After seven years in education, I have often thought about the impact of my work and how my daily tasks equate to student success. This is a question I’m sure many teachers find themselves pondering late at night or early in the morning after sacrificing sleep and sanity to grade student work, prepare engaging projects, communicate with parents, or perform any of the other various tasks that come with preparing scholars for success. Does it all have a meaningful impact? Am I making a difference? During my second year in education I had an encounter that forced me to wrestle with the question of whether my work was truly meaningful:
During my second year in education, a simple moment with a small group of students brought this question to the forefront of my mind. I was working at an urban high school with a low graduation rate. To increase our graduation rate, our school implemented a credit recovery program, which allowed students to retake classes that they had previously failed in order to graduate on time. I oversaw this program and worked with about twenty students who, in theory, were eligible to graduate based on their successful completion of online modules designed to deliver a sufficient synopsis of high school curriculum. Not a bad deal: stay after school, click through a few learning modules, and earn the same high school diploma that other students earned through four years of instruction, projects, essays, and exams. Despite the lucrative nature of this offering, a large part of my group failed to show up for the program. I became immediately frustrated. How could they just not show up? We were so close. This was their last chance to graduate and drastically improve their future options. I sprang into action and asked a colleague to cover the class as I went searching for my missing students. I found them walking casually down the street surrounded by a cloud of smoke and a roar of laughter. I stopped and confronted them and after a few minutes, it became quite apparent that their after-school plans were more important than getting a diploma. And though it’s easy to immediately scoff at this conclusion and write it off as typical teenage propensity for immediate gratification, they did make a valid point: What was the value of a diploma from a perpetually failing high school? Why should they invest time in a district that profited from their attendance but not from their success?
As I walked back into the building, defeated and confused, and started to climb the stairs, the question of impact weighed heavily on my mind. What kind of school system would allow vast quantities of students to fail without holding its systems, administrators, and teachers accountable? What kind of school system would purchase an online program for students to recover credits where they could simply “Google” the answers? Would our students really be able to succeed after years of social promotions even if they did graduate? If I worked incredibly hard in a place that allowed these things, would my hard work really make a difference? In light of these bigger, systemic issues, was my contribution meaningful?
That walk up the stairs quickly turned into a resignation letter and a quest to find a place where I was confident that my hard work was resulting in meaningful change for students. Finally, after two arduous years in another school with similar issues, I found a place that uses systems, data, reflection, and rigor to reliably turn effort into meaningful work.
Now, I understand not all educators have the ability to walk away from their current situation and find an alternative. I’m also not suggesting that in order to feel fulfilled in our work, we must abandon failing schools around the nation. I applaud the educators and leaders who find creative ways to elevate the impact of their work within a challenging system. Instead, I’m sharing my personal story and the mindsets I adopted that helped me find and develop a school environment from which I leave each day feeling fulfilled. If you’re an educator struggling with similar issues, I suggest you consider these guiding principles as you search for, or work to create, a place that maximizes your impact:
- Process and Principles – Each school has a process for how they achieve their mission. Those processes may or may not align with your personal principles. Take time to think through your personal principles and take a critical look at how each process at your school reflects those values to ensure that they align with your beliefs about education. Be willing to discuss your values with your employer.
- Data and Dignity – Any school worth its salt has a process for how they collect data. Schools should be using data to make decisions about what is working and what needs improvement. Schools should be about data, but the question is are they only about data? Often schools treat students like numbers without any consideration for what those numbers mean for students’ futures. This is a denial of dignity. Test scores should be tracked because they provide insight into scholar achievement and provide important guidance for educators on what to reteach and which scholars need more support. However, they should not define students and they should not be used only to determine the success of students and teachers at the end of the year. Each student should be placed in a position to succeed because of the intentional use of data, not because data is the only determining factor in their success.
- Results and Reality – Schools are often talking about results. However, results can often operate as a smokescreen if you only look at numbers like graduation rates and test scores. Look beyond these numbers and find the reality behind the results. Think about the well-being and self-esteem of the students who interact with the school. Are the students just good test-takers or are they being positioned to become better people?
In my experience, it is these three tensions that make work meaningful. As you attempt to find your niche in the vast field of education be willing to ask the tough questions upfront. If you can find a balance in these three tensions, you will undoubtedly find, or create, a learning environment that makes it so you leave work every day feeling like you had a meaningful impact on student achievement.
This post was contributed by Mr. Wallace Gaffney, a Dean of Students at Classical Charter Schools. As a non-CMO charter network, we rely on the thoughts, opinions, and innovations of our staff to move our mission forward and provide an excellent academic option to families in the South Bronx. To hear more from our staff, check out the next post! Or, click here to learn more.