04/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: A Teacher Speaks

Several weeks ago I gave space in this column to Ethan Pounds, a courageous educator for democracy who was teaching orphans in Afghanistan. (January 11, 2010; "An American Educator in Afghanistan.") This column will give a voice to one of the many excellent teachers in the New York City school system, an elementary school veteran and, from my own discussions with her, I can say a devoted teacher.

Here is an excerpt comparing the positive experiences this teacher has had in her new school compared to her former one:

Best Practices

The teachers at my school agreed to the following lunch schedule:

One hour lunch, but once a week the teachers have to use their lunch for a grade level meeting. The topic for these grade meetings are planned in advance, and they range from curriculum creation to test prep planning to trip planning. These are wonderful opportunities for us to plan together and share what worked and what didn't.

In my old school, we only had lunch for fifty minutes, and we had grade level meetings once a month.

This new format is much better for many reasons.

First, a full hour lunch is not only good for the adults; it is good for the children. It is their only downtime for the day, and a full hour gives the students a decent amount of time to eat and then play during recess. At my old school, often when I came to pick up the students, they had just gotten their lunches, and had to shove the food down. Often, for recess, by the time they got outside, they only had 25 minutes to run around. Ten minutes

Professional development

In my new school, my principal has brought in, a well-known, and I am assuming well-paid consultant, for a few days of PD (Professional Development); days incredibly helpful, as he has the expertise to help us focus our teaching to the most important elements. In my old school, we had a literacy coach who did not help. I think a few days from an expert is worth more than a full paid teacher's salary for a coach.

Also, in my new school, the principal actually asks the staff what they would like to focus their PD on. Imagine that! Asking the teachers what they need to learn. I was talking to a teacher friend in another school, and she told me that she has to sit through 18 hours of boring, useless PD because the sessions are just a repeat of what she has learned before. She said the school never asks the teacher what they want and need to learn.

This past fall, I participated in a historical film club at the Paley Media Center, and I am currently involved in a historical book club at the New York Historical Society. I come away from each of these PDs with more content knowledge and concrete ideas on how to implement new techniques and knowledge in my class. Most importantly, I come out energized and eager to enter my classroom. I am not paid to take these PDs, but I do get films and books. Teaching can be a very isolating experience, so it is always good to have a chance to talk to other teachers about what works.

It's obvious from the experiences that this teacher has had that there is a definite difference in the way in which the mentoring of teachers in these two schools was conducted. Incidentally, this teacher's former school was in a minority, working-class neighborhood; the one she is presently teaching in is predominantly white, Asian and middle class.