Tears, progress, departure - One teacher, one year, one school
Listen to a dedicated, thoughtful young teacher in the fall of 2016, and then this spring, in her third—and as it turned out—her final year in the classroom. Perhaps representative of many.
Part I – November 2016
“So take a good look at my face/ You’ll see my smile looks out of place”
(“Tracks of my Tears,” Smokey Robinson)
She can still put on nice smile when I sit down with her at the coffee shop, but the year three teacher is hiding the tracks of her tears. The school year is not going well.
The crux of the matter for her middle school: student behavior, discipline, a sense that 30 kids who are “given referrals” for misbehavior are “having an impact on the culture of the school” every day. Given the number of stealing incidents, she tells me: “I now need to lock the doors to my classroom all the time.”
“I have a deep desire to be working with students of color, with students who don’t typically get a high-quality education, but there are too many moments when it feels like our school is not working.”
In the first eight weeks of school, three teachers have already quit.
Overwhelmed by behavior management
“The first few weeks we had only one dean, who had to deal with what seemed like 100 referrals a day!” (After it became clear this was not working the principal shifted two other staff members into the role of dean, so now each grade has a “dean.”)
“Students are yelling from their seats, they’re throwing objects, their language is inappropriate. I don’t give referrals immediately – usually after giving them 3-4 opportunities to correct their behavior. … It’s exhausting.”
She speaks of the challenge “we are having difficulty connecting with the community”—as the staff is largely white, and most students come from families of color.
PH: Does your school use restorative justice? Is it effective?
“We tried it this year. We hired a trainer too. We now have 20 kids in the referral room—we had to make it an entire room as the numbers were too great for the small space they were in before. I don’t understand why so many students choose to NOT FOLLOW expectations.”
Yes, she told me, the school still uses elements of restorative justice, but too often it did not seem to produce any better behavior.
“For restorative justice to work you need to have PRODUCTIVE AND HEALTHY conversation with the kid. Without having established relationships or accountable systems then the basic expectation will not be met and the conversation will not be effective.”
Of course any principal or teacher—on seeing high referral rates and struggles with classroom management—must ask what is or is not happening with instruction and efforts to engage students. She believes that the teaching and the content for her grade are strong. That might sound defensive, a way to brush aside what might not be working in the classroom, but as she sees it:
“When a kid has decided they don’t want to do the work and be cooperative, when you have five or six students in one classroom who resist and behave so badly, it becomes challenging to get the rest of the class focused on the work at hand…. I don’t know what we’re doing wrong. I don’t know what it’s going to take to make a dramatic change…”
She worries the school may have already been “lost” for the year … a small group of students has established a negative school culture, and it will only be with a new school year that they’ll be able to have the restart that seems so desperately needed.
“It’s hard to proactively plan (for major changes) at this point in the school year…. We don’t have the time needed to plan intently. We are putting out too many small fires when we need to focus on prevention…. Students have begun to feel they can get away with a lot - there’s not a lot we can do –especially with parents. They come in when we ask—to discuss the boy or girl’s behavior. The student says all the right things and it sounds like tomorrow will be different, but then the next day we’re back to the same kind of misbehavior. … It would help if we could reduce class size, add counselors, etc., but with our budget we don't have the resources for that."
The campus – little to make one proud
What other factors, one might ask, make this school particularly tough to work in, and more likely to find students resentful and uncooperative?
“We have no field for them to play on – just a hard top. The building is old; it’s freezing cold in the winter. There’s trash everywhere, dead grass, the appearance is awful.”
PH: And the custodians?
“Our custodial staff comes and goes… After what the kids did to the bathrooms, we recently repainted the bathrooms with kind of paint that won’t allow them to write graffiti. We have to have a staff member posted outside the bathrooms, to make sure the kids aren’t fooling around.”
PH: Are you feeling defeated?
She is not alone. The person with whom she co-teaches her grade, with many more years of teaching experience, is similarly discouraged.
“Neither of us feels like a success when we deal with the consistent, constant challenges of behavior management.”
(A week later, that colleague had quit.)
Near the end of our conversation, she reminds me that her comments focus on a minority of the student body: “80% of the kids are doing the right thing.” It is not as if she does not have any good days, or at least a good class or two.
PH: Can you make it through the year? Will you stay?
She has spoken with her principal of her concerns, and of the possibility that—as with the three teachers who have left since August–she might find it impossible to stick it out until June 1, if positive change is not implemented.
She is grateful to and proud of her colleagues.
“That’s what’s keeping me there. I think that’s what will keep me there through the year. I do not want to let them down, and I do not want to let my students down.”
“It’s a terrible time to be in education. Ten years from now we’re going to have a real big crisis.”
“I want to be a teacher. I want to be successful, but I don’t know how.”
“I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/ A little better all the time”
(“Getting Better,” The Beatles)
Another coffee shop, five months later … she is grading papers by her sixth graders. She looks happy and asks me to look at a couple of answers given by her students. Impressive!
The school – what a change in five months
“The culture at our school has significantly improved… I love my school, my kids, my administration. She (the principal) is an incredibly strong leader…. We’re now in a safe space.”
PH: How did the change at your school come about?
“They came down hard for two months—they were very consistent. If a kid was caught out of class twice or was disrupting learning, he or she was sent home – and a parent HAD to come in and shadow their child for all or much of the day, depending on their needs.”
PH: You spoke in the fall of a few students who seemed un fazed by the light punishments. Were some expelled when the school tightened up?
“About 10 students left voluntarily within the first month, and many began to change because they didn’t want to be sent home for skipping class … We had restroom monitors – substitute teachers stationed at each of bathrooms; students had to sign in to use the restroom.
“Now we don’t have hallway monitors anymore, that’s how much things have changed.
“The majority of our kids stayed. The majority are learning….”
She was skeptical at first about all these changes and if it would work – but it has, for the most part.
“I haven’t referred a kid (to the dean or main office for behavior issues) in many weeks…. We still have kids who are out of class at times. But in the fall there were maybe 20 sixth graders (out of 150) out of class, wandering around, maybe 50 students in the whole building out of class. Now it’s infrequent; now it’s more common to see two or three in the hallway.”
“We’re now at a place where we can do restorative justice. I feel very comfortable with it.”
She had two kids recently who wanted to fight each other. The next day we sat them both down and they both took accountability for what they did. Both said this is what they wanted (to talk it through); they both wanted to, and did, apologize.”
She has done four of these restorative justice sessions – sometimes alone, sometimes with another adult. Eventually she believes students in middle school could lead them, as happens in some high schools. “It would be wonderful, but we’re not quite there yet.”
Extra focus on 6th grade (the school’s first grade) – “how to do school”
She now believes now that, with the appropriate commitment, a middle school like hers “can transform them as students.” “Many sixth graders arrive from nearby schools,” she says, “come to us who don’t know how to do school.” Fall semester of sixth grade in their new school is critical; that’s when they learn what expectations are. She likes the current plan to get the top teachers into sixth grade next fall, to make sure it has the strongest teaching team.
“If you can get the right culture established, have strong teaching and clear expectations established in the grade where new students begin their time in the school, it can make such a difference.”
The work students were producing made her hopeful about end-of-year assessments, and prospects for the School’s Performance rating.
“Classes I have this year seem more engaged, seem more motivated. I see better progress.”
How do you see the big picture for education in our state?
“I know teachers who are in their first year who will not return after this year…. We’re going to have a significant shortage of teachers … because of the cost of living and because teacher pay is not climbing at the same rate as the cost of living…. (In Colorado) we rank about 42nd in teacher pay or something absurd like that… the pay issue has to be addressed.”
“We’re on the right path (nationally anyway) of how to best support students with their social-emotional needs. But I’m really fearful of the next 5-10 years. My generation has a special craving for work-life balance, but for a teacher the demands are growing, the hours are increasing because of top-down policies, and yet the pay stays pretty consistent as the cost of living/housing keeps rising….”
Why, after three years, she’s leaving … teaching
Though optimistic about the school’s future, she has decided to resign. She’s had four different teaching partners this year: one quit; another long-term sub with no experience in a low-income school failed; a third arrived after the holidays and was sick most of her first week, looked overwhelmed, and was gone by week two. The impact of these turnovers with her partner next door (she has had to do most of curriculum design for both classes), to have a new person to work with so often … “it’s hit me hard.” What she has not had through all this, she says, and what she needs, is some “emotional stability.”
Like many TFA alumni who leave the classroom, she is eager to continue to work in education.
Hiring – when, and how
She spoke of the high number of teachers who had not yet revealed if they will be back next year. As the principal is not certain who will or won’t return, hiring gets delayed until June–or later, which, in turn, can alter the quality of the candidates applying.
She hopes the school has candidates teach a class and get a sense of the school culture and the student body. It could reduce the turnover problem if prospective teachers “have a clear idea of what they’re getting into.” Too many find too late that the school is not a good fit, that the challenge is too great.
Teacher turnover in general – and why
In March she spoke of the concern that a huge percentage of teachers might not return. (She told me last week that 30% were not coming back.) She says 50-60% of the faculty are, like her, in Teach for America, or are TFA alumni.
PH: Why such a high turnover?
“The nature of the job. It’s exhausting. We leave for our emotional well-being. We can’t teach very long in schools like this. I shouldn’t be just surviving.”