First Person

What I Relearned When I Watched My Colleagues Teach

Moving to a new school this fall marked a role shift for me as a teacher. After eight years as a general education teacher (as in, Ms. Jacks, Eighth-Grade English), I am now the learning specialist and co-teacher in an eighth-grade integrated co-teaching class, which means I follow a group made up of both “special ed” and “general ed” students from class to class throughout the day. My job is to support teachers and work with individuals or groups of students to maximize learning for all.

I’m thrilled, because now I get the chance to do what I’ve always wished I could do more of as a regular teacher: experience other teachers’ classrooms, focus intensely on the neediest students, and devote my energy to thinking about how people learn best. We’re only a few weeks in, but already some insights are emerging. Things about teaching and learning that felt true to me intuitively are becoming clearer now that I’ve stepped out of my single-classroom cubby-hole and can see a bit more of the forest and the trees.

As I began to record my observations, I realized they break into two rough categories: teacher moves on the one hand, and curriculum on the other. I’ll focus this piece on the former and discuss curriculum in a separate piece soon.

What I’ve learned, or relearned, since I began stepping into my colleagues’ classrooms during the school day:

Great teaching truly does come in a variety of styles. I’m lucky to work in the classrooms of four amazing teachers, each one with a truly different way of being and teaching. What each of them is doing is unique, and it works. Because…

You must teach from who you are. Teaching is both an art and a science, and more on the latter soon, but the art comes from within. Great teachers can be blunt, sweet, stern, goofy — as long as those qualities are honestly channeled outward toward the students and their learning. What’s more, kids can spot a fake, so we’re best off being ourselves and making it work.

That said, there are some constants across styles, ways of being that categorically work best. All of the teachers I work with (and have worked with, and have been) are most successful when they’re both warm and firm. We all know this, but it has been powerful to see it in action, daily, manifested through different personality types.

Lisa, the eighth-grade science teacher, deployed a deft warm/firm move on the first two days of school when dealing with a strong-willed girl, Maya. On day one, she was already talking back to teachers; Lisa picked up on this and not 10 minutes into class, picked Maya to be the guinea pig in their first experiment. She proceeded to strap some safety goggles onto Maya’s face and had her stand still while two other students held a swinging pendulum. “Will the pendulum swing back far enough to reach Maya?” became the class’s first research question of the year. This might sound mean in print, but in practice Lisa was warm and smiling, with just the slightest twinkle in her eye as she quietly assured Maya she would be unharmed. (Thanks, friction!)

But the most important move Lisa made came the next day: as the class filed in, she welcomed Maya brightly and said, “Maya, I want you to be a rock star today.” Sure enough, whose hand was in the air about 10 times? Lisa made sure to recognize Maya’s efforts at the end of that class. So the warm/firm combo worked, and continues to pay dividends. Since that first day, Maya does struggle to stay focused, but she snaps back to attention whenever Lisa redirects her. Maya knows that Lisa’s expectations are high, and she knows it will be rewarding to meet them.

I could go on with examples of my colleagues being warm and firm.

The eighth-grade math teacher has a solid game face, letting kids know when it’s time to get to work. But she makes sure to recognize students who are meeting her expectations, especially when it’s a kid who often struggles to do so: “Make sure you look just like Jason does right now…” One of the Humanities teachers is great at publicly holding students to their personal goals; when one particular girl begins laughing out of turn or picking fights, Ms. C will allude to a conversation from that morning: “Naomi, remember you’re staying above it today. You’re stronger than this.” Another Humanities teacher might speak sharply to the class when they get unruly, but he invariably concludes by saying, “But you are all good people because you’re good people. Not because you did or did not show your best self today.”

This warm and firm feedback from adults is vital for middle schoolers in particular, who are trying out different identities and need both clear boundaries and unconditional respect as they shapeshift. I realize that these aren’t earth-shattering discoveries. They’re more like hypotheses I’m finally getting to test in a day-to-day science experiment of my own now that, like my students, I change classrooms throughout the day.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.