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Starting her leadership journey in a Baltimore classroom

Tasha Patusky
Tasha Patusky is a Master of Public Policy candidate at Georgetown University. She also serves as the national policy manager for Citizen Schools, a nonprofit that partners with school districts to expand the learning day for low-income children.

Before joining Teach For America, I had held several leadership positions--the kind that look good on paper and probably helped me get accepted into such a selective teaching corps -- but the truth is that I knew very little about leadership until I became a teacher.

As a Teach for America corps member, I served two years as a French teacher at a struggling high school in Baltimore. Fresh out of college, I was "Mademoiselle Patusky" with nearly 100 students depending on me to learn basic French. The responsibilities I held, and the weight of the achievement gap I was trying to narrow, pushed me to be a leader every day.

Fortunately, Teach For America provided me with a heavy dose of leadership training at Institute, the five-week summer boot camp all corps members attend before entering our classrooms. In a course called "Teaching as Leadership," we learned leadership principles patented by business guru, Jim Collins.

Most memorably, we learned the importance of setting a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) for our students--and working relentlessly to help them meet our ambitious expectations. We talked about assessing our students frequently to measure their progress and engaging in constant self-reflection to learn from our mistakes and successes.

But knowing the extreme challenges my students faced -- growing up in poor, violent neighborhoods with a broken education system -- pushed me to think bigger. Many of my students had reached 10th grade without acquiring basic reading and writing skills. If I was going to teach them French, I knew I'd have to do more than set ambitious goals and work tirelessly to help my students meet them. I also would have to teach with enthusiasm and courage myself.

In my Baltimore classroom, I set a BHAG for my classes -- that all students would demonstrate mastery of at least 85% of national foreign language standards for basic French -- and tried to get my students pumped about it. I worked to create a "culture of achievement" in my classroom by celebrating high-achieving students on a regular basis. At the front of my classroom, in the center of a 2-D Arc de Triomphe, I posted a weekly list of Les Triomphants--all the students who had aced the prior week's quiz.

Every Monday, students would rush into my classroom to find out if they had made the list, and they would beam if they saw their name. On my drive home from work, I would assess my own progress. I made mental notes of the games and activities that thrilled my kids and vowed to never make that day's mistakes again.

Knowing that French is a subject many low-income students are denied, I sought to make the most of every lesson. My students teased me for teaching so energetically, but the good work they produced suggested that some of my enthusiasm rubbed off on them. As for courage, it's what allowed me to demand excellence from my students.

Despite their initial protests, I assigned my students substantial homework and expected them to study regularly--which, unfortunately, was not the case in many of their other classes. It wasn't easy to stand my ground, but it paid off when my students started gaining fluency and taking pride in their French skills.

Courage also kept me from quitting, especially after two fights erupted in my class during my first year and police removed an armed student from my classroom in my second year. Courage helped me return to school every day and seize the precious opportunity I had to teach my students something new.

Since my Teach For America experience, I've continued leading; first at a Boston charter school and now, at a national nonprofit organization. With every professional opportunity, I gain new insights into effective leadership. But in the two incredible years I spent teaching in Baltimore, I learned my most valuable leadership lesson so far: that when it comes to our biggest challenges, courage and enthusiasm are not only helpful but essential.

By Tasha Patusky

 |  October 28, 2009; 6:00 AM ET |  Category:  Education leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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So why only 2 years?

Posted by: ilcn | November 1, 2009 11:44 AM

I respect the comments that have been made in response to my piece, and wanted to address one particular theme. Several of you noted the “self-congratulatory” tone of my essay. I can see how it might come across that way. For a short piece on the leadership lessons I learned from teaching, I decided to focus on my achievements. What I didn’t convey is that I made lots of mistakes when I was a teacher, and not all of my students were successful. Teaching is, by far, the hardest job I’ve ever had; and I have sincere admiration for those who dedicate their lives to the profession.

Posted by: tpatusky | October 30, 2009 1:17 PM

To obieinalexandria - Bravo your entire piece. Clearly a marathoner, not a sprinter. My hat's off to you.

To Axeldc - You clearly don't understand what "lack basic reading and writing skills" means. Maybe it means something different where you are, but around HERE, it usually means that reading comprehension is so sub-par that the mere act of READING "English Grammar for Students of Italian" may be out of the ballpark. If reading as a SKILL has been missed, back in gradeschool or wherever, and is not noticed and remedially addressed at some point, reading for COMPREHENSION is not going to happen. By 10th grade, kids should be reading for comprehension, not struggling with basic reading skills, and the pressures of highschool dictate that most teachers flat out don't have time to make sure that Not-so-little Johnny understands sentence structure and vocabulary. They are teaching their subject, not reading. If they ARE teaching remedial reading in say..history, then they aren't teaching history, now are they? So, I fail to see the benefit of French in 10th grade, if a kid still can't compose a proper sentence or read on level in his native tongue. Being "denied French" seems paltry compared to being denied a basic living due to functional illiteracy, don't you think? Petusky's enthusiasm would probably have born more fruit if she had applied it to the real need.

Posted by: krising40 | October 29, 2009 1:24 PM

As a veteran with nearly a decade of teaching experience in urban, suburban and rural school districts, I have to say that I agree with the majority of the other readers who have posted here.

While Ms. Patusky clearly has good intentions, two years teaching experience does not adequately qualify one to comment on leadership in education. What is perhaps most telling - and indicative of a larger, more troubling trend - is that Ms. Patusky is intelligent and highly enthusiastic AND is no longer in the classroom. A more productive piece of writing from Ms. Patusky could have addressed how educational leaders in school settings (administrators, teacher leaders, etc., not professors at Georgetown or policy-wonks) could help keep people like her staffed in struggling school districts.

Readers, please keep in mind that there are many wonderful school districts in the Baltimore area in which Ms. Patusky could have secured employment while also advocating to help low-income children. Also, trust school administrators and classroom teachers when they say that policy-wonks do more harm than good for our education systems.

Posted by: obieinalexandria | October 29, 2009 12:46 PM

I did several 2-year stints at different schools over a period of 28 years, and each time enjoyed the "rush" of newness: new experience, new ideas, new environment, etc., etc. The real courage came when I committed first to 18 years, then six, at other schools. To maintain enthusiasm and freshness of ideas is a stickier wicket over the long haul. My recommendations for aspiring veterans are two:

1. Take care of yourself:
YOUR mental and physical health
and educational self must come
before your that of your students'
if you wish to maintain your
stamina, intellect, quality of
teaching and to avoid the dreaded

2. Insist that schools honor/bring
back sabbaticals, retreats and
other means of recharging your
enthusiasm and innovational stores;
you can't run on empty.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | October 29, 2009 11:13 AM

And BTW, if you want to be a leader, try being a leader of children. In the classroom. On recess duty. Try your leadership stopping a playground brawl or a cafeteria food fight. Oh, I forgot. You think you're really special and want to work in public or educational policy, not in its actual implementation. And yes, the Frnch loan word dilletante certainly comes to mind.

Posted by: chelita | October 29, 2009 10:58 AM

As a veteran teacher in an urban school district, what I can't stand about TFA is that they are so full of themselves. Plus they think they're too smart, too gifted, too special to stay teachers, that life has something better in store for them than spending a long time in a classroom. And why are they studying French? Because it's a part of most middle and high school course offerings as an elective.

Posted by: chelita | October 29, 2009 10:54 AM

Congratulations, Tasha...I respect your achievements.
Did your studies include training in ethical leadership and motivation?

I write books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, motivation, women in the workforce, sexual harassment, bullying. trade unions, etc. and I am willing to send free abridged versions of my books to anyone who sends an e-mail request to crespin79@primus.ca.

Maxwell Pinto, Business Author

Posted by: crespin79 | October 29, 2009 10:41 AM

jesus!!! seems like this teacher thought she ought to be on her high-achievers "arc de triomphe"!!!
As a teacher, for something like twenty years now, I thought that one, if not, THE most essential quality to teach was humility, the ability to doubt, question oneself. Seems to me this one teacher, though pretending to assess her work every night, is far too full of herself to teach anything, or anyone properly.
As for this typical American, Best student of the week posters, well, a good initiative surely!ah!ah!ah!
ONE: what about those kids who, even though they are not BEST, have still improved their work?
TWO: are you not working to prepare the kids for their future life as "slave-workers", since most big company nowadays use this "ego-destroying' system to boost their workers'efficiency at whatever cost for their employers' self esteem. Numerous workers in France have lately committed suicide because they didn't appear, despite their hard work on their bosses'"arc de triomphe'!
I just have a totally different idea of what teaching was about!

Posted by: resistance2 | October 29, 2009 7:06 AM

Wow. Tenth grade without basic reading and writing skills and she's trying to "enthuse" and "leadership" them into reading and writing FRENCH? Priorities seem rather skewed here. I'm sure potential employers will be quite impressed if and when these kids try to get jobs. And I'm so glad SHE learned so much about leadership that she could then take AWAY from from that struggling school with its kids from poor, violent homes. My husband, a veteran of 15 years at just such an inner city highschool, who does not pat himself on the back for the "courage to not quit" (which she did after a mere 2 years) suggested that she needed to review one of the French words she's so proud of: Dilettante. Overall, the self-congratulatory arrogance of this piece is just staggering, but hey, it's indicative that she really WILL make a typical administrator. Those who can, teach, those who can't, go into management and purport to tell those who CAN hack it, what they're doing wrong.

Posted by: krising40 | October 29, 2009 7:00 AM

Tash--hey, thanx fo yo service. Interesting article, even if woefully too self-congratulatory. But again, thanx.

Posted by: axolotl | October 28, 2009 3:41 PM

The best way to understand your own language is to study another one.

Students of foreign languages are much better at grammar and spelling because they are forced to look at English from another perspective.

When I took Italian, we read "English Grammar for Students of Italian", which teaches your own language to better study another. (The books are also printed for French, Spanish, German, etc.)

Another thing I learned from French: I understood Shakespeare a lot better because Elizabethan English was much closer to its French roots than contemporary English.

>Tasha Petusky admits that her 10th graders >lacked basic language skills--
>These kids can't speak or write Standard >English competently--
>WHY are they studying French...?

Posted by: AxelDC | October 28, 2009 11:06 AM

Tasha Petusky admits that her 10th graders lacked basic language skills--
These kids can't speak or write Standard English competently--
WHY are they studying French...?

Posted by: flyingcow | October 28, 2009 9:31 AM

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