On Migrating to a New School Ecosystem

After a long hiatus, I am back at Schools as Ecosystems. This fall marks a major transition for me as I have left the public schools and am working as a learning specialist at an Upper Manhattan independent school. The contrast between these two school ecosystems is remarkable.

As I acclimate to my new environment over the next few months, I will post about the differences between public and private school ecosystems. For now, though, it seemed worth mentioning that my migration was driven largely by personal speculative reasons. I loved the public school where I worked for the past two years. It was a healthy, comfortable ecosystem where I found my niche as a special education teacher–and thrived in that niche.

Sadly, however, most of the time this school felt like an oasis in a the toxic public school environment. My colleagues and I were aware that our school’s healthy, supportive community was exceptional. What’s more, we knew that the very things that made our this community healthy– the freedom and respect afforded teachers, the relative diversity of our curriculum, and the active role that students’ parents played in the school– were at odds with the vision being promoted by the leaders of our larger school environment: the New York City Department of Education. As we saw more and more of our professional development time devoted to implementation of Common Core Standards and teacher evaluation systems, we had less and less time to develop student-centered classrooms and curricula. As we learned more about these systems of standards and evaluation, we realized that our freedom to develop curriculum based on our experience and expertise might be severely curtailed.

I love teaching. I love planning lessons and units. Partly I love this work because it’s good for my students, but I also just love the intellectual challenge. It’s fun to look for a new way to teach The Odyssey or the French Revolution. My students can sense that this is fun for me and (I’ve been told) my enthusiasm for the content I teach is one of my greatest strengths. The more I heard about how I’d have to type copies of Common Core Standards onto my lesson plans and test my students more so that I could measure their progress, the less I felt joy in my teaching.

So I made a calculation. I moved to another oasis, an elite independent school. This was a personal decision and I have a lot of feelings about it. I miss my old students and colleagues. I miss walking into my old school and seeing people that I loved working with. Unfortunately, I could not imagine a future for myself in a school system led by people who promote high-stakes testing for kindergartners and who spend precious resources developing evaluation systems for arts and physical education teachers, even as they cut funding for classes in these subject areas.

Most importantly, I chose to move to a school environment where teachers are valued and respected by their employers. In three weeks at my new school, there’s been no talk about how I must prove that my classes add value to my students. The assumption is that I’m good at my job and that my students will benefit from my skills, expertise, and experience. As the year progresses, I hope to prove them right. I’ll keep you posted.

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