Teaching With One Eye Open

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Dana Lawit began teaching at the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School in Brooklyn in 2007. A licensed special education teacher, she won the Gaynor McCown Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010. She is beginning a graduate program at New York University in Education Leadership and will be blogging about what goes on in her classroom.

I've spent more than 20 consecutive Augusts doing the same thing: getting ready to go back to school. I've always felt a mixture of apprehension and excitement, for many years as a student, and now for my fifth year as a teacher.

As a student, the last weeks of August and first days of September were spent noting the lasts -- last night staying up late on a school night, last weekend free of homework/projects/tests to study for -- and imagining the possibilities of a new year. As a teacher, I also note the lasts -- last night staying up late on a school night, for example, and the last weekend free of grading. Also like my students, in the days that lead up to the start of a new school year, I spend time imagining the possibilities that the new year holds.

This will be my fifth fall returning to the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, a small high school that opened in East Flatbush in the fall of 2007, where I began my teaching career. We serve students from East Flatbush, Brownsville and East New York, among several other neighborhoods.

Like many newly formed small schools, we struggle to identify and develop the aspects of our school that distinguish us from others, while providing the necessary experiences to prepare students to meet New York State graduation requirements.

As an Expeditionary Learning school, we strive to design project-based learning experiences that focus on depth rather than breadth. At times, this can feel at odds with preparing students to achieve on the New York State Regents exams.

There's a paradox here: to do things differently, but arrive at the same place. As a special education teacher, I find myself in another paradox. As I work with students I'm never sure if they have difficulties learning, or if we have difficulties teaching.

Entering my fifth year, the only claim I'll make about teaching is that it's complicated. My plan this year is to teach with one eye open. There's much that goes on beyond the classroom that makes it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn -- changing chancellors, no January Regents (now they're back on), a new-fangeled evaluation system, Common Core Standards.

And these are small issues compared to the vicious effects of poverty and racism on the students and communities we serve. To be blind to any of these issues is at best naive and at worst deliberately misleading.

Schooling is political. It should be. I can't think of a greater concern to parents and communities other than which adults they entrust their children to, and how those adults are using that time.

American schooling is a vast system, there are many stakeholders. In my first few months of teaching, I thought I would work despite the politics that surround my profession and the lives of my students, lest I get lost in the dreary practice of complaining about "the system." But it's tough to tune out that noise. And if I know it's important to consider the experiences of my students outside my classroom, then I need to do the same for myself and other teachers.

The portrayal of teachers as lazy or inept is just as damaging as the portrayal of teaching as a pastime for do-gooders and bleeding hearts, as those portrayals cheapen by simplifying very complicated work. I've learned it's important to pay attention to and engage with the issues that surround teaching, learning and schools. I hope to add to this dialogue by sharing the complexity of my classroom and practice, to share my questions.

ReThinking Schools, an organization that works to build equity in a multiracial democracy through education theory and practice, says that classrooms should be places of hope. Classrooms should be places where students and teacher experience success despite all that challenges us.

Perhaps my greatest struggle as a teacher with an eye open to all that goes on beyond her classroom is remaining optimistic. But I think it essential.

I hope to share successes, large and small, and imagine along with you about what classes can be beyond what they currently are.