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The Good, the Bad, and the Urgent: An Honest Confession From a Teacher-Mom

My kids keep me honest. I don't mean my students, I mean my kids—the ones who've nursed at the breast and whose butts I've powdered.  My little ragamuffins are 13- and 8-year-old girls, and a 16-month old boy (thanks to a provocative but misguided text message). I would give my life to protect them.

Many teachers call their students "my kids" all the time. In fact, I easily have more pictures of my students in my cell phone than pictures of my own biological children.  But as much as I mother my students, I am careful to keep clear professional boundaries with them. When it's all said and done, they are indeed other people's children. My kids are the ones who will put flowers on my grave.  

So what happens when your child is also a student at the school where you teach? How do you keep it professional and cordial when things are going awry and you need to assertively advocate for your child at work? I found myself in that uncomfortable predicament last month.   

My 8-year-old daughter's class was chaotic after her first-year teacher got married in Chicago and then relocated to Texas after Christmas break. It's hard enough to bring on a new teacher in the middle of the year, but the situation was only exacerbated when the replacement teacher was also brand new to the profession.  (In fairness, my daughter's class of 28 students was difficult to manage even for the more experienced teachers. Teachers had to tap into their inner guru each and every day.)    

My administration was trying to work with this second new teacher, but it was painful for me to watch these professional development attempts being made on a novice teacher who is in full crisis mode. Assurances from my school leaders that, with more instructional coaching, the class would gradually get better in time fell flat with me. It was now February, how much more time could my child afford?

I had to make a heart-wrenching decision: to keep being patient and hope for the best, or take drastic action.

My kid wasn't ambivalent; she knew what she wanted. In fact, she begged me to transfer her out of the school that she had once loved. Even at 8, she was willing to say good-bye to all her friends to gain a sense of emotional safety and sanity.   

I love my school and count many of my colleagues as my friends.  The teachers (including my daughter's former teachers) work extremely hard, and it's obvious that they care about the students.  And since it's a charter school, parents like me feel fortunate that our kids names were pulled from the lottery and granted admission. I've often lamented that all kids and parents don't have access to good schools like this one—district or charter.  

But now I found myself contemplating the unthinkable—transferring my little girl out.

Oh, how pleasant it's been to see my two daughters passing in the hallway while I'm on my way to the copy room! How convenient it's been to drive to and from work with my little daughters in tow!

I cried many tears over this dilemna.  Then fear set in.  What quality school would even accept a new student in mid-February? I'm not just going to take her anywhere, to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire.  

(The search for another quality school in Chicago was a shocking, depressing eye-opener; I will have to save that saga for another blog.)

Last week, a colleague passed on a powerful article to my principal who then passed it on to me. It's from a British newspaper about "Teach Like a Champion" author Doug Lemov.  This passage gave me peace about the decision I had made:  

The evidence suggests that a child at a bad school taught by a good teacher is better off than one with a bad teacher at a good school. The benefits of having been in the class of a good teacher cascade down the years; the same is true of the penalty for having had a bad teacher....

In 1992, an economist called Eric Hanushek reached a remarkable conclusion by analysing decades of data on teacher effectiveness: a student in the class of a very ineffective teacher - one ranked in the bottom 5% - will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year, whereas if she was in the class of a very effective teacher - in the top 5% - she would learn a year and a half's worth of material. In other words, the difference between a good and a bad teacher is worth a whole year.

(Just to be clear, I don't believe my daughter had "bad teachers."  A combination of the teacher turnover, the lack of teaching experience, and the absence of adequate instructional support contributed to my daughter having a bad learning year.)

So what did I end up doing? I got honest. 

I stopped prioritizing what was convenient for me.  I stopped caring about whether or not I would offend my colleagues or school administrators. I stopped fearing what other parents might say or think. I even stopped referring to my deeply held educational philosophy. I simply based my decision on what was best for my kid.

So I transferred her out. 

I used to cringe when I heard ed policymakers call for an increased "sense of urgency." I would think, "Gee, I'm already working as hard as I can. What else do you want from me?!?  But it has taken this deeply personal experience for me to fully grasp the concept of a "sense of urgency." It's not just about working hard, but it's the particular mindset that drives your work. 

It means that if any one of my students' parents were to have insight into the day-to-day happenings in the school or classroom the way I am privy to it as a staff member, would they trust that their child was getting the absolute best education possible?

In other words, it means that educators approach our practice with the same diligence and expectancy we would have if our own biological child were sitting in every single class.  

It means that we have to put the students' needs first, and use teacher professional development as a refining tool to an already strong practice.

It means that we strategically place teachers into key positions, and that we provide ongoing classroom observations that yield specific critiques aimed at maximizing student success.  

It means that we are cognizant of the fact a teacher may have 30 years to perfect her third grade instruction, but most kids have only one year in third grade, so we had better get it right!

My household operates on a tight budget, so the $700 a month private school tuition bill I now have to pay really hurts. But now that my little girl is excited about learning again and is able to focus in class, I realize that the cost of the status quo was way more expensive.

But I still believe in my school. The 4th grade teacher is awesome, so let's hope my daughter's name gets picked in the less-competitive sibling lottery for the fall.    

*****

Just for reading the post all the way to the end, I'm going to treat you with a speech by Steven Perry on the theme of having a sense of urgency.

Last updated 3/28/15: Blog formerly entitled "Good Teacher, Bad Teacher, and a 'Sense of Urgency."

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