Archive for July, 2012

I was so excited to get a call to interview at Chapel Hill High School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  According to my research, it ranked in the top 100 best high schools in the entire country.  Surely, this was the opportunity of a career lifetime for me.  I would finally have the opportunity to do what I had longed to do for the last decade.

Teach.

My family abandoned our plans to settle outside Orange County, as we were relocating from Georgia.  The truck was loaded and I abandoned any other prospects for teaching  jobs because THIS was the one I had dreamed of, my reward.  The interview went amazingly well.  I recall sitting in the conference room, surrounded by seasoned staff, being asked if I had the rigor and high standards that they expect at such a prestigious institution.  I delved deep into my passion for teaching and did my best to convince them that I had it all and then some more.

Once again the heavens opened up and rained down on me.  I was offered the position within a few days.  Despite the loss of tenure and return to a probationary status, the loss of all my vacation time from Georgia, and the loss in salary, I felt confident that this would be my mecca and I would spend the next decade or longer, teaching there.  I longed for a school to call home.  We even moved a mile away from the school, to add to the truly spectacular cosmic alliance that had been forged.

During my one school year at CHHS, I learned so many things.  Here’s just a few:

1. I learned that racism is alive and well.  Just because you name your major roadway after THE MAN, it doesn’t mean you are a forward thinking pillar of equality.  The halls of Chapel Hill are designated for the children of UNC professors and doctors at Duke, corporate executives in the Research Triangle.  They simply tolerate, with carefully masked disdain and subtle contempt, the minorities — that’s the Hispanic and African-American students — and they looked with bemused pity upon the latest wave to the town, the Burmese refugees.  See, at CHHS, the students get to choose if they want to be in an honor or advanced placement class.  There is no criteria they have to meet.  So guess where all the White students go?  They run to the honors and AP classes because the minorities won’t be there.  And when little Bobby struggles because he doesn’t have the strong reading and analytic skills necessary to succeed in an advanced class, that’s where the barracudas enter the picture.

2. The “barracudas” I mention are the parents.  Oops.  No, they’re the STAKEHOLDERS.  In Chapel Hill, if a White student is failing, which only means a high C for the rest of America, then the parents target the teachers.  They never sit down with Bobby and discuss his strengths and weaknesses, or the extracurricular activities that saturate his schedule.  No, these parents don’t demand the keys to the car, or the iPad, or the iPhone, or the laptop until Bobby can bring his grades up to an acceptable level.  Nope.  I learned very quickly that I had entered a body of water where I would drown with only one foot in, because the teacher is always to blame.

3. Only team players survive.  At CHHS, a team player is defined as an educator who is always willing to recognize the supremacy of parents, the stakeholders, and be prepared to acquiesce to each and every one of their demands.  A team player also consists of an educator who will simply create the impression of rigor, generate challenging lesson plans, but be prepared to “modify” the content for any student who may be too shy or sensitive or stressed out and cannot actually complete the carefully aligned and structured tasks.  A team player will be sure to change grades from a B to an A if the B is somewhere within the ballpark of the A, so what’s one or two points anyway?  After all, the teacher probably made a mistake somewhere along the way.

4. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can interfere with the reputation of CHHS.  They have to maintain their level of distinction, regardless of the difficulty.  So, special education students WILL pass, students who can’t speak English WILL pass too.  And the minorities, those Hispanics and Blacks, who aren’t fortunate enough to be White and privileged — they will pass too.  It doesn’t matter if they have been to a different school each year for the last ten years of their lives.  I repeat.  Nothing will bring down the reputation of this fine benchmark of educational excellence.

5. Rigor is only rigor so long as the grade book shows row after row of A’s and B’s.  At Chapel Hill, I was blessed to have met some truly outstanding students, with great inquisitive minds, who enjoyed being challenged and having lively discussions about literature and life in general.  They were students who truly have it all.  The beauty, the intellect, the charisma.  I was proud of them, and admired their youthful spunk.  It was truly an honor to have taught them.  But those wonderful individuals (and their equally wonderful parents) make up only about 10% of the entire school.  The remainder of the student body had psycho parents, were shameless cheaters, and whined about each and every assignment.  They were number crunchers, carefully calculating  the weight of an assignment to determine whether it was in their best interests to actually complete it, or if it would bring their GPA down by two tenths of a point if left undone.  To them, school was only the means to an end.  The transcript was the golden ticket.

The new superintendent of Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools notified the faculty towards the end of the year that he would be reassigning teachers who were toxic to the school and try to improve the climate and culture of the school.  Check out my links on the left for the entire article.  These are the teachers the school district can’t simply fire because they have the precious tenure.  They are outspoken, demanding, and righteously defend the interests of themselves and their positions at the school.  Now that the names have been dropped, there is a half-hearted revolution from the teachers.

You might want to know about my own contract with them.  Well, I won’t be going back.  This prestigious and respectable school has effectively managed to beat me down so badly that my whole world was turned upside down, and I am certain I lost years of my life to the all-consuming stress I worked under.  They discriminated against my heritage as a proud Hispanic, they harassed me mercilessly throughout the year, undermined my authority in my classroom, and almost killed my love of teaching.  They falsified the grades students earned in my classes, lied on as many occasions as I can recall, and then declined to offer me a contract for the next school year based on my “grading practices.”  I read the letter with relief, because I could not fathom the dread which I felt at the thought of returning to that hellish situation for a second year.

To those of you who think teachers in this country have a very cushy life because they have summers off, let me tell you that there are thousands of teachers who are veritable hostages in their schools, due to situations similar to mine.  But they have bills to pay and other responsibilities at home that prevent them from standing firm and fighting for justice.  In places like North Carolina, there are no teachers unions to truly protect their educators.  So many teachers just want to teach, are good at it too, but are helpless against the weak, ineffective, power-hungry, and ambitious leaders, and victims of pushy, arrogant, blind parents.

Shame on you Chapel Hill.  I wish Barack Obama knew what’s really going on in education.

Do we dare stand up for character and morals anymore?

Michael Douglas in “American President”, courtesy of Youtube.com.

Perhaps I am naive.  I know it’s “just” a movie.  But we are a society consumed with visual crack.  Don’t we all need something to believe in?  Aren’t the thousands of churches in this country a testament to that?

I love “American President.”  As a matter of fact, I watch it every time I see it on the television, even if that means staying up until 2:00 a.m.  No, I don’t want to DVR it.  I get an indescribable thrill when I see that it will be featured and I ingest it voraciously every time.  Sure there’s the romance in the movie.  Every warm-blooded female loves a good romantic story.  However, it’s so much more than that.

This movie reinforces the sublime and extinct philosophy of standing up for what’s right.  I’ve been searching for the right word or phrase to call this.  Integrity? Determination?  No, it’s more than that.  Michael Douglas has always had an innate talent for believability.  He almost makes me yearn to see his name on the next presidential ballot.

Okay, I just slapped myself and it has brought me back to reality.

I entered into the education arena with tremendous plans to move mountains.  Armed with research, years of mothering skills, and enough adversity in my own life to emphathize with even the most jaded teenager, I briskly walked into the classroom.  I just knew that all my students would come to love Shakespeare and Orwell as much as I did.  I knew that Elie Wiesel’s Night would move them to tears just as it did me twenty years prior.  I was even more certain that every colleague and administrator valued the same and would honor instructional time and rigor and expectations which would blend together to harmoniously produce educated children, students who could think for themselves.

Boy was I wrong.  As it turns out, education is no longer about actually educating.  No, despite the inspirational opening day speeches by administration, the slide shows, the videos from Harry Wong, the PTA snacks at pre-planning faculty meetings, education has slipped from being priority number one in so many public schools.   Here’s a rough sketch of what the priorities look like in so many schools today:

Priority #1                         Making as much money and doing as little as possible

Priority #2                         Setting up the school to look like we know what we’re doing.

Priority #3                         Fighting to get the most well-behaved students, a.k.a. “honors students”

Priority #4                         Creating “enough” of a curriculum and lesson plans to keep the district/state happy.

Priority #5                         Moving up the ladder to the highest paying and most powerful positions

Priority #6                         Focusing on additional degrees to increase salary

Priority #7                         Educating the three students who actually want to learn

There are many amazing teachers in the education system today who would completely disagree with this post.  But those same teachers, if they were to read this, would be able to identify at least 30 colleagues in current and past positions who they know, that this applies to wholeheartedly.

It is a degenerative disease and it has been gradually infecting public schools for decades.  It is unfortunate that it lumps all teachers into the abyss of selfish apathy, but that’s the way America operates, at least when it comes to education.

I fought for years to be able to TEACH. Not teach towards a standardized test.  But just teach.  I love encouraging discussion, presenting a different theory, watching dendrites light up as students embrace it, argue for or against it, and then pass it on to their neighbors.

And I’ve trudged uphill, dodging bureaucracy, excessive testing, ambitious teachers and administrators, and students fixated on worksheets equating to A’s or fixated on their cellphones.  I’m tired.

So every now and then, when “American President” is on, I curl up with a glass of milk and remember what it felt like to be unafraid to stand up for what’s right, stand up for America, and demand to actually teach.