Reflections after 3 days on a new job

Aug 23, 2015 by

Kenneth Bernstein – Those who have followed my writing know that I was having some trouble finding a satisfactory teaching job for the forthcoming year. Last week I was finally offered one, I accepted, and we began our teacher orientation and training for the year on Wednesday.

This is a very unique situation, and my travails in finding a job actually intersected with some of the recent difficulties of the school.

So I invite you continue reading as I explain about the school, why I wanted to come here (including passing up an opportunity for $20,000/year more), how I perceive the situation, and what I hope to accomplish by being here.

The school is commonly known as (MS)2.  It’s full name is Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science.   Middle School  + Math & Science = MS MS thus (MS2).

It is a public charter school located on the Howard University campus, right next door to the school of education. Most of the Board has an association with the University.

It is not a new charter. It has been around about a decade. and has during that time had some substantial success –  students going further in the national spelling bee than any previous DC students, winning some science-related competitions, building partnerships with notable corporations, having its 8th graders recruited by some of the notable independent schools in the area, including Sidwell Friends.  It has done all that despite not having entrance examination.  The school asks for a serious interest in STEM-related education (STEM = Science, technology, engineering and Math) and a commitment from parents and students to certain standards and expectations, but nothing at all like the horror stories of some charters insisting that parents must volunteer a set number of hours.

The student body is very diverse:  some parents are themselves graduates of Howard, and/or in professions like medicine and law, others may not themselves have graduated from high school. A substantial number of our students come from the poorer wards of the District.

I actually interviewed a number of months ago, with the previous principal and the Executive Director.  I was going to be hired.  The key was that there had been a serious blowup with the social studies department, it escalated into a crisis, and that crisis was ongoing at the time I was interviewed.

I choose not to revisit that history.  I was aware of it. I was asked to teach a sample class, at the end of which the students applauded me.  I was tentatively offered a position and I asked the principal whether given the nature of the blowup she wanted to bring in a white man for that position.  Her response was that for the right teacher the race did not matter.

The disruption that lead to the vacancy for which I was interviewed was not the only issue in the school, but it escalated, with one group of parents even going to the DC City Council.  Eventually, the principal was let go by the board.  In the meantime, the executive director, who had been the principal and had retired and done some other things, had some health issues.  I was asked by the ED if I wanted her to put through my contract, not knowing who the new principal would be, and I strongly suggested that given the recent difficulties it might not be fair to a new principal to stick them with a white teacher new to the school, although I had no doubt about my ability to teach the students, having spent a good deal of time teaching in majority Black schools, including a total of 3 years in heavily Black middle schools.

Periodically I would touch base, but there was no further word.

The week before last I touched base one more time, as last week was going to be a crucial time, and I was asked if I would come in for an interview with the new Principal, who had recently started, and I agreed.

I promptly did my due diligence and googled her.  Her name was familiar, although I was not sure why.  I noted some interesting overlap.  We had both won the Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher award, her in 2009, me in 2010.  We had both been part of the Maya Angelou charter schools run by the See Forever Foundation, with her teaching and then becoming and administrator there, before moving on to be principal of another DC charter.  I had taught at the now closed Maya Angelou Middle School coming in November 2012 to fill a vacancy at the request of the woman who had been my first principal.  That was the position I left when my wife, known here as Leaves on the Current, was diagnosed with her cancer.

Kathryn Procope, the new principal, and I had the same mentor, the outstanding Marion White-Hood, herself the winner of multiple awards as a principal in a variety of schools.  And as I discovered when I arrived for the interview, we did have a prior connection – I had taught her son when he was a 9th grader at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, where I taught for a total of 13 years before my retirement.

By the way, she told me that when she told her son she had interviewed me he was pretty insistent she should hire me, given what he thought of me as a teacher.

I accepted the job because I agreed with the vision of the school as expressed to me by the Executive Director, Sue White, and by Kathryn Procope.  I am aware of the recent history, and the challenges it represents in rebuilding trust in the community and with our parents and students. The association with Howard University very much appeals to me.  I know it is our intent to mentor student teachers from the School of Education.  Here I note that at Eleanor Roosevelt we had a close relationship with the University of Maryland in College Park, from which I mentored 5 student teachers during my 13 years.

There are some other things that appeal to me.  A number of the staff members have their own children in the school.  There are some high quality people both on faculty and in administrative functions who have major commitments to see this school thrive again.

We face some extra challenges:  our building, which is university property, had several water pipes break and do serious damage. We are doing our orientation at a community center a few miles away, having delayed our start of the year as much as we could. We have another week of preparation, then we get students on August 31.  But we will not get access to our classrooms until the weekend before Labor Day.

Yet despite this, the morale of the faculty and staff is incredibly high.  There is a real sense of purpose, and a commitment to have a positive setting and experience for our students.

Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, I am as of right now the only White teacher, although we still have several vacancies to fill. No one cares.  What they care about is that I come with a record and a reputation as a teacher, and that I chose to come to (MS)2 because I wanted to make a difference.

My principal and my executive director are very well aware of my blogging. I have not been asked to refrain from writing about the school. Rather, I am encouraged to explain what we face, and what we are doing to raise expectations but provide the support for our students to get there.

There are three social studies teachers.  All of us are experienced.  All of us are new to the school.  All of us have already agreed to participate in a program the school runs for an hour after dismissal M-TH, running activities. For this year, it looks like I will function as department chair, although that is not yet official. We already share ideas and work cooperatively in our department, as each of us will also do within our grade level teams (I am teaching 7th).

We have spent 3 days getting to know one other. Each morning we begin with an exercise of some sort to help us get to know one or two more people a little more deeply.  We have covered a lot of policies, the mission of the school, the functioning of the counseling department, the functioning of the parent liaison, etc.  This is important in establishing the framework we need to work together on behalf of our students.  We are encouraged to ask questions and make suggestions, and the leadership has been willing to take our suggestions under consideration.

We are a community.  Those of us new have been warmly welcomed. We all know the challenges we face. We are at (MS)2 because we know the difference it can make in the lives of the young people their parents entrust to us.

This is a very different setting from where I have spent most of my career.  It is also somewhat different from my previous experience of a DC Charter Middle School a few years ago, because we expect the vast majority of our graduates to go on to college educations.

In choosing this opportunity over the others that were finally coming my way, I have in my own mind made a multi-year commitment, that is, assuming the school finds my work positive and supportive of the mission for our students.

After three days, I have no doubt that I made the right choice, and hope that I will live up to the high expectations others have for me.

As is my wont, I will from time to time write about the experience.

Thanks for reading.


Source: Reflections after 3 days on a new job

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