This blog was originally created to showcase my photography. That kinda stopped happening. Shooting (guns and images) is still my passion, but I'm a writer at heart, so that seems to dominate, regardless of what I try to do.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Blowing the Whistle - 3 Years Late

After reading a recent NPR article about a high school in Washington DC, I felt like I finally needed to clear my conscience of some similar things that happened inside the district where I taught for 10 years. Maybe it didn't happen throughout the entire district, but it was definitely part of our school's daily operations. These are the reasons why my morals and ethics dictate I step out of the classroom for good, and these are the facts as I know them.

  • It was all about money.
As a Title I school, our district received money for each child who had their butt in a seat. Our "period of record" was 3rd period, so we essentially received funds for each child who was present during 3rd period. Therefore, it was important for funding reasons that we had children present. That's a simplistic way of putting it, but there you have it.
  • Even the worst behavior was overlooked.
Referencing the above, behavior that should have been regarded as reason for suspension was ignored. Often it was the worst offenders who were given the most leniency, too. If students got in a fight - knock down, drag out, fighting the campus officer, and so forth - they were given a citation, put in ISS for the rest of the day, and came right back to regular classes the next. At one meeting, we were told that students would no longer be arrested for drug possession on campus; they would be issued a citation. "Why put a black mark on a kid's record when they're so young and have time to turn around?" More than once, students had hit teachers, knocked them down on purpose, or other forms of assault. Teachers were basically bullied into not pressing charges and led to believe that they would suffer some form of retaliation if they did. 
  • Policies and disciplinary actions were unfair and biased
As I mentioned above, "frequent flyers" were often coddled, while students with no disciplinary record whatsoever would be punished to the fullest extent allowed in the district handbook. Certain students were allowed to wear hats in class while others were not. District policy said it wasn't allowed. Some students were allowed to have hair dyed in vibrant colors while others were disciplined for it. District policy had nothing against dying of hair in non-natural colors. I'm not going to say that it was a racial issue, but it was. Girls with bright red braided extensions were never spoken to about it, but Caucasian girls who sported blue locks would end up in the office.

That discrepancy wasn't just for students. Teachers were treated with the same favoritism as students. Say a teacher who signs in every day, first thing, without fail forgets one day, they would be called in by the principal. Yet, there were some teachers who flat-out refused to do it and nary a word was ever said. The same thing goes for teachers who were habitually late versus one who might be late one time and calls it in prior to school starting. Basically, it was the same way with anything. Morning duty, hall duty, departmental meetings, you name it. Certain teachers could get away with anything, even to the extreme, while others were disciplined for doing the same thing only on the very rarest of occasions.
  • Some administrators had a power trip and walked the fine line between what was legal and what was not
Without getting too deep into it (and, trust me...I could go in REALLY DEEP on this one), there would be an occasional administrator who believed they were God of the School. They would target a few individuals for reasons unknown. They would harass them, bully them, condescend to them, speak rudely, and basically be as unprofessional as one could be. They would impose rules for them that didn't apply to others. They would micromanage and monitor, using threats of discipline, poor evaluations, or dismissal. They would basically order teachers to do things that were borderline unethical or, in some cases, completely unethical. They would write them up for any little thing they did (see the comments above about signing in or being late) even thought it was clearly an isolated incident. They would chastise them about something they were accused of doing - true or not - in front of coworkers and sometimes students.

These administrators might be @$$holes, but they aren't stupid. They knew exactly what could be done without breaking the law. However, there were times in private when they would do just that. Good luck proving it.

Many times teachers would get the teacher association involved. Texas doesn't have teachers' unions. Sometimes it went beyond even the district representative and the teacher would have to pull in the attorney provided by the association at the state level. Sometimes that made the harassment even worse, even though the teachers still had hope that they would be able to catch the admin doing something that would warrant their dismissal.

When administrators come in, they want to change up every blessed thing into something they want to increase their control. That means things like squashing employee morale. They'll move all teachers around, scattering them around to all corners of the building to separate coworkers who had built an effective team for years. Isolate them and pull them out of their comfort zones, even if it means messing up effective collaboration. Remove all employee celebrations. Those after school Thanksgiving, New Year's, Black History Month, or birthday celebrations? Forget it. No need for that. Who gives a shit if there's a sense of unity?
  • Being a good teacher was a Catch 22
If you had a problem, either with teaching difficult content where the kids just wouldn't "get it," or if it was a classroom management issue, no matter what you did you ultimately got screwed for it. Ask for help and you're labeled an ineffective teacher and it would be reflected in your evaluation. Try to handle it yourself and you're labeled as stubborn and unwilling to get help which, again, is reflected in your evaluation. Being a teacher involves collaboration to make things best for the students. This type of attitude and retaliation isn't doing a thing for the kids; it's making teachers scared to do anything at all. It's not supposed to be about hammering a teacher for not being perfect. It's a dynamic craft that changes with each child, each class, each year. Every situation is different and while, yes, some level of adaptation and management should be expected of a teacher, they cannot be expected to have the perfect solution to a problem every time. Hell, that's why they go to professional development.
  • Grades were manipulated
Students were basically immune to receiving the grade they earned. Sure, there were always lots of students who tried their best and their efforts paid off, but there were always those students that did nothing but were expected to be passed. And it wasn't just the athletes. There was ridiculous pressure from administration to change grades to "give kids a chance" and whatnot. It didn't matter if a student had failed every single assignment they'd been given due to not trying, not finishing, or flat-out not doing it. Teachers were urged to give "effort points" but, since they're all teaching to a test, that isn't authentic grading as it would be done on the test. If a teacher had too many failing grades, they'd be called into the office and labeled as an ineffective teacher and often have to go on a "teacher growth plan." This was reflected in their evaluations as well. The problem is that, when you keep all the paperwork on a failing student as evidence as to why they're failing, and have comparative data from all the other students in the class, it's bullshit to label a teacher as ineffective. Some teachers refused to change grades and took the hit on the chin as necessary, because it was authentic grading and they felt like it was the right thing to do. They didn't stick around long. Others just learned to play the game and would wait until progress reports or report cards to go in and continue to up a kid's grade, assignment by assignment, until they got to an overall passing score. God forbid if you speak up against the practice. You'd be royally screwed, then. Sometimes a coach would call and literally demand you change the grade on a student who was an exceptional athlete. If a teacher refused to do so, it's a guaranteed call into the principal.
  • They're all snowflakes
This is kind of a whiny complaint, but students were treated as fragile little creatures. Teachers were told not to give homework because it was too much of a strain on the students. It was suggested that teachers use a color other than red to grade, since red was such a confrontational color and it would hurt the student's self esteem. This also kind of ties in to what I already said about dealing with students in an unfair and biased way. When they try really hard on an assignment, even if it is supposed to mimic the state assessment, grade them based on effort, not actual performance, so they don't lose hope.
  • Truancy was accepted as just a thing that happened
Students missing weeks upon weeks of school at a time was nothing out of the ordinary. Letters threatening legal action were sent home but nothing would ever come of it. Even students skipping half days, every day, were never reprimanded for it. Many times I wondered if anything could ever be done about it, and I had no real answer. Nobody else tried to problem-solve it, either, though.
  • Paperwork was out of control
Grading isn't anything to complain about. If you complain about it, you shouldn't have been a teacher to begin with. What was ridiculous, however, was the sheer amount of record keeping and paperwork. Teachers would have to keep a contact log every time they contacted a parent, for any reason. Emails for the same purpose would have to be printed out and kept in a folder along with the logs. For students who weren't doing well, we had to keep all of their work (or blank papers) in their own personal file to serve as evidence. We also had to make them fill out a "why I didn't do my work" paper which, 99% of the time, we had to mark as "refused" because the kids literally refused to fill them out. We were required to keep an Excel spreadsheet for every assignment, with every grade for every student. It was supposed to be used as data but was rarely ever presented in meetings or asked for by instructional specialists. Each marking period, we had to submit an Excel spreadsheet for all grades for all students and include "reasons" for why students made below a 70 in the class. It may not sound like much, but try doing it along with all the other duties of a teacher. And I know for a fact I'm missing some.
  • Every student was forced to follow the academic track
Many students were passionate about pursuing a trade. Usually it was because a family member was involved and they knew they could get an apprenticeship or something but, more often than not, it was because they really wanted to go after it. While there was a track for vocations, students were often denied entry because the district philosophy was to have all students "college ready." I guess they weren't counting vocational school as a type of higher education, though. Do you know how many students begged for the district to offer cosmetology classes? Never was considered, even though other parts of the vocational programs allowed for students to graduate with a certificate of some type. But they often denied entry. It was a huge disservice to the students for a number of reasons. 1) they were discouraging a student to follow their passion, 2) they were trying to convince them that college was right for each student, 3) some of the students who were truly less academically-inclined could excel in vocational classes and - quite possibly - come out making more money than those with college degrees, 4) it implied that people going into vocations were "less than," 5) even though the classes were available to some, others were denied entry to the program, thus killing their interest in being in school, resulting in behavior issues, lack of performance, or truancy. I'm not sure what it would take for a kid to actually get approved for the vocational programs, but even when I was in school at that district, I wanted to take auto shop. I was told that I was "too smart" for that and was denied entry, but also because I was "a girl. Now, deep in my heart I know why they did all of this. It was because the school/district wanted to keep up a high percentage of students accepted into colleges. I'm sure that's all tied into money somehow, although I never really tried to figure it out. The whole thing proved to me, once again, that the schools aren't really in it for the good of the kids. 
  • Vertical alignment? What's that?
Most people - especially teachers - are in agreement that state assessment testing is a joke. However, the reality is that it is here to stay and teachers must adapt to make sure their kids have the necessary skills to be able to pass the tests. The trouble with that is that there's no connection between the grade levels. There's supposed to be, but there isn't. If a student has to pass a test in 9th grade that tests mostly on analytical skills, then the 8th grade teachers should be working on establishing those same skills, and so forth, down the line. Hell, they should be teaching it anyway. If a student has never had to use higher-level thinking skills to draw conclusions based on something they read, how are they expected to just *bam* learn how to do it in a few months before the test is administered? It's not as easy as you may think and I've never met a teacher who has the answer to that question. There are so many facets to the test that you can't spend all your time focusing on learning how to read beyond the text and dig deeper using their own thoughts, because you also have to teach how to write, how to "work the test" so they can do their best on multiple choice questions, how to budget time and figure out how to "triage" the test, and so on. These skills should start at a very low level and be taught all the way up, along with other things, of course. But that never happens. One day-long meeting before school starts and one day-long meeting halfway through the school year doesn't make it happen.

I will say one thing about state testing and how it plays into this. When a state changes the test in a year's time, and makes it considerably more difficult, the "downstream" teachers never had a chance at teaching to the test, either. They sent their kids off into the summer with the skills they thought they'd need (I hope they did, anyway) for the next year and then all of a sudden the test became way more difficult. My comeback to that is: teach the kids what they need to know as grade-level appropriate, and passing a test won't be a problem. However, teaching to a test is what it's all about, and that kinda leads me into my next point.
  • Low income, low standards
As the years wore on, I saw the standards for expected knowledge get more and more watered down. Even the AP classes became the same as regular academic level. I'm really not saying that this happened all because these students were low income. It's just a theory I have, based on what teachers from other districts all over the country have told me about how they do things. Again, I have no scientific data to prove this; it's merely a plausible theory. Teachers are told over and over about how all children can learn the same and they can all be held to the same high standards. I truly believe that to be true. However, in practice, it wasn't that way. When material appeared to be too much of higher order thinking for the students, the rigor was taken down a few notches. The teach and reteach thing is perfectly normal and is to be expected, but this went beyond that. This goes hand in hand with the rest of what I've been saying, though, about the grade manipulation and the college track thing. Make it easy enough so that the students can pass, and everything's just fine. They'll deal with the test when the time comes. All of this ties in together, at this point. Give them "feel good" grades on practice state assessments so as to not hurt their feelings, let the inmates run the asylum, let them get away with ridiculous things (not just behavior) because they have a "difficult life." I do agree that concessions should be made for kids with difficult circumstances, but that should not be affecting their education as much as they let it. For instance, if a student is pregnant and they need to see a counselor during a class, fine. If they need to see a counselor during EVERY class, that's not fine. If a kid's having trouble with a teacher at that moment (most often misplaced anger due to a personal issue), and they want to leave the classroom to see the AP, sure. Let them. It's a good thing to diffuse a situation and maybe find a mutual agreement. Having that situation every day, however, is an excuse. But they let them get away with missing out on important instructional time because "they don't have it as easy as other people." Again, I truly believe that any student can achieve great things if you believe in them as well, but when you're undermined by admins and supervisors, what can you do?
Okay. So I blasted public education in Texas. My situation may be an isolated incident but, based on what teachers in other districts have told me, I seriously doubt it. 

There were good things about it, though. Don't let me sway you into thinking *everything* was terrible. 
  • We had teachers on staff who were excellent grantwriters and managed to get many thousands of dollars awarded to our school
  • Our para-professionals were some of the most dedicated, overworked, enthusiastic support staff anyone could ever ask for
  • Our custodians worked their asses off and did a bang-up job
  • We had great hall monitors/bodyguards
  • We used a greater percentage of district money on technology and teaching materials than any neighboring district, while that meant a pay cut to our superintendent.
  • While I still had to provide my students with supplies, my yearly investment was rarely over $200 because our district was so accommodating in resources
  • We had a wide variety of teacher trainings and professional development both throughout the school year and over the summers, all of which were paid for by the district and, if during the school year, we were always ensured classroom coverage
  • The majority of our kids were pretty awesome. Sure, there was a large percentage of jerks, but the kids who had the mindset of scholars were some of the sweetest, hard-working, most genuine teens I've encountered and, while I'd rather die than go back into a classroom, I do indeed miss those kids.
In conclusion, I guess this is my way of trying to let the public see what really goes on in some schools. I think a lot of people turn a blind eye to it because they feel as if they have no other choice when it comes to putting their child in an educational institution. I realize that private schools are inaccessible to most people and charter schools are a gamble. Mainly, I wanted parents to realize that, just because they're not hearing from the school, it doesn't mean everything is okay.

My advice to parents out there is that they maintain contact with the teachers, assistant principal, the counselor, and coaches. You don't have to have an appointment to show up at the school to talk with anyone. You don't have to get permission to come sit in a class with your kid. Teachers are not babysitters, nor are they surrogate parents; your input and engagement is *absolutely necessary* to your child's success, or things like everything I listed above may impact your child's education. You are not powerless. Be your child's voice, their advocate. I'm not giving you permission to demand a class change because your kid doesn't like a teacher; life doesn't work like that. If the teacher is acting unethically, that's a different story. But personality conflicts are not a valid reason for a new placement. But your child is still your child and they need a voice to accompany theirs. Complaints are not heard unless they are spoken. Hold your child accountable for the work they do or do not do. Understand that they're fighting against a system that - in my opinion - is by and large against them. Let it also be known that, in many instances, the school's hands are tied; it's red tape and state/federal mandates that essentially forces them to do what they do.

If you're reading this and shaking your head, thinking I'm a bitter bitch, I'm sorry. I'm salty and cynical for sure, though. I was not forced to quit, I was not dismissed, my contract was in renewal status when I resigned. If you think your kid is in a better place, you may be right, and you'd better be thankful each and every day for that fact.

When I went to school for education, I made a promise to my grandfather and God that I would always do what was right for the kids. When I finally had the guts to admit that the system was making it impossible for me to do that, I had to get out. I won't go into how desperate that situation got, but it was bad. Going to work everyday was a mammoth task that wore me down into a haggard, ill, drained soul. 

And that's why I wrote this. To bring to light some of the darker sides of public education. It's happening everywhere, people. Not just in DC.

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