Lincoln HS

What We Know: Our students’ ability to achieve is only limited by our own investment in their success

Visiting the fruits of our collective labor at Washington State University.

Visiting the fruits of our collective labor at Washington State University.

Each year in Washington State the Regional Teachers of the Year are asked to contribute a piece of writing that is published in a book called Seed to Apple. What follows is my contribution from this year. It is a story about the work we do at Lincoln High School and what quality educators do at low-income schools all over the nation. I encourage you to check out some of the other entries by my fellow Washington State educators.

There are ten former students of Lincoln High School currently in jail for murder or manslaughter.

This isn’t their story. But their story and that number animate the work we do. It is the fuel that drives our staff. The stakes in a high-poverty schools are life and death. We know this. The kids we don’t reach will be lost to incarceration, unemployment, shortened life expectancy, and a lifetime of poverty. We know this. Vice President Joe Biden once said, “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” I can tell you that society doesn’t value our students. We know this. 

They live in segregated housing on tattered and pothole filled roads. We’ve closed their elementary schools, local libraries, and Boys & Girls Club. We’ve cutback service hours and bus routes that serve their neighborhoods. They live in a food desert. My students are invisible. Tacoma, the City of Destiny, is infamous for its “grit” and often is mocked for its ramshackle appearance, but its future rests in the hands of my staff. We are planting seeds. We know this.

Our staff supports our students and our alumni academically, emotionally, and economically. Schools are the barometers of the health of our communities. Throughout my seven years at Lincoln, I have watched as families struggle and fall further behind. As a staff, we fill an ever widening gap between what the state provides and what our families need. We stock our desk and filing cabinet drawers with food. We run food drives to collect food to feed families over winter break. We buy and collect ties and dress clothes for job interviews. 

We pay for SATs when students have exhausted their fee waivers. We pool money to get people’s lights turned on after being shut-off or to prevent evictions. We buy textbooks for alumni at Evergreen. We buy linen for alumni from CWU. We send winter clothes to alumni at UW. We help when the paperwork from the financial aid office appears to be written in Vulgate Latin. We hire alumni on break from college to do yard. We shed tears. We sacrifice time with our own families. We celebrate our students’ successes.

In recent years our graduation rate has risen by 22%. We have sent an increasing number of kids off to higher education. But “sending them off” is not enough. We tell ourselves a lie when we treat the education of a young mind as some sort of transaction that ends at the end of school day, school year, or even graduation. The role of a Lincoln teacher extends into life and adulthood of our students. We continue to fertilize and till. Our students often don’t have uncles or aunts who are college graduates. They have us. 

Last fall during planning with the senior team, a few of us hatched an idea to support our graduates in college and inspire our current students. We batted around the idea of road trip; an Alumni Support Tour. The plan was to visit over two dozen recent grads in colleges east of the mountains. Nearly all these students were first generation college students and the majority were students of color. We had been getting calls and emails from students who were struggling to adjust and debating coming home. In late September, I sat on the phone for nearly an hour telling a homesick alumna that she owed it to herself to stay at Whitworth.

“You will hate yourself if you quit.”

“It doesn’t matter how they look at you, we both know you are smart enough.”

“I know there are no other black students, we talked about this before you left. This is how it will be.”

As I hung up the phone with her the road trip went from an idea to a necessity. 

In October, Mrs. Teague-Bowling, Ms. Bockus, and I piled into my Kia Soul and hit the road to visit the Lincoln Class of 2014 at Central Washington, Washington State University, Gonzaga, and Whitworth College. Along the way we asked why we hadn’t done this before. We wondered how the kids were holding up with the workload. Had we prepared them? We were curious about who might be struggling. But, most importantly, we questioned: why isn’t this kind of support the norm?

We stayed in a Super 8 in Ellensburg and a HoJo in North Spokane. We met our charges at each of their campuses and brought them pizza or burgers. Older Lincoln Alumni showed up as well. “I am so proud of you.” Tears were shed. “We did this, together.” Hugs were exchanged. We visited dining halls, toured campuses, and heard familiar tales of adjustment. They shared their syllabi and dorm rooms with us. We shared our pride and joy with them. They thanked us and talked about how prepared they felt for college and life. 

These were the three best days of my career. We drove over 650 miles, visited four campuses, and broke bread with nearly 30 alumni. Over three days we were able to see our harvest.

Teaching is more like farming than many of the other careers it gets compared to. Lincoln is a massive farm with nearly 1,500 seeds in the ground. Some have nutrient rich soil. Others are in shallow, sandy dirt and require more attention. At Lincoln 80% of our seeds live in poverty. That just means they need more fertilizer, more careful watering, and more attention from us, the farmers.

Too often when we talk about students in poverty, my students, we approach them from a deficit--we awfulize students in poverty--we talk about them as if they are incapable of learning.

They aren’t inferior, they’re poor.

They are literate, but the ways in which they are literate aren’t measurable by our assessments. There’s an academic vocabulary gap, not an intelligence gap. With love and support they’re capable of reaching the same highs as all other students. My students are worth the investment that I make in them as their teacher, and they are worth the investment we ought to make in them as a society.

We know this.



On Hosting President Xi at Lincoln High School

This is my new friend Theo. He was as excited as I was about the whole thing so we ended up taking this photo after President Xi and the Secret Service departed.

This is my new friend Theo. He was as excited as I was about the whole thing so we ended up taking this photo after President Xi and the Secret Service departed.

One of the things that I really enjoy about teaching is the relative anonymity of the profession. We are public servants, but not public figures. I couldn’t imagine working in sales, marketing or politics where I was constantly meeting new people or trying to sell myself (in fact, the idea of that just gave me a chill). As a teacher at Lincoln, I work with a relatively stable staff. I have been there for seven years and at least half of the faculty predates me. I meet a new crop of kids and parents every year, but once I meet them, they’re familiar, we develop routines, become family even. Last week, while students were reading a Ta-Nehisi Coates article, I stood in the back of third period and realized I had eleven siblings of past students and two children of my former HS classmates in the class. Abe Nation is familiar turf for me and I am familiar to them. When I am teaching I am selling ideas and content, not myself. I am not the focus, the mission is.

The last week has blown a hole in all of that.   

I found out about the possibility of President Xi’s visit a while back. As time passed it went from “there’s this crazy idea that might go down, but probably nah” to “Secret Service vans parked by the Abe statue and snipers in the clock tower.” 

As a government teacher, hosting a head of state in your classroom (or one you borrowed for the occasion) is like an classic R&B fan sitting at the mixing board in Quincy Jones’ studio or a soccer fan playing pick-up with Messi or Ronaldo (pick your poison). China is the most populated nation on Earth. Twenty percent of all the people alive right now are Chinese. They are the largest economy on the Earth. China is the most powerful nation in Asia. China is a nation that I was fascinated by as a student and have had the pleasure to visit twice as an adult. I could go on… Having President Xi walk the halls of my school, stand in our auditorium, joke around with the football players from my third period--watching it all was whatever comes after things become surreal.

My favorite part of the visit though was the kids. It’s early in the year, I have all their names down, but we’re definitely still the rapport building phase. I was nervous about how they would behave. Would they understand how big a deal this was? Would one of the boys in the room try to be funny and instead create an international scene or worse get beatdown by Chinese Secret Service (yes, these were actual fears I was having).

After being screened by the Secret Service, while we were being briefed by a Chinese Protocol Officer (there were several, both officers and briefings) a student asked if they’d be allowed to shake the President Xi’s hand. I and the Protocol Officer both (belly) laughed. Fast forward an hour, when President Xi, after his conversation with my students and before departing under a blitz of camera flashes, reached out to shake hands with the front row of the room, there was an audible (and hilarious) burst of co-ed squeals. That moment… that moment, they’ll never forget. The kids were amazing. They got it the importance of the moment.

President Xi concluded his visit by addressing a crowd of nearly 500 students and community members and offering one hundred students from my school the opportunity to travel to China; it brought on a thunderous applause. I ended my night posing for photos and doing interviews with a half dozen Chinese media outlets. Many of you know I recently wrote about my love of travel and particularly my experience teaching and living in China. Now many of my students will have this same opportunity, decades younger than I was when I caught the bug. I hope they grow to love travel as much as I do. I hope it changes their lives as much as it changed mine and I hope that this week is more calm than the last.


On Teacher Quality and Solutions-Oriented Thinking

On Teacher Quality and Solutions-Oriented Thinking

Because I talk and write about teacher quality, sometimes people that I think TPS, OSPI and the Washington State Legislature should get a free pass, are doing a great job, or that I am teacher-blaming (that one fires me up the most). I have much to quibble with “the proverbial system”: testing, funding McCleary, our COLAs, ad infinitum. However, I focus on teacher quality because it's something I think "we" (me and the mouse in my pocket) can actually impact. In fact, in my opinion it’s very doable:

  • we can screen, train and hire better candidates;

  • we can conduct better PD and mentoring for teachers (especially early career ones) and 

  • we can better identify & retain our most effective teachers, even within the confines of our silly, (profoundly) messed up system.