Earlier this summer, I completed my fifth year working with Brighton. I have spent less time in the school this year than any before because I was asked by the district to also serve several other low-performing schools. I am saddened by this time away, but I remind myself that sharing what I have learned at Brighton has always been one of my goals. This will be my final post, and I wish it could relate an unqualified success story. But as teacher and education thinker Mike Rose wrote in his book Possible Lives:
Public education is bountiful, crowded, messy, contradictory, exuberant, tragic, frustrating, and remarkable.
Brighton has been all of these.
On the bright side
This has been a roller coaster year at Brighton with unbelievable highs and deep lows. I expected more stability by now.
I will start with the highs.
In January, Brighton students presented a mock inauguration. All week I had been excited about this presentation as I observed the student preparing speeches, the band practicing, and the art teacher and her students decorating the stage.
On the day before, I was in Montgomery, Alabama for a press conference with our governor to present our most recent recommendations from the Governor’s Commission on Quality Teaching.
As I drove past Dr. Martin Luther King’s church on Dexter Avenue, a block from our state capitol, I wondered what would have been Dr. King’s thoughts on the inauguration of our first African American President. When I walked up the capitol steps and stepped on the gold star where Jefferson Davis took the oath of the Office of the Presidency of the Confederacy, I smiled as I wondered what would be his thoughts. I had an overwhelming sense of rightness.
On the day of the Mock Inauguration, my heart swelled with pride as our 13- member band expertly played “Hail to the Chief” and our new “First Family” was escorted into the lunchroom by our own secret service. Our students had been excited all day, and I was amazed at how wonderfully they behaved during the ceremonies. They displayed a sense of tranquility I did not expect. As I scanned their faces, I thought I might see expressions of triumph. They were thoughtful, but not jubilant. I wondered if they understood the deeper significance of the moment.
Then I turned and there was the look I was searching for -- not on the face of a student, but on a lunchroom worker as she listened to our own "President Obama" gives his acceptance speech. My eyes filled with tears as I watched her intent expression. I was envious of her as I realized that I could not share the depth of her emotion. I had not had to ride in the back of the bus, or been refused entry to a restaurant, or denied water from the white only fountain. I felt it was an honor to be allowed to share this moment with her and others in that room, and it made me so thankful once again to have had the opportunity to work at Brighton.
In the fall, I wrote about Brighton being a National Board Targeted High Needs Initiative (THNI) site. Taking part in the NBPTS TAKE ONE experience was an incredible opportunity for us. Thirty teachers including our principal and assistant principal agreed to participate. Alabama’s National Board Network and our corporate sponsor, Vulcan Materials, helped fund any costs not covered in the THNI grant. Several National Board teachers from our district supported this effort, and we had a great kick-off in October. Everyone appeared to be excited -- at least this was my glass half full perception.
In the following weeks, I learned much about why the National Board Process is often not pursued by teachers in high-need schools. One of our goals in becoming a THNI site was to increase collaboration and bring us together as a faculty (now housed in a single building). By January, I admitted this was not going to happen in the grand way I had envisioned.
Several dropped out of the program. For some of the teachers to feel comfortable, I finally had to say it was OK if you did not want anyone to read your work or view your video. The three NBCTs at Brighton and I assigned ourselves to small groups and this proved to be more productive. I loved my middle school group. Not only did the group support the process, but the structure ignited wonderful conversations about their classroom instruction and their analysis of lessons. During March the school was a flurry with teachers videotaping and writing their entry. This was the collaborative climate I had envisioned.
I was proud of the 26 candidates who mailed in their entry. We all celebrated at a local Mexican restaurant and four teachers have now been admitted to the Stellar Program to pursue the entire NBCT process. The Stellar Program is funded by the Jefferson County Commission to support NBCT Candidates. As a classroom teacher, I know how going through National Board positively impacted my instructional practice. I am further convinced TAKE ONE is highly effective Professional Learning and I plan to work with a new cohort at one of the other schools I serve next year.
Continually improving classroom instruction is essential and the National Board Process is the key. Next year, Brighton plans to continue lesson study groups for our Professional Learning Teams using the protocol of Take One. This is what some of the teachers had to say when reflecting on the impact of the process:
• I would recommend completing Take One for an introspective view of one’s teaching style. Above all, the value of knowing the students and their backgrounds made me more sensitive with setting goals and activities designed specifically for studies to experience success.
Carolyn Thomas, Middle School Reading Support
• It has definitely changed the way I teach -- -in every subject and throughout the day! I am much more aware of the way I present information and I am more careful not to expect every student to be able to perform the same as his or her classmates. I am much more intentional now about designing lessons and learning activities that require group participation, active engagement and critical thinking whenever possible.
Taylor Ross, First Grade Teacher
• Take One is an opportunity to grow professionally. I would recommend new teachers to pursue Take One.
Deborah Clark, Seventh Grade Math Teacher
• I learned that I often assume that students know more than they do, that they come to me with more skills than they have actually mastered. I need to give more pre-tests.
Shirley Bingham, ELL Teacher
• I leaned that lessons at times need smaller objectives in order to reach bigger goals. I learned that my students are able to act and learn at high levels. It did not change how I think about teaching, but it did fine-tune my execution.
Keith Brandenburg, K-8 Music Teacher
On the Down Side
The down side of the year for me was around the struggle the faculty is still having in coming together as a team. In a small school, you would think this would come very naturally. After reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I believe the problem is a lack of trust. From my perspective, the origin of this distrust may be a result of the many years being labeled failing and being under State Intervention for three years. While this status resulted in very helpful support, it might have also contributed to a “gotcha” climate that still appears to exist.
And I have to be honest: perhaps my presence has also been a factor. It’s known that I have close relationships with many of the decision makers in our district and state. I have been told I am a “powerful woman.” While I do not perceive myself this way, I will readily admit that I have used the title of former National Teacher of the Year as a starting block to push for change -- to be a voice for what I perceive is right for children. I do consider myself bold in that regard, and I hope I have always used this for good. But at times my frankness may have made trust-building more difficult.
I have high hopes the upcoming year will bring the school together. One positive sign has been the recent meetings of our Continuous Improvement Team. This team functions as a united faculty voice, coming together to analyze data, share concerns, and work our school’s Continuous Improvement Plan. I firmly believe that when teacher leaders under the guidance of a strong instructional administrator take on leading their colleagues, the climate will change and the students will reach levels of success many thought impossible. The Brighton teachers are long overdue for this responsibility. Even though the outside support that many have provided has been helpful, as the authors Connors and Smith in The OZ Principle state, “The power lies within us.”
I am pleased one of my Brighton colleagues posted some recent comments here, sharing perceptions of the school’s situation. I have struggled with how to respond to those thoughts. I do not share this opinion, but respect the courage to make a public comment.
I was asked by this person “to be honest.” I admit it has been hard to be honest and also be kind to those in my profession who struggle on a daily basis to be effective, with children in the balance. I have often thought I was too honest, especially concerning the decision to keep Brighton a K-8 school and the lack of quality instruction I see on a daily basis.
Five years ago, I know I came to Brighton with the Mighty Mouse Syndrome: “Here I come to save the day!” The truth be known, Brighton has saved me. I have had to stretch myself in ways I never expected. I have learned much about the complicated craft of being an effective classroom teacher.
My greatest regret is that I never had my own classroom at Brighton. I have had to work hard to prove myself to the students, teachers, and parents. On one of the last days of school, I spent a good bit of time helping a student complete an application to a Technical Academy. He later told someone, “She really does care.” Caring about the students at Brighton has been the only motive that brought me to the school.
Tennyson wrote in the poem Ulysses, “I am a part of all I have met.” I had the privilege of meeting many amazing people in the last seven years. I would like to give special thanks to a few of these people who have changed my life:
A special thanks to Barnett Berry and the Center for Teaching Quality for allowing me a space to share my story. I know of no one in our country that has uplifted the voices of teachers more than Barnett Berry. It is an honor to know him. Thank you to the Teacher Leaders Network who were my lifeline my first two years at Brighton. Thank you to John Norton, Barnett’s colleague and TLN’s moderator, who took my words and made me look like a good writer and was a great sounding board for my frustrations. And thank you to Joe Bellacero who faithfully commented on my words here in this blog and kept me grounded in my thoughts.
Thank you to my principal, Margie Curry, who patiently shared her office with me for four years. Until you have walked in the shoes of a principal (or shared an office with one), you do not realize what a challenging role this is every minute of the day. Thank you to the teachers of Brighton who have taught me so much. Thank you to the Brighton students who have inspired me to be a better person.
Thank you to my family who understood my choice to go to Brighton. My deceased father would tell me on a daily basis, “Betsy, you need to teach the Brighton teachers to sing Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” The words of this 1912 hymn, which Billy Sunday opened all of his meetings with, will be my motto for my next chapter in my professional career. As the lyrics say,
Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do. Do not wait to shed your light afar, to the many duties ever near you now be true, Brighten the corner where you are.