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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Practicing Instructional Leadership: The Tale of Mr. Poh (Part 1)

Day One: The Way of The Samurai

I have been given the opportunity to observe and support a teacher at Urban Prep. As a former English teacher there, I offer my support to a 1st year teacher who is teaching the exact same subject AND has the exact same room that I did! It seems as if I came just at the right time. My fellow accomplice for educating the urban youth in the ways of philosophical inquiry and script was at a low-point of drive and confidence. This is somewhat expected, as we are nearly at the point of the yearly winter interim- a point where all entities of the school system are justifiably in need of some revitalization.

I began day one observing this teacher- let's call him, Mr. Poh, for "Pure of Heart"- by noting the social dynamics of his students within the classroom. Being a week or so away from the winter interim, I realized there would be little I could do to immediately impact the underlying systems for his class. I looked to make note of what was going on (with my mind fixated on long-term change). At the same time, I hoped to offer him advice and moral support that would enable him to "ride the tide"- reducing the day-to-day stress while resolving as much effectiveness as possible- until winter break.

It was very clear that Mr. Poh had a plan- he wanted his students to learn. However, it was also very clear that his students had an agenda of their own- an agenda routed in comfort, complacency, and general disinterestedness (or rather, diverted interest that mainly fixated on typical adolescent "tom-foolery"). In a conversation with a few of my former colleagues I described what I observed in Mr. Poh's class as such: "The students are very comfortable... they are sitting in there with their feet up and both their shoes and socks are off!"(figuratively speaking of course). My former colleague responded: "AND they're wriggling their toes!".

To put this in concrete perspective, much of what I observed was what you may already envision from the latter metaphor (i.e.-the typical classroom disorder depicted in t.v. and films: students talking aloud, joking, a few students out of their seat here and there, etc). The students were individually in their own worlds- they came into the classroom with their own agenda, their own plan of action. They needed to be unified, they needed to be grounded in one agenda- one which is to be fostered by Mr. Poh. It was clear to me that we would need to start with building culture, community, and the systems necessary to protect that culture and community.

After his morning classes, Mr. Poh and I sat and talked about how we could unite his students and build culture and community within his class. "I would start by using some element of who you are...some element of culture, some moral principles and beliefs that have guided you to success over the years and in your adulthood... something somewhat foreign to the adolescent state of mind, yet enchanting- something that would allow the students to coalesce into a community of devout learners." In being an Asian American male at a 100% African American all-male urban high school, the salience of his ethnicity brought with it many presupposed stereotypes which I suggested (more than likely) run rampant in his students' minds. I continued, "I don't know how much you align or are familiar with the historic cultural traditions of your ancestry, BUT if you could draw some ideas from some element of yourself (or some academically conducive cultural/moral practice with which you align) to build a foundation to unite your students in a exciting culture of self-discovery and learning- that would be amazing!

"If you could unify your students using some foundational principles... some moral and scholarly principles that they should 'live by'...a 'community of scholarship'-where all who are part will work to protect its efficiency, growth, and delight in learning". As my imagination began to run wild, I quickly caught myself-as to not get too carried away, as I often do.

Looking up, I noticed Mr. Poh's face, he too was seemingly venturing to another world. "I know what you mean", he began, "when I was in high school, I really took a strong interest (although I'm not Japanese) in the Japanese philosophy of the Samurai. I read about those principles and tried to practice them. I remember how much of a motivational impact that had for me. I'm beginning to see what you're saying, I know exactly what you mean!". He began to tell me about all his hopes and desires for what he wanted his classroom to be...a world where his students felt immersed in a culture- a culture where they felt eager to learn and share their ideas; a world that they valued as something greater than themselves; an experience they would look back upon and be thankful and proud for all that they accomplished.

In responding to my suggestion and broad ideas for re-building, Mr Poh began to reflect, "in the beginning of the year I wanted that culture, I wanted that unity. I began the year with the concept of 'Think Revolutionary'". He had wanted his students to ground themselves in the idea of aspiring to follow in the footsteps of history's great leaders who were disciplined, steadfast, delighted in inquiry, and possessed a keen prowess for scholarship. I looked over to my left as he signaled with his open palm a red bulletin board filled with the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. "I just got overwhelmed and was never able to keep it going", he told me. In reminding himself of what he had yet to accomplish, his face reflected an obvious "disenchanted-ness".

I expressed to Mr. Poh that his ideas about the Philosophy of the Samurai were great and would be an awesome starting point with which we could build a plan for class unity- for next semester of course. We concluded our meeting, as his next class period was nearing. I let him know that I would stick around to observe his afternoon classes and to document anything that would help us to plan for next semester. His overall demeanor hinted at the notion that our discussion had been therapeutic. In our discussion we had began to plant the seeds of a hopeful future. What will follow next is strategic planning- to water our seeds into maturity- the foundation, the groundwork. I am excited.

I stayed for the remainder of the day to observe Mr. Poh's afternoon classes- the creative juices were surely in full flow! It is great to be back in the classroom. Moreover, it was great to return to the school to see all of my former students and advisees. The students were very happy to see me, and I them. I love education, this is what it's all about: making change, positively impacting the lives of students and fellow crusaders in the war for effective urban education. Day one: complete.

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