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Confessions from a Charter School Teacher — Part One

Enter Silently. Sit Down! Be quiet. Sit up straight! Track Me. I’m waiting for 100%! After a few years of teaching exclusively in strict, no-nonsense, and fast growing charter schools, I’m finally ready to tell my side of the story. In the quest to be good at my job, get the best results, and become an amazing teacher, I lost sight of why I chose this profession. I convinced students and families to attend schools that couldn’t support their needs. I primed my students for tests instead of teaching them new content. I tacitly supported oppressive and dehumanizing systems of student management. My esteemed colleagues, former co-workers and fellow educational reformers all had conflicting opinions about me publishing this. Well, here it goes…

If you went to a failing public school like myself, you recognize that the American education system is broken, and in desperate need of repair. Charter schools have become the fastest growing solution to solving a wide range of problems. I want to state this unequivocally before the academic vultures attack me, many charter schools are helping reduce the education gap, ensuring that students in low-income communities have access to a high quality education. The evidence is easy to find, and in a later confession we’ll talk about how the “data” is easy to manipulate. Evidence about the oppressive policies of many charter schools is harder to find. This piece in part was inspired by the New York Times’ riveting expose of Success Academy, one of the larger charter schools networks in the country. In addition, John Oliver made a humorous video about the state of the charter school industry.

Graphs make everything better.

My first interview with the one of the largest charter schools in the nation was on the phone, right after my acceptance into Teach for America. Starry eyed upon college graduation, I was eager to impress. I did the research, role played with colleagues, read the reviews on Glassdoor, etc. I noticed some startling trends in all of this research: compliancy was the backbone of all school culture, exhaustion with long school days, and restrictive policies about student expression. I look at this moment in clear disgust at the human ability to rationalize anything when it’s self-serving. Reading about these Charter Schools I thought to myself- my future kids won’t want to go here. However, kids from underprivileged, without access or educated advocates, cycling through the motions of poverty, they needed a system like this to become successful. In fact, I was one of those kids. The only thing that ever kept me out of trouble was my mother, the rare combination of: immigrant, college educated, and stout liberal feminist. That wasn’t enough, I still managed to convince myself. The charter school also paid $5,000 more than the competing public school and offered a brand new building to work in.

The interview started in typical fashion, explain why you want to be an educator, philosophy of the school network, blah blah blah. The difficult part is the role play, where you’re expected to model the “tone and presence” of a no-excuses (strict) style of teaching. Quick digression, my favorite teachers were always strict and didn’t deal with BS, demanding always the best from their students, my natural teaching style is very similar. However the strictness I was asked to display had very little to do with socio-emotional relationship building, it was instead, by design, cold and austere, a psychological behavior enforcer and a de facto assertion of my dominance.

Interviewer: Here is your scenario. You are in the middle of a lesson, a student’s cellphone goes off, creating a low-level distraction, the student immediately puts away the phone, clearly embarrassed. You continue teaching the instructional portion of your lesson and are now interacting with students as they work silently. Walk me through the conversation you will have with this student, confirming the school’s no cellphone in class policy and the appropriate detention consequence.

My Response: Hi student, I noticed your cellphone went off in the middle of the lesson. You put it away very quickly, because I think you understand how distracting it can be when we’re trying to really focus on this part of the lesson. The rules are clear, you have a detention for this. Please put your cellphone in your locker during the next transition. (I said most of this in a clear, professional, but ultimately “warm” voice)

Interviewer: Quick feedback loop. Great job reinforcing school-wide expectations. At (charter school) we use a demanding and assertive voice and limit the amount of words said. Try it again.

Me: Student, you have a detention for failing to adhere to the school’s no cellphone policy. (I tried to sound cop-like, but you could tell it wasn’t me anymore)

Interviewer: Much better! We love to see teachers adapt quickly to our behavior systems, it allows them to teach curriculum effectively.

Me: Thanks! What would a “perfect” version of this interaction sound like?

Interviewer: (In a voice that is audibly more stern and robotic) Student. Please stop working. Track me. (Pause for eye contact, maintain effective posture) Cellphones are not allowed in class. You have been issued a detention. Please continue working. (Wait for student to start working again before you walk away)

My Conscious: RUN! You won’t be able to mimic this machine. If you were spoken to in this way, it would be pretty insulting.

Me: (Knowing I didn’t really want to work at this school) Don’t you feel that this style of interaction, uhm, feels a bit, robotic?

Interviewer: I do want to reiterate that this would be a highly effective and desirable use of our discipline system. While it may seem robotic at first, you will become comfortable with it.

We went through a few more role plays, each time the interviewing noting how I wasn’t demanding or forceful enough. Thankfully I didn’t get the call back from this school. This memory has stuck with me, as this school was a leader in creating the no-nonsense style of dealing with student misbehaviors. The first school that did hire me, was comparatively more lenient in telling teachers how to talk to students, but did have a cemented consequence system for just about anything “bad” a student could do.

To give context about how “structured” charter schools are, allow me to walk you through a typical start and end of one class period in the charter schools I’ve taught at.

  1. Students are dismissed from their prior class in silence and in a very orderly fashion. Depending on the grade, most hallway passing periods are short, quick and oftentimes silent. Students get materials and head to next class, under the supervision of Dean that monitors the hallways, issuing detentions for student that can’t behave correctly
  2. Students silently line up outside the classroom. They stand up straight and must maintain eye contact with the teacher who is now issuing directions. Students are not allowed to lean on the lockers or walls while they wait. Typical teacher directions are almost always the same. Students please entire silently, pick up today’s worksheet and proceed to silently work on the “Do Now”, typically 5–7 minutes of work.
  3. Timer goes off. Students, please stop working. Please sit up straight, in a scholarly position. (Many schools offer specific guidance on this, backs must be straight against the back of chairs, hands on top of the desk, posture straight up) Teacher waits for 100% of students to do this, issuing infractions to any student who hasn’t. Then “starts” the lesson.

You might’ve noticed the trend of keeping students silent. In terms of real life minutes, from the ending of a class, hallway, and until the Do Now ends, most students are silent for a 15 minute block of time. Let me show you the schedule:

Period 1: 7:55–8:45

Period 2: 8:47–9:35

Period 3: 9:37–10:20

Lunch: 10:20 -10:43

Period 4–8 all equal time limit

Dismissal: 3:15

Detention (rebranded and called “extension”): 3:15–4:15

With the extended school day and eight classes, those 15 minute blocks of absolute silence begin to add up. Silence can be added at anytime the school “culture” is not up to par. Silent lunch was my Dean’s favorite punishment. I’ll let you determine how you would learn in this environment.


So, how does a student get a detention? The answer? Pretty easily. At all of the schools I’ve taught, on a typical day 30% or 150 students will have earned a detention. Most charter schools follow a point-based infraction system. For example, talking, running, forgetting a class material like a book/pencil is a 1 point in fraction. Being late, loud, horsing around, are 2 point infractions. Having a cellphone, out of uniform, no homework, cursing, failing to follow directions are 3 point infractions. (Doesn’t this all sound very…police like?) Worse behaviors, plagiarism, fighting, bullying, can be anywhere from 4–7 point infractions.

Usually once a student has lost 3 points in the day, they have detention. Wrong shoes? Detention. Late to class and forget your pencil? Detention. Most kids knew they had detention before they walked into school, or by the end of lunch time. As you can imagine, by the end of the day it didn’t really matter anymore, any further infractions would reset at the end of the day. So the hardest classes of the day were periods 7–8.

At times of the year, teachers can expect the school “culture” team to recalibrate the rules, adding further behaviors that must be monitored. Any teacher or school official can issue an infraction. Skipping detention means you have it for the next two days. Automated phone calls were sent out to parents at 1 pm to let them know to pick up students 1 hour later than normal. A lot of energy and time went into fine tuning this system…almost in a way to keep students in detention.

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this confession. I know that was a lot of information about an industry that probably doesn’t affect you deeply yet. I encourage all readers to challenge, question, and delve deeper into the information I’ve provided thus far. Please do so in the comments below and click on the “clap” if you liked what you read!

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