As I approach the one-year mark in my time at New Morning, I’ve naturally found myself reflecting on the experience thus far, especially when considering the stark contrast to my past experiences as a science teacher. I hope my reflections can shed some light on the similarities and differences of a traditional, high-pressure educational structure and what is offered here at New Morning, and schools like this one. First, I’ll provide some background for my path in education.
I moved to Austin, Texas in May of 2009, when I was accepted into a highly selective teaching fellowship that promised quick entry to the profession, with professional support along the way. I found both to be true when in early October I began work as a full-time science teacher at a large, low-income urban middle school in the Austin Independent School District. I worked in that same classroom, teaching both sixth and eighth grade science for four years. For my fifth year, I was offered a position at a start-up charter school built to serve the poorest neighborhood in the city, where a school similar to mine had been shut down by the state, citing “poor student performance.” I stayed at the charter for two years, helping build the foundation for what is now a thriving staple of its community.
Fast forward to 2016, and here I sit at a tiny, beautiful school tucked away in the affluent suburbs of Detroit. Regardless of the classroom, the best teachers can help students thrive. However, I’ve noticed that in all three of the schools I’ve served — the public, the charter and New Morning School — that a school’s philosophy makes a big difference.
Many public schools can be dysfunctional, difficult places to work and play. In Texas, as in many other states, “readiness” testing seems to dictate everything, including curriculum design, student class scheduling, academic placement and behavior management. Classrooms loaded with 25 (and for one six-week period, 42!) students who sat in a grid of desks, are asked daily to comply with behaviors their rubbery little minds are unable to understand. Recess ends after fifth grade, and many elementary schools view it as a privilege, not an essential activity (I think sometimes we forget our students are kids!). A symptom of testing-oriented schools is often unhappy teachers and unhappy students, and it’s almost impossible to learn and grow positively in such an environment. This particular idea of how a school should run is not unique to my experience, or even to Texas. There are beautiful exceptions of course, and in every school one could find wonderful, nurturing spaces, but unfortunately, it’s often the exception.
At the charter school, things were better. Our philosophy valued each student’s individuality as a learner, and our support system enabled us to hire and retain teachers with proven records of success working with students with diverse backgrounds and development levels. There, we prided ourselves on seeing the different lives our students brought through the door, and we focused on differentiating all instruction and materials to accommodate those differences. It’s unfair to ask someone to paint a house with a toothbrush, and it’s unfair to ask a reader to test four-levels above his ability. While the school certainly had its issues, we succeeded in seeing students as who they are. But there was still a great deal of sacrifice. Many had come to us after years of unsupported learning and were pushed through grade levels vastly under-prepared, as a casualty of the high-stakes testing world offered to them. Social and emotional growth was often pushed aside in lieu of achieving academic measurements.
Here at New Morning School, developmentally appropriate growth of the individual is paramount. I’ve learned this is a place where we meet students where they are, find out where they want to go, and light the path that can get them there. We find what a student needs and what’s appropriate for them not only this school year, but each day along the way. One particular aspect of the school’s culture I noticed about New Morning is the sense of independence and trust we foster in our students. I’ve always tried to do that in my classroom at my previous schools, but I sometimes felt like I was the only one thinking this way. Here, anyone who comes through the doors gets a sense of the positivity permeating through our building. Our students know if something goes wrong, we’ll figure out how to make it right. They know if a problem arises with another student, we’ll find a way to talk through it. Students grow into better people when they’re here, and carry with them the tools and skills to continue that growth wherever their education takes them for high school, university and beyond.
It has been a great pleasure to work at New Morning thus far. It’s been a transformative year, one that has expanded my understanding of what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be a student. My young family and I consider ourselves fortunate to be a part of this academic family. In the coming year, I look forward to watching more of my students continue their growth into strong, responsible and capable young adults who care about each other and the world around them. Thank you!
Paul Hanna is a science teacher at New Morning School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.