Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 17 2012

Thus ends the infamous Year One

Overheard during an Operations session
E: “When I’m stressed, I like to take a shower and then lie in my bed naked.”
a couple minutes later…
D: “When I’m stressed, I like to walk into E’s room.”


[Disclaimer: This is probably the longest and most scatter-brained post I've ever written. Consider yourself warned.]

As last days go, Thursday was pretty anticlimactic. No kids showed up—surprise, surprise—so I spent the whole day taking down posters and bulletin boards, cleaning off my desk, clearing out the closet, and labeling EVERYTHING with my room number. (No joke—I even labeled my bouncy beach ball, in case the custodians decide to have a little fun with it in the hallway.) Cleaning is tedious, mind-numbing work, but it did give me the chance to reflect on the past year at length.

A bit of framing: two Saturdays ago, a full month after my evaluation lesson, my principal (Mrs. C) called me in for our post-observation conference. (I don’t actually blame her for the delay, since she’s worked harder than any of us this year—though that in itself speaks to how constrained principals are by district and state expectations. But I digress.) Mrs. C sat me down and told me, in no uncertain terms, that she considered me one of the best teachers at the school, and that if the district ever tried to push me into an administrative role, she would fight them to the death.

Of course, I initially felt elated. What first-year teacher doesn’t want to hear that he or she has been effective, especially from a principal who has worked with teachers in the same district for over a decade? But after the conference, I reflected on what her positive evaluation of me meant in relation to my less-than-stellar evaluation of myself, and ultimately in terms of student achievement.

Consider this: in the 2011-2012 academic year, only 10% of Providence Public School juniors scored Proficient or above in math on the 11th grade NECAP assessment. Proficiency drops to 7% if you don’t consider Classical, the only high school in Providence that requires an entrance exam. At my school, proficiency was a paltry 3%. (Though this is technically an infinite-fold increase over last year’s proficiency rate of 0%. Har har.) Knowing what I know about the rigor of NECAP questions, this means that an overwhelming majority of high school students in Providence are not prepared for college- and career-level math, critical thinking, or problem-solving. And frankly, I’ve done pitifully little of that with my students this year, so what does the fact that I was still rated effective (almost highly effective) imply? I’ll let you sit on that.

What’s clear to me, at least, is that I have a million and one things that I need to get better at in order to truly put my students on a different life trajectory, both academically and personally. So in the spirit of continuously increasing effectiveness, the following is a list of priorities that I plan to work on over the summer, so that I can enter my classroom in the fall ready to hit the ground running.

  • I need to invest students in a concise and kid-friendly vision for the class. Although I wrote a vision statement at the beginning of last August (thanks to First Eight Weeks programming) and even shared it with my students on the first day, it was a 4-page behemoth that we really didn’t return to for the rest of the year. At all. One of the biggest differences that I see between my classroom and online videos of exemplary classrooms is that in the latter, every student can articulate the overarching vision of the class and how it applies to not only his or her academics, but also his or her future goals, interactions with others, and development as an individual. I think a good way to get there is by making the language of the vision much tighter and kid-friendly (maybe even just using a set of words), as well as by explicitly describing how everything we do contributes to that vision (and encouraging students to do the same).
  • I need to reach out to parents and community members. It would be disingenuous to say that I need to reach out to them more, because I didn’t reach out to them at all this year. This was largely unintentional, with more immediate first-year concerns pushing parent communication to the bottom of my priorities list, but I think most people would agree that involving parents in their children’s education is a good thing.
  • I need to use more inquiry-based learning and less of the official TFA-sanctioned lesson planning template. “Inquiry-based learning” sounds like one of those fluffy terms that would get tossed around in academic papers about education, but having seen it in action in multiple classrooms (including my own, the few times this year when I was feeling bold), I’m realizing more and more that student learning is infinitely stickier when they’re asked to use their prior knowledge to solve interesting, authentic tasks, which are extremely difficult to incorporate into the traditional five-step lesson plan. Of course, this means that I won’t be able to recycle many of my lessons from this past year, but that was probably going to be the case anyway.
  • I need to be more transparent with data and celebrate progress more often. Although I had several investment strategies this year, including a Data Wall, Math Success Wall, and Student Of The Week board, I never really discussed them with the kids. Worse, I rarely publicized when students had made progress, hit a mastery goal, or acted praiseworthily. Ultimately, this meant that students were not invested in my systems and didn’t understand the rationale behind tracking and reflecting on data. Next year, I plan to explicitly incorporate and celebrate student achievement directly in my lessons, so as to remind them that most successful individuals rarely become successful by chance, but rather through meticulously tracking of themselves and reflecting on how to improve.
  • I need to get better at action planning and time management. More on this soon, since my role this summer is almost nothing but action planning and time management. Exciting? I would say so.


As you could probably tell from the “overheard” above, I’m currently at the NYC Institute university site for Week 0 and sitting through countless sessions on how to be an effective staff member and operational leader. I’m enjoying it immensely, believe it or not, but what I’m really looking forward to is the arrival of incoming corps members next weekend and the opportunity to support their development as new teachers. It’s been great to read the recent spate of Institute-related posts on Teach For Us, and I plan to be mindful of them in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

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    New city, same vision

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