Ready to Rumble

New teachers in a New York City middle school begin the year with a directive to form smaller learning communities. Some wonder how Lee, their new team leader, will overcome resistance and focus their efforts.
Lee faced challenges from the teachers on his new smaller learning community team.

There was no doubt about it. We were sweltering. Despite the persistent rumble of the window unit straining against the thick air in the library, we were sweating bullets. Fanning myself with my handouts generated more heat than it was worth. Even the green tile walls seemed to be sweating. School would start in just one week, and I said a silent prayer that the heat would break before the kids showed up.

Our meeting began with a show of hands from those of us new to this struggling middle school. My jaw dropped. If majority ruled, the newcomers were in charge. Over half the faculty was new. I shook my head and wondered how I ended up here. I’d hate to be in charge of this green crew.

The principal, who was also new, broke us up into our smaller learning community teams and sent us off with our team leaders. I was curious, since community building has always been important to me, and I wondered how we’d approach this with such a transient population. The students and families were no more stable than the faculty at this school, from what I’d heard.

We followed our team leader, Lee, into his classroom, which was all set-up and ready to go. Mine, by contrast was a mess, my desk was buried by my file boxes and my students’ desks were in a tangle in the middle of the room. But Lee was ready, and he got right down to business. He introduced himself, had us each do the same, and launched into our SLC focus for the year: personalization. It didn’t take long for dissent to spread.

Personalization? I thought we were focusing on boosting academic achievement for these kids.”

“I have a hard enough time covering what’s needed to help prepare these kids for the state tests. I can’t afford to take time to personalize the experience and pander to their emotions.”

“Don’t worry; this too shall pass, just like the reform movement before it, and the reform movement before that one. I’ve sat right here eight years in a row listening to the same thing, except every year it’s called something different.”

“I’m not so sure my students want to get personal with me!”

I wondered how personal I could get with students whose behavior warranted seven armed cops each day in this school. As I listened, the rumble of the teachers grew.