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.

2 comments:

  1. Astrology all depends from an individual to another. How a person thinks from one point of view to another...its all about how strong your belief is and what you believe in.
    Regards
    Zodiac Signs

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is of course a story i now too well. I knew where it was going. the heartbreak for me though, is in being forced out because you're too 'outside the box.' That there is what is emblematic of public education 7 where it's headed. Here's the consolation, and the new work: you've gone somewhere where you get to do the kind of work such that, those youth, can walk with the youth coming out of public schools to effect positive transformation. That will be one of your charges; how to get your students not only to transform themselves, but their peers.

    ReplyDelete