Sunday, September 21, 2014

Taking a risk

I was recently told by a man that I am too cautious and not a risk-taker. While I have always recognized that I am a cautious person--I like to take the time to analyze a situation--I nevertheless felt hurt by these words. When I shared this with one of my dear and wise friends, she immediately dismissed what he said. She reminded me that I have taken a huge risk this year by accepting a job at a very different kind of school and by also accepting the position of Lead English Teacher. This was exactly what I needed to hear. While my risks may not be adrenaline activities or involve potentially damaging behaviors, the risks I take are those that seek to propel my life forward. At the end of the day, I'm okay with falling on that end of the risk spectrum.

I am working at an urban charter school this year. Though I attended a charter school myself, it bears little resemblance to my new workplace. The population is very different, there is a lot more structure (uniforms, merits-demerits system, stricter rules/policies), and my principal said we can refer to its rough location as "a neighborhood in transition." A high percentage of my students are reading and writing below grade level. The majority of them have experienced some type of trauma in their lives. I also have a number of ELL students (English Language Learners). These are new challenges for me, and they are certainly daunting.

What helps me feel better about taking on these challenges are the people that I work with. I co-teach two of my classes with a special education teacher (though we have told the kids that she is not just there to help the special ed students; we are both there to help everyone), and she has been amazingly helpful in making modifications for the students who need them and switching off with me in taking the lead in class. My department is small, but so far we are working well together and have been a good team. Our school is actually a new part of a network of three charter schools, and we could have chosen to just use the lesson plans that the first school already has in place. However, even though we are certainly making things more difficult for ourselves, we all have preferred thus far to create our own lessons, using only a few things here and there from the other school. It's been tough for me, as lead teacher of the department, to have to take on some extra responsibilities. What is exciting, though, is the opportunity to have more influence on what we're doing. For instance, I've already gotten my department on board with doing portfolios with the students. We talked about how this can benefit the students and how we can best structure it, and I think it's going to be a great initiative. Because our students need so much work on their writing, reflecting on their work and tracking their process should end up being very beneficial.

I also have a principal who wants to create a strong and positive school culture. She has talked a lot about teaching kids persistence and perseverance, going with the school's motto, "Smart isn't something you are. Smart is something you become." The average GPA last year was incredibly low, but while she wants that number to get higher, she has told us that we need to do it in a way that doesn't lower our standards. It's a refreshing attitude. The principal has also already observed/evaluated me twice. Is that absolutely terrifying? Yes. However, I recognize that it's better to start learning from my mistakes, rather than waiting four months and then having to struggle to break established habits. In addition, she has repeatedly asked how she can help me and support me, rather than just expecting me to know automatically how to make the changes she wants to see. Her feedback also always includes positive observations, which makes criticism easier to swallow (it's like when I'm grading essays--I always try to find something to compliment the students on).

Now that we're a few weeks into the year, the students' personalities are emerging more. This means that more challenges are presenting themselves, but also a lot of positive things. Some kids are learning how to speak up a little more, and we are trying to encourage all of them to believe that their contributions are valuable. I've started making good connections with a number of kids, and I just hope I can continue this. While all students, no matter where they are, could use more positive adult figures in their lives, these are the kinds of kids that need them even more. So while working in such a different environment may be a risk, it also has the potential to yield a much greater reward.