By Ashley Ball, Classroom Chronicles
It is fifth period in Jared McKeehan’s seventh-grade English language arts class at Dalewood Middle School, and he just introduced his students to the story “Raymond’s Run.” The teacher’s presence is undeniable as his booming voice fills the room, walking up and down the aisles reading the beginning of the story aloud. He is an English teacher, but much of McKeehan’s passion has recently been driven by numbers. Like 11: the percent of Dalewood seventh graders who were at or above grade level in English language arts last year. Or four: the number of years he taught at East Lake Middle School in Chattanooga before moving to Dalewood. But there is only one reason that McKeehan left an established position at East Lake Middle to move to a priority school, identified in the bottom 5 percent of performing schools in the state: he wanted a challenge.
McKeehan is one of four teachers who elected to move from a higher performing Chattanooga school to Dalewood Middle for the 2013-14 school year. These four teachers, all earning a score of level 5 on their evaluation last year, received a signing bonus from the Tennessee Department of Education for setting up shop at a priority school. McKeehan admits the money doesn’t hurt, but his main motivation for moving was unrelated; he wanted to make a bigger impact on students who needed him.
He doesn’t describe the school as desperate, instead he said, “It doesn’t feel like we are a school that is failing, it feels like we are a school that is going in a new and exciting direction.”
One of McKeehan’s former colleagues at East Lake is just a few doors down. Jasmine Lloyd teaches eighth-grade math at Dalewood Middle. She humbly acknowledged her success at East Lake in her previous three years in the classroom, and said she could have stayed in a position where she was very comfortable, but said, “That is boring.”
Lloyd described a rock solid administration at her previous school, but said, “It is a personal challenge to see if I can do here what I did there.” Her challenge this year is help raise the number of Dalewood eighth graders at or above grade level in math from last year’s 20 percent.
While both Mckeehan and Lloyd were colleagues at East Lake, they made the decision to move independently, and many questioned it. Despite other people’s doubts, Lloyd knew her personal commitment to expand her professional capacity meant testing herself in a different setting.
McKeehan and Lloyd could potentially receive nearly $20,000 dollars in bonuses this year. This is the sum of the state’s signing bonus given to teachers that earned a level 5 last year and moved to a priority school this year, and several federal grants. Both teachers readily acknowledged the obstacles that lay ahead for the 2013-14 year, but are unabashedly enthusiastic about the professional challenges they have taken on.
“The kids aren’t used to being pushed like I am pushing them,“ said McKeehan of his seventh-grade English students. “One of them told me, ‘This is too much.’ I said, ‘This is nothing compared to what we could be doing.’”
McKeehan is determined to move 30 percent of his students to grade level or above, more than double what students achieved last year, but still well below what he wants for his students. He says his students can make the gains, but they need to know what they are up against.
“They need to see it,” McKeehan said. “They don’t like seeing those small numbers from last year’s scores. They almost get angry at them.”
McKeehan is turning that healthy rage into a drive to grow, and both he and Lloyd are using the numbers to develop the story of this year, strategically working backwards from the successful ending they have already written for their students.
Ashley Ball manages content for Classroom Chronicles. She is a journalist turned educator.