Today a survey of my clients led me to believe that the answer to “Should I do this crazy thing I am planning? Take this leap of...
September 17, 2011
I want to respond to the recent article in the Times Herald, “Vallejo’s schools chronic problems discussed.” Over the past two years, I have been privileged to serve over 800 educators in the Vallejo City Unified School District. In the article I’m quoted as saying that I won’t protect bad teachers. This is a statement that I will proudly defend any time anyone wants to make the proclamation that unions protect bad teachers. However, I will state that my responsibility as leader of VEA is to protect the due process rights for every one of the teachers and other educators that I represent.
There are a couple of points that I would like to make. First, as president I have not yet been asked to represent any teacher in a hearing to remove him or her from the classroom. When I spoke to VEA’s past president, she stated that during her over thirty years with the district, she can only recall a handful in which she had to represent someone who was up for dismissal. Is this the fault of the union?
There are ineffective employees in every large organization. This is a fact that most of us acknowledge. However, when the public states that unions protect bad teachers, I am often perplexed. My job is to represent all teachers and to defend their due process rights. It is those rights that I will defend in order to make sure that they receive a fair and impartial hearing.
Our judicial system is based on the premise of innocent until proven guilty. This is a presumption that should also hold true for any teacher who is up for dismissal. As president, I have witnessed firsthand the willingness of some administrators target teachers in a way that is neither fair nor impartial. In fact, while a teacher may be seen as “bad” by one administrator, in a more supportive environment, that same teacher may very well shine.
This brings me to my next point. Too many are willing to point fingers at bad teachers and question why they are still teaching. In VCUSD, over the decade that I have been here, I have seen a constant erosion of our working conditions and a continuous demand for teachers to do more and more with less and less. Vallejo’s teachers continue to be at the bottom of the pay scale in Solano County and in the state. Even the best teacher when expected to run a marathon at top speed will not be able to endure and win the race.
We have lost many good teachers to surrounding districts. Many of these teachers have reported to me that what was lacking in Vallejo has been found in their new districts. These teachers have stated that they did not understand what a good, supportive environment was until they went to their new districts. If the district cannot provide better wages, should it not at least strive to provide a better working environment, one that is supportive and collaborative?
We have many wonderful teachers in Vallejo who are often overlooked in the dialogue. These are teachers who put in long hours to make sure that their kids, their students receive a top quality education. We also know that we have many wonderfully, talented, smart and creative students who we strive to reach every single day that we step in our classrooms. Every time I walk on a high school campus and I am greeted by my former students, I am reminded of how many terrific kids I have been privileged to teach in Vallejo.
It is time that we not only start highlighting the success of our kids but the success of our teachers as well. It is also time to hold everyone accountable for the success of this school district. The success or failure of our system does not rest on the shoulders of teachers alone.
Moments ago, I finished watching Race to Nowhere, a movie that was recently shown in Vallejo, the district where I teach. The movie struck a chord as I noted the many similarities shown in the movie and the struggles my three children faced in their educational journeys.
My oldest child graduated from high school a few years ago. Manda started off thoroughly loving school and learning. In 6th grade, she received a very prestigious award from her school. This award went to students who were deemed by their teachers to be stellar students and citizens. We were thrilled for her and of course, more than a little bit proud.
Two years later, we would be faced with a knock at the door at midnight by two uniformed police officers. Manda had told a friend that she was planning to kill herself. Looking back on that night, I remember feeling scared and very worried for her future. We got her into counseling and soon discovered that our beautiful daughter was a cutter. This habit was something that she would turn to anytime the pressure became to great.
School for her no longer brought joy. In my conversations with her, what stands out the most was that she felt nothing but pressure to be the perfect child and student. This is something I never wanted for her, but I know that the pressure I put on myself to achieve and do well both academically and professionally more than likely was felt by all three of my kids.
My son Tyler graduated from high school this past summer. Unlike his sister, I don’t think that Tyler ever felt much joy being in school. To him, school has meant nothing but living by the rules and conformity. Tyler is by nature the type of kid that will naturally challenge you, regardless of your authority, perceived or not.
Tyler did school, but he never liked it. A trait that he shares with his older sister is creativity. Creativity is no longer valued in our school system. My two older kids never wanted to go the AP or IB route and were both made to feel by both teachers and their peers alike that perhaps there was something wrong with them. Tyler has talked about going to college, but it is not something he wants to do at this time.
For our youngest son, Clayton, this emphasis on performing well hit early in his school career, 3rd grade. As an 8-year-old, he was diagnosed with severe anxiety. (If that doesn’t shock you, I don’t know what will). Our journey through hell and back during this year of his schooling taught me a lot about the unrealistic expectations our schools put on our kids.
For him, it all began with math. His teacher told us at “Back to School” night that he had formerly taught GATE (Gifted & Talented), and that even though this class wasn’t GATE, he was going to proceed to teach these kids as if it were GATE. For this teacher, GATE meant putting unrealistic demands on 8-year-olds. For Clayton, it meant doing everything in his power not to go to school, like running away from school, throwing temper tantrums in the mornings, and other behaviors not normal for an 8-year-old. For my husband and I, it meant too many meetings to count trying to deal with an unsympathetic teacher and administrator who instead of reflecting on their own practice as educators chose to blame the victim, my son. He was quickly labeled as being “oppositionally defiant.”
Christmas that year was not one of joy. Clayton was clearly not welcome to attend our neighborhood school. This school had the highest API/AYP scores in the district. The principal told me more than once that Clayton had “embarrassed him” by his behavior in front of parents visiting the school. (Clayton spent a lot of time in the office). In my opinion, this school was more interested in maintaining their test scores than in helping my child through this difficult time.
This behavior was not normal for Clayton. Up until that year in school, he enjoyed being in school. He got a long well with his peers, the office staff enjoyed him, and the previous principal thoroughly enjoyed his sense of humor. This was a kid who had acted in two plays for our local youth theater. Severe anxiety was clearly not the norm.
Before school started up again, we made the decision to start investigating schools in the district where I teach. By February, Clayton was enrolled in a new school, something that is rather anxiety-inducing in itself. Unlike his previous school, the teachers, staff and administrators were willing to help Clayton deal with his anxiety, hold him accountable for his behavior and most important of all, help him feel safe and secure.
Unlike his previous school, their API/AYP scores weren’t all that great, but for me as a parent, that didn’t matter. I wanted my child back.
I’m happy to report that Clayton is now in 9th grade. He is well-liked by his peers, gets along well with most of his teachers, and is becoming a confident strong young man. He doesn’t like math, but he does endure it. I tell him to do the best he can.
As a parent, I’ve come to realize that it really isn’t about the test scores. My goal as their parent is to raise responsible, well-adjusted adults. My daughter, Manda, is still trying to figure out what she wants to do and has been exploring getting her cosmetology license. Tyler is doing well at his new job and is sharing an apartment with his two cousins. He is (in my unbiased opinion, of course) a very talented musician. As for Clayton, he is looking forward to competing in Las Vegas in November for a power-lifting contest as well as the start-up of wrestling season. His grades are okay.
And, I’m okay with that.
If you haven’t watched the movie, please do. We need to start having honest conversations about what is truly valued in education. We need to stop putting this pressure on our students to perform at all costs, especially when it jeopardizes their health and well-being.
(This blog post originally appeared on HuffPo on 10/27/10.)
Have you heard about the new film that was made by the same guy that made An Inconvenient Truth? This film was recently discussed on Oprah Winfrey. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch Oprah or the movie, but I have got to tell you, the whole Superman metaphor really bugs the crap out of me.
I wasn’t exactly sure why I have been so bothered by it until it struck me. In the movies and the television series, Superman always came in at the last minute to rescue Lois Lane — thus becoming the hero until the next tragedy struck. He’d swoop in, save the victims, and leave.
It’s kind of how I feel about the so-called reformers. They will swoop and leave, just like Superman.
Y’know what? I don’t need rescuing from anyone, thank you very much.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with teachers who have taught for many years in our highly diverse school district. They’ve experienced one educational fad after the other. They’ve stuck around because they are dedicated to the students they teach, despite the low pay, the lack of professional respect, and the lack of support from the District. They continue to stick it out as attacks on them and their union by privateers, businessmen, the media, and “reform” minded Democrats have increased.
Somehow I have managed over the past decade to teach hundreds of students despite the many obstacles and challenges along the way. I’ve dealt with unsupportive administrators and parents, lack of supplies, limited support with new curriculum, five preps for four different levels of students (from far below basic to GATE), supplies and money stolen from my classroom, a leaky roof, water damaged books and the routine pulling of fire alarms.
I don’t want or need a “superman” to rescue me or to rescue the students I have taught over this past decade. For too long, I have felt like the scream figure in the famous Munch painting, screaming in a void with little to no concern from the general public to the realities that I faced every day walking through my classroom door.
What I and many of my colleagues would like is a seat at the table. Listen to those who are in the trenches. Talk to them to find out what is wrong in their classrooms, what they need in order to meet the needs of their students. I want there to be a new understanding that unions are not the problem for if they were, then students in states in which there are no unions or weak unions would be outperforming their counterparts in strong union states. I want people to understand that I don’t have tenure and a life-time guarantee of my job simply does not exist.
I want there to be more effective recruitment of teachers into administration positions. Principals who lead schools should have more than three years under their belt and should have a proven record of successful teaching and proven leadership at their school sites. It should not be for those who are simply looking to make more money.
I want to be held accountable for the things that I can control. If I am not given the latitude to teach the curriculum, add supplementals based on the needs of my students, and use my professional judgment as to what my students may need, then you cannot make the claim that I have failed my students.
I want professional development to be meaningful to me both as a professional and as an educator and not just the latest pedagogical fad that is taught by yet another high paid consultant whose only real commitment is to the all mighty dollar.
Superman can rescue someone else. Those who want to do something about the state of public education are encouraged to visit their local neighborhood schools. I would also encourage any one to talk to teachers and listen. For too long, the public discourse has sought to exclude the voices of those who are in the trenches every single day. Teachers matter and we should be allowed to have a voice in this debate.
(This blog post originally appeared on HuffPo on 10/13/10.)
When I began teaching, there were a couple of things that struck me as being unique to education. The first was the expectation that supplies that those in the corporate world take for granted would need to be provided by me. The second is that my immediate supervisor, my boss, would rarely make an appearance in my classroom.
As long as I kept up the appearance of being able to have good control of my classroom by not writing too many referrals, it would “appear” that I was a “good” teacher.
A good teacher in my first two years of teaching.
As if that thought shouldn’t strike you as ludicrous.
My first two evaluations were rated as satisfactory. No mention of areas that I could improve upon and thus move from a good teacher to a great teacher.
This bothered me because I had come from a different world prior to becoming a teacher. I had worked for two corporations in my career before becoming a teacher. In the evaluations that I received in these positions, there were always areas that were marked in which I excelled and then areas in which there could be improvement. When my boss would go over my evaluation, we would have a good 20 to 30 minute debriefing about the evaluation.
For the most part, my evaluations were good and the conversations I would have with my boss also helped me, I would like to think, become a better employee.
So, how does this relate to teaching?
In a nutshell, many principals simply do not have the time or resources to help the teachers at their school sites become better educators. Just like teachers, they are overworked and the demands on their time too often makes it very difficult for them to help teachers, struggling or not.
It is one of the things that really drives me crazy in the current education debate. I wish that more administrators would start speaking out against the unreasonable demands on their time. I also wish that they would acknowledge that sometimes it’s easier for them to keep a struggling teacher rather than to go through the process of hiring someone new.
Yet, their voices have remained mostly silent in this debate.
Why is that?
Perhaps they fear losing their jobs if they speak out.
In my current role as the leader of my local association, I’ve come to realize that part of the power that I have is the ability to speak to school site administrators and district administrators as an equal. Therefore, when there are issues between a teacher and their principal, I don’t fear the loss of my job. This enables me to advocate for the teacher without fear of retribution.
I also know that while some principals would welcome this discourse regardless of my union protection, there are others who would not. These principals would openly welcome the dismantling of the teachers union and would have no qualms of going after those teachers that they do not see as kowtowing to their vision for their school site, no matter how right or wrong-headed that vision may be!
Furthermore, I have been allowed to have a voice at the table in my own district, although I am aware that sometimes it may not be a welcome voice. I don’t believe that many principals enjoy this same sort of freedom to speak their minds in front of their superiors. It is why it looks to so many of us in classrooms that principals have wholeheartedly embraced the testing culture, pushing for more test prep in lieu of science, history, music or P.E. As one principal stated to me, “they look at me when the test scores don’t rise.”
As districts make more and more cuts to programs and services, more demands are placed on school site administrators. My district has seen the complete elimination of middle school counselors and librarians (one librarian serving the needs of almost 15,000 students) and drastic reductions to our school nurses. Who is expected to pick up the slack? Teachers and school site administrators. So, why are we only hearing from teachers? When it comes to making tough budget decisions and crucial programs such as P.E. and music are up on the chopping block, it would be nice for a principal to speak before the Board about eliminating and/or reducing district benchmark assessments and state testing. It would also be nice to read letters to the editor with a group of principal as signers. I’ve yet to see this in Vallejo & don’t know if it is happening elsewhere.
Instead principals are silent. Perhaps they like this new status quo, where teachers are under the gun for the poor performance of students and they believe that most teachers are bad. Perhaps they want to see the complete dismantling of public education and teachers unions. Perhaps they know that being principal is just a stepping stone to becoming a district administrator or a superintendent. Or perhaps, it is all of the above.
I hope that it is NOT all of the above.
Instead, I hope that their silence is because many principals are caught between wanting to do what is right for children and their teachers and wanting to keep their jobs. They are caught in the middle in positions that are often tenuous based on the whims of district administrators and the school board. If this is the case, then I hope that they will start to collectively raise their voices and start speaking out about the new status quo, where test prep trumps real learning and where the only two subjects that matter is language arts and mathematics.
I know that I would welcome their voice to this conversation.
(This blog post originally appeared on HuffPo on 11/8/2010.)
Recently, I received the following note from a former student, “[y]ou were a great teacher. I thought you were hard. And I didn’t really like you. But over time I realized you were challenging us. And I respected you.”
This is significant to me for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’ve not been at this school site for over a year and a half. This was written out on a “shout out” form and given to me by his current teacher. The second is I remember this student and how there were times when I didn’t like him much either. He is a kid with great potential, but like many kids at this age, sometimes he would do less than his best. In other words, he was a typical sixth-grade boy, entering adolescence and sometimes seeking to challenge authority.
I will also tell you that I don’t really remember how well he performed on his state mandated standardized test and I doubt that he remembers as well. If memory serves, he was in my “benchmark” group, which means that he was at grade level. However, what he does remember about being in my classroom is that I was hard and challenging. I’m sure that he would also tell you that some days my classroom was also a place where we laughed, told jokes, and shared stories about our lives outside of the classroom. There were even times that I taught without using the district mandated pacing guide, some days taking longer on writing and grammar skills than the “allotted” time. For me, it was important to focus on where my kids were at and not where the District thought they should be. So, call me a rebel — I’ve been called worse.
When teachers talk about how test scores don’t show the whole picture of what we do, this is what we mean. Yes, my students knew that in my classroom I expected them to work. I also expected them to treat each other and other students and adults on our campus with dignity and respect. There were times when I rejected work from students who I knew could do better and gave them the chance to prove it. For some of my students who were English Language Learners, I was thrilled when they were able to turn in a well-written essay that may not have been at the same standard as their English speaking classmates, but I knew that based on their own ability; they would receive a good grade.
Some days, I’ll admit, might have been perceived as “easy” days for students. I simply refused to treat my students like mindless widgets. It was on those days where I often learned the most from them as we would talk for a good 20 minutes about almost everything. It was during these times where I would find out about their families, their dreams and wishes. It is where I would learn about a parent battling (and ultimately losing to) breast cancer, or the impending deportation of another parent, or that one of my students had to do laundry every Tuesday for his family and often feared he would lose the quarters.
This doesn’t mean I was the perfect teacher. I am sure that my students would also tell you that. They also came to realize that I wasn’t afraid to apologize when I blew it in some way. For me, as a teacher, it was absolutely essential that if I expected my students to apologize when they made a mistake, then I had better be willing to do the same. When papers weren’t graded right away, I would tell them the reason why — even if it meant that I chose to spend time with my family or play The Sims on a Sunday, rather than spend a few hours grading essays written by my sixth graders.
However, for many of my students, my classroom was a place of stability. It was a place where they knew that they could count on me being there, where my rules. expectations and consequences were clearly defined. It is obvious to me that for a least one student, he remembers me and that I challenged him to do and be better. In my mind, there is no greater gift that a teacher can give than that.
(This blog post originally appeared on HuffPo on 11/30/2010.)
Ask any teacher about the principals they have respected over the years. Many would probably tell you that a respected and effective principal is one who looks at the reality of their school site and doesn’t automatically blame the staff for the many ills that may plague that school. Instead of pointing fingers, they seek to work with their staff to come up with solutions. They understand that talking to the teachers who have worked at this school with the students and the community gives most teachers much earned credibility. They also understand that if they want to implement change then they had better make sure that they have credibility as well.
The quickest way to failure for a principal at almost any school site is a principal who is hell bent on making a name for himself/herself and thus, dismisses any ideas from their staff. If a principal tries to implement a program at a school site that the teachers do not agree with or think are silly or unfounded, the teachers will inevitably choose to do what they want once their door is closed.
The other thing that inevitably happens when teachers do not respect their principal is calls to their union automatically increases. In my district, there are over twenty school sites. I routinely hear from only four or five school sites.
The teachers who respect their principals are willing to give them the benefit of doubt. When an issue arises, they know that they can go to their principal and talk to them without fear of retribution. They know that if there is a contract violation, they can have an informal discussion and have it resolved without it going any further in the grievance process.
Those at the handful of sites in which there are routine problems, do not trust their principals to do the right thing. They do not have a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. This lack of trust plays itself out in the numbers of grievances that are filed.
When Districts implement programs, it is the job of the principal to relay this information to their staff. Those who do this successfully do not do this without having a conversation with their staff about the program and including the staff in how best to meet the demands of the District. They will often make it clear to their staff why the program is being implemented and seek input on how best to make the program work based on the composition of their school site.
Not so at school sites where the principal believes they are king or queen of their little fiefdom.
These principals will simply announce at a staff meeting that there is a new program which needs to be implemented because the district says so. They do not engage their staff in any type of conversation and those who ask questions are quickly labeled as not being team-players or trouble-makers.
All of this is not to say that respected principals are pushovers. Many respected principals are able to implement change, even if there is disagreement, because their teachers and other staff trust that they are doing the right thing by their school. Staff and teachers know that this principal is not driven by an overblown ego whose only thought is how they look to the District.
Then there are those who act in a very passive aggressive manner towards their teaching staff. These principals will not listen to any complaints, but will overtly suggest to anyone who listens that this change isn’t their idea at all and will direct all blame towards the District. They will tell their staff that if they want to complain, then maybe they should talk to Mrs. Meanie at the DO. In the meantime, this principal will believe that any pushback is not a result of it being bad for students or the teachers who teach them. Instead, they believe that the majority of their teachers simply are resistant to change and are for the oft cited “status quo.”
When adults cannot act like adults to collaborate and develop a sense of mutual trust and respect, it ultimately undermines the climate of the school. The smaller the school site, the more this seems to impact students. If we want our kids to get along, shouldn’t we as the adults, do the same? One of my biggest frustrations is talking to a principal who has obvious disdain for the teachers he or she leads. If this happened in a classroom, parents would be outraged and would want this teacher removed from the classroom. So why is it okay if a leader of a school site treats their staff in a way that is derisive and disrespectful?
As my students used to always say, “if you want respect, you have to earn it,” something that some principals fail to heed.
If you’re a teacher, what are some qualities that a respected & effective principal need? What are the qualities that you’ve seen in principals that are not respected & effective?
(This blog post by me originally appeared on HuffPo on 1/18/2011.)
A hard-to-staff district is what they used to call the district that I work in. This, of course, was before the abundance of teachers that can now be found in California and in states across the nation. But even in this time of abundance, we still have a difficult time getting teachers who want to teach in our district. Much of this has to do with our financial reputation, both as a city and a district, as well as being a district that, for some, is a tough place to teach.
About six years ago, a few of my former students came to visit me. They talked to me about being ninth graders, and how for a month they had to sit in the gym for one of their core classes, which was not P.E. There were several classes that still did not have a teacher four to six weeks into the first quarter, so they were cycling through subs. During periods in which there were no subs, kids had to come to the gym — where they learned absolutely nothing.
When I read articles about merit pay and tying test scores to evaluation, the question that is raised for me is if we had a difficult time finding teachers when we had money and there were no strings attached, what makes anyone think that people will be rushing to teach in my district?
The answer is they won’t.
Not when surrounding districts offer more support, more money and better working conditions. I also frankly don’t trust anyone who claims that they will make it financially worth it to anyone willing to teach in my district, as long as they agree to merit pay and/or tying test scores to evaluations.
Once upon a time, many teachers in this district and in other similar districts gave up pay raises in order to secure better benefits, reduced class sizes, prep time, and non-student days that allow teachers to prepare their classes before school starts and tear it down at the end of the school year. Our benefits have been reduced to such an extent that teachers and other staff are now paying anywhere between 30 to 50 percent of costs. Class sizes have gone from 20 to 28 students and will most likely rise to 32 in our K-3 classes. Pay-cut (aka furlough) days are now on the table and again are likely to be implemented if the tax extensions do not make it on the ballot, including our non-student days. While prep hasn’t been done away with at the secondary level, it is virtually non-existent in our K-5 classes.
So all of this to say, why should I expect that the current carrot that is being dangled in the faces of educators will be there when the next economic crisis hits?
The bottom line is that there are exceptional teachers in my district. In a good economy, these teachers would have no problem finding a teaching position in a “better” district. Guess what? Many choose to teach in this district because we believe that ALL kids deserve a quality education with a quality teacher in front of them. Those who couldn’t hack the myriad of challenges would leave on their own to teach in a district without these challenges. Some chose to leave teaching altogether, while others that maybe should not have been granted “permanent status” were given it anyway.
Of course, I understand the reasons why an administrator would give someone “permanent status,” even if this should not be granted. For these administrators, the specter of having to go through the hiring process and still not finding anyone is scary. They would rather go with the dead weight they know than an unknown. They would rather not have to face the possibility of having a classroom cycle through subs for one or two months or more.
For the first time in many years, my district has a chance of competing with other surrounding districts because of the sheer number of applicants looking for jobs. However, what happens when the economy gets better? I know exactly what will happen — we will be back where we started.
(This post by me originally appeared on HuffPo on March 15, 2011.)