On a minimum day about three months ago, Jason and I sat in his car in the school parking lot. We had just returned from grabbing a bite of lunch off campus and had talked at length about how the year had been getting progressively worse. After MONTHS of being beaten down we were tired and sad and discouraged and vocalizing ill wishes on the person causing all this stress. (I had planned on listing the felonious thoughts that were popping up in our brain, but Stef said that would just make ME sound insane, so let’s just leave it at that.)
It’s no secret that the last year at work has been so frustrating for me and several other teachers at my site, especially those who teach in the primary grades. The madness has actually been going on for a few years now.
The first couple of years after my school opened about 10 years ago were rough going. Kids and staff were brought together from several other sites in our district, and it took a little while for things to mesh. As a first step, we got our school-wide behavior under control. Once that was in place, we were better equipped to delve into the curriculum and what we needed to do to get our student population (low socioeconomic and ELL) to learn. Our administrator is very crafty and managed to weed out the teachers who were not willing to do “whatever it takes” for our kids and bring in those who were. After about three years of work, our staff was made up of the most amazing teachers I have ever taught with – all willing to give their heart and soul to this school.
That’s just what we did too. For the next few years it was good. We were given the tools and freedom we needed to do whatever it took and these incredible teachers took those tools and ran with them. We worked hard and came up with ways to motivate our kids. We stood on our heads to keep the kids inspired. It worked. Our kids were learning, and because of that, our test scores were also rising. We were all very proud. Morale was like I’d never seen it, and we were happy.
Our achievement started to get recognized; first on the local level, then state, and most recently national. About three years ago though, there was a switch in philosophy. It seemed as if the focus shifted from the kids learning to building up an already overinflated ego due to this recognition. What had been working, started to change almost on a monthly basis. Where once the teachers’ ideas (backed up by skill and performance) were validated, this switch in philosophy led to teachers being berated and labeled trouble makers when different ideas were voiced. There was a shift from a democracy to a dictatorship.
In the meantime, additional support staff and dollars were also shifting from primary grades to upper grades. While all the teachers, including the upper grade, questioned, “But don’t we want the kids coming out of the primary grades strong. The gaps in learning aren’t as big in primary and they are easier to close. They will be better students for subsequent years if we can get them proficient early on.” Unfortunately that fell on deaf ears. My opinion is that, with the exception of 2nd grade, the primary grades don’t test – the thought being Kindergarten and first grade play no part in test results nor the recognition for them. The upper grade classes do test and their scores are directly related to being considered a successful school or not. With that being said, that philosophy couldn’t be further from the truth. The primary grades are essential for laying the foundation for all the later years. We know that if kids are not reading by the time they leave 2nd grade, they will most likely always struggle in school. This is widely known, so there was only one conclusion we could make with this scenario.
Over the last couple of years, grade levels have been pitted against each other in a “disruptive leadership” style (mostly primary vs. upper). All the cross-grade level articulation we did up until then just stopped. It even went so far as huddling up in the staff room by grade level team and not interacting with the other teams. There was so much suspicion – while one team was told one thing, another team was being told something else. When I think about all of us, these laser-focused, bending over backwards teachers, it was utterly mental mayhem. Morale dropped, and the vibe of the school was negative. What was best for the kids had been completely forgotten about, and we were miserable.
This school year was when it all came to a head. When the previous year’s test scores came out for my grade level, we were told our program was a failure. At first, we were disappointed and struggled a lot with what we were being told. It hurt. As we looked even further at our data we actually had some of the best test scores in our district and THE BEST test scores for Title I schools in our district, but our program was deemed a failure. At the same time, our additional help was slashed even further, because our program was a deemed a failure. Other schools came to visit us and asked us for help with their program, but our program was deemed a failure. We are a team who works hard and is always using our data to make improvements. We would have done it naturally after those scores came out, without being browbeaten. Our program was labeled a failure and that gave a reason to cut more of our program and give the resources to upper grade, where the test scores mattered.
Back to the parking lot and the felonious thoughts…
Jason cried, “This is not who we are! We are very nice people, but this is driving us to madness!” And Jason was right. We had turned into these negative, spiteful people because that’s how we had been treated over the last few years.
That very night, both Jason and I made the decision to ask for a transfer to another school. Over the next two weeks, many more contemplated it and two more teachers requested transfers as well. As much as it kills me to leave these kids that I love and the abundance of talented teachers, I just can’t do it anymore. For the last couple of years I’ve come home just about every night frustrated and sad and angry. When I go out with my work colleagues who are also dear friends all we do is talk about how unhappy we are. I may actually have lost my mind a time or two. And that’s not who I am. We found out two weeks ago that the transfers were approved. Jason and I get to go to a the same school; a school similar in demographics to the one we are in now. The difference being that the philosophy is student focused, not test focused. Even though I still have a lot of resentment for how things went down and a lot of guilt for not sticking it out and fighting for my kids and colleagues, the tenseness of the last few years has started to fade away, and I feel so much relief just knowing I don’t have to do it anymore. I’m too tired to do it anymore.
So as the last week of the school year has finally arrived, I’m busy packing up twelve years of teaching (9 at my current school) into boxes. I have never been so happy to see summer vacation in my life. After this year, six weeks off is welcome.