Five years ago, I left a failing school. Having taught in struggling schools for my entire career, the choice was difficult because I left a school that eventually closed, for a high-achieving one. Some people told me I was a sellout. One person said, with good intentions, that my talents would be wasted in this new environment. I didn’t disagree with him. I
felt like a sellout, especially because I grew up in poverty. I know firsthand the transformational opportunities that come from a good education. I was compelled to consider these different schools from the perspectives of Kivon and Tadeo, male students of color, to answer the question: What does it mean to be a student in a “good” school versus a “bad” one? I observed Kivon at a struggling school and Tadeo at a high-achieving one. I met them at the beginning of the school day, followed them through their classes until the last bell, and learned about their attitudes toward school. I walked away with some of the best professional development any teacher could ever experience, and three lessons to guide my practice.
We should rethink the way we use instructional time. I’ve felt dog tired after the first week back to school, but I was taken aback by the exhaustion I felt after observing Kivon and Tadeo. It was eye-opening to witness the large amount of information that students have to absorb in the course of a day. And it was especially tiring when I followed Kivon. He had no time to take in information or to speak with peers about his learning. This had little to do with the quality of his teachers (in fact, in my opinion, the teaching quality in each school was mostly sound), and more to do with the need for classroom control. I understand the need to tightly manage a classroom environment, but seeing this from the student perspective made it disconcerting. Kivon was only given two opportunities to speak with peers during instructional time, once in the morning and then 10 minutes prior to the final bell. He was penalized several times in one class for trying to talk to his peers about the math problems the teacher asked them to solve. In contrast, Tadeo was allowed to put on his headphones and work quietly on math problems while his teacher walked around the room and answered questions, or to turn and talk to his neighbors beside him when a new concept was introduced. Tadeo’s school day included many more opportunities to process his learning.
We need to consider the differences between engagement and compliance. Kivon’s day included more lively discussions and opportunities for authentic learning than Tadeo’s. His biology teacher began a discussion by asking students, “Okay, let’s hear it. What are the questions you have about the biology of sex? Now’s the time to ask them.” Hands popped up around the room, and Kivon asked the first question. He was the liveliest I had seen him all day. But as soon as the teacher started a PowerPoint presentation on vocabulary notes for gametes, it took maybe two minutes before Kivon, and several of his peers, put their heads down and went to sleep. In contrast, Tadeo’s biology teacher tried to facilitate a discussion about water molecules. Four hands went up, while many other students texted on their phones, leaned on their desks with their heads down, or completed homework from another class. She asked a few more questions to which a handful of students responded, but quickly wrapped up and said, “Okay, now we’re going to take a few notes.” Students at the high-achieving school seemed comfortable taking notes and recording information directly from the teacher, while students in the struggling school seemed to seek dialogue and discussion even with little opportunity to do so. The experience led me to believe that the “good” school did not necessarily offer the stronger learning environment—instead, it seemed to offer a place for students who are comfortable with traditional teaching methods.
We need to emphasize the process of learning, rather than the products of it. In Kivon’s school, the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests was palpable. During all his classes, I could feel this pressure, whether it was a stack of ACT prep books lining the walls, worksheets for students to track their weekly test scores, or teachers reviewing testing vocabulary. There was so much focus on the assessment of student learning, that the focus on the process of learning seemed lost. When I asked Kivon if he felt like he was getting a good education, he said, “I think I’m getting a good education on how to take the ACT.” When I asked Tadeo the same question, he said, “Of course. This is a great school.” His school had a reputation for being a good school, so he didn’t question that fact. There was no reference to any standardized assessment during the course of Tadeo’s school day. There are assumptions that because a school is in a “nicer” part of town or produces stronger test scores, students must be getting a better education there. Even Kivon and Tadeo believed that narrative, although each school employed comparable educators using similar teaching methods. The main difference between the schools from my perspective was the culture of perception. I miss my former students like those in Kivon’s classes who are inquisitive and enthusiastic about learning, but I am also grateful to teach in a school that allows me to focus less on standardized tests and delivering lectures and spend more time on kids. My wish is that all schools catered to the individual needs of students, instead of clinging to false ideas about what makes a school successful.