Erin Teater

Erin Teater

Erin Teater grew up in the great state of Texas. She spent her formative years in Dallas, went to college at the University of Texas in Austin, and then moved to Houston to teach 6th grade reading with the 2008 corps. While at UT, she dabbled in a variety of interests, from politics to tornado chasing, but discovered a true passion in community service, particularly with kids and schools. Teach For America allowed her to put her passion into practice, and it has become her life’s work. After the corps, Erin worked on Teach For America • Houston’s program team. She is now entering her second year with Teach For America • Chicago as a director of teacher leadership development supporting high school English teachers. Erin loves to run along Lake Michigan, but avoids getting in the water due to a crippling fish phobia.

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For the last three years, it has been my job to evaluate teachers. For roughly 60 hours a week, I observe, debrief, reflect, and problem solve with corps members teaching high school English in Chicago. I help my teachers with everything from behavior management to unit planning to relationship building to organizing their desks. When I’m not in classrooms, I’m thinking about classrooms.  It is wonderful, challenging, time-consuming work.

If a system of feedback and skill-building weren’t crucial for teacher development, I would be out of a job. In that vein, I’m excited to hear that my city is prioritizing teacher evaluations. Even more exciting is that these evaluations shift the focus of teacher effectiveness from test scores exclusively to things like classroom culture and community involvement. Yes! Finally a tool that takes into account the intricacies of teaching!

Photo by enixii via Wikimedia Commons

In the heart of Chicago’s Homan Square stands an historic power house. Built in 1905, it provided electricity and heat for the massive Sears, Roebuck & Company world headquarters on the city’s West Side. In 2009, the building was transformed into a school for the kids of North Lawndale, a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago that has experienced a disproportionate level of poverty and violence.  Power House High’s recent history, while far from exemplary, demonstrates community and district leaders’ willingness to look for what works (whether from a traditional or charter model - because we know there are bright spots in both), and to insist on high student achievement above all else.

Photo by Seth Anderson via WikiCommons

In a climate where massive budget cuts are forcing public school districts to lay off hundreds of teachers, it is no wonder why unions are eager to arm their teachers with the relative security of tenure. However, in a world where we use “tenure” interchangeably with “highly qualified,” are we really putting the best teachers in front of our kids?

Tenure came about in the early 19th century to protect teachers from being fired for illegitimate reasons such as race, gender, or favoritism. Women could lose their jobs for getting pregnant or wearing pants (how dare they?), and tenure provided them with protection from this unfair discrimination. Since then, tenure has morphed into a no-questions-asked policy that preserves jobs for even the lowest-performing teachers.

Photo provided by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via WikiCommons

Editor's Note:  This week, our hearts and minds are with the people of Chicago, who are experiencing the city's first teachers' strike in 27 years.  As Wendy wrote this summer , Pass The Chalk aspires to be a forum for "engaging in candid discussion and debate about the biggest issues surrounding education today." In that spirit, over the coming days we'll be featuring a range of perspectives on the strike and what it means for teachers, students and families in Chicago. We encourage you to join the dialogue on our Facebook page and on Twitter @PassTheChalk.

It’s Thursday morning, and Chicago’s 617 public schools should be welcoming their 350,000 students back for their second (and in some cases third) week of classes. Kids should be filing into classrooms, opening their books, and getting to work. They should be practicing sight words. They should be annotating, multiplying, and experimenting.

Photo credit: Jean-Christian Bourcart

OK, Finland. We get it. You are infinitely cooler than us.

Edweek's recent article about Finland’s move from factory-style school buildings to more innovative and architecturally stimulating buildings made me green with envy. The article claims that these “contemporary campuses [will] meet the pedagogical and social needs of their students and teachers.”

Everything about the structure is intentional, and it is meant to create a more purposeful environment for teaching and learning. Sometimes this means an atrium in the middle of the school where students can get a little vitamin D between classes. Sometimes this means a teachers lounge with an espresso bar. Finland already has one of the most successful education systems in the world. Now, with these new buildings, our sexy Scandinavian friends have really outdone themselves.


Teachers and volunteers paint the walls at Henson Elementary School, Photo courtesy of Erin Teater.

But just when I was staring over the edge of an isn't-Finland-so-great-abyss, I spent a day at Henson Elementary School in Chicago and realized that visionary leaders right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. are doing a lot of the same work. Henson is an old building, but it is full of hope and potential. In an effort to create a more joyful environment for kids and teachers, we painted the walls bright green. It may not seem like much compared to Finland’s state-of-the-art facilities, but a small change like this in a school that’s strapped for cash can go a long way for school culture. Sometimes all you need for a fresh start is a fresh coat of paint. I know that the kids will be so excited when they come back from summer vacation and see Henson 2.0. 

This is the kick-off post for an ongoing series on Pass the Chalk called Point/Counterpoint, where two bloggers will argue opposite sides of a pressing issue in education. Today, blogger Erin Teater argues for gender-segregated schools. For the other side of the issue, check out "Boys Have Cooties: The Trouble with Separating the Sexes."

Single-sex schools seem to be a hot topic right now. Single-sex education in public schools was legalized in 2006, and today, there are only 116 public schools across the country that are truly gender specific. I have had the opportunity to work with 3 of those 116 schools: Walipp in Houston, and Urban Prep and the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Chicago.

2012 Commencement, Courtesy of Urban Prep Academies.

Data supporting or contesting single-sex schools varies, depending on who you ask, so I will only speak to my experiences and what I have seen. When the opportunities are leveraged, I have seen tremendous things come out of all boys and all girls schools. Simply segregating the sexes does not alone close the achievement gap. Sorry, it’s not that easy. You still need all that other stuff (you know, strong teachers, high expectations, purposeful leaders, etc.).

In 2008, I joined the Houston corps and taught 6th grade reading at a predominantly Latino school. At that point, I knew little about the culture of the immigrant families living and working in Houston. Although my mom’s house was less than two miles from my school, my world and those of my students seemed disconnected and distant. Over the course of two years, I heard countless stories about families struggling to realize their own American dreams on this side of the border. For most parents, that meant working multiple low-wage hard labor jobs with little to no health benefits. 

Of course, I encouraged my students to work hard, stay in school, stay out of trouble, and go to college so they could get higher-paying jobs with better benefits. But I soon learned that for the vast majority of my students, college was not an easy option. Take Jonathan: because he lacks documentation, the high cost of college will almost definitely prevent him from enrolling. Although Texas is one of 12 states that offers in-state tuition to undocumented students who meet qualifications, Jonathan still cannot apply for federal financial aid. He once told me that he wants to be an engineer. I felt like a liar telling him that all he had to do to get into college was work hard and get good grades. It would take far more work than that.

Graphic from the National Immigration Law Center.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. To commemorate it, President Obama screened the film at the White House, USA played the movie with limited commercial interruption, and most importantly, I tattooed a mockingbird on my wrist to remind myself of the social injustice we are still fighting, all these years later.

Photo courtsey of Erin Teater.

Last week I went to Alabama on a Teach For America leadership journey. On our second day, we visited the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, which provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. In otherwords, these are the real life Atticus Finches.

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