My last day of working in a NYC public school was in June of last year. I had been coaching teachers and working with students the previous four years at a public International High School in NYC, and I had been teaching for two decades before that as well. When I went to tell the principal at the end of the school year that I would not be returning, she asked me what my thoughts were on improving the school. I told her I would write her a letter. Here are some excerpts of that letter I wrote to her.
I greatly appreciated it when you asked me what my thoughts were about how the school could be improved. I wasn’t expecting that, and it shows a real commitment to education and the school to ask that…
As soon as one walks into this school, its greatest strength is immediately apparent: a sense of community and a sense of caring by teachers and administrators… That tone always comes from the top and is transmitted throughout the school, to the teachers first, a sense that their contributions and thoughts and lives are valued. That in turn is transmitted to the students, again, that their lives are valuable and that they are valued, that that is the whole point of this thing. And it’s not easy for the school leader, because in a very bureaucratic structure, one is always pressured to produce results with metrics and standards that are often meaningless to anyone but those in the bureaucracy. And the pressures can be substantial, as you well know. It takes personal courage and conviction to stand one’s ground in the face of those above as to what ultimately and really is most important for one’s school and one’s students, and the development of a democratic, egalitarian society. And when teachers and students sense that this is where the person at the top stands, a true community is born.
We live in the real world, so I must talk about the real world. Particularly with respect to our international students and the current political climate, I think it is important that our school forms alliances to protect itself from the vultures all around. First off, I think it important to build further alliances with the other public schools in the building. [The charter school in the building] is going to try to keep chipping away at any free space in the building it can. I’ve seen it happen elsewhere, we are not immune. I’ve seen it come to the point where schools which once had classroom space were squeezed out of their own homes and facilities. The alliance with other public school principals in the building is so important. We presently have a building-wide sports team; I think it might be worth investigating other areas where we can encourage other programs across schools. For example, we might be able to address the economics of Advanced Placement programs by having building-wide AP programs, one school supplying an AP English class for example, while another school provides an AP Spanish class (wouldn’t that be great for our students to be building on their strengths!) or AP Computer class. And building-wide orchestra and band classes, funded by outside grants…
It’s very important that the Network principals come to an understanding what they stand for, independently of what the Network Superintendent’s official position is. I will be very frank here: I do not know anything at all about the present Network superintendent, so what I am saying is not based on anything personal. I only say that Superintendents come and go easily, it is a politically sensitive position, and there have been times in the past when they didn’t even understand what the mission of our schools was, even while they were supposed to be leading it. It is up to you and the rest of the principals to keep that flame alive, and you can only do that by communicating and working together with the other principals and together taking the lead.
Frankly—and I’m probably over-stepping my bounds here, but here I go—I am very, very disappointed with some of the principals and the principal’s union in this city. Where are their voices??? Why is it only the teacher’s union that you see and hear consistently trying to get money for students and schools? Why is it only the teachers who are the public face of the pro-immigration and anti-charter movements here in NYC? Teachers have been so demonized in the public sphere that our clout on such issues have been lessened; but principals as school leaders should be talking out as a group about these issues and taking strong public stands about what helps to make their schools run best. Instead of fighting among themselves over a dwindling pot of money, dwindling resources, dwindling physical space, dwindling support staff, onerous bureaucratic rules, onerous amounts of standardized testing, and absurd evaluation schemes, principals, too, must stand together and say, “Enough. We are the experts. This is what we need, these are the conditions, money and resources for a school to run effectively, and for our teachers to teach our children effectively.” Which principals are going to speak up at a principal’s union meeting and bring these issues up to the union leadership and ask them to take a public stand for once? The principals should asking—demanding—that their resources and money not be stolen from them by the charters getting free space and disbursements at their expense. Principals could have great collective power, if they used it.
Okay, back to immediate school issues…
One of the most troubling things I have experienced at this school was the way that the boys’ bathroom was treated: continually trashed. Because that to me is a symptom of students not feeling as if they are a part of the community; it is a symptom of feeling that the school and teachers have one set of interests, but the students see their own interests are different. In no small part, the task of staff at most urban high schools is to effect that transition in students’ minds, where they go from seeing the school as an adversary, to understanding it as an ally for their future plans. In most schools in poor neighborhoods I have taught in, that shift does not occur until late junior year or senior year. I am happy to say that here at this school I see it happen more often in 10th grade or early 11th grade. And that is because after a disoriented 9th grade, students soon begin to see themselves as part of the school community. They pick up pretty quickly that we’re here to further their dreams.
But for some students, the idea of a better life just seems too impossible, and they don’t get it, and they try to put themselves outside the community by vandalizing. Our biggest ally in such cases are their older peers. When some 9th grade Yemeni boys were trashing the bathroom, the teachers figured out that we had to get to the 12th grade Yemeni boys, and explain to them, that just as they had matured from being knuckleheaded 9th graders who didn’t understand what the school was about, they had to explain to the present 9th graders how we do things in this school, and how the school has helped them. While it didn’t entirely solve the problem, some of the worst instances abated…
One last thing: one of the best staff building practices I encountered was the tradition we had at my old school to spend a morning set aside at the end of each school year to have staff reflections. Staff and admins would sit in a circle and read out loud their reflections about the year that had just past. They were the joys, sorrows, successes, frustrations, new ideas, hopes, dreams that we wished to share. There was no set format. Some wrote poems, some wrote essays (not as long as this, thank goodness!) most were serious, some were not. But we all did it, even as we complained and scrambled the night before, or morning of, to complete it. And it was one of the most powerful things we did: to sit and go round the circle and take the time to hear each other’s humanness, and understand how hard this thing we try to do is, and see each other and ourselves anew as the year wound down. It gave hope for the next year. The written reflections were all collected, photocopied, and a full set given to each member of the community.
I knew my old school was on the way down when the new admins did away with that reflection tradition “in the interest of time.” If you want teachers to go above and beyond, to do the real thing, then they have to be given a lot of autonomy, support, resources, and their deeper humanity has to be recognized.
Each teacher has so much more to give than may be evident on the surface. They would love to share their talents if given the opportunity, support and resources. Reflections provide a window into who each teacher is as a full human being…
I am confident that you have the strength to stand up for what you know is right in this time: to continue to build a vibrant democratic community of engaged and engaging human beings working to understand this world and each other.
Thanks again for giving me this opportunity to make my last years of teaching real and useful. That is the best gift any principal can give to a teacher.