Members of my local teaching union are meeting with members of the school board today in an attempt to clarify the issues going on at our high school. Recently, a small article appeared in the local paper about what's "going on" at our school, and this has sparked fear in my heart for a number of reasons. Chiefly, I fear that in this recent environment of domino effect school issues, our school might be one of the next to fall victim to the Obama and Duncan "plan" for schools.
I'm including the letter that I wrote (it will appear first) along with two other letters written by teachers here at the high school. Everything is "re-printed" with permission, and I have edited to preserve the anonymity of myself and my peers.
Letter 1 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I always dreamed of being a teacher, and helping students to reach their full potential in my subject. Lately, however, I’ve found myself teaching to the "lowest common denominator." I won’t deny that at times teachers need to take a step back and re-teach certain concepts to students that experienced trouble with understanding, or that may just need an additional explanation of a concept.
The version of Teach4Success being implemented by the district makes it nearly impossible to actually instruct students regarding important concepts, or processes for how to do things. Instead, I have begun to enable my students in a new form of "learned helplessness," one that in no way prepares them for any sort of future outside of the classroom, college or otherwise.
As a teacher, I have always relied on scaffolding in order to help my students build understanding. The process, in theory, is simple: provide an example, show them how to do it, let them test it out, and then make sure everyone "gets" it before assessing the desired outcome.
Teach4Success, though, and the current demands of the district, make it nearly impossible to teach students effectively. Rather than spending time ensuring that students understand a concept, I spend a great deal of time writing lesson plans that I hope will please the powers that be, and then rushing through them so that I am not penalized for not being on track with the rest of the department. To me, the fear of losing my job over not "keeping up with the pace" is unfortunately subsuming my ability to actually teach my students.
Another factor contributing to the current climate of fear in the building is the absolute inaccessibility of administrators, including the fact that it does not appear to me that I can trust any administrator. I absolutely do not trust the administrator responsible for my department, as I have heard him on several occasions speak in a disparaging manner about people in positions superior to his, even though he feigns respect for them when they participate in walk-throughs. If he reveals that attitude to me, I wonder how he speaks of me when I am not present. In addition, although I have had no occasion to voice a concern or file a grievance – and for this I consider myself extremely fortunate – I know several teachers that have voiced concerns, merely to be rebuffed, or worse, penalized for voicing a dissenting opinion.
The result of all of these factors: I do not feel at all respected or professionally safe in my teaching position. Worse than that, I have students that come to me on a consistent basis telling me that they don’t know how to do something on their own because it is "too hard" to figure out. My students should have the confidence after learning a concept to be able to take risks – to put their thought processes out there and feel like they have the ability to get things done. My students don’t, and so I feel like I am the worst sort of teacher out there. I try to have high expectations for my students and for their ability to accomplish things. But thanks to the "lowest common denominator" mentality of Teach4Success, and the directive for absolute adherence to Teach4Success and the department lesson plans, I not only lower my expectations for my students, but as a result, I am a factor in their lack of confidence in their own abilities.
The teacher I have become was never the sort of teacher I wanted to be.
Letter 2 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
To Whom It May Concern:
Fear consumes me as I construct this letter because it has been made clear this year that teachers’ voices do not matter, and the teachers who choose to speak against the travesties happening at our school are no longer welcome. Our education, experience, or knowledge of what our kids know and what they need to succeed does not matter. The people who have stood up for our students and their educational rights have either resigned early, have been targeted by administration, or plan on leaving at the end of the year. Make no mistake, the teachers we have here are not the problem, the students are not the problem, the problem lies with our lacking, mislead leadership in the building and at the district level.
The focus of the administrative team is no longer on the students; it’s all about meaningless data. When the Superintendent presents data to the School Board, know that it is data generated to make her look productive, and make it seem like the Teach for Success model of teaching is working. The truth: each administrator throughout the district has a different interpretation about what each component of the "observation" tool looks like in the classroom. When they are asked a question about the proper implementation of Teach for Success each one has a different response, and teachers have been reprimanded for attempting to clarify the expectations of the administrative team; these teachers are seen as insubordinate. How many checkmarks each teacher receives on a weekly basis is determined by how much that teacher is respected in the building, and how a particular administrator interprets Teach for Success. How can it be seen as appropriate for administrators to be "observing" (even though it’s really used as an evaluation) teachers when they do not have a clear vision of what it should look like in the classroom? Furthermore, how can teachers be inspired by leaders who use what they claim to be a growth tool as a means to destroy the morale and creativity of the teachers?
The current path of the administration in the district will only lead to lower test scores at the high school level as well as uneducated, unfulfilled graduates. At what point are we going to allow the students to learn to critically think, innovate, synthesize, evaluate, and inspire each other to learn more and go further? We continuously lower the bar for graduation with Work Keys and other alternative programs, and now we are lowering the level of education being provided to the students in our regular classrooms because of the faulty execution of Teach for Success. The rigor necessary for our students to compete with students outside of our district will never exist as long as we, as teachers, are expected to spoon feed and model every piece of learning material for them. The current implementation of Teach for Success does not allow teachers to create plans to meet the needs of the students in our classrooms; we do not have the freedom to use our own research-based practices; we do not have the freedom to differentiate and re-teach to meet the needs of the students; we do not have the freedom to express concerns to the administrative team; we do not have the freedom to teach our students what they need to know in order to be successful in the real world, and not simply learn the skills to perform well on a test. What kind of learners do we want to create, followers or leaders?
"Inspire, educate, empower" has been reduced to "degrade, conform, discourage". If teachers do not feel valued and inspired, why would our students? If teachers do not feel their education is appreciated, why would our students want to continue their education? If teachers do not feel empowered, how can we possibly teach our students how to advocate for themselves? We must honor the teachers in order to build a community of hope and possibility for our students. We must allow all voices in the field of education be heard and honored in order to create meaningful change, not change forced on us by people who are not in the classrooms teaching our students. We must create systems of open communication between the students, teachers, and administrators by not perpetuating a culture of fear. We must base our instruction off of students’ needs and interests, build rigor, build confidence, build passion, and build ingenuity into our students if the true intention of the district is to raise test scores. Focusing on the test will get us nowhere, focusing on the students will lead us in directions we never thought possible.
Letter 3 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
First, it is only fair to state that I write my story through the perspective of a lucky one. You see, I have had positive walk-thru data (for the most part), and I have enjoyed the "approval" of the administration (for the most part). As a general rule, when the higher ups enter my room, they are pleased. And that means a lot to me, to do well for my bosses. I have lived my life to please those around me.
However, I worry about my colleagues. I worry about my practice as a teacher. And most importantly, I worry about the students.
My colleagues and I come to work every day like it is a war zone. Tenured teachers are being attacked and forced out of the district. New teachers are being turned away from the field of teaching. Many teachers are being driven to perpetuating the horrific retention rate here. I might be one of them. Our district likes to throw around the term "research." Well, research indicates that students will do better in a classroom when their affective filters are lowered; that means that when they feel emotionally secure and supported, success is most likely to follow. Teachers are no different. We need to feel secure and supported. Instead, teachers suffocate in a hostile, oppressive, condescending, distrustful, and poorly managed building. Our administration has been heard to say that "teachers are replaceable" and that "teachers need to be told what to do first before they can do it on their own." I question these ideas. We paid a lot of money to be trained at colleges and universities. We are experts in our content and competent in our pedagogy. Are we perfect? No, hardly not! But if our administration wants us to grow, they need to lower our affective filter and encourage us...not threaten.
This is one of my greatest complaints at this school - the growth model. Teachers are stifled in their creativity, suffocated in their pedagogy, and harassed in their classrooms. Often, I feel I work for bullies more so than adults. Teachers are not met where they are—with their gifts and weaknesses. Rather teachers are all placed inside of a box labeled "fix." Well, we don’t want to be "fixed." We want to be inspired, enlightened, heartened; we want to grow. However, when we have a viable, but dangerous program like Teach4Success (that is being butchered by our district), and we have administrators who: A) don’t have a clear definition of what they want to see in the classroom and B) are not unified amongst each other regarding the expectations and C) do not communicate clearly (if at all) to the staff their expectations, then teachers will not grow.
I have not grown this year as a teacher. I have learned valuable lessons, yes. But I have not grown. I know the language of objectives and instructional sequence and formative assessments. I can have more competent conversations that make me appear professionally intelligent. However, I used to drive to work and be filled with creative ideas for inspiring my students to learn. My students use to want to come to my class. I used to be a better teacher. Now, I feel stifled. I drive to work in dread of the "drive-by" evaluation performed by an administrator. I come into the building in fear—on a daily basis, and agony—on a severe basis. I must confess...this is one of the driving reasons I am looking for a new job. I feel that if I stay in this district with the administration that I currently serve, I will "die" as a creative, inspiring, and effective teacher. I will become less, not more. And I am young. I am early in my career. I cannot afford to lay my pedagogical self on the altar just because a misled administration needs to fix something—or make a grandiose attempt.
Lastly, but most importantly, I write this letter in apprehension for our students. I will tell you now that I agree with our administration...what we’ve been doing has not worked. Our test results are low. Our standards have been uninspiring. However, THIS is not working either. Scores will not increase if teachers are constantly looking over their shoulders rather than at the students. Scores will not increase when teachers do not have enough time to scaffold and differentiate and plan and collaborate in a decent work week. (Yes our time outside the contract hours is "voluntary..." if by voluntary you mean do it or get chastised or chased out.) Scores will not increase when they come to a building that: A) is poorly managed B) is stifling C) is racist D) the teachers are miserable E) rigorous means a teacher centered classroom and F) discipline is inconsistent and unfair. I write this letter as the voice for our students. They do not like the weekly intrusions and regular interruptions of their learning. They don’t like being told to "go to China if they want to feel pressure." They don’t like being reduced to machines that mimic their teachers instead of innovating their own learning.
This district claims to educate, empower, and inspire. Well, I end this letter asking who? My colleagues are not empowered. Our students are not inspired. And the only educating I have witnessed is the conditioning of a now-broken staff that has learned to not mess with the boss—or else.