Education, Uncategorized — April 13, 2017 at 5:01 pm

When teacher silencing becomes dangerous…


Since publishing my post on teacher silencing yesterday, my mailbox has been inundated with stories from teachers about being harassed, threatened, and intimidated by school district administrators for posting their opinions about standardized tests, opting out, and other issues of education policy and practice.

One teacher wrote:

I was having a discussion this morning with a colleague and we weren’t sure how to approach this (i.e., teachers advocating for school change as community members that live in the district and pay taxes) without being told our voices didn’t matter because we were employees. Thoughts?

When I asked this teacher who had told her and her colleagues that their voices “didn’t matter,” she replied:

It is the overwhelming umbrella. Nothing verbal, all implied. Teachers are terrified of speaking up because the ones that do have said their evals are getting docked.

This same teacher told me that colleagues in her district feel as though they have “no power,” and have been told that they cannot talk to anyone higher on the administrative “ladder” than their building principals–effectively eliminating any governance role for teachers in school system deliberations on curriculum and policy.

But perhaps the most tragic and heart-wrenching story I’ve heard about the impact of teacher silencing comes from a correspondent that I’ll refer to as “Rachel” (not her real name). Rachel teaches in a small, rural school district in Michigan, and has been working as a teacher for 17 years now. By her own account, Rachel is…

…seriously the absolute most compliant person ever and have never been in trouble in my life. Perfect evals. On every leadership team. Very close to administration…

Rachel is one of those teachers who has devoted herself, personally and professionally, to her career. The kind of teacher who arrives at school early, leaves late, takes her work home with her at night, creates new projects over the weekend–and purchases the materials out of her own pocket, arranges field trips and brings in guest artists and speakers for her students, organizes birthday parties, and wedding showers, and baby showers for her colleagues, hosts student teachers from the local university, serves as a teacher leader in her school district, attends her students’ concerts, and soccer games, and piano recitals, and dance recitals, and graduation ceremonies, pursues professional development opportunities on the weekends, takes graduate classes and workshops over the summer, has little to no idea how much she makes in her yearly salary, and puts her students’ needs above her own.

In short, a teacher.

In addition to her job as a classroom teacher, Rachel had also volunteered to serve as her district’s compliance officer for the state’s review of their status as a PLA (Persistently Low Achieving) school district.

And here’s where things took a very dangerous turn.

I’ll let Rachel tell you what happened…

We were a PLA school (which could be a whole story in itself). We were just heading into MSTEP as the opt out movement was gaining some traction at that point. The problem was, if we didn’t have 95% participation we could get immediately shut down because of being a PLA. As my principal and I were discussing where we stood in readiness for the MSTEP, I said, “Do you think we should say something to staff about the 95% participation? I don’t think they realize how vital it is for our school to hit that because I’m seeing some opt out stuff going around and maybe they don’t know that’s a factor for PLA.”

She said yes, good idea, we need to mention that. The next thing I know, I’m called to her office. She said she had done pretty much what I had – casually mentioned to the superintendent in a list of catch-up items that staff needed to be aware of this–and in response, the superintendent wanted a list of names. I am really close to the principal and superintendent and I understand their being terrified of the school being closed. I think fear of the state was the motivating factor.

I told her no way would I tell her the names of those who had commented in favor of opting out. We went a couple rounds on it and finally she said, “You know, you’re going to get in trouble with the superintendent.” I said I didn’t see how he had any ground to stand on.

A couple hours later I got a letter from the superintendent. He was like, “Why are you refusing a directive?” So he and I had several email exchanges debating the first amendment and the morality of tattling, etc. His interpretation was that I went to an administrator because I had concerns about colleagues not fulfilling their contractual duties and was now hindering an investigation. I didn’t see it that way at all.

Between all the email correspondence, I went to my (union) building representative; she called our union representative, and she called the MEA (Michigan Education Association). I also got in touch with my own lawyer. The MEA said not to give the names to the superintendent.

We had a meeting with my representative, my principal, and the superintendent. None of us had slept. Everyone was crying. Everyone was a disaster. No one wanted lawyers to have to get involved, but I wasn’t giving names. The superintendent and I went back and forth about his claim of insubordination. He said the new law said I could be instantly put on unpaid administrative leave, and he would have to do that…

It’s really scary that it is apparently allowable!!!! I really could have gotten fired for not turning in colleagues!!!! To me that’s the bigger issue. Now the MEA said they would fight it all the way. They were extremely supportive. But I wasn’t physically or emotionally strong enough to be a court case. So I was grateful it worked out. I hope someone stronger is willing to fight it all the way. Because it’s insanity.

Rachel was also insistent that her superintendent not be portrayed as the “bad guy” in this scenario–she places most of the blame on the state’s designation of certain schools as “persistently low achieving”, and the pressures that come with being singled out in this way:

…I really don’t want him (the superintendent) painted in a bad light. Our school was in a very desperate place. We absolutely couldn’t lose test takers or we lost the school. I don’t know what happened from there except I got unfriended by a whole bunch of staff. No one was fired afterward, so I assume no discipline was given out. The superintendent…has tried to apologize and make amends. He’s a good man. It’s the state that is out of control. Absolutely crazy stuff with PLA.

The superintendent’s philosophy on social media (which he had never before ever mentioned to the staff and it was not in our contract or in our technology agreement) is that if you identify that you teach for the district (on your social media profile), you cannot voice an opinion on educational policy or philosophy. Or anything else that would reflect badly on the school. So I removed from my profile all bio info to protect myself. I’m not sure from a legal stance if he is correct.

Now, I’m no lawyer–and I don’t even play one on TV–but after consulting with a couple of my attorney friends and doing a little investigation into this issue, I do not believe that Rachel had violated any laws, nor had her colleagues who had expressed their opinions about opting out of standardized testing. My understanding of the law in this case is that teachers’ speech is protected if they speak out as citizens on “matters of public concern”, and their speech doesn’t disrupt the school–opting out of testing is clearly a matter of public concern, and therefore teachers have the right to share their perspectives on this issue on social media, or in other formats and venues.

However, as shocking as Rachel’s story is, it gets even worse…

Well, all’s well that ends well. Our kids knocked the MSTEP out of the park, we got off the list, the state recognized our efforts, and everyone lived happily ever after. Except me. I had a stroke in the school parking lot the next year and am on medical leave trying to regain the use of the left side of my body. And learning to talk without a stutter. And I absolutely believe the PLA caused it. The stress was absolutely unreal.

Rachel wasn’t the only casualty in this mess:

Some day I’m going to write about the whole process. I know I need to. I had completed a 300+ page report that was due. Took weeks. Two days before the deadline the state changed the report requirements and the entire thing had to be rewritten. This happened constantly. Everything about PLA was how can we trip you up so we can close your school. I’m not exaggerating at all. It was a total nightmare. Our staff developed so many health problems. We worked ALL the time. We had to add hours onto our week per PLA requirement. It worked out to something like 2 extra weeks more than the other buildings with zero added compensation.

This style of accountability borrows a page out of the business approach to managing employees and processes. It’s based on the notion that a manager can influence a worker’s productivity by moving targets and raising goals. It also assumes that workers are not intrinsically motivated to do their best work, or give their best effort. It’s also an inherently autocratic and authoritarian approach to working with other persons.

Interestingly, the research on motivation suggests exactly the opposite is true–that when persons are engaged in critical thinking tasks, attempts to improve productivity by offering incentives actually produce negative results. In other words, when persons are intrinsically motivated in tasks that require higher-order thinking skills, incentives (like merit pay) decrease employee productivity.

So, what’s the solution? Is it wrong to hold schools, and teachers, accountable? If we care about our children, and their learning, shouldn’t we know which schools are doing a good job, and which ones are not?

Let’s start with the obvious–no one wants schools to work better more than teachers. I’ve never met a teacher who wasn’t interested in their students’ learning, and wanted to know how to help them achieve even more. But standardized tests, like Michigan’s M-STEP, are not the answer. You don’t cook a steak better or faster by poking it with more thermometers, and kids don’t learn more by giving them more tests.

Publicly shaming children, teachers, and schools by publishing lists of “Priority Schools,” “Focus Schools,” “PLAs,” and “At-Risk Schools,” and threatening to close schools if they don’t improve their arbitrary rankings isn’t the way to improve the performance of demoralized, beaten down teachers and kids–who are struggling to learn in schools that have had their budgets slashed by state legislatures that don’t seem to value public education.

And instead of continuing to silence teachers with threats and intimidation, let’s try listening to their ideas, inviting them to participate in school governance as partners, and valuing their experience and expertise as professionals. The first step would be for more school leaders–principals, superintendents, and school board members–to find the courage to join teachers in pushing back forcefully against policies that we know are harming children, teachers, and schools. Like the mindless proliferation of standardized testing requirements, the silly rankings of schools based on meaningless measures and metrics, and the invalid and unreliable teacher evaluation systems in place in our schools that evaluate teachers on tests of subjects they don’t teach, and test scores of children they’ve never taught.

Imagine how powerful the voices of teachers could be if joined by their principals, superintendents, and community members who have the best interests of children at heart.

What a chorus that would be.