Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Glimpse of Hope: Confessions and Reflections of a (Long Ago) Student Teacher

So already, it was an art exhibit featuring 21st-century "envisionings" of women that compelled my friend Lynn and me to hit the road for Brown University and Providence, Rhode Island in mid-December. "She" closed in less than a week; we had no time for lose. Still, I think it was "Her," the companion exhibit across the hall that presented pieces by current Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students, that got me thinking hard about my twenty-one-year-old self.


Having completed Brown's M.A.T. program and my student teaching practicum in Providence, I like to visit the city to check on my old neighborhood periodically. And Lynn has her own Providence memories. So when I asked her if we could get off Route 95 at the Branch Avenue exit* and work our way towards the East Side via Olney Street, she was game.


Note: We didn't see the market at sunset, as it is here.

Immediately we encountered one aspect of the neighborhood that was totally different. The supermarket at the University Heights shopping plaza was no longer a Star Market, but rather a Whole Foods Market.**


But Hope High School, sitting close to the place where Hope Street and Thayer Street meet, was remarkably the same. I wondered if its unchanged appearance masked significant and needed changes within. I recalled that when Ted Sizer became the dean of the Brown Graduate School of Education and founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, all or part of Hope High School had become an Essential School. So I hit the internet to see if I could learn how Hope High School*** was and wasn't like the Hope High School I'd entered in 1977, three months after I'd graduated from college. 


The current Wikipedia article about Hope High School is prefaced by the following statement: "This article or section may be slanted towards recent events. Please try to keep recent events in historical perspective. (July 2014)." It then reports that Hope High School**** currently has two programs between which students can choose, as contrasted with the three programs of choice it had in 2008, explaining that
The triune system was developed in an attempt to remedy a history of exceptionally low test scores (2008 SAT combined score was 1047, over 900 points lower than Moses Brown School, a private school 2 blocks away) at Hope High School. Many regard Hope High - and the future success or failure of these reforms - as a "litmus test" for educational reform in Rhode Island.*****

I checked the Coalition of Essential Schools****** network affiliate list and did not find Hope High School listed, at least by that name, among current affiliates. So I have no idea if any connections still exist between Brown University and Hope High School, and whether any current Brown M.A.T. candidates are having the chance to experience teaching in a district urban high school.


Perhaps this matters; perhaps it doesn't. But I also knew that though Hope High School didn't look thirty-eight years older, I did. I also knew that my observable advancement in age was accompanied by advancements in teaching-related knowledge and skill that the naked eye couldn't see.

I mention this not to cast Hope High School as a sort of architectural Dorian Gray, but because the thought of it made me think about how much I didn't know as a student teacher--and to wonder about the impact of my inexperience and ignorance on the students I taught so long ago. 


To be honest, I was awfully good for a student teacher. But anytime one is "just" a student teacher in a neglected school in which students' life situations often conspire against their achievement, one's lack of knowledge is a potential problem for one's students. That's why it's so important for mentor teachers not only to support student teachers as they strive to become proficient at curriculum development, instruction, and assessment, but to help them understand how and when teaching and learning aren't only about those three very important interconnected realms.


Not my actual staff room colleagues, but you get the idea!

As for me, I had a terrific supervising teacher--our term back then for "cooperating practitioner." Mrs. Suzman was not someone who could share progressive pedagogies, but she knew everything about being fair, staying and exuding calm, de-escalating tensions, and communicating her recognition of even very small increments in student progress. In the staff room******* down the hall, I found additional "unofficial" mentors whose resources, wisdom, dedication, and laughter kept me afloat. This was a school that had no books in the English book room, a principal who was a credentialed policeman (giving new meaning to the phrase "school-to-prison pipeline"), and too few desks in most classrooms for every student to have a seat--something that seldom mattered since so many students were chronically absent. 


On my second day at Hope, the assistant principal called me into his office and opened a drawer in his desk that was filled with knives. "If you think you're seeing one of these, you are," he told me. While I can remember his opening the drawer and saying this, I have no recollection of what he said next. I suppose that he told me what I should do if I saw a student pull a knife, and I probably made a note to myself to remember what he told me.

But a couple of months into my student teaching, I did see a student pull a knife, and I did everything wrong. Instead of paying attention to every detail of his size, face, and clothing so I could describe him, instead of paying attention to whom he might be threatening or simply showing it to, I just impulsively yelled, "What the hell do you think you're doing?" 


The kid ran, and I never told anyone. I had been more outraged than afraid. Maybe that was a good thing, maybe that was a bad thing, but nothing in my behavior made that school safer for the other students. 

It's an important story because it illustrates just how clueless I was, which was probably only as clueless as many other idealistic, fresh-out-of-a-prestigious-college teaching candidates would have been. So how best to help young teachers overcome their naiveté so no one gets hurt? With my 21st-century veteran teacher hindsight, I can say that simply telling inexperienced teachers how to respond in dangerous moments is seldom enough; why else do whole faculties practice going into lockdown? At the very least, young teachers should have the chance to practice responding to crises, even if that means role-playing with colleagues and receiving feedback. As for me, I was the only member of the subgroup of M.A.T. candidates who were student-teaching that fall whose placement was in an urban rather than suburban school, so when our "practicum class" met weekly, my fellow student-teachers' questions and challenges were often very different from mine. We never got to role-play the "the student has a weapon" scenario. 


But as illustrative as this hallway episode is of the ways beginning teachers need opportunities to practice "moves under pressure" and to have easy access to the counsel and support of experienced others, it's not the part of my Hope High School experience that most troubles me in terms of what I didn't know and how that might have disadvantaged kids. No, my uneasiness has to do with my huge, unwieldy, wonderful senior class that met last period every day.


The kids, almost all of whom were of color, got along well with each other (lucky me!), and they and I got along, too. They liked the idea that I was a student teacher and that they were playing a role in my education. They asked questions about my choices ("Why would a person like you, Ms. Soble, who graduated from Harvard, want to come to a school that we're all trying to leave?"), volunteered advice that was worth pondering ("Don't have more respect for your students than they have for themselves"), and brought up race often--theirs ("You've never seen a black Santa before, right, Ms. Soble? Well, you're going to see your first one in December") and mine ("I watched Soap******** last night, Ms. Soble, and you white people are really funny"). There was always plenty to talk about and to laugh about.


But there was very serious talk, too. The Cape Verdean students, who identified themselves as black, explained that their parents wanted them to identify as white. And when I asked the students who lived in Fox Point, a Providence neighborhood just east of the Brown campus, why I never saw them on their way home from school, they explained that if they walked down Thayer Street, the commercial street that bisected the Brown campus, they would be followed by policemen as if the were shoplifters. The term "racial profiling" wasn't in use yet, but that's what they were experiencing and talking about. 

I think of a particular subgroup of this big class when I think of the challenges of being a novice teacher: the group of nineteen-year-old students who had returned to Hope High School as part of a Providence Public Schools initiative to re-enroll drop-outs. My 20th-century, twenty-one-year-old, naive, well-intentioned student-teacher self immediately viewed this program as the school system's earnest attempt to help these students graduate for the sake of their own lives and futures.

Recently, I tried to find some information about this program, but to no avail. So in the absence of information to the contrary, my 21st-century, fifty-nine-year-old self suspects that enrolling these students might have been even more important than graduating them if certain types and levels of school funding depended on having (a) an overall school population of a certain size and (b) a certain percentage of re-enrolled drop-outs. I know I'm taking a dark view of this in hindsight, but re-enrolling older students is simply not the same as having a program for them.


A Recent Photo of Chad Brown

And these students weren't like the "regular" high school students with whom they attended class--the ones who were eighteen or younger and who lived with their parents or some other relatives.  More of them were male than female, and most of them had children; in fact, many of the males lived with the mothers of their children. (Only later did I wonder if there were fewer returning female students because they were young mothers taking care of their children.) When the school day ended, most of them headed off to jobs that they worked 20-40 hours a week. Many of them lived at Chad Brown*********, a public housing development that at the time, I Iearned later, was ranked as one of the ten worst housing projects in the United States.


The older kids' attendance was erratic at best--but not always in the same ways. Some were absent every other day; others missed two weeks in a row and then had perfect attendance for the next two weeks. Sometimes they came with injuries they didn't want to talk about; sometimes they came with stories of sick babies that they'd stayed home to care for. Still, my recollection of them as a group is they all wanted to pass: it was common for them to stay after class to find out what they owed and still could do.


There was one student--a calm, wise, articulate, mature young man with very weak reading and writing skills--whose attendance just grew worse and worse. The other kids told me that Robert (not his real name) lived with an "older woman" girlfriend and that he was an excellent guitarist ("You ought to hear him play, Ms. Soble. He's not Jimi Hendrix, but he's Harry Hendrix") whose performing and rehearsing schedule meant that he went to bed very, very late. 


I could see that "the program" wasn't going to work for Robert, and I didn't know what to do. Certainly, no one from "the program" was checking in with me to see how he and the others were doing and to strategize about how best to support them. I'm still intrigued that Robert had enrolled in the first place, given that his music career was moving forward. Clearly, there was something he wanted, and I suspect he understood that not being able to read and write well would be a problem, even if he succeeded as a musician. 


So what would have helped him dig in and stay the course? If I'd been a more experienced teacher, I would have asked more, pushed more for program information and support. I might have differentiated my curriculum so that it was more relevant to the complex lives of him and my other older students who were living simultaneously in child and adult worlds. And I might have known enough about learning disabilities to use that knowledge as a possible way to understand and address Robert's reading and writing difficulties. 


But I was just learning, trying very hard to have a good lesson plan that was part of my unit plan every day. Like so many young teachers just starting out, I was often more focused on what I was doing--planning and implementing--than on what my students were doing, even though I really cared about them. And isn't the biggest difference between good inexperienced teachers and good experienced teachers that good experienced teachers are always focused on their students--what they are saying, doing, learning, revealing about themselves, revealing about what they have and what they need--rather than on themselves?


I still wonder about those kids, what happened to them after Hope High School, and I did online searches for some of them. Robert may be a successful guitarist, or not: he doesn't look fifty-seven years old in the possible photo that I found. But who knows. 


So is this blog post about blame? No, not at all, at least in terms of its perspectives on new teacher development. It's about how long it takes to learn what one needs to learn as a teacher in order to do right by one's students--which isn't always exclusively a matter of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. 


I learned so much as a student in the Brown M.A.T. Program; I learned so much from my supervising teacher and others at Hope High School. It's just that there's so much to learn and to know when one is a teacher. Using knowledge flexibly and wisely takes time and experience; "some" experimentation and feedback won't suffice, even if young teachers are very smart, very dedicated, and very well suited for teaching careers. That's true when the knowledge relates to teaching competences most emphasized by teacher development programs, and when it relates to the school-site-specific processes, program resources, and cultural norms that can only be learned and learned about at school.


And that's why I have no faith in programs that claim to create master teachers in very few years. There's just too much to know both theoretically and practically, and it's no one's fault that it takes a while to learn it all and put it into practice.


Still, the 21st-century, veteran teacher me has great optimism--and frankly, a real affection for the 20th-century, student-teacher me who tried so hard, despite the limitations imposed by inexperience. I have tremendous faith that good young teachers will become excellent not-quite-so-young teachers as long as they have lots of designated time during the first six years of their careers for professional contact with colleagues, whether the goal is collaboration or consultation. It took Odysseus ten years to get back to Ithaka, and in my opinion, he grew considerably over the course of his journey, even though he began it as someone already widely considered to be a hero. As long as young teachers aren't expected to become master teachers in unrealistic, anxiety-inducing time frames, they can concentrate on becoming excellent teachers and appreciate their own journeys as natural and positive. And when they arrive at mastery, which took me eight years, they can remember what C.P. Cavafy would have said to them: "Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey."********** Let's give novice teachers the space, time, and support to arrive authentically and well.

* Partial Screen Shot of <>. ** Whole Foods Screen Shot from <>. 
*** Screen Shot of Hope High School: <>.
**** Screen Shot of photo featured in <> from March 2011.
***** "Hope High School (Rhode Island)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Dec. 2014. Web. 12 Jan. 2015.
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*(10) Cavafy, C. P. "Ithaka." Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Rpt. in Collected Poems. Ed. George Savidis. Revised ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. C.P. Cavafy: The Official Web Site of the Cavafy Archive. Web. 6 Jan. 2015.