Last week, I had the good fortune of traveling to New York City to conduct roundtable discussions with teachers. Though I am always very interested in hearing teachers’ perceptions around issues of education policy, I was especially excited for this trip because I knew I’d have the opportunity to spend time with middle school students. For the first time in eight years, I am not working at a school campus; while I have learned a tremendous amount as a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, I have missed being around students every day I have been in DC.
That was how I found myself chatting with two fourteen year-old girls in the back of Jemal Graham’s classroom, a NYC math teacher working part-time for the Department as a Classroom Fellow. For about an hour, the two young ladies and I chatted about a range of topics. Though the girls had an initial hesitancy characteristic of most eighth graders, it didn’t take long before it felt like we had known each others for years. (I do have to apologize again to Jemal, who probably didn’t get very much math instruction done that day!) After giving me a rundown of their favorite authors (Sharon Draper), food (Jamaican and Sushi) and friends, the conversation quickly turned to school. I asked them several thoughtful questions and in doing so, got a better understanding of this Brooklyn school than any school report card could ever have provided. By the end of the conversation, I knew which teachers were well-respected, which classes were the most engaging, how the recent transition in school leadership had impacted school culture and which classmates were having a tough time academically.
As I try to make sense of recent policy discussions with teachers (many have focused on “teacher effectiveness” specifically), I am struck by the ways in which students hold their schools accountable daily. When students feel that they are not being given the respect and quality instruction they deserve, they make their dissatisfaction well known to their teachers, parents and any other adult who will take the time to listen. As the conversation around teacher evaluation moves ahead, I hope that all of us who work in the service of young people will remember that they tend to have an extremely honest and accurate understanding of what is happening in their classrooms.
Leah Raphael, Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow
Read more about the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship.