Yesterday was my last day working at my school. It was one hell of an experience: five months of intense teacher boot camp. I've learned a ton. It was possibly the most difficult five months of my life, and I'm glad it's over, but I'm also glad it happened.
When I decided to move to DC, it wasn't because I didn't enjoy working at my previous school in Seattle. I loved that school. It was amazingly diverse in SO many ways. I had amazing and fabulous students and colleagues to work with. In a lot of ways, I couldn't imagine a better environment in which to work as a teacher. There was, however, something missing. I didn't feel as though I was being pushed to grow in my practice. I was observed twice a year by the same assistant principal who always told me I was doing a great job. I felt, to some degree, like my practice was stagnating. I needed more critical feedback about how to be a more effective teacher in my content area and with classroom management. I also needed more accountability. So, I decided to move to DC, not necessarily because I thought I would find those things here, but because I believe change almost always leads to growth. And often times, the bigger the change, the more one is forced to adapt and grow.
When I got to my new school in DC, I was incredibly excited (see my earlier posts from August and September of 2009) about the new environment I was entering. Not only was my move to DC going to be a major change, but I also believed that the school I'd been hired at would provide me with the things I'd been yearning for: critical feedback and accountability.
In the first two months of working at this new school (September and October), I felt like my administration really was providing me with the support I was looking for. I would get observed on a weekly basis (sometimes with feedback, and sometimes without). I was being held accountable for what was happening in my classroom by being asked to turn in objectives calendars and show administration data concerning how my students were doing in my content area. I believed (and still believe) that these were essential components to increasing teacher effectiveness. Teachers, like any other profession, should be held accountable for their work. I jumped right in and attempted to fulfill all of the school's requirements. The young, energetic (and naive) perfectionist that I am, I was creating unit plans, lesson plans, objectives calendars, vocabulary activities, reading campaigns, projects, portfolios, and assessments all in the school's prescribed templates. There was a part of me that knew I'd gotten the shaft by the school in a number of ways (there was no curriculum for our world history course, I'd been given three AP classes I'd never taught or been trained for, there was never any adequate training on how to align all of the products we were expected to produce, and there was no money or time for AP training), but I believed that these were byproducts of a necessarily imperfect system. I believed this imprefect system to also be the cause of the complete lack of a well-run discipline system. But I accepted these challenges as things that needed to be worked on and gave up my nights and weekends to take on this job.
As a result of my over-eagerness, I felt burned out on a daily basis. Every lesson had to be perfect. Every unit plan and project had to be up to par. Every assessment had to be clearly aligned to the standards. I knew I was charged with an important task and I wanted to prove that I could handle it. I couldn't shortchange the kids and I wanted to show the administration that I was worthy of the task.
During this period (the first two months, which I'll refer to as HELL from here on out), I went through three experiences that I consider to be tantamount to nervous breakdown. All of these happened on Mondays during my first-period planning. After spending all weekend preparing my plans for the coming week, struggling to prepare my classroom for the perfect lesson, and after having sat through the first morning meeting of the week (during which time I was always reminded that I wasn't doing enough to get my students on grade-level and support all of their needs), something would always go wrong. My printer would jam just when I desperately needed a handout ready for the students. Or my computer would crash just as I was putting some finishing touches on my PowerPoint presentation. Or I would realize at the last minute that my perfect lesson relied on the desks being in a different arrangement. My blood pressure would shoot through the roof; I wouldn't be able to think clearly; and I would just stop dead in my tracks. I needed to sit down and breathe.
Now for anyone who's never had the experience of desperately wanting to be an excellent teacher in an urban environment, this may all sound fairly silly to you. But if that's the case, it's probably hard for you to understand that new teachers in a lot of schools need to be ready for every last detail unless they want the students to walk all over them and not get anything accomplished in class. Also consider that a teacher who allows this to happen must deal with the fact that s/he is shortchanging a group of kids who desperately need a few more coins in their pocket.
So HELL was not an easy time for me. However, it was during HELL that I made the most significant gains in terms of my abilities as a teacher. Thanks to the accountability and indirect mentorship (my real mentor never actually met with me) at my school, I developed consistently engaging and useful Do Now activities that made the rest of my lessons more accessible for all of my students. I developed a useful system for administering quick and useful diagnostic and formative assessments on a daily basis that were aligned with my objectives. I became significantly better at organizing my instruction around rigorous objectives that were based on standards. I became much more effective at classroom management and parent communication. I found a new focus on rigor for ALL of my students. And I developed useful ways to track my students' progress in the classroom. I can say that I am a much better teacher for having gone through HELL, easily twice what I was when I was teaching in Seattle.
By the time November (a period I'll refer to as Disillusionment) rolled around, however, things had begun to change. (It's interesting because you can see my mood changing in my blog posts during this time). I was absolutely burned out. I often felt like there wasn't another fiber in me that could muster up the energy to create the perfect lesson plan day after day. I began to slip. I'd developed positive relationships with my students and my classroom management was taking nowhere near as much time as it had been during HELL. I didn't have to have every last detail ready for class, just enough to teach a lesson that the kids could make sense of and went toward the objective.
I'd also begun to see cracks in the armor of what had earlier seemed like a truly amazing administration. "Veteran" teachers (at this school, two years qualifies you as a veteran) were beginning to share their insights and stories from past years. I'd begun to notice that while my administrators could often offer criticisms, ideas for improving my practice were lacking. Often when I asked for support to improve on areas they perceived as weakness, I received comments like:
"Listen, we don't have time to stop the train and teach you how to teach. That's what our summer training was for. We need you on board at this point."
"The answer is in your handbook. Remember what we talked about this summer. You need to use those strategies; they're research-based."
When I did receive ideas to help with my instruction, follow-up questions were often met with confusion. For example, it was suggested to me that in order to improve reading comprehension with my ESL students, I use a double-entry journal or an anticipation guide. Having had some familiarity with these literacy strategies from my years in Seattle, I thought it was certainly worth a shot. So I tried them in my classroom with what I felt was significant modeling, practice, and individual work time, and the students got absolutely nothing out of them. When I brought my concerns to my administrators, they seemed confused and suggested that it needed more modeling. When I told them I had done the modeling, they said I must not have done it well enough. When I explained how long I'd worked on it with them for, they told me I'd taken too much time with it. When I asked them to come observe my classroom, they said they'd be there, but then never showed up. This is merely one example.
I soon learned that while most of my administrators were well-versed in educational talking points, mission statements, classroom strategies and discipline strategies, few of them were capable of providing real help in terms of using them in the real-world classroom. I've come to believe that this is largely a result of their lack of classroom experience. They may know what an anticipation guide is and what you're supposed to do with it, but because they probably only gave it a shot once or twice in their three years in the classroom, they have very little practical advice on how to use it in real life.
It was also close to the beginning of Disillusionment that I witnessed a physical altercation between a substitute and a student, both of whom were back in the classroom the next day (I was told the substitute was let go a little over a month later for being caught in another altercation by a student recording it with his cell phone). I was told of horrendous actions on behalf of administrators and quickly began to lose respect for more than one of them. I began to really sense the toxic atmosphere among staff. On more than one occasion, I was told:
"Teachers are the variable in the classroom. They come and go. It doesn't really matter. This school was here before you, and it will be here after you leave. What really matters is the curriculum. If we all teach the curriculum the right way, it really wouldn't matter if you got hit by a bus tomorrow; we'd be able to bring someone in to replace you fairly easily."
Disillusionment turned quickly into Despair in the first weeks of December. Coming back from Thanksgiving break, we were asked to meet even more unrealistic expectations. And as the craziness began to spiral out of control, an event happened that hastened Despair into Anger. It was clear that administrators had collaborated to lower some of my colleagues' IMPACT scores because they were not teaching in a fashion that the administration had prescribed (despite the fact that it was still good teaching and good for the students). Additionally, these administrators seemed out to do the same to me because I voiced my dissenting opinion on a number of issues. It became clear that these people weren't out to make better teachers, they were out to serve their egos.
It was during Disillusionment that I learned to speak up for myself. I'd always been interested in proving to people that I was capable of living up to their standards. I'm usually very cordial and pleasant with my superiors. I like to communicate in a friendly style, and often seek their feedback during discussion to monitor whether they're understanding my viewpoint. However, when I realized that the people who were supposed to be my leaders were taking advantage of that (and even viewed it as a sign of weakness), I learned not to be such a nice guy. Even in my personal life, I've noticed that in daily interactions with other people I'm no longer attempting to be so cordial and pleasing. I stick up for myself and my desires more quickly, and I'm much quicker to disagree with something I think is wrong. Although it took a bad situation to teach me these traits, I believe I'm a better person for it.
My Anger (which lasted over winter break and is described in I Wanna Fight) soon turned back to Despair, which you can read about in Checking Out. It was the post, Checking Out, however, that led to the final, and possibly most important, life lesson I was to learn at that school. Checking Out was linked on Bill Turque's DC Insider blog on January 14th and generated a pretty significant amount of feedback. If my administrators hadn't found my blog and identified me at that point, they certainly knew who I was and what I was saying about them after that. The past week has been a lesson in how vindictive people can be. Most of my administrators refused to look me in the eye when I said hi to them in the hallways. Not a single one of them (except for the head principal who called a closing conference with me on Thursday) even acknowledged I was leaving. In our morning meeting yesterday, some colleagues who were so disappointed by this ability to ignore staff members who were leaving felt compelled to interrupt the end of the meeting by making an announcement that folks were going out for drinks to wish us luck - or in the case of the people leaving, to celebrate.
And on my last day of work, I was told I had an IMPACT post-conference for an observation that occurred two days after I'd turned in my letter of resignation. My evaluator gave me a 1.4, effectively documenting that I was a horribly ineffective teacher. This is despite two previous ratings (before I told them I was leaving and presumably before they found my blog) of above a 3. The evaluation was littered with half-truths and PR talk. It was printed out before I had a chance to discuss or see any of the scores, and it was an hour of questions attempting to trip me up over minute details. When I asked what misunderstandings had been observed, I was told that a few students were off-task, which meant they did not understand what they were supposed to be doing. I later found some blatant fabrications in the notes. I shrugged it off, said thank you and left the office. I'm not really sure what the point of all that was. I suppose they just wanted to put me in my place.
When I look back at all of it, and I consider what it takes to run a really excellent school, I'm reminded of how important it is to have leaders who have experience in the classroom and are capable of creating a community of people (staff and students) that enjoy their work. On the surface, the school I just left is exactly the kind I might have attempted to create myself twenty years into the profession. Everything it does is research-based and informed by current best practices. But despite all of that, its leadership (for the most part) is neither interested nor capable of helping staff members enjoy their work. Administrators find it difficult to smile and have a genuinely positive interaction with staff members. They seem to have had no training in leadership skills and think talking down to people and suggesting that they're racist or inadequate teachers is somehow effective.
I do, however, recognize how hard it is to be in an administrative position in DC. Fine tuning your personal skills is probably the last thing on your mind when your boss tells you that if test scores don't go up, you won't have a job next fall. That's a rough situation for anyone to be in, and it brings a corporate, cut-throat mentality to an industry full of people who want nothing to do with that. Teachers aren't in it for commission or numbers, they're in it for things that aren't quantifiable. So I recognize the difficult balancing act for an administrator who now has to pay attention to both of those things. It must be really, really tough.
So I leave this school having learned a lot. I'm more experienced and little less naive. I'm a much better teacher, and I have a wealth of memories of relationships with some really amazing students and colleagues I will always cherish (I'll write about some of these in the coming days). I don't regret coming here, and I don't regret taking a job there. Although I would never go back, this has been an experience that has helped me grow tremendously.
Now, with a few exciting prospects on the horizon, I just need to figure out what I'll do next, which is ridiculously exciting.