Sunday, January 10, 2010

Checking Out

This past week I made possibly the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. I decided to resign from my teaching job mid-year. My last day will be January 22nd, the end of the first semester.

If you've been following my blog, this may come as a small surprise. The last time I discussed the possibility of leaving my school, I said that I intended on staying until the end of June. I declared that I was ready to fight the administration and that I was so angry that I was ready to take on the world. Many of you even congratulated me and sent me supportive messages, which makes me feel like kind of a fraud at this point, and for that, I apologize.

I decided to leave for a number of reasons, but the one that stands out over all the others is that the atmosphere at our school is toxic and soulless.

The decision to quit all began on the Monday back from school. It was possibly the most depressing morning of school I have ever experienced. Colleagues at my school were not even able to gather up enough energy to fake a positive interaction when I smiled at them and asked how they were doing. I noticed that I wasn't even able to pretend to be okay when somebody asked me how I was doing. I opened my mouth intending to utter that small white lie many of us do on a day-to-day basis: "I'm fine. How are you?" But instead, I just sighed. This miserable experience was capped off when I ran into a teacher in the mail room and asked how he was doing. Now, this guy is one of the nicest, happiest guys I've ever met. He's always smiling and always seems to be optimistic about life. But on this morning he just looked at me and said, "You know, life is too short for all this." Over the next four days, I would come to that conclusion myself. Life is too short for this.

I found out later in my first week back that my department head was again totally changing direction with the department curriculum, that the colleague I'm closest to had made up her mind to quit over the break, and that a veteran who's been at the school for thirteen years (the VAST majority of teachers have only been at the school for between 1-3 years) had already tried and failed at all of the awesome strategies I'd come up with over break to fight the administration. We had a staff meeting on Thursday during which time we looked at data concerning how students, teachers, and parents felt about our school in terms of a number of areas. When one of the staff members brought up that almost half of the staff members who participated in that survey last year were no longer with us, and that that in itself should be a cause for concern, the principal effectively blew the comment off as irrelevant to what we were trying to accomplish.

Another big reason for leaving is, sadly, I don't think the school as a whole really cares about what the students really need. Our prime (and seemingly only) mission is to raise test scores. We (i.e. the schools' attitude as a whole, not individual staff members) do not care about our students' emotional or social needs.

When we did a training on helping students develop their relationships with others and a sense of identity among the school and community, I actually heard an administrator say that we were to use what knew about students social/emotional needs in order to "leverage it against them in order to raise test scores."

I assume that she meant we should get to know our students on a personal level and help them get to know their classmates because that helps students feel more comfortable so that they can learn more effectively, which is all fine and dandy, but this particular administrator's words clearly illustrate what I consider to be an unhealthy perspective concerning our school's reason for being: We're not primarily here to help students grow; we're here because higher test scores look good downtown, to parents, and to the media.

I think one of my students put it best when he said, "This school doesn't really care about us, it only cares about our tests."

We're so caught up in trying to raise test scores that we have virtually no discipline system.

One of our discipline deans quit because she didn't feel she was able to do her job when every time she attempted to suspend a student, the admin told her that wasn't a possibility, even when students had committed violent acts. Our other discipline dean is no longer with us after participating in an incident I can't describe here. We received a notice from our principal Sunday night reminding us to take care of all discipline problems in the classroom, and to only ever refer a student after having taken the prescribed number of steps. Our stand-in discipline dean is a big red box that sits on the counter of the front office with a hole cut in the top and a sign on the front that says, "Discipline Referrals."

A classic example of our lack of discipline came for me on December 12th. A fourth-period student of mine, Star (see previous post on her), returned to class after having been absent for almost two months. The minute she walked into my well-run classroom, I'd lost 3/4 of the class to her jokes and side-comments. After having asked my counselor to help me remove her from class, she began screaming. She proceeded to slam her stuff around and march out the door. My administrator brought her straight back to me and told me to keep her in class. I refused, explained the incident and went back to teaching.

I originally believed that a group of strong-willed teachers could rise up and right these wrongs. There are, after all, more teachers than administrators - they should have a greater say in how the school is run. However, the admin is extraordinarily well-entrenched. They've been best described to me as "cultish" by more than one colleague.

I recently received an e-mail in chain of e-mails circulating our department after the news came out that both myself and my next-door neighbor were quitting. In response to what many of us perceive as a crisis at our school, one teacher put it best:

"Here's the problem..no matter what we think, I bet the administration doesn't think this is a crisis. I think there has been a very conscious decision made which is something like this: 'We have a program which is designed to lift the average test score by X%. The program penalizes teacher creativity and risk-taking, while it rewards conformity and not thinking or asking questions. Above all, we value obedience. We accept that a lot of people will not like this program and will leave. They can be replaced.'

We seem to be dealing with almost a cultish entity. Cannot be reasoned with. Strict separation between teachers and administrators.....The problem for us, and the advantage for them, is that hardly anybody here has any institutional memory or commitment to the school."

I think this teacher hit it right on the money.

I knew the decision to leave was the right one when, after having told colleagues and other important people in my life that I wasn't coming back, the responses I got weren't: "Oh my god, that's horrible! What's wrong? Why'd you do it?" Instead, they were, "Good job!" or "Congratulations!" or "I wish I could."

I also knew I made the right decision when, after having sent my department head two e-mails Thursday night, one stating that I was resigning and the other submitting my objectives calendar, I received ONE e-mail back informing me that I'd done my objectives calendar incorrectly. Not a single admin came to talk to me about my decision to resign on Friday.

So I feel pretty good about my decision. A considerable weight has been lifted. I'm just glad that my classes are only a semester long, because I wouldn't have been able to quit if I knew I'd be leaving my kids mid-year.

So I've decided to leave DCPS a mere semester after coming to it, and it has NOTHING to do with the kids. Perhaps I've been spoiled in that I've worked in schools where teachers were treated like adults and were trusted to be professionals. If so, I'm okay with that. That's the environment I want to return to. If you're a struggling first-year teacher in the district, keep in mind that this is NOT what all schools are like. There are places that will value and support you. Don't leave the profession because of a single experience here.

I'm also very lucky in that I am able to leave and not have a job for a while. I know other co-workers who are not so lucky, but are leaving anyway - so that should say something.

I'm not ready to leave the students of the district though. There's an urge in me, just like every other DCPS staff member, to positively affect their lives. I intend on remaining jobless until August, and I'd like to use my free time in the spring semester to tutor at as many DCPS schools as possible and gather as many stories from people as possible. Perhaps there are other things I can do as well in my free time. If you know of opportunities for non-staff to make a difference in education around the district, please send them my way. I'll be looking.

37 comments:

  1. Wow.

    I hope your next job will allow you to be happy in the classroom again!

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  2. I'm sorry to hear that, but I think you're making the right decision.

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  3. Congrats & good luck! I wish I could do the same, but my departure will have to wait until the end of the school year. I'm sure there will be a mass of teachers leaving once again this year... We are all replaceable "human capital" afterall!

    I doubt our admins will ever get a clue & I'm not going to stick around for another year to painfully see the same BS & abuse go on... It's going to be a long 5 months to get through!

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  4. Hi there,

    I don't know you, just read your blog, and I'm not a teacher. I just want to tell you CONGRATULATIONS and wish you the best for a fabulous rest of your life. I have toyed with the idea of teaching more than once over the past few years, and then things like this scare me off the whole plan. So I want to thank you for being the voice of realism that keeps me out of harm's way.

    Life truly *is* too short to be miserable every day, and I know you have made the right decision. Get out of this bastard city and go someplace where you can be happy.

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  5. I've written on your blog a couple of times, first year teacher, and admire you for doing what I sooooooooooo want to do. It's 11:51 pm and should be time for bed, but alas I have studying, lesson planning, grading, etc to do, and I say to myself is all this worth it? I feel the same, it's not the kids it's the administration, no structure, no curriculum, no support. Did you see the link on the "Washington Teacher" blog about Rhee on Anderson Cooper and the Washington Post article about the story in the Atlantic about TFA, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/201001/good-teaching. It is all so depressing, as people who have not been through this crazy thing called DCPS believe all the lies, so after awhile you realize that nothing will change, as you said we are all dispensable "Human Capital". Please keep writing we need a voice like yours in education. Reflective Educator, I'm sure you'll make more of a difference working outside the system than in it. Good Luck.

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  6. Anon at 12:03: Yes! I did see the Washington Teacher blog and the article in The Atlantic about TFA. I completely agree with you. Those are nice little lies to those stakeholders outside the classroom with the attempt to influence them to act according to the wishes of those who are benefitted by programs like TFA (i.e. the leaders inner-city school systems and ultimately, I believe, the unrealistic demands made on education by the public at large). I take such great issue with that, especially the article in The Atlantic. I've been meaning to post something about that article on here.

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  7. I would really like to see an exposé of your school, where reality and its public face are two different things. In educational circles and in the literature, the school comes across as some kind of beacon of student achievement, where AP offerings are the norm, the graduation rate is high and many of its immigrant students get college scholarships though the school's efforts. There is quite an underside to what is going on there, the lowest point must have been last year with the firing of over 20 of its staff. Additionally, dedicated teachers leaving in the middle of the year is really indicative of some serious problems. Again, I can't wait til the press blows it wide open.

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  8. I supported your original decision to leave, then said "good for you" when you decided to stay and now say "good for you" again.

    Good for you especially for sharing your turmoil at school and your inner struggle. I have no doubt that you will ultimately accomplish something very positive for that school, the kids of DCPS in general and your teacher colleagues.

    You have just begun to fight.

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  9. One of the parents that reads your blog...

    If you can't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anyone else. I'm sorry you couldn't make it through the year - I'm sure it's a tough decission, because the culture of your profession is very much against it and I think its the kind of thing that makes people do a double take on your resume. So, kudos to you for having the courage to make the choice you needed to make. Be thankful you were in a position to be able to make it, dust yourself off and I'm sure you'll find the right next step.

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  10. I'm jealous. I wish I could just quit my job and leave my school. Like when a teacher is absent and they make me cover the class. Of course, there's no work left and I have no idea what to do, but I'm just supposed to hold down the fort. Or when the principal makes ridiculous demands, expects something done immediately and yells at me. Or when colleagues undermine me and says that Johnny is just fine for them and not a discipline problem at all, it must be my fault. But I got bills, a spouse and kids counting on my health insurance, repairs to be made on my house, college loans to pay back not to mention the current economy. So I just grin and bear it. And hope for a raise, that my principal will leave, that Ms. So and So will go to PG County, that spring break will come... I'm a teacher.

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  11. Congratulations, Reflective Teacher. You are putting your health first and that's always a wise thing to do.

    As someone else said, don't give up on teaching because of this negative experience. Try a different age group in a different school district.

    You are obviously a very intelligent and sensitive individual with excellent writing skills, so you might want to go back to grad school to prepare for college teaching. In this climate of teacher-bashing, I don't think I'd encourage anyone to go into K-12 teaching.

    A good job for you right now would be to explore ways of helping the teachers who are left behind. I hope you find ways of making their lives easier. You are indeed very fortunate that you are able to resign.

    Please continue writing this blog so we'll know how you're doing.

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  12. I'm sorry to see you quit mid-year but it also sounds completely untenable at your school. Part of me wishes you could have transferred but it also sounds like waiting for that to happen would have been equally unbearable. I am glad you are staying involved in DCPS, regardless of how. We need voices such as yours in the system as much as possible, voices that demonstrate true reflection, true consideration of what is being said and what is being done. I hope you will continue the blog.

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  13. This is the first time I am reading your blog. I also work for DCPS and almost walked out myself in December. Even though my situation is bad, your situation sounds even worse which I did not think was possible.

    Toxic is the right word that says it all. I have worked for DCPS for almost 10 years and this is the worse it has ever been. Rhee is toxic and encourages toxic behavior from her administrators.

    I am pretty sure I know what school you worked at based on the tremendous turnover and description of the leadership. I am not sure if you know that Rhee likes to play tennis with your former principal and is well aware of the anti-student/child leadership style.

    These kinds of things show me without a doubt the DCPS is definitely heading in the wrong direction.

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  14. Keep the blog up and alive. I wish you the best in your future endeavors.

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  15. While I am sad to see you go, I hope you don't mind the advice I give the young and/or new teachers with whom I work: this is a tough place, perhaps the most difficult in the nation. It's okay if you decide this is not the right venue for you. Find one that fits you, that honors your talents and respects you as a professional. They do exist.

    But don't ever think you're a bad teacher because DCPS makes you feel that way.

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  16. Congratulations and Best of Luck to you in your next adventure.

    I am a new reader of your blog, I just happened to come across it as I am currently considering employment with DCPS. As a relatively new teacher who is committed to urban education, my heart and brain takes a double take when I think of things that are going on in schools right now. I want to make a difference, but is administration really worth losing my career over? my creativity? I've dealt with some difficult administration but I have a feeling this is a whole new ballpark from all I'm hearing.

    Anyhow- Best of luck to you! Whatever you do, you are and will be an inspiration to all of us out here.

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  17. I taught in a SE DC middle school for 3 years. My decision to leave came after one of my students was shot in the back of the head by an off duty police officer. My principal, in effect, said we should consider ourselves lucky that we no longer had to deal with that trouble maker.
    I didn't leave until I ensured that my principal got fired, however. With enough rope, they will hang themselves; you just have to be around to take the pictures.

    To anyone wishing to teach in DC, I beg you to just say no. Thanks to the new Chancellor, they basically rely upon a revolving door of "teach for America" type teachers only planning to stay for 2 years or less. They are cheap, and they are too scared to stand up for what is right. If teachers refuse the job en mass, then change will have to take place. I see no other options for improving such a broken system.

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  18. teacher at 6:53: E-MAIL ME!!!! I know exactly where you're at because I was there myself a year ago. This is my fourth year teaching and I always knew I wanted to be in a place like DCPS because I had that yearning to see what it was like and how effective I could be. We should talk. I'd love to share some experiences with you that I really can't put up on this blog.

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  19. I know of one DCPS school where the administration is supportive. There may be others, but I've only heard teachers talk about one and I won't describe it in any detail because I'm so afraid central administration will find out and go over there to shake things up. The principal does what's right by the teachers instead of what central dictates. I suspect that principal has plans to move on, so doesn't care about riling Rhee and just wants to be a decent person. I suspect and hope that there are other principals like that who just need their jobs too much to be defiant.

    This is no model school - it has all the typical problems and limitations of urban schools, but its non-hostile administration makes it a bearable place to work.

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  20. I suggest that you find a candidate you like and volunteer to support their campaign to oust Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee.

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  21. You need to find another profession. Teaching children is not for you.

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  22. not a bad idea - you could demand that Rhee explain her support for the poisonous work environment at your school and its role in facilitating learning. Point out the huge annual turnover and demand that she explain how that is beneficial for the students.

    Ask for the heads of your adminstrators and if she doesn't offer them up, ask why not and if she does, ask why not sooner.

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  23. I must admit I'm a bit disheartened by all the "congratulatory" messages I'm seeing posted. As a former teacher, I wholeheartedly understand (though of course every school and situation is different, so I suppose I cannot fully understand what its like to be in your shoes) your frustrations and disillusionment with your school's leadership and management.

    But at the same time, you're just another teacher giving up on the kids - its not their fault that they have a sub-par principal and its not their fault they are being educated in a far from perfect system.

    Your departure is right for you it sounds, but is only adding to the list of people failing our students...sad to see you leave.

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  24. Anon says, “you're just another teacher giving up on the kids”

    I want to squelch this concept immediately. It’s the same old “blame the teacher” sentiment that makes it impossible to make any real improvements in education.

    Reflective Educator knows full well that none of this is the kids’ fault. What you don’t seem to realize (unless you’re an administration spy) is that no one entity in the educational system can singlehandedly improve student learning. It takes teamwork – parents, students, teachers, administrators, school boards – to make it work. It takes cooperation and collaboration - the very things Michelle Rhee eschews - to improve education for our kids. All that martyr teachers can do is die for their cause and hope that because of their death (and only after their death), positive changes will be made. Is that what you want for teachers? And just how does that help the kids? In essence you’re saying administrators can screw up and teachers are expendable and in fact have a responsibility to martyr themselves.

    Sorry, that’s crap.

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  25. Hold on. Obviously whatever Rhee and the admins are doing is working. Test scores are up! The achievement gap is closing! There's no debating that.

    I'm no Kel Varnsen, but it seems to me that --- higher scores on standardized tests = higher SAT and ACT scores.

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  26. Dear Dee - your information is not correct, but I understand that if you read only the misleading headlines in the Washington Post that you may think that. Also The achievement gap is actually widening, for what it's worth (not much in my opinion). For full info on DCPS statistics, with references, please go to http://gfbrandenburg.wordpress.com/

    Also, what if "whatever" Rhee and the admins are doing IS working? Would that justify torturing more teachers? Would you recommend that other school districts institute this bold new method of raising test scores? How long before the teacher pool would dry up?

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  27. Dear Montgomerry Pennyworth,

    If you read this blog and others you would know that what she is doing is NOT working, it is all smoke and mirrors. You manipulate the statistics and you have teams of people doing it, you are not lying but deliberately seeking out data to support your actions. Believe me, the kids in DCPS are not getting smarter. You truly cannot know what is going on at a DCPS failing school unless you work at one, and sit on committees that involve collecting data.

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  28. You sound narcissistic to me. I guess you want people to believe that your resignation is noble, akin to civil disobedience. What I see is another spoiled, paternalistic white boy who couldn't come in and have his way with the natives, so he took his ball, went home and quit. Good riddance. Take your ass back to montgomery county, Mr. cultural anthropologist.

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  29. Since when is the current system supportive of African-American children. For the record, I'm black and it's criminal what is happening to our children and it's not because of the actions of Reflective Teacher.

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  30. In October 2007, Bell (now part of Columbia Heights EC) was termed a "dropout factory":
    http:///tinyurl.com/yhgdtts

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  31. To all those who question Reflective Educator's decision to quit midyear-

    You have no idea how awful this principal is. Toxic just begins to describe the environment at the school for students and faculty. I do not work at that school but I have heard for years story after story from different educators who have passed through CHEC. It is easy to find them since there is such a high turnover there are so many of them.

    Every former CHEC educator who I have spoken to(most of whom I highly respect) have shared horror story after horror story about their experience.

    To know that the principal is allowed to stay there when she obviously is destroying the school and thus the students' education is unexcusable and says a whole lot about Chancellor Rhee's agenda.

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  32. The story of why the principal stays there is a case for an investigative reporter, with input, of course, from past and current teachers.

    To anonymous of 1:12 -- your link, http:///tinyurl.com/yhgdtts doesn't work. Also had no luck googing bell and drop out factory.

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  33. I am a Black woman who quit as a DCPS high school teacher back in December 2007. I quit for many reasons, including:
    1) my school was toxic;
    2) my classes were overcrowded;
    3) I did not have the appropriate materials for educating my students (textbooks for the wrong levels);
    4) the school was dangerous;
    5) I was not treated like a professional, a stakeholder, a decision-maker, nor a change-agent;
    6) there was an over-emphasis on testing;
    7) the school was breaking the law by not providing special education students with the proper resources & assistance;
    8) there was a lack of parent involvement; and
    9) the administration was unsupportive.

    I also refused to be a martyr and knew that I could serve my community and teach teens in other ways, which I do now in my new line of work. Good luck to Reflective Educator!

    Public schools everywhere are moving in the wrong direction. High stakes testing is not the way to transform the lives of children. I also taught in Boston Public where testing is also the primary focus (though the systems are different).

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  34. As a current employee at CHEC, know that we'll be sorry to see you go. You'll be greatly missed, but I do have to congratulate you on your decision, and hope that you find a less toxic (and yes, this is the most accurate term for the environment here) school where you can still continue to help our kids.

    Best of luck in the future!

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  35. I am very sad every time I hear of a new DCPS hire quit. What you need to do is come take a look at other DCPS school's and you shall see how well run your school really was in comparison. I understand why you feel the need to quit and now I think you could really do a wonderful thing by either substituting, tutoring, and helping out other schools in the district.

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  36. Anon on 1/24 at 11:40: I'd say you're probably right. I recognize that the school is probably a much better run school than most in the district, and I feel that there are some people working there who will probably be able to stay in their positions into next year happily. I'm afraid I happened to be caught in a situation (i.e. under the watch of the wrong administrators) that was just extraordinarily unprofessional. While the school is full of incredible staff and mission statements, it's mostly this massive chasm between the admin and teachers that creates extraordinary mistrust, resentment, and an overall unhealthy work environment for many.

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  37. This post seems a little dated, but I would like to know where you are today, as this is the 2012-13 academic year. Things can change in a very short period of time; especially with the current economic climate of the country, I am certain that you have had many unusual opportunities come your way.

    I am currently working for a Chicago Charter School and going through similar processes. I spend less time teaching the subject matter and more time adjusting my personality and skills to fit the discipline needs of the students. In my case, I do hold the kids accountable because they are largely raising themselves and they are exposed to so much time alone and on their own that they do realize when they are behaving properly and when they are completely beside themselves.

    Needless to say, I spend less and less time working within my subject matter, so this is affecting my personal growth and my true "professional development". What the Admin calls "PD" are actually little coffee sessions about idealistic fantasies about interacting with students and gaining more control over the students. I am fully aware that these talks are merely theater to cosmetically be "in compliance" with the administration.

    I wish you well, wherever you went. I am committed to solidifying my foundation in Chicago, as I have only been here for 18 months.

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