Can These Teachers Be Saved? The Finale

Note: This blog contains the lessons I wish to share about my journey coaching the teachers of urban students. Students: sometimes poor, talented, “at-risk”, of color, and/or poor white. This my journey;this is my story.

There is not now nor has their ever been a foolproof system for measuring teacher effectiveness. However, we can identify critical attributes of effectiveness and ineffectiveness, and we can identify when students are not being well served.

The principal has determined that Carrie’s students are not being well served and decides that she wants to place her on the unsatisfactory track which is the prelude to being released from the school system. Because Carrie is a first year teacher, the process is easier. The principal decides not to take the chance that she might improve by her second year. (Amina is off the hook for now.)
Carrie is still absent once a week. Though her lesson plans have improved, she does not consistently turn them in. And though she sends fewer students to the office, her classes are still chaotic even though we are into the second semester. Because I will be charged with helping the administration to build a case against her, the principal wants me to determine her emotional response to being placed on the unsatisfactory track. The department chair will cover Carrie’s class while I meet with her in my office.

A Coach’s Journey: The Pressure Is On

As I have written earlier in this case study, coaching can sometimes be a lonely journey of faith- there is no single path or recipe. Coaches travel an uncertain terrain and juggle an intimidating number of priorities.

Coaches empower, collaborate, challenge, confirm, cajole, communicate, flatter, guide, goad, intimidate, listen, model, push, prompt, problem solve, and problem seek.
We also serve as counselor, friend, compassionate shoulder, and confidante.

What are my roles and responsibilities this day? I try to anticipate what Carrie might say when I inform her about the principal’s agenda.

“I am my children’s sole support.”
“ I really need this job. I have student loans to repay. “
“ Please ask the principal to give me another chance.”

To start the meeting by telling her that the principal has decided to place her on the unsatisfactory track, I decide, would be unproductive. So I try another approach.
Carrie’s son and daughter are in second and fourth grades respectively and attend school in the community in which they live, a middle-class suburb outside of the city. I start by inquiring about her children’s school and their teachers. Pleased with the curriculum, enrichment activities, the school environment, the commitment of the teaching staff, Carrie wants to do whatever is in her power to maintain the status quo/stability for her children especially because she is divorcing. She and her soon-to-be divorced husband specifically selected the zip code because of the reputation of the schools.

Goading, Guiding, Listening

I ask her to close her eyes and to THINK about how she would FEEL if her children’s teachers emulated her behavior: Absent weekly, inconsistent with their lessons, sitting behind their desks instead of engaging students, not returning assignments in a timely fashion. Carrie starts to tear up. I request that she open her eyes, and I provide her with a tissue.

Teacher Reflection

Asking the Teacher to Reflect

Giving her a few minutes to compose herself, I gently explain that just because the demographic is poor and of color doesn’t mean that the parents don’t have the same dreams for their children as she has for hers.
She agrees. However, she is concerned about the amount of energy and stamina that it takes to teach the students. “Sometimes there seems to be a desperation and hopelessness in their eyes. At the end of the day, when I return home, too often, I have nothing left for my own children.”
I can hear in her voice and see in her face that she is beginning to lose the efficacy needed to teach an at-risk population. (See my blogpost:A Teacher’s Scent)

Teaching is a serious emotional and intellectual journey no matter the demographic or zip code. And, it’s an especially lonely and rocky journey for Carrie because she is attempting to balance her home life and her work life without steady, emotional support. She is reconstructing a new reality for herself and her young children.
Again, I request that she close her eyes and this time I ask her describe to me what she sees five years up the road for her career as a teacher. Again, Carrie begins to tear up. She is not so certain that she has the resilience to meet the ongoing demands of the administration and to raise her family alone. Even though the specter of unemployment looms large, Carrie comes to understand on her own that she is ill-equipped to consistently supply what the school district requires.

The reality of her situation settles in and she inquires if the principal has decided to place her on the unsatisfactory track. I reply that she has, but that it doesn’t mean that she will automatically be fired. “ You still have an opportunity to pull the rabbit out of the hat.” I smile. Using my coaching Foundational Goals I outline for her again how she must consistently and persistently perform over the next several months.
I explain that the principal is also between a rock and a hard place. Her job is at-risk as well if she does not raise the school’s test scores. I also inform Carrie that going forward, she is no longer my client; I can no longer be her confidante. I must report her weaknesses as a teacher to the principal.

A Revolving Door or the Dance of the Lemons

The next day Carrie meets with the school’s union representative who advises her to shape up because the principal is within her legal rights to release her at the end of the year.
Carrie meets with the principal and makes a deal with her. If she promises not to start the unsatisfactory process for firing, she will not return to the school in the fall. The principal is in accord; however, she warns her in no uncertain terms that if she does return: HEAVEN HELP HER!

In the fall, Carrie secures a teaching position in another district, in an unstable high school that has experienced a revolving door of administrators and staff. Her REAL job description: Show up and don’t send too many students to the office. Oh by the way, don’t fail too many while you are at it.

I don’t pretend to have an answer to the challenges of recruiting, supporting, and retaining the Aminas and Carries, who need an income to support their families, into a system with a population in need of the most resilient teachers who BELIEVE they can succeed. My years of coaching teachers have taught me that scholarship and content knowledge, though critical to the role of teacher effectiveness, are NOT enough.

Recently, I viewed a dispiriting PBS video which showcases the new faces of America’s poverty. ( Children who are increasingly white, articulate, intelligent and once middle class.

Is there a cautionary tale from my urban coaching journey for coaches in other school communities in America? If so, where do we go from here?