Today’s interview is with Karyn Brooks, a former teacher at the Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School, or “Bethune” as everyone generally calls it. Karyn is unique among the teachers with whom I have spoken because she had the good sense to get out of the EAA before the end of its first calendar year of existence. She took a more than 50% pay cut to do it (the EAA actually pays teachers pretty well) but, as she says, she never regretted the decision.
One of the things I have heard from from defenders of the EAA is that, “These teachers knew what they were getting into, they knew that BUZZ was simply an empty shell for them put curriculum into.” What has become clear from my interviews is that this is not the case at all. Teachers were decidedly NOT told that they were going to have to wait until over two months of classes before they would even be able to use BUZZ. Once it was finally up and running, they were surprised to learn how little was actually in it and that they were going to be expected to fill it with curriculum. Given that upwards of half their teachers were first-year teachers and fully half of those were Teach for America teachers with just five weeks of training under their belt before they got to the EAA, this was quite a tall order.
Karyn talks about how she was mislead about what the EAA was going to be like and how ill-equipped the EAA administrators were to deal with the discipline issues they encountered. Even at the second grade level they had classrooms with out-of-control students who hit other students and continuously disrupted the class. It appears that when John Covington brought his crew in, they somehow that that their “Student Centered Learning” model was going to miraculously cause discipline issues to evaporate. This was, not surprisingly, not the case.
You worked for Bethune, correct?
Yes. I worked at Bethune for two months. A month of the training, the PD [professional development] time, and then a bit over a month in the classroom.
So you never really saw BUZZ in action, right? It didn’t start functioning until into October.
No. We were told during that whole month of PD, every day we’d go in and we were told that we were going to learn what we were actually going to be doing. But that was never the case. And then when school started, it was, “We’re going to get the kids tested, we’re going to get them tested,” every day while I was there.
They tried to test them at one point but the internet wasn’t working. I originally taught middle school science and they would move my kids around to try to test them. Then I got switched to a second grade classroom and my second graders had never been tested while I was there.
What was your history as a teacher and how did you end up at the EAA?
I graduated from Western in 2005 and subbed for a year in Allen Park. Then I decided I wanted to teach my own class so I moved to Florida and taught middle school science at a public school. I loved the job, loved everything about it, but I missed my family so I ended up moving back home to Michigan.
So you were a traditionally trained teacher, then
Yes and at that time I had elementary school certification in middle school science.
I didn’t find a teaching job immediately so I subbed for another year and then eventually found a job at a charter school where I taught elementary Spanish. I didn’t make much money and I didn’t want to teach Spanish. Then the EAA sent me an email. I knew nothing about them but I got this email from them so I decided to apply. I went through the whole interview process.
They recruited you?
I’m not sure why the sent me the email but they did send me an email telling me I had the credentials and qualifications that they needed and wanted and inviting me to apply. So I applied, went through the whole process and was all excited when I got the job. But then it was all just a complete disaster.
How would you compare the reality of what the EAA was about and how they explained it to you when they were recruiting and interviewing you?
In the recruiting process and that whole month of PD it was all about being positive and how we were not going to be DPS [Detroit Public Schools], kids weren’t going to have the behavioral problems that affect their education because if that happens, we’re going to change it. It was very positive and people were smiling and telling us how it was going to be this positive change for these kids. In the end, that wasn’t what it was at all. It was the complete opposite.
How did they explain that they were going to deal with the discipline problems?
They talked about how they would be tested and then put into a program geared toward their abilities and that was going to help because they’re not going to be bored because they’re going to be where they’re supposed to be. That was how it was described during the recruitment.
During the PD days, every time we met with our entire school, it was all about how we’re going to work together and make sure that kids know that this isn’t their old school when they’re here, if they’re doing things that are unacceptable, they’ll be kicked out. It was going to be a zero tolerance policy. But it didn’t play out that way.
Is that true? They tolerated a lot of bad behavior then?
Oh, by far. I’m 5′ 1″, 105 pounds and when I was teaching at the middle school, I was breaking up fights every single day, physically, myself. These kids are my size or bigger. Kids were sent back to class all the time but the time that made me the most angry was when one kid stood up, tore his shirt off at the beginning of class and went running toward another kid. I got between them and stopped him. Clearly something had bubbled over from before class.
I pulled him out into the hallway and screamed for help. Someone came out and helped me take them down to the office and within 5 minutes they were back in my classroom. I asked them what happened and he said, “They told us to say sorry to each other and come back to class.”
This was a huge distraction to my class and of course the other kids weren’t learning anything. There was just a big fight that we had to break up and now they’re back in class. That was one of my breaking points.
How long were you in the classroom teaching with kids before you left?
I was in the middle school classroom for three weeks and with the second graders for a week. Because we had such large numbers of students, they needed to move teachers around. At the time I was getting my Masters in autism and I needed a student with autism in my class. Because we had such high numbers and they wanted to move students around, I talked to the principal and, knowing that they needed someone for second grade and there was a second grader with autism, I offered to move to the second grade classroom. She said, “Yeah, that’s great, we need the move, that will be perfect.”
So, I moved to the second grade classroom and they didn’t put the child with autism in my class. I later found out that they reason they needed someone for the second grade classroom was because it was a particularly unruly classroom and the teacher that was teaching said she wanted to teach kindergartners and wanted out of this classroom. The gym teacher that had them during the day, he used to just have them sit in the classroom because there were about six kids that were just wild and hard to control. When you have 35 student second graders and six of them are hitting and doing physically abusive things regularly, and there’s no support from the administration, it’s pretty difficult to teach.
These were just second graders?
Yeah. You would think that teaching second graders would be easy but it was a group of kids who probably shouldn’t have been mixed together and we as teachers got no support from anyone.
At one point, they tried calling one of the student’s parents and told them he couldn’t come to school unless the mother sat in the class with him and watched him. So, they had this mom come into my classroom so her child could stay in there and she started screaming at her child in the middle of class and swearing at her kid while I’m trying to teach. They said he couldn’t be there unless she was there and she’s sitting there cursing at her kid in front of all my kids during class time.
During this time was BUZZ working at any point?
No. BUZZ was never working the entire time I was there. On top of it not working, we weren’t given any supplies or anything to use with these kids while it wasn’t. It was just assumed that we’d start right up with BUZZ. But it wasn’t working and school started and we had nothing to use with our students to use at all. Nothing.
What did you do that whole time?
I just created my own thing. But, honestly, it was more dealing with discipline problems than being able to teach. That was the nature of where we were and what I had to do. I created a lot of my own things. Even now I create my own things but usually you’re given something and we were given nothing because they assumed we were going to be using BUZZ. But we weren’t.
My understanding was that, once BUZZ came up, it was still just an empty shell that teachers had to put curriculum into.
Yeah, I don’t know how that even worked. You’d think that with a month of PD time before school started that we were getting paid $200 a day for that we would have learned what we were actually going to be doing when we got to the classroom to teach. They let us go into BUZZ one time and it took hours because everybody’s login information was wrong. We were at a PD making $200 and sat there for hours just trying to login.
But, like you say, once we did login, it was just a blank canvass and they’d say, “At some point, there’s going to be something here and then you’ll be able to go into here and see this…” It was just telling us how things were going to be without anything in there to actually show us. It wasn’t very useful.
I’m trying to sort out if they were expecting teachers to put curriculum in or were they going to supply curriculum.
They did tell us that everything would be in there and if we wanted to add in any projects, we’d be able to do that. But, I don’t know what ended up happening.
A lot of teachers I’ve spoken to ended up having to put their own curriculum in and half of the teachers there were first year teachers who had never taught before so it was a situation where they had these inexperienced teachers who didn’t know what they were doing and expecting them to upload curriculum for their classes when they had no experience doing that.
Oh, yeah. And, even as an experienced teacher, curriculum is not something that you’re taught to design. It’s pretty ridiculous that they would have anyone do it. I remember them pulling people during PD, teachers for elective classes, and telling them, “You’re going to design curriculum for your classes.” They pulled them, people without any experience designing curriculum at all, and had them designing their curriculum for the classes they were going to be teaching.
Did you ever witness physical abuse of the students?
I didn’t personally witness it but I’m sure that it was going on. For example, when I was in the second grade class, I had a student who was hitting kids non-stop. She was always hitting. That was just what she did. Another teacher in the school came into my classroom and the student came up and started hitting her. She said, “I’m taking her to Principal Pearson. She took her to Principal Pearson and, even though the girl was physically abusing other students in the class, Principal Pearson looked at her and said, “If you don’t stop doing that, I’m going to take YOU into the bathroom.”
That was it, her staring her in the eyes and insinuating that she was going to go beat her in the bathroom. It happened again and she did not end up beating her in the bathroom. But how can you threaten a second grader and say, “If you do it again, I’m going to go beat you”, threatening beat the girl as a punishment?
Another time we were in a staff meeting and I raised my hand and said, “You said we were going to do this with zero tolerance but nobody is getting suspended and these kids’ behavior is out of control. We’re just wondering if, they’re not getting suspended for fighting in our classes and kids are threatening each other in the middle of school and you don’t want them to be taken out of class, what is a possible solution? What do you recommend?”
Ms. Pearson said, “You know what I did when I was a teacher if I saw kids screaming at each other and they wanted to fight? I separated the chairs in the classroom and told them that that was their chance. If they wanted to fight, they could fight right there.”
That was her answer to me to solve the fighting problem. She would separate the chairs in the middle of the classroom, point to the center, and tell the kids, “It’s time to fight.” She told us that usually they never would.
I told her that that didn’t really answer my question because I’M never going to do that!
We’d get these emails at 10:00, 11:00 at night saying that there’d be an emergency staff meeting first thing in the morning the next day. I mean, I have two kids, aged two and four, everyone has lives. Then we’d show up at these staff meeting and just get screamed at. It was, honestly, the most unprofessional work environment I have ever experienced in my life. We would go into these meetings and get screamed at for not following these procedures, these protocols that they put in place. They’d say, “These are our procedures, you guys need to follow them.” Well, then, in the middle of the school day when we all have classes — and when I was in the middle school I had 55 kids in my class…
Yeah, at the middle school for the first three weeks, there was one class that I had that had 55 kids. I had over 40 in all of my classes.
But, anyway, they’d announce over the PA changes in certain procedures or protocols or whatever they wanted us to do. But we had 50-something kids and it was never quiet in those classes and they figured we’d be able to hear them. Well, we couldn’t hear anything. Then we’d go to these meetings and we’d get yelled at because were weren’t following their procedures that they announced of over the PA system.
I asked Mr. Patterson who was the Dean of Behavior, can we please have these new procedures, these protocols that you want us to follow sent to us in an email because we can’t hear them over the PA. If the kids are talking, we can’t hear them. He said to me, “The moment that they get written down and sent to you guys, that means if you don’t follow them, then you’re going to get written up. So we don’t want to have to write them down on paper because we don’t want to have to write you guys up.”
I said, “I don’t care if I’m going to get written up! I want to know what I’m supposed to do. I’m not going to get written up because I’ll be doing what I’m supposed to do!” It was crazy. Then we go to the staff meetings and get yelled at.
It was so crazy that I told my husband, “You have to listen to this.” So I brought my phone to a meeting and had it on speaker phone so that he could hear and listen to this staff meeting so that I could have an outside perspective about whether or not this was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard. And, of course, it was.
Every teacher I’ve talked to at the EAA talks about being “written up”. In your experience as a teacher, is that something that you feared or that you were threatened with? Is this normal?
No, no, no! Currently I work in a public school. I’m where I need to be. Just the other day I had a meeting with my principal and we talked for a half hour about life and my class and all these different things. And, since I was going to have this phone call with you, I was just comparing the difference between my relationship with my principals over the years with my administration at Bethune and it’s just night and day. They were just horrible in how they treated us. They didn’t know what they were doing. They were so rude and so disrespectful. And then they’d talk about being a team so we could run the schools and I just thought, “Wait a second, this is not a team.”
At one point they did a school improvement survey and surveyed the whole school. When the results came out they got very negative feedback from anything that had to do with the administration or discipline procedures. The results were sent to all of us so we knew that all of the teachers agreed. Then we went into a staff meeting and Principal Pearson said, “We’ve seen the results from the survey and we just want you to know that, if you guys just followed the procedure and did what we told you to do, you wouldn’t have any issues with us and things would be running smoothly. But you guys aren’t doing that.
So it was your own fault?
Yeah. It didn’t address the fact that nobody liked the administrators and they were doing an awful job. It was that we were the reason they were doing an awful job.
You’re still in Michigan in a public school? Is that better for you?
Oh, yes. 100%. I mean I took a $35,000 a year pay cut — I was making $55,000 — but it was worth it. They were just so unprofessional. The day that I ended up leaving, I walked into school and in my mailbox there was a note that said, “Dear Mrs. Brooks, you have a meeting with Principal Pearson at 2:00 today for the following reasons.” And there was a list of bullet points of something like ten things that I was supposedly doing wrong. Not being able to manage my kids. My kids were too loud in the hallway. I’m not communicating with parents well. It was this whole list of things. I was just, like, “Are you joking? There’s no WAY that I’m doing all of these things wrong.”
And here’s the thing: I had emailed the principal three days before, I emailed all of the administration and I said, “I have used the following strategies with my class…” and I listed everything that I had done. I said, “I have a very difficult class and I am hoping that some of you can give me some suggestions.” I wanted to document everything because that’s just the best way to do it.
Well, nobody responded to me. Nobody said anything to me, it was just shrugged off as if I hadn’t even sent it and I sent to every administrator in the school. Then I walked into school that day and got that note and it said “at 2:00”. So, between when I got that note in the morning and the meeting at 2:00, I decided that was my last day at that school. I couldn’t take it anymore. It was better for my own mind and family if I just left.
I got to the meeting and she thought we were just meeting about those items on the list and I was meeting to turn my stuff in and tell her I was leaving. I told her that I thought it was pretty unprofessional for them to send that to me then make me teach and entire day knowing that they thought I was doing ten things wrong that are all part of my job! You’d think the professional thing to do would have been to say, “We need to have a meeting, we’re going to meet at 2:00 today. If you have any questions, let me know.” Instead it was this laundry list of all these things I was doing wrong and they told me I had to teach the rest of the day.
When I went in, she told me, “Well, I want you to know you weren’t doing ALL of those things wrong. We just sent a generic note to all of the teachers in the school that we thought might be having some of these problems and then we were going to talk to them during their meeting.”
I thought, “Well, that’s just great. You sent this note to all of these people and they’re all going to have a bad day teaching because they know they’re doing ten things wrong then you’re going to go into the meeting and say, ‘Oh, you’re really not doing ALL of them wrong, you’re just doing this one thing wrong right here…'”
I told them exactly how I felt. I told them, “I think you are the most unprofessional people I’ve ever worked with. I think the school is not going to be successful no matter what because of you guys. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
Their response was that, if there were other teachers who felt that way, it was just because I hung around with a certain clique and we’re all negative people. I pointed out that I had moved from the middle school level to the elementary school level and apparently had the opportunity to work with both of the cliques and we all felt the same way. Then I turned my things in an quit.
So you took a $35,000 pay cut to get out of there? It was that bad that you were willing to walk away?
Yes. Absolutely. $35,000 a year is obviously a huge cut but never in a million years would I regret it. It was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself and for my family.
After our interview, Karyn sent me a note adding this:
I meant to add that I applied for unemployment (first time in my life) due to unfulfilled promises (they also had my pay wrong until I left) and unethical procedures at Bethune and was granted it. The EAA indicated that they did not agree with my statement but never provided documentation to the state fighting my claim. Therefore I received benefits until the fall of this year when I eventually found myself a fulltime teaching position. Because I still worked part time as a substitute teacher, these benefits were not very much, but they did help. I just thought it was funny that they didn’t agree with my claims but couldn’t provide any documentation as to why… typical for the EAA.