I’m back. Really.
Our two years in China almost up, my wife and I are returning to California. It’s hard to leave --- we’ve made a lot of friends here and we’ve been able to simply gorge on travel. But we are also far from our families and from the work we really want to do. I think that we may one day return to the International School world, they’re a great form of quasi-retirement for many of our colleagues, but we want our careers to be at home, serving our nation’s kids. Being out of the soul-crushing world of highly challenging public schools for two years has been recharging, but now we’re ready to go back.
Unfortunately, the California public schools did not want to make this easy. We were required to sign or return our 2010-11 contracts in December, here. The public schools can’t hire us back until late in the spring, at best. Given the weak economic climate in California, the Governator’s willingness to play chicken with the state budget, and our absolute need for health insurance, we’ve decided that hanging on until April, June or September for a public school job, is just not a prudent choice.
So we’ve signed with a charter operator serving the very same community we used to work in. This is a bit of a “flip-flop” for me, as I have been very critical of charters in the past. However, two years of distance and even more exposure to the world (educational and social) have made me question one core assumption and solidify two others.
First, I’ve come to appreciate that school choice, far from being yet another mechanism for promoting division in our society, might actually be the best agent against it. As best as I can tell, residential segregation is here to stay. People like to reside near people who look and live like them. A great neighborhood school is accessible only to those able to rent or buy property within its bounds, while a great charter school must be accessible to any able to enter its lottery. Want to bring Beverly Hills and Compton kids together? Why not create a school that both their parents want them to attend. While certainly, simply applying for a space in the lottery can become (or be made) into a significant barrier to entry, it is undoubtedly a much smaller barrier (and more easily remedied) than residence. I can more easily imagine a day when children of all colors and all incomes share a great school than an apartment complex or suburb.
Next, my current position as a tech coach has let me work with over fifty different teachers, in turn hardening my belief that an excellent teacher in the classroom is the sine qua non of offering a high-quality education. Teachers are not the only element required, but they are the most basic. Structures and supplies complement the excellence of quality educators, but do not compensate for the failings of incompetent ones. Our new schools have made it clear that they take pains to recruit and retain good people. (Get this – someone actually watched us teach before they hired us.) They require the “extra” hours and weeks that good teachers put in anyway, assuring a community of hard workers. They also pay teachers significantly more for working these hours and have clear paths for their recognition and advancement. Further, we will be working for the same people who recruited and interviewed us, our placements not at the mercy of a byzantine system of transfer and seniority system. Simply put: I am excited by the feeling that these schools actually treat teachers like professionals, whose work is both challenging and valuable. While we’ve given up our union protections in exchange, I hope to find that the professionalism continues in case of grievances and disputes.
Finally, I have completely lost patience for minute and incremental change, for the adoption of best practices at a rate determined by what is comfortable for teachers and not what is necessary for students. It plagued me in my first school, it continues to haunt me here. I recognize this problem as my own; there are certainly schools where careful slow-paced reform is sufficient and many more where it is just a sickening necessity, but I cannot continue working for them. My new school is doing business very differently. They are implementing -- today -- a full range of non-traditional structures and practices. More importantly, I have confidence that if any of them were proven to be ineffective, they would change them tomorrow. That is an environment where I think I can thrive.