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Guest Blog: Teacher Stephanie Parga of IDEA Rundberg

May 18, 2016

I still remember how crushed I felt when I was convinced that I wasn’t being chosen for the position at the first charter school I applied to in Austin. After weeks of applications and phone interviews, I was already planning to stay another year in Puerto Rico and try it again next summer. Even when I didn’t entirely know what working for a charter school meant, I immediately took to the high expectations that I saw during my sample lesson. I didn’t know what their secret was, but I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Three years later, countless hours of work, almost 300 students served and now becoming a Grade Team Lead for 1st grade at IDEA Rundberg- I am very happy they called me back and I got to learn what those high expectations meant in the context of charter schools.

The same expectations that originally drew me to charter schools is also often the reason that working in a charter school can feel so exhausting. One of the main purposes of charter schools is to give families more educational options for their children, and hopefully, to make sure that at least one of their options is a phenomenal school at no cost to them. And while providing students and families with a school system they deserve feels like a large expectation on its own, that usually isn’t the only expectations we in the charter school world face daily. With charter schools carrying an inevitable political charge with them, the high expectations within the school are matched with high expectations externally. So with the daily work teachers like me commit to daily: staying at school until 9 p.m. creating materials, being available to parents over the phone until late night for any questions on homework, and of course living on coffee. It can be overwhelming when met with the feeling that you are trying to prove your school works when so many are expecting you to fail. If you are a charter school teacher, and thus totally dedicated to the mission of giving ALL kids and families the chance to go to and graduate from college, the weight of high-expectations is a daily reality.

The commitment to excellence in charter schools is something usually spoken about in the context of the commitments of kids and families, but is also so much a part of the daily lives of teachers. Expectations, and the monitoring of teachers progress towards those expectations, is the way we ensure that charter schools are indeed committing to excellence for kids and families. We see this in the feedback that is provided on a weekly basis if not more frequent depending on the teacher’s need. We see this in the way areas of strength and areas of growth are described on various categories like culture, delivery, professionalism, etc., with clear next steps following every observed behavior. We see the commitment to excellence and the high-expectations in the whole process, a process that includes weekly or biweekly meetings with your manager to discuss rationale around feedback and ways to improve. For me, seeing was believing, because this system worked. Not just for me, as it did make me the teacher leader I am today, but also for the kids and families I serve. We both were held to high expectation, and with the school’s clear commitment to excellence, we both met them.

The expectations that are set on charter school teachers took on new meaning as I learned that founding charter schools are no exception to these astronomical standards. Don’t get me wrong, I had the wonderful privilege of being part of two founding schools, but it was definitely an eye-opening experience. It was a trial and error process from day one with a steep learning curve and short timeframes. We tried different behavior management programs, we tried and retried hallway procedures, we tried, learned and implemented various assessments, and all with the knowledge that we had to get it right fast, because we were serving kids and families that deserved a terrific school today, not a terrific school tomorrow. Though that could have felt like more of a weight being added to our daily work, it actually felt great to be part of a team of educators that got to put a school together, and to realize that with our dedication to a common mission, we could provide what our families deserved. Now on my path to leadership, I realize that working at a charter school, not to mention founding a charter school, is no easy task. Commitment to your team, to your kids, and to your families is non-negotiable. But at the end of the day, those expectations don’t become a weight anymore. They become the standard that you realize you can actually rise above, and in doing so, a mission that unites schools and communities to do something exceptional.

Being a charter school teacher has made me the best teacher I could be, because I was given high expectations, the rationale for why they were important, and the tools I needed to meet them. I’ve grown in more areas than I knew existed in teaching: my classroom management-stronger, the way I deliver my lessons- tighter, my communication with parents- more humble, establishing culture- responsive to my kids. My time as a charter school teacher has allowed me to internalize the weight of high expectations, and realize that they are the key to achieving our mission of making college a reality for all children. The expectations that drew me to charter schools, that often led me to points of exhaustion, and that allowed me to help increase the educational opportunities for communities are the same reason that in 5, 10, or 15 years you will find me at a charter school, hopefully in a position of leadership, continuing to set and meet high expectations for kids.

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