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.
The Reflective Educator