Last Night’s Board of Ed Meeting—a Play Review

Last night the Jefferson County Board of education made an unexpected foray into experimental theater.  The plot revolved around how the school district would enact a hastily constructed pay scheme for its teachers.

The protagonist, Superintendent Dan McMinimee (played by Superintendent Dan McMinimee), argued valiantly for pay which would attract and retain high quality teachers and avoid having Jeffco become a training ground for surrounding districts.  The script was subtle enough not to add “…as happened in Dougco” since this was so artfully implied by its having been uttered by an actor previously from Dougco.  It is the opinion of this reviewer that, should Mr. McMinimee tire of his role in this play, he might consider auditioning for a role as Atticus Finch in a fairly decent dinner theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird; he was that good.

The antagonist was John Newkirk (played by John Newkirk).  Fairly twirling an imaginary Snidely Whiplash moustache, he repeatedly argued to lower to cap for stipends from the hero’s suggested $81,000 to something in the neighborhood of $60,000.  Alas, after a while his repeated claims not to understand how Jeffco’s pay compared to neighboring districts began to feel stiff and unmotivated.

Providing a little lighthearted relief, Julie Williams (played by Julie Williams) would occasionally chirp such saccharine phrases as “I love our veteran teachers!”  Her performance was unconvincing, and the plot would have moved along just fine without her.

The bold experiment lay in the fact that clearly a group of performers had not only not been given scripts, but it appeared they were unaware that they were participating in a theatrical performance.  Two members of the board, Leslie Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, along with Lori Gillis and several other staff members from the district’s accounting office, provided constant injections of reality into the fictional world inhabited by the play’s other characters.  This district staff provided the real world charts and graphs which Mr. Newkirk played off of, almost like a melodrama performed on real railroad tracks with a real train racing down to squash a trussed victim (or in this case, 85,000 victims).  Ms. Dahlkemper kept bringing up a fact-finder’s report, which the play’s author(s) had clearly chosen not to include in his (their?) fictional world.  Adding to the absurdity was the repeated use of the word “negotiation,” which had no context at all in this version of reality.

The climax of the performance was, alas, ruined by actor Ken Witt in the role of Board President Ken Witt.  His primary contribution to the production was to cast the deciding vote.  He paused for dramatic effect, but too long, and with the self-aware smirk of the most amateur actor.  Spoiler alert: The pay designation for raises verses stipends will be $81,000.  For now.  Audiences may expect a sequel, more tragedy than comedy next time around, I suspect.

In another interesting twist, the teachers in the audience participated in the performance by getting up and walking out.  It is doubtful that this was part of a collaboration between them and the playwright(s) as the author(s) of this performance are not known to collaborate with educators.

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Meeting with the Superintendent

I wish I could tell you all that today’s meeting with Dan McMinimee was enlightening or that we’d reached some amazing accord.  I think there are just those times when two people are on two planes, and I’m not sure where we go from there.

As you know if you read my letter to him, I was specifically interested in discussing the fact that the district is evaluating teachers with a tool about which a neutral third party said, “The totality of the evidence at the fact-finding hearing establishes that teachers in different schools are treated differently in their evaluations. To a significant extent the District’s evaluation process lacks the degree of inter-rater reliability necessary to make valid salary distinctions.”

He tried very hard to move the discussion toward his belief that raising the bottom salary to $38,000 and capping the top at $81,000 was fair.  Well, okay, um…that sounds like an OK range, but a) I didn’t ask about that, b) this pay scheme was concocted without teacher input, c) I have no idea how anyone moves up it, and finally, d) with as little respect as this board has shown, I rather imagine that if they manage to do away with the collective bargaining unit, that cap will drop like a rock.  Zero trust in this board.  Zero.

So I came back to the flawed tool—my issue.  Remember?  I told him I was concerned that there had been no respect for the process.  He said the board had followed the process.  I pointed out that they had declared their intention not to follow the fact-finder’s recommendations before they’d even made their case—hardly a sign that they were following the process in good faith.  He said he had no control over this, which is true.

He said no system was perfect, that the same student might (and probably would) get two somewhat different grades from two different algebra teachers in the district with the exact same work.  I asked whether he thought that perhaps the district had presented this argument to the fact-finder.  It just made sense that this obvious argument had been part of the fact-finder’s considerations.  He said he didn’t know; he wasn’t there.  So he wasn’t at the fact-finding, but we should just believe that the District’s findings were better, and they found the evaluation tool just fine?  Given what I wrote in the previous paragraph, you can see the trust issues.  I’m supposed to trust people who don’t even pretend to negotiate in good faith?

I got the general message that a lot of this was outside of his control.  If the school board comes across as disrespectful, that’s not his fault.  To be fair, that’s true.

But there are message problems, and that was why I’d written.  He had said they’d ignored the fact-finder in order to put effective teachers in every classroom.  What do effective teachers have to do with the fact that the tool to measure this is significantly broken, in the opinion of someone who’d heard both sides and didn’t have a horse in this race?  We also talked about the messaging from last summer’s panel discussion.  I’m going to have to look at the video from JUC, but he insists that in July he had not meant to imply that only the teachers had refused to negotiate in Dougo, that it was both sides.  I would swear he flat-out said the teachers had made certain items non-negotiable.  Not both sides, the teachers.  It was today, when I’d pressed him on it, that he conceded that the district had some responsibility for the break-down.  When I said he had trivialized a non-negotiable item (on both sides, he admitted today)—the words “a teachers’ association” vs. “the teachers’ association,” comparing such an important distinction to the color of a car, he insisted he hadn’t meant to trivialize it.  Again, I’ll review last summer’s recording, but I could swear he demonstrated the supposedly unreasonable recalcitrance of the teachers’ association by how impossible they were being over “a single word, ‘a’ vs ‘the.’”

So maybe we at least cleared that up.  Kind of.

For the record Jeffco: Just evaluate me fairly and train my evaluators well.  Work with the teachers’ association (which works with teachers) on a fair compensation package.  If adjusting pay to evaluations is super important, OK, we’ll talk about that, although I’ll tell you now, I won’t work harder for more money.  I work to be the best teacher I can because my students deserve it.  That’s it.  Pay notwithstanding.  I’m not afraid of accountability or hard work.  If me “documenting” how hard I work becomes more important to you than how good a teacher I actually am (as happened in Dougco), your priorities are a mess.  I’m cool with $38,000 for young teachers, and I’m not stupid enough to think I’ll ever hit $60,000/year, much less $81,000.  Whatever.  Just don’t frame me and my colleagues as the root of every problem.

For the board: Enough with the secret agenda.  If you want to mess around with negotiations until the contract expires so you can get rid of the association and treat teachers however you please, if you think that would be so good for kids, say so.  Stop hiding.  Don’t waste money on a negotiating and fact-finding process you have no intention of following.  If you’re so certain teachers do not deserve even a modicum of respect, say so and say why.  Make your case and try to convince the public (though after tanking with the fact-finder, I can understand your reluctance).

In a few weeks I’ll be teaching Ben Franklin’s pursuit of moral perfection.  We’ll talk about the difference between a rule like “don’t lie,” which can be manipulated so that one is not technically lying, and a moral, like “be sincere,” which is what it is.

Be moral. Be sincere.

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The Real World?

Perhaps a few readers can help me out.  Lately I keep hearing about a “real world” of which I was unaware.  For one thing, I thought I was living in the real world.  I go to work every day, work hard, wrangle reluctant teenagers into reading and writing, settle disputes, teach manners, collaborate with colleagues, often take work home with me, stopping by the grocery store first and taking care of other domestic duties.  While the particulars of my work duties look a bit different from people in other jobs, the rest of this looks so much to me like the lives of people in the “real world” that I mistook our worlds for being the same.

At any rate, apparently in the real world, this is what happens all the time:  Supervisor Samantha goes to Worker Wendy for a conversation.

SS:  Hey, Wendy.  It’s a new year, and we’re implementing a new evaluation system.  Here’s the rubric.  Now, I’m going to come watch you do your job for an hour sometime this year and decide whether or not you’re doing all of these things so I can determine whether you do a good job.

WW (looking at the rather daunting rubric):  Okay, well, I do all of these things quite often, but I don’t do all of them every hour.  What if you miss some of them in the hour you’re there?

SS:  You’ll have to dig through all the stuff you’ve been doing all year and find proof.

WW: A lot of this has to be observed to be proven.  Can I at least have an evaluator who has seen me work a lot and will know that, even if I don’t do some of these in the particular hour she’s watching me, I do routinely do them?

SS: No.  I’ll be evaluating you this year.  It’s too bad I’ve never observed you before.  I’ve worked with Worker William across the hall for years.  He’ll probably get a better evaluation just because I’ve seen him working more and I know what he does.

WW: This seems kind of messed up.  Have you had a lot of training in how to use this?

SS:  Not really.  Look, we know this has a lot of problems.  It’s new this year, and we’re trying to work out some of the things you’re mentioning here.  Don’t worry.  This won’t actually be used to determine your pay yet.  Maybe next year if we can get the bugs worked out.

WW: So all this proof I have to provide, if I’m really busy actually doing a good job, is it any big deal if I don’t go digging through all my work for documentation?  I mean, if I’m willing to settle for being rated “effective” instead of “highly effective” so I can concentrate on getting my real work done, will it hurt me?

SS: No, no.  Like I said, the guys at the top know this has a lot of problems.  You’ll really be helping us work through them this year.  I promise, we won’t tie pay to it until we’ve all had training in how to use it equally and we refine it.

WW: Okay.

One year later…

SS:  Just kidding, Worker Wendy.  Turns out Worker William is going to get paid more than you.

WW:  Because he’s better than me?

SS: I don’t really know.  I just know him better because we’ve worked together longer.  Remember?  We talked about this a year ago.

WW: But you said it wouldn’t affect my pay.  If I’d known it would, I would have gotten you all that proof you said I didn’t really have to get you.  Can I get it to you now?

SS:  It’s too late now.  I guess it just kinda sucks to be you.

WW (smiling and shaking her head ruefully): Yeah, I guess so.

Then Worker Wendy goes back to work, more than willing to continue to work just as hard as Worker William for less money for no other reason than Supervisor Samantha knew William better and had wrongfully told Wendy that she didn’t need to provide evidence on her own behalf.  The next year, Wendy takes frequent breaks from doing her job to gather evidence (other than the job being done) to prove she did her job.

Also, a test is given once a year to all the people the next tier down in the office, including ones she has no role in supervising.  The test does not affect the people taking it in any way, and they may miss work routinely, have drug problems, health problems, inadequate nutrition, or only have started working at the office a week before the test is given.  The collective scores of these workers becomes part of her evaluation.

Can someone in the real world tell me why they do things this way, or at least clarify for me whether some people describing the “real world” are just blowing smoke?


Judging from some of my Facebook comments, much of the corporate world is exactly this fucked up.  So here’s my next question: Which is in greater need of reform, education or corporate culture?

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 2 Comments

My Letter to Dan McMinimee, Superintendent Jefferson County Public Schools

Dear Mr. McMinimee:

A lot has happened since we met at Jefferson Unitarian Church this past summer.  At that time, you asked that we not look back at Douglas County and that you be judged by what you do here in Jeffco.  I imagine it won’t surprise you that I am so disappointed, perhaps most especially by yesterday’s Super News sent to Jeffco Public Schools employees.

I agree with you that every student should have an effective teacher.  Of course that’s true.  Who could ever disagree? The fact-finder did not suggest that this should not be the case.  What the fact-finder said was “The totality of the evidence at the fact-finding hearing establishes that teachers in different schools are treated differently in their evaluations. To a significant extent the District’s evaluation process lacks the degree of inter-rater reliability necessary to make valid salary distinctions.”  In other words, the means by which the district is determining who should get a raise, who should not, and who should get an even greater raise is flawed.

Of course, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, and that is the truly disappointing thing.  You know that an independent third party said the means by which the district is determining who is effective is flawed, and yet you sent out a message to teachers everywhere stating that you are disregarding the fact-finder’s recommendations because “One of my fundamental beliefs…is that there should be an effective teacher in every classroom,” as if you had any reason to believe the evaluation system currently in place measured this accurately.  It comes across as disingenuous, Mr. McMinimee. Last summer I wanted so much to trust you; to believe that you would do what was in your power to rebuild trust in the district.  This is not accomplishing that goal.

Lest you think I am complaining about my personal compensation, please let me clarify that I was rated highly effective last year.  Modesty aside, I believe I have earned that distinction.  I got it, in part, because my principal had been my principal for 17 years.  He has been in my classroom 40 or 50 times.  As he checked off indicators, he used 17 years of knowledge to assist him.  While it seems fair to reward me monetarily, I have spoken to other teachers for whom a single indicator made the difference between “effective” and “highly effective.” They were not evaluated by administrators who knew them so well.  Because they were told that last year was a “hold harmless year,” that this subtle distinction would not make any difference to them, they did not fight to change their rating. Rather than waste precious time chasing down documentation to change ratings on indicators, they used their time planning great lessons, grading papers and providing much-needed feedback, and working one-on-one with kids. How is it fair that I, whose administrator drew upon over a decade of knowledge, get more than another outstanding teacher whose administrator rated her based upon a mere two observations of her classroom last year?

Again, let me clarify that I do not believe I am telling you anything of which you are currently unaware.  This is what I find so devastating.  To me, this looks less like trying to get the best teachers into every classroom than it does like trying to turn teachers against one another, perhaps in an effort to dilute their collective voices in the direction of Jefferson County Public Schools.  Teachers are the ones working with students every day.  No one in this district knows better than we what students and schools need.  We have disparate opinions on a number of things, but in those areas upon which we agree, it is not in students’ best interests to ignore us or try to pit us against one another.

It is the beginning of the school year, Mr. McMinimee.  It is not too late for you to be the healing influence you told me in July that you wished to be.  I suppose that might jeopardize your position as superintendent.  I have been told by more than one Douglas County teacher that by speaking out on behalf of students I am jeopardizing my job as a teacher.  I hope that you and I can agree upon this: The fate of the students in Jefferson County is bigger than either of us.  Let us do all we can together to make a difference of which we can be proud.

In fairness to you, I want to let you know that I will be posting a copy of this letter on my blog.  I would like to able to post your reply, as well; however if you ask me to keep your reply private, I will honor your request.


Paula Reed

Columbine High School

Posted in Columbine, Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged , , , | 37 Comments

A Call to Arms

A number of conversations and presentations have been accumulating over the last couple of weeks, brewing into something—writing, action, commitments.

A colleague and I were talking about how we feel at things like war memorials and sites of battles past.  She mentioned going to Pearl Harbor and feeling humbled by the sacrifices made by those men.  I told her I didn’t feel humbled.  I felt indebted, obligated.  I stand at Arlington or read history, and I wonder what commitments, what sacrifices I will be called to make, and will I have what it takes to answer the call?

I went to a cadre-organizing meeting, and we talked about why we have chosen to make the commitment to be organizers.  We all talked about the passion we have for public education.  We believe it is the foundation of equity, the framework of the economy, the shelter of justice.  We believe that public schools are utterly vital to democracy.  In short, they are worth our time, our talents, our treasure.  We talked about how important it is to share our testimony as teachers.

Today’s sermon at church was built around one of my all-time favorite poems, “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.”  Our minister, Wendy, talked about hope vs. cynicism, which has been one of the biggest battles for me as an organizer—getting my colleagues past their cynicism so they can dare to hope.

I have said before and will say a thousand times, I became a teacher to change the world.  I believe (because I have been told) that I have made a difference in people’s lives, and as my sophomores and I learned this year reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, if you move a grain of sand in the Sahara, you change the world.

I’ve taught every kind of kid, and I have loved every kind of kid.  I coached forensics for 17 years.  I’ve had students go on to work for the U.S. Senate, practice law for the Department of Justice, become college professors, and yes, even go on to teach high school.  Some coach their own Forensics teams.  I’ve taught modified classes for kids who want to succeed in school but struggle with learning disabilities and other challenges.  I’ve seen those kids graduate and go to college.  I’ve taught at-risk students who walk through school doors with the weight of a thousand non-school-related problems on their backs.  Some go to college, even so far as to get doctorates.  Some work on your cars or carefully clean your grandparents’ rooms in nursing homes, stopping a moment to ask about a child in a new picture on the dresser.  Some struggle still with addiction and mental illness.  I have loved them all, not because I’m so great, but because they are loveable, every one of them.

The residents of Jefferson County were asked what our district’s priorities should be, and we placed neighborhood schools far above charters.  The new school board majority has chosen to ignore that directive and make “choice” their pet project.

Those kids I just mentioned, every one of them, from the most motivated to most reluctant, came to me in classrooms in a neighborhood school.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not entirely anti-charter.  But here’s what I know: If there were no good neighborhood schools, my wealthier, often higher achieving students would have gone to a good charter.  (Not all charters are good, by any means.)  Their parents would have moved heaven and earth to get them there.  My free-and-reduced-lunch students would have stayed in a school with less funding and higher needs.  Many of these kids live in families with one car, and whether or not it even runs is a crapshoot.  (At least right now, none of my students’ families live in their cars, but that’s a reality for many kids in Jeffco, too.)  I’ve had students for whom even bus fare is a financial burden.  Some have to get to and from school quickly because they take care of younger siblings while single parents work two jobs or jobs with odd hours.  Some go home to alcohol- or drug-addicted parents who sure as hell don’t care how their child gets to and from school.  Some live with grandparents as they wait for their own parents to get out of prison.  What good does expanding “school choice” do for them?  They have no choice.  And if the people who do have choices abandon neighborhood schools, what’s left?

Charters are fine as laboratories for innovation.  That’s what they were intended to be.  But as ways to abandon neighborhood schools?  The school for our neighborhood struggles; the socioeconomics are changing.  My kids, both bright and motivated with parents who are very invested in their educations, went there anyway, though some of their friends open enrolled in higher-performing schools.  Our neighborhood school needed kids like these.  The school needed their test scores.  Their classmates needed them as friends and role models. My kids needed to learn to function in a diverse world, and they got it at their school.  Their friends lived in big houses with swimming pools and tiny rentals.  Some went to college and graduated.  Some started college and dropped out.  Some never went to college at all.  Because my kids have known all these kinds of people, they continue to see the humanity in all kinds of people.  They have also both done very well in college, so they didn’t seem to be held back academically by staying in the neighborhood.

A few educator-run, community-instigated charters are fine.  They really can foster innovation for all schools in a district.  But this new school board is not ultimately about those charters.  Witt, Newkirk, and Williams didn’t just pop in out of thin air.  Their election, from the timing during an off year to the many thousands of dollars pouring in from outside the state, was part of a nation-wide plan.  We’ve seen this agenda’s culmination in New Orleans, which no longer has public schools.  It’s all about private, for-profit charters—schools in which the out-of-state campaign contributors I mentioned have substantial investments.  (By the way, they also invest in the publishing companies that produce canned curriculum for many of these schools.)  The law doesn’t allow the school district to run for-profit schools, but there’s nothing to stop them from contracting with national school franchises.  These for-profit charter schools can and have played fast and loose with the rules in order to exclude kids with special needs.

As I’ve said, all kinds of kids, yours and mine, can actually see real benefits going to school together.  I assure you, the vast majority of kids are loveable and good-hearted, their test scores and grades notwithstanding.  But if that doesn’t sway you, remember this: Those struggling kids don’t disappear.  If you abandon them now, you and your children will pay for it in prisons.  Why, why, why would we pay for charter schools to put money in the pockets of already rich people, then pay those rich people even more for the private for-profit prisons they run?  Isn’t it better to invest in all our community’s children while they’re young enough to save?  We won’t save them all, but we’ll save more than we would if we don’t even try.

That’s part of the hope vs. cynicism thing.  I know I can’t save every kid, but I try to save as many as I can, and I do succeed sometimes.  They’ve told me so.  They’ve hugged me after finals and at graduation and flat-out said, “I wouldn’t be here without you.”  And I cry.  I am moved, and yes, by that I am humbled, because they trusted me.  They trusted me.

It’s been a hell of a career.  There were some very, very hard years as we recovered from the shootings in 1999.  I’ve struggled with PTSD.  On a more ordinary note, I’ve spent more nights and weekends grading papers than I care to count.  I’ve met with former students long after they graduated to keep loving them through illnesses, addictions, and depression.  I’m working with one to help her tell her story in a book. It’s been worth every minute, every heartache and triumph.  I wouldn’t trade my life for a hundred million dollars.  But I’m winding down.  Who will come after?

I don’t connect my work to the check that monthly makes its way into my bank account.  I teach to change the world.  The check just makes it possible for my family and me to survive while I do that.  Of course, my checks are enough for me to do that.  If they were not, no matter how much I love teaching, I’d have to do something else.  If I talk about money for teachers at all, I talk about having enough for the teachers coming after me to teach and have a family.  How honored I am, how hopeful for the future, when my students tell me they want to teach.  But how can I encourage them to go into what is rapidly becoming a dead-end profession?  Driven by the “corporate reform” model, there is a push to cap teacher salaries at 5 years.  They begin at salaries that are great if you’re single, but impossible where they end if you have a family.  I have been blessed to have a true vocation to which I could literally dedicate my life.  Don’t we want those kinds of teachers anymore?  Do we really want to relegate our children, our future, to people forced to teach only a short time, set up from the start to see it as a stepping stone, not a true calling?

It doesn’t have to be this way.  I don’t want to hear that there’s too much momentum and this is unstoppable.  I don’t want to hear about how much money the other side has.  I don’t give a damn how hard it is.  I can make a difference here.  So can you.  Cynicism is lazy.  It is an abdication of responsibility.  “It can’t be done” is just a bullshit excuse.  Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  People have sacrificed their lives for this country in battles that were lost in wars that were won.  What are we called to sacrifice, to commit to?  Are you going to answer the call?

I don’t want to hear anyone’s excuses.  I want to see your sign at the rally at the Education Center in Golden on June 5th and your face at board meetings all year long.  (I’m an English teacher.  I know better than to use the word “you” when I just mean “people.”  I mean you.)  I want to hear your voice before the board.  I want to see your letters to editors, so many letters that they cannot be ignored!  Letters to the board must be publicly displayed at meetings.  I want to see binder after binder after binder of them from everyone in the district: teachers, parents, taxpayers, business and property owners, alums and students old enough to understand the issues.  I don’t want to hear any crap about partisan politics or unions or how busy you are.  YOU CAN SAVE OUR COMMUNITY’S CHILDREN.  STAND UP AND DO IT WITH ME!

Posted in Education, Politics | 4 Comments

The Collection Plate

I think about this a lot (as you’ll see), and I’ve thought many times about a blog entry, but I keep getting sidetracked.

See, right there: My husband walked in as I wrote that first sentence, and we had lunch on the patio.  Then I went and bought flowers.  Now I’m back.

Okay, the collection plate: It used to be where church congregants placed their weekly tithe.  I’m told some churches attached a bell, and if a congregant didn’t put enough into the basket, the usher rang the bell, shaming the person into coughing up more.

Time has passed.  For years I paid my pledge by sending a check in the mail or placing it in an envelope that I dropped into the plate.  Now, with the advent of electronic funds transfer, my pledge is whisked out of my account without a single thought from me. Most of us do this these days, so the basket passes many people without a visible contribution.

Ultimately, electronic payment is great for churches, as it ensures regular payments from all, something necessary to the running of the church.  But is this good for the congregants, this mindless way of contributing to one’s faith?  I would make the argument that it is not, and this is why, in addition to my automatic pledge payment, I almost always drop a few extra, non-verifiable and therefore non-tax-deductible, dollars into the basket on Sunday.

In our house, we operate largely by cash.  We’ve found that when we pay for things in actual dollars, we spend fewer of them than when they disappear by debit.  As the week progresses and I pay for things—breaking twenties and dolling out ones—I have to try to remember to hold back a couple of ones to put in that basket on the Sabbath.  It is a reminder all week long that I am a religious woman.  This prompts me to try to truly interact with the strangers with whom I engage in commerce, because they are people with inherent worth and dignity.  It’s a little cue to keep the interdependent web of existence in mind when I make a purchase.  It keeps me mindful of the working conditions of the workers who produced and transported the things I buy.  The more times a day I am reminded of my faith, the better human being I am.

Sometimes I forget.  I sit down in the sanctuary on Sunday with only a twenty or two, or nothing at all.  I’m a good person, but honestly, I’m not tossing a twenty in there on top of an automatic pledge that is not a trifling sum to our family (unless it’s a special collection).  As the basket passes me by, and I put nothing in, I am reminded that sometimes I fall short.  It’s a brief moment, not of shame (there’s no bell on the plate), but of humility.

So there it is, a blog entry of rare brevity on one of my daily spiritual practices.  What are some of yours?

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

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Sometimes Words May Heal Me (Redux)

At church, one of our ministers talked about reminding troubled students who they really are, and she told about dealing with a trio of trouble-makers by reminding them of the best about themselves.  In the end, it did more than any school punishment had done to remediate their behavior.

It made me think of one of the more powerful days in ACE class a few years ago.  As it happens, it was an unplanned digression from a unit I’m currently teaching, so I thought I’d repost an old blog about it.  I originally posted this on 3/14/06.  It was a response to a regular contributor to my old blog.  I wrote it while I was away from ACE, hence the past tense about the class.  Obviously, I teach it again:

Is it true that words can’t undo the brutality that life sometimes dishes out? Not completely, that’s for sure, but sometimes, I think we forget the power of words and the power of honesty.

I used to teach ACE, which was a class for at-risk students, kids who were being given one last shot at staying in school before they were kicked out because school, Columbine anyway, just clearly wasn’t going to work for them. I’m proud to say that we kept a lot of those kids, and that their success in our program led to success in the rest of their classes and success when they went back to traditional English classes the next year. In short, this class was filled with some of the most troubled kids in our school. Sure, some were just unmotivated, but some were truly, deeply troubled.

I had a boy one year who, at the age of 16, had just moved back in with his mom after spending years in foster care. He’d been taken away as a preschooler because his mother and her friends had been giving him LSD. They thought it was funny to watch a four-year-old trip out. I had a girl who’d been adopted into a family at the age of 10. She was taken away from her home because her father had been selling her body to pay for his drug habit. A year after her adoption, her adoptive father was in an accident at work and permanently paralyzed from the waist down—a lot of upheaval in that family.

That’s a taste of what some of our kids had been through. My partner and I used to give an assignment we called the “self-perception assignment.” (We did a lot of what we call “affective education,” meaning that it was about developing life-skills and emotional coping mechanisms.) The assignment required them to first write a paragraph describing how they thought others perceived them, then one about what they were truly like—how the wrapping was different from what was inside the package. We stressed that we weren’t asking them to care how anyone perceived them, simply to be aware of what they projected. Finally, we paired them up with someone they didn’t know well in the class, and asked them to write a paragraph each of their impressions of each other.  It was a risky assignment, but the kids had been in the class together two hours a day, five days a week, and we gave it in the spring, when we’d really done a lot to establish a sense of trust and respect.

Well, one year, we had a really tough bunch, and they were VERY resistant. They insisted that there was no way to be honest with other people about how you perceived them and still be respectful. It blew me away—the idea that anything respectful anyone might say to someone else, anything complimentary, must be dishonest. These kids were all about self-esteem (they had none) and clueless about self-worth. My partner’s and my MO, whenever kids said that something we were asking couldn’t be done, was to do it and model it for them. Let me tell you, what happened this one day would never have worked if we’d planned it. It was completely spontaneous.

My partner and I took turns; he described one kid, and then I described the next. We went student by student and gave them our 100% honest, unvarnished opinions.

“Becca, you’re smart, and you don’t care who knows it. It’s evident in every word you say, but you don’t follow through. It’s like you’re afraid that if you put your ideas on paper, they won’t seem as smart as when you said them. You come off as this tough girl that no one can touch, but inside you are broken glass from every person who’s ever hurt you.”

“Evan, you struggle. School, especially reading, doesn’t come easily, and you’ve completely convinced yourself that you can’t do anything. But you’re quick with a comeback and you have a wicked sense of humor. A person has to have a quick mind to be able to do that. You don’t have to be book-smart to have a good mind. That’s the lesson you’re here to learn.”

“Nick, you have a generous heart. You’re the person everyone comes to. In a lot of ways, you take on too much, and there’s not enough room for school…”

For a full 50 minutes, the 28 toughest, rowdiest kids in the school were dead silent. They listened intently to each description. You could see the anticipation as we got closer to each of them. Many couldn’t raise their eyes from the table when their turn came, but they held perfectly still, almost didn’t breathe. There were a lot of tears that day. When we were finished, you could hear a pin drop until Becca said, “Wow. You guys really know us.”

“Do you feel respected?” I asked. “Accepted?”

Enthusiastic nods all around.

“Did you think we were bullshitting any of you?” (You could talk to them that way in ACE from time to time. I used the privilege judiciously.) They shook their heads vehemently. Then they begged to be allowed to describe my partner and me.

“Mrs. Reed, sometimes you come across as a bitch, but it’s really because you want the best for us…” A teacher can hear no higher praise.

“Mr. T, you’re like the dad of the group…”

The papers they wrote were the best we’ve ever gotten from this assignment. They were thoughtful and open. The feedback we got over and over again was that it was the first time anyone had told those kids what was good and valuable about them that they really believed the person who was saying it, because we were honest about their faults, too.

Honestly, I’m sure it wasn’t the first time. I think it was just one of the most memorable because of the circumstances. It wasn’t something we could repeat every year. It has to be the right moment, the right kids; they have to be open to it in the moment, but the words we all spoke that day were magic.

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

The Jefferson County Education Association and Me

I am a teacher in Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, and I am a member of JCEA.  I am “the teachers’ union,” and I thought I’d tell you all a little about that.

I joined in 1986, my first year at Columbine High School.  I didn’t really know anything about unions or any other kind of collective bargaining unit.  Neither of my parents had ever belonged to one, though my step mom was a teacher and a member of her association.  (JCEA is an association, not actually a union.  No Jeffco teacher is required to be a member, and whether they belong or not, they are covered by the contract negotiated by JCEA’s collective bargaining process.)  My step mom never talked about compensation.  As for most teachers, it always took a backseat to her classroom.  I just knew that NEA, CEA, and JCEA were my professional associations, so as a professional, I joined.

I belonged until the controversial dismissal of a colleague.  I will tell you true, I don’t think he was a high quality teacher.  Many people have the idea that unions and associations protect weak members, and I felt that was happening in this case.  I know the association has to represent all its members, but I didn’t feel they were looking out for kids’ best interests, and that has always been my primary focus, so I quit.

Several years later, while Bush was still governor of Texas, before NCLB became the law of the land, our governor, Bill Owens, pushed through high-stakes test legislation for Colorado.  In short, we had NCLB before the rest of the country.  I knew that legislation had been written and backed by pro-voucher, anti-public education organizations.  I saw what it meant: Create tests so poorly designed that kids won’t do well.  Make them the be-all and end-all of schools.  Make school complicit in their own demise chasing that ridiculous test.  Who would get screwed in this process?  My students.  As one person, one voice, I could do nothing.  I knew I had to join my voice with other teachers who, like me, were worried about kids.  I rejoined JCEA.

For years I was a nominal member.  I knew my CEA and NEA dues were supporting efforts to tone down the testing craze and to keep teachers’ voices in the discussion about education.  Then my district implemented a curriculum that I believed very strongly was designed only with the TCAP (the Colorado state test) in mind.  It was not a curriculum that prepared students for colleges and careers.  It would have made my job easier, but I didn’t become a teacher to have it easy.  I became a teacher to make a difference in the lives of kids.  Let me tell you, you do something I think hurts my students, and I get pissed!

Unsure whom else to turn to, I went to my association to set up meetings with district curriculum developers.  It didn’t go exactly as I wished, but here’s what the general public needs to understand: I could go to bat for kids because I had the association behind me.  I didn’t have to fear for my job if I dared to speak out for kids.  To this day, I continue to speak passionately on behalf of meaningful curriculum for Jeffco students, and the association continues to protect me.

This more active roll in the association led to my attendance at the CEA leadership conference last summer.  Contrary to what the general public might expect, I did not attend a single meeting about compensation—no talk of salaries, benefits, or pensions.  We talked about how we could better partner with community groups to strengthen public schools.  We talked about how to be more effective in the classroom.  We talked to each other to share ideas and best practices.  The entire focus was getting the best results for kids in Colorado schools.  I loved it!

When I came back from that mountain retreat, I became part of the steering committee for an academy of professional development for teachers, creating classes to make teachers more effective.  I volunteered hours of my time for this.  I also learned all that the association was doing to help develop meaningful, rigorous teacher evaluation.  To my surprise, I met people who, as part of their association duties, helped counsel ineffective teachers out of the field.  The association absolutely understands that poor teachers are not good for kids or for the image of our profession.

I should mention, too, that when our district faced a serious funding crisis, our association negotiated a contract that cost teachers many thousands of dollars.  It sacrificed pay increases, and in fact created pay cuts then froze our salaries there.  This didn’t just affect our year-to-year pay.  It cost each one of us many thousands of dollars over the course of our careers and our retirement. We traded in staff development days for furlough days, too.  We could have avoided this by increasing class sizes and pushing for many more cuts to classroom funding, but we didn’t.  We voted voluntarily to make these sacrifices because we knew the district truly was in crisis, and we wanted to keep cuts as far from the classroom as possible.  I wish I could say that I am super special in my dedication to my students, but I’m actually quite typical.

I know people have the idea that teachers complain a lot about their compensation, but I don’t.  Like I said, I willingly and without complaint made the sacrifices I was asked to make.  That said, we cannot always balance school budgets out of teachers’ salaries.  At some point, we have to think about attracting and keeping good young teachers.  If I love my students (and truly I do), how can I, in good conscience, encourage them to enter a field where they cannot make a living?  Right now it’s not amazing, but it’s not bad, but if we keep cutting…?

Last November, Jefferson County elected three anti-public education members to the school board.  The voters didn’t know that’s what they were doing.  These three were not at all forthcoming about their agenda.  Even now that they are on the board, they make decisions behind closed doors and behind the backs of the two other board members who are in the middle of their terms.  People are going to notice that teachers, both inside and outside the association, are very much opposed to the actions of these members.  In turn, I hear the anti-teacher rhetoric going full-throttle, often not directed at individual teachers so much as “that teachers’ union.”  So I just thought I’d tell you that I am the teachers’ union.  Chances are very good that, if you have kids in Jeffco schools, their teachers are also “the teachers’ union.”  The JCEA office is in a little strip mall behind a craft store.  It has a staff of five.  Please, look at their pictures.  There isn’t a thug among them.  The rest of “the union” is made up of teachers like me who love kids.

One last note, because it’s such a huge part of anti-teacher rhetoric, let me tell you a bit about pensions.  One of the reasons I don’t complain about what appears, on the surface, to be a ridiculously low salary given my education and years of experience, not to mention my expertise as an English teacher gleaned from my experience as a published author, is that I am fully aware of the value of my pension.  What you may not know is that I have paid into that pension for the past 26 years (and I will continue to pay at least 4 more years, or until I retire).  It hasn’t just been handed to me.  Of course, the district has paid in, too.  I often hear people say, “I don’t get a pension; why should you?”  Well, I don’t have anyone paying mortgage payments to me, but that’s no excuse for not making my mortgage payments.  No one pays me for home loans because I never loaned anyone money for a home.  I make a mortgage payment because I didn’t pay full market value for my house up front.  I agreed to make smaller payments over an extended period of time.  Basically, the public did the same with my salary.  I have accepted less than others with similar education and experience because the rest was coming later.

Also, in case you didn’t know, I and many other teachers have worked outside of education, as well.  When we have done this, we have paid into Social Security.  Because we are getting PERA (pensions), we are ineligible to collect Social Security.  Where does the money we put in go?  To those of you who will collect SS!  (You’re welcome.)  My husband has never paid into PERA.  He has paid into SS since he was 15.  If he dies before me (and he’s a male who is older than me, so there’s a pretty good chance of that) I cannot collect any SS widow’s benefits.  I gave those up in exchange for my pension.  Where will the money he paid go?  You guessed it.  (And again, you’re welcome.)  Does my pension still sound so exorbitant?

So that’s it.  My experience with JCEA.  No union thugs.  No complaining about how awful my job is.  Just a teacher who loves kids working together with other teachers who love kids to preserve a quality public education for all.

Posted in Education | 17 Comments

Merry Christmas (No Matter Your Persuasion)

I was making fudge and listening to The Priests’ Christmas album, Noël, and I was filled with such contentment, despite the upheaval of the past few days.  I’m not Catholic, but that trio of voices is so beautiful that I do find them spiritually compelling.

I find Christmas spiritually compelling, too.  I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, which means that like other Unitarians before me (Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Paul Revere, Ralph Waldo Emerson, ee cummings, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.) I do not believe that Jesus was divine.  I do not believe that he was any more or less a child of God than the rest of us. I do not believe that he died for my sins.  I don’t even believe that he was born on December 25.  I’m not sure he’s not an amalgamation of a number of spiritual leaders.

All of that is immaterial.  Here’s what I love about the Christmas story and its pagan roots: I love the idea that, if something personified and sentient and omniscient existed, it could look down on us all, with all our faults and foibles, observing us in our best and worst moments, and see in us something worthy of salvation.  In the end, despite acts of violence and political strife and individual pettiness, we deserve longer days, perhaps so we have more time to strive for something better.  I have no idea what, if anything, comes after this life, but I like the idea that this Being would see in each of us something worth preserving for all eternity.

Whether Jesus was real or not, whether he died for our sins or not is, to me, immaterial.  (I know it is utterly material for some of you, and that’s cool.  This is just MHO.)  Jesus is the personification of our belief in our ability and worthiness to be redeemed.  We can be less than we wish we were, but in the darkest of times, we see the light within each other and ourselves, rise to love.  That’s worth celebrating.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 2 Comments

To Sandy Hook for a Difficult Day

I’ve known for a few days what I wanted to write here for my friends in Sandy Hook.  Then today Arapahoe tasted this experience.  I know that it made things even harder for my friends in Newtown.  It scared up ghosts for me, too.  But I still feel this is true, so here goes:

For a year now you have lived with the ghost of “one year ago today” and “the last time I did this.”  You have stopped a thousand times and thought, one year ago today I was (fill in the blank), and I was…so innocent…I had no idea what was coming…or I was annoyed at something so trivial.  One year ago today she was alive, and we….  The last time I taught this it was to this child lost or that child forever changed or I was my old self.  The last time I did this I thought my life would be…

You want the anniversary gone, over.  I wanted to sleep through the anniversary; go to sleep on April 19 and wake up the 21st.  Oh, how I dreaded it.

I’ve been saving this bit for the day you need it.  The morning will tick by: one year ago right now…one year ago right now…one year ago right now…

And then the moment arrives.  On April 20, 2000, I had been living with the fear that I could never love another student I hadn’t loved before the shootings.  I thought I would be too afraid of losing them.  At 11:20, when we released 13 balloons, I was holding the hand of a student—one of my sophomores—that I hadn’t known exactly one year before.  She had come to me and shyly slipped her hand in mine, and we stood in silence, and I thought, “How could I have doubted?  Of course I love this kid, and I will love a thousand others,” and in the 14 plus years since, I have.

At 9:35 December 14, it will be time to lay the ghosts of “one year ago today” to rest.  At 9:36 you will know that “one year ago today” you were pushed onto a path you would never have chosen for yourself, and today, you are 365 steps through the darkness.  You are 365 steps closer to that place of peace and strength for which you yearn.  One year ago today, you wondered whether you could make it to this moment, and you have.  For the next 365 days, you can rest assured that you are stronger than you were one year ago today.

When the moment is over, and 9:35 passes, you will know that one year ago today you shivered in the dark, lost and alone, terrified of the monsters that lurked.  Today, you have companions on the journey.  You have faced the demons, and while you haven’t killed them (a few of mine reared their ugly heads today), you know what they are, and you know you have survived them time and again, so you can manage to do battle with them some more.  I promise, the demons get tired after a while.  They lose interest.  They let you stop and rest in the sunlight when it breaks through, and it will break through more often this year than last.

I once wondered whether April 20th would ever be just a day to me again.  Now I know it will not, not ever, but I am surprised at how often 11:20 comes and goes while I am busy, and I don’t notice.  Sometimes it’s hard, and others, it’s surprisingly easy.  I don’t know what determines which it will be.  I only know that one year ago today, I didn’t know any of you, but you were all in my heart.  Today, you are my friends.  Because of you, my life is more blessed than it was one year ago today.  I wish there had been no need for us to meet, but playing the cards none of us ever asked to be dealt, I am richer than I was one year ago today.

Thank you for making me part of your lives.

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