Rarely, as an English teacher, do I find myself at a loss for words.
Now, as I’m faced with the fact that I have to say goodbye to my students, and tell them I will not return as their teacher next year, I just don’t know what to say.
Do I tell them I’m leaving because the school they attend is finally so broken of an institution that it is unlikely to see repair and it is in fact more likely that the state will take over the school and turn it into a Charter?
Do I tell them that, in the words of a respected 22-year veteran, the district is currently “pissing down its own leg” and this is the worst he’s ever seen?
Do I tell them I’m leaving because their principal is a bully to both teachers and students?
Do I tell them that, due to the lack of instructional leadership in the school and district, I feel I am beginning to stagnate as a teacher?
I’ve referenced before that the school in which I teach is about to enter the third year of a three-year turnaround plan, meaning that at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the state could possibly take them over. Yes, the situation factored into my decision to leave, but really there is so much more.
This year, at the high school, between resignations (15) and non-renewals (10), 25 teachers will not return (at least as of today). When submitting resignations, many teachers cited frustrations similar to those I mentioned above, including the fact that, in a board meeting, which is now public record, a board member suggested that white teachers cannot understand our Latino students, and therefore cannot teach them effectively. To insinuate that, because some teachers are white, we cannot properly understand, relate to, motivate, or lead students to success is as ignorant of a statement as those made that say that because our students are of a certain background, they struggle more to succeed. People, no matter what their ethnicity or background, determine their own success. If someone wants something enough, and they are provided enough support, they pursue it and achieve it. To continue to insist that students of color suffer more of a hardship only enables them to perpetuate the use of that argument against themselves. I do not mean to say that our students do not struggle in ways because they are part of a minority. I only mean to say that, instead of focusing solely on arguments about ethnicity, district administration should begin to actually focus on and do what they can to remedy the inescapable fact that our students are debilitatingly poor. Poverty is the current scourge of our nation; the poorest schools are the lowest performers. Even a recent Colorado Public Radio story cited poverty as one of the reasons students are not prepared properly for college. Anyone in education - including the district administration - that claims the best interests of our students as motivation yet ignores poverty for the sake of focusing on other issues clearly demonstrates their own imperfect understanding of the situation.
One of the other major issues cited by teachers is the lack of effective and appropriate leadership at the high school. The current principal is, simply stated, a bully – to teachers, and even worse, to students. It’s important to note that last year, the school and district held several forums and panels for teachers, parents, and students, and all three groups selected a different principal. The board, however, overruled the unanimous vote of the community and chose the current principal, believing that because he was not white he could effect positive change in the culture and performance of the school. I will readily admit there are fewer students in the hallways. However, I will also note that many teachers say that instead of those students being in the classrooms vs. hallways, they no longer come to school at all.
The most disturbing instance of his bullying students occurred just last week. Prom is rapidly approaching, and he told the president of the junior class that she had to sell 100 tickets by a certain date, or he would cancel after-prom. Then, he told the secretary responsible for the sales not to sell any after-prom tickets. All of this occurred approximately two weeks after several members of the junior class spoke at a board meeting in support of a teacher he had non-renewed (without ever visiting that teacher’s classroom). Not only does the bullying in this situation concern me, so does the question – and obvious answer – of where our students will now go after prom. For years, after-prom has served as a safe location, an alternative to potentially attending parties and then drinking and driving. If something happens to any one of the students at the high school as a result of the cancelation of after-prom, in my mind – and I know in the mind of many other teachers – I will hold him personally responsible.
His bullying of teachers, though not as unexpected as his bullying of students, is still troubling. First, as a principal responsible for turning the school’s performance around, one of his main focuses is ensuring the failure improves. So, when teachers have failure rates that are too high, he calls them in to have “conversations” with them. These conversations entail him telling teachers that they’re doing something wrong if they have so many kids failing their classes – even if those failing students never come to class or do no work when they’re there. Then, he proceeds to tell teachers that they need to fix the situation. Students’ failing grades need to come up. I know one teacher – a 13-year veteran of the district - in particular that has cried over the situation because she feels forced to compromise her ethics by crediting students with grades for work they have never completed, or did not complete to proficiency. She raised the rigor in her classroom, and she insists that, taking advantage of scaffolding and support she provides, students who do complete work perform at a higher level. Also, she insists that students turn in work. Unfortunately, that sort of ethic doesn’t work when all that matters is having fewer failing grades. No matter what the cost.
His bullying doesn’t stop at professional arguments. Many female teachers and staff members comment on a consistent basis that they find the principal physically intimidating. It is interesting to note that, in one of the failure conversations mentioned above, a male teacher found the conversation very constructive and helpful; a female teacher, though, was told to “stop pushing [her] political agenda.” Also, he threatened the job of a teacher over the long-standing tradition of “Hump Day Bumps,” a weekly email in which teachers would recognize each other for camaraderie, positive contributions, and various other scenarios where we contributed to our peers’ professional or affective needs. One teacher in particular was responsible for compiling the bumps and sending them out, and one day the principal called her into his office and told her, unconditionally, that if she continued sending them out, he would take action regarding her job. She was a probationary teacher, and instead of taking the chance, she immediately stopped send the emails, and ultimately ended up submitting her resignation. She was allowed to continue the bumps after a time, with the qualifier that there were “new criteria for what a person can receive as a bump. All bumps from now on must contain measurable successes with students in the classroom.” I’m all for celebrating student successes. However, one must never forget that student success depends on a partnership between the teacher and student, and that, believe it or not, teachers need support too.
Another issue this year has been the lack of professional support from building and district administration. The English department has received absolutely no professional development this year; additionally, we have no instructional coach at the high school, and as a result I feel that I have begun to stagnate in my development as a teacher, a situation that in turn harms my students’ progress. Even as a fifth year teacher, with a number of tools in my proverbial “teacher toolbox,” I can - and will in my new position - still benefit from continued professional development and coaching. No teacher is ever perfect; even the most reflective of us who constantly try to improve our practice need outside help, fresh ideas, and suggestions for how to improve our craft.
Evaluations are ineffective this year also. My evaluator has no Language Arts training whatsoever, and apparently no effective instructional background either. For instance, he had no idea that what he saw in my classroom was an informal assessment process, and that I used the immediate feedback I received from students to adjust my instruction as my class progressed. He told me I should have provided a model and then done a pre-assessment. I told him if I had provided a model, my pre-assessment would have been useless to me. Then, he argued that because my pre-assessment was not a pen-and-paper assignment I collected, but was rather a personal checklist I completed after reviewing student responses as they happened, it was not an assessment. Also, I had my evaluation nearly four weeks ago. I still have not received more feedback than what I listed above, or my actual evaluation record.
Ultimately, I will tell my students none of these things. One of the reasons I won’t tell them is that they already know. They see it. My students are world-wise and savvy. Most poor students are. They’re “hardened teenagers,” as a yearbook advertisement asking for their baby pictures said. They have no illusions about their situation, or about the way things work. As one of the juniors recently said to a non-renewed teacher (the one mentioned above, the one for which they protested at the board meeting), “Aren’t you just a little glad that you’re escaping this terribly broken system?”