An Exit Interview (Part 1 – The Problems)

(I deeply value my time and experiences with the people with whom I spent the last decade working with and learning from. However, there are some issues that I feel need to be aired on behalf of the teachers who are back in Nashville, and I feel they can’t speak up for fear of retribution. I know because I was one of them only a few weeks ago. I would still love to have a proper exit interview, even if it is done from 9,000 miles away. Part II will address and promote many of the outstanding things that I saw happening in classrooms. It is my hope that through these posts I can affect change and promote the people and initiatives which are changing lives.)

When I left my teaching position there was no exit interview. No survey. No request for feedback from the district.* At the very least I was anticipating an email from H.R. I gave my notice and letter of resignation roughly 115 days ago, and I left my classroom on February 9th. So my departure wasn’t a surprise for anyone. Either they assume to know my professional opinions or they don’t want to hear them. Both are deeply troubling to me as teacher, a tax payer, a voter, and a parent. I’m not sure what kind of leadership doesn’t want feedback, but I’ve never met any great leaders who have insisted that they knew everything. Additionally, this district has difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers, support staff, and bus drivers. Some of that stems from the low pay, and some of it stems from the culture. If I’m a district leader and I can’t do much about the one, I’m sure as heck going to try and improve the other. As a teacher I’ve found that when students don’t care about the feedback I give, it is because they didn’t care about the assignment whether that is an essay or a presentation or a project. I end each semester asking about my teaching practices and how they can better align to student needs. I’m not sure what it says about an institution that doesn’t want feedback from it’s employees, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t good.

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“Who do you think you are? What gives you the right?” One of the best exit interviews of all time.

#ThanksMetro is a phrase I started using a few years ago to express the frustration of working in an organization that often and in many ways works against itself. (Example: The IB scores that were the best in recent memory and by far the highest in the district, were announced by the district’s media team at the same time as they announced finding high levels of lead in the water of some schools. One announcement obviously overshadowed the other.) And this is a tough post to write because for much of my time as teacher, I absolutely loved teaching and coaching and collaborating with students and my peers. Many of the teachers that I was fortunate enough to work with were outstanding professionals and even better human beings. They are people I continue to look up to and be inspired by. Overwhelmingly the experiences I had as a teacher were positive. I had great mentors and leadership who coached and supported me. So why do I harbor so much resentment toward the institution and the profession as a whole? I really hope my four years here in South Africa help to provide distance and assuage the negative feelings because I love teaching. I really do.

Death by a thousand paper cuts. It’s another phrase I’ve used to describe the petty form of treatment (sometimes unintended) that teachers endure. Like the analogy, a single paper cut by itself hurts, but can be overlooked. It can be dismissed. It can be forgiven. But as cuts accumulate, the emotional and psychological toll can be, at best, demoralizing and, at worst, dehumanizing. There are differing severities of cuts too. On one hand you have the daily grind. No matter how great my lessons or interactions with students, I would have an overwhelming number of emails, phone calls, texts, requesting my time and energy addressing “just” one more thing. I’ve come to hate the word to such a degree, I tell my students not to use it in their writing. “Just” shoot me an email. “Just” call a parent. “Just” log it in Support and Intervention. “Just”stop by the meeting. Any phrase that starts with “can you just…” is a paper cut. One task by itself is never a big deal (and that is how we always perceive it, in isolation) but the requester seldom considers their ask in the greater context of all that teachers are expected to do. Amplify that ask times the hundreds of interactions we have daily and suddenly the time I wanted to use to develop relationships with students or co-plan with other teachers or provide effective and timely feedback has been replaced with a hundred “can you just…”

The leaders in the district who protect their teachers’ planning and grading time are loved and respected by their teachers. The other ones (and fortunately for me my time with them was limited) would contribute to the paper cuts by being petty or nickel-and-diming teacher time and energy. I can only imagine that they believe that by demanding more from their teachers they were somehow improving their school. Instead of having a positive effect, I saw them breed resentment and animosity.

Then there are also the major paper cuts. These are the one that are infuriating to me as professional and a human being. Want to know one from a parent’s perspective? Last fall we enrolled my five year old in kindergarten. A little less than a year ago we had his immunizations completed. I remember because it was a traumatic day for everyone involved. Immediately after we had the records faxed to his future school. At the open house last summer we were informed they never received them. The next day we asked the doctors office to fax them again. On the first day of school we received a letter saying the school didn’t have them. We checked the fax number. It was correct. We had the doctor stay on the phone while they faxed them again. Three weeks later we recieved a letter photocopied on bright orange paper. Our son would not be allowed back to school if they did not receive the record of those immunizations by Friday. We had the doctor fax them again. This time we also asked them scan and email a pdf to us. We emailed a copy to the main office and copied the principal and my son’s classroom teacher. But on the first day after Labor Day weekend, I was called to the elementary school in middle of my teaching day to pick up my son because the school had no record of his immunizations. I lost count after six attempts at trying to get them what they were asking for. I printed a copy of the PDF and handed it to the office staff. It was the same form that had been sent many times over. We were doing everything that was asked and nothing was working. The communications home came as more and more urgent and demanding. This is by no means an isolated incident. I have experienced this kind of bureaucratic nightmare from within the system as well. Want to go on a field trip? Good luck. Fundraiser? Ha ha ha. I laugh in the face of your optimism. I’m not saying these things are impossible, lord knows there are great people who will help you navigate the forms in triplicate and clear the hurdles. I’m merely pointing out that as a teacher there were many educational experiences and fundraising opportunities that I let go right on by because getting approval on short notice would have been too tedious of an undertaking. Many teachers subscribe to the feign ignorance and apologize later method.

(Note: I did not get fired for taking an unapproved field trip once. I probably should have been. I’m not sure if I wasn’t fired because I was well liked or because firing me would have been (ironically) too much paperwork. Either way, I’m grateful for the pass.)

The countless meetings that could have been an email. The emails that should have been a meeting… I know teachers can be stubborn and not follow directions, but the district should model the behavior it wants teachers to use in the classroom. That kind of leadership was rare my experience. I’m not talking about my school leaders, mind you. I would walk through hell (and many teachers are) with the principals and school based leaders. I’m talking only about the communications or lack there of from central office.

I can also recount literally hundreds of episodes where parents needed help, either with attendance issues or grade change, or in one particularly embarrassing instance for the district, getting a straight A student into an art class so they can graduate. As further personal evidence of this functional breakdown, we are now in South Africa and want our son un-enrolled from his kindergarten class. We called the district office and they told us to call the school. We called the school, and they told us to call the district. He’s been enrolled and attending school here in Pretoria since last Tuesday. But everyday in Africa, as the sun is setting in a blaze of beautiful reds and yellows above the savanna, I get a call from our old district telling me that my son is absent. Paper cut.

From a teacher’s perspective the larger transgressions are far more serious. Lack of communication or respect from central office breads animosity and a culture of mistrust. Schools are not factories. Teachers do not produce students or even graduates. I hate referring to students as future employees. College and career ready. That was not my mission. Life ready? Maybe. Absurdism ready? Yes, there we go. Teachers grow people, and anyone who has ever grown something knows that it takes time and energy and patience. No mandate or initiative (no matter how important or beneficial) can replace the value of the positive interactions between students, teachers, and content. But yet so many top-down priorities took me away from or out of that equation. The worst one, the one that took me the furthest away from my students almost took me out of the profession for good.

In 2012 I was part of a professional development session which provided training in conjunction with the police department. Active shooter training. In my school hallway an officer fired blanks “to help us recognize the sound of gun fire.” In addition we also had to develop a response to our hearing of the shots. Some people were asked to play students. I was asked to be a teacher helping students seek shelter in my classroom. The drill started with shots coming from around the corner of the hall. I ushered as many people into my classroom as possible. I saw the officer come around the corner firing shots at the ground, and I suddenly felt like I was in danger and being chased even though he was clearly walking and meant no physical harm. Because this was a drill we were told not to lock any doors. I closed my door and moved people to the far corner where the lone window was. There was a bottleneck at the window and people panicked when the officer open the door, came into the room, and fired a dozen more rounds. Everyone scattered. Some people screamed. I can still hear the shots. I KNOW they weren’t real, but in the moment my mind didn’t. Thirty minutes after the drill ended everyone in the room was still visibly shaken.

I had a very difficult time sleeping for the next few weeks. I lost my appetite. I was either anxious or angry. My students could sense it. My wife saw it. I was short with people. That was the beginning of my worst year of teaching. I started seeing a therapist about a month after an active shooter drill took place. A shell from one of the blanks landed and stayed on the top of my bookshelf all year long. I couldn’t touch it. The kids couldn’t see it, it was too high, but I could. That professional development was also one of the reasons I left that school and almost left the profession later that year. The district’s health insurance plan did not cover the costs of seeing a psychologist. My then-administrators were evasive when I inquired about a workers’ compensation claim to help with the cost of the therapy (and actually the principal laughed when I spoke to him about it, which made me feel even more embarrassed and ashamed about how I was dealing with my response to that day). I feel I endured a traumatic experience as part of my job, and when I needed help dealing with this, the leadership and district balked. We can debate the merits of active shooter training for teachers. In this day and age, I can’t say that they shouldn’t happen. They certainly shouldn’t happen the way mine did. But what isn’t up for debate is the very apparent lack of emotional and psychological support offered to teachers after events like Sandy Hook or Stoneman Douglas. Ironically, the district health plan is willing to help if you want to quit smoking or lose weight, but if you ask them to help with the stress and anxiety caused by the job, you’ll be out of luck. Over the ten years I spent teaching, I lost half a dozen students to gun violence. I know of others who lost a battle with drug abuse. I’ve seen first hand the effects of generational poverty. I’ve been to the ER with students in the middle of night. I’ve been to funerals and visiting hours. I cried in my classroom after learning about Sandy Hook, Boston, Paris, Orlando, and Las Vegas. Every day teachers need to find the courage to talk about the realities of this world. And everyday there is a cost to teachers’ emotional well-being that is never acknowledged or addressed. The worst kind of paper cut is the one that is never allowed to heal.

In my opinion, I was most successful when my primary role was to provide students with inspiring and relevant challenges and to support their progress towards successfully answering those challenges. In my first five years teaching I feel like I did this a couple time a semester, at most. I wasn’t very good at it because I was always trying to stay on top of all the other parts of the profession. I felt like I was always putting out fires, instead of teaching. I really began to excel when I started teaching 9th grade English. My lessons and units consistently started to produce lively discussions, exemplar assessments, and most importantly, student growth. Instead of a great lesson a month, I was creating them multiple times a week. So what happened? Why the big difference between the fifth and sixth year of teaching?

Leadership. I was given permission from my administration to focus on what was most important, and what I was best at, instruction. In the words of the outstanding Artisan Teacher professional development series (why the district discontinued the use of his workshops is beyond me) founder Mike Rutherford, I was given the time and resources to “focus on and develop my strengths and manage my weaknesses.” I no longer had to do everything that was on my plate at the level that was being demanded. I could be great at stagecraft and planning, and could be acceptable with other asks without being regarded as a failure. I stopped responding immediately to emails. I gave them 24 hours before responding and most resolved themselves without me doing anything. This freed up time to plan more and better. I saw that my great lessons and units happened more frequently. I saw an increase my student achievement results, not only quality but quantity of students succeeding. In short, I was a TVASS level 1 teacher when I carried the burden of doing all the “just one more” things to make people happy. But I became a consistent level 4 and 5 teacher when I became laser focused on good content, good instructional practices, and coaching my students. I learned to abandon what wasn’t helping me to reach students. I need to thank those leaders who gave me the confidence and ability to say no to the curse of “just one more” thing. I also appreciate my peers who kept me focused on the job and not on the slights, both major and minor. My peers, who also became my best friends, often kept me from quitting and probably from being fired.

The major paper cuts were less frequent, but they hurt more. A school board member who endorses and promotes a tweet which disrespects me and the teachers in my school. Learning from the local news about a promised salary increase evaporating. A lack of communication from central office which leaves school leaders and teachers to guess intention and to explain district policy changes to students and parents themselves. These all contributed to the mistrust and dissonance between the district and teachers. These are all evident in #thanksmetro.

Need more evidence of paper cuts? Here is a list that comes immediately to mind.

  • No paid maternity-leave policy beyond using sick -leave. I wrote this opinion on Facebooklast fall… “Here are my problems with a lack of paid maternity leave policy. 1) Having a baby isn’t the same as being sick. Period. Teachers get sick leave because teachers get sick. Often. Starting a family isn’t contagious, it can’t be treated at the minute clinic, and it sure as heck shouldn’t be relegated to the ever evaporating seven week summer break. 2) Almost 80% of the district’s employees are women. Not having this benefit is simply negligent and a flagrant disregard for the health and well-being of the majority of their employees. It reeks of blatantly sexist decision making. 3) The government should be the model employer, but in this (and many other instances) it puts the bottom line above the individual and social benefit. 4) As stated, the district is bleeding teachers. Nationwide, teacher turnover is problem. Currently in Nashville the problem is even worse, especially for teachers with 3-10 years experience, or those in the prime family starting years. A smart person once told me that happy parents raise happy kids. I believe that the same is true with teachers. Happy teachers (and by extension those who feel like their employer is taking care of them) are infinitely better for students than the teachers who feel nickel and dimed and exploited by policy and a system which only looks out for itself. If you want the investment the district makes in teachers to pay dividends, you have to keep teachers in the district more than three years. Start here. Nashville taxpayers and elected officials and school administrators… If you are fair to your teachers, they will be fair to the students and the district and society. That’s transitive leadership. We all know it. But if you are brave enough to be generous with your teachers, they will reward your generosity with loyalty and dedication and the relentless pursuit of helping students succeed, which will in turn pay for itself tenfold. That’s transformative leadership. Don’t get me wrong, providing maternity leave is the expectation. It is not generosity, especially if teachers are having to plead for it. But in providing any benefit, please be generous. Teachers who are proud to work for a responsive community will always outwork those who see the profession as a job. While I still consider twenty days paid leave to be insulting, it’s twenty paid days more than we have now. Read more on my facebook here. Big paper cut.
  • The recent (2015) pay raises to teachers with 1-5 years of experience who DO NOT have a Masters degree, but still nothing in the last ten years for those teachers who have chosen to invest in our profession either by earning another degree or who have stayed in the profession longer than five years. The costs of living in the “It” city has skyrocketed. But with that our property taxes have increased which I think means more money for services. We certainly have enough money for a new baseball stadium, convention center, outdoor concert venue, and transportation plan, and downtown development. We have a booming local and state economy. We have shown we have the money for massive pay raises for central office leadership.  It appears we even have money for rookie teachers (TFA) with one to five years experience. And they are the ones most likely to leave the profession! What we don’t seem to have money for is teacher pay increases for these mid career professionals who are staying in the system. Paper cut.
  • The 3% cost of living pay raise last spring that was, then during Teacher Appreciation Week wasn’t, then somehow was again. It is difficult to have gratitude for something promised when you must fight for it as part of the budget. Paper cut.
  • Teacher Appreciation Week that includes a bridge lighting and a website for “affordable housing” which is actually only a mortgage calculator. (I know this is the Mayor’s thing, but it still counts for me as talking about appreciating teachers without doing anything.) Meanwhile the district hosts a holiday office parties with gift cards and giveaways. It is out of touch with the reality that we face. During a central office appreciation week a few years ago, while teachers were re-entering grades (see next point) central office was having yoga and massages during the week. These rewards are not undeserved. Good people, hard working individuals make up central office. But they are all examples of a district that is being insensitive to the sacrifices teachers are making. Paper cut.
  • In 2015 an IT computer glitch wiped out student grades and S&I information at the end of the grading period. No apology was ever issued from the district. Our school leaders empathized and apologized. But the tone of the email from central office lacked understanding and dodged responsibility. It simply demanded the data be re-entered by the specified time. Paper cut.
  • A new health and wellness center located in the most difficult part of town to reach, but is conveniently located next to the central office. I would like to know how many employees who live in Joelton or Antioch or Bellevue use the facility. Why not YMCA passes for all employees? If the health and well-being of teachers and support staff was truly important, it should be made far more accessible and to more people. Again, this looks like insensitive decision making. Paper cut.
  • Changing from Gradespeed to InfiniteCampus without adequately training or supporting teachers BEFORE the school year started (more on tech use in this district later). Paper cut.
  • Newly minted and mandated I.F.L. assessments (high school literacy units) which do not provide copies of the texts which are to be taught. Essentially what the mandate says is “You will teach this. You will assess this. But you need to supply copies of the texts for your students” Paper cut.
  • The communication regarding the lead in the water which in addition to students dangers, all teachers use for drinking, for making coffee or lunches. Some of these readings are high enough that I’m concerned for all the pregnant women working in schools affected. No apology or empathy. Paper cut.
  • Much has been made of the great eclipse fiasco of 2017, so I don’t need to rehash it here. But this combined with the numerous weather related openings and closings (the “Seriously people” tweet) reflects poorly on all of the professionals working to improve the perception and communication of the district. Paper cut.
  • A school board which has members who have actively attacked and who promote attacking teachers on social media. Paper cut.

This list doesn’t even begin to address the state’s culture of over-testing, politics, and anti-teacher policy. After all this is only an exit interview for the district. Those complaints will have to wait for another time. I want to also find the time to talk about what I saw that was going right. There are SO MANY examples of outstanding outcomes that go under the radar. It is important that even if no one reads this, even if nothing changes, that I speak my mind on these challenges facing teachers. While paper cuts can heal, some can also leave a scar. And the most poignant scar is a memory of a time that we weren’t treated with respect as professionals or as human beings. I urge the people who have some say to evaluate and implement every decision after considering the cost to and the effect on teachers exactly the same way we ask teachers to make every decision with their students best interests in mind.

I have much more to say, but the phone is ringing. My eldest son was absent from school again today.

To be continued…

*My executive principal always had an open door policy and I always felt comfortable talking to him about our school. And one of my A.P.’s did ask for feedback on their leadership. I was deeply impressed by this humility and desire to reflect and improve. I will happily answer any questions they have for me. This post is more of a reflection of the district’s operations rather than the leadership of our immediate supervisors.

1 thought on “An Exit Interview (Part 1 – The Problems)”

  1. Tom Occhipinti here…You taught with my wife, Anne. Thank you for your honesty…you raise good points…I trust you know you are just starting to scratch the surface. Wish you the best in your next challenge….and I look forward to reading more.

    Like

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