Reflections on a Year of Walking the Halls

Town Square Delaware features monthly reflections from Laurisa Schutt, executive director of Teach for America – Delaware and two TFA teachers who are teaching in Delaware schools this year.

Looking back on the school year I’m amazed by the things that students and teachers made happen. As a parent, invested as I am, I did not fully appreciate what it took to teach and lead the way we all want our kids to be taught and led – the effort in planning, rigor, creativity, and the emotional commitment of constant kindness and patience. In Delaware’s low-income communities where students are often many years behind grade level, the effort required is even greater. When the first language is not necessarily English and where other external challenges sometimes exist, teaching for student engagement, empowerment, and higher-order learning requires long hours of intense work seven days a week. As summer approaches, a few reflections from me on the year that was:

1)     Teachers and school leaders are everything; the quality of a person’s K-12 experience determines their life trajectory. Each new face in September has the potential to be a catalyst for any number of positive outcomes. When I visit classrooms I think about the quality of the child’s experience – there is only one shot at first grade, only one shot at second grade. I experienced this reality last weekend when Teach For America hosted a professional development at McKean High School in Red Clay.  Students attended to provide reflections and input. They came from Wilmington and Seaford to spend a Saturday with their teachers. They did not talk about what they “learned”—but it was clear they spent the year learning. They showed through spoken word and song what it felt like to be respected, understood, and…taught.

2)     We are not consistently and collectively operating with urgency on students’ behalf. So many driven people are working at it, and understand that stability, safety, basic human services, and excellent education will deliver the next generation out of poverty, but the efforts are not a match for the reality we seem to accept as inevitable.

3)     Kids suffering and falling behind their affluent peers is not inevitable. We see excellence in extraordinary classrooms all over the state. I have seen it recently in the Indian River School District in Sussex and Kuumba Academy Charter School in New Castle County. I’m going into next school year with that conviction. It is not easy to stomach how often non-native English speakers end up in 5th grade without being able to read, or how many 9th graders are doing math at a 6th grade level, or how many kids in the city of Wilmington drop out of high school, or graduate with skills that fall short of college or career. But this exists; it is real, and the results belong to all of us. But it is not inevitable.

This school year I have spent time with many incredible people – legislators, union representatives, appointees, educators at many levels, and parents – who know these realities, are devastated by them, and who want better. As I reflect on the kids in my life and the school year they had, I know that schools are community institutions orbiting around teachers who hold immeasurable power over lasting outcomes. It makes me grateful for summer to generate newer, more relevant ideas as I continue to figure out what it means to be working in support of great schools — institutions that belong to everyone and no one—for every child.

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