I am sitting at a public event on teacher leadership in Philadelphia. So far, I’ve listened to several panelists articulate their positions and debate the merits of various approaches to handing teacher accountability. All are polite, but something is simmering under the surface in the room. The moderator asks for comments, and Anissa Weinraub takes the mic. All eyes are immediately on her. Even before she speaks, you can sense the mood in the room shifting; things are about to get real. Anissa breaks it down: (I’m paraphrasing here) “I’m sitting here listening to all of you, and thinking, ‘this is utterly absurd.’ My kids don’t have books. They don’t even have a library. How can we talk about measuring one teacher against another when when our schools are being systematically de-funded?” The room is silent, then, loud applause. Anissa Weinraub owns the room.
I know Anissa mainly through Teacher Action Group (TAG Philly) and several other teacher networks in Philadelphia. She is a dynamic, passionate teacher, artist, and activist. Her passion for social justice is contagious, and she knows how to motivate and organize a group. She is inspiring to listen to and work with. Read below for her profile and story.
1. Can you share a little background with us about your teaching career? For example, what brought you into teaching? What do you teach?
My mom was a high school French teacher, and I witnessed how much energy, passion, and hard work my mother put into teaching. From an early age I knew how important, grueling and under appreciated the profession was.
I worked as a community organizer, connecting tenants with each other to fight against land takeovers and gentrification. I realized that the power for community change was situated inside of building relationships with one another. The most powerful, transformative relationships I ended up building were with young people, so I started getting involved with after school programs. That led me into following in my mother’s legacy and becoming a teacher.
I currently teach Drama, English and Social Science at Bodine High School. I have taught in 8 different schools over my 8 year career, including being founding faculty at Science Leadership Academy (where I taught for 3 years), Kensington Urban Education Academy, West Philadelphia, and Bartram High Schools.
2. What motivates and sustains you as a teacher?
Motivation: I love to witness the daily epiphany of teenagers uncovering more about themselves and the world around them. I love the way a class discussion can push students and myself in our thinking. I love how talented, creative, hilarious, inventive, and visionary young people can be. I love that if I can carefully facilitate a classroom space, the levels of empathy and exchange my students create gets them to consider experiences different than their own and push back on some of their socialization, stereotypes and self-hatred. And I love how this makes me believe in a transformed world in which we are putting people’s real needs above profit and strategizing to transform our world for the better. Oh, and I love telling jokes to a captive audience. Just kidding. Sort of.
Sustenance: The connections I have built with other teachers, especially through Teacher Action Group Philadelphia, our national TAG network, and the Free Minds Free People network. Without these people to help me develop new ideas and inspiration to push my own teaching practice, understand the level of coordinated attack against the communities in which we teach, and together build the skills and collective power we need to defend and transform public education, there’s no way I could have weathered the storm of our dysfunctional district.
3. What is something that you are passionate about as a teacher/learner and how do you incorporate it into your teaching?
I am a performer at heart, and I believe in the power of coming to voice through sharing stories about things that matter to me. So, at the core of my teaching philosophy is the understanding that education must ignite something within my students, help them put language to their lived experiences, and create an open space for self-growth and expression. In my teaching, this looks like creating a classroom environment in which students’ own stories fuel forward the rest of our work. We write, share, listen, and give critical feedback (on each others’ writing and lives in general). In drama, we are on our feet, creating original work, exploring our talents, and making space for people to feel proud, confident, and self-actualized.
Also, as someone who is connected to the larger political work in this city for social justice, I believe that my classroom must function to help my students build skills, critically synthesize information, and come up with creative ideas to solve the problems of the world they are inheriting. This translates into a lot of project-based work. In my social science class, we are working on (wait for it…) Innovation in Education Action Research Design Projects. Students have investigated the foundation, ideology and dismantling of public education, zeroed in on an aspect of education design they want to innovate (e.g. curriculum, discipline systems, student government, technology, etc), gathered and analyzed stakeholder feedback from other students through surveys and focus group interviews, and are currently developing their recommendations for our school and the School District of Philadelphia in general. Next week they will present to the Office of New School Models.
For me, my teaching has to spark something, force actual inquiry, develop students’ sense of themselves, and help them orient their worldview. Otherwise, why put in all the work?
4. What do you think needs to change or happen in education/schools?
How much time do you have?
Pure and simple: Our schools must become sites for healthy, rich, and whole human development. Anything short of that is dis-serving our young people, and in turn, our selves, our society and our future.
Those of us who work in or attend schools know that we are falling incredibly short.
We need to innovate curriculum, teaching and learning. We need to move away from the standardization of our methods, an allegiance to the testing industry, and our fear of getting caught doing something beyond “I do-we do-you do.” We need to be developing ourselves to engage in project-based assessment, student entrepreneurship, culturally-responsive teaching, and the pedagogy of design thinking.
We need to change the structures of how schools operate. For one, teachers, parents, and students should be at the center of decision-making in our schools and our District, and we need to redesign the mechanisms of school governance to be run through this type of distributive leadership. Secondly, our schools must be places where young people learn from their mistakes, develop empathy, and recognize the ways in which they cause and can repair harm; therefore, our schools, staff, and communities must commit to using restorative practices to teach instead of punish, and heal trauma instead of continually pushing out our young people into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Above all, we need to fundamentally reinvest as a society in our schools, our young people, and our communities, so that every child receives a high-quality, equitably funded public education. This is especially true in cities like Philadelphia where the legacy of racial discrimination, historical disinvestment, and political disenfranchisement is still very real and has left our schools under-resourced while facing huge social, emotional and academic challenges.
Given the economic and political power of those who are advancing a market-driven, corporate “reform” model of standardization and privatization, what really needs to change is the rebuilding of a movement of teachers, students, parents, and community members to take back the control and reorient our public school system.
5. What advice can you share with new teachers just entering the field?
Our schools are dysfunctional not simply because of “the kids” or “the community.” The kids at Philly public schools are amazing, and, when supported, will show you their greatness. It’s the larger forces (inequitable funding, pervasive poverty, mismanagement, standardization of education) that have set up our schools to look the way they look. If you want to succeed, you will need to connect with other educators to work together to make your classrooms sites of possibility and influence those who make the decisions that most affect us. Joining TAG is some of the best advice I can give you
Anissa’s Blog: http://afterthereturn.blogspot.com
Anissa on Twitter: @MsWeinraub
Read an article by Anissa in the Penn GSE Urban Education Journal
**About Transformative Teacher Profiles: TTPs are meant to “flip the script” and offer a counter-narrative to negative and dehumanizing stereotypes about teachers. Here you’ll read about truly transformative teaching, leadership, and inspiring work. The format is simple: I ask six questions of each teacher that I profile about their teaching and learning. If you know of amazing teachers that I should profile, please write me a comment below or send me a tweet about them!**