Socratic Seminar: Redefining Best

Years of academics, athletics, and arts push one common theme: there is only one “best”. Synonymous with excellence, number one, and top-ranked, best is something we all strive for at one time or another.  When the competition pool is 26 deep, the 25th place finisher isn’t exactly “the best”.  Over the last five years as a teacher at the 25th place finisher, I have redefined the worst when it comes to my working environment.  Envision a “rough in the diamond”.  That’s my school.  Personally, I had no intention of working in the “rough”  Why?  Because frankly, among the Princetons, Harvards, and Yales, why would I choose _______ State College?  Pre-service teachers, many of whom are self-proclaimed perfectionists (I am not one of them), aspire to be at the highest performing schools.  It only seems natural if you’ve always been trained to strive for the best.  In my case, I wasn’t picked up by school until after my peers selected positions at the Princetons, Harvards, and Yales.  So, there I was, with an “early” hire from a county and no school to pick me up.  I had one choice.  PMS (my schools initials) or bust.

I’d be lying if I said my school was an inner city institution, crumbling at the seams.  Instead, I found myself in a beautiful building nestled in a neighborhood among the most diverse community imaginable, in one of the wealthiest counties in our country. Over the years I have fine tuned my teaching philosophy, redefined my professional goals, and rethought the type of school I want to call my place of work.  If it weren’t for luck, I probably would have ended up at a Rutgers and transferred to an “Ivy League” school.  Instead, I blindly began my career at a school I never anticipated I’d be in, teaching a population I had no experience interacting with, and exerting more energy than I ever thought I had to improve the performance of students coming from low socio-economic backgrounds.

When I’m in charge one day, here’s how I would like to attract young, bright professionals to my “rough in a diamond” school.  Here are my non-negotiables for finding the correct individual for such a student population:

a.  Compassion & Passion:  At my principal’s core is a love for students that I have never witnessed before.  “Students come first”, you hear it all the time, but its hard to come by people who truly act on this when they make cross every T and dot every I.  I see teachers in my building who are passionate about subject matter or passionate about their own progress, but fail to show compassion for every student’s needs.

b.  Collaboration:  Many teachers dream of their own classroom and think they’re going to decorate it how they want, run it according to their style, and discipline it how they deem necessary.  It’s when they show up in August that they find out, teaching is a lot more team-oriented than they may desire, especially at a priority school where stakes are high.  If you’re not interested in administering the same test (whether you believe it in or not), using the same strategies (whether it works for you or not), and implementing similar routines (whether you think its ineffective or not), then a priority school is probably not for you.

c.  Content Knowledge:  You need to bring it!  If you want to impress your colleagues, you need to come in with the newest strategies, latest news, and freshest skills.  If you don’t know your content and pedagogy (you don’t need to be a historian or scientist, but you better read up, study, and breathe every last word of that curriculum), you will paralyzed and silenced.  It’s impossible to contribute ideas when you lack research-based knowledge regarding how to teach, and accurate information to teach.

d.  Persistence:  It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to fix itself in one year, and I don’t care how many times you pray, there will be no miracles.  You will try new strategies, new readings, new assignments, and you will three times before you succeed.  It takes time to get through to a student, it takes time to master classroom order, and it takes time to understand the intricacies of assessments.  Keep trying, and don’t stop just because it takes longer to accomplish your goals.  Small victories are big victories when you’re teaching students who are already behind.

e.  Flexibility:  Without the ability to alter your practices when they don’t work as planned, you’ll spin your wheels and eventually lose your passion.  Aside from instruction, you need to have an incredible amount of flexibility to deal with schedule changes, student concerns that take precedence over the multiplication facts that seem so important to you, and changes in practice and expectations at the drop of a hat.  Everything in your school will not be consistent, so accept it, and do what you do best within the four walls of your classroom.

These are the non-negotiables that I believe every teacher at a priority school must possess in order to bring improvement to entire school population.  What do you think are the necessary traits that these schools should seek out during the hiring process?

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