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Retaliation in Denver Public Schools, Pt. 1

November 12, 2010

ETA: Here are links to other stories we’ve already told about DPS striking out against strong teachers who expose ineffective and/or unethical behavior in their buildings:

And this link will bring you to a video of the school board meeting at which I and several other teachers (and along with students, their parents, and other allies) spoke about our retaliatory non-renewals. The public comment session begins about two clicks before the two-hour mark. The successive content clearly illustrates a pattern of scarce accountability for poor leaders (and their own acceptance of such problems, as demonstrated by their decision to rubber stamp the faulty decisions made by these principals).

Edit 2: Updated to place titles where they belong, and omit a name.

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I wrote this letter about Oakland (PDF) in January, when things really started to become out-of-control tense in my building last year. This is one of over a dozen letters that were written to the teacher’s union (and possibly shared with the DPS administration, though I’m not certain) in an effort to have something done about the negative climate in which we were working.

A fifth-grade reading buddy checks her first-grade friends' listening comprehension after her read aloud, using techniques she learned from her own teacher.

The school leader responsible for this situation has since stepped down, and the school has absolutely flourished in his absence. The already talented staff, working under a more collaborative leadership team, have worked exceedingly hard to improve their professional practice and create a more positive, inviting working environment. I visited today to gather video and photos to share with others, to offer some actual evidence of the kind of teaching and learning goes on this so-called “failing school.” While the rhetoric of uninformed outsiders would have you believe that teachers are sitting around doing nothing all day, the reality is that these are talented, dedicated people who are making a truly positive difference in children’s lives.

Well, apparently, DPS doesn’t want you to know that. Though I had gotten prior approval to visit and film as long as I didn’t show kids’ faces (which I wouldn’t have done), someone at 900 Grant got wind of it (still trying to figure out how), and [a representative] of Human Resources came down to the building, reprimanded the principal and interrogated a teacher about my presence there, without first coming to ask me what was going on and clarify any misunderstandings. [ETA: Official story is she was there for another reason and discovered I was there, then flew off the handle.] The principal advised me to go home, so I gathered my things, and headed to the office. I wanted to go in and speak with [HR representative] directly, to clear things up, but the assistant principal told me not to. I waited outside the office for a while while she finished questioning a former colleague of mine. She glanced at me, then looked back at whatever she was doing (working on either a phone or a computer, I couldn’t tell because of the angle) when I tried to get her attention to speak to her directly. My colleague informed me that she asked if I was there with a group of some kind, and asked for the names of all of the other teachers I’d worked with that day. Feeling uneasy about why she would ask those questions, or any questions of any teachers without even trying to talk to me directly, I told my friend I’d speak with her later and I left the building. I left [HR rep] a message on her voice mail, asking her to please give me a call back as soon as possible, so that I could talk with her directly about my (perfectly benign) reason for being there.

I’m writing this all down to have a record of it, in case DPS retaliates against me or my friends for wanting to stand up for themselves and their professionalism. I’m sharing it with with you, my readers, because that’s the point of this project: to illustrate the struggles teachers, communities, and their allies face for simply trying to educate the public.

January 4, 2010

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to share my thoughts regarding the current working environment at Oakland Elementary School. I knew when I applied to Oakland that I was applying to a school that was struggling to overcome years of underachievement, and that’s precisely why I wanted to join the staff. I want to be a part of the solution to the problems these students and this community face, and believe I have the knowledge and skills necessary to do that. I believe my colleagues share that feeling and are just as qualified, which is why I initially found it so puzzling that such a talented and committed group of people could have such difficulty promoting student achievement. While I absolutely love teaching, and despite my status as a fairly highly regarded member of the staff, the balance of my experiences and observations here have left me with such a negative impression that I currently have no plans to return next year.

Officially, our administration claims to support a positive culture of collaboration, problem-solving, and progress. The day-to-day experience here, however, does not reflect that. On top of the relentless demands inherent to the teaching profession, we also have to contend with an overwhelmingly negative atmosphere. Some (relatively superficial) efforts have been made to encourage team-building and trust, but they are greatly undermined by the manner in which staff are treated. Student data is presented without context during staff meetings with staff members’ names attached, leaving people vulnerable to judgment and blame. Grade level teams have been brought into the office for humiliating confrontations—so-called “tough conversations”—wherein their value as professionals is questioned. Once, when I spoke up for myself and my colleagues after an instance of blatant disrespect, I was dismissed with comments like, “Suck it up and deal… If you can’t do the job, you force me to make that choice for you.” When a group of us attempted to meet to find ways to better balance the increasing demands of our jobs with our own needs as people, we were “ratted out” (as though collaborating to solve problems was a crime!) and intimidated by our administration.

The true culture at Oakland is one of confusion and fear. People, myself included, are often unsure of what is expected of us, because our principal often refuses to give concrete answers to questions. Measures of performance are applied inconsistently, such that the presence or absence of a new classroom practice that is barely mentioned to one staff member might be a mandatory requirement of another. This is true even when neither staff member has been given the necessary professional development to incorporate the new practice. The administration may devote much of our staff development to learning about differentiation, but then a grade level team will be publicly praised for proceeding lockstep through the planning guides—“They win the ‘prize’ this week because if you walk into any of their classrooms, they are saying the exact same thing to their students at the exact same time.” We might decline to go to an “optional” professional development session, only to be later sent a message that “strongly suggests” we attend. Upsetting, but unsurprising in a place where our leader says he values people who challenge and disagree with him, but “voluntold” (as in, “I was voluntold to be on this special committee”) is a real word.

Alongside those mixed messages about professional expectations, though, there is a constant sense of intimidation. Every single staff member with whom I’ve spoken has complained about the current situation, but very few are willing to speak up for fear of losing the careers they love and have worked so hard to build. They are afraid to say no to increasing demands on their professional and personal time, often for “reforms” that are ineffectively or inappropriately implemented. They are afraid to meet to discuss how to balance work and life, and thereby become more effective practitioners, because they don’t think the leadership will approve of ideas that differ from their own. They have seen their colleagues targeted, and they are afraid of being associated with anything that might make them the next bulls-eye. This is especially true among the more veteran teachers in the building, who have seen at least one of their fellow teachers—some very highly regarded one year, then hounded and pushed out the next— dismissed every year for the past five years. At times, the stress is almost palpable as you walk throughout the building; even students have noticed and remarked that I and other teachers seem “stressed out” and “sad”. Indeed, while overall behavior problems have declined because of some positive interventions, aggressive and angry behavior remains an issue. I can’t help but wonder if the students are absorbing and reacting to adults’ negativity.

As I said earlier, I knew when I applied to Oakland that I was signing up for a tough but rewarding job. Once I arrived, I couldn’t figure out why this great group of students and teachers was so unsuccessful. After a year and a half spent working here, though, I understand. It’s incredibly hard to think—let alone teach—when you are overwhelmed, confused, and afraid. I know the entire school, administrators included, is in a very tense and stressful situation because of its history of underachievement and the sociopolitical climate in which it exists. I can appreciate the pressures our leaders must be facing from forces within and outside of our building.

But there can be no excuse for treating people with this kind of disrespect; it is morally indefensible, and it only detracts from our mission to serve our students. We need to be able to trust each other enough to learn and grow as practitioners, not fear that our vulnerabilities will be exploited when we end up on the “bad list.” We need to be able to discuss and solve the problems we face as professionals, instead of having things forced on us for the sake of looking like we’re “doing something.” And we need to be able to devote the best of ourselves to our students, instead of wasting time and energy looking over our shoulders.


Sabrina Stevens Shupe


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