My story (Part II)
[If you haven't already, read the first part of this so it all makes sense. Thanks!]
When I returned to Colorado after my honeymoon, I was determined to figure out a way to be an effective teacher to these kids while balancing my own need to have a real life and relationships outside of my school building. Though I have many fond memories of my first year, more often than not I felt overwhelmed, and unable to do so many of the grand things I’d planned for my students. I gathered materials and worked out some plans for projects I wanted to tackle in the classroom, took some professional development classes, and got ready to shift from summer to fall.
But that fall, news that our school had performed poorly on CSAP hung like a dark cloud over the building. The administration quickly went into hyper-drive, ordering more frequent assessments, more stringent interventions, more staff development, more observations and reporting requirements, more everything. At first glance, this made sense given the situation. When it was originally framed as “working smarter instead of harder” at our summer retreat, I welcomed the chance to help turn the school around. And I’m used to having others come and observe me while I work, and welcome visitors and their feedback.
However, the stresses of all the new requirements plus larger class sizes (I had 32 fifth graders) and less in-class paraprofessional support resulted in low morale. I started to remember what my “life” was like last year—spending long days and nights at school, and making myself sick in the process. I felt myself slipping into those patterns again, but I recognized that I needed to start putting boundaries on my time and energy. As part of my attempt to do that, I respectfully advocated for spending less time on reading assessments and related interventions that, based on my (data-informed) knowledge of my students and my understanding of reading development, were less relevant to actual instruction than other available alternatives. Having to do it all didn’t seem like a wise use of limited time.
My classroom teaching practice continued to earn praise, but I was increasingly pressured to stop questioning what was going on and to learn to “play the game.” No one disputed that the research was on my side, but they wanted to push forward with their plans anyway. When I tried to collaborate with other teachers to figure out how to balance all of the competing demands we faced, I was told by an administrator that I might be in violation of my contract. I tried to get help fulfilling my last few professional development requirements, but I was ignored. Efforts to improve the climate were essentially dismissed, and I began to lose hope. Trying to “play the game” and create meaningful, differentiated learning opportunities for this many students– without any in-class help– felt all but impossible, even though by this point I’d resorted to pulling late nights and having no life again. The stress of trying to do it all, coupled with the tension between myself and the administration I once trusted, was really getting to me. I started having trouble sleeping. I felt myself getting cranky with others. I stopped feeling the same kind of joy I normally had in my classroom, and felt less effective overall. Realizing that I couldn’t work like that for another year, I notified my principal and HR manager that I was resigning as of the end of the school year.
I loved the community and working with many of my colleagues, and I didn’t want to stop teaching, but I knew I needed to take a year off and figure out what to do. The situation was changing me, and my practice, in ways I didn’t like. Some days, when I had to teach scripted lessons or prep students for CSAP, I felt less like a teacher and more like a learning dictator. I felt pressured to do less of the creative, student-led learning I believe in so that I could teach my kids how to perform in a certain way for a certain kind of test. Trying to resist that pressure brought another kind of stress, and professional repercussions.
A month after I tendered my resignation, I met with my administration for my final evaluation. The ratings were positive, but the comments about me were mostly negative, despite the evidence that my students were learning and that much of what was said was untrue. The meeting didn’t go well, and I was reminded again that even though I was a great teacher, I needed to learn how to “play the game.” At this point, I’d heard that phrase so many times I could have cried. But instead, I responded (God, this rings so clearly in my memory!):
“I can understand that I might be a difficult person to have on staff, because you have to answer to people who don’t see students, only numbers. But I have to look at these children everyday, and I have to be accountable to them and their best interests…Children’s lives are not a game to me. I won’t compromise my honesty to make myself, or you, more comfortable.”
The meeting ended shortly thereafter, with my principal saying we’d have to “agree to disagree.” In the middle of my planning period the next day, I was called down to the principal’s office.
During that meeting, I was informed that my contract was being non-renewed for cause, which meant that after this school year, I was ineligible for rehire in the district. I was dumbfounded, given that I already resigned, so I asked why. He said that because of a “wording problem” with my resignation letter, he was going to ignore it and do this instead. When I asked him what the cause was, he refused to say anything besides, “You’re being non-renewed for cause.” To date, I’ve never been told. I tried to appeal to the school board to remove that language and honor my resignation, but to no avail. Because I’m a probationary (non-tenured) teacher, I have virtually no due process rights. Nevertheless, I finished the rest of the year, being true to who I am as a teacher, and I’ve been trying to process this experience ever since.
Until this past year, I had a lot of faith in the people I worked for. I’m still impressed by many of the teachers I’ve met and worked with while at DPS; while I’ve met a few who probably shouldn’t be in the classroom, the overwhelming majority have been smart, dedicated, caring people who truly want only the best for their students. But while I once believed the hype about education reform in Denver, I can’t anymore– at least, not where its “leadership” is concerned. There is a pattern of trying to silence people who don’t quietly go along with what they’ve decided to do, and punishing those of us who don’t fit in the current political climate, instead of finding constructive ways to bridge our differences and move forward in the best interests of the children.
As for me, well…In every other job I’ve ever had, I’ve been a great employee. I’ve never been a troublemaker, or caused any issues. But teaching isn’t just a job, it’s a calling. This work is too important to just “play the game” for personal gain or to avoid disrupting the status quo. So while this whole experience just rips my heart out, if I had it to do over, I wouldn’t do it differently. As Herbert Kohl says, “There’s nothing wrong with being a troublemaker in a troubled world.”