The Surprising Way My Colleagues and I Turned Around a Struggling School

It was part of the job.

When a sophomore boy came crashing backpack first through my classroom window, I was standing inches from the rainstorm of glass. Completely unscathed, the student and his friends ran snickering from the scene. Shattered debris had destroyed the reading nook I’d created with my own money and high hopes of engaging at-risk readers. Jagged shards embedded in book covers and beanbag chairs served as reminders of the sudden and violent outburst.

I wondered, “How do those kids act at home if this is how they act at school?!” Soon enough, I came to understand that school essentially was their home: nowhere else promised the presence of adults or a hot meal. Those students came to school for food and to socialize and, if the mood struck them, to learn a little something. English class wasn’t their priority because the struggle to meet their basic needs was constantly overshadowing their education. They didn’t need an independent novel nearly as much as they needed someone to care about them.

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Over the next four years, many of my colleagues and I dedicated more of our time, energy, and paychecks on those students and our school than we admitted to those who emphatically maintained “it’s not part of your job!” Outspoken community members and even close family begged us to think twice before buying another round of pizzas or sponsoring another event for which the district couldn’t afford to pay us. Their words fell on deaf ears; if we knew anything to be true, it was that those students needed us.

We built a solid rapport with unusual suspects; our principals hand-picked students with clear, and sometimes unconventional, leadership skills in hopes they would become our liaisons. Many of them showed up to our clandestine meetings because they heard there would be pizza; many of them stayed because we emphasized their value and worth, which I believe was a first for most of those students.

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Conversations highlighting one student’s ability to diffuse stressful situations with humor, another’s tenacity and get-after-it attitude on the football field, and yet another’s willingness to step outside of her comfort zone and just try turned into a game plan to positively affect the school climate. After a few meetings, and a lot of pizza, we began to see real change.

After-school tutoring attendance increased at the suggestion of one of the “cool” kids; hall wanderers spent more time in class than trying to escape through a back door. Fights and outbursts decreased because the instigators were now on our team. It was through our administration’s vision that those students became our allies, lifting up the entire school.

Things were far from perfect, but the bump in test scores and morale was undeniable.

What my colleagues and I had working in our collective favor was that we were otherwise unattached; few of us were married and none of us had are own children. Those students became our kids; the job, our lifestyle. Even after school, my co-workers and I would go to baseball games, concerts, and elect to spend time together. We sincerely enjoyed one another’s company, and you know what they say: team work makes the dream work.

I often wonder if that’s the answer when working with at-risk youth: teachers who can commit themselves 110%. Commitment to their school, their students, to one another. It’s an arduous task because so many have grown accustomed to the disingenuous attempts to help them and are skeptical as a result. It’s also very time-consuming and absolutely heart wrenching, especially in the beginning when proof of sincerity is constantly called into question.

But some how, we did it.

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Unfortunately, my school’s story doesn’t have a very happy ending. After four years of growth and culture shift, a change in leadership brought a lot of the work my colleagues and I had done to the ground. It’s amazing how quickly a school’s morale can sink—and I’ll talk more about that reversal and how I dealt with it in my next post.

Posted by Stephanie Jankowski

English teacher by trade, smack talker by nature, Stephanie Jankowski loves words and has a knack for finding the funny in everyday life. A mother of three in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stephanie subscribes to the mantra: “Life is too short, laugh!” Visit her site, WhenCrazyMeetsExhaustion.com, for more!

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