High School Reform

The lesson plan for a new school: Teaching ‘joyous service’

For a new father, the responsibilities of parenting and teaching collide

Planning lessons while holding his newborn son, Taylor Delhagen wonders how he can juggle the roles of teacher and father without compromising himself professionally or personally.

NEW YORK –– The two births that would change everything for Taylor Delhagen were due to occur 24 hours apart. If all went according to plan, his school would come into being one day, followed by his first child the next.

The baby boy’s impending arrival had the vivacious 31-year-old contemplating the gravity of his role as a teacher opening a charter high school in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods: Brownsville, Brooklyn. Four of the five founding teachers, Delhagen among them, came together from a nearby charter where they had success producing high test scores among low-income students but felt stifled in what they see as a more vital task: developing human beings.

Now comes the chance for Delhagen to more freely offer an education he would want for his own son in a community four miles and a world apart from Brooklyn’s gentrified Fort Greene, where rent on his family’s two-bedroom apartment just spiked 18 percent.

He and his colleagues were heavily involved in designing Brooklyn Ascend High School, which began classes Sept. 8, the day before his wife’s due date. Principal Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño spent most of her budget on accomplished, experienced educators, rather than saving money with rookies. She hired just one teacher relatively new to the profession, in his third year, to teach math.

Delhagen, the social studies teacher, wants to help Ascend’s 66 ninth-graders not just to dodge the life of poverty and crime that sucks in so many around them, but to exercise real choices about their futures. He is keenly aware that each one of them is someone’s child, with all the hopes and dreams that entails.

But as a new father, he can no longer work until 9 o’clock every night like he did when he started teaching a decade ago, or get so emotionally invested in his job that he makes himself sick.

Nationally, one of the biggest reasons education is so inferior for poor, minority students is their schools’ inability to keep engaging, effective teachers like Delhagen, whose class can feel like a theatrical production as he stands on a chair directing charges scurrying about. Burnout among young, ambitious educators is common within a few years, and especially once they start families of their own.

Related: A race to close the achievement gap without burning through teachers

Jarvis-Cedeño knows that of all her school’s innovative elements — from a liberal arts curriculum to a beautiful building to a discipline system stressing character-building over suspension — nothing is possible without excellent teachers. She is trying to make the job sustainable for them, and for herself as she cares for a husband with cancer, in ways like supporting Delhagen to take whatever paternity leave he needed.

Will they be able to “teach in balance,” as Delhagen often signs his emails (alternating with “be well, and teach like hell”), and still deliver on a monumental task?

On the first day of school, Taylor Delhagen directs his ninth-grade students to write “tweets” about Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson based on different depictions of events he posted around the room.

On Aug. 28, Delhagen was feeling optimistic about the prospect and surprisingly calm as he decorated his sixth-floor classroom in a restored old theater that now houses multiple charter schools. On the front wall, he hung a self-made timeline of world history from distant past (“1100: BOOM! The Chinese use gunpowder in battle”) to recent past (“2011: Osama bin Laden is killed in northern Pakistan. Does this really make the world peaceful?”). On the back wall, he put a poster of the Berlin Wall with the Pink Floyd lyric, “Mother, should I trust the government?”

He kept his green-cased cell phone by his side should his wife, a middle school English teacher he met on their college track team, go into labor early. He planned to take off three days when the baby arrived, and then work half-days for four weeks. (“And you will go home,” his principal told him. “Will you really?” his wife asked.) His lessons were planned for the first 14 days of instruction, all focusing on the danger of studying history from a single perspective, the subject of his research when he did a Fulbright fellowship in India last year. He had a schedule to alternately run and bike to work, despite having been hit by a car on his bike last spring, to stay fit with minimal free time.

Five days later, 18 high school freshmen shuffled tentatively into that room for an orientation activity. “Namaste, everybody,” Delhagen said, using the Sanskrit greeting for “the light in me honors the light in you.” He was in a plaid turquoise shirt and navy tie, his arm around a boy taller than he is. Once they were seated in a circle, he said they would have three to four minutes to write answers to the following:

1) What do you want to do with your life?

2) Who are you? Who do you want to be?

3) What do you stand for?

Many students found the first question the easiest. “Shouldn’t you know who you are before you know what you want to do?” Delhagen probed them.

“What do you mean?” asked a girl with glasses and braids. “I’m Courtney.”

“That’s all you are? Your name?” Delhagen asked. “You didn’t even choose your name.”

“It defines who you are,” she replied.

Asked what he stands for, a boy in a hoodie mumbled his answer.

“Be loud, be proud,” Delhagen said, requiring him to stand up and repeat his answer without his hand in front of his mouth. And then again: “I still can’t hear you.”

“I stand for life,” the boy said for the third time, audible finally. “Even though I’m young, I still have stuff to do.”

Delhagen and the special education teacher, there to offer support, passed out papers listing 60 values, from respect to achievement to adventure, and asked the students to circle five that mean the most to them. They then divided the class into groups to agree on five collectively. It was the beginning of an extensive process to get the students and parents to choose four core values for the school.

Over the summer, the teachers and administrators voted on a fifth value, selecting the option suggested by Delhagen: seva, another Sanskrit term he defined as “joyous service.” (“Selfless service” is also a common translation.)

At a Tuesday night planning session in late June as everyone munched wasabi pea crisps, one teacher questioned whether they all can live in joyous service every day.

“Aspire to it,” Delhagen replied.

***

The middle child of a progressive Presbyterian minister and a social worker, Delhagen heard a lot about service growing up in places including Philadelphia and a tiny orchard town outside Rochester, New York. At the College of Wooster in Ohio, he majored in political science and international relations and figured he would do Teach For America for two years before pursuing a law career.

As principal Melissa Jarvis-Cedeño looks on, Taylor Delhagen directs students to various stations around his classroom. His global history class can feel like a theatrical production.

He remembers the students who changed his mind. One was named Princess, and she was in his global history class at the small Brooklyn high school where he was assigned. As he taught a unit on the Haitian revolution, “she just knew so much more than I did,” he said. “I felt so ill-equipped … so culturally irresponsible.” To be of service, he couldn’t just show up to teach. He had to throw himself into the profession wholeheartedly.

By age 23, Delhagen was part of a group of young teachers starting a high school in a chain of so-called “no excuses” charters, with a rigorous discipline code and high academic standards geared toward passing standardized tests. He proved brilliant at preparing his students to score well on tests and was showered in teaching awards for his results, one of which paid for his wedding and honeymoon to Croatia.

But the testing culture felt “dirty,” he said; he was urged to spend too much time teaching students to be quiet and convincing them that, “if you score well, your life options will open up.” No-excuses discipline felt ridiculous at times — wearing black shoes with silver eyelets around the laces violated the uniform standard of solid black, for instance — and he said he saw low-performing students counseled out.

Related: The painful backlash against ‘no excuses’ discipline

During his sabbatical studying in India, he met the CEO of an organization fighting educational inequality in that country. He was inspired when he heard her asking kids who they want to be and how school can get them there. Early this year, he seriously considered taking a position with that organization in Mumbai, until he got another appealing offer close to home.

Betsy Olney Goldfarb, the administrator planning the first high school in the small Ascend charter network, was on the hunt for exceptional teachers interested in providing a broad liberal arts education. Test prep would be just one part of that, and the new school would hold students responsible for their actions, not rush to suspend for misbehavior. Delhagen, who now spends his summers training new teachers for Teach For America and lectures at a graduate school of education, was a prime candidate.

From their first coffee meeting, he was clear he would be a package deal with his friend Dan Sonrouille, who had taught science alongside him since the founding of their last school. A second must was meeting the principal. The two white men were inspired by Jarvis-Cedeño, a Latina leader for a school serving black and Hispanic students. They helped recruit an English teacher and a special education teacher. It felt like a dream opportunity to start a school together based on their shared beliefs, even as Sonrouille had just become a father and Delhagen was about to follow suit.

***

On the first day of school, Delhagen had his students assume the role of reporters in Ferguson, Missouri, covering the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. They were to construct “tweets” — even though no one admitted to actually having a Twitter account — based on different photos posted around the classroom. Brown was depicted on camera robbing a convenience store, in his high school cap and gown, and smiling with his family. Depending on which photo was provided to the press, he could be portrayed to the public as a thug, a scholar or someone’s child. The whole truth, students learned, involves multiple points of view.

On the second day of school, the baby did not come. Not on the third or fourth day, either. Principal Jarvis-Cedeño breathed a sigh of relief, having made it through the first week with her staff intact.

Related: A new way to evaluate teachers: Let them set their own standards

Rumi Miles Delhagen resembles his vivacious father when he waves his arms in animation. Rent on the family’s two-bedroom apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, just spiked 18 percent.

That Saturday morning, Tiffany Delhagen went into labor at the farmer’s market. She endured 36 hours with no pain medication before giving birth on the night of Sunday, Sept. 13 to Rumi Miles Delhagen, who was 7 pounds, 3 ounces.

In a haze of love and sleep deprivation, the new father worried he’d been overly ambitious and devised a more realistic plan for returning to work. He went in to brief a substitute, one of the school’s two administrators, when Rumi was just three days old, but otherwise took off a week and a half. The birth fortunately coincided with school closures for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so he missed just four days of instruction.

“Whew. This parenthood-teacher thing is no joke,” he wrote in an email on his first day back on a half-day schedule, teaching his three world history classes in the morning but using substitutes for a character seminar and yoga elective he leads in the afternoon.

He returned full time Oct. 20 to a staff jolted by an unexpected setback: The math teacher had quit after being threatened at a corner store near the school on his lunch break. Delhagen offered to accompany him to and from work daily, to no avail. The school’s second administrator is now teaching math until the principal finds the right fit for the job. She made an offer to a promising candidate on Friday.

In February, Delhagen is scheduled to moderate a panel on teacher retention at Teach For America’s 25th anniversary conference in Washington. He finds it offensive when people ask him, as they do frequently, when he’s going to become a principal or do something else. Teaching is fun, he says, and it’s his calling. Why would he leave?

Yet evenings as he finds himself typing lesson plans on a laptop with one hand and holding Rumi with the other, he wonders how he can handle both roles well.

He wants to be fully present for his son, to challenge him as he challenges his students, to teach him to be kind to others. At school he can’t wait for his wife’s text messages with photos and videos capturing the moments he’s missing.

And while he could get by spending far fewer hours than he does planning lessons and preparing class materials, he won’t let up on himself there, either. For other people’s children, he can demand no less.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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