Martha Polin: Leave Students Wanting More
Tuesday, August 30, 2011 - 06:12 PM
Principal's Office will be a regular feature of SchoolBook, providing insights into school management and the life of a school leader. For our first installment: Martha Polin, principal since 2002 of Lower East Side Preparatory High School, which is a "transfer school," defined by the Education Department as "small, academically rigorous, full-time high schools designed to re-engage students who are behind in high school or have dropped out." Lower East Side Preparatory has 571 students, many of them recent Chinese immigrants. Ms. Polin, who is 60 and had a salary of $150,926 in 2010, said she wandered into education and sees her job as heading a large, striving family. This interview was slightly edited and condensed.
Did you start out in education?
I was a marketing executive in the entertainment industry and I guess I reached the glass ceiling, or whatever you call it. One day I left and I never came back. I sat around my house for six months trying to figure out what did I really want out of life and out of a job, and I walked by 65 Court Street and I wandered in there and I said what do you have to do to be a teacher? They asked what my degree was in, and I said economics, and they said, "We have a little test that we’re giving, and if you cross your T’s and dot your I’s, you, too, can be a teacher." It was 1987, and they really needed teachers.
That’s all it took?
I got a provisional license and went to school once I started teaching. I loved it right away. I was shocked by the conditions in the schools, but I loved the kids. I had no idea what I was doing. I just emulated the teachers I had had. This was before professional development was really prominent in the schools.
So you taught social studies.
Yes, one year at one school, one year at another. But then I thought about going back to business. Teaching didn’t seem so professional to me. One person I had met during the course of this was a woman named Denise Levine, who was in the New York City Writing Project that was connected to Lehman College. She came to my classroom and invited me to join a course for teachers. Not only did she help me become a better teacher, but also, her husband worked in District 2 and he got me a job as a teacher at a school where I could actually teach.
What was the school?
It was the Wagner Middle School. It was a wonderful school. I was very lucky to wind up in District 2 because of Anthony Alvarado, who was then the superintendent. He was a visionary. You know, when you met him, he was charismatic, but it wasn’t that. It was his belief that teachers had to be taught how to teach specifically to their needs. He went against the tide in terms of what everybody else was saying then about one-size-fits-all in professional development. He believed in on-site professional development, and he believed that through bringing somebody into the classroom to work with the teacher every day on goals to reach all the students in your classroom. It changed me totally as a teacher. I got to choose the types of professional development that I thought would help me the most.
How did you go from being a teacher to a principal?
One day Superintendent Alvarado came to me -- after I'd been teaching for 10 years -- and asked would I like to be an administrator. And I said, not particularly. And he said, I’ll pay for everything. It was a dream for a teacher. I said yes. The day I finished school my phone rang and it was Mr. Alvarado again. He said: "Speak to Principal Struk at 104. She needs an assistant principal." I stayed there for two years.
How would you describe how you do your job, and what it requires, to people outside of school?
My job really is about being the head of a family, and trying to lead everybody in the right direction, which may be different for different people. You want to have this overall enthusiasm, energy on my part, about what you can do for students. You want to have a happy and engaged staff.
You have to feed the teachers or they’re going to eat the students. You have to give teachers the tools they need to do their jobs, whatever it is or whatever they think it is, and then you have to make sure they know how to use the tools.
And at the same time you’re having this kind of lovefest with your staff, you also have to be surgical and look at each individual member and help them be the best that they can be at their job, whatever that means. Occasionally that could mean telling that person that they should probably not be a high school teacher. On occasion it could mean sending them to a higher level by having them grow professionally in a different way. Part of my job is to develop new leaders and to see who would be good at that.
How have schools changed since you became a teacher?
The bar was fairly low when I became a teacher. The bar is high now. You have to be smart. You can’t just be adequate anymore. You have to be willing to work hard, you have to be able to plan, to differentiate, to learn what the common core standards are. You really have to be willing to work hard and think about what you're doing all the time.
Do you think there’s an anti-teacher atmosphere right now?
Yes, definitely. It’s painful. There is a big backlash against educators in general. Americans don’t really respect us.
Do you get respect here?
Most of my students are foreign. This is a school for new immigrants. We have mostly Chinese students. The students and families respect the school and personnel.
Was it that way when you started here ?
No. The ethnic make-up of the school has changed. It was about 50-50 Chinese and English-speaking American students. It was like two schools in one school. It was interesting and successful, a great way for Chinese students to learn English. Then Klein came and he decided that a school like mine didn’t have to be in the high school catalog (the Directory of Public High Schools).
Because you’re a transfer school?
Yes. We’re in the back of the book now, in the sub-index, so American kids don’t come here. We aren’t famous in New York, but we’re famous in China. The year they took us out of the catalog, we went to almost 93 percent Chinese students. We're at 85 percent now.
The kids are 17 when they get here, most speak no English and most have to pass between five and nine Regents while they are trying to learn English.
How does the principal affect the school environment?
Every principal has a vision of what a school should be. Finding people that share and want to be part of that vision and mission for the kids is part of it. Here, we want to create an environment where the kids want to be here all the time. I want the teachers here to make a serial with a cliffhanger everyday so that the kids want to come back everyday. If teachers and students enjoy it, they’re going to do well.
How do you motivate your teachers?
Ask teachers for their opinions and ideas. Shared decision making, get them involved with the issues we face and work together to address problems. I’m not into meetings. We don’t have an intercom system in this building, which has turned out to be the greatest thing in the world. Everyday at 7:55 a.m. we assemble in the library and we talk about what we’re going to do that day, what are the challenges, are we going to have a fire drill, have a great day. It takes maybe five minutes.
What has surprised you about being a principal?
I didn’t know how much I would care for all these wonderful people that work here -- and they are wonderful -- and how important it is to most people that they do a good job. They want to do a good job. They want to be told how to do it. They want to get better at it. That’s such a refreshing, lovely kind of environment to work in.
The other surprises are, there’s always some kid that you think, oh, boy, I can’t imagine that Kyle will ever graduate, and then they do.
It teaches you patience?
Patience, and to believe in people and to have faith. Also, that it takes different people different amounts of time. We all work in this system where everything is do it now, do it this way, and at this time. That’s not how the world works and that’s not how kids work. Kids are ready to do things at different times. That’s why my school exists. These are kids who are 17 who still need 20 to 30 credits to graduate high school. They can graduate in their timely fashion. Close to 80 percent of my kids go to college, so we have to be doing something right. Now, of course, they want us to follow kids through college, and be responsible for that as well, which I find a little ridiculous.
How is your job different than being chief executive of a company?
The main way is that I like to think that C.E.O.'s of companies are empowered at least by their own board of directors. Even though they talk about empowering principals, we’re not empowered.
Why do you say you’re not empowered?
For instance, what we went through this year with rollover money and then not being able to keep it and then having to give back first a big percentage of our budget to the D.O.E. It’s still a larger percentage than I wanted to give back, and now being told that I can only keep $20,000.
What does $20,000 buy you?
Nothing. It buys you some paper. Not even enough paper. To buy a teacher is $80,000, at least in my world. For them to call us empowered and have us not be able to keep the money that we get, not set our own kinds of goals and objectives?
Would you have become a principal today, under this changed system?
I might have, because I have that in me. I like to lead and I don’t like to be told what to do. There’s the combination thing in me of wanting to be a kind of rebel and wanting to do the right thing. So I think those are the kind of people who wind up in these kinds of jobs. You don’t like to take orders so you’d rather be your own boss. So, yes I have a million masters here, but I’m still my own boss. I like that kind of autonomy. I have some autonomy but not enough, especially when it comes to the money. If you want to hold principals responsible and accountable then give us the authority, real authority.
You share this building with two other schools. Does that arrangement work well?
I really like and respect the other principals in my building. I’m the building principal because I have the most experience, but I have to make all my decisions in concert with all the other principals. We meet monthly, or as needed. But I’m not for this co-location thing. I think one thing that’s happened is, if you look at the money they’re spending having three and four and seven schools in a building with that many principals, it doesn’t make sense financially. You can have schools within schools. You can have one principal run it and have several assistants.
When you have so many small schools, it’s very difficult to offer enough to the kids. How do you give them sociology and psychology and foreign language with limited amounts of resources? We in the building have started to share teachers, to make things kind of more interesting for the kids. There’s a teacher in the other school downstairs who likes to teach video. I pay him one-fifth of his salary and he comes to teach my kids, too.
When did the school feel like yours?
When we got our 21st-century grant (from the state), Rene Anaya, my assistant principal, and I walked around looking at all the kids in the after-school program we had paid for. There was nothing here after school when we arrived, and then all of a sudden we had 300 to 400 kids after school playing Ping Pong, and studying, and getting math help, and learning how to dance, and just doing all these different things. I think that was the moment. I like to see happy kids, happy teachers and something actually happening, rather than people coming to school and being miserable and leaving.