In the wake of the Atlanta Public Schools System cheating scandal, one is often asked the question, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? It is without question this scandal sent shivers down the spine of educators across the nation who were undoubtedly horrified at the turmoil this school system found itself in. Once a highly regarded, honored profession, teaching has become a battleground for the blame game. Teachers seem to get the blame for all the ills of society, but has it really come to this… systematic cheating on standardized tests in order to comply with the perceived pressures of high stakes testing?
Just so we’re clear, it’s important to note that there are real pressures associated with high stakes testing. The pressure to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is enormous. No school wants to labeled a failing school. However, in this situation, the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) System had its own pay-for-performance program which added another layer of pressure on it’s principals and teachers to be a high performing schools. So now that the cat is out of the bag, where do go from here… as educators, what should we do next? Even more importantly, what should educators who are left to teach in the battered APS System do next? Well, I think it’s time for a change in perspective.
In APS, this school year not only began under the cloud of suspicion from the cheating scandal uncovered this past summer, but also with a huge budget deficit, and widespread teaching vacancies. In many cases, such vacancies cause classrooms to be overcrowded as it was also difficult to get enough substitute teachers for proper coverage of classrooms. To say the least, there were many obstacles ahead of APS teachers returning to the classroom for the 2011-2012 school year. Furthermore, these obstacles were in addition to the usual challenges that go along with urban education such as lack of resources, students who are unprepared for learning, lack of parent involvement, and disciplinary concerns. There were enough distractions this school term to make even the most experienced teacher loose focus. But, we must bear one thing in mind— our students.
Without a doubt, the ones who have been hurt the most by the widespread cheating, confusion, cover-up, and complacency were the students of the Atlanta Public School System. The students were lost in the shuffle. Regardless of how much pressure adults felt, the students were the ones who ended up losing out. Students who have been passed on without the necessary skills to be successful were left holding the bag. A bag full of empty promises, missed opportunities, and future dreams dashed because they don’t have the skills needed to further their education. These students need the support of everyone in their community to pull them through the next few turbulent years. There is hope, it’s not too late, but we must act fast and continue to act because they need us now more than ever.
We must have our attention focused squarely on our students. It’s time we remember why we entered the profession in the first place. I’m sure it wasn’t because we wanted to “prove” that urban students can learn, even if it meant fudging the results. I’m sure we didn’t enter the profession so we could roll out the latest reform model and win prestigious awards. For most of us, we entered the profession to make a difference in a child’s life. So how do we re-focus our attention back to the students? Here are some practical ways to keep the main thing, the main thing:
- Connect with students. More than anything, students who grow up in an urban environment need to know that someone cares. They often come from larger families or families with multiple generations living in the same household which can leave them feeling invisible. They need educators who SEE them. Find small ways to connect with students. Spend lunch with a small group of students a few days a week. Use sticky notes as a way of encouragement. Place them on a notebook or on their desks as the other students are working. Sometimes, I would just say “thank you for being on task, or I appreciate you for helping your classmates”. It’s amazing what a little sticky note can do. Also, we can attend extracurricular activities with students. It not only gives you a chance to see students play, but also allows an opportunity to bond with the students (and their parents) in the stands.
- Communicate with students. Many times educators talk at students rather than with their students. We have to have a perspective change. Students need educators who HEAR them. We can spend the last two-five minutes of class addressing concerns from our students. We can use email (NOT your personal email) as a way of building two-way communication with students. I often allow students to submit work via email, which also gives me the opportunity to give feedback via email, and they can ask questions via email. In addition, we can place a mailbox in our classrooms as a way of getting student feedback without disrupting the class (doesn’t have to be fancy, can be a covered shoebox).
- Teach the students. It sounds a little obvious, but the students who have been the victims of the situation described above, more than anything else, need to be taught. I don’t mean to say that we haven’t been trying to teach them, because it is extremely difficult to teach students who have been passed on from previous grades without the necessary skills to be successful in the next grade. However, we must really focus on teaching these students to the best of our ability in spite of every challenge we face. We must teach them, not just go through the motions of the latest reform model that’s being crammed down our throats, the latest and greatest magic pill that’s supposed to alleviate all our ills. NO! We must get in the classroom, roll up our sleeves, and teach the students. Hold after-school and/or connections tutoring if necessary. However, it is mostly designing lessons that are a step-by-step process of the new content. Since the ball was dropped for many students, it means clearing up a lot of misconceptions that they have due to lack of exposure of the material. It means providing the prerequisite knowledge so that students can acquire the new concept successfully. It is more than planning activities to be completed within the class period. It is planning lessons that build toward the desired outcome, the students’ mastery of the standards. In other words, we have to put all the other preconceived notions about teaching aside and do what’s best for the students who are sitting inside our classrooms—meet them where they are.
So, where do we go from here? My hope is we go to a place we never should have left, which is focusing on what’s best for student success—not individual teacher success, or school success, or superintendent success, but student success. We can help our students become successful by building empowering relationships with them and effectively bridging the gaps in their learning. All we have to do is change our perspective.