Wilson teachers reflect on experiences at other schools

Margot Durfee

In the fall of 2015, hundreds of students nervously filed through the main entrance of Woodrow Wilson High School. Clarence Alston, a new social studies teacher to Wilson at the time, was just as anxious. “I remember walking through the halls the first time the bell rang and all the students came out of their classrooms,” he recalled. “They looked like ants.”

The first day of school is always both nerve-wracking and exciting, for students and teachers alike. When beginning to teach at a new school, teachers face many new challenges. They have to adjust to the difference in student-body size, student engagement, and teaching style in the classroom, among other new aspects.

With a population of more than 1,800 students, Wilson is the largest high school in DC. “Most of the schools I have been in have never been bigger than 600 students, and [Wilson] is like three times the size of that,” said Patrick Cassidy, a World History teacher at Wilson. He has previously taught at a number of Catholic schools including Hudson Catholic in Jersey City, NJ. “Not knowing everyone in school still is a big adjustment for me.”

With a larger student body, more concerns for attendance issues arise. Coming from private and parochial Catholic schools, Cassidy wasn’t sure if Wilson would have as good attendance. “[With] my image of public education, I wasn’t sure about the discipline,” he said.

Social Studies teacher Jennifer Brown recently taught at Roosevelt STAY High School in Northwest, DC. She explained that Roosevelt had more inconsistent attendance than she has seen at Wilson.

“It made it more stressful as a teacher because you had to plan for if a student had been [absent for a long period of time] to make sure they were able to engage in the lesson,” she said. Brown noted this truancy was often caused by social struggles students faced. Many at Roosevelt STAY battled homelessness, parenthood, and full-time jobs while simultaneously trying to get their education.

When Brown started working at Wilson, she expected attendance to be higher. After almost a year teaching here, she has found that the majority of her students understand their responsibilities when absent.

Other teachers had similar experiences. “I taught at a DCPS middle school and then a private Catholic school in Maryland,” said English teacher Lauren Hartshorn. “This school is easier to teach at than my other DCPS school… the behavior is better.”

Another change teachers have had to adjust to is the DCPS Common Core curriculum. Adopted by DCPS in 2010, Common Core State Standards is a student-centered curriculum designed for a more inquiry and investigation based learning experience and allows teachers to modify class resources to best engage the students.

Adjusting to the Common Core was challenging for some teachers. Prior to Wilson, Alston taught at a charter school where, he explained, “I really didn’t feel I had the freedom to work with my colleagues to improve the lesson plans [and] develop good teaching techniques.” But the introduction of programs such as LEAP through the Common Core encourage teachers to collaborate to improve their teaching methods and “hone our skills to make sure we are giving our students the best,” said Alston.

Nearing the end of his third year at Wilson, Alston is a World History teacher and is actively involved in the Wilson International Studies Program. He has adjusted to the school and is enjoying his time here. “I brought with me a smile… I think in the teaching profession it is so stressful that oftentimes you can forget to smile. We [need to] remember that fellow teachers and students need the encouragement.”