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My story (Part II)

June 25, 2010
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[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.”

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. Nellie permalink
    June 25, 2010 6:31 pm

    Wow!! Amazing and terrific article!

  2. Sabrina permalink
    June 25, 2010 7:00 pm

    Thanks :) Just speaking from my heart.

  3. Scott & Stacy Birney permalink
    June 25, 2010 9:28 pm

    Sabrina,

    We are so sorry to hear about this! We hope you and Nathan are doing ok. We miss both of you. Hopefully, we can see you sometime soon.

  4. June 28, 2010 4:23 pm

    Wow. I have many thoughts about your posts here, what you have experienced, and what you have shared.

    First, thank you for having the courage to speak out. I have had somewhat similar experiences in the past being told in a fairly large school system to not speak out, that I would never be promoted / be successful in the district because I spoke out out of turn and made the district look bad, etc. I’m not saying our experiences are the same… They are not, but I do know personally how small you can feel when you are a new teacher, have few rights, and when you are told partial stories by supervisors who seem to care far less for children, for employees, and for what is right than other agendas which remain ill defined.

    Please do not underestimate the power and importance of your words. You are absolutely right– there are MANY other educators out there who have had similar experiences to yours, but for various reasons have not spoken out. I commend you for doing so. You are right to speak out, and I applaud as well as respect your courage in doing so.

    The idealism, passion, and willingness to work hard to open doors for our students which drew you to the education profession are precisely the RIGHT reasons to teach and keep on teaching. But you are also right to recognize the importance of boundaries and balance. I pray this year you will find rest, perspective, renewed energy, and new insight into how and where you can best focus your energies as an educator.

    I wish there was something I could do to help remedy your situation of injustice with respect to your supervisor in Denver. Have you considered contacting the ACLU or another legal advocacy team? I am sure part of you wants to just put that chapter behind you, but you deserve a full explanation and it doesn’t seem like you got it based on what you’ve related here.

    Have you read any of Paulo Freire’s writings about education and our profession as educators? You might pick up some of his books as you regroup and renew yourself this year.

    Best of luck to you. Blessings to you and your family.

    • June 28, 2010 9:00 pm

      Thanks so much for the support, Wesley! I definitely plan to read a lot of Freire (and others) this year. I hadn’t thought about the ACLU; will definitely look into that as well…

  5. Kellee Corti permalink
    July 8, 2010 10:33 pm

    The quote in the purple box is simply amazing. It encompasses everything that matters in a few sentences. You are so brave and admirable. So many can not stand up for what’s right in DPS because DPS is afraid of its own shadow, but more importantly, afraid of being “found out”. God bless the child that’s got her own!

  6. Bob permalink
    December 1, 2010 4:53 am

    So, you ( a 1st year teacher) didn’t want to follow the decisions of the experienced principal of the school because you determined you knew more than the Principal? Who is ultimately responsible for the decisions of the Principal. It is admirable that you are so dedicated. I think you lost sight of the forest for the trees. The ones who suffer are your students because you aren’t there.

    • December 1, 2010 9:08 am

      Thanks for your comment! To clarify:

      In my first year, I mostly kept things to myself because I was still learning the building, and didn’t feel right about challenging what I saw going on. However, when the stuff I describe in this post began happening in my second year, it was too egregious to be ignored. Yeah, I may have only been a second year teacher, but this principal (who had very little classroom teaching experience) was clearly in the wrong. What’s more, he knew it, and admitted as much (read this post for a more detailed description of the most central conflict we had).

      When this first started happening, I was simply asking questions (“Why are we doing this instead of that?”) because what we were doing didn’t align to how I was taught to teach, or how I’d seen teachers teach in the private schools where I’d worked. The fact that simply asking questions rose to the level of such conflict, and the fact that at no point did anyone ever just try to answer my questions, says a lot about how toxic this school climate was. If he or anyone else could have explained why what we were doing was worthwhile, I would have shut up and done what I was told. Instead, they expected me to shut up and do what I was told without any explanation– and later with the full knowledge that there was no educational value in doing so.

      My mother always told me that “when you know better, you should do better.” I live by that, especially when children are concerned. I feel badly–guilty, even– about not being in the classroom right now, but I felt even worse on the days when I was there, and went along with things I knew weren’t in my students’ best interest. If I can’t do my best for kids each day I’m in the classroom, I don’t feel I belong there.

  7. January 24, 2011 11:51 pm

    Sabrina,
    If I had not retired recently as a principal, I would hire you in an instant. Too many principals are into CYA. What you describe is simply crazy-making. The problems that you describe start at the top with the culture created by your local school board and your superintendent. Don’t let this knock you down. Somehow you come across as very resilient. You’re right. Teaching is a calling. Teachers who recognize this make outstanding teachers. Best of luck to you.
    http://www.inthetrencheswithschoolreform.com
    http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org

  8. January 25, 2011 8:09 am

    I’ve subscribed to your blog for a while, but never read these posts telling your DPS story until now. I’m so glad you told it. I had some similar experiences when I was in the classroom and I know of many, many other educators who have, too. So many teachers and principals’ hands are tied in the very ways you describe. I guess we have to keep pushing to untie them, right?

    • January 25, 2011 10:36 am

      Yes, indeed. How can we put students first if we don’t support the people who support them?

  9. April 3, 2011 9:44 am

    Sabrina,
    Your voice, talent, passion and drive are appreciated!
    I have been reading your posts and your tweets. The Cautionary Tale brought me to your blog and your personal story… I’m moved and so happy to see you succeed as a respected, writer.

  10. concerned parent permalink
    April 5, 2011 12:06 pm

    Hi Sabrina,

    Thanks you for being so brave to publicly share your story and I am so saddened and extremely angered by your experience. I’ve personally saw a similar experience unfold to a couple of my child’s best (tenured) teachers who bravely spoke out against administration. One got fired and another got written up for collaborating with (which led to befriending) me & continues to have her teaching schedule made so impossible that I’m amazed that she’s still teaching. As a parent, I’ve tried to support teachers like them by speaking out on their behalf, testifying at their hearing & attending board meetings and such. I’ve asked to volunteer in the classrooms and the teachers were told by administration that I’m doing surveillance on them. Not many are brave enough & willing enough to question admin’s reason. Everyone knows that when you choose to speak up, you face being put on district’s radar as a troublemaker. I have become “that troublemaker” because I question things and the environment for us has become so hostile that it’s even affecting my kid’s education. The culture at our district is to hide or reproduce the evidence. I suspect that on some level, maybe your principal does not want teachers to start questioning his/her leadership & job satisfaction, so instead of focusing it on them, they’re choosing to put it on you. The reality is that attitude comes from the top down. This is why I say district officials, starting from the superintendent on down to principals, should also be held to the same standards — have them try teaching a class or two! Many start off wanting to make a difference. Once they become at district level, it becomes a political game of wills so many lose touch of what it’s like in the classroom and the kinds of resources/support a teacher needs to succeed. Because of the lack of support & resources that you got, it seems that you’ve over-exerted yourself. Sadly, there are not many teachers like you. As a taxpayer, I would want to throw as much resources as we can to teachers like you who are making a difference & being set as an example of best practices. But your kind of passion & determination is what’s needed in the classroom. If we can just bottle your kind of attitude up and ship it all across the US, all our children will be at a better place. I sure hope that you will continue to teach (if not in Denver maybe somewhere closer to home) or at least become some kind of student advocate. Our students need more teachers like you. I sure hope through true reform, injustices like this can be avoided. We need to start by empowering more teachers like you by elminating last in, first out rules. Thank you again for your passion and service. All the best to you…

    • April 5, 2011 10:32 pm

      Thanks so much for your support, and for reading. Means the world to me! (And if we had more “troublemaker” parents like you, we really wouldn’t be in this mess. Oughta start a school of our own, eh?)

  11. April 17, 2011 9:26 pm

    I just found you from the Washington Post article – I’m also in Colorado and taught in several different school districts. I’m so sad to hear of your experience, and will keep reading on to see what you’re up to now. Find me at http://imaginationsoup.net

    Melissa

  12. Shafted teacher permalink
    May 5, 2011 7:45 am

    Thank you! I’m in the same position now that you were in then. My principal has even gone so far as illegally forcing me to enter grades for students I don’t have! He’s yelled right in my face at top volume and made my life a living hell while I’m at school. He’s extremely retaliatory if you go to the union about anything. I’ve also been “non-renewed with cause”, even though all of my evaluations have been stellar. I’ve never gotten any feedback from him and he is the least supportive principal I’ve ever worked with. The only thing that gets me through the day is knowing how much I am helping my students.

    Good riddance to DPS!!!!

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  14. Richard Sims-Herrick permalink
    November 17, 2013 11:09 pm

    I found myself in this same position after 35 years of teaching. I was called into the office and accused of sharing a music schedule with a parent even though the schedule was to be posted on the walls, in the classrooms and obviously used by the students. A couple of weeks later I was given a formal reprimand which had the incorrect information of saying they told me the previous week that the schedule was not to be shared with parents and they used as proof an e-mail in which I was asked by a parent about the future music schedule and she questioned why the hours were being reduced, etc. The date was incorrect along with numerous other facts. I made the corrections and asked that the reprimand would either corrected or removed. I repeatedly asked (for 2 months!!!) to get the administration response. I even forwarded the information to the HR department so that they could help with the situation. I was finally fired but they refused to give any reasons. My many requests to talk to the instructional supt. went unanswered. In addition, about 12 other teachers in our same school had similar experiences with a very ineffective leadership team. ( Very poor principals!!!) So many parents came to my defense. They involved the school board and additional HR people. They even organized a parent meeting about the situation at our school with the poor leadership and how they were “bullying” so many teachers. The story goes on and on. I’m over it but obviously so many good teachers and thus students are being hurt by the Denver Public School District Office and administration. I personally know of at least 20 teachers that had these negative experiences with DPS and none of it had to do with their excellent teaching and their positive educational outcomes with their students. I believe most of it was just insecure administrators that were afraid of strong faculty that wanted to make a really difference in their school building and wanted what was truly the best for the students. The story could go on and on. Wish we could do something about this. Any ideas? I talked to a lawyer and they expressed concern about the number of teachers that had contacted their firm about the unfair practices of the DPS. How are they getting away with this?

Trackbacks

  1. “The district model…is probably obsolete”: Rob Stein on Leaving Manual HS, DPS « Failing Schools
  2. Word Attack: “Data” « Failing Schools
  3. My story (Part I) « Failing Schools
  4. On branding, and “failure” « Failing Schools
  5. What does it mean to be well-educated? « Failing Schools
  6. The Crisis Story, and “What’s Your Alternative?” « Failing Schools
  7. Killer instinct vs. relationships « Failing Schools
  8. What does it mean to be well-educated? « Cooperative Catalyst
  9. Retaliation in Denver Public Schools, Pt. 1 « Failing Schools
  10. If we don’t, who will? « Failing Schools
  11. If we don’t, who will? «via Failing Schools « Transparent Christina
  12. Welcome (Back)! « Failing Schools
  13. Accountable for What? « Failing Schools
  14. The simplest things « Failing Schools
  15. Audio Interview « Failing Schools

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