Politics Schmolitics

My last post prompted a young person to reply.  This young man or woman wanted me to know that he/she is a proud conservative, and to assure me that conservatives do, very much, care about kids.  It is so discouraging that this person read my last post and came away with the idea that I believe conservatives don’t care about kids.  That is not what it says at all.

The controversy around the JeffCo school board is not political.  It’s not about Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives. Citizens for Responsible Education, a website which describes itself as “dedicated to informing the entire Jefferson County community about the actions of the Jeffco School Board majority,” is run by politically independent, fiscally conservative JeffCo resident Michael Clark.  Shawna Schantz-Fritzler, one of the founders of Support JeffCo Kids is a conservative Republican.  Wendy McCord, a JeffCo conservative who truly believes in transparency, has been holding the board majority accountable by filing Colorado Open Records Act requests to reveal the secretive actions of the board three.  At this point, they’ve taken to stonewalling her, pretending they can’t find documents and insisting she pay thousands of dollars for documents that she, as a taxpayer, has every right to see.

A broad range of people are now standing up for all students: On Facebook pages and websites, in letters to the editor and house party hosts, one can find Democrats and Republicans, people of faith and secular humanists, liberals and conservatives, parents of kids in neighborhood schools and parents who love their child’s charter school.  As disparate as their personal beliefs may be, they are united in their passion and commitment to public schools.

The vast majority of conservatives do care very much about kids.  The New Oxford American dictionary defines “conservative” as: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.  There is nothing conservative in readily sacrificing resources meant for traditional neighborhood schools and long-standing homegrown charters for untried outside charters run by for-profit management companies.  Where are the traditional values?  Where is the caution? You see, it is specifically Witt, Newkirk, Williams, McMinimee, and their handlers I am calling out for not making kids their priority.

Fiscal responsibility? McMinimee is a much less experienced, less educated superintendent than his predecessor, yet Witt, Newkirk, and Williams are paying him $75,000 a year more than her. Brad Miller, the lawyer they hired despite the protests of two board members and a sizeable number of JeffCo residents, makes about $90,000 a year from the JeffCo coffers.  McMinimee hired a communications chief who had no experience but who is a political cohort of Newkirk and Witt.  He settled her with a salary around $5,000 more a year than her predecessor, a woman who had been in the position for 8 years. She’s in so far over  her head that she’s calling upon Novitas Communications for help.  Or maybe it’s just the board majority throwing more money at a politically affiliated company.  Either way, JeffCo taxpayers will foot the bill with money that was meant for kids. This is not fiscal conservatism.

In the long run, they won’t win.  There are simply too many people united in fighting for JeffCo public schools and the kids who attend them.  Now that the board majority’s true colors have been revealed, people from the entire spectrum of politics, religion, and educational schools of thought are united by things far more important than money: kids, the future, the long-term well being of the entire country.  Short-term personal gain doesn’t stand a chance!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

To Tell the Truth…

One thing from my last meeting with Dan McMinimee has been bugging me.  At one point, he essentially called me a liar, which—if I had been lying—would have been fair enough, since I’d pretty much called him the same.  The thing is, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m sort of freakishly honest.  Not brutally honest.  I won’t express a negative opinion about your haircut unasked, but really, I just don’t lie naturally.  I had a tough time doing the whole Santa Clause thing, because, you know…

See, I told Dan that all we talk about at JCEA is kids, and yeah, he basically called me a liar.  He seemed so sure, and honestly, I was shocked.  At first, I thought, “Geeze.  The very concept of focusing on kids is really this unthinkable to him?”

But I’m not the kind of person who just takes a glib, unexamined position.  (I had to laugh internally when a colleague was explaining to me how “complicated” this whole school board thing is—like I don’t research both sides of everything ad nauseam before I take a side.  I know the key arguments of both sides well, and if you think this is a “union” issue, you need to study up.  If you know what’s really going on, it isn’t complicated.  It’s a “schools are yet another great place to push a free-market ideology” or “schools are a place to teach children” issue.)

Anyway, on closer examination, I want to clarify my statement that all we talk about is kids:

Conversations at JCEA begin and end with our commitment to kids.  We believe passionately in public schools (and yes, that includes home-grown, quality public charter schools).  We talk a lot about the importance of public schools in any democracy.  We talk a ton about the kids we teach.  It is no coincidence that many (though certainly not all) of the most active members of JCEA teach vulnerable kids—at risk, low-income, special ed, etc.  Our kids are lost without strong neighborhood schools, and to us they are people with names and faces.  They live in our hearts every day.

But in between—sure, conversations go other places.  We talk about the Tea-party attack on public schools, waged primarily by attacking teachers couched as attacks on “unions.”  Why do we talk about this?  Because this attack is hurting our kids.

We talk about negotiations and what will happen to our contract.  Why?  Because our contract protects kids from being buried in class-sizes or teacher loads so heavy they get lost in the shuffle.  Because the contract keeps our voices in the decision-making for our students.  Because we want teaching to stay the kind of profession that attracts people who will love kids as we have, but if young people never see their way clear to the kind of salary they can raise a family on, good-bye committed teachers of the future.

Have we talked about a strike?  How can we not?  It’s what the board majority wants most in the world.  Teachers don’t want to strike.  We want to negotiate in good faith.  In the secret confines of JCEA, those teachers who teach vulnerable kids worry desperately what will happen to those families if we strike, but we also worry just as desperately about what will happen to public schools if we don’t fight for them with everything we have.  Talk about complicated.

We talk about what we can do to get the general public involved.  How do we get JeffCo small business owners, and retired folks, and folks with no kids but who care about the quality of life in JeffCo and the nation to take notice and care enough to act—go to school board meetings, write letters, talk to friends and neighbors.  Why do we talk about this? Because it takes a village to raise our children, and our village is patently under attack.

So I guess these things are not directly children, but they are 100 percent about children.

A new aspect of conversation about negotiation for us is the board majority’s insistence that these talks occur part of the time during the school day.  It was pointed out that the teachers on the negotiation committee have students.  Every day that they are forced to miss school for negotiations, they are unable to teach their students.  Negotiations may very well occur during the high-stakes test window.  Our kids need us.  We need to get them through these high-anxiety tests, and then they need our instruction.  Julie Williams kept saying, “But their leave time is paid.”

THE MONEY IS NOT THE POINT!!!  The teachers on the team have made it clear—they want to volunteer to do this in their free time because they need to be with their students.  Paid or unpaid, they do not want to leave their kids.  The board majority just didn’t get it.  They kept coming back to the idea that the leave is paid.  They simply cannot wrap their minds around the idea that kids could possibly be anyone’s first priority.  Because to them the negotiation process is all about ideology, they are unable to conceive of any other paradigm.  Negotiations being about a good learning environment for children?  About preserving neighborhood public schools because kids need them?  It just doesn’t compute.

I think Dan and I just come at this from very different angles.  He cannot imagine a group of adults so focused on kids that it’s all they talk about, and I can’t imagine a group of teachers not having kids at the root of every conversation.  To him, when we talk about negotiations, we’re talking about money for us.  To me (and the vast majority of teachers, including very active JCEA members) it’s about great schools and great teachers for kids.

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Meeting with the Superintendent 2.0

Good news!  Apparently there were just some messaging problems again in the district communications I recently wrote to Dan McMinimee and the board about.  (I’m sorry, am I speaking clearly enough?  My tongue is in my cheek, you see.)

Our superintendent of schools assured me that when he wrote to parents about the district’s ability to “develop and implement community based solutions to give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed” being “distracted by outside influences,” he wasn’t talking about JeffCo teachers.  He handed me minutes from the Boulder Valley Education Association at which John Ford (the president of JCEA) spoke.  I read it.  Nothing new.  John Ford is, after all, a JeffCo teacher.

Yes, I confirmed, the National Education Association and the Colorado Education Association, accompanied by JCEA members, did knock on the doors of Jefferson County teachers over the summer.  I explained to him that teachers are actually not outsiders in education.  We are, in fact, very much on the inside.  The NEA and CEA (both organizations comprised of teachers) were providing support to their members.  (If you’re a member of JCEA, you are, by extension, part of CEA and NEA.)

Why did we need them? he asked.  I explained that 5,200 doors (the number upon which we knocked) required more manpower than we had.  I detailed how we went in pairs, and while one person carried on a conversation with the teacher, the other was recording data: What were the teachers’ concerns and what did they want from their association?  This is a perfectly appropriate thing for such an association to do.  Furthermore, I informed him, Jefferson County is not the only public school system that is, indeed, under attack from outside organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute—neither of which is comprised of educators.  The representatives from NEA were learning what kinds of steps teachers can take to preserve public schools across the country.

He agreed—by the way—that the outside forces I referenced are becoming very influential on school boards across the country.

I asked him repeatedly how our summer door-knocking activities distracted anyone from education.  Did they delay the start of the school year?  Did they prevent teachers from planning?  No, no problems there.

So he did what many debaters try to do: pivot. This only works with me when I want it to.  In this case, I was happy to take the redirect.  He referred to a video John Ford released to JCEA members telling them we were getting in shape for a fight.  What fight? he wanted to know.  “The fight for public schools,” I replied.  “The fight to keep the voices of teachers—the people who actually know what kids need—in the decision-making process regarding classroom conditions.”  I also invited him to share that information with the board—we will fight.

Of course, I assured him, the worst could be avoided if the board decided to negotiate in good faith.  He said we don’t know what will happen when negotiations begin.  I said the last round of negotiations hadn’t done much to instill confidence.  “In DougCo,” I said, “teacher voices in schools were lost because people weren’t geared up for the fight they had on their hands.”

Eventually I brought it back to my issue:  “Groups like the ones we’ve talked about are using a general anti-union sentiment to gain ground.” He nodded as I said that.  I continued, “I have an issue with a district publication that looks as if it is trying to deliver that message.”  He assured me again that this was unintentional.  I pointed out that it didn’t look unintentional when the inflammatory sentence about being “distracted by outside influences” was included in the parent communication but not another communication to teachers which included all the other connected verbiage.  He apologized and said he wasn’t aware that a different message had gone out.

I brought up that teachers do not use district communications to express our viewpoint, and this is where things got a little interesting.  He tensed visibly and disagreed.  “You have those buttons and the—the posters plastered everywhere!”

If you don’t know, we teachers have been wearing buttons that say, “Stand up for all students.”  On our classroom walls are 8.5X11 “posters” (sheets of paper) with a fist holding a pencil.  Underneath it says, “Educate!” I pointed out that this was all they said.  He said not everyone agreed with our point of view.  “Not everyone agrees we should stand up for all kids?” I asked.  He said they stood for something else.  I repeatedly asked what he believed they stood for.  He never answered.  He would only say they stood for something not everyone agreed to.  Well, true that, I suppose.

We chatted briefly about the Lisa Pinto appointment.  He was definitely not happy that I know as much as I know.  We didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and it was another of those agree-to-disagree kinds of things.

I don’t know how enlightening this is to anyone, but I will say this: Wear your button everywhere!  We do not want Newkirk, Witt, or Williams to ever forget that it is we who have not yet begun to fight for Jefferson County Public Schools and the kids who attend them!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 11 Comments

My Letter (2.0) to Dan McMinimee, Superintendent Jefferson County Public Schools

I posted this letter on my Facebook page last week, but as Mr. McMinimee has requested another follow up meeting, and I anticipate writing “Meeting with the Superintendent 2.0,” I thought I would repost here:

Dear Mr. McMinimee and Jefferson County School Board Members:

Once again, I find Mr. McMinimee’s presentation of teachers in public communication reprehensible.  First, he sends a letter to parents telling them that the district’s efforts to “develop and implement community based solutions to give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed” are being “distracted by outside influences.”  Then, when taken to task by parent Shawna Shantz-Frizler, Mr. McMinimee replied that he was referring to the statement “46 NEA organizers who ‘hit 5,200 doors in JeffCo this past summer.’ In July, CEA president Kerrie Dallman announced to the NEA annual meeting in Denver that 48 national union staff operatives would come to JeffCo to visit teachers in their homes.”

I was one of the NEA/JCEA organizers who knocked on doors last summer.  I moved to Jefferson County when I was six.  I attended Jochem Elementary, Open Living School, Sierra Elementary (when it was brand-new), East Arvada Jr. High, and graduated from Pomona.  I student taught at Pomona and have taught at Columbine High School since 1986.  My children attended Hutchinson Elementary, Dunstan Middle school, and Green Mountain High School.  How exactly am I an “outside influence”?  CEA president Kerrie Dallman is a former JeffCo teacher.  How is she an outsider?

Would you like to know what disruptive shenanigans I participated in when I visited my colleagues in their homes?  I listened.  I realize that this is considered almost subversive in Jefferson County these days–truly listening to people and actually caring about what they have to say–but that’s what I did.  I listened to a single mother say that she hoped her salary would reach a level where, as a college-educated professional who worked 50-hour weeks, she would no longer require public assistance to provide for her children.  I listened to a husband and wife who were teachers talk about working extra jobs to make ends meet.  I knocked on the door of a house where two teachers were tutoring neighbor children over the summer to help them be more successful in the fall.  I encouraged discouraged teachers not to give up, to believe in Jefferson County.  How, exactly, is this disruptive?

JeffCo is not DougCo.  The members of this community will call the district on it every time district publications politicize and misrepresent the facts.  If this is an example of the new leadership in communications, I am deeply chagrinned.


Paula Reed

The letter I sent in August can be found here.

A summary of the follow up meeting can be found here.

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Please Share This

One piece of feedback I’ve been getting a lot lately that, in all honestly, I just don’t understand, is the people thanking me for being “brave” in my blog posts and Facebook updates about the school board.

To me, brave is when you’re afraid and you overcome it.  Send me up on a ladder past six feet and see how brave I am.  If I really, really have to, I can deal with it, but if my husband weren’t the one climbing up to decorate the house, we’d have no outside Christmas decorations.  Now, he doesn’t love climbing a ladder leaning against a house from a garden held up by a retailing wall, either, so he’s the brave one.

I am not afraid to speak truth to power, and if I am not afraid, then doing it isn’t brave.  In fact, speaking my mind and passing along common concerns is sort of a reflex action for me.  I’m not sure I could stop myself.  So as one who has pretty much done this forever, let me assure you guys, at least within the context of what’s going on in JeffCo, you can do it, too.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.

As you all know, education “reform” has been a big thing since the 1990’s.  We’ve been asked to keep track of so much data that none of it has any meaning anymore—no more than any individual drop of water means anything in an ocean.  New regulations require so much that the district began an avalanche of new curriculum, new assessments, new interventions, new technologies, new evaluation systems for kids and teachers, and mountains upon mountains of documentation.

Everywhere I went, teachers were talking about how the workload of pointless crap was interfering with their ability to do their jobs.  I wrote to our superintendent at the time, Cindy Stevenson, and told her of the negative effects of all this “reform.”  Two things surprised me: First, I was shocked that she was shocked.  She told me that she had been talking to teachers all over the district, and that by and large, they were happy.  This didn’t fit at all what I was hearing, also from teachers all over the district.  Second, I couldn’t believe how many teachers were stunned that I’d had the nerve to tell Cindy how everyone was feeling.  I was so “brave.”

Nothing happened.  I mean nothing.  We kept juggling balls instead of being able to really devote ourselves to the work at hand.  I didn’t get fired.  My principal wasn’t disciplined.  The world went on.  Because I was one of a very few who would be honest, I looked like one of a very few who had a problem with the loads of useless tasks, so that didn’t change, but even though I looked like I had no backing, I suffered no retaliation.

We got a new curriculum, one that every high school teacher I talked to thought was horrible.  I worked with the union, wrote a letter to the district curriculum developers, and asked teachers to sign it.  Many did.  Many were too afraid.

Nothing happened, at first.  Those of us who signed were ignored.  No action was taken on the curriculum; no action was taken against us.  I will say this: The district quietly got out of our way.  They didn’t exactly say we could stop doing the new curriculum.  They just stopped trying to enforce it.  Some schools stopped using it, and nothing happened (except that our students became better writers than the ones who’d been taught the “new” curriculum).  Our principal was reluctant to flat out say, “OK, stop using it.”  I made it very clear exactly how this was sabotaging our kids’ success in college and asked him whether he wanted us to serve the kids or the curriculum.  “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it, but you know what the consequences to kids will be.”  My principal didn’t exactly say yes or no; he just kind of stepped out of the way and trusted us to teach.

This year we had instructional rounds, where district folks observe classrooms to talk about ways the school can improve.  It can be a valuable process, if everyone is honest.  A big focus was on student-initiated learning.  Getting kids to ask the hard questions and dig deep into material with less teacher guidance.  In case you think this sounds like teachers aren’t teaching, it’s a shift.  We are challenged to teach kids how to learn, not merely to learn what we teach. It’s exciting and important work.

A district leader wanted to know what we thought, and teachers mentioned that it is more time consuming than lecture.  The district guy said we should take the time.  I saw science and math teachers looking at each other with chagrin, but no one said anything.  Since English had been ignoring our stupid curriculum for years, we are quite able to slow down and do this.  Not so with science and math, and I knew it because I’d heard them voice their frustrations for years.  “You can’t simultaneously expect them to keep up with frenetic pacing guides and slow down for student-initiated inquiry at the same time,” I told the district guy.  “You either have to free them from the tight time constraints or keep letting them lecture.”

People couldn’t believe I would say something like that to a district administrator.  Why wouldn’t I?  It was the truth.  If he didn’t like it, he’d better fix it.  That’s his job.  Was I disciplined?  Called to the woodshed?  No.  (I have no idea what’s being done about the pace of science and math classes.)

I wrote our new superintendent last fall and took him to task for prevarication in his newsletter.  I still have my job.

Not every principal is as supportive as the principals I’ve had, I know.  And in all honesty, with this board majority and Dan McMinimee, principals may now have a very real concern about speaking truth to power themselves.  They are much easier to fire.  In DougCo, the principals who really watched out for kids were fired or their lives made so miserable they quit.  This is why teachers, parents, and community members need to do it.  (And this is why people need to stop bemoaning the idea that teachers are hard to fire.  While I am certainly in favor of removing ineffective teachers—which isn’t as hard as you may have heard—kids need teachers to be able to advocate for them without fear.)

I realize that I have a number of advantages that make fearlessness easier:  1) I grew up in a faith that sees speaking truth to power, even to the point of personal sacrifice, as a sacred obligation.  Leaders in my faith have died in concentration camps protesting the Nazis and faced dogs and fire hoses standing up for civil rights they already enjoyed by virtue of their skin color, but others did not.  2) I am married—not the sole breadwinner of my family.  I am still paying college tuition, and my husband’s salary is comparable to mine, so we’re not rolling in dough, but it helps.  3) Technically, I can retire today.  If I were to get fired, really I would retire, and while I wouldn’t get enough to live on, I could supplement that income with just about anything and get by.  4) (And my husband thinks this is the biggest.)  It probably isn’t in the district’s best interests to fire me, in terms of PR.  I have years of sterling evaluations.  I have been deemed “highly effective” ever since the designation came to be.  I have a years-long public record in my writings about how much I love my students and how passionate I am about ensuring a quality education for them.  I have years of students, parents, and colleagues who would come to my defense.  False modesty aside, I’m articulate as hell with years of debate experience, and if I were to be fired for speaking truth to power, I would be very, very public about what had happened.  5) I’m not afraid.  No one can make me afraid.

Those of you reading this who are not district employees—parents, business owners, citizens of JeffCo, you are especially immune.  No one can do anything to you.

The way I see it, those of us who can and are willing to step up must be the vanguard.  But even those with reasons to fear can do more than they may realize.  Never hesitate to share my blog or any of my public Facebook posts.  I set those things to public for a reason.  I write all of this on a blog that uses my name for a reason.  Do not fear for me.  And if 100 people share them, and 100 more after that, all those people make it harder and harder for anyone to act against anyone else.  Really.  Does this district want a headline that reads: “200 Jefferson County School employees fired for free speech”?  Of course not!  There is strength in numbers.

One last thing: If you think that li’l ol’ you can’t make a difference, I have two quotes for you:

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Edward Everett Hale

“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged | 3 Comments

Our New Chief Propaganda Officer

Boy, it sure would be nice if everyone could buy a political mouthpiece with taxpayer money like the board majority of JeffCo’s school board has.

Lynn Setzer, JeffCo’s Chief Communications Officer, left JeffCo last November.  As has been the process, an interview team of staff members assembled to bring forward a list of qualified candidates to replace her.  JeffCo’s superintendent ignored all of their recommendations and went for a candidate whom the interview committee had deemed unqualified.  She did not go to public school, sends her kids to private school, and has no experience in communications for any public school system.  In fact, two of the five board members questioned hiring her.  They, too, were ignored, and she was hired for more money than her experienced predecessor.

Kind of like this superintendent, hired despite his lack of experience and despite the legitimate questions of two of the five board members and paid more than his far more experienced, far more educated predecessor.

What made our new Chief Communications Officer, Lisa Pinto, so attractive to this superintendent and board majority?  She is a graduate of the distinctly political Leadership Program of the Rockies, a tea-party-run organization with an explicit political agenda and to which two of the board majority are tied.  In short, they now get to use taxpayer money to publicize their agenda.

Take the first issue of JeffCo’s Chalk Talk parent newsletter published under this new communications officer.  Granted, this message is ostensibly from Dan McMinimee, but it is telling that this is a more definitively political message than those in previous issues.  It is most likely a taste of things to come.

Let’s take his assertion that “We are trying to…develop and implement community based solutions to give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed. Unfortunately, this cannot happen overnight and it cannot happen if we are distracted by disruptive outside forces.”

What are these “disruptive outside forces”?  Over the next few months, Lisa Pinto and Dan McMinimee will try to convince you that parents, business owners, students, teachers, and other taxpayers who believe that class sizes should be limited, that teachers should have adequate planning and collaboration time, that promises made to tax-payers concerning bond issues should be kept, that JeffCo should have enough buildings for all students and should not leave 5,000 children without neighborhood schools are “disruptive outside forces.”  The very idea that they believe JeffCo residents will, by-and-large, buy such a destructive message is insulting.

Now, let’s look at this part of his message in Chalk Talk: “Students, teachers, parents, administrators, President John Ford of the Jefferson County Educators’ Association and community members have all expressed concern that students are being over assessed and that the number of assessments and time required by state standardized tests has become excessive. On Thursday, Jan. 15,  your school board voted 3 (for) -1(against)-1 (abstained) (with Mr. Witt, Newkirk and Ms. Williams voting in favor) to request waivers from the State Board of Education from the Performance Based PARCC assessments.”

For a moment, the English teacher in me will try to get past the God-awful sentence construction Ms. Pinto allowed in this publication upon which the community forms its impressions of the district.

Note what follows, though: “As reported by CDE on Jan. 8, the State Board of Education voted to direct the commissioner to grant waivers for school districts that do not want to test the performance-based portion of the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) tests for English language arts and mathematics in March. The commissioner has requested guidance from the Attorney General’s Office ‘to determine the legality of the directive.’ CDE has informed districts ‘to continue to implement existing state and federal law,’ until the attorney general’s decision is provided.

If the board knew (and clearly, it did) that this vote was premature and quite possibly useless, why take this vote and publicize it this way?  To attempt to convince JeffCo citizens that the board majority is listening to the community.  The truth is this useless gesture is an attempt to mask all the ways the board majority is ignoring the community.  Maybe we’ll all be so excited over their fool’s errand that we’ll forget that they are reneging on bond issue promises and being extremely cavalier about serious facility issues.  Maybe we can be misled into thinking this is some kind of advocacy on behalf of students so that when they fight against the community for things that really can be done to “give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed”—like limiting class sizes and attracting and retaining excellent teachers—you will believe that they are motivated by something other than politics.

Now, one can certainly argue that there are other political forces at work in JeffCo, including liberal ones, and that is assuredly true.  The thing is, those groups are not using district publications funded by taxes to convey their messages.  When Lynn Setzer was CCO, she did not allow messages painting the political alliances of the board majority as “disruptive outside forces,” though the argument could be made that they are.  Under Ms. Setzer’s leadership, Chalk Talk was what it should have been, a publication that informed parents without editorializing about district employees.  I have no doubt we’ll see more propaganda under Ms. Pinto.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 3 Comments

The Blame Game

With all the recent debates I’ve witnessed in all kinds of contexts about blaming the victim vs. making everyone a victim, I keep wondering why we’re so sure everything is black or white.  I thought I’d distill the basic concept into a microcosm—a single fictional kid whose story is an amalgam of too many I’ve taught.

A child—most often a boy when the story unfolds this way—grows up in a home with parents who yell obscenities as the go-to means of conflict resolution. Maybe things even escalate to physical altercations—pushing, throwing things, destruction of small, meaningful tokens in acts of vindictive anger.  He’s seen it literally all his life.  It’s not just between his parents.  He is sworn at, beloved toys broken before his eyes as “punishment.”

He’s been told by his parents that he’s a worthless little pain in the ass.  If he cries, someone yells, “What the fuck are you crying about?”  He doesn’t dare get mad at adults so much bigger than him.  Or maybe he does.  Maybe the only way anyone in his life hears his three-, four-, and five-year-old anguish is when he yells, “Leave me the fuck alone!”

Oh, you can judge his parents all you want, but what if they have toned things down from their own childhood homes where fathers brutally beat mothers?  This stuff seldom comes from nowhere.

Anyway, the kid starts kindergarten.  He arrives at school with five years of futile anger built up in his tiny body.  To him, adults are people who never listen to you, who take things from you and destroy them, who pretty much seem to wish you didn’t exist.

A classmate takes the glue without asking, and the boy shoves him and says, “Gimme back the fuckin’ glue stick!”  The teacher rushes over to settle the dispute and to correct the boy’s language.  He is disciplined for shoving, and now this crazy teacher seems to think that “using his words” is going to keep him from being pushed around.  What words?  She just said he can’t use what is, to him, the most important “I’m really serious about this” word he knows—fuck.

To much of the rest of the world, this kid’s a foul-mouthed bully.  He pushes, shoves, swears, and finally gets himself suspended.  In kindergarten.  Who’s the bad guy, the principal or the boy?  You tell me, is he a bully or a victim?  Is it really that clear?

I’m not coming down on grade schools.  Kindergartners need to be safe from each other. I get that.  The truth is, the school has very little influence here.  They can do everything they can think of to help the boy learn more appropriate methods of conflict resolution, but at 3:00, he goes home, back where people swear and slam things around.  It’s not the kind of stuff that gets a kid taken away by social services, but it definitely shows him that the shit they’re teaching at school is for pansies.

By second or third grade he’s a holy terror.  He comes without his homework done and glares daggers at the teacher if he’s made to stay in at recess.  The thing is, he’s not actually mean.  He’s fiercely loyal to his friends.  He’s not the kid who roughs up weak kids for the heck of it or makes fun of people—unless they make fun of him.  Heaven help the kid who starts messing with him, because this boy will beat the crap out of real bullies without compunction and proudly take the suspension.

By middle school, he’s smoking weed.  It chills out his parents, and he’s discovered that it does the same for him—helps him live with all the anger and pain.  By now, someone at school somewhere has said, “I don’t know why you come to school.  You’re going to end up in jail anyway.”  The pot dulls the shame.

With 30 kids in a class, it’s hard for teachers to deal with a kid who will NOT open his book, who glares when asked a question, who sits and draws pot leaves instead of working on the math problems everyone else is doing.  How can they help a kid who won’t work?  If he’s not being disruptive, they leave him alone.  He fails, year after year.

This is where many non-educators say, “Hold him back.  That’s the only way he’ll learn.”  For one thing, the research simply doesn’t bear this out.  Holding kids back seldom has anything but a negative effect.  For another, how long do you want to hold him back?  Do you want this boy in your daughter’s seventh grade class when he’s 15?

Besides, in actuality, he can’t get homework done in the chaos of his home, and he’s been told he’s worthless so many times he’s starting to find it harder and harder to see himself as anything else.  Holding him back won’t fix this.

By the time he’s in high school, should he be old enough to make better choices?  Sure.  But tell me how he should have learned that.  At home?  He’s a victim.  At the same time, he’d better figure a way out of the victim hole.  Without an education, he’s screwed.  No matter how sorry we may feel for him (since we know his story), he’s going to hit a whole new level of cold, hard reality in a few years.

Someone I know was talking about a new freshman who was suspended his first week at school.  They looked at his Facebook page, and there are pictures of him with guns and smoking from a bong, and the adult said, “The kid’s a thug.”  All I can think is he’s 14.  He’s a child.  He didn’t come from nowhere.  He has a background, one that most likely left him as unprepared for the access he has to weapons and drugs as if he were five.  He’s not a thug.  He’s a child.  Do I want him to be messing with this stuff around my kid?  No.  He’s dangerous—I totally get the suspension.  But God, how sad that he is where he is.

In our punishment-focused society, we too often believe that authority and force are inextricably interwoven, that shame and punishment are the best leverage.  I look at the posture of the cop who killed Eric Garner, and it’s there—legs spread, arms crossed.  It escalates the situation, but so does Garner’s refusal to cooperate, especially considering the gathering crowd.  I get why the cop was on the defensive.  I get why Garner was, too.  As a teacher, I could see in the video that that exchange wasn’t going anywhere good from the beginning.  Take more time, take the audience away from both, and it could have ended so differently.  We just don’t give people the time and space to really work things out.  Everybody has to jump in and judge, pick a side, find a bad guy, and nobody wants it to be themselves or the one they most identify with.

The best thing about ACE is having two teachers there.  When a kid starts to escalate, one of us can keep the class going while the other steps out into the hall with the kid.  “What’s up?” I ask as soon as we get out there.  Amazing how quickly a kid de-escalates when someone cares enough to listen and he doesn’t have to put up a front for his friends.  He doesn’t have to worry about looking “weak” to the rest of the class, and I’m not worried about sacrificing the authority I must have if I’m going to manage the class so every kid can learn.  When there is only one teacher and 30 kids, there just isn’t time.  When there is one cop, and then a group of cops, and an audience…  No one wants to feel unjustly harassed or to have their authority questioned.

I facilitated a house party last week where a father told me he thought it was perfectly appropriate (and much more cost-efficient) to have lecture-hall classes of 300, even in high school.  We pile so much on cops and teachers and the people we ask to keep the peace and care for children, as if all we have to do is shame and intimidate people into obedience when what we really need to do is build relationships.

There was a time that beat cops knew their neighborhoods, knew which kids were coming from rough homes, knew which kids only responded to a tough demeanor and which just needed someone to listen.  Or at least, in my old-time movie world they did.  I can’t help but think it would be a better approach than the penny-wise and pound-foolish system we have now.  More cops who know their beats vs. all those prisons?

We don’t fix every kid in ACE.  We have to do the tough-love thing to some degree, and plenty of kids don’t make it through the program.  Law and order, I’m a big fan.  I just don’t think we should ever forget the love.  Fixing the problem should be more important than fixing the blame.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Leave a comment

For Sandy Hook, Again

It’s cold and snowing, and I am wearing my Sandy Hook sweatshirt, so my mind is taken back to my friends in Connecticut.

The weather is changing, and Christmas commercials are coming on TV.  Carols are playing in stores and decorations are coming out.  It’s been almost two years, and people think you should be over it.  If you’re a particularly good actor, people think you are over it.  You are starting to realize that it’s true—you will never be over it.  Now, you’re willing to settle for not crazy anymore.

Those of you who stayed wonder if it would have been better to leave.  You wonder whether you all drag each other down, feed each other’s trauma.  Those of you who left wonder if you should have stayed.  At least then you would be surrounded by people who get it, get you.  You have betrayed, envied, and taken care of each other more times than you can count.

You have begun to have sane days shattered by guilt, and sane days that miraculously stayed sane, and so you were sure you’d turned the corner, only to be disappointed when crazy came back.

News flash: You have turned a corner.  The way out is sometimes harder than the first steps in.

As one who knows the particular hardships of the second year, I am still here, in my sweatshirt, watching the snow fall, and sending my love.

Posted in Columbine, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 1 Comment

Teacher Evaluation 2014-15

Going through the evaluation process feels very different in Jefferson County these days.  I know there are many who approve of this, but I think that approbation is based on a lack of understanding.  Or maybe it’s just a different view of how the world ought to be, which people are certainly entitled to.  This is my perspective:

I am one of those people just naturally driven to excel when I think something is important.  I have to say, I liked it when our evaluations changed from a simple “recommended for renewal/not recommended…” to delineating “mastery/proficient” or “highly effective/effective,” and I never cared that it didn’t make a difference in pay.  As a teacher, I know there are differences in the quality of a person’s work, and I liked having feedback that told me whether my supervisors saw top-notch performance from me, as opposed to just “acceptable.”  I didn’t need recognition for that or higher pay.  I wanted it for myself—a way to know whether I really was pushing myself.

When we first began delineating, I had an evaluator who said he couldn’t put me down in the mastery category for anything at the beginning of the year because he had to show growth.  I sent him piles of lesson plans and documentation demonstrating mastery and made the argument that if I could be a teacher for nearly a quarter of a century without mastering anything, he should fire me.  I wasn’t going to have any game-playing.  Every evaluation written about me, whether it was in August or May, would be an accurate reflection of my abilities.  I started out at the mastery level in most indicators and maintained it throughout the year.

After that, the evaluation process has been pretty low-key for me.  I have always told administrators to walk in anytime, no need to set up a date for formal evaluations.  I know I’m an excellent teacher; I know that people will always see good stuff in my classroom.

The other thing about a high designation in evaluations is that it gives me credibility and a voice.  So do test scores.  For years, my students’ CSAP and TCAP scores have tended to be among the highest in my department, and not because I drill and kill all year.  See, in spite of all the denial about this, high school kids have never taken the CSAP or TCAP seriously.  I told my students what the test has been used to do—how it resulted in a curriculum that, if I truly followed it (instead of nodding to it in passing), teaches only to that test and would leave them woefully unprepared for college.  I told kids up front that I needed their best effort, because their scores gave me the credibility to speak on their behalf when it came to school policies, district curriculum, etc.  In effect, I made doing well on the test a way to get real benefits for them. Poof!  Better scores. (By the way, the district is now changing the curriculum to more closely reflect what my colleagues and I have been telling them is needed.)

Of course, I could also tell my students, in all honesty, that how they did on the test did not affect my pay.  I wasn’t asking so I could get more money; it really was all about them.  Now…?  Granted, those scores weren’t used last year, but now everything’s a crap-shoot.  The board majority can change things at will.

This year, in response to the teacher rubric, I wrote a tome for my evaluator.  I was told it wasn’t necessary, and it probably wasn’t, but last year people were told additional documentation about their performance was unnecessary, and then suddenly, after the fact, it was.  That response took 3 hours—hours I could have been planning, grading, doing things of real benefit to kids.  Why?  Not for the money.  In fact, I feel like the money somehow sullies the purity of why I strive so hard to be outstanding.  I feel it looks selfish, and that doesn’t make me a credible leader.  I don’t want to be better than my colleagues.  I want to be seen as worthy of being a helper, someone people can come to for advice or to get things done that will benefit kids.  I want us all to be top-notch.

I think the people who relish the idea of making teachers compete against each other don’t understand this mindset, but it is a common one in my profession.  We want to be good at what we do because it matters in such a big way.  Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t want our pay to be commensurate with how hard we work or the importance of what we do.  This is why we want a school district that respects us and honors our input in compensation.  This is why we believe we should be able to bargain collectively.

At any rate, the lion’s share of my evaluation is done.  The tome has been written and shared with my evaluator.  (By the way, the best part of my evaluation this year is that, for the very first time in 27 years, it was done by an administrator who actually taught English, like me. That is a meaningful change in evaluation, though not always a possible one.)  He did my formal hour-and-a-half long observation Thursday, and we talked about it yesterday.  I will reach one of my two measurable goals within the next 3 weeks (and I can tell you right now it will be with 100% success—for me and my students, since I set it in such a way that 100% of my students have to meet it for me to get any credit).  My sophomores are hard at work on the goal I’ve set for us to meet by May.  I guess I can relax and go back to my “drop in anytime” attitude.  I know I’ll be designated “highly effective” again.

It just doesn’t feel the same.  I feel like the kids got lost in the process and the politics.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Good Stuff (that is also real)

So I’ve had my discouraging moments, right?  That’s when it’s time to focus on my job without all the BS of the school board majority.  Here’s some of the great stuff:

I have awesome sophomores.  They come in every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:20 sleepy, maybe even trying to sneak in a mug of coffee.  They put their heads on desks, and I have to call them by name to get heads up.  Fridays we start a little later, which helps.  Then the learning begins.  We read The Crucible last week, and they definitely liked it.  They’re excited that it’s the school play.  It’s time to really nail paragraph structure, so we worked on a paragraph together proving that Americans’ desire for both safety and liberty has created tension in the issue of gun control.  This was to prepare them to write their own paragraph showing that the desire for safety and liberty create tension in The Crucible.  This is a concept Arthur Miller introduces in one of the essays embedded in the play.  I’m asking for two tough things—a well-constructed paragraph and analysis involving a pretty complex idea.  I gave the assignment Tuesday, with Friday as the due date.  Thursday they asked for an extension.  I said they could have one, but that I would grade harder, since presumably being given more time would lead to better papers.  I told them to work it out, and I went to my computer to take attendance.  The whole class was pretty engaged, though I was not part of the discussion.  One student asked if they could access the play online, and I said no, so they asked if they could check copies of the play out.  When I said yes, the intensity of debate increased, and finally a vote was called.  Five students wanted to just turn in whatever they could come up with by the next day.  Nineteen wanted to take plays home and write the best paragraphs they could.  That was when I told them how proud I was of their choice.

I went on to do a mini-lecture on the Enlightenment, and we began to read the Declaration of Independence.  Whenever I do this lesson, I ask kids why 24 kids in a classroom sit quietly while I, the one teacher, make them take notes and read old literature.  Why do 1,600 students in a school with maybe 120 adults move in an orderly fashion from class to class all day long?  At first, someone usually says they’ll be punished if they don’t.  “What punishment?” I ask.  “Will you be shot?  Suspended?  So what if you get suspended?  All that means is you don’t go to school.”  They look around at each other; it’s the first time they’ve ever thought about it.  Invariably, one kid pretends to pack up his books to leave and they laugh.  Usually, a kid says, “Well, we need an education to get a good job.”  That’s when I explain that they, the governed, give me the power to govern them because they believe I am giving them something of value—a secure future—in return.  This time the first thing a kid shouted to my question about why they do as I say was “We love this class!”  I love you, too, kiddos!  I actually had to guide them into the usual conversation about getting a job in the future.

In my junior ACE class, I have several students getting A’s now who failed my sophomore class last year.  Because ACE counts as 2 classes, they have 2 A’s on progress reports that haven’t seen A’s in years.  The parents of 2 of those kids came to conferences Wednesday and Thursday so excited to see their kids feeling encouraged and working hard.  The success in ACE is transferring to other classes and they have no grades lower than C’s.  We’re all excited about that.  In class, the kids are giving career presentations, and most have really done their homework.  They are figuring out what they want to do, finding out where they have to go for the training, and realizing that it’s not too late to get their lives back on track, but they need to get off their butts and do it.

In my senior class we’re reading John Grisham’s A Time to Kill.  The kids who didn’t have me for ACE last year are discovering what ACE kids learn a little earlier: You can actually like a book!  Grisham is great at spinning a yarn.  He uses the techniques great writers use, but as a commercial rather than literary writer (though I consider A Painted House literary), his craft is not subtle.  We can easily see how shifts in point-of-view and choices in language manipulate the reader, and the kids are intrigued by this as we explore.  In addition to looking at the way the novel is constructed, we look at it through the lens of history (thanks to a group research project on race in the American South which we had done to prepare for this book), and we explore the whole concept of race in America.  We talk about racism in our own world and break down the paradox of not wanting to be racist and yet being incapable of color-blindness in our relationships.  Discussions are honest and respectful.  My one black student speaks frankly about how race affects her, but I also have a white student who constantly and very appropriately brings up her frustration with feeling held responsible for history she didn’t create.  I have a pretty good-sized group of Latinos who bring their own perspective as a group that has been marginalized, but is not the group marginalized in the book.  (Don’t worry, nobody seems to think they’re being taught to America-bash here.  We have this crazy idea that you can love something flawed—even your country.)

This is what I do all day, every day.  Jealous?

This is why I tell you that teachers don’t do what they do for money. I don’t associate my job with money.  The reward for my job is everything I’ve just described.  All I ask is enough money to live on and raise a family and some monetary acknowledgment of my personal investments, in time and education, to hone my craft to benefit kids.  I don’t need bonuses and labels others don’t get.  If another teacher isn’t teaching as well as I am, she’s probably not as deeply satisfied on a daily basis as I am.  I’ll tell you something else: Kids aren’t dumb.  If they don’t feel they’re getting something valuable from a teacher, they don’t give her the power to control the classroom.  That’s just how the Social Contract works.  When kids don’t give teachers the power to teach, teaching is a miserable job, and more often than not, bad teachers end up firing themselves.

Posted in Education | 5 Comments