There is No Dignity in Teaching


It is rare that I have no idea how to start a story. That something is so wrong, so mangled that I can’t begin to make sense of it.

I guess the only place to begin is the beginning, so here goes.

I met a teacher named Gretchen in early October, 5 years ago, at East High School. It was Parent/Teacher Conference day, and I was wearing a dress and heels. I was 8 months pregnant and massively uncomfortable. I had trudged down to the main office, no small feat in our city’s largest urban high school.

As I was leaning on the counter, catching my breath, I overheard the woman next to me talking to the secretary. She was asking for my supervisor and explaining that she was an ESL teacher assigned to the building.

What?! It was October, our department wasn’t expecting a new teacher.

I turned to her and introduced myself and asked her how long she’d been waiting. Her answer made me gape, she’d been assigned to my building from the beginning of the year and had been showing up and calling for days, trying to find someone to tell her where to go. She told me she was assigned to East part time, and was teaching at the jail the second half of the day.

I told her to come with me, that I’d take her to our supervisor and straighten out where she was supposed to be.

We started down the hallway. “What’s the ESL population look like at the jail?” I asked.

“I don’t know, the kids aren’t there, so they have me teaching gym.”

I stopped and looked at her.

“There’s no gym teacher and I know some yoga.” she replied, laughing as she saw the face that I made at her.

We continued to walk and make small talk.

My internal monologue was off and running “The District has a shortage of ESL teachers because this is how they treat them when they hire them. What the hell is wrong with these people? She didn’t get her Masters Degree in yoga! This is ridiculous.” and so on.

We did finally get her schedule straightened out, although she continued to teach yoga at the jail. You see, that is just the type of person Gretchen is-energetic, gritty, enthusiastic, hardworking.

Honestly, she’s the only person I can see actually teaching yoga in a jail and not looking completely insane.

We worked together for the next year before I realized that she was hiding something.

It was little things at first. When my daughter was born she checked my car seat installation 5 or 6 times. She would talk about her children, but never in much detail. She started asking about taking Family Medical Leave and if I knew how to help her get the paperwork.

One day, right after Christmas, I finally just asked her. “Gretchen what is going on? Are you ok? Is your family ok?”.  I even think she tried to blow me off.

Yes, I pried.  

She finally opened up and told me the story of her family, of her son, Tristen.

They had been in a car accident when Tristen was one year old. His carseat failed and he was ejected from the car where he sustained a traumatic brain injury. Due to the accident, Tristen was severely physically and mentally disabled. His health wasn’t good and the doctors wanted to intubate him. He was getting infections and Gretchen wanted to be prepared in the event that she needed to leave quickly to go and take care of him.

As she described her situation in more detail I became more and more astonished with my friend. She showed up to work and gave 100% Every. Single. Day. She was at all of our student events. Her students, all 75 of them, came to her for everything. On top of all of it, she was damn good in the classroom.

After she was finished I bluntly asked her if she sued the carseat company and if so, why in the world would she work?

“I need a job with health insurance, and I really just love working with these kids. People don’t like working with the hard ones, but I do. So if I don’t do it who will?”

There was a settlement, but because health care in the United States is complicated and unfair, Gretchen had to fight for every dollar that Tristen got. Theoretically he had millions of dollars in a trust, but her son’s life came with mountains of paperwork and lawyers and bills. Every service he got had to be documented, and none of the money could be used for anything other than Tristen’s care.

To top it all off, her son’s health was failing.

I wanted to drag her down to our Principal, have her repeat the story. In my mind, there had to be some way to help her.

Gretchen refused. “I will never use my son like that. I don’t need people to feel bad for me or my family.”

In the end, she didn’t need to take Family Medical Leave. Tristen improved and she had enough sick days to cover the days that he was intubated. Although we disagreed, I kept quiet about her family business.

In June she was called to the Principal’s office where she was issued an official letter saying that she had taken too many “suspicious” sick days. Let me be clear, she had the time in her allotment of sick time that teachers get; the Rochester City School District just thought that she took too many days off that year.

This time I insisted. Along with our Vice Principal, we informed the Principal that Gretchen could provide documentation for all of the days she took off AND that they were for her child who was living with multiple disabilities.

He was sympathetic but offered no solution other than to promise that it wouldn’t affect his recommendation of tenure the next year. He told her that it didn’t really matter in the long run now that the building knew of her struggles.

And then the school was labeled failing by New York State.

It was granted an “Educational Partnership” with the University of Rochester. (Which really means U of R took over operations and staffing.)

The Principal was fired for sexual harassment accusations.

The ESL program was quietly reduced, as too many students who need too much help impacts the school’s “improvement numbers”.

Gretchen’s son fell ill and she took Family Medical Leave.

The next June she was called down the the Superintendent’s office. (Now that a university runs the school, they have their own Superintendent.) She was told that she wouldn’t be getting tenure because “The RCSD School Board would never approve her tenure with her absence record.” She was told that she’d get an extra year to prove herself and to sign a paper.

She was offered no union representation, given no written documentation of what the problem in her performance as a teacher was. In fact, every year she received excellent evaluations.

Many of her friends told her to leave the school. Start over somewhere else. But if you’ve realized one thing from this story so far, it’s that Gretchen is stubbornly optimistic. She was good at teaching and loved her students, things would be ok. She actually told us not to worry, that things would work out.

Her failing was to believe that in this politicized world, being a good, loving teacher is enough.

This year Tristen’s health spiraled into uncertainty, yet Gretchen remained at work, dedicated to both of her lives. She didn’t start teaching until 10am, as she was lucky enough to have planning periods in the beginning of the school day. She was open and honest with her administration, and if late because of doctors appointments, missed no class time due to her schedule.

In February Gretchen was called down to the Superintendent’s office, told that she was not being tenured, and that she was being fired. They pulled her entry times from the computer and gave her “absences and lateness” as the reason. Absences and lateness that I remind you, were documented medically or taken under the Family Medical Leave Act, and did not exceed her contractual sick days.

Two weeks later, Tristen died.

Realizing the morale nightmare they created, East offered Gretchen her job back. Well, they offered her a job subbing, or a job starting over as a first year teacher. So really, they were just trying to mitigate the fact that they fired a teacher for taking care of her disabled, dying son.

What the administration and people who “evaluate” teachers fail to understand is that no amount of politics will give Gretchen back her dignity.

The dignity she lost filing for unemployment, of being denied because there was “no reason for her to leave her job”, of her phone being shut off, of the fear that her house and her car would now be repossessed now that she had no job and the trust no longer had to “help pay” for Tristen.

The dignity she lost trying to be both a mother and a teacher.

At the beginning of this story I told you that Gretchen showed up to a school that didn’t even pick her up at the office, and a second that had a highly sought after specialist teaching yoga.

There is no dignity in teaching.

We are blamed for the ills of society. We are tasked to perform miracles every day. We are told “I pay your salary, you work for me.” by parents who don’t like their kids’ grades. We are called racist, lazy, discriminatory, and overpaid. We are told over and over again that we are failing our kids.  

Administrators have forgotten that teachers (and the kids they work with) are in fact human beings and not numbers. Instead of standing up to government officials and defending their teachers, they uphold unfair—and frankly discriminatory— evaluation practices.

Fearing for their own jobs, they are willing to sacrifice good teachers in the hopes that they are seen as allies to the almighty State.

They investigate absences and arrival times, deny tenure and fire a teacher with a dying son.

Gretchen’s future is uncertain. She has no job, no health insurance, and other children to provide for. She may move to Florida, where she has family and where they are desperate for ESL teachers, but first she has to get there and then explain why she “resigned”.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., “The measure of a woman is not where she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where she stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

I’m pleading with anyone who reads this to measure my friend by this standard.

To measure her by the sheer force of will it took to get up and give 100 percent to her students every day.

To measure the strength and grace it took not to “use her son as an excuse”.

To measure her not by the number of times she was “late” but by the number of students and colleagues that attended her son’s funeral.

I wrote this story at her request, because her story deserves to be told. The world should hear all of our stories, because if you think this is an isolated incident, you’re wrong. The world should know what we deal with.

The world should see us as humans.

Maybe her next employer will read this. Maybe a parent or a member of our Board of Education will. Maybe somehow this will make a difference.

But I doubt it.

No, there is no dignity in teaching.




On Tenure…

teacher-tenureTeacher tenure has made it in to the mass media news again. This time because of some flippant remarks by The View’s Whoopi Goldberg.

Apparently Ms. Goldberg is seriously misinformed about the details of teacher tenure.

By definition, tenure is “status granted to an employee, usually after a probationary period.”

Teachers obtain tenure by a long and difficult observation process. Before they are granted tenure a teacher can be dismissed WITHOUT any due process rights.

What does that mean? As my union leader so bluntly put it when I was a first year teaching making too much noise, “You can be fired because someone doesn’t like the glasses that you are wearing.”

What does that look like? It looks like terror. A new teacher lives in fear for her job. She lives, breathes and sleeps school. It means that many are so riddled by fear that they often leave because of extreme mental stress before they are granted tenure. The burn out rate for a teacher in my district is 3 years.

Burn out is defined as a condition caused by depersonalization, exhaustion and a diminished sense of accomplishment (Schwab et al. 1986). A psychological model of how stress leads to burnout describes it as a syndrome resulting from teachers’ inability to protect themselves against threats to their self esteem and well being (Kyriacou and Sutcliffe 1978).

We lose approximately 50% of new urban teachers in the first 5 years of their careers. 25% will leave the profession in the first years, no matter which area they work in.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the new teachers who are experiencing this overwhelming fear. After a new teacher is tenured they are still subject to scrutiny at least once a year to make sure that they are performing. (Much like non-teaching jobs and yearly reviews.) Previously, these observations and meetings were designed as a collaborative effort. Teachers are all learners and most welcome feedback and new ideas on how to make their class work better.

That’s all changed.

Recent un-researched and frankly discriminatory evaluation practices for teachers are being implemented across the country. This is causing a significant amount of urban and rural teachers to be (by way of bad math and unfounded practices) labeled “ineffective”, therefore compromising their jobs. It has created a culture of fear in education.

What do these fears look like in classrooms? Teachers teaching from scripts, students staring glassy-eyed at the front of the room. Students not understanding and not learning.

In the elmenetary schools, it looks more damaging. Students crying because they can’t read in kindergarten, 6-year-olds without constructive play, inappropriate tasks far above students’ developmental abilities. Hours upon hours of testing students individually while pretty much ignoring the rest of the class.

Does that sound like a class your want you child to attend? No, it doesn’t. You want to see joy in your child when they talk about school. You want to see a teacher that loves her job and inspires your children to learn.

Do you know what creates JOY and LEARNING in classrooms? Teacher tenure.

Teacher tenure affords us the ability to say “I will not teach something that will damage my students intellectually, emotionally, or physically.”

Teacher tenure is what creates magic in classrooms.

It creates a safe zone that protects us from unfounded allegations as well. Talk to a teacher; tenure doesn’t protect bad teachers, it protects all teachers. We can be removed from our positions for even a hint of misconduct. We aren’t even required to be told what we are being investigated for. We are entitled to due process through tenure, because guess what? All kids lie.

They lie to get approval, for their parents, for gang related politics, or because they think they will get in trouble if they tell the truth. They lie because they are children and don’t fully understand cause and effect.

I challenge you to spend 8 hrs a day not only watching, but disciplining 30 kids in a room- or for high school teachers – 100+ kids a day. Keep iPhone addicted teenagers engaged, gang members from recruiting. Keep kids clean, fed, and clothed because their parents can’t afford to.

Compartmentalize rape, child abuse, substance abuse, murder, suicide, drug trafficking, and parents that scream at you because they don’t know what to do with their kid either.

Spend time with special needs children, ADHD children, violent children, and starving children. Get hit, have desks thrown at you, listen to the words “Suck my fucking dick!” and “Lick my pussy!” and “Fuck you, you cunt, you don’t own me.” so many times that you don’t register them anymore.

Then create the magic that is teaching.

When you’re finished, go home, smile, and tell your spouse that you day went well.

We couldn’t do that without tenure. We couldn’t be sure that the time we put our hands up to make sure that we weren’t hit, we wouldn’t lose our job. That calling CPS on a parent could get us fired. That teaching a book that someone decided to not like would jeopardize our career. That hugging a crying child would get us fired for sexual harassment.

Teacher tenure is not the enemy.

The enemy is multi-billion dollar companies making money off of your children. Multi billion dollar companies with BUSINESSMEN figuring out how to squeeze you for the most money with fear mongering and making you believe that if you don’t buy or do x, y, and z then your child will be a “failure” or “unsafe”. I bet The View’s ratings just shot up. Better ratings = more money. It’s not that hard to see through.

The enemy is forgetting that it takes a village, and blaming the teachers when the village has left them all alone.

So tonight look at your own children and, knowing what horrible things lurk in the world, thank whatever gods you believe in that when they go to school you can know that they are safe.

They are safe because their teachers love them, nurture them, and care for them when you can’t.

And if you don’t like the system there is an alternative – quit your job and do mine – homeschool your kids.

Just don’t remove the joy and magic of learning from millions of students’ lives because you think you know what you’re taking about when you bash teacher tenure.


Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content

On East High

photo (11)I walked outside to sit in the sun during my lunch yesterday. I needed a break from giving the NYS test that measures the progress of non-English speaking students. There are no benches in front of the school, but that’s where the sun was, so I sat down on the concrete sidewalk. I noticed two things as I was sitting there; a dandelion growing in the crack in the path, and a dead rat.

I sat there thinking about that flower and that rat and how appropriately those two things seemed to reflect what was going on at East.

There are a lot of dead rats, literally and figuratively, in the RCSD.

I have worked for the district for the past five years. In those five years I have worked out of three different schools. The first was closed, the second was re-organized and finally I was placed at East. Who knows where I’ll be next year.

In those five years I was never paid the correct salary. Every year, come September, I spent a month fighting my way through multiple offices downtown to get my pay scale readjusted.

This year I had a baby, which you would think would be a fairly normal occurrence in the teaching profession. Somehow my paperwork didn’t get processed correctly at Central Office and I was not allowed to be out on “medical leave”, so my health insurance was terminated. I received thousands of dollars in bills from the hospital for simply having my daughter while I was employed with health insurance. In a weird twist of fate that I couldn’t make up, the RCSD also continued to pay me while I was out on whatever leave I was on. I had to tell them to stop paying me.

Those are just my personal issues. Multiply that by the 200+ teachers and staff at East.

Did you know that there are students who attend other schools in the district full time that are included in our New York State “report card”? Students who attend RIA (Jefferson), WEP (Edison), Young Mothers, and incarceration programs all are linked to East through NYS data. These students never step foot on East’s campus, are not taught by East’s teachers, yet are part of our state numbers to determine if we are failing or not? How can you measure the effectiveness of the administration or staff if we literally do not see these students?

Did you know that many of us in federally mandated positions – namely special education and English language teachers – are routinely laid off, then rehired, but placed at different schools? Look at the fact that East alone has almost 25% special needs students and another 25% ELL students. That means that almost 50% of the school is in need of specialty teachers – teachers who are routinely transient through no fault of East’s administration. How can you expect the district’s neediest populations to thrive when their teachers have no idea what or where they’ll be teaching from year to year? Or even if they will be teaching? How can we “fail” or “save” East if we can’t even figure out who works there?

Lots and lots of dead rats… although next to that rat was the dandelion.

Have you ever heard the story of the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete? The rose that struggled through the pavement to reach the sun?

There are dandelions and roses growing all through the cracks at East.

One sprouted up this morning when I got called “Mom” by two different kids in the same class, and another when East held its 5th annual Iron Chef competition in partnership with Wegmans last week.

A dandelion bloomed when I graded my classes’ practice ELA exams and 80% of them passed.

A rose grew when my student ran in to show me the MVP trophy he won pitching last night’s baseball game and when the boys’ basketball team competed in the NYSPHSAA Class A Finals in March.

More grew this afternoon when one of my students emailed me to ask when he could come in to take his NYS test; because even though he was home sick, he knew it was important.

You see, East isn’t failing, it’s doing the best it can in a system that is so broken, no one knows how to fix it. In all of this chaos, 80% of students are showing up to school on a regular basis. 43% of them are graduating. 100% of East’s Teaching and Learning Institute and Culinary graduates are going to college. We put on plays, staff clubs, and put in hour after hour making our classrooms safe places. We show up day after day believing that we can make a difference; even when they take away our insurance, don’t pay us correctly, or lay us off every year. We show up. We make a difference.

You see, you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals – on the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity. We would all love its will to reach the sun.

Long live the dandelions and roses that grow in the cracks at East. #grownintheconcrete

Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

On Teaching and Loss

I lost one of my former students today.  He died from a blood disease that I didn’t even know he had. He came to me as an 11 year old from West Africa; a scared but proud boy.

He didn’t talk for the first few weeks that he was in my class, which often happens to ELL students when they are overwhelmed linguistically early in their schooling. So instead of starting the curriculum right away I brought in pictures of me in East Africa. I showed him photos of me eating traditional foods and sitting on the ground under the African sun. I showed him photos of my students and told him about how much I loved them and how much I loved Africa too. I wore my traditional skirts and jewelry to school- a white lady in an urban, city school – looking like I was off my rocker. I talked to him every day during our time together, smiled at him, and because I couldn’t tell him I tried to show him that things would be ok.

About a month into classes he started to open up and man could that kid’s smile light up the room. He grew more confident each day, applying himself to learning English with dedication and persistence way beyond his years. He struggled. He got frustrated. He got tired. And he came back day after day determined to do something about it.

I know he was a 6th grader, but I taught him using 1st and 2nd grade books. We read Click, Clack, Moo and made animal noises. I bought a farm set and his class acted out, filmed, and produced a theatric version of the book. I taught him how to use the computer and how to edit videos. I taught him how to type. I spent weeks with him and his classmates on this one project because I believed I was teaching them the skills they would need to survive in American schools.

I had that luxury. I was an ELL teacher before modules and before districts got scared and stopped believing in their teachers. I was an ELL teacher when there were actual standards that applied to my specialty area, because we knew it wasn’t fair to subject newcomers to the grade level standards they were not linguistically ready for. I was an ELL teacher when we all remembered that we were there for the kids.

At the end of that year I was asked to move to high school to help start up a new program. It was time for me to move on and it was time for my student to as well. I kept tabs on him – friended him on my teacher Facebook page, went to see him play soccer – all of those things teachers do because we love our kids, not because it’s in the job description.

This summer (three years later) I got the following message :

Hi Mrs Kelly will u like to see my GPA? You really help me a lot in school 30 :)I will never forget about my first English teacher. I remember I didn’t know how to read & write but now I’m trying :)I just want to say thank you a lot for all you did for me.

He sent me a picture of his report card. His GPA was a 4.0.  He was in high school and he wasn’t just trying, he was killing it!  He had, in just a few short years, grown into a young man that I was insanely proud of.

This is why I teach.

No state score could tell you this story. No test could measure who my student was.

I encourage you all to think about what it means to be a teacher- and what that looks like in your classroom.




Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.