July 3, 2014

Getting Personal About My Professional Experience

A big part of the reason why I stopped blogging last month was because I've been struggling with a desire to be more authentic in my writing. I don't want my blog to be a giant TPT advertisement or limited to surface-level linky parties every day. I'm not saying it's bad when other people do this, but I want a space where I can talk about the things that are more personal. This post is my first step in that direction, so I hope you'll stick around for the journey...

This article popped up in my newsfeed today about a Chicago Public School teacher who is now banned from working in CPS despite previous excellent ratings all because she didn't print out her lesson plan for the day of her evaluation.

The story struck a nerve with me because I understand what it's like to be a dedicated and passionate teacher who is kept from the job she loves. I'm going to do my best to share the short-version today, but it's a pretty involved story...

I was fortunate, or so I thought at the time, to be offered a job at the school where I student taught. I was in a top-ranking school district with endless resources at my disposal, and I was assigned to teach gifted students, meaning, for the most part, my students enjoyed learning and were eager to please. The team of teachers with whom I was assigned to work were like the dream team. We all got along, personally and professionally, and not a day went by without laughter.

It wasn't long into the school year, though, when I learned that my principal had a reputation for making people walk on eggshells. She had her minions, as we called them, who were her prized teachers and could never do wrong. The rest of us, I learned, had to learn to live in a state of paranoia, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing that a minion would report back to the boss.

This principal split up my dream team for my second year, and I ended up working closely with a new teacher, whom we recruited from another district (when her former principal and mine became buddy buddy). She and I were assigned to a split LA block, meaning each of us taught one period of the block. It didn't take long for our roles to be established: I was to do all the planning and creating, and she would run copies. Each morning, like clockwork, she'd come to my room to collect handouts for her class and ask me what was on the agenda for the day. I mention this because it will be pertinent later.

In my two years at this school, I really did love my job. I developed great relationships with my students, parents, and the few teachers I knew I could trust, some who are still friends today. I was cordial to everyone and worked hard not to ruffle any feathers because I had seen the consequence of this the year prior when a fourth-year colleague, who was about to become tenured, was let go for using sarcasm in her classroom. No, I'm not kidding.

In this district, first-year and second-year teachers were evaluated four times by two administrators. Two evaluations are planned, and the other two are pop-in. The evaluation lasts one period, even during a block class. All eight of my evaluations were great. In fact, during my last one, which happened in February, under suggestions for improvement, my principal wrote "None" with a smiley face. 

Imagine my surprise when I was called into her office two weeks later and berated for an incident that had happened SEVERAL MONTHS prior. To this day, I couldn't tell you how she even knew about it because she certainly wasn't present, but I guess that's why she had minions. Anyway, here's the story...

A girl on my 7th grade team (not one of my students) had a crush on one of our male teachers. This was not a secret. EVERYONE knew, including him. Honestly, I thought it was pretty harmless and certainly more innocent than my crush on Channing Tatum. To be fair, this teacher was very young and looked even younger, so I could understand the appeal. I was supervising the hallways after lunch one day (a job I was not even assigned, BTW), and heard this girl yell, "Mr. XXX is so hot!" She immediately looked at me, and I giggled awkwardly and replied, "Um... maybe you should keep comments like that to yourself?" She nervously apologized and continued on her way.

And that was it. As far as I was concerned, the story ended there.

Until I was called into my principal's office and chastised for not being more stern with this student and addressing it with her parents and a detention. I sat there dumbfounded. It never even crossed my mind that this was a punishable offense. Never. (In my defense, I approached several other seasoned teachers and administrators about this incident after this fiasco, and they ALL replied that they would have reacted in the same manner.)

Flash forward to two days later when I go in to my pre-scheduled summative evaluation. This is when we're supposed to talk about all those glowing evaluations, but instead, I see that she has marked me as unsatisfactory, meaning that I do not possess the basic teaching skills and am not recommended for re-hire.

And her reasoning? "Inappropriate relationships with students," which is SUCH an inappropriate label, because she thinks I don't hold myself in a professional role at all times and am too friendly with students. I told her right then and there that I have NEVER had any conversation with any student that I wouldn't be willing to repeat verbatim in the presence of every administrator and parent, but of course, her decision was already made.

She also informed me that she would be "watching me" and that I wasn't to discuss this with anyone. I was literally too scared to even casually socialize with anyone for the rest of the year. In Illinois, teachers have be notified of their status for the following year 60 days (I think) before the end of the school year. This means, it happened in March, which meant I had to come back and teach in this school every day for 2.5 more months. It was TORTURE!

Of course, I went to the union, and my reps took it right up to the president, who was weeks away from retirement. He encouraged me to write a rebuttal for my records but basically said there was nothing I could do and that principals have absolute authority to write whatever they want on an evaluation.

I learned later that the new teacher on my team was promised longevity in her position at her interview. I found that very interesting because we knew going into that year that we were going to lose two teachers. She was also promoted to a team leader for the following year because, apparently, she showed great leadership and dedication using MY LESSON PLANS!

My unsatisfactory rating not only kept me from getting other positions in the district, but she also managed to ruin my chances at a job in another district the following year because she lied to me about what I should write on future applications. I suspect she needed a reason to let me go so she could keep the new girl, which is bad enough, but I don't know why she had to be so vindictive. My rationale is that she's just an evil person. A well-connected, evil person.

It's been four years since I left that school. I've worked in may schools since, but I haven't had my own full-time classroom in Illinois since, something I'm still seeking today. I also think I have some PTSD or something from the experience because I trust no one. When I'm at work, I live in a constant state of anxiety. Not enough to paralyze me or make me dislike teaching, of course, but enough to keep me from thinking anyone in my building is a friend. It's sad, really.

And you know what? In almost every school I've worked since, I've encountered teachers who are terrified of their administrators. Too many teachers live in this same state of fear, worried for their job safety. Even those who are tenured worry about being moved to new assignments or losing leadership positions if they upset the wrong person.

Something is wrong with our evaluation system when we have passionate, dedicated teachers who are unable to do their jobs because one administrator decides so, especially over such silly things. I continue with the hope that I will find my home school, and I will be able to move beyond this once and for all. I desire to work for a school where my administration is an ally and resource... please tell me they're out there!

16 comments:

  1. totally agree with the "fear factor".

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  2. This makes me SO mad. It makes me mad that an Adminstrator has the ability to do this. You and I have been talking for a long time. I know your character and I know that what this Admin to you is WRONG. You are not the person she made you out to be. The only thing that I know to say is...karma will come back to her. Is she still in the same position? I would be the person you would read about on the front cover for telilng this person what I think...Admin or not. :( Don't you ever give up looking for the perfect fit school. It's out there! I love you!
    Alison

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  3. Something very similar happened to me at my first school. The principal was horrible and everyone feared her. By the end of the year, over thirty teachers were leaving (many were fired...including me... And many left by choice since it was so horrible). I was finally hired at a new school the next October and it was pretty much a miracle. This will be my third year at the new school and I love it so much. The principal knows how to have relationships with people (and has become a very good friend of mine) and she trusts and supports the teachers. There is somewhere out there for you even if it is hard to find!

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  4. When I was reading that I was thinking that that was like reading the script for a horror movie!! That is seriously the most horrible thing I've ever heard before, and I'm SOOOO sorry you had to go through that. It sucks!
    Here in New Zealand the appraisal system is a whole lot better, but there are still horrible things that happen too. We are lucky that it doesn't come down to one person's say so but there has to be documented proof that the person is inadequate as a teacher. And even then it's hard to get rid of a teacher.
    Last year there was a teacher at my school who had been made permanent straight away (common at some schools, definitely not at mine) and she was TERRIBLE!!! She had been teaching for 8 years with her mum as her principal so no one had picked up on it before. Any way, long story short she never did any planning, and whenever things were due in (planning, reports etc) she would be "sick". I say that because she magically developed chronic fatigue syndrome as a way to cover her butt. Sure she may well have had this, but it was also very convienient. After 8 months of her being away 50% of the time, our school finally had enough evidence to put her on competency (which is where you have to jump through appraisal hoops to prove that you are fit to be a teacher, it's a hard thing, and a BIG deal. Doesn't happen very often). But when she got wind of this she called in the union and they negotiated a huge payout and a deal that the principal has to give a good reference when she applies for new jobs. So she was useless, and still came out smelling of roses.
    I guess there is no perfect system, but you were seriously screwed out of what you are obviously really good at.
    I really hope something changes in the near future, and that you find a principal that is awesome to work for. Sorry for the novel!!

    Erin
    Learning to be awesome

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  5. When I started reading your story, it sounded VERY familiar! This is exactly what happened to me at my old school. I didn't get fired - but would have prob if I'd chose to stay another year. When I found out my principal was encouraging staff members to gossip and then report their findings, I was furious! I immediately called our county hr department and asked for a transfer to another school. I could no longer work for such an in appreciative administration.

    I am so happy with my decision!! Change is hard especially to go somewhere new. But I had the BEST school year ever last year. My admin was the best ever and my team was so supportive and helpful! I even wrote and won a grant to get my k team iPads to use!

    Keep your head up! It will get better. You sound like an amazing teacher!!

    Christin
    Shifting Teacher K-2

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  6. What. a. NIGHTAMARE!! The public are always talking about bad teachers, but they have no idea how many HORRIBLE administrators there are out there. They seem to fly under the radar. And there never seems to be any rhyme or reason for why they behave the way they do towards you. I've had a couple nightmare principals (and idiot ones too) and I hated my life. I was miserable. Better to just get the hell outta that school than to stay.

    Unfortunately one of the requirements for being a boss is being an a-hole. My current principal is fabulous, but I went through a lot of other no so great principals to finally get him. By the way, all the others were female principals....I always prayed I'd get a male boss. It's made a HUGE difference.
    Look in the mirror and tell yourself how kickass you are, and go get your dream teaching job! : )

    Ali
    Teaching Powered by Caffeine

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  7. There were people in one of the schools that I worked in that often went and got anti-anxiety medications after the first six weeks. I agree that anxiety is a rampant problem in schools and that there are some unfair admins out there. Best wishes to you!

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  8. I'm so sad to read this! I had a similar experience, and had to attempt to chalk it up to my boss being just plain evil. Luckily she got was coming to her when the town elected a new school board specifically to get rid of her. Even today when I see her (after 5 very successful years of teaching in a bigger and better district) I have major anxiety attacks. Crazy how much power some people can hold over you, even though they don't deserve to degrade you at all. Good luck with finding a permanent home, you sound like an amazing teacher!

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  9. I am so sad to read your story, and can understand where you're coming from. I hate that we have to live in fear and I hope you can learn to trust again and that you find an awesome position. I love reading your blog and your tips and I truly see the passion of teaching within you!

    Anisa @ Creative Undertakings

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  10. First of all, I want to HUG you. I hate that you have gone through all of this, but I do not believe you are alone. I think a lot about our evaluation system and educational systems are messed up, we need to make changes, but are going about things incorrectly. Unfortunately, the teacher pays the price. Good techers are pushed away or don't ever venture in to the field. We underpay and underappreciate our teachers. We also give a few people too much power. There is a minion loving club and yes the tattlers ruin things for many teachers. I have felt the bite of being berated and was left struggling to make sense. I also withdrew and learned that you cannot trust everyone. Ithink you have a lot to offer and will find your niche. Don't give up on blogging. Redefine your blog around professionally growing. Create a linky party where you either share about a professional development book(s) or approach to teaching. Share about how to differentiate, share your passion. You have tons of support here, embrace it and bloom! Hugs!

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  11. Hi Erin,
    I have been teaching for 24 years and I am here to tell you that there are great and decent administrators out there. There are a few, like the one you encountered...I know....I have worked for one! I hate that you went through this so early in your career, but I am really glad that it did not spoil your desire to teach. Keep walking forward with your chin up knowing that you did nothing wrong! Thanks for sharing your story...it always helps to know that you are not alone...and there are others out there just like you! Hugs to you!

    Donna

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  12. Thank you so much for sharing! I am beginning my second year of teaching and I have a coordinator that makes my job very difficult with her constant state of paranoia and her own stress levels make me stressed out! On the other hand, we had 2 principles my first year teaching. The first principal was with my school for 5 years and was absolutely AMAZING!! He left and began to open another MS in the district. Our new principle, though scared of her at first has shown to be a supportive, very professional and logical administrator. I hope I never have to experience the anxiety and worry that you have faced, but I thank you for sharing your story as it has made me realize there might be a time in my career I could face difficult bosses.

    Michelle
    Miss, Hey Miss

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  13. I lived this very scenario. PTSD and all.

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  14. Hey there! I'm so glad to find another Chicago blogger! I was just cruising around your blog and came across this post. First - I agree with you - I really like using my blog to write about topics - school things, personal things, etc. The TpT stuff is cool, and I dabble a little bit, but I prefer my blog to be known for the writing and ideas...so I'm right there with you!

    Second, I'm so sorry about this situation you went through. My first year, I had a great admin, but always felt anxious because I was always worried I wasn't doing good enough. I can't imagine my first (or even years 2-5) being lived out with the kind of administrator you speak of.

    You need to know there are *fabulous* admins out there - I suppose I've been very lucky because in 11 years, I've had really great experiences! I believe as teachers, we get a feeling in our gut when we go to interview, and I think it's as much us interviewing a school as them interviewing us. I always trust my intuition when I visit a new school!

    I'm in Berwyn South (#100) and I think we have some openings! There are great admins at all of our buildings next year...we pay a little less than surrounding districts, but it's a great community with great families and great schools, so it's worth it. Check out Berwyn if you're close enough...and I'd be happy to help in any way I can! :-) (also: we're a 1:1 computing district - all macs!)

    anyways, I'm your newest follower! Looking forward to reading and talking more with you!

    Michelle
    BigTime Literacy

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  15. Thank you for being so honest and sharing your story! I have been let down many times by administrators that promise one thing and do another. I've been laid off due to budget cuts and worse. I had to learn the hard way that teaching is not about how much you provide for your students but, how well you play your political game. I decided after my first year of teaching and being told I had the job only to find out a week later that they gave it to the superintendents niece that came right out of college after I had taught in the position all year with great reviews that I was not going to play the political game. I'd rather be an honest, great teacher and do right by my students then kiss up to a principal or administrator.

    Jenn

    Teach.Love.Autism

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  16. I keep crossing my fingers that you will find a position but after this story I think I shall try wishing on pennies? Shooting stars? I find the whole story utterly crazy but so very very realistic. Its crazy how one person has the power to completely control your future in a career, I feel like there are so few careers that follow this evaluation style. Something nonteachers would never understand.

    I will say this, I taught summer school for an amazing admin team, amazing. The principal was so entirely different than my principal that I didn't even realize how intimidated I was of my principal. The ironic thing is I get evaluated maybe twice a semester and most of the time they are answering emails or 'multi-tasking' BUT in summer school we were evaluated twice every day. And I found that less intimidating because they weren't looking for what we were doing wrong, but what if the students were doing what they are supposed to. So long story short there are situations out there were administrators work hand in hand with teachers...I guess they are just harder to find.

    Fingers crossed!

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