Excellence at Risk


K atie has been teaching English to ninth graders at a large public high school since her graduation from college six years ago. In addition to an undergraduate degree, she has a master's degree in education from Harvard University, and is now pursuing National Board certification, a cumbersome task that many teachers decide not to attempt because of the amount of work involved. A product of parochial schools, Katie is strongly committed to public education. Her father was an urban teacher, and from an early age, Katie knew she wanted to follow in her father's footsteps. A self-proclaimed hard worker, Katie ultimately wants to make a difference in students' lives and to improve their prospects for the future.

In addition to teaching content, Katie concerns herself with helping students to develop a sense of independence and positive self-esteem. In teaching Romeo and Juliet, for example, Katie developed a curriculum that veers from many of the more traditional methods her peers use. Rather than focusing on the particular information in the text, she sets out to develop students' reading and writing skills by writing new scenes, acting out these scenes in class, and paraphrasing lines of the text. Through these activities, Katie hopes that students will become more involved with the text and take ownership of their learning. Katie believes that the role of a teacher is to give students skills (not just information) so that they may continue to learn on their own. She feels successful as a teacher when students come back to her, years later, and thank her for her help and guidance.

Katie strives to encourage students to take ownership and feel responsible for their own work in her classroom. She claims that with all the concern about standardized tests at the end of the year, many teachers forget that students need to know what they are working towards. Some of her peers are nervous to push students because they want them to "feel good." Katie believes that students will feel good when they engage with rigorous work, learn from it, and then take stock of their individual accomplishments.

Because of her (sometimes contested) beliefs, Katie has joined the school's Instructional Leadership Team, which involves working with new teachers and planning professional development opportunities at the school. Katie also goes out of her way to communicate with parents about activities in class, even though this is not a formal responsibility in her position. She calls parents and also sends home biweekly reports, but has felt dismayed at the lack of response she has received. At this large high school, some parents do not communicate with teachers or advisors, even when the students have failed classes. Katie wonders why some parents place so much pressure on their children to do well academically, while others at the same school don't seem to value education at all.

Katie's interest in staying in contact with parents created a very difficult situation in her second year of teaching. She describes the situation with one of her students, a young woman who was also in her homeroom:

I received one and then a second death threat in the mail-at school, actually. We didn't really have any hardcore proof on who had done it. It was the middle of my second year. But I really had a strong, good idea of who it was, and the school police investigated their locker and it was just pretty obvious. It was a student who-actually, we were getting along fine and I, as her homeroom teacher, had to call her home any time she was absent. And when I called... it had come to her parent's attention that she had been skipping school, and that's when she was living with another family member, so they made her move home.

So she blamed the whole thing on me for starting this chain of events, and digging into why she wasn't coming to school, but I never had any proof for it, and so I had-it was my decision if I wanted to press charges or not... That was definitely an ethical dilemma because part of me felt like, now I'm putting this person into the justice system and... I don't have hardcore proof. But another part of me felt like I need to do this for myself. She did do something really wrong, and she needs to realize it's wrong, but I was really torn.

In the end, Katie felt that the student would learn from the experience if she actually pressed charges. As a result of this decision, the student ended up working with another English teacher and homeroom teacher, and eventually graduated from the school. As Katie explained, "[the student] stayed all four years. She was a decent student... [who went through] a phase... But I really didn't honestly communicate with her after that. I saw her all the time and I knew how she was doing." Interestingly, when asked how she might have handled the situation differently if it happened now, Katie responded that she would not take the threat "as personally."