WHY we are waiting for Superman…

i originally wanted to title this post, why John Muir Middle School will be taken over, but out of respect to my former colleagues and students (the later probably not minding so much) i thought it better to frame it in a bigger context. for even though this post will be largely personal in nature i believe it speaks to larger problem in general…

P.S. (should go on the bottom but i wanted it to be seen here)
as i have been reflecting on this for the last couple of days, i have realized that even the above statement could contain enough seeds of disrespect to my former colleagues… it was written from a place of heart and disbelief… i will not be removing it for i feel that it would not accurately show the record and evolution of my own thoughts on these events… yet i wanted to make clear -even though this is part of the problem when you try to make something clear and people just skew and spin it how they want to hear, see, and read it… that i have ALWAYS wanted my former school to be allowed the self-determination to decide its own fate in the ever changing and uncertain times. i have ALWAYS wanted the community the school serves to be allowed more involvement in these decisions… i have ALWAYS wanted the teaching staff to be unified as to be able to determine a brighter direction for the school… and I HAVE ALWAYS TAKEN THE SIDE OF STUDENTS OVER EVERYTHING ELSE… there are great people at john muir… from the students all the way on up through every staffed position and beyond out unto the community and they have helped shape me in so many positive ways… but there is a struggle going on and it is not always pretty. the following is just one small part of the struggle…

for those of you who do not know my former home of 5 years, john muir middle school has been through a lot in that time. we have seen 4 principals in that time. we have gone from a year round to a traditional school. we have expanded the campus to accommodate increased numbers and have shrunken the campus because of declining enrollment. we have fired many teachers… and have also “hired” (and been forced to absorb displaced teachers with tenure from other campuses – must places as they are termed)… this is not to mention the multiple plans we have been asked to write and revise and programs we have had to try and implement mandated by our local and central district. and with all of these changes we have at times increased our test scores and of late decreased our API
yet this year we are faced with one of the most pivotal situations for our campus for we have been designated for the public school choice resolution, essentially meaning that muir’s campus will be open for turn around plans to be written so that the board may decide the direction and management of the campus based on the strength of that plan and other considerations… what many would call a “take over”… and while the current team of public educators has available to the them and is pursuing the construction of their own plan, there are other organizations that are also free to submit a proposal for management of our campus…

i use words like “we” and “our” because i still belong to a family/community of john muir. the students remind me of that every time i visit… or when i see them around the neighborhood. and many of my colleagues remind of the professional and personal relationships that we cultivated during my time as a teacher there… which is why i was requested back on a campus today by one of their premier teachers… a department head and just an excellent teacher all around… one that i collaborated with on many occasions during my tenure at muir and an educator i hope to collaborate with again in the future…

teaching up at manual arts affords me a different schedule due to our year round nature and provides me with the opportunity to work at other campuses during my break, as they are still in session. what better way to remain close to students and teachers that i grew close with than to be able to cover as a substitute when needed. yet i more often than not utilize ALL of my vacation for myself because i feel the need to rejuvenate having worked so hard in the classroom… yet today was different because this aforementioned colleague reached out to me and requested me as a substitute for her classes, which is populated by many of my former students. it was an opportunity to assist her as well as see familiar faces of students i care a lot about…

and the first two periods were exactly that… not very interesting. i assisted both my colleague and my former students by carrying out the given lesson plan fairly effectively as i could assess in my own limited experience. she had told through multiple correspondence in preparation for her absence that there would be visitors from the district coming by to observe the lesson, which i had totally forgotten but was not a big deal since the teacher had so prepared me to deliver the instruction she expected…

the story does not get interesting until around 3rd period, when i was asked to cover another class, which i gladly obliged… there was no lesson plan left so i began the students on a warm up relevant to the class and everything was going smooth until a coordinator came in and said that they needed me elsewhere, not too uncommon when you are subbing at a school on any given day when there are lots of teachers out…

upon returning to the main office i was instructed to see the assistant principal. in the interim of waiting for him a former colleague pulled me aside and politely told me that the meeting was to take place because “they” didn’t want me on campus… well i was assured in the fact that there was at least one person who DID want me on campus (the requesting teacher who went through the proper channels to request coverage for an absence and DID secure a job number which ensures that i do get paid for the entire day no matter what assignment i end up doing… not to mention the hundreds of smiles and hellos from students) yet i waited for my meeting with this administrator…

although it may seem a little confusing… i was not totally in the dark at this point, though for all of my lack of “extensive” experience (10 plus years) working with the district… i have definitely been introduced quite thoroughly to the political nature of this job… the adult centered nature of this job… the part of the job that forgets about kids…

you see, i no longer work at john muir because i made a personal decision to leave an environment that steadily, each consecutive year, had shifted from focusing on the students and instruction, to focusing on political posturing and ideological debates centered around adult issues. this shift became so petty and unprofessional towards the end of my 5 years there that i had to make a decision that was in my best interest… yet i was not ready to leave the students nor that community… i enjoyed my JOB at john muir… i just couldn’t handle the irrelevant adult issues that came along with such transition at a struggling school. an opportunity presented itself that would allow me to stay in the community and teach many of my former students from muir at the high school up the street, manual arts

enter the boogey man: MLA
a rather uneventful subplot in my opinion, apparently is the driving narrative factor in the events leading up to me being asked to leave my former campus, the one i was assigned today…

let me reiterate: i was NOT allowed to finish my assignment at john muir today. i was told that i could no longer remain on my old campus (reasons to follow below)

the school i work at now, although it is fed primarily by john muir and another main middle school in the area, is partnered with MLA through iDesign, and MLA is one of the organizations writing a proposal to manage john muir under the public school choice plan…

and so what you might ask? my sentiments exactly… yet it is this one fact; that i work at a school that is partnered with MLA that prevented me from doing my job by students today… even though i am an employee of the district (which i still have yet to determine if my contractual rights were violated in anyway)

apparently people like me are a threat… why? because adults that should be concerned with doing their jobs and focusing on students and their education are not doing that… at first when i was asked to meet with the assistant principal (who is new to john muir this year) he approached me with a question about a alleged incident i had with a student, a student that i did not see the entire day nor i know of at all… when i assured him that the story he had heard was false he proceeded to tell me that there had been some type of mistake and that there were too many substitutes on campus and that my services were no longer needed… of course my job number given by the district substitute unit disproves that claim… and even if that were true (which i don’t dispute) there is always something to be done at an inner city school… not the least of which should be effectively instructing children in the appropriate content matter.

when pressed further to the nature of what this was really all about he left momentarily to go attempt to find out. he came back ten minutes later and we had a more honest dialogue upon which he revealed that the “main” reason i was being asked to leave was because some teachers (from what i gathered a large majority of my former colleagues) were not happy with my presence on campus… which confuses me still for i have yet to find these teachers… or students… or whatever. which speaks to either the fallacy of this statement or to the stealth of a conspiracy that i am just now being alerted to… no, i believe that in my heart the truth is that there is a small, vocal minority that harbors certain animosity towards me because i chose to leave before they thought i should, or because of certain ideals and actions i maintained during my time there… yet i suspect further that it is based on a perpetuated mistrust of intentions surrounding this year’s imminent fork in the road for the john muir community… i fork that i did not place there, nor do i continue to have a hand in steering the direction to which path is chosen for them. my hands and heart at john muir have done a lot… i’d like to believe a lot of good, and continue to do so for the nature of this profession is that we shape young minds… but that is not the focus.

unfortunately for the students of john muir the focus continues to be adult driven agendas, petty political theater…

there is more to the back story that could be exposed… certain people’s history with certain organizations… certain people’s feelings about certain decisions… but the one decision i am still questioning made by the principal… did i really need to be asked to leave my assignment AND leave my former campus? how did that benefit the students AT ALL???

interesting to note that i was not instructed to leave my assignment during the 2 periods when district observations were taking place for a combined time of 35 minutes, when 8 separate people including the principal and instructional coach and different instructional experts from the district were observing my delivery of the stellar lesson that was left for me… interesting to note that i was not told directly by the decision maker has to why this decision was made and necessary… if it is even legal at all.

and as i await a “promised” phone call from the principal to further explain the need for this decision, all the while collecting all of my pay for blogging from home… i can assure you that this is nothing short of: fiscally irresponsible (part and parcel to the taxpayer $$$ being wasted unnecessarily on folks in the education field doing nothing and getting paid for it) , instructionally unsound (the sub that took over for me was hard at work showing the kids a magic trick with a deck of cards), personally disrespectful and motivated by the exact opposite of what should motivate educators daily…

it is also why so many people are waiting for some type of superman to “save” the system of public education… because they are busy making up these mythical super villains to combat and defeat… there is a longing for someone to come in who is above all the pettiness and maintains laser like focus on the ultimate and moral goal; that of educating our youth, someone who is beyond corruption and politics… someone who makes decisions that are ONLY in the best interest of students and who doesn’t pay concern to a politicized base… a superhero… yet all we really need is for people to come in and love the students they teach enough to give their best everyday in the classroom and commit to constantly trying to improve, to be better… and although i would never argue that i am the former, although i have dreamed about being one all of my life… i can honestly say that i strive to be the later…

and until people in leadership positions can stop playing politics and ostracizing (criminalizing) those who are dedicated, who do their job and are good at it… then we will be stuck waiting… waiting…. waiting…

waiting for dialogue… (the first pt. 2)

so i have given the movie 24 hours to marinate… (1 football loss, a saturday professional development, and countless articles – my favorites to come later in this post)

Waiting for Superman is a very well made documentary. it hits all the right emotional chords with audiences… and why shouldn’t it? the issue of of how we are or are not educating millions of our countries children (THE FUTURE to quote the once esteemed whitney houston) should hit us ALL over the head like an emotional hammer swung from somewhere by someone who simultaneously nods their disapproving head in shame… but not merely to judge… but more to say that we are capable of so much more. positioned as the richest nation state the world has ever seen, we should not tolerate what is even less then educational mediocrity…

the movie starts off from a perspective that i am about to become very familiar with, that of film maker davis guggenheim as a parent… if i came in with any hardened skepticism as a public school teacher in the inner city who knows damn well that i have been doing my best and improving my craft for the last 6 years… i was soon softened by the well crafted vulnerability of guggenheim’s conflicted stance of historically being a proponent of public education, but not wanting to put his own children in a system the audience quickly discovers is in serious dysfunction…

none of the “shocking” statistics were very surprising to me, but what was a surprise was how easy yet effective the presentation of this information was in the film… clever visuals, well placed narration, and music created an eerie balance of sadness, outrage, and hope?

there were times when the issues were watered down to a simplicity that often kills the type of national discussion that i am hoping for… statements such as, “It should be simple, a teacher fills a student with knowledge and sends them on their way…” sat uncomfortably on my conscious, an educator who knows better. in fact anyone who has read a little of my rantings on this site knows that i subscribe the exact opposite… more of a constructivist approach – kids are not empty cups to be filled, knowledge (a.k.a. the acquisition of new information or learning) is much more active of a process.

the two issues that many teachers are taking up as the battle cry to avoid seeing this film are the anti- teacher union and the pro-charter stances. i however did not find these to be so over the top to disqualify this film as a good starting point to get the public discussing education from a somewhat more informed stance. and the fact that teachers unions are actively fighting against certain popular reform ideas such as merit pay and measuring and evaluating teacher quality based on performance cannot be disputed… and the all too often denial by many union rank and file members that there are teachers who are “bad” for students is something that i will never sugar coat… i have seen ineffective teachers, good people perhaps, but not cut out for the responsibility of teaching children… some of them are more than ineffective, some of them are plain damaging… i have “represented” some of these individuals as part of my duties as a union chair, individuals who were “must places” or individuals who were sitting in a small district office awaiting some kind of decision while they collect a teacher’s salary without teaching a single student… on a certain level it is as simple as good teacher vs. bad teacher… what is not as simple is how one determines this… a topic i want to explore later in another post.

the second issue of charter schools is one i may be more sympathetic to and although many of the most talented educators i know have gone on to teach and administrate at charters, i take issue with the misguided belief that charters are automatically better than public schools… by and large the opposite holds true. by the film’s own admission only 1 and 5 charter schools is producing amazing results (which is to say that charter schools are not exempt from the same symptoms that plague our public schools)… yet one had to listen very closely to catch this single and simple fact… the rest of the film proceeds to document the struggles of ordinary families attempting to take the charter route in a very emotionally raw and real way.

one could argue that the mere footage spent on highlighting certain charters as the viable alternative to a really shitty public education is not balanced. yet i didn’t find it threatening that the film chose to highlight things that are working for students… in fact i was inspired to continue to find more effective ways that work for students in my own school and classroom.

knowing that my “progressive” ideals should align me with the anti-superman sentiment lauded by many in the educational community… i found the film at times echoing my own sentiments and even at one point the infamous michelle rhee (a TFA alumni – which should make her an automatic nemesis of mine for reasons found here) reiterated words that i had just spoken to a colleague hours before the movie started… that education reform always ends up being about adult issues as opposed to what is in the best interest of students. she actually goes on to state that we have a, “…Willingness to turn a blind eye against injustice to kids in schools in the name of harmony amongst adults…” and that “… “teaching is a privilege…”

it is this sentiment that i think resonates with me the most, that too often in the education reform debate, the students are lost…

in all i think that the film is one that undoubtedly is going to be seen by many and that makes me somewhat hopeful that an informed debate can possibly evolve into an informed discussion… before that happens i think there is more that needs to be drawn into the dialogue as vital information in order for people to speak intelligently and collaboratively around what we all should share in common, the desire to give the best education to all of children…

some perspectives to look into:
http://www.theamericancrawl.com/?p=599&cpage=1#comment-57509
http://idea.gseis.ucla.edu/newsroom/our-ideas/themes-in-the-news
http://www.examiner.com/parenting-education-in-los-angeles/waiting-for-superman (thanks to tony for the opportunity to see this film for free!)
http://socialistworker.org/2010/09/30/still-waiting-for-the-truth
http://www.fairtest.org/real-facts-about-waiting-superman

waiting for dialogue…

today is the day that the supposed best film of the year comes out… “Waiting for Superman” is a documentary supposedly highlighting the desperate need for this country to reexamine its core beliefs surrounding public education, that is has finally come time to reform a system that historically has left certain sectors of our population (mainly poor, working class communities of color) marginalized from the american dream of upward mobility via education… as a public middle school and high school teacher in the inner city for the last 6 years this should sound like music to my ears… yet i am very critical (a demeanor i think all things with such media hype that have the potential to affect millions of children should be approached with) of some of the notions that this film will undoubtedly leave the general public with…

i have been hesitating to post on this subject for over a month now… and i am not going to go into all of the complexities surrounding the issue of why so many of our public schools are failing… not yet anyway…
but everything from race and class, to value added measurement of teachers… to speculations over apparent suicides… are driving home the ever apparent fact that anything can and will be used to get certain people recognition or power for doing something good, especially for children… and although i know there are many who are not doing right by children (from the classroom to the white house)… there are those of us who are, despite all of the obstacles that policy makers and ideologue reformers place in our way by not talking about the real issues… and there is no magic potion that will change our schools around, no adult centered debate around ideology (political, educational, or otherwise) that will magically lift up any of us to the status of a superhero (even though we all want to be one)

as i wait to see this film and the after discussion with state senator gloria romero (running for the next superintendent of public instruction for california) i am hopeful that maybe through media bombardment, the education of our youth may finally bear the resemblance of an informed national dialogue…

what i am not hopeful of is a superman or woman to come and fix what i try to hold together and maker better for my students everyday… because as gil scott heron reminds us: