Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We Need to Talk About Tenure

The idea and privilege of "tenure" in public education has garnered a lot of attention as of late. Most people who have never worked in education a single day in their lives seem to feel that tenure is unfair and teachers should work under the same expectations that other "regular" and hard-working Americans work under. At least, that's the narrative being presented in the media. Three years ago, I would have agreed, but I didn't know any better.

At the college and university level, tenure is difficult to obtain and can take 4-8 years. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but from what I think I know, the candidate usually needs to have published some sort of research and have demonstrated a strong teaching record, among other things. Before becoming a high school teacher, I understood why tenure was necessary at the college and university level as it protected academics when they published work that went against the mainstream, and thereby prevented professors from being too scared to delve into something "radical" because their jobs were on the line. I really didn't see how it could be so important to public school teachers, who weren't conducting and publishing research - they're just teaching curriculum.

One of the advantages of coming into the education world as an outsider has been that I constantly feel stupid about my prior beliefs. I, like many others, erroneously believed tenure was something dated. I mean, I came to teaching with job experience, but in that job experience I received no protections from my boss(es). I had to work hard and exceed expectations everyday, or else I would be subject to a negative review from my peers and supervisors, which would likely put me on the getting-fired trajectory. Wouldn't receiving tenure and union protection make me lazy? I questioned. That's probably why I was so quick to jump on the Michelle-Rhee-get-rid-of-teacher-tenure bandwagon during my Teach for America summer institute training. Later, I learned that those deserving to be teachers, those who actually joined the profession out of ambition and love, did not put tenure on a golden pedestal because students belonged there. Tenure was significant, but for reasons other than "the ability to get lazy."

Tenure, as I see it, simply means that after a period of x years (varies by state) and adequate fulfillment of requirements, a teacher cannot be fired for the sake of being fired without receiving a hearing. This idea came to be as a result of teachers being fired by their principals without reason, often because their political views, personal lifestyles and/or teaching methodologies didn't align with their principals'. As most people who have ever had a job know, not all bosses are fair and all-knowing - it's the same in education, maybe even worse.

In New York specifically, a public school teacher must teach for three years (a.k.a. "the probationary period") with a satisfactory rating before being considered for tenure. The process is straight-forward: a teacher submits to his or her principal a "teaching portfolio" that contains a resume, teaching and education philosophy, reflections, lots of samples of student work, evidence of student achievement, professional development, examples of service to the school, and three years worth of administrator's formal classroom observation reports. Ideally, the principal already knows what's in the binder as he/she (or an assistant-principal) has been helping the teacher develop this binder throughout this teacher's probationary period. If the principal recommends the teacher for tenure at the end of the third year, then the principal submits this teacher's portfolio to his/her district-level superintendent. From there, it's either green-light for tenure or yellow-light, which means the probationary period gets extended to a fourth year. There is no limit for the number of extensions, so this process could go on forever.

What would cause a superintendent to delay giving a teacher tenure if all requirements have been met satisfactorily? In NYC, politics are involved. Apparently, the Bloomberg administration has been pressuring school districts and leaders to begin denying tenure, which has resulted in an increased number of teacher probationary extensions. There are stories of NYC principals who have admitted they felt their jobs were on the line if they didn't deny their teachers tenure. That's ridiculous.

Superintendents don't deal with teachers, they deal with principals and school-wide administration. They base most of their tenure/no tenure decisions (or at least used to) upon on a principal's recommendation and the quality of the teacher portfolio. What it ultimately comes down to, is how effective a principal a teacher has, since principals should be mentoring and observing their teachers as often as possible. The question is: what kind of principals are running our schools? Do they have a significant amount of teaching experience with an ability to view their teachers and students as individuals within a community? Or, do they view these people as human capital that can be exchanged, traded, or weeded out? Do principals find and apply one-size-fits-all solutions, or do they treat each and every problem as a unique experience?

I'm not going to let someone judge my teaching, my kids and my school because my principal can't articulate and demonstrate how amazing his school's staff and community really is. I think it's about time we started talking about how few effective school leaders there really are in this system and how the ineffective ones are screwing us all over. Including me.

My principal proudly displays a poster in his office detailing our school goals, one of which is "teacher development" in the form of six formal observations per school year. I've been formally observed once this entire school year and I'm in my third year of teaching. The school year is nearly over. In fact, I don't think I know a single colleague who has been formally observed more than twice this school year. As a second year teacher, I was formally observed twice. As a 24-year-old-I-have-no-idea-what-I'm-doing-first-year-teacher, I was still only observed twice. This later comes back to bite me in the ass.

I was instructed to begin making my teaching portfolio during my third year (when, as I learned afterward, many teachers begin their first year under the guidance of an assistant-principal). I was given minimal guidelines and little advice. Once I submitted my draft portfolio to my principal, he lost it in his desk for a few months until a week before the superintendent was scheduled to show up. He told me to throw in some additional items. He gave me a deadline, but then asked for the portfolio two days before the deadline. It wasn't ready.

You know where I'm going with this. You can already tell, can't you?

My principal did recommend me for tenure. In fact, at this point in the school year, I was the only probationary teacher recommended for tenure. We have no other third-year teachers. I imagine the conversation between my principal and superintendent regarding my tenure went something like this:
"He's got a lot of student work, and seems to use data well, but where are all his observations? I don't have any evidence from you on this guy. How can I just give him tenure? You know what it's like out there, everyone is looking at us under a microscope."
"I didn't do the observations," my principal probably admitted.
"Then we can't give him tenure."
I didn't put tenure on a golden pedestal, so I got over it two seconds after I was told. The messed up part about it though, was the manner in which I was informed that my probationary period was being extended to a fourth year. After the dust settled from my school's Quality Review, my principal called me into his office. I walked in, thinking he would admit that he messed up, that he hadn't done his own job properly and given the tough political spectrum, we'd both agree that yeah it's messed up, but we'd move on. Nope.

"Have a seat. We're going to have a tough conversation." My principal took a deep breath.

"Okay. What would you like to talk about?" I asked as I munched down on a turkey sandwich I'd made the night before - my lunch for the day. I make damn good sandwiches, by the way.

"As you know, the superintendent observed your class twice during the Quality Review. She did this specifically because you were up for tenure and your third year is wrapping up."

"Yeah, I figured that's why. It was good though, I thought both classes went well, and was happy she got to see a mix of direct instruction and group work."

"Well, as you know, I recommended you for tenure. However, in her observations, she wasn't happy with the academic rigor she saw. She also saw a lack of differentiation in your classroom. So based on this, we are going to have to extend your probationary period. You'll have to try again next year."

"Wait, what was the reasoning? Rigor? She knows I teach 9th grade Integrated Algebra to twenty-year olds with historically low math skills right?" I asked, completely shocked that he was giving me this BS.

"Unfortunately, that's the challenge we face at a transfer high school from the higher ups," he replied artificially. He's really bad at pretending to be empathetic. I decided to see if he'd flinch.

"Does this decision have anything to do with the fact that I wasn't observed enough? I mean, the observation section in my portfolio was pretty light."

I looked at him square in the eye and he looked right back at me and shot back, "No." He went on for five minutes using a lot of circular logic and jargon to try to BS his way out of this awkward situation. I was impressed by his poker face, but not his language.

Later that day, I told my union chapter leader about what happened and he informed me that a superintendent simply cannot make a tenure decision based off a short classroom observation and that the real reason my probationary period was being extended was because quite frankly, my principal messed up: the number of observations in my portfolio from the past three years should have been in the double digits.

Ultimately, I don't care. If you don't play the game, your opponents don't get to enjoy their victory. My only mistake was expecting anything from a guy who clearly doesn't know how to run a school, as my last three years have increasingly informed me and as I've written about here. He's lucky I'm not pursuing this and getting the union involved. I really just wish my principal had two things: balls and foresight. Like this guy.

Don't worry kids, class is still in session tomorrow.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Public Schools Threaten National Security

It's a long weekend in the U.S. So, during the barbeques and fireworks, read Diane Ravitch's book review of former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's book entitled, US Education Reform and National Security.

If you're interested in the future of education in this country, it's worth it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Boyz Out of the Hood

In our transfer school, it's very difficult to find a teacher willing to chaperone students on a field trip, most likely because a day with our kids inside the building is already pretty taxing. Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to chaperone this year's 3-day senior class trip to Virginia Beach, where students would get two full days of amusement parks, an evening of go-carting, and one beach day. In all honesty, I was really expecting the worst from the kids, based on how they behave in school. A part of me knew we were all going to get sent home, probably on the first day. Man, I was wrong.

The charter bus was scheduled to leave at 5 AM sharp Friday morning. I woke up at 4 AM, threw on some clothes, grabbed my already-packed bag and hopped into the subway tired as hell. I was expecting to arrive a little before 5 AM to a half-empty bus and a stressed-out field trip organizer trying to figure out where our kids were. I got on the bus at 4:50 AM and was shocked to find the bus was completely full, loaded and ready to go. We were only missing one student out of twenty-seven and by 5:15 AM, we had 100% attendance and were on our way.

How is this possible? I thought. I was impressed. Some of these kids have trouble getting to school by 2nd or 3rd period, yet when I got on the bus, I was made fun of me for being late. After a very quiet six hour bus ride, we arrived at the first park: Busch Gardens. The teachers got on the microphone and gave directions on where to meet, when to meet, etc. A part of me couldn't believe my eyes at how focused the kids looked as directions were being given. Later on in the trip, it would dawn on me that for some of these students, this was their first out-of-state experience. For others, it was their first overnight experience away from home. They weren't about to throw it away over some stupid nonsense.

This is the "intrinsic motivation" thing people talk and write about. How can we make school something our kids want to be on time for if parents aren't there to instill those values from the beginning? How can stakeholders other than parents build the school buy-in? I haven't figured this out yet, but as far as I can tell from the trenches of inner city public schools, teaching to outdated standards and constant skills testing isn't the answer.

Every single day of this trip, my kids exceeded expectations. They got to the bus relatively on time every morning and evening. They arrived at meeting points within theme parks on time. The hotel didn't have to kick the kids out of the indoor pool, or out of the hotel in general. We knew these kids weren't going to sleep early at the hotel and we knew they'd somehow procure/sneak in alcohol, weed, etc. Obviously, it's a bunch of older high school students from the city, exposed to "grown-up" things faster than they should have been exposed to them. The question was: how obvious would they make it?

Adults love playing the "don't you dare try it" game with kids, as long as the kids respect the game and do whatever stupid things they want to do in a smart and responsible manner. Most importantly, once they do said stupid things, the kids most certainly shouldn't announce it back to the world that they did the stupid things. That's the game and it hasn't ever changed. I played it when I was a kid, and now I'm on the other team. On the trip, I was worried my kids would be really bad at this game, based purely on the lack of effort they put into cheating in my class. I was scared they'd make catching them with alcohol or marijuana pretty easy and obvious. I was rather pleased that some of them had adapted and decided to act smart. Well, not that smart, but smarter than usual, which is a victory for both parties.

I'm sure the kids got to have fun, bond and experience something they'll never forget. We teachers, on the other hand, had the amazing opportunity to see our students outside the classroom context, which actually gave me more hope for them in the future. Human beings are intelligent, adaptive creatures capable of survival under the most severe conditions. I believe a lot of my students have the ability to figure things out and make something of themselves. In order for that to happen though, I think every once in a while they need to be plucked out of their comfort zones for some perspective. I hope to participate in more of these coming-of-age events with the kids, they need them.

Besides, it's fucking hilarious seeing the "toughest" kids in the school wuss out of roller coaster rides.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


So, I finally caved in and joined Twitter. Before you judge me, it's not my own personal Twitter account, it's for the blog. At least this will allow me to more efficiently document my own thoughts and notable quotes from within the trenches of my high school.

Follow this blog on Twitter: @Yo_Mista

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day

Growing up, my mother would drag me to Pakistan every other year for the summer. A large chunk of my mother's family resides in Karachi, so we generally stayed with them for three months at a time, switching up which aunt or uncle we stayed with every so often. I used to hate going there, but as I got older, I grew to love it. And eventually I developed deeper friendships with my cousins, which was nice.

We would get to Pakistan in early June and leave late August, so I was able to observe my cousins end and begin their school years. Most of my cousins considered school to be a privilege and a way out (generalizing here, I know). I couldn't relate to the former, but I definitely agreed it was a way out: a way to get options.

In Pakistan, I have family at all class levels: lower, middle and upper class (although right now it seems there isn't a middle-class left anymore). My cousins, not by any means wealthy, took school very seriously - sometimes memorizing entire chapters of books. Even my wealthy cousins took school seriously, which impressed me. However, what I found incredibly strange was that both my poorer and my richer set of cousins would often cut classes offered in school to attend private tutoring sessions run by "better" teachers and master test-takers. The one-on-one and group tutoring model in Pakistan was big business: it usually led to significantly increased test scores. Sounds like NYC should simply start adopting Pakistani children to take NY Regents exams - at least they would make the city look good.

Most of my cousins worked their asses off throughout the school year, but not how I imagined. They took to teaching themselves, and generally didn't go to school when it rained or if it was too hot. If someone within the family needed the kids to cut school to do something, they did it without fuss. It seemed their "school of enrollment" didn't add any value to their real education, since they were pretty much teaching themselves most of the material and supplementing that with private tutoring sessions. As a dorky, American public school kid, I couldn't believe it. Who doesn't go to school just because it's raining? That's just ridiculous.

Fast forward to now.

I woke up this morning to the sound of rain hitting the air conditioner in my bedroom. It's May 1st, 2012. As I downed a giant bowl of oatmeal, I began to reconsider my lesson plan for the day: it's raining. For the past three years, my experience has taught me that America's most marginalized students cut school when it's raining. Except, these students aren't receiving or seeking out private tutoring sessions. Most of them are not memorizing textbooks and reading novels for shits and giggles. They're not all shooting for a 2400 on their SAT scores - most of them don't even bother taking the SAT. For some reason (media, friends, parents - who knows), these kids grow up believing that being intelligent isn't cool. I'm not a fan of rainy days - my job is tough enough as is.

Before leaving for the subway, I checked the weather forecast for the day. As suspected, it's supposed to rain all day until the afternoon. Great.

Exhibit A: Weather forecast via the "internet."
I arrived at school and propped open some windows. I took a picture of the outdoors. The image did not look student-friendly.

Exhibit B: A little bit of London in New York.
When the bell for first period rang, my lesson was ready to go and projected on the SMARTBoard. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell me that my students were all X-Men with invisibility powers. 

Exhibit C: A packed classroom beaming with eager students.
May day. There's something seriously wrong with what we're doing in this country.