Not Another Hollywood Teacher Tale

This post was also published by The Huffington Post.

When I saw the trailer for Vice Principals, I sighed deeply. I felt nauseated by yet another completely ridiculous representation of the teaching profession. The most vanilla examples: Duty free lunch? Teachers hanging out in the faculty lounge? Personal adult conversations that last longer than a six minute class change? Please.

Okay, fine. Vice Principals is actually hilarious. My appreciation hinges on the absurdly unbelievable nature of the show, which frees me from the concern of misrepresentation. Satire at its finest.

Yet at the same time, teachers are desperately searching for accurate media portrayals of the profession we have committed our lives to. We depend on media to broadcast what we see on the front lines every day because we depend on voters to make informed decisions that will benefit students.

Imagine my excitement to learn of a teacher-made documentary starring a real life teacher. Even better, the team At Large Productions recently received a sizable grant from the National Education Association Foundation to help finish the documentary film, titled Teacher of the Year. The grant funds will cover half of the film’s post-production budget, and the filmmakers have launched a 45-day Kickstarter campaign to pay for remaining costs.

Rob Phillips, an English teacher, and Jay Korreck, an instructional coach, have been working on the feature-length film since 2013 when they began following Raleigh, NC history teacher and former Teacher of the Year, Angie Scioli. Full disclosure: Phillips and Scioli are my colleagues who I respect immensely.




The film juxtaposes Scioli’s quest for perfection as a teacher, mother, and burgeoning Red 4 Ed and Moral Monday activist with the simplistic portrayals of teachers in Hollywood films.

Here’s Phillips, the film’s co-director:

Teachers are often presented as either heroes or hacks and our film explores how the oversimplifications, illuminated by the scholars we interviewed, reveal and reinforce problematic notions about what teachers really do. We hope our film will lead people to question how media portrayals impact real teachers, socially, economically, and perhaps politically.

Teachers, please join me in supporting accurate portrayals of the teaching profession. Community members, I urge you to ask a teacher to share their perspectives on media content. Just make sure you have an escape plan ready; we’re professional educators after all.

The film will premiere on March 2, 2017 at the Teachers, Teaching, and Media Conference at Wake Forest University. For more information about the film or how to support their fundraising efforts, visit or follow the film on Facebook @teacheroftheyearfilm.


November 9th in the Classroom

This post was also published by The Huffington Post.

Today was a very hard day in the classroom. We knew it would be, no matter the result. We thought of our students when we heard the first debate, when we cast our votes, and when we learned of the results.

We wondered how our students would react. We wondered what to say, or whether we should say anything at all. We had but few moments to decide on our message as we drove to work. We took our posts by our doors as the first bell rang, anxiously awaiting the herd.

I decided to start class by listening, rather than speaking. I asked each student to write down how he or she was feeling about the election on an index card. I read every single one. Some I agreed with, and some I didn’t.

When I did speak, my voice cracked immediately and my students’ faces changed. I resolved to hold in the tears. They sat forward and listened. My message was this:

Regardless of which candidate you prefer, the results are in. Many of you are not old enough to vote yet. In four years, you all will be. In our country, we have scheduled political revolutions every four years. There are people who would prefer that we as young people (myself included) didn’t vote. Your vote matters. Your voice matters. I hope to see you at the polls soon.

My 100 students are just a speck in the 50 million students in the United States. I reached out to my colleagues near and far to hear their stories. The following are the responses I received only in the first hours of my request. They represent urban, suburban and rural schools in North Carolina and beyond.

"The first thing I experienced was fear, fear from my minority students. I had to comfort a large portion of my hispanic students who have a legitimate fear of being deported, or their families being deported. It was a stale, hollow kind of comfort because I told them everything would be alright when truthfully I have no clue if it will be for them. The second thing I saw was hate and ignorance, which go hand in hand. It was the worst kind of hate and ignorance, blatant and self justified. I addressed as many of these comments as I could, which was exhausting. These comments ranged from anti-gay, racist, anti-immigrant, and praising the new theocratic America that they think Trump will usher in. There was no middle ground, and I can honestly say it was the hardest day of my career. It was a revealing and foreboding display of the human condition in American society and left me truly terrified."

"I had some fairly meaningful private conversations with students today. A lot of them were tired and near tears, but I did not make it an issue in my lessons today. Also, no kids tried to raise it with me during class, but students wanted to talk before and after class, during lunch, and after school. I embraced that talk without inserting too much of my views. I just tried to listen."

"I started by opening up the floor for discussion in class, by allowing everyone space to share, and by engaging every student I could in an individual conversation throughout the day. What emerged was shock, fear, and anger. Most consistently, the refrain was “How could adults have done this?” My text for class today was poetry, the only medium that felt appropriate for processing on such an emotionally heavy day. I ended up going with “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. At the end of class, I had each student choose and read a line from the poem that most spoke to them today." (Read more)

"I know we’re “supposed” to remain unbiased and not give our opinion, but the kids were so scared - I couldn’t say or do nothing. I reassured them as best as I could, without completely breaking the rules. All I wanted to do was comfort them; I’m furious that they are in this position and that my hands are tied. We’re expected to care about these children, be around them more than our own families, get to know them and their struggles so we can serve them better, and then get discouraged from actually caring about them, for fear of compromising our position of authority and ‘professionalism.’ In short, I told them their concerns and fears are completely valid."

"When I walked into school today, I noticed an air of sadness from both faculty and students. I was not as upset by the results as some people, but I was concerned about those around me today and am concerned about where our country will go in the coming months. I generally start every class period with a quote, which we discuss as a class. Today’s quote was “a house divided against itself cannot stand” by Abraham Lincoln. After we talked about the historical context of the quote, I brought up the election, reminding the kids that I was not going to talk about my opinions or their opinions, but that there was something important they needed to know. I told every single kid today that no matter your opinion on the results, you will be impacted by the results. I told them that the coming weeks could be very challenging for a lot of people, and to remember that no matter what happens, we need to stay united with one another and not turn on one another like we did 150 years ago. I reminded them that at the end of the day, regardless of gender, race, lifestyle preference or political affiliation, we are all American, and we all have to work together to make our country successful. I don’t know how many kids really understand the magnitude, but I think the best thing that we could do today was to remind the kids that no matter what, we are going to get through this, just like other difficult times in history."

Today I was reminded of the wisdom of my colleagues and the power of our future voters. I saw extraordinary acts of grace, compassion and community. I listened to passionate conversations and witnessed concerned citizens. I saw students from incomparable backgrounds with vastly different ideals listen to and respect one another.

Tomorrow, we return to school. We return to work.


Why Affulent Parents Should Demand Diverse Schools for Their Children

This post was also published by The Huffington Post.


I’m privileged.

I grew up in a two parent, white, middle class household. I'm a third generation college graduate. My parents are educated professionals and they were able to involve themselves in my education. They entered my name into the magnet school lottery more than once. I never got in, but in retrospect, I’m glad I never won that raffle.

Not because Wake County’s magnet schools aren’t incredible (they are). And not because I don’t believe in magnet schools. I believe that when magnet schools serve their intended purpose - to encourage affluent parents to send their children to high performing schools located in poor areas and vice versa - the programs are a brilliant way to increase school diversity. Of course there are some cases where magnet schools pervert the intended outcome, but I diverge...

I’m glad I never got into the magnet schools because now I can share my experiences with people who might be nervous to send their children to schools with poor children. People who bought homes in areas with a socioeconomic buffer. People who worry that bus rides will be too long or think that the district will be unstable.

I attended my assigned school from kindergarten through twelfth grade in a district that bussed students to ensure no school exceeded 40% free and reduced lunch. In other words, the school board mandated each school be socioeconomically representative of the larger district. Some of the schools I attended were closest to my home and some weren't.

At each school, I received a high quality education. My teachers fanned the flames of my natural curiosity. In kindergarten, I was asked to show off my reading prowess on the morning news. In middle school, I competed as a “Mathlete.” In high school, I aced every single math problem on the SAT. From kindergarten through twelfth grade I received a top-notch, enriching arts education complete with field trips and community partnerships. I never worried about my safety.

I graduated among the top of my class. I got into every college I applied to and was offered several scholarships. I was more than well prepared for college, and continued to receive grants and scholarships once I was there. I exhibit my artwork and publish my writing. To top it all off, I have my dream job.

Enough about me. To make a long story short, I think I turned out pretty good.

Am I just an outlier? What does the research say?

Basically, no.

Studies show affluent students are not academically negatively impacted by attending diverse schools. In fact, many studies purport that affluent students actually benefit from diverse environments. Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund president, wants to reframe the way we remember Brown vs. Board of Education. She explains, “We should remember that lawyers for the black students in Brown presented strong evidence of the damaging effects of segregation on white children, too.” Ifill continues:

Studies show that white students develop better critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a diverse environment. Diverse learning environments also prepare white and non-white children to work in the diverse workplaces they will encounter as adults in 21st century America. Currently, U.S. employers reportedly spend up to $300 million a year on "diversity training" to help their unprepared employees learn the critical skills needed to succeed in diverse work environments.”  

So while I don’t believe that my education suffered as a result of attending school with low-income students, I know for certain that as a student in integrated schools, I learned lessons much more important than any content found on a test.

And the benefits for low-income students are simply inarguable. Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times investigative reporter, found that although there are dozens of programs designed to help low-income students succeed academically, integrating schools is the only thing that actually works.

All perspectives contain bias. My bias is of a privileged student who thrived in diverse schools. I never knew anything different until I moved away from home. In fact, college was the first time that I realized that other students in North Carolina had very different educational experiences. College was the first time I heard perspectives like “where I’m from, we keep our poor people on the other side of the train tracks.”

And it wasn’t until I started my first teaching job that I understood that my K-12 educational experience was a bright spot in a sea of segregated school districts. The students I taught were so isolated from other socioeconomic classes that many didn’t even know they were poor or what opportunities simply were not available to them. That school district operated with neighborhood schools which are hugely popular with many families. As a teacher, neighborhood schools meant going to work each morning prepared for heartbreak. Instruction was interrupted many times a day in and out of the classroom by fights, fires, theft, chaos, bullying, lock downs, harassment, etc. Unacceptable acts of bullying and violence had to be ignored to handle even more pressing issues. Students were treated more like prisoners than people - with the genuine intention of keeping them safe. Morale was low, teacher turnover was high, and student opportunities were almost nonexistent.

I was horrified.

I hope that all districts can find a way to garner community support for diverse schools - as that support ultimately determines the success of integration.

And sure, even in diverse schools we still have a long way to go to reduce the achievement gap and make sure upper level classes are as diverse as the larger school. However, research shows that having diverse schools in the first place is the only way to get there.

So please, join me in demanding that our local school boards promote diversity in our schools. Otherwise, your children and my students will miss out on significant, life-changing opportunities.



Creative Work: Teaching and Learning

This post was also published by The Huffington Post.


Optimism. Grit. Perseverance. Mindset. Volumes of educational rhetoric revolve around these ideas. Sure, I intentionally spend time teaching my visual art students about a growth mindset, but these theories don’t quite explain the feelings of frustration that I witness daily in my students and now recognize in my past.

That is, until I watched a 2009 clip of Ira Glass explaining “the gap” that plagues creative work. (In addition to reading, I strongly encourage you to watch the video, as my transcription cannot include the same emotion and emphasis.)

Here’s Glass:

“I really wish somebody had told this to me… All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste… but it’s like there’s a gap for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, when what you’re making isn’t so good... It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good… But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You know what I mean?”


Almost immediately I shared this clip with my students. Afterwards, I wanted to tell them about how I felt when I started making art, but I couldn’t. I know that under the influence of a creative family and the guidance of great teachers I went from being the aspiring artist at left to the emerging one at right.

Unfortunately, I don’t really remember those first few years of artistic growth. So instead, I shared with my students my vivid memories of what it was like to start teaching.

For those of you that aren't teachers and are wondering why I’m discussing teaching in the context of creative work, you should know that teaching requires a great deal of imagination and innovation. In spite of the unavoidable bureaucratic procedures, the actual instructional time is undoubtedly an art. I could never perform another educator’s lesson plan exactly as intended because teaching is a dialogue, not a speech. Teaching is influenced by personality, interests, and of course the students themselves. The content might be dictated, but the delivery never is.

So I told my students that when I first started teaching, I was just desperately trying to make it through the next class period, then the next day, then the next week. It’s one thing to write one really good lesson plan, but it’s a whole different challenge to write a good one every day for 180 days for multiple different courses, not to mention all the variables that I didn’t have enough experience to react to or plan for. But then something worse happened: suddenly I knew enough to know that what I was doing wasn’t good enough. At least, measured by my own standards.

For most beginning teachers, no one has to tell you about your shortcomings; you just know. You know that as hard as you’re working, you haven’t yet mastered this magical combination of a million tiny little things that veteran teachers do exceptionally without even thinking.

Glass knows from experience how to get past the frustration of that gap:

"A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point they quit. And the thing I would say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short… It didn’t have this special thing that they wanted it to have. Everybody goes through that… You’ve got to know it’s totally normal and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work... It’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambition."

My students stared back at me that day, perplexed. I imagine they were confounded by the “my teacher is actually a human” realization. We didn’t discuss the gap much further; I let them sit with it.

However, over a week later, I still notice marked differences in my students’ attitudes and how they talk about their process and goals.

If you’re a beginning teacher reading this, I promise you will clear the gap soon enough. Hopefully, the journey of lifelong learning will never end, but suddenly the learning curve doesn't seem so steep.


A Year in Two Different Worlds: Why Integrated Schools are Essential

This article was also published by The Huffington Post, NC Policy Watch, Public Schools First NC, and Red4Ed.


Since the 1999 court case that required Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) to end busing because the schools had “eliminated the vestiges of past discrimination,'' the district has primarily assigned students to schools closest to home. This practice results in extreme socioeconomic disparity between schools, which CMS attempts to counteract by spending more money on the low income schools.

Between 2000 and 2010, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) was nationally recognized for socio-economic school integration, and, before that, racial integration. Although this practice has since ended, many of the effects linger.

In the 2013-2014 NCDPI School Report Cards 40% of CMS schools were rated an “A” or “B” compared to 50% in WCPSS. 29% of CMS schools were rated a “D” or “F”, compared to just 11% in WCPSS. According to a 2015 New York Times report, Mecklenburg County currently ranks second to Baltimore for “big counties worst for income mobility for poor children.”

This is the story of my experiences teaching at two vastly different schools and the systemic problems of socioeconomic inequalities I witnessed:

  1. CMS: 90% free and reduced lunch; extremely low performing; rated "F"
  2. WCPSS: 20% free and reduced lunch; high performing; rated "A"

At the first school, we were flooded with monetary resources, technology, and additional school personnel. To serve 900 students, we had 5 administrators, a school resource officer, 2 security associates, 2 behavior management technicians, 2 in-school suspension teachers, 2 “Communities In Schools” staff, 3 instructional facilitators, a full time beginning teacher coordinator, a CTE coordinator, 2 counselors, and a social worker. We had a technology device for every single student. Class sizes were lower than average. Despite these supports, I worked 12 hours a day to complete the most basic parts of my job and working conditions were far below what I would consider professional. I witnessed an unfathomable amount of violence and on more than one occasion felt personally unsafe. There is a culture of fear for everyone involved: fear of theft, fear of violence, and fear of multiple kinds of abuse. When teachers were absent, students were most often covered by stretching current staff because substitutes did not want to work in the unpredictable and sometimes hostile environment. On these days, teachers gave up their planning period and worked unpaid overtime at home. When I didn’t have to cover other classes, I spent most or all of my planning period writing discipline referrals, calling parents (often unsuccessfully), finding a translator to call parents, and wrestling with the copy machine. Yet as hard as we worked, we perceived, at best, minuscule improvements to students’ lives.

Now, I spend my planning period almost exclusively planning engaging lessons. I feel appreciated and I see the difference I make. I’ve only written one discipline referral and covered one class this year. In a year at the first school I spent over 180 hours performing daily non-instructional duties necessary to maintain order and help keep students safe. This year I expect to spend just 53 hours on such duties. There were similar discrepancies between required attendance at after school events. When I talk with another teacher that left the first school the same time I did, she describes her feelings of guilt that prevented her from leaving earlier as “masochistic.”

Many believe that we need to attract more highly qualified teachers to low-income schools – I disagree. I worked with highly-qualified, brilliant and passionate teachers and administrators who were relentless in their efforts to achieve student growth. The real problem is keeping any teachers at all. Research shows low teacher turnover increases student performance. Turnover at the first school was around 50%. Less than one year later, of the administrative staff, only the principal remains. My quality of life and sense of professional achievement at the first school was so low that I doubt I would have stayed for any monetary incentive.

In Part 1 of This American Life’s “The Problem We All Live With,” Ira Glass talks with Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times investigative reporter, about dozens of strategies school systems like CMS are using to help failing schools. Here's Glass:

What she noticed was that it never worked. I mean, like, never. The bad schools never caught up to the good schools. And the bad schools were mostly black and Latino. The good schools were mostly white. And sure, there might be a principal here or a charter school there who might do a good job improving students’ scores, but even there, they were just improving their student scores. The minority kids in their programs were still not performing on par with white kids. They hadn’t closed the achievement gap between black kids and white kids.

So if all these programs aren’t working, what does work? Nikole continues: 

I find there’s one thing that really worked, that cut the achievement gap between black and white students by half… [school] integration… But instead, since 1988, we have started to re-segregate. And it is at that exact moment that you see the achievement gap start to widen again.

Her research aligns with my experience. But integrated schools aren’t just better for students - they’re better for teachers too. Integrated schools are significantly better at retaining teachers long-term as well as educating all students.

I couldn't fully appreciate how lucky I was to be educated in an integrated system until I worked for a segregated one. As a student in integrated schools, I learned lessons much more important than any content found on a test. Unfortunately, in the six years since the end of socioeconomic integration, WCPSS is trending towards segregated schools. The 2014-2015 NCDPI School Report Cards look more like those of CMS.

In Part 2 of “The Problem We All Live With,” Chana Joffe-Walt describes the community engagement necessary to achieve school integration:

There are only a few places in the country that have seriously committed to school integration over a long period of time. Louisville, Kentucky is one; Wake County in North Carolina; those are the biggest. And in each case, something like this right here has occurred: a public reckoning seems to be a required step; some sort of long process by which the gap between two unequal systems is made very clear to the people who are not paying attention.

I share my experiences not to disparage the valiant efforts of low-income schools but rather to bring awareness to the larger systemic problem. I share because the personal time it took me to write this article did not exist a year ago. I share because my heart breaks to watch WCPSS travel down the path towards segregated schools and because I’ve seen where that path leads. It’s time for a public reckoning. We know from anecdotal evidence and quantitative data that separate is not equal and does not work. Our teachers deserve safe and professional working conditions. Our students - all of them - deserve a safe learning environment and a high quality education.

Add my voice - an informed witness from the front lines - to the growing chorus. Wake up, Wake. Pay close attention. You are headed the wrong way