I felt like the administration could turn on me at any point, and even though I couldn’t stomach how badly students were being treated or the things the school seemed to prioritize, and even though there was no assurance that our school would stay a public school for very many years more, I wanted to stay.

But then, like clockwork, last spring the central office sent me a form letter that told me I had been force transferred.  My principal told me I was a little ‘outside the box.’  My union couldn’t help me.

And the principal from this amazing alternative school, El Centro de Estudiantes, a Big Picture School, had contacted me.  They had a spot open for this next schoolyear.  Why didn’t I come in to check it out, find out more, apply?

And I did.  The whole model of the school is to place the learning back into students’ hands.   Teachers facilitate students unlocking their passions and interests, and then students get internships to do real world learning for two days a week.  When they’re back in school, they’re working on inquiry-driven, multi-disciplinary projects that somehow intersect with their internships.  Teachers, who are called Advisors, are more like project managers, helping students structure their learning and their projects.  The school has a small-community culture, where advisors truly support their students, conflict is handled in restorative ways, and students are trying to build themselves in preparation for their actual lives.

So, because of several reasons:
- Being jerked around endlessly by the District for the past 7 years
- Seeing the limits of innovation/vision that the current administration has for our district's direction
- Remembering my frustration with the climate/culture of my school last year
- Feeling genuinely excited about a student-centered, project-based environment
- Being ready to keep growing as an educator

I’ve decided to leave the District and work at this small alternative school.

I am heartbroken.
And it is bittersweet.
Because I am also excited.

Hopefully I can grieve the loss of something that, while intensely frustrating and absolutely dysfunctional, was what I wanted to do, so I can gear up for a new way of approaching teaching and learning.

I’m not a stranger to heartbreak. None of us in public education are. 
I know I can mend.  We’ve had to countless times before.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Breaking Heart, or Stories of School Reform.

My heart is breaking today.

The person who tells me what to do, told me what to do: another endless pile of paperwork with an endless stream of check-off boxes.

No, she didn’t just tell me to do them, she said, “If you don’t, the person above all of us will come in and insult you in front of your students and then fire you.”

So, this is what we’ve been reduced to?
Endless Administrivia.

As far as I can see in my neighborhood high school in Philadelphia, everyone has been running around like mad for the past week about a minor type of writing program they want us to institute, as if this one thing is the new silver bullet for our schools.

As if it will somehow solve the educational inequity and entrenched poverty and generational illiteracy that truly plagues our students.

Again, I ask, is this what we’ve been reduced to?

Believing that if we just tweak a rubric, enforce more paperwork, hunt for some ever-elusive ‘accountability protocol,’ that we will somehow Fix Our Schools.

I don’t know if anyone else notices, but our country is facing some of the most severe problems we’ve seen in several lifetimes. People’s debt has soared, jobs are nowhere to be found, elected officials slash one social service after another, mass incarceration rates are skyrocketing, and the already extreme gap between rich and poor people continues to increase by the day.

At the same time, any teacher will tell you that students are coming to them with fewer hard academic skills, a decreased ability to deal with their emotions, and an incredible lack of critical thinking or analytical ability.

And the best thing anyone running the School District can think of is to force all of its teachers to fill out more paperwork?

Of course my heart is breaking.

This isn’t education. This is busywork. And very consuming, depleting busywork at that.

Where is the space for real conversations about the purpose of education in our students’ lives, for the future of our city?

Where is the encouragement to move our curriculum and pedagogy to be more engaging, relevant, student-centered?

Where is the mentoring for educators to improve the ways we make learning whole, the ways we ask powerful questions, the ways we craft a day?

Where is the fierce belief that we can all move ourselves toward a new world in which we are liberated and free, equipped with the skills and strategies needed to solve the problems that life presents us?

Nowhere, as far as I can tell. Just broken hearts and broken promises and broken-down schools that get turned over to private managers.

It is not too much to demand that our schools fundamentally change to meet the needs of our changing society.
It is possible.

But, what I’m realizing today, what I’ve been working for years to not say out loud, is that it may not be possible inside of a top-heavy District with endless mandates and no true direction.

So, today my heart is breaking, because I want to believe so fully in the potential of the neighborhood school where I work. But not under these conditions. Not under this lack of vision. Not inside these threats.

I want to be an educator in a school that is fully funded, has a liberatory mission, distributes decision-making through true local governance, and ensures curricular autonomy.

Don’t you?

Then, how can we get there? I’m ready.