The following is an excerpt from Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Make It Triumph, describing the challenges of Pirette McKamey, a teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco. Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.
Almost thirty years later, McKamey still often remembers her former teacher and recently sent him a thank-you letter when she heard that he had retired: “I have had a teaching career for twenty-five years myself now, some of it spent mentoring novice teachers, so I know how rare what you did is,” she wrote. “Fran, you always made me feel smart.” McKamey’s parents also said that she was intelligent, but Bradley was the first teacher who had the skills to provide evidence: his comments in class about the substance of her ideas, his feedback on her writing, the enthusiasm in his voice when he discussed her thinking. Over the course of a year, that proof solidified into a confidence that couldn’t be easily shaken anymore. It was that pride in her intellect that gave her the fortitude and resilience to cut through many racial stereotypes and negative myths as she made her way through high school and then Boston University.
Some students gather enough confidence from their teachers, family, mentors, and peers to succeed in spite of subtle and overt social cues that signal the perceived intellectual inferiority of black people. But too many African American students that McKamey encounters fall off the cliff. They internalize the damaging feeling of inferiority that young adults pick up even from the most casual encounters in and out of the classroom. Some are explicit demands for silence directed at black students. Others are more subtle rejections: averted gazes, hesitations, and pauses.
Jesmyn first met McKamey four years ago, when she walked into a night class to fix an F she had received in English. The first thing Jesmyn declared—with much conviction—was that she wasn’t good at school. The second statement she made was that she was a bad writer. Her teacher listened patiently, she recalls, and looked at her differently than any other teacher before. “Ms. McKamey was able to see the good in me through the worst of my times,” Jesmyn recalls now. “When I came to Mission, I was going through a lot of challenges in my life and I was a mess. I had a huge attitude. But Ms. McKamey continued to remind me that I was a wise and beautiful young lady every chance she got. If I didn’t feel like reading or writing and I gave her attitude, she’d give it right back to me, but then there was a compliment about my work right after.”
She got an A– in that night class with McKamey. “I worked my butt off learning grammar and writing,” she says. “When I heard my grade, I thought they made a mistake.” A year earlier, she had transferred to Mission High with a GPA of 1.1.
In too many schools across the country, African American students are more likely to have lower grades than other students, be placed in lower-tracked classes, be diagnosed with special needs, and be suspended for “willful defiance.” But despite the depressing statistics and the prejudices that perpetuate them, most schools have always had some educators who succeed in reducing or erasing these patterns in their classrooms.
After years of teaching, studying her subject and the craft of teaching, and learning from her students and her colleagues, McKamey is one such teacher today. She has succeeded by forging alliances with like-minded colleagues such as Robert Roth and Taica Hsu and working with her peers to personally mentor at-risk students like Jesmyn. Teaching is a very complex, highly intellectual endeavor, McKamey tells me. Teachers need to know their subject deeply as well as how students think about and learn the subject. They need to have the skills to see what students know and where they are in their learning trajectory. Teachers need to practice using their judgment to decide which method to deploy and when. And they need to work on their affect by practicing specialized skills to build positive relationships with students from different cultures.
For McKamey, the most important value driving her teaching and coaching is her conviction that being a good teacher means hearing, seeing, and succeeding with all students—regardless of how far a student is from the teacher’s preconceived notions of what it means to be ready to learn. When teachers are driven by a belief that all of their students can learn, they are able to respond to the complexity of their students’ needs and to adjust if something is not working for a particular individual or group of students. “I’m not just a delivery person, delivering content,” McKamey explains. “Students learn through their own channels, their own brains. And all student work and actions in the classroom are valuable information. The students are always telling you something.”
In every school where McKamey worked until she arrived at Mission, there was always a small group of teachers who would sit in the lounge and say negative things about African American students. Some would call them lazy and apathetic. Others would say that students who live amid poverty, violence in the community, and single-parent households could not be expected to do as much work as students from a more stable, middle-class, two-parent home. The vast majority of teachers don’t say things like that, yet too many don’t connect their self-esteem as professionals to how their African American students are doing. When most of their African American students are failing, they don’t view it as a crisis, but as the natural state of things. That’s why McKamey and a group of her colleagues keep an eye on grades, attendance, and referrals categorized by race, ethnicity, income, and special needs. They devote most of their resources to helping fellow teachers learn how to monitor their qualitative and quantitative data for all students and make personalized adjustments to bolster students’ daily classroom work. In this hyperlocal model of education, the voices and needs of students are the main driving force for making changes in the classroom, and by extension, the entire school. The impetus for change radiates from the inside out, rather than being imposed by bureaucrats and politicians who don’t have direct contact with students or knowledge of their intellectual and emotional development.
The best way to improve teaching and reduce the achievement gaps, McKamey argues, is to allow teachers to act as school-based researchers and leaders, justifying classroom reforms based on the broad range of performance markers of their students: daily grades, the quality of student work and the rate of its production, engagement, effort, attendance, and student comments. That means planning units together and then spending a lot of time analyzing the iterative work the students produce. This process teaches educators to recognize that there are no standard individuals, and there are as many learning trajectories as there are people. When teachers share student work together, they train their eyes and minds to see and hear everything their students are thinking and experiencing and can choose the best tools to help students. This method also allows teachers to develop skills and a discipline for their own process of self-reflection and how to comment and grade for improvement—not just sorting and tracking. “At the center of growth as a teacher is self-reflection,” McKamey says. “It means developing habits of mind and specialized skills to look at student work every day and ask: What did I intend to do today? What did my students do? Did it work? If not, how can I change to improve?”
McKamey’s twenty-six years of successful teaching tell her that thoughtful, collective analysis of student work—when implemented well and bolstered by effective one-on-one coaching—allows for useful professional development and real accountability from respected and trusted colleagues. There is a strong element of peer pressure in these collective reviews of student outcomes, and they are much more likely to tap into the intrinsic motivation of a teacher than the bonuses and evaluations based on test scores favored by bureaucrats and many philanthropists today. “I have never heard teachers talk about evaluations or bonuses as something that motivates them to improve,” McKamey notes. “What teachers talk about is the feedback they get from students, parents, and peers they respect.”