Thursday, April 26, 2018

A License to Teach

When I moved to Denver from Portland and started working at Lake International School, I thought I had a good sense of how to do this teaching job right.  I had 8 years under my belt in rural, suburban, and urban schools, though most in rural.  I was appreciated by colleagues and administrators at these schools, at least partially due to my skills as a teacher.  I had finished my master's degree, had a reading specialist endorsement, and taught a successful model lesson at Lake, an inner city school with over 95% of their students on free or reduced lunch.  I had two job offers on the same day and jumped at Lake because I hadn't done it, the model lesson went so well, the school was beautiful, and it was a middle school, which I've wanted to teach in since I was in middle school.

The principal asked me a question after I did my model lesson: "You used a number of cues to get students' attention or to get them to do what you wanted them to do.  How do you set that up at the beginning of the year?"  I didn't have a good answer for her, but she said she was willing to take a "leap of faith" for me.  The right answer now (I think, or a part of the answer), almost two years later, is to expect 100% compliance every time.  When I taught at St. Helens, I could get 70% on day one.  At Lake, I got 80% during that first month.  And it steadily decreased from then on.  I am certain my principal regretting taking that leap of faith.

I spend a lot of time in my classroom building community.  At Health and Science School, the public magnet school I worked at, I spent the first month on nearly nothing but that, and reaped the benefits.  But I think doing that at Lake gave the students the idea that it would be all touchy-feely all the time.  I should have done a little bit of that each day, but I should have shown them how hard we could work, because by the time I was ready to do work, I'd already lost their respect (or, rather, hadn't earned it to begin with).

The biggest thing, though, the number one cause of my failure as an inner-city teacher, is going into the job with guilt.  I reasoned, both consciously and unconsciously, that I lived a childhood of privilege.  There was always food on the table.  My parents only had to work one job.  I lived in a safe neighborhood.  My brother didn't deal drugs. So what right did I have to tell someone without all those supports what to do?

My right came from two college degrees and a teaching license.  But instead of exercising that right, I gave them the idea that I didn't care.

Both my coach and my principal tried to tell me that.  But it took 10 weeks of summer to get it through my thick skull.

I didn't get the chance to continue at Lake, which is probably good.  I'm not ready for the big leagues.  But I did learn a lot that has improved my practice this year:

  • No nonsense nurturing
  • The skillful use of sentence frames
  • Focused Rove
  • Extremely useful lesson planning that doesn't create an overwhelming workload
  • Planning ahead be creating exemplars
  • Brain breaks
And I imagine I'll add more to this list as I think of it.  And link to posts about each one from here.

I can feel a divide developing in my career between pre-Lake and post-Lake.  Pre-Lake, in Oregon, I presented lessons, provided feedback, retaught what I needed to, graded summative assessments; I did everything to make me good teacher, and enough to score "effective" on my districts' evaluation rubrics.

Post-Lake, I make students learn1. And I've seen sometimes this year, I can make them like it.

And that's why this is my anthem this year:

1. Not that the students aren't due the credit. They've worked for it. (I just made them. Bwahahaha!) Go back.