Saturday, January 30, 2010

An Open Letter to My Former Staff

Dear Colleagues,

I hope the first week of the second semester has gone well for all of you. I write this letter because I feel it's important for the health of the school to inform you of my reasons for leaving now that I've had time to reflect on them. I'd also like to use this as a means of offering you some assistance in improving the current state of affairs at the school.

I'd like to first say that you are undoubtedly the most talented, most motivated, most inspirational group of people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. One thing the school has done an outstanding job with is recruitment. In the previous environments I've worked in, I had the chance to work with some all-star teachers, but it seems like in this school, every classroom is occupied with an all-star teacher. I only wish I had more time to collaborate with many of you.

I, however, like so many other teachers, decided that remaining in my position would be more destructive than productive. I witnessed and heard about more than my fair share of staff members suffering injustices at the hands of administrators. I began to realize that for a few of the admin, debating best practices was much more about satisfying their personal egos than it was about providing a quality education for the students (or, if my admins really believed that changing my curriculum on a weekly basis really was good for the kids, then they were really out of touch with what it means to teach for a living).

As we're all very aware, the school is out to prove to the world what a fabulous place it is. It was once ranked in the top 100 best schools in the country. It does everything that any educational research study has ever suggested might be good for student learning, but we do it at the cost of the students and their education. I never felt that in attempting to do all of those things that I was working for the students; I always felt I was working for somebody's ego.

What gets lost in all of the educational mumbo-jumbo is the need for experienced educators who have a stake in their school. I honestly think that this probably ranks near the top of the list in terms of creating an outstanding school. It's also an often neglected piece of NCLB - that urban districts have as many experienced teachers as suburban districts. Unfortunately, the school's leaders don't seem to see any value in this whatsoever. Maintaining a staff of naive, inexperienced, at-will employees makes it easy for them to enforce their well-regimented program of what I'm sure they consider guaranteed success.

It's also apparent that the leaders seem to believe teachers are at the root of the achievement gap. I, and others, have overheard conversations among school leaders in which they expressed resentment toward teachers who they felt didn't know how to do their jobs, who they thought didn't hold the school's mission as highly as they did, or who they thought valued creativity over solid instruction. It's been my experience that these attitudes engender a serious degree of mistrust between the administration and the staff. If the administration would only realize that they have an outstanding staff that need more support, not more accountability, they might have the chance to really create a dream school. I don't mean to suggest that accountability is bad, just that when your only answer to improving instruction is to assume that teachers are doing it wrong and you need to catch them at their mistakes, then an atmosphere is created that nobody wants to be a part of. Word from downtown DCPS suggests that ours is the only school in which in-house IMPACT scores are consistently and significantly lower than that of the MEs. At some point, the school's leadership will have to explain how a school it would like the outside to believe is so amazing has, by it's own administrators' standards, the worst teachers in the district.

The worst part of this environment, however, is the lack of honesty on the part of the administration. Rare was it that I ever had what I felt was a truly personal exchange with one of our leaders. All questions about instruction, schedule decisions, testing arrangements, and the like were met with well-worded PR responses, as if staff members weren't mature enough to just receive the truth. When you add that to stories of principals being asked to lower teachers' scores, not because of what was done in the classroom, but because somebody didn't want those teachers around next year; and when you add the lies that have shown up (and even been documented by the union in some cases) on teacher evaluations; you can see why the atmosphere is so toxic.

One example I'd like to share comes from my final IMPACT post-conference. My in-house evaluator chose to come and observe me two days after I submitted my letter of resignation. This person came between 2:43 and 3:06 on a day students were asked (by the school) to prepare their portfolio presentations for the following day. During this time, I was conferencing one-on-one with students about their grade in the class. I had one student who was not engaged because she had just come back from missing over thirty days of school. I had two other students at any given time who were discussing things unrelated to the project, but who were by no means seriously off-task (mind you, this is in a class of thiry-five students). After watching this, my evaluator gave me an IMPACT score of 1.4 after two scores earlier in the year of over a 3.

The evaluator said that I didn't even bother to talk to the student with her head down (the student who had missed over thirty days of school) for half an hour. This was false. I talked to her four times while the evaluator was in there, which was for less than half an hour.

The evaluator said that I wasn't enforcing the dress code. This was false. Anyone who knows me knows that I, more than most, was a consistent enforcer of the dress code, even with students I didn't know. Never, at any point during the year, was there a student in my classroom out of dress code. My students would be the first to complain to you about this.

My evaluator claimed that I had no portfolios to provide as evidence. This was false. I told the evaluator that, in order to follow the prescribed check-out proceedures, I'd locked up my portfolios on the third floor on the previous day (since the evaluator chose to give me my post-conference on my very last day), and I could go get them if necessary. The evaluator never asked for them, just claimed they were lacking on my official feedback form.

The evaluator claimed I had no valid measure for tracking my students progress. This was false. I used my department's approved baseline assessment data, and I showed it to my evaluator.

My evaluator claimed I was disrespectful to my students because I let "so many of them do nothing." This was false. I have excellent rapport with my students, and never were more than three of them off-task (again, in a class of thirty-five sophomores). Additionally, even if the evaluator felt many of them were off-task, this was not the portion of the IMPACT rubric to assess that.

My evaluator said I deserved a 1 for not addressing student misunderstandings. This was false and should have been scored N/A. There were no misunderstandings. My evaluator claimed any students off-task must have misunderstood what they were supposed to be doing.

My evaluator did not allow me to see the scores until they were printed off, and did not discuss a plan for further growth (as required by the protocol) presumably because my evaluator knew I would not be back Monday, but why have a conference at all (if these are supposed to be for growth - not gotcha evaluations whereby you can tarnish a good teacher's reputation)?

The purpose in my sharing all of this is to let people know that some of our leaders are clearly not to be trusted, and if the administration is the only group playing hardball, then nothing at that school will ever change. No self-respecting professional should have to go through what I, and many of my colleagues, went through in the last five months. It is of the utmost importance that the teachers who must serve under administrators like this organize (their voice must come from safe, tenured, teachers though - because we know that those who organize at-will will not have a job come August). There are labor laws that protect you from the treatment some of you go through, and there is a contract. I implore you to document everything so that you don't end up with lies and half-truths on your evaluation like I did. Also, in my free time, I'd be willing to talk to lawyers should any of you be in need of any assistance in that area. I know if I was still working there, I'd want someone to do that for me. If we're going to teach our students to value social justice, then we'd better practice what we preach.

To the administration:

I believe that most of you are competent, hard-working individuals who found yourself in the mess of DCPS. But please try to remember that teachers are not your enemy. The staff at the school should be working together, not against one another. Trust and respect are desperately needed. Smile at people in the hallway; don't ignore them as they walk by. Treat the staff as your colleagues, not as your underlings. Open your administrative meetings up to all members of the staff. Don't hold them behind closed doors. A Nineteen Eighty-Four feeling has emerged in many pockets of the building. People are afraid to speak their mind. This is not the way a school should feel.

Most importantly: ADMIT THERE IS A SERIOUS PROBLEM. The staff will respect you more if you don't ignore such a thing. It makes us think you either think everything is okay or that you simply don't care (either one of which makes for an even bigger probelm). The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Also, in case it wasn't obvious, you should know that the following things are NEVER appropriate:

-treating people like they're less than you
-telling teachers that they can be easily replaced
-implying that teachers who dedicate their lives to this profession don't care about the kids
-implying that when a person disagrees with you, they're a racist
-lying on people's evaluations
-berating staff members for ANYTHING (disagreements should be handled professionally)

As administrators, you (just like students and teachers) are bound to uphold certain standards. One of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards that you're held accountable for in DCPS is promoting student success by ensuring management of the organization, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment; under which falls trusting people and their judgments. You may want to go back and familiarize yourself with these standards if you haven't done so in a while.

Lastly, it is imperative that you fire one of the administrators immediately. That I need not provide any details about this person's identity, and still EVERYONE at the school will know exactly who I mean, is a testament to the urgency with which this action should occur. It should have happened already, and it seems apparent to all around this person that the longer this person stays, the longer the school will suffer as a whole.

To all staff:

Please feel free to use the comments section of this post to add important information you would like the administration to know about the working environment at the school that you would not feel comfortable relating in person. Also, feel free to disagree with anything I've said here. (A month ago, I would not have come down so harshly on the administration, but after what I experienced in my last weeks there, it became overwhelmingly clear to me that these things needed to be said.) If you choose to do so, please keep your comments professional and refrain from identifying anyone at the school by name.

I wish all of you the best with the rest of the year and the rest of your careers. Please keep in touch.

Sincerely,

The Reflective Educator

22 comments:

  1. Your observation and post conference just go to demonstrate the schools unprofessionalism. Im sure that your evaluator was not acting alone. But your comments and description show their vindictiveness in trying to get back at you for leaving, this blog, and probably because of the Turque article. Other teachers were observed on the same day, having their kids doing the same thing and other teacher did not receive a 1.4.
    I would like to comment on is when you say "Lastly, it is imperative you fire one of the administrators immediately." I know EXACTLY who you are talking about. Now i think that many readers who dont know the school might read this and think that you want this person fired because you personally dont like them and/or you want to get back at them for making your life hell. False. The reasons why this person needs to be let go from the school go beyong that of "well the teachers just dont like them". It is not what the teachers want, but what the students need! And heres why:

    When students heard about the teachers who left at mid year (there were 3 or 4 i think) i personally heard two students ask if it was because of this particular administrator. Even the students see this as a problem, and from my experiences have little respect for the admin as well. One student comment earlier int he year around the time of the RIF that "a bunch of teachers left because of "so-and-so". Its the PINK ELEPHANT in the room that the rest of the administration keeps dancing around. And i think the question is Why is this one admin able to get away acting like this?
    This person needs to be let go because they are in the long run hurting the students and jepordizing education. Its definatly a ripple effect. Students need consistant support, and the only thing they have been able to count on over the past fews years is knowing the teachers they opened their hearts and minds up to, will BE GONE. How can any change happen in one year with brand new teachers every year? Isnt that part of the reason why we have 4 year presidental terms and not 1 year terms like Roman consuls? If every year that school looses x number of teacher because of this one person, and then every new school year they have to start right back at day one with curriculum, development, training, etc. They yeah, they are never going to move forward. They need to see that the negatives of keeping him outweigh the positives. And honestly, they need to explain to the staff what is so great about this administrator. Because its all still a mystery to us! Its funny to think that most of the staff individually has more years teaching experiance then the administrators do. this is probably why some are so unable to provide contrustive feedback.

    What is still a mystery to me though is how they are unable to treat the staff like adults? You dont need years of classroom experiance to be able to talk to another person like a human being. I wonder what has damaged most of them in their past that has caused them to be so suspiscious of teachers? They hired all of us for a reason, they even had us do demonstration lessons. But yet we cant be trusted?

    another note to the admin: From my experiences, much like that of the Reflective Educator, LARGE MAJORITY OF YOUR TEACHERS ARE ON BOARD WITH THE MISSION. stop trying to rationalize people leaving as "oh they just werent on board with the mission" If anything we all want to be there for the kids, we care, we are invested in them HOWEVER keep us around long enough so that we become stake holders in the school as well. Let us take lead on our own intiatives. You will see greater teacher buy in and greater productivity. AND lay off the damn, pointless meetings. We have meetings for the sake of just having them half the time. As the RE said, so that we look good to the outside world. Meanwhile you can tell your SLC admin threw the shit together at the last minute and if they were getting and IMPACT eval on their meeting, they would desperately need improvement.

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  2. ^^ to continue from post #1. The admin need to realize that a little will go a long way. Teachers are not asking for the sky here. And any real authentic step in the right direction will be MUCH appreciated.

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  3. Good for you! I'd like to write something very similar. Good luck.

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  4. I would also ask that the administration do a little (or actually a lot) of self reflection. If you have a company where half of your employees leave every year then you are either doing a very poor job of hiring or you are doing something wrong. I think it's time to get off your high horse and take a good look in the mirror to realize how your pressures, decisions, and lack of transparency and honesty are effecting not only the moral of teachers but the quality of the school and education of students.

    Education isn't about dog and pony showing in front of observers, evaluators, grant givers, and the public. It's about educating and empowering young minds!

    Trust and respect your teachers... After all YOU hired them!

    I'm also tired of being treated like a child. We don't need to have meetings run like we are high school (although more like elementary school most of the time) students. If that is your intent (to demonstrate your teaching skills) then according to IMPACT, I doubt you would score higher than a 1 with your lack of differentiation, minimal targeting of learning styles, horrendous pacing, and most definitely meaningless and age inappropriate material.

    Maybe we should all grade and scrutinize our students meticulously the way we are evaluated... Im sure that would be much more rigorous, socially just, and end up with a lot more failures versus our fluffed up grading and student accountability policies that are currently not appropriately preparing our kids for college (as our mission statement is supposed to be doin for ALL students).

    I could go on forever, but I will let this digest for awhile.

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  5. Reflective Educator,

    You said that the administrators are competent but from what I have read from you and heard from others, that can't be true. If people bully teachers and create policies that cause massive turnover and ultimately harm students that is not competency.

    Is the person you think should be fired ASAP the one having an affair with the principal? I ask this because they both need to be outed for their poor leadership.

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  6. Anon at 531: While I'll make no comments on here about affairs (not information I can independently verify), I will say that there is a relatively large team of administrators. Some play the game more than others, and I didn't want people thinking that there's nobody there who doesn't know how to do their job.

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  7. anon at 5:31: affirmative.

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  8. Years ago I had a principal who engaged in very unprofessional behavior. We reported this to the superintendent who actually came to our school and scolded us for "gossiping." Well, one day this man went to a teacher's house after school and threatened her with a gun! Yes!

    Fortunately no one was hurt but of course the teacher pressed charges and the principal was hauled off to jail and fired. Our teachers never received an apology. Needless to say, the superintendent's inappropriate response could have resulted in a terrible tragedy.

    If the administrator in question is a danger to adults or students, report it to his superiors immediately. If that doesn't work, report him to the authorities outside of school.

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  9. Linda/Retired Teacher, we work at DCPS, were the Chancellor of DCPS can slander all teachers and get away with it. Enough said!!!

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  10. Exactly. And since the school does relatively well, decent test scores, high grauation rate, then the chancellor has "bigger" problems to worry about. And how can you "do the right thing" and confinde and/or report misbehavor when the person at the top effectively condones this type of behavior? That goes for the principal and the chancellor.

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  11. If what they are doing is legal, then there isn't much you can do except leave and encourage your friends to do the same. However, if you see anything that is illegal, you need to go beyond the principal and the chancellor.

    Don't give up!

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  12. "Life is too short"January 31, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    Bravo. You are a hero; a brave and free voice for the oppressed. The truth can unleash beasts, however. If the Administrator in question is as unstable as is known among the ranks and documented, he may feel justified in doing harm...figuratively and/or physically. Be ever watchful. Thanks again for embarking on this rocky path. You are supported in your endeavor, and admired for you words.

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  13. If you really want to change things, you need to publically name your school. It's not like you have been shy about dropping hints, so privacy can't possibly be your concern.

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  14. I wouldn't directly name the school on a blog, who knows RE could get sued, these people are very very vindictive. However, everyone who lives in DC teachers, administrator, politicians, DC Council, Chancellor, parents, etc) knows this school and the principal. Also, the Washington Post (DC School Insider, Bill Turque) wrote to the principal for a response and posted it on his webpage, no response yet. The public outing is not necessary.

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  15. the admin in question is a danger to students and adults. I was verbally abused by him, and was actually verbally threatened with physical violation as well. I submitted this information to the union..nothing happened. I saw him touch female students repeatedly, which they would complain about outside of his presence, but never to his face. He was menacing and ruthless, rude and incompetent. And yes, he was or maybe still is having an affair with the principal. This is fact. When the massive dossier of official complaints was submitted, the Principal was given the opportunity to keep him or fire him...guess what? he's still there. SHE, the principal, is really the one responsible for endangering the students in her care and for the mass exodus of teachers every year, by keeping him there for her own personal physical pleasure. The other administrator who is the actual perpetrator may do the actions, but she not only turns a blind eye but condones and seemingly encourages it. It makes me sick to my stomach to think that that is the bottom line reason that the CHEC students are being disserviced,...the faculty leave because they have no choice. (my year saw 48%!)

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  16. Anon 1:55:

    This needs to be reported to the police or protective services, especially since you were a witness. Insist on a response, and if you don't get one, go further. Someone will act on this. I am certain of that. If you are a new teacher who is afraid for his/her job, get a trusted older teacher to help, or demand anonymity from the authorities. Please don't let it go. Remember, the law requires that you report this to the proper authorities (NOT the school or the union). Good luck.

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  17. Jay Mathews, well-known education writer said this today on his blog

    I measure schools by how well they teach students. You seem to be measuring them by how comfortable the teachers are. Which is best for our city, and our kids? Tukeva has built that program steadily over several years. The teachers I interviewed had no complaints about her. No principal, particular one with high standards, is going to be super popular. He or she is too often telling too many people that they have to improve. But unless the teachers you cite have the same kind of track record for achievement that she does, I am prone to listen to her, not them.

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  18. Anon at 610: Thanks for the tip. I wrote Jay a little note.

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  19. There's an unfortunate symmetry to the appreciation of positive leadership and revulsion for the opposite. I didn't expect everything in this journal to be true; but I did appreciate the ideas, aspirations, and the articulate reflection.
    Then, in this last entry I came to the matter of a single administrator, and what can or maybe must be ad hominem dismissal. The problem for me is the parallel in blackballing of both teacher isolates and teachers who are leaders but oppposed to a principal's (or Chancelor's) direction or methods. Where are the objective criteria and how does the evidence get put together to discharge any of them?

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  20. Anon at 9:22am, would you mind clarifying what you are asking?

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  21. Ever look at the job descriptions for assistant principals (AP's)? Given the diffuseness of possible responsibilities and the functional specialization the principal MAY assign the APs, how does one evaluate them?
    How does one confirm that he / she "brings down" some number of teachers? Is the problem of the Reflective Teacher, and mine, that we don't know the legal language of the "creates a hostile workplace environment"- offense. And is it a firing offense?
    To substance of concurrent discussion of this school: This school may resemble a segment of the economy in a bubble: inflated by confidence in price / value which isn't stable. That's not to say, if this were housing, that it is poorly built or with hidden defects; its just that no matter how capable those who live there have been in articulating its virtues, those virtues are on a price bubble and over-valued. Once other schools figure out how to inflate the stats Jay Mathews is so enamored of (AP tests taken)--as by retro-fitting sky-lites, if those are found in expensive new homes -- they are suddenly "as good" as this school. Inquiry into what the schools do BESIDE maximizing those performance indicators fails to turn up much, and the prices crash.

    I'll close by noting that much as the blogger impressed me with his self-criticism, passion, and commitment-- and I'd likely hire him due to those and obvious intelligence-- when I review the sum of the posts, I realize that I don't know that his kids learned much at all. After all, the courses this year were ones he had not taught before, and he's seldom written about their learning.....
    That's not criticism. It IS my reflection on how difficult this teacher evaluation business is. The blogger can recognize that thousands of teachers may have taught before he ever did who don't command 1% the vocabulary, explicit planning and charting; and who were better teachers than he is, however measured (eg. mean "learning" of students, minimum loss, number of super-achievers, etc, etc.)

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  22. See Jay Matthews column in today's Post (Friday) interesting take on the IMPACT assessment

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