The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uncommon Schools are demanding for students and teachers. This teacher likes it that way.

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This is the second of two columns about the educators who make Uncommon Schools, an uncommonly successful charter network in New Jersey. Read the first here.

When Mike Taubman was studying to be a teacher, he encountered little love for public charter schools. In his liberal graduate education school, at Stanford University, the highest-achieving, no-excuses charters were often seen as a right-wing plot that chewed up young teachers and treated children like automatons.

Taubman, though, didn’t buy it. As an undergraduate, he had interned at Uncommon Schools, one of the most demanding charter networks. It worked for him. So he returned after graduate school, and now, at 39, he’s in his 15th year at Uncommon Schools and still thriving in its cauldron of nine-hour school days and lesson plans so detailed teachers use timers to make sure every point is covered.

He first taught English at Uncommon’s North Star Academy middle school, then moved to its North Star Academy high school, both then in the same building in Newark. The two schools score high on state tests. The high school also does well on the three-hour college-level Advanced Placement exams. His students have almost always been from low-income families; about 80 percent are black and the rest Hispanic.

Many charter teachers like Taubman are willing to work the long hours because they can see, in the rising confidence and exciting futures of their students, how effective they can be. The money’s not as bad as some assume: Charter-school teachers can earn as much as regular public school teachers; in nearby New York City, teachers with Taubman’s experience are paid almost $100,000 a year.

Critics of charters focus on their use of tax dollars without much political supervision and the fact that 75 percent of them are no better than and sometimes are worse than regular schools. Those critics tend to ignore what distinguishes the best charters: a self-sacrificing approach similar to championship sports teams or Marine battalions. “I am not going to hide behind defensiveness if I have taught a bad lesson,” Taubman said. “I’m going to own it. I am going to see the results in the kids’ writing, and I am going to say, ‘How can I do it better tomorrow?’ ”

Uncommon is known for its attention to detail. “Teach Like a Champion” and “Teach Like a Champion 2.0,” two books by Uncommon Managing Director Doug Lemov on the techniques of its instructors, have sold more than 1.3 million copies. Taubman rehearses every lesson and other significant encounters with students. He recently coached a teacher on how to tell a student that the research paper she worked so hard on was not good enough. He pretended to be the anxious student while the teacher explained how the paper could be much better with more work.

After Taubman finished education school in 2005, he started full time at North Star. “I had always thought that creativity meant the absence of structure,” he said. But he saw the student routines at North Star were essential to the content mastery that fostered critical thinking.

When Taubman and other teachers accompanied their fifth-graders on a field trip to Washington, the students interrogated a congressman on crime and housing in Newark. Their questions came from what they learned during a year of preparation for the trip. “They were the most impressive young people everywhere they went,” Taubman remembered.

With practice, his classroom technique improved. If a student was distracted during a lesson, step one was to stand next to the child while continuing to explain and ask questions. Step two was to tap the student’s desk to inspire attention. Step three was to pause just long enough for everyone to look up and for Taubman to make brief eye contact with the student struggling to focus.

Other steps followed if necessary. He would do a lesson plan for the week each Sunday, usually 10 to 15 pages that he would send to his coach. By 6 p.m., she had it back to him with two or three comments on every lesson, some as granular as: “Have you thought of whether this will take five minutes or seven minutes?”

Until he got to North Star, he hadn’t used a timer since he had run track, badly, in high school. He considered it an unnecessary crutch. But he quickly realized that he was a talker and needed the discipline to stay on schedule. The students developed a sense of how much time had elapsed in an assignment, rather than being ambushed by a two-minute warning.

In my experience, few public schools focus on each student with the energy and consistency of the best charters. Regular schools often have teaching coaches, but they are rarely as intense as the ones at Uncommon. Most important, school days are often not as long in regular schools, so there is less time to learn.

Teachers at demanding charters remember how hard it was at the beginning. In Taubman’s early years, if his lesson failed because he didn’t pace himself properly, as soon as the students left, “I would let the tears come.” But over the years, “I figured out how to allocate my energy . . . when to stay up late and when to try to get to sleep.”

He married in 2014. He and his wife, a lawyer, have two small daughters. He is creating a special program next year for 60 seniors at an Uncommon high school in Brooklyn. About eight hours of traditional class time each week will be replaced with deeper learning experiences such as internships, creative work, community meetings and structured reflection.

As always, Taubman loves his job. During the lockdown, he posts a daily instructional video for his literature class, conducts daily online office hours, gives daily grades for submitted work, watches the instructional videos and office hours of the teachers he coaches, attends meetings and works on next year’s big project.

He believes he would have become a teacher even if he had not encountered the inspiring challenges of Uncommon. But he feels he would have been “a less effective teacher than I am now.” That is why he is still there.

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