My return post is on a topic near and dear to my heart--getting fired. I've been fired twice in the last years, and the whole thing about it being the most stressful thing besides death of spouse/child (or whatever is the reality if that's just an urban legend) probably has some truth in it. As always, I kind of skated through the situation with a slightly more forced smile on my face, but it didn't entirely agree with me or my constitution.
The first time I got fired spurred this unsent letter, which I figure might as well go up now. As I re-read it, it strikes me how special the kids felt our program was. I think they were right--it was special as in "beautiful", but not special as in "one-of-a-kind". I think that every teacher has the ability to create a space where students feel safety, freedom and their own limitless potential, and it's a systemic problem that not only throws obstacles to impede that creation, but also teaches us to not even yearn for it.
September 17, 2010
Just over a month ago, I stood before many of you as a devoted team player and colleague in the fight for educational improvement in our great country and warned you of my concern that the current wave of educational reform—with all of its positive motives and the vast array of talent devoted to it—would fail as a result of it being appropriated by bad actors to be used as a hammer against educators and communities. I did not know how specifically prescient that would turn out to be.
On Thursday August 12, I received a letter from Chicago Public Schools. The letter explained that I was “honorably terminated” as of August 31 and the reason cited by the district was “redefinition”. I would lose all health benefits (actually, we were “generously” afforded an extension of 30 days to our policy as required by state law), seniority, banked sick days and any other privileges of working as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. In four years, I had used a total of four personal days and zero sick days—2 for my grandfather’s funeral, one for my wife’s graduation from medical school, and one to support a couple of students who were speaking at the Board of Education (one of whom many of you know, Shantell Steve). I was to have no due process and no respect for seniority.
I would ask for a brief moment that you place yourselves in that frozen moment. Out of all of it—my years of teaching both in the United States and Japan, the walls of awards that the students have won, the thriving programs (Japanese and Social Justice) that have grown in popularity and expanded over the years of 85 hour weeks and the professional mentoring, the support I had given countless colleagues to keep our community hub that is Julian High School strong through five principals over four years, or the leadership role I had taken with the department in promoting community and educator involvement in educational policy and school improvement—none of it mattered. But ponder that briefly, and then move on. The story of education is not the story of teachers.
This story is about the 151 students enrolled in my classes depending on me and who they were/are and the millions of students just like them across this nation. I had specifically performed reverse “traditional recruiting” where instead of targeting the honor roll students, I had recruited many of the most challenging students and supported them toward college and encouraged them to—whatever their ideological perspective—express themselves and work with every last drop of their energy for the betterment of our school, community and society. But that didn’t matter either. It didn’t even matter that I had specifically chosen a school most targeted for my skills—the rarest skills of all; a school that was a large urban school with high neighborhood violence, low parental involvement, completely segregated and a high rate of student discontentment with the school. I ran against the crowd to that environment and supported students in building a welcoming environment that made them want to work hard and be in school every day (a couple of values that I was happy to see the President emphasize in his latest speech).
Despite the fact that the students were told that the classes were cut because “there was not enough interest”, they quickly figured out the truth. They wanted to do something drastic, but I told them that I didn’t want anything done that would hurt them and that they should write for change.
Ja’ Marie James, a Junior wrote the following:
I miss you Barrett. It’s hard to find our old group. They take our cell phones. They kick us all out after school, except for the band. I miss getting together after school and working for good. I used to be late to school every day, but not anymore.
You kept me off the street—When I graduated from 8th grade, I wasn’t planning on doing nothing. I planned to hang out with my friends on the block. You offered me a whole bunch of great stuff and I took it. I’m shocked because I look at myself back then and my freshman year, I never would have thought to go to New Orleans and help others.
In the 8th grade, I said I didn’t want to do none of this. My mom put me in Freshman Connection and when I was in the class and you came into our room and talked about it, and I was joking in the back, “Who is this goofy? I’m not doing this.” But I joined and did the summer work and learned to love helping others. Helping the community.
Then I went to New Orleans twice. Slept on the floors of churches, built houses during the days. Complained too much and you scolded me.
The school did us bogus because you are the only teacher than offers us the whole service learning hours in a few weeks, so we do it and we learn to help others. It’s a way of life.
I never had any idea of doing any of this good.
I thank you because I never would of thought of doing any of this.
Just because you are gone, doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t do it. I know there will be others like me, and now we have to do it.
Khadijah Snyder, a sophomore, wrote a speech she delivered on the floor of the Board of Education (you can find her at 2:07:40 at the link:
These teachers really care about the students and our communities. These teachers you laid off at Julian kept the students aware and they made sure that they had what they needed to pass on to the next level. The teachers you fired enjoyed getting up, coming to school to teach. We learned from the teachers and they learned from us. You took away that bond. You took away the teachers who really cared and didn’t give up on us. For example, I go to Julian High School and you took away a teacher that was for social justice and education. His name was Mr. Barrett. He was the only teacher that would come and help us speak our mind about what was right. When we would come down to the Board meeting, people would call him a “troublemaker” because he spoke his mind. I think you fired him because he was a threat and you thought that since you took him away that we were going to stop fighting. But you’re wrong. We are going to keep fighting until you make a change. So be ready this school year. I always hear the saying, “Children are the future.” If we are the future, give us the education and the resources to be that future. But you won’t. Because you don’t want to see us be great. But we will be great and make a difference.
All told, I received correspondence from over 200 students, dozens of parents and hundreds of fellow teachers.
Much of the correspondence was from other teachers or educators who were terminated in similar fashion. In this wave, while the federal supports you generously gave were being squandered on “Culture of Calm” and other unscientific programs, nearly 2000 educators were torn from their students. I spoke to some who are in the process of losing their homes and/or marriages. Others left the district forever. Some are dying of cancer and have lost their healthy benefits entirely. What we have in common is that we are hurting and we have given every last ounce of our beings to improving urban education in the most challenging environments.
Personally, I realized that I was about to lose the ability to support my own family and was fortunate enough to be offered a permanent position for the interim summer job I was working. But I miss my students every minute I sit in my office wondering why the only way I am allowed to fight for the best possible urban education is sitting at a desk at the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago.
I ask you to consider not my situation, but the gaping hole left in every classroom that we have left without an impassioned urban educator. I can off the top of my head name dozens of exactly the caliber of teacher you are looking for who will never teach another student. What do they all say? “It’s never the students (that drive you out).” Some simply got tired of being cut and moved every year. Others got tired of a lack of support. Many got sick of being told that they were the problem as opposed to the failing charter school teachers or the turnaround missionaries (who got fired the next year and left too). Some were TFAs and as is the case, left the profession. A handful of us simply got cut for political reasons, and were placed on the “Do Not Hire” list along with the felons and worse. These are people who decided to sacrifice everything in our lives to be great teachers in the toughest areas and will never be allowed to teach again.
I have treasured my conversations with all of you—the Teaching Ambassador Fellows, our den mother Gillian, and of course, Brad, Peter, Massie, Ann, Jim, Tim, Alberto and Arne—I’ve learned so much. I’ve especially enjoyed hitting the road with Thelma, Dennis, Julie, and all of the area staff. I know the dedication to our nation’s children and our sacred task of education.
But I guess my question is this: How do you intend to improve teacher quality in struggling schools? I have trained dozens of quality urban teachers—many of whom did not come to the system with the all the skills they needed, but were there when they were shown the door—again and again.
The problem is not a lack of quality teachers or quality trainers. The problem is a lack of systemic support and quite frankly a lack of value on anything that constitutes great teaching.
I will close by linking the article used to screen our replacements at the Academy of Urban School Leadership—one of the programs we chose to highlight at the department.
One of the most outstanding teachers I know was grilled on it as part of her interview at an AUSL school after she was displaced from a historic neighborhood schools. She got into a heated discussion with the interviewer about the inherent racism of the article and—more importantly—it’s complete bankruptcy insofar as educational best practices. As a powerful, African American female educator who has motivated hundreds of Black and Latina/o youth to success at one of the schools that Renaissance 2010 peppered with violence, she was told that her radical ideas on race did not fit the vision of the school.
If this is the “Civil Rights Struggle for our generation”, I am horribly grateful that—for at least a short time—I was allowed the honor of training those who will destroy it and lead the “Civil Rights Struggle for the next generation.”
But I’m not writing to tell my sad, sad story and attack the plan we’ve got. There is a plan that works and I know the Department is pursuing it in part.
1) We must stop attacking the communities and families that we claim to be working for. We must open honest dialogues like Alberto Retana is doing and we must set the structure to promote such dialogue in every corner of our nation. We must give the bulk of the support and power to the parent, student and education sides of the conversation because those are the elements that in this era that the decision makers are used to shutting down.
2) We must set concrete attainable long-term goals that are meaningful to students and provide them more power to make positive change in their lives and our communities in the here and now. As I told my students, “Don’t listen when you are told, ‘Someday you’ll be a great leader’. We need great leaders now!” College is nice, but that’s a checkpoint on the road to success. And real success is a destination that even the very privileged often don’t reach even through their prestigious education. I think of Yuri Kochiyama: “Our ultimate objective in learning about anything is to try to create and develop a more just society “ The students who are least motivated to learn through drill and kill are not “problem students”, they are our next civic leaders. They are critical thinkers who need to be taught that school is exactly where you should be asking the hard questions that our society will benefit from for the rest of their lives. Our current and future Gangster Disciple is not going to be reintegrated into school by retaking the another math fundamental’s class. (S)he’ll be engaged by being given alternative, positive paths to attention, power and security. I know because my students have made that right choice again and again.
3) We need to be able to provide honest assessments to students and educators without a fear factor. With the exception of those driven clinically insane by these broken systems (and I mean that literally), I honestly have never met this mythical “unsalvageable teacher” that people claim inhabit our struggling neighborhood schools. I have met a few that were close at the “New Schools” and that’s only because they were so darn condescending and sure of themselves in day 17 of their ephemeral teaching careers. But I learned from every teacher in my building and was fortunate to be trained by venerable, brilliant, African American teachers who knew the community. It was mutual—we energized each other and I pulled a number of people back from burnout. Show me a teacher who is burned out, and I show you one who experienced one too many tough and hollow administrations and one too many years of having to steal paper to print lesson plans. We need to develop systems that humanize and motivate—not vilify and punish.
4) We need to stop thinking we are so much smarter than our students and those who came before us. Fenger High School is the classic example—even after counseling out the most troubled students, that school descended into complete chaos after turnaround. Yet, when the students were transferring over from there to Julian, I could sit down any student and tell
5) Heavily sanction and dismiss those who lie with data. There are certainly some elements who are scared and misunderstand data. But there are many of us who love the possibilities of data and still are horrified that “data” is being cherry-picked and manipulate to push programs that will hurt students. This section could be extremely long and detailed, but in the interests of time, I’d like to provide a few examples: If you select students, it’s intellectually dishonest to compare your rate statistics to a non-selective school. If one claims that “not testing is congruent to not selecting” then they are being intellectually dishonest. If you lose a large portion of your students in a chaotic transition process, you can’t honestly compare new rate stats to old rate stats. Graduation rate is meaningless if you aren’t using the number of students you started out with as for example, Urban Prep continues to maintain its 100% college bound rate even as it continues to lose students following graduation as it must “disappear” students to maintain its mythical status. Isn’t the leaving of children behind education’s worst sin?
Of course this list is neither exhaustive, nor thoroughly researched. It is merely a signpost away from the demise of our program that we have all invested so much time in and nearly $100 billion of taxpayer money—a program that must succeed for our students and the future of American education.
And to me, that means thinking of my students:
· Shantell who thanks to all of you is happily organizing and building the African American student population on a full-ride scholarship to UC-San Diego.
· Kellina who is already planning the 1st annual Buena Vista University service trip to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans (where we have spent our last three Spring Breaks).
· Ja’ Marie who is sitting in her second of two identical Algebra/Trig classes with the same content and instructor since they randomly scheduled her after Japanese III was canceled
· Donzell who was thrown out of his home and moved to rural Wisconsin where he is starting his own social justice organization at his new high school
· Asia who is currently being held against her will in an isolation classroom for “bad students” (think “The Wire”) with 22 students, one teacher and 3 different gang affiliations despite her strong GPA and support for other students as retaliation for her activism. Oh, with the money we provide Chicago Public Schools.
· Her sister Khadijah, whose Biology class has 43 students thanks to the cutting of teachers at the school.
· Brandon, a senior and leader in our citywide champion band who has a near perfect GPA but is in jeopardy of not graduating as he cannot complete his language requirement.
· Tiarra whose school lost teachers because it was “overstaffed” and now finds herself in two classes that have not had an adult in attendance, let alone a teacher since the first day of school.
I know you will hold them and the other millions of beloved children we are working on behalf in your hearts as we move forward. I thank you for your time, energy, brilliance, love and pleasant experience as I bid a tearful “Goodbye” to the profession I love more than anything in the world. ________________
But I suck at goodbyes, so that's not the end of the story.