Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Public vs. Private - Why the Divide?

I have a secret.

It’s gotten me into trouble more than once with other teachers. Is it that I’m a bad teacher? That I don’t care about my students? That I don’t do everything I can to come up with engaging ideas for my classroom and to share those ideas with others?

As a young teacher, I joined the National Council of Teachers of English and attended my first annual conference in Pittsburgh. Inspired by presentations on graphic novels, storyboarding and poetry slams, I went home eager to teach with these new strategies, and to share my ideas at future conferences, giving back to the engaged teaching community I had just joined.

Two years later I arrived, shiny and excited, to present on the Harkness discussion model at the CATE conference in Long Beach. As I went from session to panel to meal, chatting with other teachers, I realized I was an outsider. My colleagues at the conference were invisibly divided into two categories – public and private. Except, as far as I could tell, I was the only private school teacher there. I felt like one among hundreds. During the Q & A session of my Harkness presentation, when I let slip that I usually used the discussion model I was teaching with a group of 15 students, I felt awkward. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also caught a whiff of hostility. It began to feel like one against hundreds, instead of among. Embarrassed, I ad-libbed solutions to questions of how to apply my strategy to a classroom of 30 or more students. I felt I was losing my audience, as I suggested putting the students into two groups, or having half the students watch the other discuss a text in a fishbowl version of Harkness.  

That’s when I realized I did not fit in. That the worlds of public and private education in California split cleanly apart along a seam of class size, funding, and standards. That’s when I started dodging questions about my school during presentations and informal chat. I wanted to learn from my colleagues across the divide, and I felt I had ideas to share with them, so it was best just to keep my boarding school background secret.

When I first entered the profession, I learned from public school teachers through books like Educating Esme, Teacher Man, teacher; The One Who Made the Difference, The Freedom Writer’s Diary, Room 109, and I Read it But I Don’t Get It and lesson plan websites like Outta Ray’s Head and Web English Teacher. It didn’t occur to me to think that good strategies for teaching in public school would not apply to private school. Teaching was teaching, right? We’re all trying to do the same thing.

Summers spent at The Bread Loaf School of English, getting my Master of Arts in English with both private and public school teachers, confirmed my belief that teachers across regions, countries, levels and school formats could learn from each other. My best friends’ backgrounds varied – one, an education writer trying to influence policy in D.C., another a Teach for America alumna now working at a charter school, another a teacher and coach at a public high school in rural Durango, Colorado, another working at a private middle school in L.A., catering in part to the children of celebrities. These differences in background didn’t stop us from avid discussions of teaching methods over lunches and on the steps of our dorms at night. Halfway through the program, when I moved to Bulgaria to teach at an American school, I set up classroom exchanges between my students and the students of friends in a D.C. charter school and a Kentucky public school. The students, guided by us, learned about and from each other, sharing discussions through blogger blogs, facebook and e-mail.

It wasn’t always easy blurring the lines. I took one incredible class, “Discovering the Imagination,” in which the free form of the course material led to intense discussions. Three or four passionate public school teachers occasionally drew a line down the middle of the room, implying that the private school teachers had taken the easy way out. The atmosphere in the class turned toxic for weeks, as some of the private school teachers tried to defend their life choices and some of the public school teachers took out anger over too-big classes and too-few dollars on their classmates. I discussed the atmosphere with our brilliant and kind professor, an elementary school principle most passionate about engaging students’ creativity, often. It made both of us sad, and left both of us confused. What was to be gained from these battle lines? By the end of the summer, things had cooled down. I continued to share e-mails and ideas with the most vocal of the public school teachers in the class until she entered a PHD program a year or two later. She and I had realized early on that we were both on the same mission – to teach as well as we could, to bring passionate engagement into our students’ lives.  

Mixed together at Bread Loaf, teachers from every background find a way to share ideas, even when it’s hard, to the benefit of students across the world. So why, in California, can’t we blur the lines between CAIS (California Association of Independent Schools) and CATE (California Association of Teachers of English)? Why, when I presented again this year in Sacramento, did I have to brush off an interruption in the middle of my presentation to ask just exactly what my school demographic was and what my school looked like? Was that really the most relevant question as I presented strategies to help teenagers become more passionate about reading?

When we start breaking down the lines between teachers, maybe we’ll be able to start breaking down the lines between our students too.

I know it sometimes seems as if public and private school are worlds apart. But though we have different kinds of administrators, we have similar goals and probably similar passions. And our problems are not always so different.

This year about one fourth of my students speak English as their second language, though I am unequipped to help them. I was glad to see so many sessions at CATE Sacramento with advice for teaching ELLs, and to use the wonderful ESL websites dedicated public school teachers have crafted online. This year my 10th grade teaching team is working to incorporate English and history into a humanities curriculum, and it was with relief and gratitude that I attended a CATE session by two innovative public school teachers who have crafted a hugely successful Global Studies Program. Last year I wrote several lesson plans for NCTE’s readwritethink program about using blogs to host classroom content for absent students and to build student portfolios, strategies I like to think could be useful in many classrooms.

Teachers in public and private schools face different challenges in and around the classroom, but we are all trying to reach our students. Let’s share ideas whenever we can. With a liberal arts degree, a masters’ degree, and seven years of teaching experience, I am not considered qualified to teach in a public school, a fact that grates on me. Nevertheless, I have something to share and a never-ending desire to learn. I’d like to see CATE reach out for members into the thousands of private schools in this state – what have we got to lose by joining forces?  

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