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Only A Teacher
Teachers Today
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Linda Darling Hammond
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Sandy Warner
Alex White

Interview With Alex White
Alex White is an English teacher at New York's Urban Academy.

Q: What sets Urban Academy apart from other schools?

I visited every single high school in Manhattan and Urban Academy made the biggest impression on me immediately. It was the one place where the students and the teachers were interacting in a very collaborative way; there were students actually working in areas of responsibility in the office, answering phones, doing work for the school. And from the minute I walked in, I just felt that this was a very active place, a place where the students were respected, and where, as a result, there was a good atmosphere that I was very attracted to.

Q: How did Urban Academy's founders create that atmosphere?

I think Herb and Ann, when they created this school, took a little bit of a gamble on human nature and won. I think that when you do give young people more respect and liberties that are connected to obeying very clear rules in the community, then they are able to have more freedom and also have less incidences of disrespect, of disobeying any rules. We have no... we really have no disciplinary problems at Urban Academy because the community is small and people respect each other.

Q: People talk about School Culture. What are the nuts and bolts mechanisms that make the Urban Academy School Culture what it is?

Everything about Urban Academy is collaborative. We meet once or sometimes twice a week as a full staff to hash out and discuss not only the running of the school -- it's all teacher-run -- but also the direction our curriculum is going, whether we are achieving the goals we've set for ourselves and we also rely on each other as our best advisors towards making our classes work better. We also train teachers on-site and everyone who comes into the Urban Academy as a teacher goes through a two year process of having a mentor on staff who will sit in on your classes, discuss what your goals of a certain lesson were, whether you feel you met those goals, how you handled maybe a dip in the energy of the classroom, how you maybe could have handled something differently. And it was very scary to come into that. At first. I felt like the teachers around me when I first entered Urban Academy had all this wealth of experience that I hadn't been exposed to yet; I felt like I was all thumbs and it was a little scary to have someone I really respected sit in on my class and watch what I was doing and talk to me specifically about, "Why did you ask James that question that way? Maybe you could have tried asking it this way." And I learned how to teach through that mentoring relationship. My desk is right beside Herb Mack's desk in the office and I can't help but overhear and learn from his way of negotiating with students when there's any kind of a conflict or helping a student who's really having a hard time, either at home or in school. And I think he really sets a very specific tone in the school, one of understanding and really listening to students and knowing how to ask the right questions.

Q: How does the tone or culture of the school manifest itself in your classroom?

We run our classes as seminars and we avoid all lecturing and when I find myself standing in front of a class, writing something on the board, and working harder to get them to understand that idea that they just aren't grasping, I know I'm doing something wrong. And I have to back up, and I have to think of a way to frame the question in a way that will invite them to use their natural intellectual curiosity to pursue it. And once I do that, the class is back on track and off we go.

Q: Urban Academy is a public alternative school. How have alternative schools usually been received?

Unfortunately, I think there is still a stigma attached to alternative education. I think a lot of society feels that "if you can't fit in, then, you know, we shouldn't make any concessions. You should..." Basically, the point is you got to learn how to fit in and that's the basis of our public education system. It's also the basis of our corporate work environment: Obey the person on top and learn how to deal.

Q: How does Urban Academy defy the attitude that says You have to fit in?

Our philosophy is that the problem is not with the student -- it's with the institution that was frustrating them and, through our application process, we seek out students who are ready to invest in their own education, who haven't lost a passion for learning. They've just reached a point where they're frustrated with the way they've been forced to learn in their school. There's really nothing more rewarding than seeing a student who has incredible potential being reborn as a good student.

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Alex White