It’s a Good School

A few years ago, the Superintendent of schools added a controversial Gallup poll to our district’s annual staff climate survey. Teachers had a good laugh about one question: Do you have a best friend at work? Based on their answers, an elementary school received public recognition, and named one teacher Most Hopeful teacher of the year. It came with a $2,000 cash award. By the time the staff survey rolled around a year later, we all decided to find a best friend at work and to be a bit more hopeful on the survey.

School climate is a reliable indicator of student success, but it’s rarely something that gets media attention. People tend to measure a school by word-of-mouth or personal connections. It’s no coincidence that most parents like their child’s school, no matter how negative the “ratings” are. But the happiness of teachers is one of the most important factors for student success. It takes a school leadership team that is both supportive and strong to keep teachers happy. I am proud to work in a district where this is the norm.

When people ask where I’m working this year, the predictable response is, “Oh, that’s a good school.” The first few times it happened, I felt validated, pumped, that I had landed in a school worthy of the praise of my friends and acquaintances. But then I started to get bothered by it. Why do they think it’s a good school? It’s not really different from my old school, except that it’s bigger and – oh yeah – it has an application-only, competitive-admissions magnet program attached to it. I do not teach in that program.

I thought my previous school was a good school. I had supportive colleagues and a principal who let me teach in two different departments – exactly what I wanted. My commute was 12 minutes each way. Recently in the news, however, there was a story about a former student who stabbed his pregnant girlfriend and was sentenced to 70 years in prison. I remember seeing him in the hallways. Does his conviction make my old school a bad school? People’s impressions of a school are often based on stories like this, but teaching and learning continue despite the sensational headlines.

Nowadays high schools are huge, diverse, sprawling institutions with 1,000+ students. Being a “good school” is just an illusion. Every high school in my district is simultaneously a “good school” and “bad school,” depending on where you look.

At my old school, students revered the principal, especially the top athletes. The coaches loved him too. He attended all the football and basketball games, and created a special mentorship program for struggling athletes. He was always visible in the hallways between classes, during lunch, and after school. He helped improve school spirit dramatically. At graduation each year, some students would talk about him as if he were a beloved coach. Except that my ESOL students never saw that side of him. And some teachers I spoke with confidentially in the hallways thought he focused too much on certain programs at the expense of others.

From my perspective as a transfer teacher, I can see how the leadership team sets the tone of a school, and determines its priorities. Sure, we have good AP test scores, a percentage of National Merit Scholars every year, even a few Siemens-Westinghouse STEM awards to post in the main hall. But the expectations for teachers of all students are high, and systems are in place to keep academic achievement front and center.

It’s exhausting.

The end of the first marking period approaches, and I’ve barely managed to keep my head above water. The work load is intense – and I don’t just mean coming up with what to teach five times a day, then delivering perfectly-tailored lessons with clear objectives and differentiation, then scoring all students’ work in a timely manner. I think I have a handle on what happens inside the classroom. In fact, the principal, my department chair, and a Central Office guy all came to observe me teaching during my first month on the job and gave me high marks. They told me they lucked out getting me as a transfer teacher. I replied, “No, I’m the lucky one!” Really, I am.

This school takes the accountability systems seriously, and I’m constantly out of breath trying to keep up. At my old school, I begged the principal to visit my classroom. Nobody questioned my lesson plans. It’s a little stressful this year trying to keep up with colleagues who don’t have the same learning curve. They smile indulgently at me, while I struggle to learn the school culture. The leadership team here actually checks the Gradebooks, Student Learning Objectives, our Professional Learning Community logs, and the School Improvement Plan focus groups. I feel an intense pressure to do my part well.

I’ve been meaning to enlist the support of my colleagues, who have been amazingly helpful, but I’ve barely had time to step out of the classroom. It figures that the leadership team has already anticipated the need of new teachers to learn from their peers. They’ve developed a protocol and a timeline for informal observations so that we can improve by watching each other teach. I feel very hopeful and supported, and have added this to my To-Do list. It’s great being at a good school.

Now if I can just find a best friend at work…