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Lessons From a Potential Lemon

I was a potential lemon, but I had the will and desire to change and others had the same commitment to help me. Yet there are many teachers who lack that will and who never improve year after year.
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My first year of teaching I was a potential lemon.

I entered the classroom 20 years ago with good intentions but no training. I knew I wanted to work with urban kids, and I got hired the week before the school year started. I wanted to do well, but didn't know how.

I had good intentions, but that was not enough.

For weeks and months, I watched my sixth graders get out of their seats, run around the room, and refuse to do my work. I was frustrated. Watching them sit perfectly still in adjoining classrooms and doing all of their work, I realized that I was the problem. I saw that an orderly, productive classroom was possible, but I didn't know how to make it happen.

Mentoring From Outside and Inside

I needed training so I began taking teacher credential classes at night. These amazing classes exposed me to the full range of possibilities of high quality education, especially finding literature that engaged my students and learning a variety of effective strategies to teach and motivate all students.

I got help inside my school as well. My English Department Chair released me to watch good teachers in the school, and I got great ideas, such as ways to track student participation. My next door neighbor teacher, a journeyman teacher, explained the nature of the adolescent brain and helped me see the need to have short engaging activities.

I began to plan in earnest and to try to bring some control to the chaos in my room. I was met with some minor successes. A couple of my classes began to follow my basic lessons.

Yet chaos remained that first year. My principal didn't know what to do with my constant referrals to the office and the constant noise emerging from my classroom. He called me in and told me he wasn't sure about hiring me back as I was on an emergency credential. He could fire me without any cause.

I am lucky that my principal decided to call in a city specialist to observe me. That man saved my career. He saw potential in me. After observing me, he gave me some strategies to try and saw during a second observation how I was able to apply his fantastic ideas. He saw my passion and commitment to improving.

Thank goodness I got approval for a second year, because I never looked back. And I promised myself to never damage another 150 students with ineffective teaching.

I Developed into an Effective Teacher

Starting my second year, I became a stronger and stronger teacher. I saw my students learn and develop into stronger readers and writers. I saw the huge need to work with them before and after school and to help bring in their families. My principal rarely had any need to worry about me.

I needed to know more. I wanted to learn more. So I took a year off to receive a secondary English teaching credential and my masters in urban teaching. I actually got to student teach in two different settings, each of which exposed me to unique aspects of urban teaching and to the supervision of truly master teachers.

I returned to urban teaching and became a team leader and helped start a pilot school. I attended local and national conferences and began developing a repertoire of effective teaching strategies. I became an expert on young adult literature and explored ways to engage students and their families in effective literacy practices.

And I focused on my students. They were my goal. I spent hours each day planning and grading. I did home visits, attended multiple events in the communities around my school, worked for after school and summer programs, received grants for young adult novels, and created engaging lesson and unit plans.

I Have Never Worked Harder in My Life

My students made gains, huge gains. How do I know? I used pre- and post-tests to gauge the advancement of my students' reading and writing skills. I wanted to measure the growth of the same students. I was not afraid of the results. I was able to share my experiences with three student teachers and began to see the potential of moving into teacher education.

A Chance to Improve and Then a Push out of the Profession

There are many new teachers who are just like me, willing but unprepared. These teachers need a series of steps to help them improve, a second year to improve, and then if not, a push out of the profession. But what about the experienced teachers who either a) wholly blame their students for a failing classroom and resist the suggestion that they need to change or b) don't want to put in the time commitment that is necessary for a successful classroom? How do we design a performance evaluation that respects their professionalism and experience, but also respects the students' right to a productive, safe, and successful classroom?

I believe everyone deserves a chance to improve. I needed that chance, and it shaped me into a successful educator. Research says its takes three to five years to become a truly effective teacher. But if teachers aren't there to develop, we need to find an performance evaluation that truly evaluates performance, delineates steps necessary for improvement with tangible goals and objectives, provides a timeline for said improvement to happen, and ultimately provides consequences and outcomes if those objectives aren't met.

I was a potential lemon, but I had the will and desire to change and others had the same commitment to help me. Yet there are many teachers who lack that will and who never improve year after year. They often are allowed to stay in classrooms for years, being transferred from school to school.

We need to break this dance of the true lemons. We owe it to the students, especially those in urban settings, who are receiving a sub-standard educational experience. We owe it to them to not waste their schooling years and their futures. Will you join me?