STEP

A few weeks ago my wife and I were able to attend an early showing of the movie Step. What made it extra exciting is our friend was one of the executive producers in the making of the film. Step highlights the senior year of a high school step team at an all-girls charter school in inner-city Baltimore. It was an extremely well done and thought-provoking film and as it had to do with a group of young women’s experiences in school and life I had a few thoughts come to the surface that I thought I would process here.

My first thought (which I’ve written about before here) was to reinforce how absolutely crucial public schools are to the development of the average American young person. The charter school in the film facilitates countless activities to get all their students graduated and into an institution of higher education by the end of their senior year. They start the year with a convocation ceremony that reminds the student body of the importance of senior year (which will be this school’s first graduating class after starting 7 years ago). They have informational meetings for parents to keep them up to date on college application details. The school has an entire day dedicated to filling out all those college applications and financial aid forms. The school guidance counselor is striking in her relentless drive to push these young women to do what they need to do to get into college.

What I saw in Step was a public school serving its community in critical ways. It goes without saying that without their school community, a large percentage of these young women would have not made it to college, at least not immediately. A school like this is why whenever I hear the phrase “government schools” I cringe. This school was not out to indoctrinate children. It was there to serve them and to assist where their families were unable or unwilling. This is to not to fault their families, many who are portrayed in the film as hardworking and supportive people but to note that where society can often ignore the needs of communities, schools often fill those gaps. I believe parents have a right to choose the type of school that’s best for their child but denigrating public schools never helps.

The second thing this film made me process was my feelings toward charter schools in general. We had a heated, publicized, and grossly over-funded ballot question debate in Massachusetts this past fall about whether to expand charter schools. As a public school teacher and union member, I voted (without much enthusiasm) against the expansion, which ended up failing. I did not think the charter school proponents were clear enough about their ultimate aims and who was actually funding them and my bias for traditional public schools ultimately won the day. But this is hardly an issue I would write a polemic about and after watching Step, I have a newfound appreciation for the good many charter schools do. In many inner cities, charter schools are the best option for students. Where that is the case they should be supported and expanded all the while continuing to find ways to make the public districts improve as well.

My final thought is that in a time of utter polarization anything that can be seen as “bipartisan” is probably worth reaching for. Incredible, supportive, and innovative public schools of any type are surely one of those things. Go see Step. I suspect you’ll enjoy it. And afterwards maybe check out what the schools in your town and city are up to.

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Where then shall they go?

This week transgender people were in the news again as the Trump Administration recscinded an Obama administration order that mandated schools allow such students to access the facilities they identify with. The complexity and controversy of this issue has me mildly terrified to write about it. However my experience as a Christian and a public school teacher makes me feel I can offer a perspective that hits at the heart of this issue.

Students enter my classroom from a myriad number of backgrounds. Some are rich, some poor. Some from the US, some are immigrants. Some love school, some hate it. Some have strong and loving families, others do not. Some are popular and athletic, others are less popular and studious. My job when they enter my classroom is to educate them and convince them it is worth it to do so. To do that I need to create a space where my students feel safe enough to trust me. If I lose that trust, I’ve lost them.

Transgender students force educators like me to look them in the eyes and answer the question “Is it safe for me to be around you?” How we answer that question can make my classroom a refuge from whatever else is going on in their lives or tragically, a place where they literally dread to return to, day after day.

I personally cannot in good conscience call a transgender student by their non preferred pronoun or first name. I cannot in good conscience force them to use a bathroom they feel unsafe or misidentified in. To do so would go against everything I am seeking to create in my classroom and build in my career. I refuse to stand aside while explicit discrimination and the accompanying trauma takes place.

I understand how complex this issue is when you consider locker rooms, field trips, and general public accommodations. But what has truly grieved me over the past few days is seeing various conservative Christian leaders completely ignore the reality I need to walk everyday as a teacher.

Many are quick to lead with all the right one-liners. All students deserve respect, support, and dignity. No one should suffer under bullies or bigots. We can find win-win accommodations for all students. All this is wonderful but try as I might I cannot find one who actually gives a tangible example of what these accommodations might look like in a real school.

I hesitate to assume what they are after but I’m left to ponder if the only accommodation they are looking for is “separate but equal” bathroom facilities that force transgender students to use restrooms apart from the rest of the student body. The outcomes of this “accomodation” are not in question. Students forced into this setup will feel disrespected, unsupported, and undignified. They will feel bullied. They will feel less than and unsafe at school. Some will attempt suicide.

I understand why conservative Christians are upset. They have a very clear theology that says transgendered people cannot possibly be ok. A healthy, happy, well adjusted transgender person confronts their religious beliefs and worldview explicitly. As schools become more accepting of transgender students their beliefs become less and less mainstream. This process is challenging. But a public school is not a church or religious establishment. It has to accept every student eligible to enroll AND provide a safe learning environment.

This very issue will be heard by the Supreme Court this spring. Regardless of how the court decides this I can only see this issue going one way long term. Transgender students will be allowed to access the bathrooms and facilities they identify with in every public school nationwide at some point in the future. This is what is best for them, the schools and society as a whole. This should ultimately be more about doing what’s right than being right.

I recognize that some (perhaps many) will not agree with me here but I remained locked in to doing what is best for all my students. To those who disagree with me on religious grounds I’ll simply asked they following question: What use is perfect theology and Biblical proof texts if the outcomes for so many students are still so tragic?

 

 

 

When Schools Do More Than Educate.

One habit I have forced myself to get into since I became a teacher is to read news articles about education. I used to glance over these headlines without much thought because education is one of those issues where everyone has an opinion and until the past few years I could not begin to offer up a coherent view of where I lay on the spectrum. However, as I completed graduate school opinions finally started to coalesce in my brain and if you ever want me to wax poetic on the state of education in America please just ask. With this entry however I want to expand my focus a bit.

Education policy, especially with public schools, invariably comes back to money. Taxes, dollars and cents, overrides, teacher salaries etc. Educating every child equitably is a profoundly expensive task. What gets lost I think in this endless conflict of how much is needed to educate our children is what schools do beyond simply reading, writing, and arithmetic (and social studies! *cough*). Schools do much more than educate.

This past holiday season my school had a food drive for about six weeks. In that time teachers and students collected over a hundred boxes of food for our town’s food bank. We had a “pajama day” where students could pay $5 and wear pajamas to school. That raised over $1700 that went to a fund to help families struggling in the community over the holidays. Our guidance counselors, who work year round serving particularly tricky student situations, sent an email to teachers asking about students we suspect might need some extra support materially over the holidays. Our school nurse provides free healthcare  daily to students. Our cafeteria staff provides meals to students everyday. Our school psychologist and other therapists provide invaluable services to students so they can succeed in the classroom. My middle school is but one school in a small town. But this support happens across the country.

In recent years I have seen the term “government schools” used to deride public schools for their failings and missteps. No public school, including my own, is perfect and I strongly support parents right to choose which school is right for their child. But opposing public schools on the basis that they are simply lackeys of government severely misses the vital work so many schools do. Public schools are not merely “government schools” but community schools. They reflect the community they are in and often the communities and state that surrounds them. The best way for a public school to get better is to have their community get involved and support it.

There are many ways to improve education in this country. Schools and teachers should never stop innovating. But to deride their existence as so inept that they are not be worthy of support risks doing a great disservice to millions of children across the country. This past holiday season I was reminded of all the ways schools do so much more than educate. I hope that as a society we can be mindful of this as we seek to iron out policy and improve our schools and communities.

My First First Day

A little over 6 years ago I returned home after spending 2 of my first 3 years after college abroad. I had a bed in my parents house, a part-time job coaching cross country and a goal to start graduate school to become a teacher.

This past Wednesday, after three years in six school districts, I started my first day of school in my own classroom.

I had not expected it to take this long but it made it no less exciting. I still remember my first semester of education classes, reading theory for the first time and realizing I had no idea (yet) of my own opinion on how best to educate young people. I remember my first attempts at interviewing for student teaching positions, failing miserably, and ultimately succeeding in a different placement. I remember not getting a job in my first summer after graduation until a week before school started… as a paraprofessianal. I remember 4 months later getting a position teaching over an hour away. I remember getting a teacher assistant job the following fall after my first school had to cut positions. I remember getting another mid-year position in one of the most prestigious schools districts in Massachusetts. And I certainly remember the day that spring when my principal said that enrollment was down, another teacher wanted my position and I would not be asked back for the following school year.

I remember improving my interview skills with practice and 10+ interviews in August 2015 alone. I remember throwing up a hail mary email with only my resume to a  school district and forgetting about it. I remember being called into an interview the day before school started and when I had left the building an hour or so later I had a long term substitute position offer. I remember doing my paper work on the first day of school. And I remember teaching my first day of classes on the second day of school a year ago.

Given my experience it might seem that this week was less then monumental. After all this is the start of my fourth year in a classroom. But it’s hard to express how my previous experiences, while full classroom roles, have really been teaching with a hand behind my back. I have been creating lessons a few days ahead of time with students who, while amazing, never really forgot I was a “substitute.”

Wednesday was different. I had my own room that I had time to set up the way I wanted. I was able to put up posters, set up stations, and envision my class structure in a way that was previously not possible. In a few short days I have created a classroom environment that (I hope) addresses almost all the classroom management issues I have had in my career.

Most importantly I am in a place where, from the start, I feel like I belong. That feeling where I have an office mailbox, my name is on the teacher voicemail list, and students do not know me as anyone other than their teacher. After six years of working toward what I experienced this week, that feeling is priceless.

My first first day was exhilarating. Here’s to many more.

 

Reflections on 179 Days of Teaching

PLT Massublic schools, by law, have to be open 180 days per school year. I started this past school year on the second day of school with the advice of “fake it until you make it.” 179 school days later I have finished my first full school year in the US. I finish this year not only successfully but having secured a full-time position at my school for next year too. I have to change grades which is exciting and challenging in equal measure but the prospect of no August interviews is what haves me absolutely ecstatic.

Having finished this year I thought some reflections were in order. Firstly, I have been struck by how tired I have felt this year. I think being in the classroom can sneak up on you with the constant interactions with students and the constant paper chase of creating and grading student work. When vacations came around I was passed out the first couple nights. I think in a few years I’ll have even more structures and lessons that allow students to work more while I facilitate in the background but this year I was really tired.

Secondly, while this year went mostly very smoothly and I mostly had great students I know where I need to improve. I’ve read many places that it takes about 5+ years for teachers to really master being in the classroom. With three years under my belt I am feeling that. I’ve had successes in every place I have taught but also recognize patterns where I need to improve. My biggest weakness at the moment is my overall classroom management. Really its how I present myself to my students. I have typically (and not always intentionally) been too lenient in what I let students do or say in my classroom. Part of this is always coming in as a “long-term substitute.” My students have always perceived as the replacement teacher instead of “the teacher.” Starting next year in my own classroom will go a long way to remedying this but I will need to begin with a strong place and structures in place to keep improving in this area.

Finally, the thing I am most pleased with about this year is the way I was able to be myself and impact students in positive ways. I want to share just one story about a student named Sarah.* Sarah is an English Language Learner (ELL), a student who doesn’t speak English at home or whose English is not up to grade level yet. Sarah was a sweet student who wanted to do well and put pressure on herself to do so but could not quite overcome obstacles in her way. What hurt her the most was she was usually absent at least once a week. Some students can overcome that but for Sarah that really prevented her from raising her grades.

Over the course of the year Sarah and I developed a rapport and I saw that she wanted to do well. Over the first three quarters though she was stuck in the C range. Recognizing that she seemed to enjoy my class I decided to try something I learned in graduate school: high expectations. I brought her over at the end of quarter three and said she should go for As in the 4th quarter. She thought about that for a moment and said “that’s a lot of work…” But without missing a beat she followed that up with “I’m going to do it!”

Her fourth quarter was a stunning reversal on her previous three. She started getting nearly all her work in on-time in all her classes. Multiple times during the final quarter she would mention to me how her grades were at the A- range. In so many ways she was a completely different student. She did struggle to get one big assignment in on time but her 4th quarter average was an A-. The picture at the top of the post was a gift from Sarah on the last day of school. She seemed surprised that I liked it but for a map loving teacher from Massachusetts it was
perfect. It will sit proudly on my desk for the rest of my career.

I love Sarah’s story because of how simple it is. She did all the work she just needed a little push forward. I wish I could have had a positive influence on a number of other, even more challenging students. But at the end of this first year I have much to be thankful for and much to look forward too.

*Not her real name.

 

(A Little More) Certainty

I just successfully completed the longest audition for a job that I didn’t know was an audition in my life.

I’ve been teaching for the last two years (see my last entry) but nothing had been sticking. So this past summer it was back to interviewing. After a fairly quiet spring and summer I had almost 10 interviews in August. Many went well. One I had a second round interview as a final three candidate. I even had a hilariously bad interview for a marketing job where I had to pretend I was interested in marketing even though my interest only extended to the fact that it was, you know, a job. But as September approached, still no position had materialized.

The last week of August a job popped up on my school jobs site that was unusual because I couldn’t apply through the site or through their site. There was just an email address. This was unusual but given that it was a position I emailed them my resume. I didn’t even bother to send a cover letter. After a month of close calls why expect something from the job that was just an email? I sent it off as my hail mary attempt at seeking employment. I did not expect anything.

The week school started I interviewed at a school that would later reject me. While I was waiting I got an interview request for the school I had emailed. The day before school started I went in. I talked to a very nice department head for maybe 20 minutes. She explained it was a 4 to 6 week position but it might go longer. It seemed to go well and she said I would go talk to the principal now. I was more than a little surprised because this was moving a lot faster than my month of disappointment had gone.

I talked to the principal for 5-10 minutes. He looked over my reference letters. He went to talk to the department head without me for 10 minutes. He came back and pending recommendation phone calls offered me the position. I was blown away. I told him I had to wait, I was waiting to hear from the other school. He said OK and to call him when I knew. I got rejected from the other job the next morning and called the school. They said come in and do my paperwork. It was the first day of school.

The second day of school at 8AM I had 20 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 8th graders looking at me. I had been told very roughly what chapter one was. I taught the whole day, 5 classes, by myself. It went well. My 6 weeks came and went. The school is new, only starting its second year. The technology is close to great. The students, while as complex as any group of 8th graders, were largely respectful and kind. They kept not telling me to stay home, I kept coming in.

Today I found out I will be offered a contract for the year. My first full year teaching in the same classroom stateside. I’m not going to have to change jobs in 2 months. I’m really excited to have this opportunity.

I’m not out of the woods yet. Oddly enough this will still count as a vacancy at the end of the year. The job will be posted and the school will have to consider others. But right now I have 104 eighth graders to teach. I have a little bit of certainty in my life and I intend to take full advantage of it.

Uncertainty

I’m on my fifth job in education in a little over two years.

I have been a paraprofessional, a teacher assistant, a long-term substitute and a full-fledged teacher in that time. I have switched jobs, towns and retirement plans every 4-8 months. Currently I am on my second long-term sub stint though this one is far more uncertain than the first one. I do not know why I have replaced the absent teacher and have not been given a precise end day. I have no idea where I might be come Christmas.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about my still-starting career is that none of these job changes have happened because I messed up. I haven’t been fired. I wasn’t lazy. I taught my students well. A school district didn’t have money to hire me. Another time I got bumped by a teacher transfer. I have worked incredibly hard the past two years and I got engaged (ring!) and married to boot.

I’m also not a person who likes too much dramatic change. I want to have a school and a classroom and students I can count on. I will be as reliable as I wish them to be. I do not relish learning a new school’s culture, staff and technology every few months. Admittedly it has been stressful in many ways both personally and financially.

There are undoubtedly positives. I have taught in my own classroom for over a year in the past 2+ years. I’ve had my own classrooms, and lessons, and students. I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve improved my craft. I’ve gotten a great recommendation from every place I have worked. I have a great wife and family and I like living in Massachusetts. I am indeed, blessed.

But the uncertainty remains. I started this school year at a new school. I really like it . The building is shiny and new. The technology is close to flawless. Best of all I have gotten to set the tone with a group of students from day one who, so far, have proven to be the nicest group I have had yet. They aren’t prefect angels but they are polite, generally engaged and seem to appreciate that I am there. I swear if one nice student said, “Hi, Mr. Peirce!” to me everyday for the rest of my career I could teach for the next 60 years regardless of how everything else goes.

I’ll write a new entry when I know more but until then I’m enjoying teaching every day, uncertainty or otherwise.