The Dean's Dish

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 01 2011

Catching my breath

Dear Readers,
What a whirlwind the last 3 weeks have been. However, before I talk about school, I want to address the original reason I started this blog. For those of you that don’t know, Teach For Us is the national non-profit organization that hosts this and 800+ other teacher/administrator/TFA Alum blogs. It started in 2006 as the brain child of a good friend of mine. Last summer, it was officially given non-profit status by the IRS and when I was asked to sit on the board, I enthusiastically agreed because networking teachers across the educational reform movement makes a lot of sense to me. We are all facing the same challenges and successes in our respective schools, why not share out stories across the country? I had little knowledge about what it meant to be on a non-profit board but when a friend asks for help, I don’t think twice.

Fast forward to spring of 2011. During one board meeting, I was asked if I would start a blog as none of the other board members are currently in classrooms or working directly in schools. It made sense to try and understand the ‘blogger’s perspective’ as they are the reason why we exist and fundraise in the first place. It also coincided with my summer job in Chicago working to support the Teach for America movement and felt like the right thing to do. You can read all about that journey by going back in my blog entries. This isn’t something I picked up because I was bored or had free time. It was something the board asked me to do in order to better support our growing non-profit.

Anyways, back to tales of my current school. Tardies are continuing to fall and between the 3 block periods of the day (not counting the first block), we are down to around 60-80 tardies compared to about 250 in that same time span last year. While that is a solid improvement and step in the right direction, that still means 10% of our school gets 1 tardy a day (again, outside of period 1). Attacking the late to school problem is going to have to take another approach and one that is still getting refined. Don’t worry, we will get there! All of our students that live within in 2 miles must walk to school. For some, that means a 30 minute walk every morning which is not a desirable activity for students who might not be as positively engaged with school as they should. The cornerstone of the work faculty are doing to cultivate this change is to positively celebrate students and not just spend all energy on students doing incorrect actions. We have a school-wide incentive system that is working really well to celebrate students when they do the right thing. By highlighting students for doing what’s right, we are starting to shift the culture in a really powerful and meaningful way. When kids come to me to redeem their ‘Rough Rider in Action’ tickets, they are all smiles because they are getting attention for doing the right thing instead of being ignored in lieu of the student who is doing the wrong thing. They truly appreciate getting some positive attention, even if it is a tiny 1′ square ticket and a tootsie pop or pack of smarties. When you overlay that positive focus against a focus of heightened accountability for students who are choosing to be late to class, you get the spark of foundational change.

Please don’t misunderstand, we have a long way to go. Our enrollment is still low and new students are showing up daily to get their schedule and report to class for the first time. As new students come on board, they are quickly seeing how things are different yet each one has to learn independently the new policy and catch up on 3 weeks worth of lost instruction. The leadership team is also working to refine school-wide classroom behaviour systems. For as any educator knows, without solid management both inside and outside the classroom, a class or school cannot reach its fullest academic potential.

As all the pieces continue to get fine-tuned and reformatted to support the vision of our leader, one cannot help but be amazed at the potential and current trajectory of this school. Students want to learn and go on to college, trade school, or career in the military. Teachers, support staff and administrators work tirelessly to do whatever is necessary to create these opportunities for our students. Just yesterday I helped an AP Lit teacher set up her donorschoose account so she could get 5 steps to a 5, a well-respected AP test prep book that will support expanded opportunities for her students. After school today I met with co-teachers to help strengthen their working relationships so all of our classrooms and students can benefit. Next week the freshman and sophomores will register for the PLAN and EXPLORE tests which serve as an ACT predictor. The 9th and 10th grade teams are devising a plan to incorporate those scores into 4-year and post-secondary planning so that these tests actually mean something to our kiddos, not just something they are forced to do.

One thing of note I did experience this week was my first experience with student death related to senseless violence. For those readers who work at comprehensive high schools, this is not a new phenomenon, however for me, it was new and a sobering reality check. As my principal says, educating these students really is a life or death matter. What you say to them today, positive or negative, might be the last chance you encounter them. He has such a way of tapping the root of why we all do this work. One phrase he uses often, “If not us, then who?”

This is why I am in education and why teaching is so important. If we don’t stand up as a country to support the growth and nurturing of the young people in this country, who will? Then when we need them to take care of us or discover new energy reserves or whatever the future might hold, who will stand up and be ready?

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    Ramblings from an Alum in School Administration

    St. Louis
    High School

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