School Fit: A Teacher’s Reflection

Can a school really make a dramatic difference to a student? I began my classroom teaching career at another independent private school in the region, which was in many ways the diametric opposite of The Sycamore School. Their respective approaches to education and student support diverged from the start.

Early Emphasis on AP Classes

The first school I taught at was founded on the idea that American schools failed to challenge their students.  Their solution was simple: lots of AP classes as early as possible and challenging curricula, even at the middle school level. Sixth graders tackle “Julius Caesar” while “Macbeth” is slated for 7th graders. Students are pushed from 5th grade onward to focus on tests and grades almost exclusively. 

Starting in 6th and 7th grade, students take a test halfway through the year and another at the end.  Each test counts 50% of that semester’s grade. The pressure is intense, especially for 11 and 12-year-olds. High school includes at least four AP classes yearly and approaching 8 AP classes a year later in high school.

A Test-Based Approach to Learning

The overall effect of this school is to teach students that tests and grades are the be-all and end-all of education. Those who fall behind are more likely to get dropped than supported. Students become highly competitive and grade-conscious to the point of questioning why their work might get a high A instead of a perfect 100.

The social pressure also channels its way into occasional bullying issues in the hallways and online.  Teachers can monitor classroom behavior, but 500-600 students spread over three floors have more than enough space to haze their classmates if they choose to. Some classes include up to 25 students, leaving the teacher trying to manage a hectic crowd instead of focusing on individuals.

Transition to a Different Educational Landscape: GEC Experience

After teaching privately from home during COVID, I spent two years at the Goodwill Excel Center in NW DC. There, I worked with low-income students who had dropped out of high school but wanted to return for a full degree, which GEC offers with concentrated courses. This was my first introduction to “meeting the students where they are” and making education a supportive journey for everyone willing to try. That made a lot more sense to me.

The Perfect Fit: Discovering The Sycamore School (TSS)

TSS is the perfect school fit for my interests and those of most of the students I have met here. With class sizes ranging from 5-10, I can interact with and focus on each individual student and their needs.  The curriculum approach to master skills through assessed assignments removes the high-pressure “There’s a test today!” atmosphere. Better understanding replaces rote memorization. My French students get to speak dozens of times each class instead of just a handful (a proven failed model for language teaching).

Differentiated instruction and assignments also open up new avenues for teachers.  Instead of leaning on a student to master what we have dictated the way it’s written in a project outline, we offer students choices to tailor their work to their strengths and interests. Assessed work varies from traditional written work to graphic presentations of all kinds and frequent role plays and debates.  Students are engaged on multiple levels and evaluated accordingly, not just quizzes and tests, which ultimately encourage students to cram for the grade and then forget the content as they focus on the next grade. Read more about how grades impact learning in Why Grading Erodes our Students’ Love of Learning.

TSS meets students at their level every day.  With smaller classes, teachers get to know each individual, both their strengths and their obstacles.  We forgo some traditional classroom management and discipline practices to discover the “why” behind student behavior. This helps students direct themselves down better paths.  That kind of support won’t happen at larger pressure-cooker schools like the ones I’ve previously taught at.  

My first few months at TSS convinced me that school fit can make a dramatic difference to a student. Although the content I teach is very similar to that of previous schools, how the school functions and how we approach each student is refreshing.  I look forward to the rest of this year with my current classes and many more years at TSS.

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