The cloud factor

I had an interesting conversation with a teacher who used to work in my school, whom I will call Joe. He was one of our strongest teachers and a leader in our school. After about five years of working in high needs, under-resourced schools, he made the decision to transfer to a KIPP school, where he could still work with students who come from poor families, but where the school would provide all the resources and support he needed.

Joe said the two jobs are like night and day. He described a school that is tightly and thoughtfully organized, highly supportive, and fully resourced. He works a longer day, but gets paid for it, rather than arriving early and staying late voluntarily, as most of my colleagues and I do. The long afternoon, he explained, includes a few hours of band for the entire middle school. During this time, teachers meet and then pull out small groups of carefully selected students for targeted interventions.

Students are indoctrinated into strict behavior standards, which they almost always meet (all of the students have been at the school since sixth grade). This includes becoming completely silent when the teacher claps two times. Students are explicitly taught how to discuss their feelings with their peers and solve problems. The curriculum for this portion of the program is provided for teachers. Students who consistently do not comply with the behavior standards can be counseled to leave the school and attend their neighborhood zoned school.

I was most intrigued when Joe said this: “All the behavior stuff is basically taken care of for you. I feel like now, I’ve become such a better teacher than I ever was. I didn’t fully realize it before, but all the craziness that was constantly going on around me was clouding my teaching. With all of that gone, I can identify my weak points and improve on them.”

This was a little hard for me to hear. I knew exactly what he was talking about and have felt this clouding effect at times in two very different high needs schools in New York City. With the exception of one student teaching placement at Bank Street’s own School For Children (a private lab school), I have always taught in an environment that had some dysfunctional aspects to it. In many cases, these dysfunctions are not the fault of anyone at the school, but rather, are related to the lack of adequate funding of the school’s resources or the unstable home lives of the students.

For example, I may plan a lesson that involves students researching something on the Internet, only to find that a good number of the computers on the laptop cart I have signed out won’t connect or won’t even turn on. We have no technician on staff to maintain the computers, and we likely never will, because we spend our limited funds on more pressing things. I can either stop using computers completely, which seems like a disservice to my students, or I can take my chances every time. In another example of unavoidable dysfunction, I have a few students with chronic attendance problems. The school has made home visits, reported the families to ACS, but the attendance problems persist in some cases. When I strategically assign my students to work in partners for a project, I may find that a student is absent for days with no explanation, leaving someone without a partner for the duration of the project, while the absent student misses the entire learning experience. These are both issues that a fully resourced school–with the power to make noncompliant students transfer out—can prevent from happening (for better or for worse).

Teachers at schools like mine get used the multitude of x factors. In fact, we stop expecting everything to be “just so” and start going out of our way to plan for all of the unexpected things that might happen. Does this make us less effective? Maybe it does, in a way. It is harder to address problems quickly and effectively, when new problems present themselves simultaneously. But is it fair to call us less effective? Is it actually fair to measure my effectiveness in the same way my former colleague’s teaching is now measured, when the playing field is not level? Is the job of teaching in these very disparate environments even the same?

If the quality of my teaching is measured by my students’ scores on the same test that Joe’s students also take, and soon, I am compensated based on this same determination, then tell me-why should I keep on working at a school that can’t provide me everything I need to reach my full potential as a teacher?

If I can choose to be “more effective” in a “better” school, then what is really being measured?

[image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/ wiki/Image:Clouds.JPG]