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Monday, January 17, 2011

Hi, My Name is Eric and I'm a Charter School Teacher

The title of this post sounds, at once, apologetic and confessional. I'm a teacher and it feels pretty good to say that out loud or write it down, to an extent that I lack the talent to express fully. I work for six and seven year olds, an age that I feel, is one of the most critical ages for a child. The learning gaps between one learner and another that are formed in vocabulary and reading before a child hits second grade, may never be made up. I think that's pretty important and a role I take very seriously. My kids get my best effort each day and I expect their best effort as well. I've watched, benefited from, worked with, and admired great teachers as I have made my way through life. It is my hope that I can humbly be considered within those conversations that center around teachers and the positive difference they have made in the lives of students. I don't think I'm much different from most teachers in this way.

Even-though I know why I teach and why I chose this profession, recently I've felt the need to qualify, maybe even defend, where I teach. A public charter school. I think the real demarcation point for the change in the tone of the conversation, both online and in personal interactions, was around the time of Michelle Rhee's appearance on Oprah, Zuckerberg's 100 million gift to NJ, NBC's education nation, and the release of the movie "Waiting for Superman". The momentum of those combined events seemed to divide teachers into factions. Those divisions may have already existed and maybe I just didn't notice or pay much attention to the lines between traditional school systems and charter schools. Either way, I noticed a change.

I almost always have to explain to a non-teacher what a charter school is and the similarities and differences between traditional public schools and charters. I'm well versed in my 'elevator' pitch, so that the information about my school is clear and concise, so as not to confuse the listener. When talking to a traditional teacher, there is frequently an awkward silence that results from the disclosure when I relay the type of public school in which I work, and find myself breaking the ice that quickly forms.

There are questions about unions, evaluations, tenure, student admission, parental involvement and administrators. I try and take the opportunity to explain all of the good things that happen in my classroom and school and the wonderful environment that I can create with some of the freedoms that I have in my charter school.

Once I can get the other side of the conversation talking again, two questions seem to always be top of mind. First, "aren't you worried about losing your job due to a bad evaluation or adminstrator?" or similar. No. I don't plan on ever getting a bad evaluation and after getting kicked to the curb three times over the last 5 years, through no fault of my own, I no longer worry about things I can't control. Also, my experience is that no matter how good the organization or work environment, there is not much you can do to protect yourself from a bad manager. The second question, more like a comment really, is "I don't think I could work under the pressure to perform" that they perceive to be present at a charter school. Maybe not, but I bet we're not under as much pressure as you think. Make no mistake about it, everyone of my kids is expected to grow, in fact I get bonuses based on their growth, and we assess their learning in a number of ways. We don't use the data to exclude, punish, or separate, but rather as tools to help drive our teaching and to get these kids the instructional content they need. Over the course of the conversation, the teacher across the table or at arms length, grows to understand me and my school a little better.

The online conversations aren't always as polite. Charters, especially the teachers, are not at war with the other public schools. You'd never know this, however, as 'charter school teacher' as taken on a perjorative slant in online conversations, blogs, and tweets in the last six months. I'm not out to put an end to traditional public schools. I don't want to break up your union. I don't want you shown the door if a bad manager/admnistrator feels you're ineffective or too expensive. It would be  nice if people could be as polite and considerate  in the online world as they are face to face.

I want a great learning environment from my students. I want data that helps me understand what my students need from my instruction, so that I can tailor it to their learning needs. I want to be evaluated fairly and frequently and given support so that I can become better. Eighty percent of the students in my school qualify for free or reduced lunch. A number of my kids don't get the support of their education that I think is sufficient. I have 25 different life stories that come to me each day, and not all are happy ones. A charter school can't fix these things and neither can a traditional school, but I bet we are both in this profession to make a difference.

My name is Eric, and I'm a teacher in a charter school. I'm not that much different from you.

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