The worst way to end a conversation

As a teacher who occasionally bumps heads with administration, I wonder how much of that is felt by students and families. Does it matter if we argue behind closed doors? I tend to believe that debate is a healthy and necessary component of democracy, so I push in that direction. In fact, shutting down discussion (absent a compelling reason) is an antidemocratic act, and it’s something I strive to avoid. You can imagine, then, how I felt after a particularly stupid exchange…

My school released new programs (schedules) for students and teachers today. I work at a relatively new small school in New York City, and today was our first day in a brand new block schedule. This means that we see one class Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and another class Tuesday and Thursday. At the high school I attended, in suburban Connecticut, we had block scheduling that alternated on A and B days, back-and-forth ad infinitum. That way, both courses balanced into equal duration over time. With the schedule I received today, students permanently operate on a different schedule; one group receives 50% more instruction than the other (2 90-minute sessions versus 3, or 180 minutes to 270).

This structure occurs a few times throughout the school’s program, so after dismissal today I discussed the imbalance with a math teacher (how do you think I came to understand the proportion?). At some point during our conversation, the AP who did programming began eavesdropping. She chimed in with some comments about the discrepancy, basically declaring that there was no other way it could be done. OK, no big.

I wondered, though, if the students with less time would sit in class for enough hours to receive course credit. As a NYC high school, we are evaluated on credit accumulation as well as Regents scores; not to mention, it’s important to students that they understood how many credits they are due to receive in a given course. I asked the AP about the credit hour issue, and her response was…chilly to say the least.

“That’s none of your concern, don’t worry about it. The principal has been working for x number of years, he knows what he’s doing.”

Leaving aside the meaningless assertion that experience leads directly to expertise, it was the first line that is sticking with me. First of all, whether as a teacher I have the professional right to know the number of credits that is to be awarded for courses I teach is irrelevant. I know how to check the various data systems which, once updated, will answer the question for me. I can probably even research the issue and look at other schools that have done similar things before, answering the question for myself. Still, I was shocked to hear that something that affects my students so meaningfully could be considered outside of my purview or the scope of my legitimate concern.

Of course, to survive as a teacher in the city you need thick skin, so I got over my hurt feelings pretty quickly. The bigger concern is how that attitude might already be infecting the school culture and our students. My primary ethos as a teacher comes primarily from Paulo Freire: I am a learner as well as a teacher, and education only occurs through active dialogue. In my classroom, students know that mistakes are encouraged, questions are (almost) always welcome, and the teacher is not the keeper of knowledge. We are all constantly trying to improve, even me, and that process is how we get by.

One thing I have learned in my short time in the NYC school system is that attitudes and relationships transfer–so the way the Chancellor works with his deputies influences the relationships below, and the way a Principal deals with teachers affects the way teachers interact with students. This is how the culture of a school forms, through the efforts of students, teachers, and administrators, all in concert, if not in total agreement. I have yet to discover if the opposite can also be true, if those of us at the front lines can make change from the grassroots, bottom up instead of top down.

In any case, I will go back to work tomorrow, with some group of students in front of me, and we’ll work together to get through a little more of the curriculum. I will keep my door open, I will listen to students and meet their needs, and most importantly, I will continue to ask questions. Because, well, education is all about asking the right questions.

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