Part 2 of 2. -The unraveling continues.
Read part 1 of 2 here.
This post was inspired by D.A. Russell and many other teachers who only want to do the best for their students. It’s also offered as a hope for the future that the system itself unravels so real learning can return to classrooms.
Think back to your school days.
Hopefully, they were full of lots of learning, but we all know about those cliques who could make life uncomfortable. Add to that the Queen Bee who wanted to take you down a peg because your shine was just a bit too much for her and she had this need to diminish it. It was brutal, but we all made it through and survived. Let bygones be bygones and chalk it up to immaturity and the struggles of youth.
Growing up, I’d been bullied. Who hasn’t? I thought those days were long gone when as an adult, I encountered more of the same; only this time my job was riding on it. Fast forward 25 years and it’s like high school all over. The difference is that this time, I’m encountering the same thing and this time the Queen Bee is my principal.
Leaving my innovative, supportive, community school was one of the hardest departures of my life. Just as when a parent dies or a best friend moves away, you realize that things will never be the same again. That was my last day with my Dragon sisters (our school mascot). Little did I know I was walking into my version of hell.
Truth be told, I was heartbroken, but after looking at the spacious, new building, I was inspired to make it work. My former colleagues helped me move boxes and we partied together about my new start. They were jealous that the brown recluses hadn’t moved in and there wasn’t a spot of dust, a broken water fountain, or mold in the duct work. New computers lined every classroom and extra cabinets and a student restroom joined every two classrooms. As I looked out of the second story through spacious sunlit windows, I smiled. Maybe this would change things. I was right- just not in the way I had envisioned.
Have you ever gotten a bad feeling about something even though everything appears to be fantastic? It began the day I moved in.
I had asked to move some boxes into the new building prior to the end of the school year. Unfortunately, the 10 min or so drive from my old school meant I arrived after dismissal. The secretary was curt and obviously bothered that I showed up after school even though it was pre-arranged. I would come to find out that she was quick to leave most days. She was determined to keep her place of status as gatekeeper to the kingdom and had little time for us common folk. It was the beginning of a new way of life for me. I left the most understanding and supportive office staff to be met with an ogre guarding the moat.
The custodian on the other hand was a lifesaver. Mr. A was my sunshine. To this day, I don’t think I would have survived without him. He became my confidante over the next several months.
Upon moving in, I put my school year on hold and returned several weeks prior to the start of school at a summer planning meet for the grade level “team”. The word “team” will never hold the same meaning for me ever again.
I have experienced many plannings for the school year, but I should have trusted my gut instinct- the one that told me to run that very first day. It began with niceties, questions about my previous school, input into my ideas for the coming school year and was interrupted by the principal proclaiming, “We’re TEAM players here.” I was confused by her tone, but smiled in an unsettled sort of way. As the day drug on, I saw a regimented and mirrored planning process- one that had collectiveness written all over it- one that said, “independent thoughts and ideas not welcome”. I was doomed from day one.
I returned for another session the next day and walked out with a “plan” for the following school year. Every month, every story, every chapter, every concept had been mapped out all in color-coded un-wonderfulness. If I had no brain or was a first year teacher (no offense implied), I’d have been thrilled to have everything laid out before me. Instead, I was horrified. I interjected my ideas, my craving for novelty, my flexible thinking with the unknown needs of my students in mind, but one by one they were all shot down. After all, I was part of the “team” now. That word still makes me cringe.
I came from a true TEAM. I came from a school where ideas were part of learning. They were embraced, developed, used, discarded, altered, improved, improvised and above all else- accepted. Instead, I woke up in Robotland. When I begged for understanding, the other teachers answered, “If we all teach the same thing on the same day, the parents can’t complain.” Oh really? THAT was the intention of all 5 of the teachers in grade 3- not to reach learners, but to protect their butts. As you can imagine, I was in shock. Some of you may be nodding in agreement. Maybe you’ve been in the same boat. I was outraged and at a loss for words (which doesn’t happen often). Then, I found the reason-the zombies all had leader support.
My principal had actually been a colleague years before. She was a loner who I barely spoke to in a small rural school with less than 20 teachers. Now, she had gained in power and she was using it. Her sticky sweetness dripped with insincerity as she visited my classroom those early days. She always seemed surprised by what I was doing. I really didn’t understand since I followed the scope and sequence along with the curriculum revising it as I went along; taking into account my students’ needs and adding my own style of instruction. It was a little tense, but I’d been teaching for more than 20 years and was used to being observed.
Then I caught Medusa’s reflection in the mirror as she commented, “So, you’re not doing the ____worksheet with them?” I explained that it wasn’t appropriate for my students and gave ample support showing her the alternative in product that would demonstrate the same learning. She wasn’t pleased. She left and I stood there wondering, “What was the problem?” Little did I know.
I was called into her office a week or so later. Sitting behind her huge desk she went on to explain to me her merits of working “as a team” as that everyone was on the same page (literally), parent complaints were minimal (here we go again), and that it made everyone comfortable knowing what was to come. See, the other teachers happily handed out homework for the week on Monday mornings. Yes, for the WHOLE WEEK. They probably could have done it for the month or the year. Medusa liked the idea. It was simple and easy (and unimaginative and definitely not student-centered). She explained that I needed to get on board.
I tried interjecting some of the less offending worksheets (always worksheets) aligning them to my student needs, but things really hit the fan when my Guiness Book of World Records and the infamous kite poster clashed in the hall.
The other 5 teachers took great delight during planning time bookmarking pages in a teacher magazine describing a kite product for the students. The “project” was a pre-made cut out kite where a number in the ten-thousands was written for the students and on the ties, the number was expanded down to each number’s value. It was ingenious (or so they thought). Every student got a number and they set out to make their own kite with their own number in the ten-thousands. I stared in disbelief, smiled, and vowed to find something more worthwhile during the 20-30 minutes it would take for third graders to cut out, write out, glue, and color their kites before hanging them up in the hall.
Staying on the same page (figuratively), I opted for the Guiness Book of World Records excerpts. I had a cool Scholastic book that neatly placed one record on each page with the numerical values along with 2-3 short paragraphs describing the record. I was set. I hand copied one for each student; varying the numbers in difficulty for students who already knew about larger numbers and decimal placement. Students eagerly shared their personalized world records with each other commenting on how “cool” they were. I knew I had them hooked. We went on to add our expanded forms to our personalized records and placed them in the hall. Kids stopped all day to read them and comment on them as more than 100 kites hung in the hall nearby. We had our weekly hall hanging mandate satisfied and the students were interested.
A new problem had been created.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, they didn’t like that I was different. I had hung up mini posters that had upset the kite monsters.
Again, I was called to the office.
I wasn’t as surprised by this call since hours before the other teachers had openly expressed their outrage at my hallway hangings. Still confused, I wandered in. Tension filled the air and basically the only thing I really remember was her tone, her glare, and her line, “How do you think that looks to other people?”
What? Really, what? I didn’t know what to say. I answered honestly (yeah, I know that probably dug me in deeper, but it was the truth), “It looks like my class did world records for their expanded form.” To this day, I don’t see anything wrong with it- because WHO CARES IF THERE ARE KITES AND WORLD RECORDS IN THE SAME HALL? ugh.
Getting called to her office became a weekly event. I was told to “follow team lesson plans exactly” as she frequently visited my classroom. Tensions mounted as I wasn’t doing anything worthy of a write-up, but her pressure increased.
I dropped 35 pounds that year.
By November, I started looking for a transfer and by March I had a lead on another job-outside the school system for the following year.
I reached out to other teachers, but their constant tension told me they were under similar pressure and didn’t want to add my obvious conflict to their already full plate. I was alone except for Mr. A and Candy. Candy was a teacher’s assistant who had many of the same struggles. She’d pop in now and then to cheer me up and to recommend a viewing of THE HELP to remind me that sometimes things work out. I can’t watch that movie without thinking of that school year.
Then, Mr. A. left. We’d been speaking a lot about the tension and he told me he was marking time and would be leaving soon. When? He wasn’t sure, but it wasn’t going to be long. He’d had enough. Little did I know it would be days later. He walked. We met for lunch soon afterwards and a lot of what he said made sense. It wasn’t worth the abuse.
In the meantime, I was still there.
Evaluations meant I followed the “team plans” to the letter. Still, I was marked off points for the child who got up to go to the bathroom during the lesson, the fact that I’d made a poster of the I can statements instead of writing the 6+ on the board daily (I taught all subjects except Science), and other trite indiscretions. She was out to get me.
In retrospect, I guess I was too competent. I didn’t need them and they knew it. While I would have loved to have had someone to bounce ideas around with, it just wasn’t going to happen. I learned to keep my head down, switch to the same copy of plans as everyone else when she walked in, and face the fact that I was doing my students a disservice, but keeping my job. I’d come to partially accept that I would separate my brain from my body that year and struggle through until the end.
That’s not to say I didn’t try and sneak in my own teaching. I did. It usually followed the days I passed out tons of worksheets (not my idea, of course). One day I cried as I handed a really good worker his 12th worksheet in the 45 minute math period. The kids began to become concerned. I was beyond sad, I was heartbroken. I felt like someone was putting a gun to my head and I was choosing to kill off all semblance of learning in my students’ eyes. The pain dragged on.
My last teacher evaluation clinched it for me. I rotated groups in Literacy class as directed, posting the mountains of seatwork for the other groups. We worked in silence (as was demanded by Medusa). It was miserable. In an effort to fulfill one of the technology requirements along with the Literacy standards, I rotated my groups dutifully with my traditional table meeting happening at the 4 computers within the classroom. I paced attentively behind my students conducting research on pre-chosen websites so I wouldn’t risk a student clicking on anything resembling inappropriate content. My students stayed on task and I was grateful to have only one student ask to go to the bathroom during Literacy rotations. Silence reigned and little was spoken above a whisper. I breathed a sigh of relief as Medusa walked out the door. I was in the clear. I just had to stick it out for a few more months and I was on the next train out of hell as fast as I could go. Until….
I arrived at my follow-up conference the next day or so. I walked in nervously, but I was sure that my students were on their best behavior and I had followed the letter of the law keeping to my exact rotation schedule down to the minute. Rotations were so silent I could hear a pin drop. Well, she nailed me on the child asking to go to the bathroom during Literacy; as expected. Points off. Then, she announced that she was assigning the Literacy Coach to help me “understand how Literacy worked” because I obviously had little idea. I had forgotten a basic rule of Literacy rotations. I had neglected the table.
If you’re unfamiliar with rotations in Literacy groups, let me explain. Students are ability grouped (ideally flexibly) in small numbers. The group she walked in on had 4 or 5 students. Those students I was working with all worked dutifully, but not at the table. They were doing research for a report on topics we had discussed with each at his own computer. The problem wasn’t the students, the noise level, or even the content; it was the lack of table usage. I kid you not. The students weren’t sitting at a table for Literacy. Again, my mouth dropped open in utter amazement. I was being docked points because my students didn’t use the traditional table where we usually worked.
When I met with the Literacy Coach (since I had no choice), she came with lots of support and resources. I waited for her to ask what prompted my contact with her. Then, I told her about the table. She was also amazed and agreed that she seemed out to get me. That final affirmation by someone with experience who understood that it was more than unreasonable was all I needed. I marked my time (not really teaching that year except undercover) and packed diligently those last several months. When people asked about my new school, I told them I wasn’t sure yet, but I wasn’t staying. Some assumed it was not my choice, but I honestly wouldn’t have stayed for a million dollars.
My self confidence had been bruised, but even more, my integrity had vanished. I was a shell of a person. It took me months and really years to fully recover. I still harbor resentment; even after hearing that after 4 years as a principal, Medusa is retiring this year. I’m just relieved that no one else will have to suffer in silence.
She was a power hungry administrator who craved dutiful, dull, and mindless servants. She did so much to block real learning that year all in the name of power.
I was out of there.
Though I went on to teach for one year in a charter school afterwards, I began to realize that my autonomous and innovative group of teachers with my old supportive principal was a rare combination. Education has become much too standardized, dull, monotonous, and micromanaged for me.
I’m waiting for the day to rebuild. In the meantime, I’ll happily take on anyone who says the system is fine just the way it is. Those are fighting words and I’m always ready to fight for integrity and real learning. I know many teachers who are keeping their mouths closed and marking the days. I understand and will proudly be their voices until they can reclaim their right to speak again.
In the meantime, I’m planning for a comeback, but in a different, more encouraging and open-minded atmosphere.
Close the chapter on my career as a public school educator; I’m stepping into the sunshine. As I do, I notice the monsters have all disappeared.
THE END…..or a new beginning?