On Someone Else’s Turf

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Another paper I found in my file drawer purge is one I’m proud of. I have only a vague memory of writing it, but it brought back a whole year’s work that helped me make the transition from my own classroom to being a visitor in others. The problem is that it’s 19 pages long. Posting it in full would attract an even smaller audience than my typical 3-pagers, so I will try to spotlight some excerpts and invite anyone who is interested in the whole work to drop me a note and I’ll send it along.

First, a little background. I was drawn to the work of the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago by its grand and ambitious mission to improve literacy instruction in some of Chicago’s lowest performing schools. Toward that end, the Center chose a network of 8 schools across the city in which to concentrate its efforts which consisted of training literacy coordinators who would serve as resident resources and literacy support people in each school. In addition, my partner Lou Bradley and I each chose one of the 8 schools in which to create a demonstration classroom where visiting teachers from that school and elsewhere could see, in settings similar to their own, the kinds of practices we were encouraging them to adopt.

My school, let’s call it McCullough, is on Chicago’s Far Southside , a once flourishing neighborhood populated by the thousands of workers in the steel mills that lined the shore of Lake Michigan. When the mills closed, the neighborhood declined dramatically, and the area fell victim to gang violence and all the other ills that accompany disinvestment. The school was a promising venue for our work because the principal, Alma Rojas (all fictional names), had herself been trained in literacy practices that overlapped with ours: workshop approaches in reading and writing, small group training in book discussion, extensive use of journals and teaching organized around thematic units.

The decision for which classroom to choose as the site for what was being called the Literacy Learning Classroom (LLC) was Alma’s to make. We had our eye on a young Latina teacher who was hungry for coaching and whose room was already a visual delight, but Alma decided we should work with Barbara McElroy instead. It was a political, rather than a qualitative decision – payback for years of service to the school and an attempt to balance favors distributed to the staff along racial lines. (Barbara was Black.) It was the first lesson of many in the frustrations and limitations of operating on someone else’s turf, which eventually led us to the daring decision later to start our own school, a place where we controlled all the variables, allowing us to make decisions based on quality rather than political expediency.

The very nature of coaching and mentoring work is about acknowledging and accepting the limitations of operating on someone else’s turf. Never did Barbara even clear a space for me that was entirely my own. Each morning I would drape my coat over the book rack containing the class’s set of encyclopedias and park myself in a corner adjacent to her desk. And these were HER students, sometimes on loan to me for brief periods but clearly hers nonetheless. The absence of a place to literally hang my hat was part of a larger turf issue. Teachers are territorial animals, no less than animalswho spray the boundaries of their domain. One of the major losses I was suffering in my new role, fresh from more than a quarter century in my own classroom, was an inviolate home base, a place which I had complete license to shape according to my tastes and beliefs. As an advisor/consultant/coach I was stateless, tolerated on foreign soil until my visa expired.

The situation in Barbara’s class was a rude reminder of the shaky underpinnings of the entire enterprise I had signed on for . Many of us who, by choice, have stayed the course in the profession are driven by a messianic impulse, reluctant though we might be to admit it. Yet the business of salvation requires a measure of control and power over the situation at hand. If you burn with a passion to “save” your students, however you choose to define that salvation, you must be in charge of all the elements that will support that effort. There are no job descriptions for Assistant Messiah or Messianic Facilitator. The work can’t be accomplished on someone else’s turf.

Nonetheless the work moved forward. Barbara’s attitude was never hostile. Although it was sometimes grudging, she listened to my suggestions about space, scheduling, pacing and materials politely, she often surprised me by incorporating the ideas into her classroom almost without acknowledging that they had been discussed. She took notes diligently at our weekly planning meetings, forty-minute sprints crammed into the time crevices between the end of morning classes and lunch hour.

It was sometimes disheartening to watch all this advice implemented without a glimmer of passion or excitement. My heart sank when Barbara announced a one-day research project for Women’s History Month. What is the nature of the professional development work that could bring teachers like Barbara to the point of being able to stir in students the desire to stretch, to extend, to dig deeper? Few teachers have had this experience themselves, and perhaps we need to create opportunities for them to immerse themselves in some extended learning experience themselves before they can lead their students to that experience, just as we should expect writing teachers to write themselves. But where is the framework in the life of schools to provide this experience?

Barbara was a far better than average representative of her profession. Despite falling short of my lofty expectations, she grew in so many ways during our year together. She threw herself into the Literature Circles we created and, to my delight, even began to share her own writing with her students, making herself vulnerable in ways new to her. In the Biblical passages describing the Jews’ receipt of the Laws from God, the response of the awed recipients is, roughly translated: we will do and we will hear. The order of these verbs shows an astute understanding of the process by which new ideas are internalized. First the action, then the understanding and integration. That’s what I was struggling to keep in mind as I was observing Barbara’s uneven growth.

I left Barbara’s room under a cloud of depression, despite the unexpected party she and her kids organized for me on my last day. The class had never quite jelled into a loving, supportive community of the kind I was frequently able to achieve in my classroom. Even the elements of the literacy framework that were now in place in Barbara’s room felt “off.” It was as if I were hearing a poem I had written spoken in the accent of a non-native English speaker. The words were there, but the music and rhythm were absent, rendering the original unrecognizable.

In the end, I’m not certain whether my gloomy departure from Barbara’s room had as much to do with her as with my own mourning for my lost classroom. What I was suffering from was akin to a parent’s helplessness at sending into the world children you have labored at provisioning for their own journey. Now you must stand aside as you watch them making it on their own. Two vastly different enterprises – living your own life and guiding others on how to live theirs. Of course, my work with Barbara was not a parent/child relationship. She was a strong Black woman with years of teaching experience, all filters through which she would pass what I offered and emerge with something with her stamp on it. Isn’t that what all teaching, coaching and mentoring are about?

Several weeks after my farewell to Barbara’s class, we met at an end-of-year party. She came bearing two gifts – her class’s scores on the almighty achievement tests and a copy of the collection of student writing that I had compiled and edited. Barbara had pasted pictures of each student alongside his/her contribution to the anthology. Between us we had fashioned a yearbook of her students’ seventh grade year.

The test scores were the usual confusion of surprising leaps and disappointing plateaus – or worse. On the whole, though, it was a respectable performance, with just enough successes to convince Barbara that the road we had started on together might lead to some attractive destinations. That was a journey she would have to undertake on her own.

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Marv Hoffman

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