Professional Development

For Start-Up Teacher, Jam-Packed Routine

By Bess Keller — April 17, 2007 3 min read
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For 15 minutes starting just after 7 a.m. on a recent Monday, teacher Cheyanne Zahrt stood over a hot copying machine in the Academy for College and Career Exploration, one of five small high schools this city’s school system midwifed starting in 2002.

It was the last time Ms. Zahrt would be alone—or even by herself with a reporter—for more than five minutes over the next 9½ hours. It was to be the kind of day that has become routine for teachers in many of the new small high schools that are fast becoming fixtures of the nation’s big-city districts.

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Cultures of Commitment

Two girls who had gotten an early ride to school were waiting to trail Ms. Zahrt up two floors to her classroom. Others came to hang out while the biology teacher tapped on one of two classroom computers, hand-printed key points for her lesson on a flip chart—she had lent out her overhead projector because her classroom has no screen—and dispensed snacks as part of a fundraiser for the junior prom.

On the way in and out of a class on genetics and the 19th-century botanist Gregor Mendel, students draped their arms around her shoulders, told her of a job interview or a prom dress, and inquired about their grades in the quarter just over. During one conversation, a girl fingered with curiosity the belt on the teacher’s new brown dress.

In more subtle ways, Ms. Zahrt returned the attention—with a quiet question about one boy’s weekend as she passed his lab table, a greeting to a student in the hallway, a tap on a girl’s arm when she figured out an answer. During the teacher’s planning period, colleagues dropped by, too, with their own questions and requests.

And so it went through lunch, additional classes, and the after-school catch-up program that the teacher oversees three afternoons a week. When the students at last left the building, the diminutive 28-year-old former Teach For America recruit joined most of her colleagues at a meeting of the school’s improvement team. As that ended, Ms. Zahrt and Todd Henning, who teaches health and coached the new boys’ basketball team, explored the postsecondary plans of Ms. Zahrt’s juniors. The two eventually strolled out of the careworn building, climbing into their cars about 6:30 p.m.

Creating a Culture

When Ms. Zahrt came to the school—then in another building—two years ago, she had more experience teaching high school than all but one of the 14 or so other faculty members. Her three years at a school across town made her a valuable resource.

“[The principal] knew I had the ability to create a positive school culture, and that was kind of lacking,” she explained. “And he deliberately put me across the hall from a brand-new teacher, so I could hold down that floor and behavior would stay in bounds. That’s where the exhaustion comes in.”

The exhaustion in fact has a dozen causes, a little different with each teacher, starting with trying to make up for 9th graders who arrive with, on average, 6th grade skills. Teachers take to heart students’ circumscribed opportunities, which are hard to miss in a school with only 300 students.

On top of student needs, the teachers at ACCE have had to try to hone the school’s focus, write its policies and procedures, and—Ms. Zahrt’s specialty—foster a culture that serves students well.

“We have to build systems on the go,” said Ivor Mitchell, who took over from founding principal Christopher N. Maher at the start of this school year. He added that he hoped Ms. Zahrt’s responsibilities as a class adviser would ease up next year, now that the school has gone through the process of welcoming its first junior class.

Ms. Zahrt walks to her car at the end of a day crammed with duties typical of teachers at the new small public high schools being created in many urban districts in the hope of raising achievement and graduation rates.

“It’s a massive undertaking every time you build a grade level,” Mr. Mitchell explained, especially given that the academy has no national model or supports—only local sponsors and a school system that often seems ambivalent about the existence of its “innovation high schools.”

The duties had better slack off for Ms. Zahrt, said her colleague, English teacher Michael Corbin. “The pace she’s going will kill her,” he said.

“Well,” added Mr. Corbin, who has equipped his classroom with about 1,000 of his own books and maintains a computer network, printers, and a projector without technical support, “everybody here is a candidate for burnout.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as For Start-Up Teacher, Jam-Packed Routine

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