Today’s interview is with a former EAA teacher named Chris Turkaly. Chris taught at Nolan Elementary-Middle School in the EAA for awhile before moving to Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary-Middle School. During his time there, Chris struggled. He had already spent several years teaching in challenged schools in California but coming to the EAA was a completely different experience. Instead getting the support and training that he needed to do his job and instead of working in an environment where students and teachers were treated with respect and dignity, Chris found a situation where teachers were expected to maintain order and discipline in their classes by modeling what Chris describes as “aggressive” behavior by administrators. Chris witnessed the spanking of kids and heard one student describe being “hand sanitized” by the assistant principal — a practice where the child’s hands are hit repeatedly with a ruler until they are red and inflamed and then made to apply burning hand sanitizer.
Chris reported this child abuse to the authorities and then experienced what can only be called retribution or retaliation from the administration. He was written up repeatedly, often for things his colleagues were also doing. Finally, in October of 2013, he quit no longer wanting to be part of a system that he saw was harming the kids.
REMINDER: Tonight — Tuesday, February 11, 2014 — there is a forum in Ann Arbor about Gov. Snyder’s failed education experiment with Detroit students’ lives: the Education Achievement Authority. I will be a speaker/panelist with Dr. Thomas C. Pedroni, State Reps Jeff Irwin and Gretchen Driskell, and several others. Please join us. Details can be found HERE.
Tell me a little about your background. Did you go through the traditional teaching route of getting a degree and all of that?
Yes, I did.
And was the EAA your first teaching assignment?
Oh, no. I had already been teaching for five years. I started out in California and, I have to say, coming to Michigan…Michigan is NOT good for teachers.
California was excellent. I taught for three years there and I taught at all under-performing schools. It’s sort of similar to Michigan. I was at what were called “Tier 5” schools which means that for five years in a row they did not meet their goals.
At the schools I taught at we got support from our administration. You knew where all your students were, you knew their test scores and goals, and you knew what you needed to be doing to help them achieve those goals; it was very specific.
I came to Michigan and taught at a private school for awhile and then I heard about the EAA. I watched their videos and I was like, “Wow. I really want to help these kids and this is exactly what we were doing in California.” So, I wrote my cover letter and sent in my resume. I went through all of the interviews. The guy that I interviewed with had been a principal in California so he knew exactly what I was talking about when I talked about teaching there.
But, once I got hired, I realized that, in the EAA, it’s not really like that. The people in charge didn’t seem to know what they were doing. And I found that every time I gave feedback, it did not seem like it was appreciated. So I just kind of shut my mouth.
So, you had come from teaching in schools that were challenged but you found a completely different experience when you came to the EAA?
Oh, yeah. I talked to one of the administrators about it and they basically just said, “Well, you came to work in Detroit. You knew what you were getting into.”
But I didn’t know how out of control the kids would be and how the administration had no plan to deal with it. I was teaching in the third grade and kids were physically fighting with each other all the time. We were told by the administration, “It’s your fault because you’re a bad teacher. You don’t know how to control your class.”
I can’t tell you how many times I just wanted to say, “If you think this is so easy, let’s see you come in and control things without yelling or hitting the kids.” Because that’s what they were doing. I knew of at least one kid said they hit him. The way they treated the kids was not respectful which is why it was not a good fit for me. The administrators were modeling terrible behavior to the teachers as if it was okay.
The assistant principal at my school would get in students faces. I heard that he used to put his hands around their necks and this is a man who is like 6 feet 6 or taller, so he is already intimidating. The rumor was that, if you sent kids to the office, to the Dean of Students, Nicholas Patterson, they would get “hand sanitized”. Do you know that is? They would hit their hands with a ruler and then rub them with hand sanitizer so that it burned.
Of course I never saw it happen but one day, I think it was in April, one of the other teachers was talking to a student who was always getting in trouble. I overheard the kid saying, “He told me to put my hands on his desk and then he hit them.”
The teacher asked him, “Did you cry?”
“Well, yes, I cried.”
So, I knew I had to call Child Protective Services (CPS) because this kid just told me he was being abused. So, I talked to the social worker. She doesn’t work for the EAA; she’s a contract person with Futures Education. I talked to her for a long time and a lot of people saw me talking to her. She went to her supervisor who also works for Futures and they called somebody else higher up in “Futures” and they said, “This is not the first complaint we’ve had about your school. Yes, you need report it by law. I can’t make you report it but you should.”
So I did report it to CPS who then stated that, “Because this isn’t a parent or relative, we have to report this to the police.” I gave the person’s name, the Dean of Students, and a I gave his phone number, whatever I had.
After that, I was picked on by the administration. After that, I couldn’t do anything right in the school, whatever I did. I’ll give you an example. There were three third grade teachers and I was one of them. We would, a lot of times, split up our classes. One day I said, “I’m going to take my kids out.”
The other teacher said, “I’m going to stay in with the kids who don’t deserve recess.”
So, I took my kids outside and as soon as I got back in, I received a write up notice, official from the principal, that I was not supposed to take my students outside without asking my fellow teammate if we were not going to take our classes out together. I had to write a response saying, “We did do it together. I went out, they stayed in because we share our classes.”
It didn’t matter what I did after I filed that complaint, I got in trouble. My lesson plans were wrong even if I was doing the exact same lesson plans as my fellow teachers since we were teaching the same subjects. But mine were wrong.
It didn’t stop until I finally went to Dr. Prince who is in charge of HR. I talked to him on the phone and and told him that I felt like, because I had been a whistle blower on somebody in our school, that I was being picked on.
I’m sure that now I’m putting my name out there, the EAA will say, “Well, he was written up for many violations, that I was written up once for unsafe conduct with a student.” But, honestly, I was only imitating what I saw those around me do, the administrators and the other teachers. When I was at Nolan, we were told by the principal Angela Underwood that, whatever we do, do it behind closed doors. She said, “If you are going to lose it and yell at the kids, just close your classroom door.” I witnessed teachers hitting kids. I witnessed a teacher spank a student. But I was the one that got suspended.
I’m not saying that I was perfect there but I had to get out. The way that they acted with those kids? I’m sorry but it’s not right. The way the kids are treated, it’s so aggressive. I want to use the word “mean”. If you were not a mean teacher, the kids ran all over you. I kept saying, “There has to be a better way.” It didn’t make sense that I had to become this mean person. But there were teachers who were verbally just abusing them, yelling at them, all of the things that we’re not supposed to do as teachers. But that’s what people did. That’s what administrators did with the kids.
It seems like you spent most of your time dealing with discipline issues. Do you think that an alternative to being the mean guy that threatens everybody, an alternative might be, for example, having more teachers in the classroom instead of just one person trying to deal with it? That’s the first thing that comes to my mind; that, when you’ve got 30 or 40 kids and they’re acting out all the time, you need more teachers there to sort of control the situation.
Absolutely. What makes things worse is that you’ve got teachers who have never taught before. They have the Teach for America teachers in a room by themselves and, I’m sorry, they’re failing. Most of them don’t have the skills to deal with this teaching environment. So, I think that having a common language, a common way of dealing with problems would be good.
How would you characterize the support that you got from the administration in terms of resources and training and assistance in dealing with disciplinary issues, things like that?
When it comes to discipline, I would say none. There was no support. We heard many times in staff meetings that, “Kids are acting out because you don’t know what you’re doing.” I’m paraphrasing but they would say, “Your classroom is your home. Do you let someone walk into your room and go through your stuff? No, you don’t. You tell your guests what to do. You don’t just let a kid run out of your classroom. That’s your fault.”
It’s not because the kids have other issues that they can’t behave; it’s the teacher’s fault if they run out of the classroom. They’re doing something wrong. But, the fact is, a lot of these kids have issues that they need help with. So, I think that, in addition to teaching, we should also be doing a lot of behavior stuff and life skills training with them.
As far as supplies goes, the first year we had no supplies. Once the paper ran out, that was it. You had no more copy paper. We were supposed to be all technology. Every classroom was supposed to be totally technology. Every kid had a laptop to use. My school, Bethune, had a school improvement grant so our classrooms had smart boards in them. Other schools, like Nolan, did not have the grants so they have no smart boards int he classroom. So there was a big difference between the schools.
Training? No. BUZZ was such big thing and people are supposed to understand it. We were told to go in and create curriculum. I once accidentally deleted my entire language arts program from BUZZ. But, there was not a lot of training with that program, it was just very basic. We had access to all of these different websites for math and other stuff but all we were given was, “Here’s your login” and that was it.
When I worked in California, as part of our union contract, once we week we’d have an early release day. Those early release days were not free time. One day a month, it’s a staff meeting. Another day it’s a data meeting. Another day it’s a training and the fourth day was your union meeting. So, these were productive times.
With the EAA, we’re there 8 or 9 hours, so there’s no extra time during the day to do these trainings. But the teachers need them because nobody knows how to use this stuff.
So the platform on which the whole school is based, which is BUZZ, you weren’t being properly trained to use? That’s awesome.
No. And like one of the other teachers you talked to said, they want you to use BUZZ because they want know how well your students are mastering it. Because I had to recreate my language arts curriculum again and it was half way through the year, I didn’t have a whole year of data, just a half year. So, my kids’ progress was different from other students who were at the exact same level and were being taught the exact same thing.
When kids changed schools, and I’m talking EAA schools, there were problems there, too. I had a kid who came from another EAA school, she logged into BUZZ and she had to start all over from the beginning because none of her data transferred. As far as BUZZ was concerned, she was brand new. Nothing came over. I tried to get it resolved but, after two weeks, I finally had to tell her to start all over.
I’ve heard that Mary Esselman has some financial interest in BUZZ. In the summer of 2012 when we were doing our training before school began, we were there for a month, they asked for people who wanted to be on the curriculum writing committee to help out Mary Esselman. I was one of those people. She told us, any ideas you have to help with BUZZ please tell her because she works with it. One of the teachers that was close to her told us that either Esselman owns the company or she makes royalties from it. So there’s more to it than just us using BUZZ. Part of it’s her.
How about computers. Did you have enough computers for all of your kids?
Actually, I did. I was one of the lucky ones. When I got to my classroom, I had about 30 computers. But, because of absences — and this was constant, I always had kids absent — teachers would come to my room and ask to borrow some of mine because they didn’t have enough. When school started the administration told us we had to assign the computer to the kid. Then they changed it because they didn’t want the kids in the hallways with the computers when they were changing classes. So then we would just let them use the computers in the classrooms. But, not all classrooms had enough.
The problem with that is that you never knew who was responsible when a computer was broken. I would assign kids computers when they were in my room — “You’re number 20…” — but the numbers were on the batteries and kids are smart. If their computer broke, they’d take the battery out of another one and switch it with theirs. So now #20 was a different computer. Then some other kid would get blamed for breaking his computer.
The worst part for me is that the EAA doesn’t seem to be focused on kids. I taught at Reading First schools, which means that I had lots of training in reading instruction and was very confident in providing systematic instruction. At the EAA I had nothing to use to teach reading. I’m used to teaching letter names, sounds and spelling patterns, as well as decoding, comprehension skills, and strategies. I had none of the tools necessary to teach any reading. I did my best and found stuff on the internet that other teachers shared on their websites. I could have taught these students to be fantastic readers if only I had the tools.