During my Thanksgiving break, I had the chance to spend the morning in the classroom of my college roommate. On the surface, our teaching experiences couldn’t be more different. I teach math at a growing charter school in North Memphis where nearly 100% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. My friend Chris teaches reading in suburban Massachusetts at a traditional public middle school with a strong history of academic achievement.
There is nothing less fun than riding on a bus. It is a unifying principle of the universe that riding on a bus, even a nice bus, is unpleasant. Young or old, nerd or jock, student or teacher, riding on a bus is a fate that should be reserved for those who perpetrated a capital crime and no one else.
Teacher quality of life has quickly become a hot button issue as teacher retention at high-performing, “No Excuses” charter schools has taken center stage. Having taught at three very different schools, I have uncovered five factors that can have an impact on teacher quality of life.
1) Planning Minutes Per Week
I was having dinner recently with a few other teachers who are all TFA corps members or alumni, and we hit on an interesting topic: how do you identify yourself when people ask what you do?
For me, that question really hit home. When I accepted my offer to join Teach For America in Memphis almost three years ago, I was thrilled to join such a prestigious organization. The first few times I flew home to New England for Christmas and then again during the summer, I definitely wore a TFA t-shirt on the plane. I was subconsciously begging to be asked what I was doing with my life, and when the question inevitably came, it went something like this:
Despite the calendar telling me that it is March and that next week is in fact spring break, I spent the majority of this past week out of school for what Memphis refers to as “snow days.” (I grew up in the Northeast, where one inch of ice doesn’t make for a snow day, let alone three of them.) All that time off got me thinking about the five types of snow days I have experienced as a teacher and the range of emotions they conjure:
1) The Wake and Watch: School is cancelled the morning of. I’ve already gone through a night of hoping, praying, and snow dancing, not to mention getting up at 5 a.m. to huddle with my laptop, waiting with bated breath for the name of my district to flit across my Twitter feed. By far the most common snow day, the Wake and Watch is wonderful but entails a lot of stress and prevents you from planning much of anything.
I grew up watching way too much “West Wing,” and as a result, my theory of change was simple: find a candidate you can believe in – hopefully in a town meeting in New England – work your butt off to get that candidate elected, work for him or her, and change the world. So that’s what I did in college. I worked on campaigns, advocated, donated, and, of course, voted every chance I got. My political idealism came under fire in my third year of college when, even after getting some great people elected, I saw little in the way of change. This lack of movement is what inspired me to go out and teach, to confront one of the issues undermining the promise of our nation directly rather than talking around it. However – as you may have guessed – I still vote every chance I get.
So on a recent blustering, rainy, and altogether miserable Thursday evening, I trudged out to the polls to cast my ballot in favor of ensuring that nearly 6,000 Memphis kids had access to pre-kindgergarten (and, obviously, to get my “I Voted” sticker for my collection on my corkboard). The benefits of pre-K are absolutely clear: it improves educational outcomes for all students, especially those coming from low-income backgrounds, and that Thursday’s effort was the second attempt in two years to ensure educational access to all of Memphis’ four-year-olds.
If you examine the recent work on what makes students successful, one word pops up over and over again: grit. The concept that the most successful students aren’t those with the highest IQs but instead are those who react positively and persist in the face of challenges isn’t a new one. It is, however, incredibly popular right now. Between Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk above and Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the word “grit” has been thrown around a lot in the education conversation.
It makes sense: my students are going to face a number of challenges on the road to and through college. Equipping them with the ability to productively deal with those obstacles will give them a huge advantage. But before you run off and toss the word “grit” into your classroom vision, I have a few tips on helping to make grit (an admittedly vague concept at times) more tangible for you and your students.
Quiz days are one of my favorite things about teaching. My students get a chance to show what they know, I get a fresh batch of data to track, and most importantly my students get to respond to one of my patented post-quiz writing prompts. These prompts are something I borrowed from a TFA video, however, mine always have a twist designed to increased student engagement and minimize distractions to the students who are still being assessed.