“Teaching Matters” forum encourages great teachers and community support for them
on March 8, 2013
A gymnasium full of teachers, teenagers and community members are sitting around small tables and jotting down the names of their favorite teachers on blue Post-It notes at Edna Brewer Middle School.
Stephanie Benjamin, a 17-year-old peer educator with Youth Uprising, met her favorite teacher during elementary school in Oakland. She reads from her Post-It: “Ms. Wallis knew what was going on with us. She wouldn’t just get on you for not doing your work, she’d try to figure out what was happening at home.”
It’s the first installment of Great Oakland Public Schools Leadership Center’s forum “Teaching Matters,” which aims to bring Oakland educators and community members together to talk about education and supporting teachers.
The forum is mostly wonky presentations about policy, but the takeaways are simple: In a few years, 75 percent of California’s students will be children of color. California has what speaker Arun Ramanathan, executive director of The Education Trust-West, calls a “leaky college and career pipeline” for black and Latino students, which means that at every step on the educational ladder, kids opt out of school or have to leave due to socio-economic barriers. Ultimately, only 4 percent of African American and Latino students will graduate from college within six years of starting, he says. If only 4 percent of three-quarters of all California school children finish college, Ramanathan suggests that in the next few years the state could have an education and employment crisis on its hands.
The speakers offer ideas about what might help kids from minority backgrounds get through school. Teachers make the biggest difference in student performance, several speakers say, and so good teachers are essential to a healthy school system. If a child in first grade has trouble learning how to read, Ramanathan says, she can catch up to a proficient level provided she has three great teachers by the time she hits fourth grade. If she doesn’t, she’ll likely lag behind grade level until she leaves school.
In a city like Oakland, which struggles with poor teacher retention rates, support and community feedback are essential, said speaker Jonathan Klein, who works with Great Oakland Public Schools. The goals, Ramanathan and Klein agreed, are to offer relevant professional development; veer away from highly judgmental evaluation systems that don’t offer much in the way of constructive criticism; support the teachers’ union; include community input from students, parents and staff; and hire diverse educators who adequately reflect the school population.
Back at the table, youth leader Daniel Guzman asks Stephanie Benjamin and her friend Hesi Maile if they think it’s important that their teachers look like them. Benjamin is African-American and Maile is a Pacific Islander.
“Yes,” they both say.
Maile says that if he had a teacher from the Pacific Islander community, he and his peers would be more likely to pay attention. A teacher from Samoa might understand his situation as a first generation student at an East Oakland School.
“They understand y’all ways,” Stephanie says matter-of-factly.
Later Benjamin says that a white teacher once accused her of stealing pencils from the classroom even though she likes to bring her own pencils from home.
“I was like, ‘Oh is it because I’m black?’” she recalls, laughing nervously.
While Benjamin would also be happy to have a younger teacher who’s closer to her age—“They’d remember what it’s like to be in school better”—the speakers tonight share her and Maile’s view that hiring within students’ communities is a positive thing. When Klein announces that Oakland wants to hire a teaching force that reflects the background of its diverse student body, there are loud claps and cries of support from many corners of the room.
The new teacher evaluation system that OUSD plans to implement will include student surveys with an opportunity for kids to evaluate how much they’ve learned. The surveys will include different statements rated on a five-point scale, like, “My teacher has several good ways to explain each topic that we cover in class.”
The is part of the reason why Benjamin is here—so she can read aloud sample statements from the student evaluation along with four other high school students.
Benjamin walks nervously to the front of the gym. She says her line: “I have pushed myself hard to completely understand my lessons in class.”
“Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time,” reads another student.
Maile smiles up at his friend. He’s holding her silver purse so it won’t touch the gym floor. She rejoins the table, laughing into her hands.
Guzman asks her and Hesi if they had fun tonight.
“Yeah,” they both say.
“I’m gonna go back to school tomorrow and ask all my teachers why didn’t they come here,” says Maile. Everyone at the table laughs at his earnest declaration.
“Do you think things will change?” Guzman asks them.
“I hope so,” Benjamin says.
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