Last year, rookie English teacher Asia-Ana Williams became the poster child for Opportunity Schools, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) effort to match teacher talent with high-need schools in underserved communities. She was featured on Chicago Tonight before and after her first day, which started off well.
More importantly, Williams’ whole first year was an unusually successful experience. “My first year was amazing. It was better than I expected,” she told me while preparing her room for the start of the new school year. That’s a welcome sign in a time when 44% of teachers quit within five years, and teachers at all levels of experience are leaving in record numbers. What made the difference for her?
While she had useful preparation and clinical experiences, what made the most difference was supportive administration and her rapport with her students. Her ability to hear and benefit from student feedback helped her grow as a teacher.
Even though her first year was better than average, Williams acknowledges that first-year teaching isn’t easy. “Everybody told me it’s so hard. It was hard. But I kept trying and I asked for help, especially from my students.”
Direct Feedback Fosters Accountability
Though Williams was brand-new to running her own classroom, she was not new to Chicago. After graduating from a CPS high school, she went on to Illinois State University and student taught in CPS. While in college, she also had clinical experiences in predominantly White schools in central Illinois.
This combination of experiences gave her more perspective on what would and wouldn’t work for her at Richards. “My curriculum has to be relevant to students,” Williams observed. “It has to show them parts of who they are and things they’ve never seen before.” She avoided lectures and worked hard to design creative, participatory ways to teach specific skills.
Williams also asked her students for direct feedback. ”They were the most helpful,” she said. “They were the ones who would tell me, ‘Ms. Williams, we didn’t understand anything you just said.’”
Eventually, her students grew so comfortable they didn’t wait to be asked. “I’ve had students raise their hand and say, ‘I think we need to spend another day on this.'” As a planner, Williams struggled at first to shift gears to meet students’ needs, but, she said, “It taught me to be flexible. It’s not just about what I think is cool and what I think they’d like to learn. They would hold me accountable” to make sure they had fully mastered what she was teaching before moving on.
Give Kids What They Need To Get Results
Frequently in high schools, first-year teachers are assigned to teach ninth and 10th graders, from a combination of tradition and the reality that younger students are harder to manage and more senior teachers can get tired of it. But at Richards, Williams was assigned juniors, who are in a make-or-break year for their college chances.
“This was my first time teaching upperclassmen. So I was nervous. I’m pretty close in age. But I think the students read me as older and that’s a huge advantage. Juniors are really high pressure—when you know your students are stressed out, you want to make sure they’re getting what they need. I put a lot of work into my content.” Feedback from colleagues and administrators told her she was growing as a teacher.
So did test scores. When SAT time arrived, Williams recalled, students told her, “Ms. Williams that argumentative essay you had us write, I hated it, but it helped.” Most important, “their scores increased.”
More Time Allows For Deeper Learning
In addition to having supportive colleagues and administration, Richards organizes its school day to help teachers build strong relationships with students. “One of the things that drew me to Richards was the 4 X 4 Block. I see my students for 87 minutes every day. That truly allows for all the wonderful stuff they want teachers to do every day. Our administration has been amazing providing professional learning for us on teaching on a block schedule. How do we make sure that’s not just a really long class.”
The smaller student load and longer time periods together means more writing in a wider variety of styles, Williams said. Students have time for journals and writing as self-expression, as well as more time to master more formal writing: literary analysis and opinion essays.
Feedback from students told her they read more, too. “I had students tell me, ‘I never wanted to read outside of school before.’ Others said, ‘I never even finished one book before. This year I read three.’”
This year, she’ll have almost all her juniors again as seniors. “They know who I am, how I operate in the classroom. It will be interesting to see them get older. They’ll change a little bit; I’ll change a little bit. We’ll continue to grow together.”