Diary of a New Teacher

Boston humanities teacher Bill Madden-Fuoco says that the most important lesson he has learned in his first three years as an educator is the difference between teaching and ensuring that students learn.

By Bill Madden-Fuoco

There is a perennial strain of teacher-to-teacher conversation with which you may be familiar. It arrives in June and goes something like this: “I can’t believe they’re letting Christina attend summer school when she got a 45 in my class.” When kids fail a class but are eligible for promotion via summer school, a teacher may perceive the event as a blow to the integrity of the education system. Others bridle at the administration’s hijacking of teacher authority and the travesty of going soft on kids who “deserved” to be held back.

What the next steps should be for a student who fails a class is a worthy topic of discussion, but the umbrage that some teachers take as the school year closes strikes me as misplaced. We know by October which students are at risk of lacking credit when June rolls around. Yet, in my observation, our conversations about student performance during the fall and winter rarely hit the urgent notes heard in the waning weeks of the year when it’s too late. A bigger problem than easy bridges to promotion is the fact that we fail so many students in the first place.

During my teaching residency year, a ninth-grade student named Jonathan would shuffle into every class a minute or two late and slump into his seat as if he had just walked all the way from Alaska. His classroom contributions proved his intelligence, yet at the end of every class his work was half-completed at best. Forget about homework or writing projects. Substitute Jonathan’s torpor for flash, and you had Gio, a similar case. With a penchant for wearing NBA warm-ups and airing any joke that came into his head, Gio exuded charisma, but little evidence of learning.

I found these students simultaneously endearing and infuriating. Their lack of work shattered my presumption that if teachers deliver accessible, challenging, and engaging curriculum, student learning will take care of itself. Further, the knowledge of the lives that likely awaited them if they didn’t make it out of high school nearly drove me to depression.

My mentor teacher urged me to stay on both of them. I did, first making sure that they understood the material. I scheduled conferences with their families. Jonathan’s parents came in one day in November and several adults basically harangued him for a half hour. I had no success arranging a conference with Gio’s mom. Month after month, I encouraged these boys daily and tried to prove to them that their success mattered to me and that I wouldn’t give up on them. Miraculously and without warning, Jonathan and Gio started producing work sometime in March and earned B’s for the third quarter.

I ran into Gio on the subway one day in June. I asked him what it was that made him start doing work. “I don’t know, man,” he said, a smile spreading across his face. “Wait,” he corrected himself. “There was something.” The greatest mystery in education was about to reveal itself to me. “One day I just figured, if I’m here at school, I might as well just do the work.” “That’s it?” I asked, disappointed. “That’s it, man.”

In their book Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys, Michael C. Reichert and Richard Hawley present compelling evidence that for many students, an authentic teacher-student relationship is a prerequisite for classroom engagement. I don’t credit myself with Jonathan or Gio’s academic turnarounds, but my experience working with them showed me that delivering strong curriculum is necessary but insufficient. It must be accompanied by actively reaching struggling students.

When we think of the job as not simply teaching, but making sure every student learns, the importance of personalized interventions becomes clear. Under this framework, it is no longer acceptable to deliver the best classes possible and then place the onus for success solely on students’ shoulders. Such an approach assures four-year graduation rates in urban schools that remain around fifty percent. Yet, many teachers send underperforming students the message that “your education is here if you want it.”

A mindset in which a teacher takes responsibility for student learning is critical. But again, while necessary, this mindset is insufficient. In each of my three years as a high school humanities teacher, I have had 100 or more students in my care. My approach to reaching for struggling students is zealous but scattershot; it lacks organization and systematic rigor. Too many students fail my courses, and many who should be making the honor roll hover below it.

The start of another school year represents another chance to get it right. This past summer I read Isabel Wilkerson’s amazing The Warmth of Other Suns to bolster my content knowledge about the Great Migration, and researched ways to improve vocabulary instruction. In addition to developing the curriculum delivery side of my teaching, I also read about classroom-based systems for tracking student data and providing personalized interventions. I plan to adopt an approach called “Flagged for Success” that Robyn Jackson wrote about in the October 2010 issue of Educational Leadership. It involves establishing objective signals that trigger support actions before students are mired in failure. My goal is to tighten up the data tracking and intervention part of my teaching game.

My fear is that we are inured to high failure rates and see them as inevitable. The work of making sure every student learns—not merely teaching them—is incredibly hard, but in the end, that’s the job. Students’ statuses in June are wide-open but taking shape now.

Let’s talk about that.

Bill Madden-Fuoco is a humanities teacher at the Urban Sciences Academy in West Roxbury, MA. “The Diary of a New Teacher” appears monthly in the AFT Massachusetts Advocate.

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