When you're in the situation that I was in, you can either resign or speak to the board of education. If you elect to speak to the board, you can do so in public or private.
I requested a public hearing. I did so because this is then broadcast on local TV and posted to YouTube. Right before I spoke, they took a break. The footage of me was not put on the district website. The entire board of ed meeting from 6/6/16 is posted on YouTube, until the point when I would be speaking.
I made the request to speak publicly, because I think I have a few good points.
So, here is what I presented to the board of education of the Grand Rapids Public Schools:
Dear Board of Ed,
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. HR will be recommending you not renew my contract, and I’ve elected to speak. In the organizational chart listed on the GRPS website, you are listed as the top of the power. I want to share with you my experience of what it has been like working for the Grand Rapids Public Schools.
I was asked by several people what I hope to accomplish by speaking, and: I hope that by voicing my experience, things can be changed so that this type of oversight doesn’t happen to other teachers and students that come to this district. I am a student-first teacher. I have been there for the kids in my class every year I’ve taught. I receive messages on a frequent basis from former students thanking me. I value this. I have spent the last 13-years helping students find their voice - in both writing and life - and encouraging them to use that voice in a positive way to impact the world they live in. That is what I am hoping to do here today: to practice what I preach. Not speaking, and not taking advantage of this opportunity, would go against everything I’ve taught and believed.
I’d like to ask that these words and experiences be heard in light of the the four things mentioned by the Superintendent in her address to the staff in 2014, those being:
- Student Achievement
I. Why I’m here and my response to it.
HR will contend that this nonrenewal is simply a continuation of last year; they’ll say it is a continuation, based upon an agreement with [name]. This may be the case, but that was never communicated to me by HR. That’s part of the problem. If I knew I’d be nonrenewed, here, today, I would have spoken to the Board of Ed last year. I was on the August 17 agenda, sitting in the back, ready to speak. My name, and the nonrenewal, were taken off the agenda, meaning (at least I thought): I had a position.
Members of the Board asked questions of HR, such as: were the people facing nonrenewal and/or layoff based upon evaluations, seniority, or what was the reason. HR had no response, and the nonrenewal was dropped and the layoffs were moved until later.
Here we should pause. At that meeting, where the plan was to essentially get rid of 8 teachers, as the meeting was happening where this would take place, HR was unprepared to answer the questions of why and how those eight were chosen.
This is unacceptable. Especially if you are one of the 8.
Prior to that meeting, HR recommended that I resign. I did not want to, I wanted my experience to be heard and for the Board of Ed to decide my fate. While working on the presentation that day, HR offered to pay my insurance for two months, give me cash, and change my evaluation rating to effective, if I’d resign. Had I known then what this year had in store, or what my ‘position’ would be, I would have gone to microphone and spoken then. My understanding was that I had a position, and was in good standing as an employee going forward. I was unaware that I simply had to wait a year for the opportunity to speak here, today.
The reason for my nonrenewal is due to HR’s reading of the 38.83b of (what I believe is) the Teacher Tenure Act (2. In the notes). 38.83b deal with the probationary period of teachers new to MI. It reads they must complete a probationary period. To complete that, a teacher must be considered either effective or highly effective in their 3 most recent evaluations, and completed ‘at least’ five years of teaching. It doesn’t say 5-years. It says ‘at least’ five years. HR ignores these two critical words. I see two problems with this reading of the law. One is that the first two years, under this model, do not matter. The second is that the probationary period is dependent upon evaluations, which are depended upon an evaluator, as well as the school in which you’re placed. And the students in your second hour class.
I’d like to address three specific factors of an evaluation, those being: Tripod, Test Scores, and Evaluators.
Tripod - the tripod survey is a survey students take that asks questions about their teacher. The teacher hands them an iPad or takes them to a computer lab where they’re given a code, enter that code, and fill out a survey. The questions are about their 2nd period teacher, and at least ten students must complete the survey given in both fall and spring. So many factors could go wrong with this survey. In some cases, the kids do not understand the questions, they’re forced to complete this in class. But more importantly, this survey reaches only one class. Teachers are required to teach five classes, but only one of those five matters in your evaluation. This is not equity.
Test Scores - test scores count for the school you were at during the year you were there, the major component of these scores is ACT. This is a problem. So if a teacher gets placed at a school that under performs, they’re going to be marked down, but if they’re place at a school that does well, they’re going to be marked up. This is great for the later, but a problem for the former. But the practicalities are more problematic. It’s possible that a teacher never taught a student taking the ACT. For instance, you could be at a school for two years, teaching freshman; while at this school, the ACT scores of the current juniors would count for your evaluation. These would be kids you never taught. You could then be involuntarily transferred to a new school, again teaching freshman. Again the current juniors, kids you’ve never taught, would count for your evaluation. If you were there for two years and again involuntarily transferred, and again teaching freshman, all five years you would have not taught a single kid that counted for a major part of your evaluation. This is not equity. Continuing with this possible scenario, that third year, the kids you taught would be taking the ACT at the first school; if they’d done well because of your teaching, someone else would benefit. It’s even possible for the position of two teachers to be switched and have the scores of the first benefit the second, while the scores of the second harm the first! MY POINT is that school scores can count against your evaluation of students you’ve never taught. AND THIS is a problem. It ALSO means that based upon where you’re placed, you’re either set up for success or failure. If you’re placed at City, you’re good. Those scores boost you up. If placed at Union or Ottawa, you’re starting from a lower point. You have to make up the ‘minimally effective’ scores of others. Evaluators. Being placed at a different building, via new hire or involuntary transfer, means that you have a new evaluator. Depending upon which evaluator you draw, there are different challenges. This was made especially clear while I was sitting at a PD this year, hearing the principal tell the staff that administrators are instructed to mark down a teacher that is on the border of two categories. This administrator went on to explain how since he knows the teachers he will give them the benefit of the doubt. But think about that! Administrators are told to mark down people that are right in the middle. Which means, if someone knows you, it helps you, but if you’re new to a building you’re facing tougher critics. This is not equity. Especially if you’re placed at a new school, given the ‘hardest’ administrator, and minimally effective test scores, you’re starting from a real hole. Which, based upon how HR reads the law, is especially problematic if you’re in years 3, 4, or 5. This is random, or arbitrary, rather than equitable.
When it comes to evaluations, it needs to be mentioned that they are not impartial. Much like watching a sports game of a team you like. You view the officiating, the good plays, and results through that lens. It is impossible to be impartial. Yet, we pretend that rubrics stop this. THEY DON’T. A rubric is still being filled out by someone that is not impartial. They also come from various backgrounds and trainings. The people that have evaluated me, as far as I can tell through conversation and resumes, in my four years of teaching at GRPS have never taught a day of traditional high school. It is problematic when the ones grading and evaluating the teaching have never done the actual job. But when one person is evaluating another person, personality clashes or different philosophies of education can come into play. These clashes should not result in the loss of a career.
All of these played a major factor at Union High School in which my ‘bad’ evaluation happend. My scores were marked down, in a lesson in which I taught writing. During a post conference that didn’t address one point on the rubric, the administrator pulled out a homework assignment from weeks before and said she was ‘seething in anger’ when she saw how things were being graded. The anger stemmed from the fact that full credit was afforded to a student that had very loosely completed the requirements of a journal. When I replied that the best writing research (Ex. “Getting it Down”, Inside/Out; Free Writing Guides, Jeff Anderson; “Shitty First Drafts” / “Broccoli”, Anne Lamott) states you should NEVER stifle the journal process for a student, she had no retort other than to say it sends mixed messages. She added that if it was her kids, she’d have been to the school very quickly.
I knew I was in trouble, so documented our post-conferences and spoke with a union rep for the whole year. Here are a few notes:
- Additionally, she said she was “seething with anger” when she saw the assignment and that if “I were the parent, and this was going on at my kid’s school, I’d be there so fast”.
- She claimed my lesson didn’t have an objective, and then proceeded to say, “your objective was to practice rubric based feedback”. She said it didn’t happen. I responded “the objective was ‘practice’.”
- After she mentioned her children - which she did at our last post-conference - I asked to not to compare the students in my class to her children. She said, “absolutely I do. I consider all the (students) at this school to be my children”. She said I need to “step up” and “get on board”. I’m not sure what this means. She then mentioned “Article of the Week” and “school vocabulary”, as possible ways, which are both things I do, and are on the walls of the class and in the gradebook.
I attempted to deal with this the whole year. I asked for a change of evaluator, but that was denied. I’d never had - in my previous 11 years of teaching - an experience like this. What do you do if the person evaluating you gets personal, doesn’t mention facts, offers suggestions like ‘step up’ and doesn’t address the rubric? Even saying this right now sounds ridiculous, but this is the situation I faced. For my third observation, completed by a district observer, I was marked minimally effective by .04 (four hundredths) of a point. In every category but two, I was marked effective. In one category, she gave me a 0 because in ‘her opinion’ it would have been more beneficial if I’d done something else. “Her opinion” is a quote. Her notes said it wasn’t observed. In each observation, there is a button that reads N/a, for not observed. Her note was that questioning ‘wasn’t observed’, but rather than an N/a, she put a zero. That difference was the difference between a rating of effective and minimally effective. But the point is she said ‘my opinion’. And if her opinion dictates how she rates something, there is a problem. There is also a problem if an entire lesson can be ranked minimally effective through two subcategories. This is not equity.
Additionally, the school did not have adequate supplies for the students. The first quarter there were not enough novels, and the school never had the Write Source books. Though Write Source Post Assessments are added as a big District Assessment, the school did not have the supplies. When there weren’t enough novels for my students 3rd quarter, I gave my books to another teacher, and got funding through Donors Choose for a different book for my students. I got funding in three weeks, and had a very successful unit. For these efforts, I was told I was “Not a team player”. If the choice comes down to being a ‘team player’ or making sure my kids have books, I’ll choose the later every time.
I did appeal the evaluation, and that appeal was denied. But when you appeal an evaluation, you are not provided any details on the process of appeal. Which makes it very hard to defend yourself. I now know that you go in a room and two people listen to you for a half hour and you are expected to make a presentation. But even this process, which is a chance for equity, is setup to fail the teacher if they are not provided any details on the format of the appeal. It is neither equitable nor transparent.
The 11 years prior to this, I’d been effective or the equivalent every time. I’d had no problems.
Also, I was marked down for the teaching of writing. The two previous years, I’d been asked to: 1. Tutor individual students with their writing to successfully pass the MME, and 2. To front and lead the school-wide process of vertically aligning the writing curriculum, including standards by year and rubrics.
But those are the reasons I’m here. Based upon how HR reads the law, based upon someone’s ‘opinion’ of a class, and based upon being placed in three schools in three years.
II. Notes, emails, and examples
- My assignment letter for this year. This is unacceptable on many levels. What does this even mean?
- The laws with the key words ‘at least’
- My assignments for this year. 16 schools.
- This year’s involuntary transfer. I found it insulting to be greeted with an exclamation mark when I was involuntarily transferred.
- Notes from actual students. These were taken from the end of the 2014/15 school year, and are a sample from all over the map.
- An example of HR Communication. It says probationary teachers are ‘assigned’ IDP goals. Yet they cannot be clearly stated and are not often mentioned.
- An example the interview process. “You required” and very generic preparation.
- Example of arbitrary evaluation. Says I’m ineffective, followed up with ‘no record’.
- Layoffs from each year.
- An example of the evaluation. Hard to read. Recalculated. I was not able to appeal the new calculation, which was contrary to what the note said.
- Letter from [student]. He heard I’d be nonrenewed, didn’t think that was right, and asked to write a letter on my behalf. (Thank you, [student]).
- Data for the past two years. Including the breakdown.
III. Academic plan, goal 11.
According to the academic plan, this is Goal 11 for GRPS.
Goal 11: GRPS will recruit highly qualified staff Strategy 1: Recruitment Planning - The District's Human Resources staff will develop recruitment and retention activities to address staffing shortage needs particularly at Priority and hard to staff schools. These activities will be implemented and monitored by the Human Resources team for the purpose of determining their effectiveness. Research Cited: "Teacher shortages are essentially a problem of distribution (Darling-Hammond, 2001: Ingersoll, 2001: National Association of State Boards of education, 1998;Olson, 2000: Reeves, 2003; Voke, 2002). According to recent studies, hardest to find are teachers who are both qualified and willing to teach in hard to staff schools, which include those in highly urban and rural areas-especially schools serving minority or low-income students. In addition, recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers are intertwined; it's not enough to attract these teachers if concurrent steps are not taken to keep them (Liu, Johsnon, and Peske, 2004). School need help in building their capacity to attract and maintain a highly qualified teaching staff...Therefore, recruitment strategies must be targeted to meet the needs of the individual districts and schools... Goe suggests (2006) suggests that districts and schools consider the following criteria when hiring teacher, depending on local factors such as school setting, ethnicity/race of the student population, or heritage language of many or most students: second language fluency; quality of being a role model in mostly minority schools (e.f., teachers who are from the communities in which they will be teaching and/or share an ethnic or cultural background with the students they will be teaching); contribution to the diversity of mostly white schools; coursework or professional development that has prepared them to work with students with disabilities, coursework or professional development that has prepared them to teach in specific settings, such as urban schools or Native American communities..." (Key Issue: Recruiting Teachers for Urban and Rural Schools", June 2009 Updated by Kathleen Hayes, Learning Point Associates, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality)
I chose to come to GRPS in 2012, giving up tenure and taking a pay cut to do so. I did this because of: a. A desire to impact students in the city I come from, and b. I was drawn to the mission.
Here are the realities of my experience:
- I’ve been at 19 schools in four years
- I’ve had 5-different evaluators
- I’ve had four different ‘mentors’
- I’ve received 4 involuntary transfers, 2 nonrenewals, and 1 layoff notification
- Only one of the four involuntary transfers had an explanation for why, that being Creston and the school closing
- I’ve never been at the same school for consecqutive years (3-different assignments)
- Two of the three schools to which I was assigned, UPREP and Union, did not have books for my students.
- I’ve been taken out of class to attend meetings with parents where they cussed me out and told misinformation about me and my classes, while an administrator sat idly by and listened but did not intervene
- I’ve been cussed out by students dozens of times, only to have those same students back in class, sometimes escorted by a principal, a few moments later
- I’ve been given bad evaluations with no feedback
- The communication I receive from the district has been unclear, unprofessional, and contrary
- And each year I’ve had to get to know a new building, new students, new staff, and new administrators
The literature of the district wants the best and brightest; I receive emails nearly every week to this effect. But, if GRPS truly wants to recruit and retain, they must then treat them well.
Prior to coming here, I was always considered successful. I was considered an expert, people asked my advice on curriculum. This was the case at Creston and UPREP as well. I never had an experience like the one at Union.
I’m the type of guy, at least on paper, the district wants advertises for. I wanted to be here. I earned a masters prior to coming here. I went through the grinder on another district's dime. Yet, here those experiences are not rewarded.
Here at GRPS, In this capacity, I’ve had success. I’ve provided the data for my students from the 2013/14 and 14/15 school year, along with their effectiveness rating. You’ll notice that my student achievement measures have been rated either effective or highly effective, yet my instruction is somehow minimally effective. This means that my students have either performed in spite of me, or things are not quite right.
Speaking of retention. At Union High School last year, there were four teachers new to the building (at least as far I knew, and that were full time). Of these 4 teachers, two were minorities, one African American, the other Hispanic and a fluent spanish speaker. None of the four returned to Union.
When we cannot support and retain minority teachers, who looks at this?
IV. This Year. Inconsistencies.
So I sat there last year, with my beautiful wife, and was ready; HR amended the meeting, and I was awarded a position.
So, On the 26th of August, I was sent my assignment, which was that of a district substitute, at the district wide secondary schools.
Right away, I knew this would not be good.
My return date was August 28, and the returns meant PD. To enroll in PD, one must log in through their school. I had none. Nor was I, that day or the rest of the year for that matter, assigned a supervisor. Which meant that I had to find out where to go for PD and the like on my own.
In addition to not knowing those things, I also didn’t know who to contact for my position, where to go, or anything like that. When I emailed HR for my position and how to do it all, this is the email I received: (1). I would like to point out that this three sentence email is terrible. It says, “You position” and “unless we have a longer sub need district”.
I do not know what this means.
Though my position was in the secondary world, I was in secondary positions between ⅓-½ the time, depending on how you count the position at Harrison, where I was teaching Science at least part of the day (3).
My experience this year has been very interesting. I’ve been placed in 16 buildings. Being in these schools has allowed me to see some things, most of which have been sad:
- For instance, Harrison Park does not have a science lab. The students there are expected to go to college. They are part of the Challenge Scholars Program. This is great and attractive, but the program only gets them into college. Once there, they’ll be expected to know thing. Things like science. Without labs and science instruction, they cannot do this. Who checks these types of things?
- Kids at Ottawa have had substitutes for science for the past two years. These are kids that struggle, in a school that has been on watch and probation. The kids there want to be successful, but how can they get it if they don’t have teachers? Who checks?
- I’ve been ‘provided’ curriculum each year. Two schools did not have the books that go with the curriculum.
- The district places assessments in the gradebook, but doesn’t provide the books that go with the assessments.
- I spent about six weeks this year on a ‘special assignment’ providing extra support to a first grader. This young man has already been held back and makes it hard on the students in the class. After documenting his behavior for 6 weeks, I noticed patterns. One was that he began ‘misbehaving’ when he had to do work. He had trouble with reading and Math. His father asked about these patterns. When I suggested getting him tested for things like dyslexia. The principal did not know who to contact for this testing.
- At Union I’m considered a minimally effective instructor of writing, but at the two previous schools, Creston and UPrep, I was asked to lead the writing team and tutor individual students to help them pass the MME. In both cases, success and growth were demonstrated.
- My contention is that this comes from lack of administrator’s knowledge of content, rather than my own. At the same time, I was editing a blog and writing short circle curriculum for my church that was read by hundreds of people.
- Minimally effective in instruction, yet highly effective and effective in student achievement.
- So it’s either in spite of me , or doesn’t add up.
- My contention is that this comes from lack of administrator's content knowledge.
- One of the only direct requests was that my evaluator asked for lesson plans to be turned in to her. This goes directly against the union contract. Lesson plans were in a binder and on my desk each day and thereafter, like the contracts states.
- Evaluator never looked at them. This goes directly against the Union Contract, and demonstrates a lack of understanding of it all.
- Cell phones:
- Creston: none
- UPREP: use in class and put up a sign
- Union: none. Asked about this at a staff meeting, told absolutely none. Yet kids could walk by the principal and text.
I am not the type that simply complains. Anything I’m saying to you today, I’ve either said or attempted to say, through the proper channel. I’ve spoken to department heads, administrators, district coaches; I’ve sent emails to communications, human resources; sat and spoke with the Executive Director, and requested to speak to the superintendent. The reason I have done this is for the kids in our district. Kids that deserve quality education from talented professionals.
Every thing I have said or done comes with sole intent of helping the students in the city I live be prepared to face the world in which they face. These kids are my neighbors, their fate is my fate. This world they’re entering isn’t always easy, doesn’t bend for you, and expects top effort and achievement.
To that end, I’d like to provide some suggestions that can help provide the quality education these students deserve.
The things here are some things I’ve noticed that I think could be fixed fairly easily. I feel like I must say. Because even if I’m nonrenewed, this is still the district I live in, and my (hopefully future) children would reside in this district:
- There needs to be accountability. People - teachers and administration - are moved around so much that excuses are possible. Test scores do not reflect those that are in the building, so no one takes blame for student grades or scores.
- Jim Collins suggests confronting the brutal facts. I’d suggest listening to the staff and people sending their kids out of the district. Have exit interviews with staff that leave. Why not listen to these facts? They can only help us grow.
- The structure of the day needs to be looked at.
- Elementary: Though I’m not certified, I’ve been placed in a lot of elementary classes this year. They are all set up the same basic way: English (or reading) in the morning and Math in the afternoon. The kids are bored out of their minds. They want to play and watch things and ask questions, but they get pages and pages of materials put in front of them. Ironically, there’s so much material that they get a little done. There’s volume, but not depth. This also creates problems for the kids that are behind; this volume only gets them further and further behind.
- High (and middle) school: GRPS has 6 one hour class periods, with an extra half hour block for lunch. In this, teachers have one prep. I would suggest making 7 45-minute classes, and giving teachers an extra period off. Most problems that I’ve encountered have come during the last 20-minutes of class when kid’s attention is off. The natural rhythm makes it hard for kids to concentrate, makes it impossible to start something new, and consequently there are disciplinary issues. If we added a class and a prep. Teachers could offer better lessons, kids attention would be directed more to class, and it would give a chance for an elective. Things we do not offer.
- Speaking of electives. We offer things like - Academic Strategies, a class that is direct test prep. This does nothing for the student in the long run. Furthermore, they get no training on many of the things colleges would want or expect.
- No one should make decisions on curriculum that doesn’t directly interact with students.
- Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, argues, “Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company” (42).
- There has to some type of advanced classes offered at all the schools. And I’m not simply saying AP by definition. I’m talking high levels of rigor. In each building, especially at the secondary level, there must be opportunities for success. If there isn’t, it means that all kids are essentially placed at the lowest level. When we throw all kids together, it enables those at the bottom to run classes. If we offer an IB track in all buildings, we can reach kids that advocate for themselves.
- Perhaps unorthodox, I encourage all of you on the board to sub for one day next year at every GRPS building, but especially: Alger, Ottawa, Westwood, Union, Brookside, and Campus. Split them up and debrief, but it will help you see what these buildings are actually like.
- Change the evaluation model. Think through and restructure evaluations. The current structure is not equitable. To have teachers from Ottawa being evaluated based upon the same criteria, using the same rubric as those from City doesn’t work.
- Put it this way, based on the current system, it’s possible to be a bad teacher at City, and have the school growth bring you up, where you can excell at Ottawa, and be brought down.
- Look at the evaluators and administrators. Make sure they have solid credentials and are working in buildings in grades and programs they know. Jim Collins highly suggests this in Good to Great. Make sure people are in the proper places.
- Look at the tools used to evaluate and how they’re used. Tripod is completed in class, with the classroom teacher there, and is done on a whim, rather than in a formal setting like it warrants.
- New teachers (to any building) should be evaluated by the building principal only, and have a union rep in every observation.
- Offer more Spanish Immersion classes. It is going to be extremely important to be bilingual. We offer one building. Many people leave the district for this. If you want people, offer what they want.
I realize that the board can make the decision to not renew my employment at any time, since I do not have tenure here. I understand this and am fine with it.
Also, I realize that I’m going to be fine. I have a family that loves me, a cool, beautiful wife (who I met at a GRPS PD), and many talents. These will serve me just fine going forward. If I’m being outed for being a ‘bad teacher’, I find it quite ironic that it comes from the observations of people in my classroom three times, that were not certified in the areas, that provided opinions and no support. I’d especially like this taken in light of the fact that I asked one evaluator to come more frequently, also asked for the building principal to observe the class, but these requests were not taken.
Thank you for listening to me today. I wanted to share these experiences with the Board of Ed because you’re at the top of the power structure. You have the ability to do and make change.
And above all, I hope this helps begin the process of some changes so that our students truly are educated, self-directed, productive member of society.
Grace and Peace,