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Bright Beginnings

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Brighton School has been under the mandates of School Improvement for the last four out of five years. For two years, the school has offered school choice as an option. As a result, we have lost about eighty students a year to other schools. Supplemental Services have been added and this year the first phase of restructuring the staff began as a new principal was hired. There was great difficulty in finding a principal for the school and it was ten days prior to school starting before a principal was in place. The teachers and the community became very frustrated with this process. I am sure this is a common problem in hard to staff schools. By some very unique events, one of my former principals was finally hired. I can not tell you how glad I was to hear Margie Curry’s voice on the phone when she called and told me the news. As I recorded in my journal, “A miracle-Ms. Curry is going to be my principal. Oh me of little faith!”


On the downside of this good news, Ms. Curry immediately asked me to change from my teaching position in Second Grade Teacher to Curriculum Coordinator for our K-8 school. I was really looking forward to having my own classroom again. I had recruited my son to come from Tennessee and help me get my room ready. In fact, we were both covered in paint when I received her call. At the time, I did not feel I could refuse her anything knowing how far behind we were in being prepared to open school. Furthermore, I thought this could possibly be the opportunity I had searched for to use the knowledge I gained in earning my Doctorate in Educational Leadership with the emphasis on Teacher Leadership. Maybe now I would have a chance to really see if a teacher without becoming an administrator can become a true school leader.

I started my first day at Brighton full of high hopes and lots of positive energy. I am one of those people who usually sees the glass half full. I inherited this “pie in the sky” attitude from my father who at 88 years-old wakes up everyday and says, “It’s a new day!” When I reflect on how I must have appeared to the faculty on that first day, I know now many of the teachers would echo what my brother said about my father’s cheery outlook, “Can’t he just wake up one day and not be happy!” I am sure I totally irritated the teachers as I gave the morning inspiration about how happy I was to be a part of their school and how I had made a special trip to the Shrine of the Sacred Hearts in Hanceville, Alabama to pray for our year. It is not that prayer is not valued, but this is really the last thing you want a pious newcomer say to you when you have been trying to survive in a school labeled failure. I really owe the faculty and staff an apology. I had no idea the stress involved in working under these conditions. I actually thought I had the answers needed to turn this school around. The afternoon of the first day, I began to understand how little I knew.


I will be posting updates about my experiences at Brighton every week and I would like to hear your comments and questions.


31 Comments

Yea, Betsy...What a good idea! I'll be looking forward to reading this weekly.

I hope you are as honest as you can be!

MB

Ms. Betsy, Good for you that you are pitching in to try to help other teachers and administratiors improve a rough situation.

Surely you have thought of all the cliches but give it your best for a while. If it does not improve, move on. Your success is needed and can make a difference at other places that may have more light to grow success.

I liked your own reflective comment about how you must have come across to the people who were already struggling with conditions that you did not yet fully understand. I look forward to reading more. As I see with my students, we all need to balance our positive attitude with a clear and accurate understanding of reality.

Betsy,
It's so good, and not at all surprising, to see you still tackling issues head on. I enjoyed reading your first entry, and you're writing makes me want more. What happened on the afternoon of the first day???
Always remember, the Leonardos are with you all the way!
Best wishes from a fellow TOY.

It is imperative that you continue to see the glass as half full. If you give up hope in such disheartening conditions who is going to shed the light. On the other hand, sharing your experiences regarding the "savage inequalities" that exist within our educational systems is critical. Thanks for taking risks and going against the status quo.

Here I am writing my dissertation and reflecting on an adult developmental writing class I teach as an adjunct.

Your entry reminds me again of one of my greatest lessons as a teacher...to remain humble and teachable. I too have been a 'leader' teaching teachers and my ELL writing class is humbling me because I don't have a formula that will fix it! I want to but it is all a process. First and foremost...I continue to learn that it is the spirit of my colleagues in school and students that really is the most important foundation for all of us to learn.
I commend your courage to go to this school and be humbled thus teachable (no matter how much expertise we have!)
God bless all of you at your school.
Annie

I have been teaching in the so called failing schools since 1992. I can't wait to read more of your experience!

I will be 49 in April 2005, have switched careers, and hope to have my first FT teaching assignment come next fall. I am very interested in what you are doing and will be following you regularly. Best of luck!

I can't wait for the next installment! I work in poor urban schools and I believe your experiences and thoughts can help me learn how to affect change here. Thank you.

I read your blog with great interest. I have been a teacher for 12 years now. I believe that it is so important to have people who see the "glass as half full."

It is not that teachers want to be negative, but I can imagine the pressure that these teachers are under to improve their school. In small communities, I imagine the impressions of the community matter a great deal.

If I may offer a suggestion: encourage teachers to share their successes. We often have good memories to share, but these get pushed aside because of other pressures. A success board will help so many of your teachers to see the concrete results of their work and will encourage many to focus on broadening the success of each child.

I am so interested in reading more from your year.

Hi, Betsy! When I was writing a New Teacher orientation booklet for a large education company over a year ago, you gave me permission to use your quote, "All of us want to live in a country where our legacy to the world is how we've taken care of our children." I am inspired by your return to a school that will hopefully be inspired by the message and hard work that you bring! Best wishes and thanks for sharing your on-going education story. I am sure I will revisit often! Sincerely, Sharon

How can two lives be so similar? I have always believed that the best teachers should be in the most challenging schools. I am considering a doctorate in teacher leadership because I did not want to go the administrator-route. I appreciate that fact that you used your position of influence as National Teacher of the Year to highlight equity issues. You make me proud to be called "teacher."

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No one cares about those kids. Including their parents. You teach them so I can teach the best and the brightest. They need help too, or they won't stay the best and the brightest. Who will run the nsc's computers, the nuclear power stations, who will work for the cia? How many of your kids are going to do something like that, 3 or 4 in a decade if you are lucky? You are a Saint! Good luck.

If the adult teachers feel stressed and overwhelmed by a sense of failure at this school, can you imagine how a child who has been a failure since day 1 of kindergarten must feel?

Yes, you CAN make a difference...you already have, especially in the life of a child whose future you have touched. As for the teachers' outlook, only time will tell. I'm willing to bet you have made a difference there also. Stay positive, focused and true to your priorities. One step at a time...
Teachers of the 21st century are training children for jobs which have not even been thought of yet! If we don't work with these children NOW, what will YOUR future be like? Chilling thought isn't it?

Betsy,

I am not the veteran that you are, but I have witnessed the plight of students who have fallen through the cracks in regular education classes. Thanks for the inspiration you have given. Because of your dedication and determination to defy the odds, you have become the wind in my sail.

I think the school needs someone upbeat and motivated like yourself, however, I can almost feel the disbelief in the room when you came in and told them how happy you were to be there,etc..I think in this situation the teachers are feeling really frustrated and that their goals are far from attainable. Therefore, the best way to go about motivating these teachers is slowly. After accomplishing one small goal, you can then move onto another one, thus creating confidence as you go.

I think the school needs someone upbeat and motivated like yourself, however, I can almost feel the disbelief in the room when you came in and told them how happy you were to be there,etc..I think in this situation the teachers are feeling really frustrated and that their goals are far from attainable. Therefore, the best way to go about motivating these teachers is slowly. After accomplishing one small goal, you can then move onto another one, thus creating confidence as you go.

Betsy,
Your positive attitude and belief that all students can succeed is the only way to approach your new position. I believe it is that hope that attracts all aspiring teachers to the profession. Bravo to you for accepting the greatest challenge - a low performing school!!! I would think that identifying and publicly sharing the school's strengths/assets would have to be the launching pad for change. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences.

SNAKES!!!! Ugh! I cannot imagine. I would have vacated the building to say nothing of the classroom. The poor little kids who didn't like snakes. How trumatic would school then become? I teach in rural Maine and while we have some schools that don't meet the standards I don't think any are that bad. Perhaps I'm just naieve.
I'll continue to look forward to your postings.

Thanks to all the teachers that have shared here. I love the conversation. I too am going for my masters in teacher leadership. I am really enjoying reading your reflections and journal entries. I have been teaching 26 years, in the inner city of Chicago. Do you remember when Chicago was named the worst system in the country. Boy did that hurt me and I'm sure many other dedicated teachers. The culture of a classroom and a school is very important. I try to build a leaning community and family atmosphere in my classroom right from the start. So even if the students are not getting that from the system, they will feel it when they are in my classroom. I have taught in schools that were on probation and failing. The schools are dirty, and depressing. I've always wondered what kind of effect that has on learning. I hear from my cohorts about their schools, and they are trying all the 'best practices" and they are still "failing" in the eyes of the government. What do we do? What is it that is keeping our students from learning? Betsy, I hope you can figure it out from your experience. Thanks for sharing it. I look forward to hearing from you.

Betsy,
It is refreshing to find yet another way to keep in touch with you and the great things you are doing at Brighton.
Their future is BRIGHT at Brighton because you have joined their team.
Hang in there..

Hi Betsy,
I am one semester away from doing my student teaching and wanted to thank you for your candor and honesty as to the challenges you are now facing. Even with all your experience, you made a concious choice to start back in the trenches and practice what you have been preaching - and I find that so admirable. I am really looking forward to learning not only from you, but with you in the months ahead. Thanks for sharing!

I so admire your attitude toward a school that is in desperate need of leadership and guidance. I am a retired teacher who taught 18 years in economically disadvantaged schools. Knowing that the first line of defense is adding structure in the leadership, which you have done, and having teachers who will echo this important strategy, and watch the 'trickle down' effect to the students and staff, you have taken on a battle that is difficult. But when it works, what a success! I will be eager to see your successes.

Hi, Betsy! Glad to see that you are on to new challenges. As I head into what is likely the last of my career, I find that my biggest challenge (in a school where about 40% drop out and cultural challenges due to an influx of new workers) is simply getting the students to school. If I work hard, usually most will pass the new end of course biology test and high school science graduation test, but I can't do much if they will not attend. This causes our dropout rate to stay high, and lowers our pass rate in both our courses and the state standardized tests. This is a problem that must somehow be addressed for us to succeed....

Dear Ms. Rogers: A BIG HOWDY & THANK YOU from Mr. Rogers at Marlin Elementary School,
Marlin, Texas.

Thank you for taking the time to pass along valuable and candid insights from your experiences. Your faithfulness to serve in such a challenging situatuion encourages me to keep a positive perspective filled with hope. I have served for two years as the counselor in a low performing school that had to overcome self-defeating labels from faculty, parents and the community. The GOOD NEWS is we are making remarkable progress across the board especially with teacher retention and improved TAKS scores. Our leadership team has stayed the course in leading by example to change the atttitude from "just do your job" to "bless others with your very best." Expressions of love and care create a healthy
"family feel" among faculty rather than "another day, another dollar" at the job. Blessings from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood :)

Dear Betsy,

During the last three years have been teacher in a rural school in Puerto Rico where teaching conditions are very similar as the ones you describe. I have felt the same hopes and frustrations that you felt. This year, I was going to throw the towel and move to a different school. Your comments have given me hope again. Thank you for sharing them with us.

Eileen Benitez

Betsy, I echo the sentiments of many others. Being reminded that our perceptions mean looking at things differently and seeing the "glass half full" might help others see things in a new light. I am also a career changer at the age of 49 and my perceptions are quite different than many teachers who have been "at it" for some time. We can't give up, even though the uphill struggle can make us breathless. Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing.

I work at a charter school with students who have failed to be successful in conventional schools. It takes a tremendous amount of work to overcome the culture of failure. I helped eight students enter the regional science fair and all eight won some kind of a prize but it took hours and hours of work on my part. I also had to drive the students to and from school at all times of the day and night. One of the students even won a chance to compete at the international science fair and three of the five students chosen to go to the state fair were mine. You can imagine how excited every one is. I am hoping that this will carry over to next year and it will less effort to overcome the "I can't do it attitude".

Dr. Rogers, I find it equally distressing that although you are a native Alabamian, you were still viewed as an outsider by your teaching staff.

I am unsure whether or not to laugh or cry. Our Southern children have languished too long in the bottom of our nation's esteem in regard to their education. I pray that our communities will honor your efforts - and the efforts of anyone whose help is genuine.

We must discern rather than suspect, trust rather than doubt, and believe with all our hearts that our children - and our ability to teach those children - is second to none. We must labor diligently to improve ourselves (our best teaching is modeling), then our craft of teaching. We will gain their parents' trust by loving them ourselves; as the children rise, we must find a way to help their parents to follow.

In such circumstances will rise the minds of the South. From such circumstances, Dr. King's dream that we would judge others by the content of their character will become reality. In such circumstances, our nation will remain secure against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In such circumstances, our citizens will decide - soberly, disinterestedly, and decisively - how we will govern ourselves and who we will allow to govern us.

Before this will happen, we must accept the help offered us from whence it comes for the betterment of all, separating wheat from chaff, and remaining relentless in seeking every means to help ourselves and our children.

My warmest regards to all.

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