trouble in paradise

Union official warns that new evals could be 'doomed for failure'

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
UFT Secretary Michael Mendel, at right, told Department of Education officials in an angry email that the union is unhappy about the way some schools are preparing for the likelihood of new evaluations.

Intimidating and inappropriate practices in some city schools that are preparing for a new teacher rating system could undermine the system before it goes into effect, a top union official has warned.

In an email sent Friday to Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputies at the Department of Education, UFT Secretary Michael Mendel wrote that the union had recently received a spate of complaints about surprise observations by teams of administrators that seemed designed to make teachers uncomfortable.

“We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols,” Mendel wrote in the email, whose subject line was “I’m very Frustrated.”

Walcott’s email address was misspelled, so he did not get the message, according to a department spokeswoman. But the email came through for other top deputy chancellors. This afternoon, Mendel said he had not yet received any response.

The email, which the union described as “blistering” in a message to leaders at each school, is not the first that Mendel has sent in anger during the long lead-up to new evaluations. In October 2011, Mendel sent a similarly scathing email after the union received reports that some principals were using the Danielson model to observe teachers, even thought the union had not agreed to the change.

The current dustup also centers around observations. Mendel wrote that large groups of administrators have visited teachers’ classrooms without warning, made unreasonable demands, and then given scathing feedback. In an interview today, he said much of the criticism the teachers received had focused on minutiae such as the way they entered their lessons into a planning book.

Mendel said the reports had come from across the city, with more than a dozen complaints arriving after his email to the city. In one Brooklyn district, the union had received complaints from 11 schools, he said, and the report from another school was that all teachers had been told that their lesson plans were completed unsatisfactorily.

If principals had told the teachers that they would be observed and discussed the experience with them in a collaborative effort to prepare for new evaluations, the union would have had no objection, Mendel said today. “But if they do it this way where teachers are feeling intimidated, harassed, scared, put off — is it a good thing?” he said. “No. It is it a terrible thing, because it is turning them against the evaluation system.”

According to a decree by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s, districts that do not agree with their teachers unions on new evaluations by Jan. 17, 2013, will risk losing an increase in state school aid. For New York City, not reaching a deal would mean forgoing about $250 million in state aid. Both union and city officials say they are committed to working to reach an agreement in time.

“Our staff quite frankly have been having constructive discussions,” Walcott said last week. “I’m always an optimist so we’ll see what happens.”

A department spokeswoman said today that Mendel’s letter had not weakened the department’s resolve. “Mr. Mendel is more focused on internal union politics than on the important work of finalizing a deal,” said the spokeswoman, Erin Hughes. “Even through these cheap shots, we remain committed to reaching an evaluation agreement.”

But Mendel’s letter suggested that an agreement would be unlikely to end disputes over how city teachers are evaluated.

“I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully,” he wrote, adding that the current “network” structure has muddied lines of accountability for principals.

“I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out,” Mendel wrote. “If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure.”

Mendel’s complete letter to the department officials is below:

Titled: I’m very Frustrated.

We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols.

In many parts of the city teachers are being told that the new evaluation system is a done deal. In some cases they are being told that starting in Jan. there will no longer be pre and post observations. In many places 8 or nine administrators are working into a teacher’s room without warning, writing notes in the back of the room and leaving.

We have Network people and Talent Coaches saying things that are just wrong as well as intimidating. It’s going on all over the city so please don’t ask me for specifics. It’s so pervasive that specifics become meaningless. As you all know we have had to give you pieces of evidence that Principals wanted to put  in the file in violation of the contract. To your credit you did stop this when we brought it to you attention. Unfortunately the damage has already been done by the mere fact that the Principal put on the bottom of these observations “for the file”.

I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully. I do not attach any intentional motives on the DOE’s part. I am speaking from evidence city wide that has transpired. It is obvious to almost anyone involved with the DOE that the Network structure is an operational disaster. And I know that most of you and others in education from outside the DOE know it as well. I also know that it is almost impossible if not totally impossible for you to admit this.

I just want to remind you that we are still 100% committed to the new evaluation system – one that incorporates professional growth throughout a teacher’s career and a fair and honest evaluation process.

What should have happened was Principals telling the staff that we will learn this together in a non threatening way. We might come into your classroom in mass, 8 or 9 of us. We are just coming in to learn. After we leave one of us will go over what we saw or think we saw and see how you feel. Then we will rip up the observation. This is so we can all learn together in a professional atmosphere. We could even say if someone feels so strongly about not having 8 or 9 people come in at one time we would honor that. You get the idea. Learn together in a non threatening way. Unfortunately the opposite is happening in too many places. Anyway I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out.  If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure. And let’s be clear. This failure rests squarely on the DOE’s shoulders. No one else.

Michael Mendel
UFTSecretary/Executive Assistant to the President

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, last week. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However, teachers attending the monthly meeting disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.