Note: This is a radical departure from my previous entries, so it calls for some explanation. Alexandra (Alex) Krueger is a graduate of the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago, where I served as Associate Director. We worked together during her two years in the program, and we’ve been fortunate enough to continue our collaboration, at different degrees of intensity, through her seven years of teaching at two different Chicago public schools. It was only part way through that time that it occurred to us that we had a rare opportunity to document her journey from the start to the present when she now has served as a mentor teacher to others preparing to follow in her shoes.
None of this would have been possible without Alex’s extraordinary organizational talents. She had saved journals, lesson plans and curriculum projects, all of which she generously shared with me. My contributions were the extensive stream of emails we have exchanged over the years, which served as scaffolding for my sometimes porous memories. I’ve marked her sections as you would in a play script. She definitely deserves equal billing.
Many of you will not be able to interrupt your busy lives to read a piece of this length. Others will find it outside your areas of interest. We think everyone could benefit from following this story. At a time when respect for teachers is low, seeing what goes into shaping the kind of teachers our children deserve should elicit respect for the effort and dedication that professionals like Alex deserve. We invite you to hear our story.
The Long Scenic Route: A Teacher’s Journey Toward Professional Competence
By Marvin Hoffman and Alexandra Krueger
I haven’t scoured the literature, but I’m guessing that there’s not much written about a teacher’s longitudinal development over a number of years. That’s unfortunate because my colleagues and I at the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) came to think of that development as a trajectory, playing out over time, not one where all the necessary skills are in place by graduation time. Not everyone sees things that way. Principals concerned about their test scores often want instant success from their beginning teachers, expecting them to emerge fully formed from the head of Zeus, ready and equipped to fight the battle for academic achievement from day one. I recently encountered one of the alums of our program, now in his sixth year of teaching. He had an extremely rocky start – a couple of years of really distressing classroom management, which seriously interfered with his ability to teach. Fortunately, he worked under a rare principal who understood “the trajectory” and stayed with him when others would have sent him on his way. Now he is not only a successful classroom teacher but also a mentor teacher for UTEP residents. It took time and support, which came in the form of 3 years of coaching from our program and the encouragement provided by his understanding principals. They didn’t give up on him any more than they would have given up on a struggling student.
Which brings me to Alexandra, aka Alex. To my good fortune, I’ve been able to observe and participate in her development through her two years in our program and the first five years of her teaching in Chicago Public Schools. I didn’t conceive of my work with her over the years as a research project, so I wasn’t taking notes along the way. There are email exchanges and documents from her early years in the program, but I’m relying primarily on my somewhat porous memory, some emails that have survived various computer crashes and purgings and a trove of documents and journals that Alex has generously entrusted to me. I’m hoping to tell a story that might illuminate how teachers grow from their training years through their novice status and on into something we might think of as mature professional status. I’m hoping that Alex will add her own reflections on the journey.
Alex was one of the 22 members of UTEP’s 8th cohort. Up to that point in the history of the program, the participants, like Alex, had been mostly white, but thanks to considerable recruiting effort, this was the first group that was equally balanced between whites and students of color. In addition, after a number of years when the program was open exclusively to University of Chicago students entering their senior year, Alex was one of only two fourth years in that year’s program.
Alex grew up in a diverse Cleveland suburb. Both of her parents had received Ph.Ds, were involved in activist causes and had instilled in her a sense of responsibility that her privilege required of her. She attended a liberal church that welcomed LGBTQ worshippers. Unlike some privileged students drawn to teaching, she was not in any way motivated by the kind of guilt that cripples effectiveness in the classroom. Throughout her school years she was passionately involved in music and sports. To this day, she continues to play violin in various orchestras and compete in high level Ultimate Frisbee events which she pursues in tournaments around the country. Her involvement in these activities has served to make her comfortable across gender lines and also to allow her to exude an air of quiet confidence that has served her well in some of the trying situations that she has encountered over this seven-year trajectory. One of her recommenders wrote “… I was also impressed with Alex’s passion for issues surrounding urban education and urban communities… She is thoughtful, level-headed, grounded, honest and genuine.”
Beginning in her freshman year at UofC, Alex participated in a program called the Neighborhood Schools program (NSP) which proved to be a prime recruiting ground for candidates to UTEP. The program places students in schools and other organizations across Chicago’s South Side, where they tutor and serve as classroom assistants. In the heady atmosphere of the University of Chicago, where I once came upon two undergrads in the locker room of the school’s gym discussing Nietzsche while buck naked, NSP provided a bracing dose of reality. As one student told me, it was the only time during her week on campus when she felt real. Alex’s assignment was in an Afro-centric school in the Woodlawn community, a useful run-up to the complex racial challenges she would face during her time in UTEP and beyond which till that point she had only encountered in the Sociology courses she was taking as part of her major. In the personal statement Alex submitted with her application, she wrote “People have always told me I am predisposed to teaching, and I feel comfortable and effective when I lead and help young people. I have felt such pride in those whom I’ve taught and mentored…. I envision myself fostering a stimulating environment in my own classroom, and I look forward to applying my background and experience to an urban school setting… I think that effectively reaching students in an urban environment requires incredible skill sets that UTEP develops in its students.” Her statement was notable because she didn’t base her decision to teach on her love for children, a red flag statement that our interviewers often found empty. Instead she was driven by social justice concerns grounded in both her academic training and her experience with urban children. “Personally, I continue to operate on my Mom’s frequent phrase to me, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ I’ve been given a lot. I don’t feel guilty about that because it’s straightforward to me that it just means I’m supposed to use my resources…to help people (of whatever race) who weren’t given those things.” In her view, privilege comes with an obligation to “pay forward” so that others can acquire similar privilege. It was also clear that she recognized how hard the work ahead would be and how well prepared she needed to be if she was to be successful at it. This latter recognition tended to distinguish the students who were drawn to our rigorous two-year program from their peers who preferred the immediate access to their own classroom that Teach for America offered. Her compass was clearly pointing toward teaching, and her BA paper (UofC’s senior thesis) involved interviewing teachers about their use of an innovative literacy assessment tool called the STEP which had been developed at the University. In the course of doing that research, she found strong validation of her decision to commit to the classroom, to stay “close to the ground.”
“I’m pretty good at recognizing and appreciating tiny surprises and gains and being energized by those…. This is the realization I thought a lot about when I made the decision to be a teacher rather than an education policy maker. I first felt attracted to the big, broad differences policy makers can enact; however I realized that the smaller-scale, maybe less visible impacts that teachers make every day are more important. As I’ve interviewed teachers this year for my thesis… I’ve been inspired by all of them and not one of them hasn’t had stories that sound like they’ve made a difference with students…(that) gives me hope that there will always (or usually) be enough of that to drive me.”
Alex: Halfway through undergrad, when I decided to pursue a career in education, my initial inclination was toward policy and research. The heady world of the University of Chicago’s propelled me toward the broad, intellectual part of the field; their theoretical-based approach is not training tradespeople. As a fledgling signing up for my first course on urban school reform, I fell into the unfortunate mindset of believing that teachers are the low level of the profession and that being an academic studying schools can make a bigger impact. Fortunately, I quickly realized that this mindset — and the way our country’s lack of financial support for public education exacerbates it– is one of the problems with our education system. I swiftly and strongly decided that a fleeting teaching experience (2 years of Teach for America) as a stepping stone to being a policy-researcher was exactly the opposite of what I thought was the correct trajectory for me. I didn’t want to be part of the problem of inexperienced teachers creating high turnover and instability in schools.
I still believe academic research plays an important role in education progress, but I discovered that classroom teachers are the most important foundational piece of schooling, that I could make a big impact at that level. After working in schools now, I see that each piece plays an important role– an effective principal, funding, parents, etc.– but I still hold my belief that classroom teachers are incredibly important. I also learned that being a classroom teacher is a highly intellectual job, which I embarrassingly am not sure I’d previously realized, despite my years of schooling with creative teachers.
It makes me smile to read my quote from 8 years ago, predicting that I would find fulfillment and continued motivation in the small gains a teacher experiences on a weekly basis. I still feel that way, and when family or friends ask if I think I’ll try to move up in the profession to administration, I respond that those moments of small wins with students are what gives me the most joy, and it’s due to my direct contact and relationships with students in the classroom. While a principal has a larger-scale influence on the success of the school, doing paperwork does not sound as fulfilling as hearing a student say, “Ms. Krueger, I hated to read at the beginning of this school year but now I realized that I really like to read.”
At the time when Alex entered the program, it consisted of two years of academic and clinical experiences, followed by three years of coaching support once students had their own classrooms. In the first year they took a sequence of Foundations courses, Urban Families, Schools and Communities, Child Development and a Philosophy of Education course. They also tutored students in one of the University’s charter schools, as part of a progression of responsibilities from working with individuals, to small groups and on to whole classes. They were also assigned a “home-base” classroom where they spent a limited amount of time each week, dipping their toes in those deeper waters.
In addition, one of the hallmarks of the program was an element called Soul Strand which ran alongside the more traditional course work and which was intended as an affective companion to the program’s more intellectual components. In Soul Strand students examined their own identities as teachers through the lenses of race, class, culture and gender, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which privilege shapes their interactions with the world. Discussions of race were sometimes intense and heated.
Being White, young and privileged by a UofC education turned out to be a challenging set of credentials in this very turbulent cohort. As Alex said herself in a journal entry, “I know that attending the UofC has done some damage to me in that it conflates intelligence and personal worth.” This was a point that the great African-American sociologist/historian Charles Payne made when he met with the UTEP students every year, that in order to be effective teachers of children in communities of color, they were going to have to unlearn a great deal of what they had learned about where true wisdom resided, which was often in the hands of people far less educated than they.
Alex and her UofC undergrad partner were the target of a lot of scorn and racial invective from some of their militant cohort-mates, which surely took its toll on them but Alex, drawing on that rich reservoir of confidence and security, was upset but never scared off. One day in Soul Strand, a Black member of the cohort, reacting to some long-forgotten provocation, denounced Alex and the other undergraduate’s very presence in the program. “I, as expected, felt incredibly defensive when one of my classmates said Soul Strand was made for young white UofC 4th year students. He didn’t know what ‘all you white people were agitated about,’ but we should ‘get over it because we have all that privilege’….. There are two of us white UofC fourth year girls, so I felt unfairly placed in the ‘You need Soul Strand’ group….I didn’t grow up in an all-Black community, but I certainly grew up in a mixed income ethnically diverse city, and although I’m sure I’ve had fewer ‘life experiences’ than many people in our program, I feel more than ready to be participating alongside others.”
Alex: I feel that I might respond to the UTEP Soul Strand incident differently now. At the time, it just made me quieter in conversations about race, because I didn’t know when it was my place to speak. I don’t think that experience had a negative impact on me (on the whole, I think I benefited from seeing first-hand a point of view I will encounter throughout life). Even at the time, I did not think the UTEP student was thinking specifically about the one other college senior, white, female and me when he made the comment, but I think I realize even more now that my classmate’s feelings may have nothing at all to do with my own actions and behavior. The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked increased dialogue about roles white people and people of color should play in racial discourse. Sometimes white people are explicitly told to sit and listen and say nothing; other people argue that isn’t productive. How much expertise do different individuals have on the topic of race, and what roles should each of us play in the teaching / learning / and changing society process? I think now I would be able to contextualize my experience in Soul Strand better, in the larger arena of people’s feelings about race and progress.
This incident was the closest I came to ever seeing Alex flapped in any way, and I’m sure this steady air of confidence is, in part, what prompted the fury of this attack on her. It was her greatest strength and her greatest potential liability. In a note to her, I wrote, “It’s truly a gift not to be beset by doubts about yourself and your abilities. That will take you a long way. The challenge is to be sure it doesn’t come across as cockiness and arrogance. The trick is to maintain that confidence, while at the same time projecting the kind of humility that is in short supply among a lot of bright young teachers, so be reflective about this, as I know you will be.”
Alex: This balance of confidence and humility has been a challenge for me in my career so far. My first few years of teaching were in a charter school with a younger staff and many novice teachers. I was a young teacher and I was not in any major leadership roles. Furthermore, the school had a wonderful open-door atmosphere. I felt like I could walk into any other teacher’s classroom at any time without giving notice, we were not a threat to one another, we could learn from each other and support each other. However, by my third year my administration asked me to take on a role called “middle school team lead,” where I led weekly meetings with all the middle school teachers. I developed in new ways in this position, but I did not experience push-back from coworkers about why a teacher in her third year would have such a leadership role; charter schools have such high turnover that I was one of the more senior teachers, so I don’t think this struck other teachers as odd.
One of many reasons I wanted to move to a Chicago Public School is that I wanted to work alongside teachers with more years of teaching experience. I envisioned having a similar open-door school culture, except I’d be able to observe distinguished teachers and learn so much more about classroom management and lesson structures. I found a mixed bag. I have observed a few teachers and have met teachers I really admire. However, I also discovered that there is a culture of fear in CPS that I believe is caused by a history of principals and board administrators “going after” teachers or retaliating against those who have differing opinions or are loud union activists.
At my public school, I have experienced tension from older teachers because I am a young teacher in leadership roles. I have been asked to serve on committees and lead professional development sessions, both jobs I did not apply for (I do think good administrators involve as many teachers as possible- new and experienced- on school committees). I think the biggest thing that has bothered some of my coworkers is that I coach student teachers in my classroom. I was first asked by my former UTEP instructor and coach to host a student teacher in the second half of my 4th year of teaching, which is a little bit early. Some of my new colleagues viewed me as a first-year teacher, since it was my first year at that school, and this did not sit well with some; more than twice I heard, “why do you have a student teacher, as a first year teacher yourself?” They weren’t making a judgement about the quality of my teaching, as none of them had seen me teach, but I recently learned that this image left lasting negative feelings with other teachers. When I just changed grade levels, my new grade level partner brought up this sort of gossip she heard from over three years ago. Apparently, teachers were asking, “Why should Alex think she should have a student teacher over other teachers? She must think she’s better than the rest of the teachers in her grade.” I didn’t believe that I was better than others, nor would I ever think it would be productive to make comments along those lines.
I am continuously aware of the position I am in as a young teacher-leader. Being female perhaps exacerbates it, as I think women who speak up can be viewed as aggressive. I have spoken up and advocated for ideas I believe in and have disagreed with coworkers on some discipline practices, having norms and agendas for meetings, and promoting electronic communication and meeting notes. I try to balance being vocal with listening, complimenting others often, and asking coworkers about their expertise and advice often. I try to combat the image of being overconfident by constantly positioning myself as a learner who recognizes that I am among many other great teachers from whom I have a lot to learn.
It’s interesting and sad to note that Alex and her classmate have gone on to successful 6+ yearlong careers in CPS classrooms during which they have worked with Black and Latino students, while some of their tormentors and critics are long gone. There’s ample evidence that sharing their students’ racial and/or ethnic identity definitely gives teachers an initial advantage in reaching their students, but it does not guarantee success. White teachers like Alex must travel a longer road to win their students’ trust, and she is one of the many examples I’ve encountered of people who have successfully crossed that barrier.
Another component of the first-year work is the tutoring experience. Alex worked with two fifth graders and a second grader in twice weekly sessions. She was observed by a staff member and videotaped several lessons that were peer reviewed by classmates. She was supporting two second graders in literacy and one fifth grader in math. “I know I have grown in my tutoring methods. With helpful suggestions from my mentors, I implemented multiple teaching methods in math (blocks, games, flash cards.). In literacy, I learned to structure my lessons so that I could follow the lesson plans better and incorporate all the important parts of the lesson.”
In selecting candidates for the program, the interviewers were attentive to signs of how coachable the applicants were. Alex’s steady confidence could have been read as a counter-indicator, but she, in fact, proved to be admirably open to critical feedback and advice, both from staff and from peers. For example, in response to a peer observation from her partner, she wrote, “…I wonder if I give A. directions in too much of a question asking voice. For example, I often say ‘okay?’ after I give an instruction…. Maybe if I give instructions in a more authoritative voice, then she’ll follow directions better.”
Here Alex was struggling with a challenge that many of our white students wrestled with right on into their whole class instruction the following year. By confusing an authoritative style with authoritarianism, they left students confused and lacking in clarity about what was expected of them. By addressing this issue early in the program, she was primed to be more successful in the subsequent stages of her preparation.
In addition to the tutoring, the first year of UTEP’s program includes a heavy academic element, which played to Alex’s strong suit, so it’s no surprise that she was moving along successfully through the program. The heavy clinical experiences take place in the second year. That year is devoted to two essentially full-time placements, each lasting half a year in the classrooms of veteran teachers whom UTEP calls Clinical Instructors, and who are more commonly called mentor teachers. Residents (second year students) usually point to this time as the most critical and most valuable of all their experiences in the program, so there’s a lot riding on the quality of the CIs a Resident is paired with. Alex was very fortunate in both her draws. Her first CI was Tonya, a veteran teacher at one of the University charter schools who had shepherded some of our best graduates in their initial exposures to the classroom. Her classroom management skills were strong and her practice in implementing readers’ and writers’ workshop, instructional approaches to which Alex had been introduced in UTEP, was equally advanced. These practices provided solid grounding for Alex’s future classrooms.
In many traditional teacher preparation programs, student teachers begin their placements at some point after the school year has begun, thereby missing some of the most critical lessons they need to get them ready for their own classrooms. It is in those first few weeks that the foundations on which the entire school year rests will be laid – the culture, the rules and the routines that clear the way for instruction to take place. Alex and her cohort mates undertook a Beginning of the Year project, a careful documentation of this start up work and a reflection on the implications of their observations for their own future teaching. I once observed a kindergarten teacher on the second day of school spend an entire morning in the hall with her students practicing how to open and close their lockers and where to place their belongings inside. By focusing on these micro routines, she avoided a whole year of disruptive locker door banging and of children jostling for elbow room to hang up their coats. Alex observed a similar part of Day One for fourth graders. “When the students sit, they sit in “scholar position – hands folded on top of your table, eyes facing me.” To get to the rug, we practiced 1, 2, 3 transition. ‘When I say 1, you’ll stand up and push in your chairs. When I say 2, you’ll line up, and when I say 3 you’ll sit in rows on the rug facing the white board.’ First, they practiced pushing in their chairs, not too harshly. Mrs. Rivera said, ‘Some people will push it in. Some people will slam it. Which do you think I would prefer?’ We practiced this transition twice.”
In addition to the close observation of the startup, Alex was asked to look beyond the classroom to produce an institutional analysis of the school, its philosophy and organization; an observation of the way the school deals with parents; a close observation of a child; and an exploration of her teacher’s philosophy. “In addition to noting many of my teacher’s practices that I would like to replicate or draw inspiration from in my classroom … I also took to heart what she said about the importance of building relationships. Of course, I’ve heard and read this throughout UTEP, but her stories served as proof of how essential this was.” As Alex suggests, the students were drilled ad nauseum on the dictum that “It’s all about relationships,” but seeing this principle in lived practice really delivered the message full force and established one of the most important cornerstones of Alex’s future teaching. As it turned out Alex and Tonya were a good match in terms of their strong organizational skills and their even, steady temperaments. Alex commented at some point that she had never heard Tonya yell, which is the case for Alex over the entire seven years that I have known her. The matches between Resident and CI are not always so congruent, but they made it possible for Alex to absorb the lessons that Tonya was offering her.
Suffice it to say here that this lucky pairing was a perfect fit for Alex’s style and has been a major force in her teaching over the years.
The program’s design called for a gradual release of responsibility from the CI to the Resident. In the first placement there were two takeover periods, one focused on literacy and the other on math. (Later, a third takeover concentrating on management issues was added.) These takeovers, lasting between one and two weeks, involved detailed planning of units of instruction in collaboration with the CI, detailed feedback and deep reflection on the results.
It was in the planning for the takeovers that Alex demonstrated what proved to be her greatest strength – planning. Her organizing skills carried her through the turbulent waters of these early teaching experiences, underscoring the old maxim that good planning is the best form of classroom management. The literacy takeover was built around the theme of mystery writing and in her notes on one of the feedback forms the CI recognized the fruits of Alex’s meticulous planning. “I want to start with emphasizing what an amazing job you have done with your literacy takeover overall. You have gotten the kids to read an entire (challenging) mystery novel, read mysteries on their own, experience a real live mystery and then write mystery stories as well. You have taken suggestions well – we were able to collaborate – but you also took real ownership over the students’ learning.”
Her coach Bill also observed Alex during the takeover. “Fantastic job today, especially considering that you were teaching alone while Tonya was away at a conference. You’ve had several opportunities… to successfully implement Tonya’s plans and maintain her routines and structures, but today was different, as this was Day 6 in your integrated reading and writing unit on mystery. These are your plans with your outcomes and as a result your instruction gave me a glimpse into a little bit more of who Ms. Krueger is and will be on this journey to becoming an effective teacher. Though there were some struggles with management…. this was an impressive lesson and a great example of how your attention to detail and your preparation helped you create an efficient and effective classroom environment…. Today was FUN. School is almost never this exciting, but it should be.”
Alex recognized that management was going to be her biggest hurdle, as it is for most beginning teachers, and that in this early clinical work she was riding on the back of what Tonya, her first CI, had constructed. “Mrs. Rivera (Tonya) is magical. Just with her presence, the students walk through the hallway silently, come in and do their bell work and sit in rows on the rug. It makes me feel bad that I can’t do that yet. When I debriefed with Bill, he assured me that a bit of this will come just by being the full time teacher next year…” The other cornerstone of classroom management involves building strong relationships with students, a lesson that was being reinforced in Tonya’s classroom. “Last time I taught alone T. and B. were problems for me, disrespectful and with attitudes. But between then and now I’ve built sufficient relationships with them that they’re participating fine and being leaders. ☺
Over the course of this first placement, Tonya was noting in her feedback to Alex the progress she was making toward becoming the kind of teacher she wanted to be. “…it’s significant how many strategies/tools appear to be in your repertoire at this point. There is a range of types of things you’re saying to kids and they are, as a group, having a positive effect on the class and on individuals. You’re beginning to apply, comfortably, the language of a classroom manager in a way that indicates your progress toward becoming an effective teacher. This goes along with the ways in which I saw you comfortably and effectively use the language of a classroom instructor during your reading and writing workshop mini-lessons.” In turn, Alex’s summary comments about the placement reflected a similar awareness of growth. “Great learning curve. Beginning – asked Tonya tons of questions. Then asked her advice about what I should say. Then just made decisions on my own and asked her opinion afterward.”
What a marvelous note on which to conclude what proved to be arguably the most formative of all of Alex’s experiences during her two years in UTEP.
The second placement exposed Alex to a rare model of collaborative teaching. In a predominantly Hispanic school on Chicago’s Northwest Side, two teachers, one a veteran and the other a UTEP alum who had also done her residency in this setting, combined their students into a mega-classroom of 60 children which was abuzz with active learning projects as the learners rotated between the workshop-based options the two teachers offered. The joint planning required by this structure created a stimulating professional environment. With Alex’s addition to the mix, the class could now be divided into groups of twenty, definitely an advantage over the individual classrooms of 30 students each. Again, Alex’s greatest strength during her training time was in planning. She had been exposed to UbD, Understanding by Design, a powerful process of backward planning to which she had been exposed in her UTEP workshops. A teacher develops an essential questions that drives the unit (Why do men engage in war? Why do we create art?), defines learning objectives and how they will be assessed and, finally, generates a set of activities that will help the students achieve the objectives of the unit. More commonly teachers begin by designing activities and then figure out where they may lead, which was my mode of operation as a novice teacher. Fortunately, Alex found herself among like-minded planners, so she was able to implement much of what she had learned in her first placement. In this context, Alex could grow in two ways. With the class of 60 split among the 3 teachers, she was able to function as a regular teacher all through her second residency. Second, the structure required an unusual amount of collaboration, which is valuable for any future teacher, but which proved especially fortuitous, given the school where she eventually began her teaching career.
The culminating event of the Residency year is a three-week long takeover, during which Residents design and implement a unit that spans all the content areas. In her seminar with Bill that final semester, Alex had been introduced to inquiry projects, in which students identify interests they wish to explore and pursue them with the teacher’s support. Sometimes they focus on a particular topic, like climate change or immigration and sometimes they are broader, more open-ended and more unique to a student’s particular interests (How to choose a bicycle to purchase. How do you become a police officer?) Alex made the bold decision to go in the latter direction at the outset by collecting topics that students expressed an interest in and using them to build her unit. “Made a spreadsheet of all the topics and Qs suggested by the students. Noticed some trends: all different cultures, war. Something I noticed: Mexico, Mexican history were responses to ‘Something you never studied in school and want to learn about.’ (vs. something they have learned about in school.) And some just asked the question: Why don’t we learn about Mexico and Mexican history? Duh! Most of these kids are Mexican. What kind of message are we sending by not studying Mexico in school? There are some Puerto Rican and Black students and b/c it’s a cool take, we’ll study Identity.‘“ Her essential questions were: What determines/defines my identity? Is identity fixed? How does the history of my people affect me? Who am I in my life today? This is an extraordinarily sophisticated and challenging set of questions for middle school students to tackle and an equally challenging project for a fledgling teacher to undertake. I quote here from her coach and her CI on its success.
Bill: “Today was the fourth day of your takeover. You’ve planned an amazing unit, and, more impressive, you’ve “managed” 4 other adults – Dan (your CI), Lucy (your teaching partner) and the writing teacher and the special ed teacher. The planning and execution of a 3-week takeover is a challenging task in any setting, but you’ve been pushed in new ways that most UTEPers haven’t, managing 180 students and many moving parts…. it’s demanded flexibility and professionalism rarely asked of a Resident, yet you’ve risen to every challenge.” Bill then went on to rate her very high on the formal observation form, with the highest ratings going to planning and preparation, management of materials, including social justice and advocacy in the lesson, demonstrating professional conduct and thoughtfully reflecting on the lesson and its outcomes.
Dan (her CI): “One of the successes (of this unit) was spending a lot of prep time assembling the list of student interests and then collecting all the resources on identity. This was valuable because it produced a level of buy-in among the kids that has been sustained.”
And Alex added in her own behalf, “A big development for me is that I’m more flexible and able to make in the moment decisions. I think our set-up (ed: three teachers coordinating their plans and adjusting to changes of location depending on the instructional needs of the moment) had a big influence on this, since we have to be kind of mobile – can’t plan the lesson for a particular spot. I’m learning how to adjust a lesson plan… for different classes’ personalities and what the class needs in that moment. It helps to try to have a bunch of different possible activities in my pocket, ready to pull out.”
During my residency year, I learned that a particular type of collaborative planning relationship really helped me flourish. As Marv mentioned, planning was the strongest part of my practice. I am a very detail-oriented planner. Both my UTEP coach, Bill, and my second CI, Dan, were more abstract, big-picture thinkers. They really pushed my thinking and I don’t think I would have developed into a planner that tries to design such student-interest centered, creative units without their influence; I might have stuck to what felt safe and straightforward. After my 4th grade mystery unit, during which the entire class truly believed their teacher (my CI) disappeared and they solved clues to cause her return (don’t worry- the mystery did not instill fear in the children), I thanked Bill for the amazing idea. He replied that he may have planted the seed, but that he hadn’t imagined a design for a coherent reading unit around it; I had. That helped me realize that if I could work with a thought partner to push my thinking outside the box, I could conjure up the logistical details and crank out the nuts and bolts to produce an engaging unit. I would seek out these kinds of thought partners in my career.
The formal stage of Alex’s preparation was now complete. She still had three years of coaching support from the program to look forward to, but she had already demonstrated the ability to plan ambitious instruction, strong organizing skills, a high degree of professional responsibility and an awareness of the importance of relationships in fostering learning. In David Hawkins’ brilliant paradigm of I, Thou, It – the interaction among student, teacher and materials – if we include planning as part of the It, Alex had a strong base on which to build. The challenge now was to find a school which would allow her to continue to grow in ways that were compatible with her beliefs about what constitutes good teaching. In most urban school districts, including Chicago, where there is urgency about driving up test scores, the kind of learning that Alex valued was often seen as a distraction, a path that did not lead immediately to the holy grail of stronger numbers.
In fact, when Alex’s cohort graduated, an organization called the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) launched a strong recruiting effort to attract UTEP –trained teachers. AUSL’s work primarily involved taking control of failing schools and turning them around by replacing their entire staff and administration. The program was under pressure to improve test scores quickly. It operated on the assumption that the first and most important step in that process was to focus on classroom management to create an environment in which learning was possible. What came next instructionally was unclear. Their offer of immediate placement was attractive to many of our graduates, but not to Alex, who rejected their guarantee of a job in February for the following school year, an equivalent to early admission to college, avoiding the stress of uncertainty which could drag on right up to the start of school. “I’ve realized that curricular creativity and freedom is important to me. So, no, I don’t want to work for them.” In fact, by the end of the following school year all but one of Alex’s classmates had left their AUSL positions, which many found just too discordant with their UTEP-instilled values.
So, Alex embarked on a familiar round of interviews and demonstration lessons which most beginning teachers must endure. Her first preference was for a predominantly Latino school where she thought her Spanish skills would serve her well, but she cast her net more widely across the city. There are so many alternative paths that Alex’s career could have followed at this point, in the same way that a marriage decision forecloses on some pathways, while opening one in which one hopes to blossom. What came through finally was an offer from Chicago Seekers in late May, which Alex accepted enthusiastically.
Chicago Seekers was modeled after a school in New York City called Seekers of Knowledge which had constructed a curriculum based on game design and systems theory. Unlike its NY partner, it was a charter school, open to any resident of the city. The school was in its second year and had several UTEP alums on its founding staff. Because of its unique, highly technology-based curriculum, the school attracted a diverse group of students from across the city, some of whom, I suspect, expected the school’s focus would be on video games. The founding administration was experienced, but their work had been mostly in suburban settings and they were unprepared for the challenges posed by an urban student body unlike that of the sister school in NYC which served a more middle-class population. The Chicago students as a group were deficient in the basic skills needed to tackle some of the brilliant scenarios which had been designed to drive many of the game-like activities at the heart of the school’s instruction. In addition, the administration was unprepared for the behavioral challenges posed by urban students, many of whom were carrying the effects of trauma and the low academic and behavioral expectations of their neighborhood elementary schools. These were students who were changing schools at an atypical grade level, so one can assume that many of them had encountered problems in their previous schools. Fighting and disrespect for teachers and fellow students were common occurrences and little effort had been made to build a community of trust and respect from the start. Once a negative culture was in place, it was fiendishly difficult to dislodge.
Alex was assigned to teach seventh grade in a departmentalized structure which had her teaching two classes with titles that fit the school’s systems theory philosophy, but which were essentially language arts and social studies. Despite the serious and trying behavioral issues at the school and the equally frustrating leadership, the second in two years, which was having trouble getting on top of those problems, there was excitement among the staff about riding down an untraveled learning and teaching path. There was also an unprecedented amount of support available to a novice teacher like Alex. In addition to her UTEP coach, Sheri, there were technology support people, systems and game design people, as well as colleagues who, even if they were only one or two years her senior were already immersed in the unique philosophy of the school. Even two years after she had left the school and all the rocky aspects of her time there, Alex talked about how much she missed its strong sense of community among staff and its heady air of innovation.
Alex: Year one felt unexpectedly successful. I remember feeling like I didn’t want to share my successes with other UTEPers, because I wasn’t struggling in the same ways they were. I knew I was not able to implement Reading Workshop in any kind of best-practice way (I used independent reading as a calming activity rather than a time to practice an intentional, specific learning objective, for example); however, the Seekers “missions” (units with narratives) were invigorating, and students were excited about them. I had a grade-level partner who was a wonderful collaborator. We designed a presidential election game like the board game Risk, had a partnership with college students, had the ghosts from the Revolutionary War haunting our classroom, etc. I had very small class sizes (17-24), which made a huge difference. I also had a strong, consistent sped teacher pushing in during one of my three class periods. Student behaviors that challenged my classroom management were individual behaviors (tapping pencils, refusing to do assignments, etc.) but not behaviors that derailed the lesson for the entire class or threw off my lesson plans.
The times when I was completely at a loss were during our week-long homeroom challenges. Students would spend time in homeroom all day for an entire week building a Rube Goldberg machine or creating a digital puppet show. Six years into teaching, managing the same class of students in one room for an entire week with an unstructured task (with no specials/ resource classes) still sounds unpleasant, but I certainly didn’t know how to manage it as a beginning teacher. That first spring was tough for a different reason; my grade level partner went on maternity leave, and I was planning for myself and another first-year teacher, who was filling the maternity position. She was really struggling with classroom management (it’s not easy for anyone to come into a position two-thirds of the way into a school year and earn the respect of 7th graders). I was able to get by planning for myself, but I felt the stress that my new grade-level partner was experiencing, and I couldn’t provide the support she needed on both management (as we all do as first year teachers) and on all the Seekers teaching and planning nuances.
My second year was much harder than my first year and it has been the most challenging year of all my teaching so far. Each of my class periods had 34 students. My 3rd period class had 17 students with IEP’s. It was frustrating that year to know I was a stronger teacher, with one year under my belt, but I had so much less success. I was not able to spend as much time on instruction. Management was worse. My attitude was more negative. The administration (which changed, on average, more than once a year) was the weakest that year as well. Now, I try to teach my resident teachers to focus on what they CAN control, but these external factors really contributed to my feeling of a lack of control, especially in my 3rd period class. This is the year Marv started his partnership with Seekers, and when he offered to visit my classroom, I was thankful for all the feedback I could receive.
Visiting Alex’s classroom during that year was not always an inspiring experience. The planning was as rich and as elegant as it had been in her residencies, but she was no longer teaching in a pre-existing classroom and school culture. She brought to bear all the tools she had been exposed to in those earlier placements, but they weren’t having the desired effect. “Just a note to say that I feel like my classes are getting worse,” she wrote in an email in early September. “P. (one of her Seekers coaches) observed 15 or 20 minutes of my class on Friday which was pure chaos (the same class you observed, Marv). He scripted what I said…and part of his feedback was that he didn’t feel like there’s anything a coach could tell me about my management strategies. I set the expectations, spoke with individual students, gave warnings, recognized students on task, pulled the whole group together for a lecture, etc. The task was an interesting (in my opinion) personal identity assignment…Today I had to prevent three fights in my afternoon classes… I logged the fighting and contacted administration, so we’ll see what follow through at the school level is like. I emailed the dean and cced the principal saying I don’t feel comfortable with any of these students returning to class until I know they’ve had a meeting with him and a behavior plan/contract in place.
“I continue to have conversations with my classes about using kind words, respecting personal space…. polite responses if you bump into someone, how play fighting turns into real fighting, etc. I told them that safety is my first concern and that there’s zero tolerance for putting your hands on another student.” In her classroom Alex was pushing against a dysfunctional school culture that made it difficult for the classroom community she aspired to take root.
All this was as painful to watch as it is to read about. Alex was doing all the right things, but there were multiple reasons why it wasn’t producing the desired effect. For one thing, it was all being delivered in a rather disembodied, almost robotic voice. Novice teachers often complain about not feeling authentically like themselves in the classroom. This mechanical quality is usually the result of not being in control of the situation, not having won the trust of students enough to make oneself vulnerable and natural in their presence. Second, Alex’s even-keeled unflappability, such a virtue in most situations, worked against her when she was confronted with the “chaos” of a day like that. Alex seemed almost incapable of raising her voice, even when it might have had the tonic effect of signaling to the students that she had reached her limit. In one instance she noted that the special education teacher who was in her classroom intermittently had yelled at the class in a way that Alex approved of, even if it risked undermining her own authority.
Third, it’s easy to hear in Alex’s email her frustration with administration for their lack of a consistent school-wide behavior policy and their unpredictable follow through. This was a grievance that spanned the entire staff and took a serious toll on morale. The principal was a novice and appeared to the teachers to be incapable of action, at least any that was visible to them. In a note I wrote to the director of the school network which oversaw Seekers (she was a former colleague and was the person responsible for hiring me to provide support for the literacy instruction there) I said, “In meeting with Alex this morning, I heard a lot of demoralization from someone I consider buoyant and resilient beyond most teachers I know… The teachers are feeling a lack of a consistent and firm discipline policy and as a result are feeling unsupported. This feels like a major crisis.” I also noted that the large class sizes were contributing to the problem, as was the pattern of packing some classes with special needs students, presumably to make it easier for the special education teacher’s time to be used efficiently.
In a similar vein, Sheri, her UTEP coach, wrote, “I know these kinds of challenges can be really frustrating and confidence-depleting. It sounds like you can’t take this on alone, so I hope admin is going to support you as you continue to find ways to tweak and make this all work.” I have seen young teachers driven out of the classroom in the face of pressures like these. Instead Alex created a journal of positive experiences. Looking back, she wrote “My first year I only needed a place to write the positives, to focus on that when everything was so hard.” I don’t know if she had come up with this strategy on her own or whether it had been recommended by one of her other coaches, but it proved to be an inspired coping mechanism.
For a time that year, I turned my attention away from Alex’s classroom to support other important work that was in progress elsewhere in the school. I was concerned that Alex was being over coached by all the support people who came and went from her room, so I decided to step away for a time. In an adjacent building a new high school was being created to absorb Seekers’s rising freshmen, as well as newly enrolling students from the outside. The physical separation from the middle school building and the presence of a dynamic teacher-leader to oversee the work demonstrated what it was like to build a school culture from the ground up. The 9th grade building’s atmosphere was markedly different. There were few fights, expectations were high, as was teacher morale. It was almost painful to re-enter the main building and to breathe again its more toxic air.
Teachers who work in departmentalized settings must cope with the fact that the lineups of classes they meet each day are different one from the other. They differ in size, in the number of students with IEPs, in the presence of those one or two special personalities who create the culture of the class, and they differ in the time of day at which you meet with them. Most commonly, teachers do not do their planning with these differences in mind. You plan your lesson on the pyramids or place value and you deliver it to however many sixth-grade classes are on your schedule for the day. When educators speak of differentiation, they’re usually referring to having to account for differences within a single classroom, but Alex was struggling with the need to differentiate across classes. Her elaborate plans were not working at all for one of her classes that had more than its share of students with learning and behavioral challenges. After a visit to that class, I wrote the following to Alex.
“Here’s what I think is the dilemma. You’re a super planner and you’ve got the time blocked out for this book in a highly efficient way. That may work for your other classes…. but it doesn’t feel like it’s working for this group. It’s the old quality/quantity struggle. If you’re intent on knocking off your ten pages a day, or whatever, you miss out on important learning opportunities, recognizing that they’re going to throw off your timetable. For example, I know that you prepared the kids for reading with expression and for an understanding of the characters whose voices they’re assuming, but what I heard had little of that. By not stopping them and insisting on more, acknowledging that they’re capable of doing better, you’re playing into the same low expectations you say that people have always had for this group.”
Differentiation at the individual or class level is one of the most challenging skills for novice teachers to master, particularly when the more basic elements of classroom management are not yet fully in place. This was one of the areas Alex was struggling with in her first year, and it was sometimes leading her to accept performance that was less than she knew they were capable of, despite their frustrating behavior. She responded that she was going to try to plan a more modified lesson for that class in the future.
Alex: As all teachers know, if classroom management is weak, you can plan the most wonderful, engaging, high-interest lessons and it won’t matter if you can’t deliver any part of the lesson and students aren’t engaged in the task. Part of Seekers’s philosophy was that if the unit narrative, end goal, and learning activities are compelling and engaging enough, students will participate. I felt stuck, because when I planned interactive lessons and group work, students were not on task and the classroom was out of control; however, planning less interactive full group lessons was boring for students, causing more push back and disruptions. My coach worked with me to change my lesson delivery for my third period class. For example, when doing a jigsaw activity, students would pass the ipad to the next student at their table rather than standing up to physically move to another table (as they did in my other class periods). Instead of reading a class novel that read like a play script as a full class, I split third period into three groups so every student would have more speaking roles. The special education teacher also led an alternative book at lower reading level for one group. Even as I was learning to differentiate my planning, I still didn’t feel successful. Marv observed during one of the small group read aloud times, and as he reflected, it was still hard for me to “get through” the lesson, and I was constantly pulled between addressing ongoing behavior concerns and teaching academic content.
One of the advantages of working in a school like Seekers was the latitude teachers had for designing their own curriculum, rather than having it prescribed for them. The focus was not on teaching particular material, but on infusing your plans with what they called “gamification.” The driving philosophy was that learning occurred best when it took place in a game-like context. The school was on a trimester schedule, so units were designed to fit into trimester schedules, each ending with a Performance Task (PT). Wherever possible, these PTs were in the form of a game. For example, the study of the Constitution involved card games based on the balance of powers or a literature circle unit might culminate in a game based on the structure of a Socratic Seminar. The same was true for the design of individual lessons as for the larger units. All this was perfectly consistent with Alex’s desire to make learning fun, just as she had done in her successful residency placements.
During her three-year tenure at Seekers, Alex chose to stay with the same material from year to year whenever possible. For example, there were several books she became attached to, which she knew had drawn a favorable response the first time around. There was Chains, set during the Revolutionary War years, centered on characters who were slaves; Bronx Masquerade, a book about a classroom designed like a writers’ workshop; and Nothing but the Truth, which addresses Constitutional issues growing out of a student’s refusal to salute the flag during the morning Pledge of Allegiance. Each time she tweaked and refined the instruction around these books, so she was not simply dusting off her notes from previous years but revising based on past experiences with the material. Other teachers, and I would include myself in that number, opt for using new material every year to keep the learning – theirs and the students’ – fresh. There are trade-offs in each approach, but Alex has made the continual refinement of approaches to familiar material work for her and that is likely to be her mode of operation going forward.
In year three, Alex was better able to turn her attention outward to seek out resources and partnerships that she was able to take advantage of because of her growing comfort and confidence in the classroom. One of her most successful partnerships was with the Constitutional Rights Foundation, a group with a long history of developing materials to teach the Constitution and of bringing lawyers into the classroom to conduct mock trials, some of which were based on scenarios developed around familiar fairy tales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This approach was a good fit with the school’s game-based learning, and made the required study of the constitution, the bane of many seventh grade teachers existence, infinitely more engaging and effective for 7th grade students.
In the run-up to her third and final year at Seekers, Alex once again demonstrated her planning prowess by producing two important documents. The first was a well-conceived plan for the coming year’s 3 trimesters, including plans for the Performance Tasks that would culminate each unit. This is the kind of big picture planning that is an essential mark of maturing skills, the work of someone who sees the year ahead as a giant puzzle that needs to be solved anew each year.
A second document demonstrates Alex’s ability to turn those planning skills to the benefit of others was her detailed plan for the first twenty days of instruction in Writers’ Workshop to add to the document she had created for Readers’ Workshop the previous year. This plan, an elaboration of an earlier document she had created, was compiled to assist her colleagues who were not as well versed in the workshop model as she is to launching this approach in their own classrooms. Truth to tell, it was not completely original, but adaptation of the plan to her school context, while also clarifying and simplifying it, was impressive, as was the commitment to do it, unbidden, in the first place.
Unfortunately, behavior school-wide was not improving, nor was the administration’s ability and willingness to deal with it. Alex’s classroom was an oasis in what was too often a chaotic scene. I remember once walking into her class during reader’s workshop and basking in the complete silence as a classroom full of students was completely immersed in reading the books, mostly high quality, which they had chosen themselves. They also developed displays based on their reading that were the basis of a fair to which parents and other classes were invited. She also organized public readings of the works her students were producing, based on a curriculum Alex adopted from a program called Digital Youth Media, which enabled students to receive feedback from outside readers in addition to her own comments. Although the products were still a bit formulaic, they formed the basis of more sophisticated work Alex was able to elicit from her students in her next school.
Alex: Some factors that probably helped me with resilience during my second year were: the strong camaraderie of the 7th grade math and science teachers who equally felt the defeat with classroom behavior and loss of instructional time; the fact that despite the large class sizes, my class periods other than the one with all the 7th grade diverse learners were making significant progress; and the belief that since my first year of teaching had been much more successful, once I made it through this second year, my third and future school years would be stronger. Even if I didn’t feel like I could get the results I wanted with work I was putting in at the time, I hoped the classroom management experience I was developing would be useful to me in a more evident way in the future. Fortunately, that’s exactly how I felt during my third year of teaching; I was able to combine the stronger classroom management skills with my planning skills, which now reflected a mix of balanced literacy workshop training and game-like learning, in a way that felt like my teaching “clicked.”
Increasingly, Alex was the go to model of management and instruction that teachers who were struggling to get an instructional foothold in their own classrooms were invited to observe. By this point, she had been appointed the Lead Teacher for the Middle School. She served on the school’s Instructional Leadership Team and led weekly middle school staff meetings. As she grew more confident in her classroom, Alex’s manner began to relax and the somewhat mechanical way of speaking to her classes and giving instructions gave way to a more conversational style and even an occasional laugh in response to some ridiculous antic that is the way of developing middle schoolers. Those laughs and occasional smiles are a sure-fire sign of a teacher’s growing sense of control.
Alex: I was able to more explicitly see my growth as a teacher. My students were not completely different than the ones I struggled to teach during my second year. A handful of students had a lot of trauma, threw tantrums, etc. However, my class sizes were back under 30, the school was more stable, and I had each class for 140 minutes of class time a day, so I was able to build strong relationships and routines with the students.
During Reading Workshop, my classroom began to have the calm and electric feel of engaged and excited readers. While I had glimpses of this experience during my first two years, when I led my accelerated after-school book club or when I let students open boxes of their favorite book series, it was not until my third year that I was able to cultivate a strong independent reading environment where students were lounging under tables and with feet kicked up, glued to their self-selected books. I discovered that starting the year off with a high-interest class read-aloud novel would hook the students in. Many of the students at Seekers came to my classroom with negative reading experiences. It was my job and mission to help them discover that they each love to read. During my first year, when I tried to start independent reading at the beginning of the year, many students just did not know how to find a book they liked or how to stick with a book. When I started the school year off with the book Chains, on day one, students groaned, “I hate reading!” By day three, they were shrieking, “No!! Don’t stop reading!” at each cliff-hanger.
I began a partnership with Digital Youth Network (DYN) and piloted their “Young Author Playlist,” a leveled set of writing assignments where the DYN staff would provide my student with feedback as they submitted their writing to the website. In later years, this partnership became much stronger, but even in their first year, the unit culminated in a public “Poetry Slam,” where my students presented their best poems on a stage for an audience and video cameras from DYN. Another successful project was the Action Based Communities (ABC) project through the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago (CRFC). Each of my classes identified an issue in the community and devised a policy proposal to address it. I got a Mikva grant to help put their plans into action, and the outcomes included an Anti-Violence rally, having the playground equipment in the neighboring park repaired, getting an outdoor garbage can installed outside the school, getting the city to mow the grass in the empty lot next to the school, and purchasing soccer goals to transform the space into a soccer field. I had much more to learn about differentiating instruction and enhancing lessons, but this third year still stands out as one of my two best school years so far.
During Alex’s tenure at Seekers, several administrative leadership teams came and went, without much gain in stability or school culture. There was a brief glimmer of hope when one of the most respected teachers in the building became Associate Director under a new principal, but the staff’s trust in the school’s leadership had worn thin. Uncertainty and instability were eroding morale and affecting instruction. Staff turnover was high, as even some of the strong founding teachers left. In response, Alex and several other teachers launched a unionization campaign, which is not easy to do in a charter school, particularly one that is embedded in a nested Russian doll structure of charter management organization that even made it unclear just who the legal employer was. For already overworked teachers, such an organizing campaign required hundreds of hours of after school meetings among the organizers, with school administration, with the union, with the staff and board of the management organization. It was a tribute to Alex’s organizational skills that her students never suffered from her political activity. Alex’s new activism presaged her later move into classroom activism with her students, which we’ll hear about shortly.
The unionization battle was not just about salary or other familiar meat and potatoes issues. It was primarily about giving teachers a voice in the decision-making process, in the hopes that they could be a stabilizing force as the administrative revolving door kept spinning. The battle was protracted, extending over the course of a year. The administration was never able to see that the organizing effort could actually strengthen the school rather than endanger it. Meanwhile teachers’ distrust and suspicion of administration grew as the negotiations dragged on, so that by the time the union was approved, the situation had deteriorated further and several of the strong teachers who had spearheaded the effort had chosen to leave. Their successors had little knowledge of or investment in the union and were never able to make effective use of the power they had won.
Alex; Being a leader in the unionization process from start to finish was a unique learning experience. There were aspects of the work I enjoyed, and aspects I didn’t. While I recognized the importance of such tasks, I slightly dreaded the “role-playing” conversations our organizer advisors repeatedly led us through, and I disliked feeling like I always had to pester my colleagues about whether they’d support our next action or what their feelings were about X, even though we had nearly unanimous and enthusiastic union support. I never doubted the importance of the unionizing work though, and it also provided me with a sense of professional fulfillment, as my initial hesitation to classroom teaching was my desire to make a bigger policy impact. During this time in my career, I was able to be a dedicated classroom teacher and be part of a bigger policy movement in urban schooling.
After 3 years, it was time to move on. Alex’s strong sense of loyalty and responsibility had led her to stay on at Seekers longer than many of her colleagues. It would have been particularly difficult for her to leave with the unionization fight still unresolved. However, leaving was a wise decision for many reasons. Declining enrollment threatened the survival of the school and were probably going to require that teachers teach at multiple grade levels. A new administration was abandoning the basic game-based philosophy on which the school was founded. “Today was a hard day, saying goodbye to CQ. I told my administrators earlier this week, then my students. In addition to leaving the students I love, the other hard part is that I don’t know exactly where I’m going…. As you said from the beginning though, I feel confident now that I’ve gotten my feet wet and gotten a couple of offers.”
Alex: I had such strong emotions when leaving Seekers! The philosophy was so unique, so inspiring. It was especially hard to leave after my third year had felt so successful. Looking at the enrollment numbers, staffing changes, teaching responsibilities and other details though, I saw that the future for teachers at Seekers would not allow me to have the same experience I’d had that third year. Teachers would teach multiple grade levels and content areas. We were eliminating the game design and curriculum coach positions, so I knew the game-like learning focus was getting phased out. I also feared the school would close after the following year. The school didn’t close, but unfortunately my other predictions came true; the school officially ended its game-like identity, and half-way through the next school year, yet another administration was put into place, teachers were all re-assigned to different courses, and many teachers were teaching multiple grades levels.
It took a bit of courage to leave without a new job in hand. She had in fact turned down an offer with my assurance that there would be others more suitable to her. It was a school where other graduates of our program had not fared well, and I feared the same would be the case for her. Then in late July, after several other offers and anticipated offers, including one from a “more esteemed” school, came this note. “Well, I made a decision. I accepted a sixth grade ELA job at Rodriguez. My gut tells me it’s the right decision, but it hasn’t been stress-free because of the hard decisions I’ve made (due to good options!)” Alex had consulted with two other UTEPers who had worked at Rodriguez and had received this feedback. “The cons of Rodriguez are that the administration is distant and a bit disorganized. Sarah said she wouldn’t recommend the school to a first year teacher for this reason, but it should be fine for me , especially after I’ve enjoyed my curricular freedom at Seekers. I think the health issues should be resolved with the school renovations. (There had been problems with mice, asbestos and mold, which had forced another UTEPer with allergy problems to leave.) They also have a strong union presence and strong parent involvement.”
In fact, Rodriguez had been Ground Zero for the first organized effort in CPS to encourage students to opt out of taking the standardized tests, which at that point were only being administered as pilots with no real consequences. This effort, strongly supported by the union was met by a rather heavy handed campaign of disinformation and threats of teacher firing by the district which minimized the short term effects of the protest, but which laid the groundwork for a much broader opt out movement in the district in the following years. The protest put Rodriguez on the map for social justice, anti-testing teachers like Alex and contributed to the sense that the school might be a good fit for her.
Rodriguez was different from Seekers in so many ways. The population was almost entirely Latino, enabling Alex to finally fulfill her wish to be in a situation where she could take advantage of her knowledge of Spanish. It was a K-8 school many times larger than Seekers, structured in the familiar egg carton fashion of students sorted into isolated age-segregated classrooms that has marked urban schools for almost a century. At the beginning and end of the school day, the entrances are surrounded by parents, many wheeling younger children in their strollers, waiting to see their children safely into the building or to escort them home. In the afternoon, there’s a feeling of market day in a small town because in addition to the parents there are local people selling candy and paletas, the traditional Mexican ice cream pops. All of this contributes to a feeling of a community that cares about its children.
The sense of distance that others had warned Alex about was such that on my first visit, after I passed through the metal detectors, something unimaginable at Seekers, I headed to the office to check in. It was clear the secretary had no idea who Alex was and had to consult a directory to locate her. There is no clear instructional focus or philosophy that pervades the school as there was at Seekers, so, as Alex had hoped, she is free to teach how and what she chooses. To my knowledge, the principal who oversaw the school during Alex’s first year set foot in her classroom until Alex reminded her in May that a formal observation was required before the CPS observation window closed. Alex is part of a middle school team, but it does not appear to affect her instructional decisions and plans. In fact, the team has been something of a drag on her work because it included a member who is abusive to colleagues and students. Although Alex reported his actions to administration during her first year, very little was done to resolve the situation, which appears to be less intense in the second year under a new and more supportive principal.
Alex: I was amazed by the bullying and lack of professionalism I experienced among the staff at my new school, specifically the targeted behavior from one colleague. During my first week at the school, I approached him individually to use my “I statements” and tell him I felt disrespected when he raised his voice and interrupted me during meetings. My attempt to be professional and direct was not received well. Our unexpected encounters, during which he’d raise his voice when coming into my room during a class period or when approaching me in the hallway (about logistics like a scheduling change due to an assembly), led me to feel anxiety in my stomach every time he was in proximity. During one grade level meeting, this teacher stood up in front of my colleagues and me, paced back and forth shouting and banging his fist on a desk because he was upset about a student scheduling detail. I had been involved in scheduling, which is why he targeted his lecture at me, but it was a detail which I did not have control over or influence. When we left the meeting, my resident teacher turned to me with a shocked face, apologizing for not acting, saying she had been on the verge of running to get a security guard during our meeting. I reported these incidents, and similar behavior was witnessed by the principal at the time, but I was later told by an assistant principal that because of administrative turnover, the disciplinary warnings that were in the process did not get filed. My current principal is working hard on adult behavior and school culture; in addition to composing purposeful grade level teams to balance out personalities, she is addressing these types of unprofessional and disrespectful behaviors. I no longer work in the same area as this teacher. It almost drove me to leave the school after my first year, but the work environment has improved for me over time.
I didn’t get into Alex’s room right at the beginning of her time at Rodriguez because the school was struggling administratively with class rosters, so Alex wasn’t sure what her classes would look like ultimately. I was completely sympathetic to her frustration because I once left my high school classes for two days of the Jewish High Holidays in September and returned to find a whole new set of faces looking back at me when I returned. In our correspondence before my first visit, Alex was reflecting on the move. “So, I miss the feel of Seekers. I liked the small staff and the environment that created, along with the high level of collaboration. It was also an environment where everyone was always pushed to take risks (an inherent part of the school model). …the environment was great for me and it really pushed me to grow. I don’t think I would have grown as much had I been at Rodriguez the past three years. I feel like I could walk into a class at Rodriguez without a lesson plan and everything would still go smoothly. At Seekers my class would have crumbled!”
Alex’s comments are interesting for several reasons. First, they suggest that even in the face of administrative dysfunction a school can be an inviting place to work, if collaboration among teachers is high and if the philosophy driving instruction in the school is sufficiently compelling. Neither is the case at Rodriguez where order and routine keep the ship on a steady course, though the voyage is not likely to take them to anyplace interesting or exotic. In addition, the students at Rodriguez present relatively few behavioral challenges. They tend to follow along compliantly with whatever the teacher asks of them. At Seekers, if a teacher didn’t provide engaging and dynamic instruction, they were likely to face a flood of behavioral problems. Slack off on the planning at your own risk. Alex is not a teacher who seeks a comfortable environment where the demands are minimal and the challenges few. On the contrary, at Rodriguez she has taken on the responsibility to create her own challenges to compensate for the lack of push from colleagues or administration.
Yet, positive person that she is, Alex is quick to point to the positives of her new situation and the opportunities they afford her to grow as a teacher. “On to the positives! The students are incredibly pleasant, and they have positive academic and behavioral habits that demonstrate the consistency they’ve experienced at Rodriguez. I feel very happy while I’m teaching. I am incorporating my knowledge of Spanish and Latino culture into classes, which was one of my goals. I wanted to be in an environment where I frequently hear Spanish among parents and staff and that happens at Rodriguez.”
Alex is also quick to recognize that Rodriguez provides opportunities for growth that were not available to her at Seekers. “Since the students are higher-functioning in certain ways (by that I mean able to converse in groups, come to class with their materials, etc.), I am able to focus on group work in a new way. With ELLs (English Language Learners) I know that having students converse in class is very important. Another new area for me is word study, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading and development in that area.” Alex’s challenge at Rodriguez was encouraging students to speak more, particularly those who were uncomfortable doing so as second language learners. At Seekers, the challenge was to reign in all the speech and direct it to the learning task at hand.
Alex: I remember being a bit stunned on the very first day of school at Rodriguez when I picked up my homeroom class and they walked in two straight lines– one girls’ and one boys’ line– all the way through the school to the classroom door. These students had experienced consistent, structured schooling throughout their career, unlike the Seekers students, who all come from different K-5 schools and represent a student population of more diverse learners and students whose parents told me they “hadn’t done well” in their neighborhood schools or “needed hands-on learning.”. At Rodriguez, I was able to consolidate my routine-building lessons for reading and writing workshop, because students had consistent schooling experiences in these domains. I set goals around facilitating more student-led discussion and began to explore Accountable Talk group discussion and book clubs.
I had mentioned earlier that from the start at Seekers Alex was delivering her instruction in a somewhat brittle way. Now with the growing confidence resulting from 3+ years in the classroom and the reduced risk of behavior disruptions Alex was able to be more her natural self, speaking conversationally, laughing and smiling as you would when engaged in conversation with friends and colleagues without losing authority.
Even in this relatively benign atmosphere, she continued to be concerned about the students who acquired the reputation of “bad boys” among the teachers. They were nowhere as disruptive as the most challenging students at Seekers, but their minor infractions, combined with their general disengagement signaled trouble ahead. Not content to turn away from the problem, Alex had ideas about instituting a mentoring program. She could introduce interesting and innovative instruction in her classroom, but the school culture did not support ideas and projects that extended beyond individual classrooms, which was a real limitation Alex was learning to accept in her new setting.
Alex: Rodriguez provided some of the aspects I was looking for in my second school placement: curricular freedom, a more stable school environment, and a chance to develop in partnering with a largely Spanish-speaking parent community. I very much missed the collaborative, open-door culture from Seekers. At Rodriguez, many teachers were wary of visitors in their classrooms. Over time, I think I began to realize the reason for this sense of fear and distrust, after I saw teachers targeted for union activity or strategically pushed out or “gone after” by administrators. I had been excited to teach alongside veteran teachers, from whom I could learn, and over time, I have found these opportunities in pockets of the school. However, during my first year, I did not immediately find this to be the norm. When I asked a well-respected teacher if I could observe her book clubs to learn from her, as I was preparing to facilitate book clubs, she said no. I also had philosophical disagreements with some teachers who’d been in the classroom for decades regarding disciplinary approaches and the language we (teachers) used to negatively label students. There are wonderful collaborating teachers at Rodriguez, but my overall impression of my professional community felt negative, largely due to the one colleague, around whom I felt disrespected and uncomfortable. I found a professional community to fill this void by turning back to UTEP. I was asked to become a CI (clinical instructor) for a current UTEP master’s student during my first spring at Rodriguez, and the following year, while I continued to coach UTEP resident teachers, I completed the coursework for my ESL endorsement alongside UTEP alumni. With my residents and in my ESL classes, I found wonderful thought partners and intellectual stimulation.
UTEP paid a stipend to its mentor teachers who were called Clinical Instructors (CIs) for placing second year students in their classrooms for a half year residency. Teachers were ready to accept Residents after they had completed at least three years in the classroom. With the move to Rodriguez, Alex was now ready to assume that role. These positions served a dual purpose. They provided settings for Residents that were instructionally and philosophically compatible with their training, while providing a step up on the career ladder for CIs without their having to leaving the classroom. Beginning in that first year, Alex has had a continuous, stream of novice teachers in her classroom. Their presence has provided her with an opportunity to articulate her practice for the benefit of her trainees and to share the expertise she’s developed in areas like planning and classroom management. Alex writes of her first Resident, “J. is improving rapidly. I see how I’ve really been able to mentor her in structure (structured transitions, visuals, directions) which she dearly needed. Of course, she’s going through the natural transitions with classroom management. On Friday she learned that when she gave up giving warnings, the class deteriorated, and it became too hard to pinpoint behavior, as it was half the class that was not following expectations. I don’t mean to sound negative about J.’s takeover. I think she’s in an appropriate place developmentally. It’s definitely benefitting me also, as I am making my own practice explicit to myself as well.”
Alex has taken this responsibility seriously, devoting considerable time to meeting with her Residents during prep periods, after school and on the phone evenings and weekends. She has been particularly attentive to reviewing and helping to revise their plans for the various takeovers they are required to do as part of their program. In this way Alex’s teaching world has come full circle as she passes on the fruits of her experiences, just as her own CIs Tonya and Dan did for her.
Alex: I am currently hosting my sixth resident teacher. Each of my experiences coaching a student teacher has felt more different than each of my years teaching children, because the one-on-one relationship between resident teacher and clinical instructor allows the experience to be so much more individualized than the one-to-25 ratio in a classroom. There are certain focuses I have learned to anticipate and work on with all my residents, such as planning out and communicating classroom transitions in more detail, constructing specific and measurable learning objectives, and how to narrate student behavior in the classroom. However, my coaching approach and goals drastically change with each resident, because every teacher has such different strengths and weaknesses, along with adult communication styles and preferences. One resident may struggle more with classroom management but may have a strong cultural connection with the students; one may be great at building relationships with students but may need to add emotion and enthusiasm to lesson delivery; one may be a thoughtful and creative planner but need to improve time management. Just as teachers fall asleep fretting about a particular student, I now fall asleep strategizing how I can help a resident develop a skill we’ve discussed multiple times, but they’re still not implementing. In this way, I continuously feel like I’m growing as a coach.
I also think I have gotten better at maximizing the advantage of two teachers in the classroom. It is easy to default to the “one teach, one assist” model of co-teaching, but that leaves so much time when one teacher is addressing the full class and the second teacher is standing in the back of the room, waiting politely until independent work or group work time to assist students. This time can be a waste of having two teachers. I now plan more units with group work, centers, or rotations. During book clubs or other group work, my resident teacher and I can each cover a zone of the classroom, observing, assessing, or checking in with half of the groups. During centers, one teacher can work with a small group while the other teacher conferences with individual students, or both teachers can work with groups simultaneously while other students engage in alternative activities.
Let me add my voice here, stepping out of the time frame in which this whole piece was written. We are, in fact now a year and a half beyond where this account ends because of various delays we’ve encountered. I’ve now watched Alex work with several more Residents. With the most recent partner, she achieved a new high, a true collaboration which enabled the two of them to split the class between them with the confidence that there would be no loss in the quality of instruction. It was a triumph of both Alex’s growing mentoring skills and the Resident’s admirable ability to inhale every learning opportunity that Alex offered her.
Alex: Coaching future teachers is fulfilling to me, as it is a way to achieve that “bigger impact” desire I felt before I made my decision to become a classroom teacher. It is rewarding to witness a resident’s growth throughout a semester, and especially when a UTEP professor or student tells me, “I visited your former resident’s classroom, and I saw direct evidence of your influence on them in the way they [structured reading workshop] or [presented detailed PowerPoint instructions for every transition].”
Another reason for me to host resident teachers is that it pushes me, every day, to demonstrate best-practices. I have high expectations for my residents around maximizing instructional time, creating differentiated work for students with IEP’s or English Language Learners, and using independent work time to conference with students instead of taking a moment to relax. I feel more justified in asking for my residents to attempt these best-practices if I am modeling them myself.
I give a lot of planning feedback to my residents as they prepare to teach lessons, since planning is one of my own strengths, and because they are required to write their own lesson plans, and often even unit plans, since I have chosen to work at schools where I write my own curriculum from scratch. Alternatively, I could choose not to review their lessons before they teach them, and it would potentially be less work for them (as it is an extra burden to revise a lesson plan and materials after receiving feedback on them). There are times when I observe lessons without having any input in the plans, but with my typical, more involved style of feedback, the residents spend more time on their plans, but they also learn more in the process. Leah’s comment about her lesson interview quotes writing lesson exemplifies this, and she said she felt “completely overwhelmed” in the moment, but it was “the best lesson [she] learned from being in [my] classroom.” I hope for my request to revise lessons to be valuable learning moments for my residents, but I’m not always sure that they are.
Resident teachers live in a constant state of feeling overwhelmed– at least that’s how my roommate and I felt when we were UTEP residents– and it is sometimes difficult as a CI to be confident about how much to push a resident. I try to create a gradual release progression of expectations for my residents, so they aren’t expected to execute more than they’re ready for too soon, but when a resident seems hesitant to take on a task that I feel is necessary to teaching (the difference between creating an instructional poster that is a necessary visual for a writing unit, compared to an extra classroom decoration), I remind myself and my resident that there will be so much more to do when they are a full-time classroom teacher the following year, and my job as CI is to prepare them for that goal. One resident articulated this to his UTEP professor and me in a meeting, when sharing how he felt going into one of his partial- takeovers; he said something like, “I sometimes feel frustrated that I have a lot of class responsibilities and expectations that take a lot of my time, but I know that it’s still small compared to the full load of a teacher, and I know Alex is helping me be better prepared when I’m a full-time teacher.” To me, he was not complaining or trying to push back; he was just expressing the natural tension stemming from being overwhelmed when pushed perhaps past one’s comfort zone.
It has been helpful to me to have personal relationships with the UTEP instructors. Sheri, one of the leaders of the residency year, was my own coach for 2 and ½ years in my first three years of teaching. Janet, another instructor for residents, was my instructor for all my ESL endorsement courses. Because the UTEP instructors know me so well, they are able to pair residents with me who they think will be a good match– probably residents who are willing to work hard, are good communicators, and perhaps even younger residents, as I am still younger than some other CI’s, and as it has in my school, it could potentially cause tension for some residents. I frequently consult with the UTEP instructors to confirm whether my expectations are reasonable. This reassurance from the UTEP instructors was especially helpful for me during one difficult resident experience, in which the resident was reassigned to my classroom part-way through an original placement that was not going well.
Here are some comments from her Residents about the experience of having Alex as a CI:
Although I can’t put my finger on exactly how she did it, Alex engaged students on Day 1, and students valued the time they spent in Alex’s class, there was a mutual understanding that Alex wouldn’t waste students’ time on busy work and they would not waste precious learning time.
I think that Alex is observant and can see what is working and what is not working in the classroom. While some might argue that Alex is innately driven or observant, I believe UTEP’s value of growth mindset and the practice of critique and reflection encourage teachers to view their practice critically.
During my first take-over, I really struggled. Alex makes all of her units, lesson plans, and assignments from scratch, and I was jealous of my peers who had a set curriculum to work with. Not only were we creating things from scratch, we were teaching our students lessons that were not often 6th-grade material! During my take-over, we taught students how to interview and write up a nonfiction narrative of a person’s immigration story. That’s hard! I remember spending my whole weekend working on these lessons teaching students how to select good quotes from their interview notes and how to incorporate them into their writing.
One of Alex’s strengths is encouraging her students to be inquisitive. At the start of the year, she shared that one of her favorite things about sixth graders is how many awesome questons they ask. As with much of Alex’s style, students come up with their own questions, though they are guided in this process by Alex, as she helps them refine and develop questions that will prompt fruitful responses.
Alex’s intensity and workstyle can be overwhelming. She expects a lot of her students and coworkers, and that is a great thing. However, when people don’t live up to those expectations, Alex often takes the initiative to work even harder to cover for that. For most people, that sort of attitude and work ethic is unsustainable. Alex’s drive to make sure every aspect of her teaching is done correctly and every base is covered means frequent calls home to communicate with parents, lots of emails to parents, teachers and administrators, and I found it tiring at times.
Alex’s coaching style was extremely specific, in that she would take many quantitative, objective notes. After my lessons, I would have a rundown of how many students were looking at me, engaging in turn and talks, and writing independently throughout the lessons. “At 2:32, you had 18 of 24 students with their eyes on you. What can you do to get the focus of six students who weren’t looking at you?” was a typical coaching conversation. In my experience, Alex would always ask me questions and expect me to attempt to find an answer or strategy before helping me come up with one. Alex’s questions were tough, because they got straight to some of the deficits in my own teaching practice that I couldn’t always answer quickly. I often had to think for a minute before responding or have her help me come up with answers. She would remind me that I would need to be coming up with these solutions on my own in my first year of teaching, though.
There were many elements of her practice at Seekers that Alex carried with her to Rodriguez – the personal narrative writing, the digital poetry unit, the use of technology. On this point although Rodriguez was relatively backward in the use of technology compared with Seekers which was richly resourced with equipment and staff with expertise in that area, Alex, from the beginning, had a laptop cart stationed in her room of which she made extensive use. Her students were constantly sending her work online and receiving feedback in the same way.
Of course, Alex was now teaching in a very different cultural context from Seekers’s. One of the first adaptations she made was substituting the book about slavery during the Revolutionary War to start the year for The Circuit, a more appropriate text with an immigration theme. She was also becoming increasingly more interested in issues of bi-lingual education as it became clear that her students’ comfort with conversational English masked deeper difficulties with more sophisticated, more academic aspects of English. As a result, she was motivated to sign up for a course leading to an ESL certification which she has now earned. Still Alex’s efforts to move toward more culturally relevant teaching in her new setting were still a work-in-progress to which she would have to return in the coming years.
After the first quarter focus on a group text (The Circuit), Alex’s reading program was a combination of Independent Reading and Book Clubs, with one or the other in play in different quarters. She had amassed an impressive library, all organized very neatly in labeled bins, so when the students were free to choose their own reading, there was a lot to choose from. I was always impressed by the quality of the titles on students’ desks, along with their notebooks and papers. There was a general enthusiasm about reading and the independent reading time was quiet and lasted a long time, with most students on task throughout. As an example of the excitement books could generate, Alex described this scene when a shipment of new books arrived for the class library. “I divided the books into five boxes, one for each table and for five timed rounds of five minutes (where each table would pass the boxes to the next table) there was a flurry of kids pulling out books, making exclamations about the books, adding titles to their “books to do” lists in their notebooks, holding up titles like trophies, shouting to friends, hugging books, etc. I casually asked one of my reluctant readers if he’d found any books he was interested in, he responded ‘Just four,’ which tickled me as that seemed like a success.’”
During her time at Rodriguez, I was visiting Alex’s classroom on average about once every three weeks. Before each visit, she sent me information about what I was likely to see and sometimes what role she would like me to play. For example, when the students were revising their poetry, she asked if I would conference with some of them, and she sent me the pieces they were working on in advance. I had no official capacity but no one in the school ever stopped me to ask why I was there. When she was preparing to ask her students to present book talks about the books they had completed in independent reading, she asked if I would model one for the class. To call me a coach doesn’t quite capture the unique quality of our relationship. I was more a combination of thought partner, cheerleader, resource recommender and, most important of all, gadfly.
In that capacity, I wrote a piece toward the end of her first year at Rodriguez in the third person but was clearly directed to her. “A. has mastered the mechanics of teaching that would earn her high marks on the prevailing measures of teacher competence…. Students know what is expected of them and what the consequences are of not meeting those expectations…So, what’s wrong with this picture? Precisely because A. has so many of the basic instructional moves and structures in place, there is so much more she could be doing, given the open field in which she is able to run, so why is she not taking the opportunities afforded her? There are too few ambitious projects to engage students. There are few opportunities for inquiry driven by the students’ own interests. There is not enough work based in the students’ culture that could foster deeper ties with family and community. In short there isn’t enough that might make students truly excited about what lies ahead in the coming school day…A. has grown into the highly capable teacher that she is, but I puzzle over the “chilling effect” that keeps her within low risk territory where there is not enough evidence of excitement, spontaneity and passion – words that seldom, if ever, appear in discussions of teacher effectiveness or in lists of educational effectiveness.” Remember the comment of her Residency coach about the way she had made her project on mystery writing “fun.” There just wasn’t enough of that in her current classroom.
I sent what I had written to Alex as a kind of call to arms for the following year, and Alex responded in kind, as I knew she would. “…It’s beautiful the way you’ve written this narrative, both to express something you’re feeling and also to push me (and others like me. You’ve taken a specific lens that can capture a stumbling point for teachers in (my) situation.” With that, Alex entered Year Five with the intention of aiming higher in this year when the prevailing mythology about teacher development says is the time when teachers are finally successful in integrating all the knowledge and experience they have been exposed to.
The nomination and subsequent election of Donald Trump as president dominated the thinking of students and teachers from the very start of school, nowhere more than in a community of immigrants like Rodriguez. Since the campaign debate was so heavy on attacks on “illegal immigrants” and building border walls, it was fortunate that Alex had scheduled an inquiry unit on immigration, which included interviews with family, friends and teachers about their immigration experiences. For obvious reasons, the interest level was high. Alex had constructed posters which were on display in her room emphasizing advocacy and action, so the inquiry work was aimed from the outset at moving beyond academic exercise and toward real-world action. In this case, the action included letter writing campaigns to public figures in a position to speak out on the issue and demonstrations (a march around the school carrying placards opposing the biased rhetoric about immigration and the ominous threats of deportation that hung over Alex’s students and their families, even though many of them had solid credentials that could protect their positions in this country.
This from Leah, her resident at the time:
The election was particularly traumatic to our school community filled with students who were second and third generation Mexican immigrants. I remember the day after the election Alex spent the day giving students a place to speak openly about their feelings and concerns; we even had students who choose to stay in from recess to continue our conversations. That same day, or possibly the next, Alex pulled up a map and started explaining the Electoral College system. I was confused at first, about how understanding this would help appease students’ nerves, but Alex left the students with this, she said: “Many people cannot vote in this country for a variety of reasons. Of the people that CAN vote only about 60% of those people came out and voted in the election. Of THOSE people, more than half voted for Hillary Clinton. About 3 million MORE people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump. I don’t want you to walk around Chicago and think that most people voted for Donald Trump. They didn’t.” Alex used this opportunity to make sure that students were realistic about the situation but that they also didn’t think they lived in a society where the majority of the population voted for a person who had said such horrible things about Mexico and its people. She used the power of information to validate and calm students.
The day after the election in November, the children wrote about their reactions to the outcome in words almost too painful to read. Alex wrote: “If ever there was a teachable social justice moment, it’s now… I think I will have all three of my classes do action projects this week. I returned to the ‘3As’ I’d introduced to them before (Aid, Awareness, Activism) I suspect they will want to write letters, maybe raise money for organizations that support immigrants…” This same scene was being played out in immigrant communities throughout the country. The writing they did in response to the election was dripping with fear, bewilderment and anxiety about what lay ahead and how soon. Trump’s candidacy and election created an unintended opportunity for Alex to pursue two of her major objectives for this second year at Rodriguez – more extensive inquiry work and encouragement of student voice through projects geared toward action. Alex had planned a unit on the election, but the unexpected outcome pushed her plans in unanticipated directions. She was flexible and wide awake enough to seize the opportunity that had opened for her, in the same way many teachers of students of color seize on the escalating instances of police violence to transform those tragedies into profound learning opportunities. In a note of support to Alex, I wrote, “Extreme situations like this force us to mobilize our energies in unexpected ways.”
The immigration theme dominated almost the entire first half of the year, a luxury that was afforded Alex because of the limited monitoring and direction from administration. There was no specific body of material she was required to “cover.” The interviews that students did about immigration experiences turned into journalistic pieces reporting the content of those interviews, which in turn became the material for public presentations to parents and others in the community. Alex was communicating to the kids and their families that their lives and experiences had an honored place in the school’s curriculum.
Alex: In one of our class brainstorming sessions around possible actions we could take, one of my students suggested creating a blog. I ran with this idea, creating a BlogSpot webpage that I used as a platform to “publish” all forms of student work as part of their action projects, continuing throughout the entire school year. Students wrote reflection pieces about their feelings after the election, letters addressed to policy-makers, messages directly to Trump, persuasive pieces about how important immigrants are in our country, etc. My 6th graders did presentations for a 2nd grade classroom, helping the younger children work through their emotions of fear and anxiety.
The work in the second half of the year built on this base of activism woven into the critical instructional goals around reading and writing. When Alex introduced Book Clubs she carefully selected titles about children around the world facing difficult situations. This led to research about the countries in which the books were set and finally, in keeping with the targeted focus on activism, students created fundraising campaigns to alleviate the conditions that plagued the lives of the children in their books. Alex had found a way to close the circle beginning with classroom learning and action in the larger world which I’m guessing will be the trademark of her instruction from here on.
Alex: This “Global Book Clubs” unit is one of my favorite units I’ve done alongside my students. Students built up global awareness about other countries, cultures, and issues around the world by reading books like I Am Malala and A Long Walk to Water. I used Global Giving, a crowd-sourcing fundraising website allowing students to create their own fundraising page for an existing nonprofit fundraiser. Based on what they’d learned from their book club novels, students wrote persuasive paragraphs to encourage people to donate money toward alleviating issues including access to clean water, civil war, religious persecution, access to education, and extreme poverty. It was truly inspirational to show my students that they could make a positive impact on such a large-scale, even as young people. It felt like a successful close to the school year to me when, on the last day of school, a student wrote me an email and signed it, “Social Justice Activist, [her name].”
Events outside her classroom were constant sources of distraction. I had mentioned earlier Rodriguez had developed a reputation as a leader in the movement to encourage students and their parents to opt out of certain standardized testing. Although the present administration was not in place when these earlier incidents occurred, there was a heightened vigilance in the building around testing time. During this period, Alex was accused of instructing her resident to encourage students not to take the tests. As she recalls the circumstances, she was not sufficiently thoughtful about how she and her resident distributed opting out information to her students when she should have been exercising greater caution in dealing with such a fraught issue. This brought a reprimand from the principal and a warning of caution from her union representative to be restrained in her public statements and in her comments to the students about testing. Although Alex was a fifth-year teacher, because her first three years were in a charter school, so she was not yet fully tenured. That made her vulnerable to dismissal without cause. It was painful to watch Alex struggle with this regime of silencing which was reinforced by the suspension of the most outspoken member of the staff who had been involved in the original opt out movement at the school. Although the charges behind her dismissal were not made public, others assumed that she was accused of continuing her militancy on the subject. Too often teachers engage in a process of self-silencing beyond what the situation requires. In this case, Alex, who is generally more courageous and outspoken, witness her key role in the union organizing at Seekers, was threatened in ways that were not of her imagining, and it was uncomfortable to watch her being uncharacteristically muffled, especially at a time when she was promoting a curriculum centering on advocacy and activism for her students.
The problems within her grade level team persisted from the very beginning of her time at Rodriguez, driving Alex more deeply into focusing on her own classroom. Fortunately, her continuing role as a Clinical Instructor for UTEP provided her with a professional community and a source of support. Although we advise teachers to seek out kindred spirits in their buildings, that sometimes proves to be difficult. The second option is to find a program, a community, a network outside the school where there are kindred spirits from whom you can learn and seek support. The CIs met periodically to discuss their residents, to improve their own coaching skills and to sharpen their own ever-evolving practice. Alex is, at once, a good collaborator and an independent spirit, so the work with her Residents and the CI network that supported it was just enough to sustain her.
In this second year at Rodriguez, Alex had also found a healthy mix of outside partners who offered new opportunities for her students without overwhelming her own instructional goals – in fact enhancing them. An admired theater troupe in the city was hosting her classes on a regular basis and providing them quality opportunities to perform. The Digital Youth Network (DYN) at DePaul University provided the materials for Alex’s poetry unit, including feedback on the students’ writing. This was enhanced by a partnership with a class at DePaul which provided individual mentors for Alex’s students which resulted in the exchange of visits between the campus and the school that put faces to the work and which exposed students to a glimpse of what college might look like for them.
Alex: Over four years, my poetry unit became more powerful because I improved my lessons and assignments and DYN amplified the scope of the partnership. My first-year teaching students how to write similes and metaphors involved providing the definition and examples, then having students go for it writing their own; three years later, the same lesson involved a scaffolded process with sentence starters and intermediary steps (brainstorming qualities of an object’s physical appearance, function, and movement) that generated much better results in the students’ writing. I was using the opportunity to teach the same content to get better at teaching. DYN took their idea of providing students with external feedback on their writing and created a structure to make that feedback idea sustainable for 120 students, while incorporating an exciting 6th grade- college relationship. They partnered with an enthusiastic and visionary DePaul creative writing professor who designed a course around creating writing communities and doing service, and the entire coursework was centered around her DePaul students being writing mentors for our Rodriguez students. My students were thrilled by their visits from their DePaul writing mentors, and I was able to motivate a reluctant writer to complete his poetry by showing him the email from his DePaul mentor, saying that his assignment was missing (and that she would be excited to read it!). My Open Mic events grew grander each year, moving from the classroom level to the school auditorium, with the DePaul mentors and a panel of administrator and teacher “judges.”
Alex: I can tell this work left a lasting impact on my students, because I just moved up two grade levels, so I have the same students I taught two years ago, and the first week of school students said, “We should do Song of the Week again this year,” (where each student submitted a song for the class to listen to and study as poetry throughout the year) and, “Are we going to write poetry? Maybe we can have a poetry club.”
Shortly after the end of the school year, Alex added another feather to her professional cap by being one of the teaching assistants in a UTEP summer course on teaching social justice through Social Studies where she led a group of students about to enter their Residency year through a process of developing five-day long inquiry projects ready to be used in their Residencies. Along with the work over the past two years with her own Residents, Alex was experiencing the satisfaction that comes with translating your own experience in a form that enables others to grow. It’s the handoff of acquired wisdom that doesn’t happen often enough among teachers.
As we were coming to the end of our work on this tale, it struck me that there was precious little mention of an issue that has been at the heart of virtually every conversation about teaching and schools in the last two decades – testing. Having played a small part in shaping her thinking about this issue during her time in UTEP and having spent so many hours in her classroom, I was quite sure why testing was not center-stage in this narrative, but it’s likely to be on the minds of readers of Alex’s story, so I asked her to comment on it.
Alex: I want to answer this question by saying: good teaching and learning is test prep. That’s not a direct answer to your question, but maybe that reveals plenty about my teaching philosophy. I think the way I ran my reading classes with very structured and traditional Reading Workshop and Balanced Literacy is as close to test prep as you can get in a holistic teaching setting (that is, not having students do test Seekersions). During reading workshop, student read independent books and wrote reader response letters or had discussions about reading skills like inferences, using text evidence, predictions, character analysis, author’s message, etc. During independent reading, I conferenced with students one-on-one and met with leveled Guided Reading groups.
If I were to work more test prep into that structure, I could be more intentional about the wording I use for post-reading analysis, pulling directly from test question language, or asking one kind of question more than another. However, I am aware of the kinds of literary skills students are tested on at different levels (for example, more figurative language and Greek and Latin roots at higher levels), and so I can keep that in mind when differentiating work. Whenever I have tried to create entire activities or units around test-driven content, I feel that it is decontextualized, and students forget it. I did a grammar unit once that I chose not to repeat. I also decided to abandon structured Greek and Latin root homework to make room for activities like Poetry Song of the Week or current events, because those activities are more relevant to students’ identities and their desire to learn; students’ responses validated these decisions for me.
I have been fortunate that, apart from one or two temporary administrators, I have never had someone breathing down my neck about test prep or informing all my planning with test data. I also purposely sought to work at schools that allow teachers curricular freedom and do not stress test scores above all else. I have mostly worked with administrators who are concerned with seeing high quality instruction in classrooms. I am glad to see that there is currently a CPS-wide focus on student-led discourse in classrooms.
I look at my students’ test scores, throughout the year, and when I receive my year-end teacher ratings. My students’ test scores are very important because they determine whether they are promoted to the next grade. So, I take them very seriously. I meet with parents and students when they are at risk of failing. I have taught before and after-school intervention classes for these students. I hope that my personal test score ratings are good each year, but I recognize that there are so many factors that affect test scores, that I just can’t personally focus on them too much.
So, Alex now stands on the cusp of Year Eight. There’s still a lot of room to grow, but by now Alex has logged thousands of hours of planning and instruction, reflection and retooling. All that experience, some mentored, some self-directed, have made her the teacher she is today. Alex came to the work with a steady self-confidence that belied her age. Her commitment to social justice was clear-eyed and rooted in a sense of responsibility to use her privilege to make the world a more just place. As a white woman she has been able to work successfully with the Black and Latino students who constitute more than 85% of the CPS population. She has opened herself up to coaching and feedback without any defensiveness. Finally, she was willing and able to reflect on her practice in ways that translated into constructive change.
On that base, with the help of mentors and colleagues from four different settings – her two residencies and the two schools in which she has worked – Alex is able to create a safe and orderly classroom without resorting to the repressive practices that some teachers resort to in their desperation. With that in place, her students have been able to work productively, and she has been able to relax into a role free of some of the mechanical quality of her earlier persona. Presenting herself more naturally has made building relationships easier, though working in a departmentalized setting, with large numbers of students passing through your room daily places a cap in how deep those relationships can go. There’s more work to be done on this front.
Instructionally, Alex has become more adept at creating experiences that have transformed many of her students into ardent readers and more capable and aware writers, although there remains a gender gap in her ability to engage some of her boys at the level she would like. She has become a master at the smooth integration of technology following her time in the technology-rich environment of Seekers.
Perhaps most important, she is learning to use the freedom her setting provides to teach more boldly in ways that engage students and that reflect more of their lives outside the school walls. She is moving her students beyond the passivity that is their default position in school toward exercising their own voices in a society that is too often not attuned to the needs and wishes of them and their families. All in all, Alex has arrived at an admirable point in her journey. Is this where she wanted/expected to be at this stage? Let’s end with her own prescient words from closer to the start.
“It’s an ongoing process: you continue to develop as a professional and as an individual at the same time. You don’t figure out one and then work on the other. I think I need to keep this in mind as I begin to teach and tackle the good teaching vs. ‘making a big difference’ goals. Sure, I expect to spend the first couple of years spending tons of energy just doing everything for the very first time, and over time I’ll become more efficient at the basics. So, as I become a more experienced teacher, I might be able to ‘go beyond’ the more minimal job description.
“I think there are two seemingly contradictory ideas that beginning teachers enter their first classrooms with: 1. I want to make a big difference… vs. 2. Being a beginning teacher is going to be SO challenging and tiring that if I can just get by, I’ll be doing well. It’s a matter of being realistic and idealistic at the same time. And I DO believe that we should simultaneously hold both views in most of the work we do (not just teaching).
“Maintaining idealistic views that are just beyond the possible is what drives people to do greater things than they thought they could do…. Then of course you must ground yourself in reality or you might neglect the everyday tasks of your work. I think this balance shows up in my life in the sense that I love to be inspired and do have aspirations for “making a difference,” in a way that’s probably overly idealistic; however, I am grounded in everyday productivity. So, I keep my mind open to future large ‘dreams”, but I must feel that I am being productive in the here and now.”
Alex: I’m surprised by how relevant these quotes have proved to be for me, seven years into my career. My residents have been the closest observers of my teaching, and their comments around my detailed planning, coupled with flexibility to make class relevant, or the sense of urgency for learning in my classroom illustrate ways that this realistic / idealistic balance is present in my teaching. I continue to develop as both a professional and individual as I have slightly switched grade levels and content areas every few years, taken on teacher leadership roles, and become a clinical instructor and TA for UTEP. My newest area of growth will be teaching ESL certification courses at the University of Chicago this year. I can currently stretch myself in these ways while being first and foremost a classroom teacher, and I think I’m still “maintaining idealistic views” if my resident feels that he, “truly understood what it meant to be a teacher that does everything in their power to help students be successful.”
When we designed UTEP, our dream was to prepare people for life-long careers as teachers, with opportunities for assuming leadership roles that didn’t draw them away from the classroom. Alex embodies those aspirations. The story we’ve told here has no neat ending because she is still reporting for duty every day, taking pleasure in the endless challenges and opportunities for growth.
Wow. That was a hell of a piece to read.
It reminded me how in my own teaching journey I really felt best in year FIVE and without hardly any training or supports beyond calls to Dr. Hoffman. These learning teachers have been lucky to receive so much support in and out of their classrooms.
Thank you, Ben, for having the stamina to tackle this long piece. You’re right to wonder at the amount of support that someone like Alex had.It makes it all the more impressive that you were able to get as far as you did flying solo.