NYC Public High School Students Challenge Ineffectual Teacher — and Win!

Adams: I supported my daughter in her campaign but didn’t expect it to yield results. I never thought she & her classmates could pull off such a coup.

This is a photo of the author with her daughter, Aries Wickham.
The author with her daughter, Aries Wickham (Roberto Falck)

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Students at one of New York City’s top screened public high schools recently protested how they were being taught pre-calculus/trigonometry. Not only did they win their case, but they taught some adults a lesson.

My daughter, Aries, was one of the students. And I was one of the adults who required educating.

I have written before about my daughter’s struggle with math. My teacher-husband was forced to tutor her at home. My daughter and some fellow students also tried asking their other STEM teachers for help. They did what they could, but, according to my daughter, “They could teach us the math, but since they weren’t making the tests, they weren’t sure what to focus on.”

Matters came to a head before midwinter recess, when the majority of the class failed an exam they’d been led to believe they were prepared for.

My daughter took the initiative to draft an email to her teacher. She ran it by her guidance counselor to make sure it was appropriate. The guidance counselor suggested making it less accusatory and more worried.

The final text read:

Dear (Teacher’s Name Redacted) –

We, the majority of the juniors, are emailing you regarding our concerns about the most recent test.

As you may have noticed when grading it, even the students who completed all of their classwork and all of their homework still struggled.

There were only 3 questions that were similar to the Delta math that we’d been assigned for homework. Because of this, many students who studied hard were still not prepared. The homework led us to believe that the test questions would be different from the ones you ended up using. There were many more of the most difficult questions rather than the ones we’d been assigned for homework.

In class, we spent the entire period working on a total of three questions. On the test, however, there were 10 questions of that nature. We were unprepared to complete 10 such questions in a much reduced time frame. We had never practiced doing so many questions of this type in that amount of time.

Also, in class, it took us a week and a half to complete 25 different types of questions, but, on the test, we were expected to finish 11 such questions in 45 minutes, on top of more questions in areas we hadn’t been prepared for. We are all very worried about the unexpected results of this test, and we are wondering how it will affect our semester grades. In the future, we would all appreciate receiving a more accurate study guide so we can prepare for tests and quizzes by practicing the sorts of problems that will be on our tests and not the material we hadn’t prepared for.

As second-semester Jrs, we are worried about our grades because they are going to be sent to colleges. That’s why we want to work with you to fix and grow from this. This is a new semester and now is the time for us to lay a functional groundwork for the rest of the year as well as be prepared for next year.

Once the text was approved, my daughter sent it to her teacher.

The teacher did not respond during midwinter break. That was to be expected. But there was no response after classes resumed, either.

My daughter returned to her guidance counselor, this time with student representatives from every section this teacher taught.

The guidance counselor spoke to the teacher. The teacher’s response was to show Khan Academy videos during classtime. That wasn’t enough for the students.

My daughter reached out to a member of her school’s newspaper staff who had a strong relationship with the principal. This student escalated their concerns up the administrative chain of command.

The principal sat in on the teacher’s next class. According to my daughter, he looked “disgruntled.”

The following week, there was a new teacher for all the sections. One who, as my daughter delightedly exclaimed, “Makes sense when he talks!”

I supported my daughter in her campaign even though I didn’t expect it to yield results. It never crossed my mind that students might be able to pull off such a coup. 

As an immigrant to the United States, I grew up with two conflicting attitudes toward authority: Those in charge didn’t give a damn about what happened to you … but you should obey them, anyway. They may not have cared if you sank or swam, but rocking the boat guaranteed you’d be thrown overboard. In other words, it’s best to put up with a bad teacher/boss/circumstance, because if you speak up, you’re definitely going to be punished. You can’t fight City Hall!

That fatalist attitude was one of the reasons I allowed my younger son to drop out of high school. He may have, after many, many arguments, convinced me that it was OK to quit an untenable situation. But it took my daughter and her friends to teach me that you could fight back – and win!

I am in awe of what these young people accomplished. They identified their problem, advocated for their position, stuck to their guns and refused to back down until they were presented with a solution that was acceptable to them.

When I told my husband I’d be writing about it, he said, “You’re going to make people angry. They’re going to expect their own schools to be equally as responsive.”

Good. I want them to expect it. I want them to demand it.

I want all American students to know they can challenge their teachers, their principals, the entire education system. They won’t always win. They won’t always be right. But they can and should make their voices heard.

I didn’t believe that. Until some NYC 11th-graders showed me how it’s done.

Get stories like these delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for The 74 Newsletter

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today