Sunday, September 15, 2013

I could transform schools

For the first time in a long time I'm nervous to go to school tomorrow. I have four English classes to be prepared for and I've written plans for them, but there are always curves and variables. I can handle those. It's the afternoon math class that I'm really dreading. It's in a program that more closely resembles the Wild West or a low-security prison than school. And I'm saying this as a guy who teaches at an alternative program for kids who are often coming out of or going into prison. This place is just wild and the kids have, for a few years run the show. Last year a new principal was installed and he's doing what he can to transform, but here's the thing: a school isn't transformed by a principal or the administrators above him or her. Schools are transformed only by shifts in culture that allow teachers and students to take ownership in the program.

So rather than think about tomorrow's school day, I'm thinking about how I would go about advising a school leader to transform a school such as the one in which I teach math. A few things I would have to delete from the programming include scripted math and ELA programs. Those just don't fit with the things that a school like this is trying to do. Why? Simply because alternatives schools need big personalities for teachers. This doesn't mean that the teacher has to be loud, just that they are an impressive figure in some way. In my English classroom I'm impressive in the way that I listen and draw stories out of students. I stand out to students as a person interested and intrigued by their stories. This fits with the subject matter I teach. Writing and reading are made for this sort of thing. I get to impress upon them the importance of stories because I create a curriculum particularly suited to them and my teaching styles. Scripted programs kill this sort of thing.

I would advise the administrator to meet with every single kid in the school. Sounds like a lot, but this is a very small school and a principal could do it in a week and a half. The meetings should simply be chances to get to know one another. The principal has to be a part-time (at least) social worker. He or she has to know the students as well as the social worker does. I would advise the principal to involve the social worker in all decisions about kids in the program and also bring him or her in on disciplinary procedures.

My advice to the principal would be to sit down with teachers and say this: "we are going to stop using suspensions." Then when the shit dies down I would have the principal ask, "what can we do instead?" The idea here is to have the teachers work out what they want to do together and not think that they have only one recourse.

Here's the hard part: I would also advise the principal and any administrators above that every so often a kid would have to be removed from the program and sent back to the home school with an explanation as to why. The worry is that if we send kids back to the schools, they will be upset and stop using our service. That would kill the whole school. However, I would sit down with the principal and advisors and explain the work they can do to lay a foundation with home schools so that they best understand the kids we can serve (and those we cannot) as well as the reasons why we occasionally -- once or twice each year -- have to send a kid back. It's the way to make it possible to keep the others and push them much farther down the road to success.

I don't want to go teach at the school that exists there now. I'm not sure the other teachers there want to either. Hell, I don't even know if the principal does. But I would love to work at transforming the school into one that better serves students, teachers, parents, and the system as a whole. I could be that advisor. I could do that job.

So there's one idea for something I could do. I doubt the school I'm in right now has any interest in that sort of thing, but there are others who might. I might be able to find them. Who knows what might happen.

Stay tuned. I'll figure out where to begin with that as I write on.