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The view from the front row

By Anna Weiss on May 11, 2009 09:21 AM

"Until the lion tells its tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."  This African proverb hung at the front of a colleague's classroom my second year of teaching.  His room was a calm, orderly oasis in a considerably more chaotic environment. Our Teach for America placement school floundered at the bottom of ranked lists for test scores and hovered at the top for dangerous incidents.  I spent many a sweltering lunch period contemplating that sign, thinking not only about how it may have spoken to our students' lives, but how it spoke to my own. 

I had initially been drawn to teaching because I was attracted to the idea of helping others find their own voice.  The papers I wrote for my English courses at the University of Illinois reveal an individual quite preoccupied with women writers, Latin-American writers, queer writers, and other representatives of the culturally oppressed. My Teach for America application essay mentions a desire to empower the disenfranchised.  I entered the teaching profession feeling outraged, self-righteous and admittedly very, very scared. 

Soon after I began teaching, those feelings of self-righteousness dissolved right away as I quickly realized that my students certainly had no problem finding their voice. Actually, the only person who was losing her voice was me! Teaching was hard. Every 10 minutes I was confronted with a challenge I had no idea how to resolve because I had no similar prior experiences to assist me. 

How could I assign history homework without using the textbook?  I had no idea. My own schools had had enough textbooks for each student to take home every night.  What was the appropriate consequence for a student cursing me out in the middle of a lesson after I'd told them to put their food away?  Again, I had no clue. My middle school used to give hour-long detentions just for chewing gum.  I couldn't seem to remember finding the Civil War all that confusing of a topic when I'd been in 8th grade; however, I'd already learned the difference between a state and a city by 8th grade, and I wasn't sure I could have said that about all of my 8th graders. In short, teaching ate at my self-esteem. 

But the outrage never really went away.  The blog I kept during my first year of teaching and the reflection pieces I wrote for my graduate coursework at Penn are all filled with stories about outdated textbooks, inefficient systems, neighborhood crimes, frustrated parents, dilapidated facilities, and most heartbreaking, students so academically behind that it did no good to even think about their future, lest you became so despaired that you were tempted to quit.

My students and their parents did not need anyone to help them find their voice. They knew they were being shortchanged. They frequently complained, as they should have, about the state of the school building, the lack of proper supplies, and the ability of some of the employees in the building to do their job. I had been incredibly naive to think they would be anything but acutely aware of the unfairness dealt to them.  What they needed was an audience for what they had to say.  The lions, if you will, needed - and still need - listeners.

With my blog posts here at the Notebook, I hope to provide them with those listeners.  A well-meaning co-worker once advised me that the only way I was going to get my students interested in American history was by telling them "all the stories."  He's right.  The public tires of so many facts and figures. It's the personal accounts that move readers to create change.  Now in my fourth year of teaching (and in my second at Mastery Charter School), I'd like to use this space to feature "all the stories" of individual teachers, parents, and especially students; all of the little people that we forget when we're too busy discussing the actions of the big names at 440 N. Broad and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Because, in the end, it's those little people who are affected the most by those actions, and ultimately, it's those little people who affect the rest of us.

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Comments (12)

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on May 11, 2009 9:38 pm

Hello Blog Mate. I am excited to read your blog.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 12, 2009 11:16 am

Hmmm, so you're going to tell tales, eh?

Are you going to tell the tale of all those not-so-smart little "lions" who get weeded out of Mastery? Whenever a student can't keep up with your high expectations, you can just show them the door and their report card and calmly surmise, "Gee, if you were at the district I'm sure they'd let you pass into the next grade. . . ." Wink wink, nudge nudge. Or when a naughtly little lion gets in trouble for something you can avoid going through the legally required due process hearings by saying, "So we are going to expell you, but that would really be harmful to you to have this on your permanent record, might even keep you out of college (Of course, you have no shot at college anyway, but let's not metion that) Hmm, I guess you could withdraw now and go to you neighborhood school (which has to take you)." Then only the district's neighborhood schools have to deal with the real lions and Mastery can claim its "proven track record" of success since it only has to deal with the comparative "lambs" who remain, because they already come from more stable families and don't bring nearly the same problems. Isn't school choice great!

Are you going to tell the tale about the overwhelming majority of TFA teachers that leave their schools after two years only to be replaced by another inexperienced 22 year old. But hey this is great because, just like the charters it undermines teacher unions and keeps costs down, right?. Besides all those TFA kids are just so darn smart that two years from 10 different TFAs must be better than a 20 year career from one of those idiot teachers who actually graduated from an education program and stayed long enough to learn the trade and provide schools with stability.

Oh, I just can't wait to hear the tales you'll tell.

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on May 12, 2009 4:00 pm

The issue about TFA teachers came up in another former-TFA corps member's blog as well. You can check out some of the exchange there.

Charter schools being able to "counseling students out" is a big concern and has come up a lot in reference to KIPP. Paul Tough talked about attrition a little last fall regarding the Harlem Children's Zone's charter school too.

These are definitely issues worth discussing, but give Anna a chance to get started on the blog. Tangential issues are worth exploring, but we'll be able to explore those topics more thoroughly when they relate to the blog post or article itself, not to presumed blog-posts-to-be.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 12, 2009 5:41 pm

I thought the post was very nicely written - hopeful and idealistic, not bitter and cynical like your comment. Give the girl a chance, she's just getting started! There's no need to be so snarky.

Submitted by dportnoy (not verified) on May 21, 2009 6:09 pm

I have to say that in part the historic "stance" of TFA leads some veteran teachers to have an attitude. Not unlike the one from "anonymous." For some career urban teachers, the subtext of saying that thousands of 22 year olds in under-resourced schools teaching for two years can fix the achievement gap is that those of us who have been teaching for 20 or 30 or more years aren't smart enough or hard working enough to improve public education. So I get it. But lets not take it all so personally - thousands of these young people ARE teaching, and they ARE working hard, and they are not going away. And, in fact, very few new teachers are staying past 5 or 6 years. And as an aside, charters aren't going away any time soon either. And intelligent, caring teachers are going to work there because district schools are so difficult. And intelligent, caring parents are sending their kids to them. Let's engage with these young teachers and with charters so that we can move them to understand some of what we know (and vice versa). In fact, I have seen TFA mature and grow in its understanding of their role and I have seen veteran teachers embrace and support and teach and sometimes even learn from these younger TFA teachers. Really, do any of us have a right to be so self-righteous? Who among is is making it all better all by ourselves?
Dina Portnoy

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on May 12, 2009 5:07 pm

I see the district is more doom and gloom...violence is not an issue in the Philly we are told...

But, wait, what is this I hear...something happened in Mayfair Elementary the Inquirer...they finally published the name of the mystery school...

Must be the teachers' fault...

Those sort of things didn't happen when I was in elemenary school...

In fact, boys were afraid of girls in 8th grade...

Must be the teachers'

Submitted by dportnoy (not verified) on May 13, 2009 12:26 pm

Congratulations Anna on your new Blog! I look forward to reading it. And yes, there has been much controversy about TFA teachers and charter schools on these blogs. I would hope that people post their honest questions, concerns and opinions without getting nasty. After all, solving our education crisis is a tall order...we all have to do this together, working hard and sharing our differences in respectful and productive ways. Those of us who are actually IN urban classrooms, like Anna, have something to say!
Dina Portnoy

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on May 14, 2009 10:12 am

Great beginning. Look forward to more stories.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 14, 2009 5:30 pm

I'm the person who wrote the "snarky" comment above and I'd just like to apologize. I had a bad day and you didn't deserve that tone. Sorry to be such a jerk. I do hope you, or someone else on the Notebook, will discuss the issues about counseling out at charters and the transience of TFAs, however.

Best of luck to you as fellow person committed to quality public schools.

Submitted by Sharif El-Mekki (not verified) on May 18, 2009 11:54 am

HI, I think it is well worth exploring what the actual data of student attrition is at Mastery Schools. As a new member to the organization, I can tell you for certain that it is much less than a typical school.

Also, if you take a closer look at the data, you might find it interesting to compare TFA turnover and typical new teachers from various traditional programs. Perhaps it is your unwelcoming attitude that helps with (TFA/alternate cert. program participants') attrition as well. I know that this culture, at times, permeates some buildings. Look at these alternative cert programs as potential partners and be strategic in how they can benefit your school community. I pray you and others will maintain an open mind.

Weiss, I am looking forward to your blogs.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 21, 2009 5:52 pm

Well if you can tell us with "certainty" I guess there'd be no reason to look at the data.

Actually I bet it all depends on how you define "attrition." If you define it as the number of students who leave the school not of their own volition then I bet you are wrong and Mastery is worse then the typical neighborhood school. If you define it as students that drop out of school all together then you are likely right, but that is meaningless data. It would be good to know (and perhaps redeeming for a place like Mastery - or damning . . .) the percent of students that drop out within a certain number of years of leaving Mastery compared to the district. I suspect that a large number who are counseled out, eventually drop out all together, but usually after attending another school for a time.

I agree that data would be good to look at. Also the TFA data. Anyone know if it's out there?

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on May 21, 2009 6:00 pm

It doesn't relate to Mastery, but interesting piece about the attrition/counseling issue came up on GothamSchools yesterday. In NYC, of 51,000 homeless students only 111 attend charter schools. Hit the link for the reasoning as to why.

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