Notes from the “Uncounted Underground”

“Ask a teacher how they feel — any teacher, every teacher. At first, the responses might shock or surprise you, may even sadden you, and will hopefully lead to outrage.”

This is a must read:   “Uncounted Underground of Teachers” , from Valerie Strauss at the  Washington Post. Teachers are outraged, but the vast majority are afraid to speak up.

This is why I write, and also why I write anonymously. I am afraid too. The climate in education today is not one that encourages dissent.

I know almost all of the teachers at my school share my frustration and heartbreak with each new mandate. We also share a deep love of children and profound joy in those rare moments when we ditch the script and real teaching and learning happens.

Teaching is a political act- we are shaping minds, hearts and the future. The values we communicate matter, and when we’re forced to test and punish, to follow a script, and value data and compliance above all else our work has far reaching political and social implications.

But not only are people afraid to speak up, they don’t have time or energy. Teaching is all consuming, you eat, sleep, dream your kids and their crises.  There are days when I don’t sit down once from 7 am to 6 pm. But with ESSA and a ruthless reform movement, if teachers don’t speak up soon we won’t be teachers for much longer.



Cuomo’s Latest Attempt to Destroy Public Education

Cuomo just pushed through a preliminary version of yet another teacher evaluation system for NYC public schools- a mere two years after the last one was implemented.  This is more than a logistical nightmare for the DOE and school administrators. Like the current teacher evaluation system, the new system is not designed to improve schools, nor is it designed to cultivate quality teaching or help children thrive.  This is a system designed to bust up the teacher’s union, destroy public schools and drive teachers out of their classrooms and into the arms of non-unionized, unregulated, corporate financed charter schools.

Under the new system, up to 50 percent of a teacher’s rating is based on increases in test scores from year to year. As with the current system, this will apply to teachers in non-testing grades ( K-2) as well as cluster teachers- meaning that 50 percent of a kindergarten or art teacher’s rating could be determined by one grade’s math or ELA scores for that year.

This would be disastrous for school culture and the quality of teaching. In my title one school, we “chose” to link all of our ratings to the third grade math scores. Last year, this resulted in art and PE teachers being told to include math in their weekly lessons as well as intense pressure on math for third graders and their teachers. We had two full months of unhappy third graders drowning in boring, frustrating test prep. If Cuomo gets his way and 50 percent of a teacher’s rating is determined by test scores alone, imagine the pressure when the one grade’s math scores can make or break the careers of up to a third of the teachers in a school. One year of low scores could put about 30 teachers at my school on probation.

To make matters worse, under Cuomo’s new plan, the other 50 percent of a teacher’s rating would be determined based on evaluations by an “independent observer”  as well as observations by school leaders. I’ve had some experience with independent evaluators, and this imperative is not only financially and logistically impossible, but also deeply unfair to teachers and students.

I have been rated effective two years in a row thanks to positive observations and good fortune with test scores. Let’s say scores are not as high as we hoped for this year. There goes half of my rating and suddenly my career is on the line. The next phase of my evaluation is the arrival of the “independent observer”- someone who does not know me, does not understand the culture of the school, and does not know the students. This person also is likely to be decidedly unprogressive in his or her approach to educating children. Said evaluator will necessarily have very little time to observe each teacher, and if they don’t like what they see in my classroom – for any reason at all – my rating could plummet further.

I have been observed by so called independent evaluators before. When I taught first grade at a charter school, I was observed once by two lavishly paid consultants. They observed me for 20 minutes total and then gave me verbal feedback. During our conversation, they told me that they both had previously taught high school, and had NEVER been in a first grade classroom before. They then proceeded to tell me that my teaching lacked “rigor.” That’s what this new system is going to produce: sky-high consultant fees and evaluation that is even more arbitrary, inappropriate, and unfair than it is now.

There is only one conclusion to draw from all of this nonsense. Cuomo’s new system is purposefully designed to fire teachers – even effective ones – and bust up one of the only remaining powerful labor unions in the country. His is a system that will result in experienced, beloved teachers fleeing public schools for charters, private schools and jobs outside the field. Cuomo knows this. But he is so hellbent on taking down the union and privatizing schools for the benefit of his corporate cronies, that he does not care about the millions of children who will suffer at his hands. As I see it, teachers have three choices: we can opt out, we can be forced out, or we can leave of our own accord.

Why I might leave

Despite all research, despite all evidence, despite years of accumulated wisdom and experience on the part of actual educators who have dedicated their lives to helping low-income students and their families the myth persists- that the teachers are the problem, that we are failing.

This culture of blame and shame has been seeping into schools so that every day when I walk into school I feel on the brink of disaster. Despite working 12 hour days, despite knowing that my students love coming to my classroom, that parents value what I do, I still feel like a complete failure, that I can never be good enough, that my fate will be decided at random, that no matter how hard I work, my students will eventually become disenchanted with learning, and alienated from their school through years of brutal and degrading test-prep, that I will make mistake after mistake and always be told what I’m doing wrong. In what career other than teaching are practitioners expected to be perfect, to be superhuman, to have their every interaction scrutinized and criticized according to so many standards, to never stop for one minute to get to know the people they work with? No matter how hard I work there is always more to do, and even as I throw myself into my teaching, into working with colleagues, planning school wide events, assuming leadership roles, the message I keep getting is that it is not good enough, I am a failure.

But it is not us. It is segregation, poverty, housing insecurity and lack of healthcare. We know that it is not us, but we still feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, we still feel the blame and we work harder, and longer, and try to be everything- teacher, parent, social worker, data analyst, curriculum writer, coach, fundraiser, planner,  web designer, therapist, artist, mentor. We try to teach meaningfully while being compelled to adhere to inane curriculum and standards, we try to prepare our students for what lies ahead, to help them get through each day, to help them love learning, and all we hear is that it is not good enough because now tests will determine not only our children’s futures but our careers, there is always more we could do and we know it and we burn ourselves out.

Instead of encouragement or recognition, we are handed itemized analyses of our performance, and teaching feels more and more like a performance- something we pretend to do so that the right boxes will be checked off on each list. Just as our students are constantly being evaluated, we too are under constant scrutiny. Just as our students are given less and less choice, so too, we are given less and less opportunities to be creative, to be authentic, to be agents of change.

This is my fourth year teaching. No matter what, working in a low-income school is going to be hard. When your students are hungry, when they are tired and cold, or come from unstable or even abusive families, you can never do enough. There are days when you cry after school, when you cry during school. With experience, it is supposed to get a little easier. But each year, I feel more and more like I am failing, like I am neither important nor capable, like no matter what I do, no matter how much my students have learned and grown despite a million disadvantages, the system around me does not have my back.  The problem of poverty runs deep and teachers can’t be expected to face it alone. In this climate of teacher baiting, of blame and constant evaluation, I’m not sure I can face it at all.

If reformers succeed in implementing their full agenda, who will be left? I’m not sure I will.