Time for an Upgrade – A Personal Reflection

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October 6, 2016 by Good Teachers Work Hard

I recently watched a video on Facebook that explained exactly what was wrong with the American education system. You can watch it here, and I strongly encourage you to do so. I want to applaud the creators of the video, as many of the issues mentioned largely contributed to my departure from a classroom. The video mentions the history of American education, why it was created, and why we need an upgrade, all with very compelling evidence.

I was a dedicated, caring, intelligent educator, who spent time crafting engaging lessons. I was recognized as a lead teacher, was asked to create and deliver multiple professional development sessions, and was chosen to speak about various hot button topics in education at state, national, and international conferences. Despite my personal accomplishments, my most heart-warming moments were when I was able to help my students.

Unfortunately, in this era of standardized testing and teaching to the test, there is no room left for compassion in the classroom. In my final year of teaching, I was written up by my administrators multiple times for being compassionate. Yes, you read that correctly. I can show you these evaluations. What were these egregious infractions, all of which placed me in a category of “Needs Improvement” or “Failing” as a teacher?

  • I spoke English and Spanish in a class, a class that was comprised of 16 students (out of 32) that spoke only Spanish

My school was comprised of a very high percentage of students whose primary language was Spanish. Many of our students came directly from other countries, as factory and migrant farm jobs were plentiful in the surrounding areas. Because of budget cuts, the school district had abandoned a newcomer program years earlier – a program that was created to help transition students into American schools who came from other countries or who only spoke languages other than English. Without that program, students were placed into mainstream classrooms for most of the day (except for two class periods daily, when these students would receive English as a Second Language classes). Needless to say, having a class of 32 students (half of whom spoke no English) was challenging, even to veteran educators. Our administration did not give any directives to teachers with regard to these students, except to continue teaching as usual. As a result, these students were not understanding or learning much at all. We had students constantly showing up at incorrect classes because their schedules were in English, students faltered in class, and a number of students could not even understand the instructions for using the keypad in the cafeteria, so many did not eat lunch (although every student in this school was given a free lunch, due to the economic distress of the district). One quiet student went an entire week without eating lunch until a bilingual student asked her why she wasn’t eating and subsequently helped her maneuver the lunch procedure. Predictably, behavior issues among these students were high. Since I speak a moderate amount of Spanish and could teach my subject matter in it, I started off utilizing that skill in class. I would give directions such as “please open your notebooks” and “please turn to page 142 in your books” in both English and Spanish. Immediately, behavior issues plummeted. Students were engaged. They were happy. The vast majority of them wanted to learn, but could not pick up on a new language after a week or two in the country to be able to understand middle school subject matter. As a teacher, I thought everything was going very well – until my administrators showed up on a routine walk through of my classroom. They saw a snow delay schedule written in both English and Spanish on my whiteboard and heard me clarify the definitions of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells in Spanish. The very next class period, another teacher showed up at my door and told me she was covering my class because I had to report to the office. I actually thought my administrators were going to be pleased with the execution of my prior class – students were working, engaged in conversation, and understanding the material well. I was so wrong. As I entered the main office, I was told to take a seat in the principal’s office. I could now tell by the tone of the office staff that this wasn’t going to be a pleasant meeting. He and the assistant principal both told me, unequivocally, that I was not to speak any Spanish in class. I was dumbfounded. Then I was mad. I asked them how I was supposed to handle the language barrier. They told me to just teach as usual and not to accommodate the other students. I was told they receive their ESL instruction to help them learn English, but this was completely unacceptable to me. I asked if they wanted me to let the students sit in my class, completely disengaged, when I had the ability to help them. Once again, I was told to continue teaching as usual, but without the use of any Spanish language. I calmly explained to them that I was a public school teacher, and it was my job to teach any and all students that were placed in my classroom to the best of my ability, and I was going to continue teaching the best way I saw fit. They cautioned me against using Spanish in my classroom once again and gave me a written warning based upon their observation in my class. I refused to sign it. When they handed me my copy, I ripped it up in front of them and threw it away before leaving the office. I couldn’t believe it. I had an exemplary teaching career, and I get written up over this? I was livid. If only I knew what else was headed my way from these administrators.

  • I taught above and beyond the prescribed curriculum

Every year, our school would sponsor an open house for families and friends to see the work done by students. Teachers were expected to display a multitude of projects, papers, and student work. Because I taught a very hands-on subject (science), I had experiments displayed, students drawings of cells as seen through microscopes hanging on the walls outside my room, and a PowerPoint presentation playing in my room of inquiry-based experiments, projects, and demonstrations from class. The administrators walked through the hallways, carefully observing my students’ work. I was so proud of everything my students had accomplished throughout the year. Then, at my yearly evaluation meeting, I was given a “Need Improvement” rating in Domain 1: Planning and Preparation, 1a: Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy. I couldn’t believe it. I had always received high ratings on evaluations in the past. How could this possibly be justified? Domain 1 ensures teachers can demonstrate knowledge of content and pedagogy. I had taught my subject matter for years and was extremely familiar with state standards and requirements. I was told by my principals that I did not follow the prescribed curriculum set forth by the district, so I was being penalized. But I clearly had evidence that I DID follow their curriculum, which I presented to them. However, based upon the extra work done by my students for the open house, I was told I did not follow the prescribed time allotments for each unit, and therefore, did not adhere to the curriculum. According to them, if I had followed the curriculum as designated, I wouldn’t have time for additional projects. I argued that because my students had already finished the curriculum, we took certain subjects and explored them further. I was told this was unacceptable and was henceforth told my teaching preparation “Needs Improvement”. In reality, many other teachers were not able to complete their curricula because they were too busy attending to discipline issues caused by the students who did not speak English which was not an issue in my class.

  • I offered hats, gloves, and winter coats to my students, many of whom couldn’t afford them

Because many of my students moved to the United States from warmer countries, they were ill-prepared for winters in our part of the country. When I noticed my students shivering in homeroom and 1st period because they walked to school in hoodies or light sweaters, I went into action. I solicited my friends and family for old coats, scarves, hats, and gloves. I brought them to school and kept them in my storage closet. I then made a general statement to all my students. If anyone needed a coat or other winter accessories, they could see me – no questions asked – and get one. That winter, I gave away over 50 coats, and hundreds of gloves, scarves, and hats. Some students even asked if I could spare a pair of gloves for their younger siblings. Of course I obliged.

Months later, during that same ill-fated yearly evaluation, I received a “Failing” grade in Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities, 4f: Showing Professionalism. The evidence cited by my administrators was that I caused a distraction by offering coats to my students. Are you kidding me? Most students came to me after school, so there was absolutely no distraction to anyone.

  • I bought a pair of eyeglasses for a student

I had an incredibly bright student in class – hard working, studious, always reading, and learning English proficiently in the one year she had spent in the United States. This student was ranked second in her entire grade. She was well liked by students and teachers alike. From a teacher’s perspective, this student was an absolute dream. However, after a week of school had gone by, I noticed that this girl could not see the board. She was squinting and asking the people around her to borrow their notes. I moved her seat to the front of the class, but she still struggled to see the board and projector. One day after class, I asked her about her situation. She knew she needed glasses, but her parents had both been laid off from their jobs recently. Her mother had not worked long enough to collect unemployment benefits, and although her father was eligible for them, they had not received any money yet. In good conscience, I could not let this girl continue her schooling without glasses. I told her to tell her mother that I wanted to take the two of them to an optometrist, get her an eye exam, and buy a pair of glasses for her. I have never seen such a grateful student! She almost started to cry as she hugged me and thanked me over and over. This was the least I could do for such a promising student.

The following Saturday, my student, her mother and I were on our way to LensCrafters. I am mentioning the business name here because they have a program in place to help students receive an eye exam and a pair of glasses at a very reduced cost. You can learn more about it here.

After a few hours, my student had her new glasses. She could not believe how much better she could see! In the following days and weeks, my student continued to excel in the classroom. She was even chosen to enter a highly selective high school, based upon her grades and teacher recommendations. I was so incredibly proud of her! Then came my yearly evaluation.

During the teacher evaluation process, I had to present a portfolio of work completed by my students and show evidence of reflecting on teaching (4a), communicating with families (4c), and showing professionalism (4f). I brought a thank you letter written by the optometrist, who had taken time out of her busy day to give me a handwritten thank you note based upon my willingness to buy glasses for a student. Once I mentioned this, I was told my scores for 4a, 4c, and 4f were all failing now. Dejected and angry, I asked why. My principals told me that if I saw a student with a need, I should have directed her to social services for help. Since I did not do so, I failed to properly reflect upon my responsibilities as a teacher, did not communicate properly with my student’s mother because I had to communicate with her in Spanish (I wasn’t allowed to do this without our school translator present), and lacked professionalism by not following protocol (to direct her to social services). By now, I swore I was in the Twilight Zone. I was visibly shaking. At that moment, I knew I was leaving the teaching profession permanently. There was no room for compassion at this school, not when standardized tests mattered so much. A teacher could not possibly have time to teach, attend to students’ basic needs, speak the students’ native language, and go above and beyond the curriculum, could they? Not in my administrators’ eyes.

Our students deserve compassion. Our students deserve better. The time for an upgrade is now.



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