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Breaking the silence: Teachers look for help

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An email this week came to me by way of a local classroom teacher, whose professional community is threatened by the actions—or inaction—of their recently-appointed school leader. 

Its contents dredged up old memories for me, and ones that gnaw at the very essence of my beliefs about schools and teaching.  My brief experience in teaching isn’t something I usually talk about-- partly because of the response I get from folks when I mention my shortcut into teaching, and partly because I prefer not to field questions about the goings-on “at that crazy school.”

The work we did there is cloaked in secrecy, the silence a protective layer for the students, the most vulnerable victims of the routine violence that went on there.  Our silence was a code of honor of sorts, and one that also served to protect us—the teachers—who daily chalked up violent behavior to something that we alone could correct. We knew that there were enough negative images of Harlem kids, and as teachers who loved them, didn't want to add to the already-negative images assigned to those who lived too far Uptown. So tied were we to our students’ actions that we measured each school day by the number of incidences involving police.

So, like it or not, whenever I think about schools, I think about that school and of the distress that accompanied navigating within such a hostile sphere. It stands to reason, then, that when I got the email yesterday from a group of local middle school teachers facing similar hardships, I wanted to hear their story.

The tide of this large middle school began to turn, teachers say, when a new principal took over this school year. Disappointed with the new administration’s lack of response to the rise in frequency of some students’ belligerent behavior, 42 teachers signed a letter to their new principal to voice their concerns.

They wrote:

We are coming to you out of concern and caring for our school. We are committed to our students. We are committed to the continued growth and success of (our school). Some of us have been here for a decade or more.... Some of us are new this year. Regardless of how long we have served the community, we are extremely concerned about what we see happening to the climate of the school.

Graffiti appears on a regular basis in the stairwells, in the hallways, inside classrooms, in the bathrooms, on the exterior of the building, and on student work displayed throughout the building. Trash is strewn throughout the hallways and stairwells, as well as inside classrooms. Windows, doors, door hinges, and fire extinguishers have been destroyed.

Hallways are unsafe. Fights break out among students amidst the chaos. Students run, push, shove, and play fight in the halls during the change of classes on a regular basis, creating extremely dangerous conditions for students, staff, and guests.  Students sprint up and down the stairs on the wrong side of the stairwell, jump the railings, and ride the railings down like a roller coaster. The fire alarm has been pulled multiple times by students, resulting in false alarms that severely disrupt instruction.

Students display total disregard for the authority of staff. Staff are ignored. Staff are cursed at by students. Staff are mocked. Staff are taunted. Staff are assaulted. We are hemorrhaging staff. Teachers are resigning at an alarming rate.

Students arrive late to school on a regular basis. Students arrive late to class on a regular basis. Students repeatedly roam the halls during instructional time. Those students then disrupt the instruction of other students by taunting students from the hallway, yelling into classrooms, opening doors and throwing things into classrooms, opening doors and yelling into classrooms, slamming doors open and shut repeatedly and loudly, jumping off of windowsills, yelling down the halls, and sprinting down the halls away from staff. Students cut class. Students leave the building.

We are coming to you because we want to work with you to address the problems that have surfaced and burgeoned over the course of this school year. We want to restore order so that we can get ourselves back on track for success during the 2008-2009 school year and beyond.

As a first step we are asking that all team meetings during the week of February 17-20 be devoted to school climate issues and that you be in attendance at those meetings.

We know we have a long road to haul in order to address and solve these school climate problems. The first step down that road is to have open and honest dialog about the issues. Next week’s team meetings will give us a firm foundation upon which we can begin to build our strategies for immediate improvement and eventual success.

Unlike the teachers at my former school, this group has mustered the courage to talk back.  In their shared community, they are calling for collective vision.  In fact, parents of children in this school have also committed to tackling the issues in what they see as the dramatic downturn of a previously high-quality school.  These groups, unlike our staff years ago, equate the notion of care with dialogue rather than silence.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to compare my former school to this one, but I look at it like this: “bad schools” weren’t always bad.  At some point, kids realize that their choices won’t even make a blip on anyone’s radar.  So they do it again.  This time, they tell their friends, and because everyone else is doing it, their friends do it too.  After a while, behaviors that were once occasional errors in judgment become widespread, leaving teachers and students on the receiving end of a cycle that seemingly feeds itself.  

 What are some ways in which this staff can work with (or around) a principal who has lost control of the school?  How might they structure interventions to reclaim the school that is teetering on the edge of the “bad” list?

Please share your suggestions for the staff this school by posting your comments.  You can also email me here at  

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