The Inside Scoop – One Teacher’s Experience

TeacherBlackboardby Deana Chadwell    9/15/14
Schools across the nation have opened their doors; kids, dressed in their new school duds, carrying their new school backpacks have headed off for another year of learning. Their teachers have lesson plans written, and their rooms decorated.  Many are just as excited as the kids.  Though teachers, because of unions and because of the often left-wing curricula, have been stigmatized and blamed, we need to realistically look at what is happening to our teachers, many of whom work 50-60 hour weeks in extremely frustrating, counter-productive circumstances. The miasma of public school education is a many-headed monster, and many of those horrid heads are administrative. Let me tell you a story:

A good friend of mine teaches in a Title I grade school. Title I means that a high percentage of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunches (such as they are these days), which means that a large percentage of the students come from poor, and often dysfunctional homes. My friend – I’ll call her Rachel – teaches in the middle grades – 3rd and 4th – some years both in the same classroom. Luckily she’s very good at what she does and has successfully pulled that off. This year she didn’t know what grade she should be preparing to teach until the end of her in-service “week”—the few days she’s paid each fall to prep for the year.

Her district knew in the spring that its 3rd grade enrollment was up, but no district wants to commit to adding staff until the gun is cocked and pressed against the temple, so nothing was done. Rachel understood that she might have to teach the combination class again — or she might not. No decision came down until the end of the last day of the prep week.

OK. I can hear you — All jobs are hard and she’s had the summer off – stop the whining, but that’s just the beginning. So, at the last moment Rachel’s principal gets the go-ahead to hire a new 3rd grade teacher – just days before children will be filling the classrooms.

Oh, and there is no classroom. No desk for the teacher, no desks for her students, no books, no stapler – no nothing. Just the myth of another section of 3rd graders – and they are ready for school.

So, the principal orders the teachers to clean out their break room, move the resource room into the staff room, and set up the new classroom in the resource space. Then he went home for the weekend, leaving the teachers, who are not paid for that time, to spend their last few days before the doors open for the year, not prepping for their own classes, but schlepping furniture and scrounging supplies for the phantom teacher.

Last I talked to Rachel no new teacher had been hired. They can’t find one. In this school there should be 4 teachers for 3rd grade. Only 2 are there teaching. One is out on maternity leave and has a long-term substitute (which is another bureaucratic nightmare) and the ghost teacher’s position is being filled by a substitute notorious for her incompetence (one who has announced her plan to go into administration). Angry parents are descending upon the principal’s office.

Why aren’t there any teachers available to hire for this position? Here’s what happened – in the spring there was an available teacher, a talented young lady who had done her student teaching in Rachel’s school and who was hopeful of gaining employment there. When that hope dimmed she took a short-contract position at another school. When Rachel’s principal finally offered her a long-term contract to get her back, all hell broke loose.

The other principal who had hired the new teacher fought to keep her and successfully lobbied the superintendent to force Rachel’s principal to offer the new 3rd grade job as a short-term contract only. This robbed the new teacher of a chance at a solid career start and robbed Rachel’s school of any chance to secure another teacher in time.

Meanwhile back to Rachel, who has had no time to prep for her 4th grade class, which, she has just learned, will be burgeoning with students transferring from other schools. Why would they be doing that?

Well, that is courtesy of federal law. You see, if a Title I school fails the No Child Left Behind standards (in any category) parents are notified and informed that they may transfer their children to a passing Title I school at the district’s expense. Rachel’s school met the standards – partly because 90% of her students passed their exams; as I said before, she’s very good at what she does – so this year the reward will be more students. Not a bonus. Not a promotion. Not even an atta-boy. An overload.

This story is important, partly because it’s typical. As a veteran of almost 30 years in the public schools, I have seen this scenario played out dozens of times. In fact I still have an August nightmare that I get to school and find that I’ve been assigned to teach calculus or chemistry (I’m a typical English teacher so that is truly a nightmare.).

And the story is important also because it clearly illustrates much of what is wrong in public education – the bureaucratic mindset. Let me enumerate the problems:

  • The people running things have no stake in the outcome. If Rachel’s class comes apart this fall because of inadequate planning, the superintendent is not going to live through the ensuing chaos, yet it was his decision to postpone the inevitable.
  • The number of rules and regulations from the union, the state, and the federal government has gummed up the works. Example: earlier I mentioned the complications with long-term subs. Well, federal regulations require that a long term substitute must be “highly qualified” (What does that imply about the usual, temporary subs? Are they only moderately qualified? Gees.). The official definition of “highly qualified” is a person who has passed the $250 exam that they, themselves, have to pay for. When this district’s HR department hired the sub for the teacher on maternity leave they didn’t tell her about the test and when she found out – just days before school started – she said no thanks. So the only available qualified person got that job and that left no one for the phantom 3rd grade section.
  • Teachers are quitting. Who wants to be jerked around like the instructors in this school – in this very typical school?
  • Too often teachers who can’t hack it in the classroom become administrators – who can’t do that job either, but there they don’t have to face out-of-control students — they can hide in their offices.
  • Also too often excellent teachers who want to advance leave the classroom for administration. Partly this happens because in teaching the only way up is out, and partly it happens because these professionals want to make it better for both teachers and students. Then they discover how powerless they are to improve things. And the school is out another good teacher.

We hear a lot of fuss about Common Core these days – and there is much to be concerned about, but most of the bother is aimed at the wrong target. Common Core, like its predecessor No Child Left Behind, is yet another layer of bureaucracy when our schools are already drowning in useless rules, and another tidal wave from the feds will not make things better. Nor will more demands from the unions. Bureaucrats, who are often lazy, self-serving, and incompetent, produce the fodder for the unions, and the unionized teachers, who are sometimes just as lazy, self-serving and incompetent, provide the need for the rules and regulations. Can you spell vicious circle?

And who suffers? Kids. Parents. All of us, actually. I do see hope in the charter school movement. I see hope in the voucher system – let the free market sort this out. Let good teachers earn bonuses. Let good administrators have more power. And keep it all small and local and transparent as glass.


Deana Chadwell blogs at ASingleWindow.com.
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Deana Chadwell

About Deana Chadwell

I have spent my life teaching young people how to read and write and appreciate the wonder of words. I have worked with high school students and currently teach writing at Pacific Bible College in southern Oregon. I have spent more than forty years studying the Bible, theology, and apologetics and that finds its way into my writing whether I’m blogging about my experiences or my opinions. I have two and a half moldering novels, stacks of essays, hundreds of poems, some which have won state and national prizes. All that writing — and more keeps popping up — needs a home with a big plate glass window; it needs air; it needs a conversation.
I am also an artist who works with cloth, yarn, beads, gourds, polymer clay, paint, and photography. And I make soap.

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16 Responses to The Inside Scoop – One Teacher’s Experience

  1. Glenn Fairman says:

    Good God what a nightmare! As a sub, I know that I must live by my wits and that although I may have a decent background in the wide scope of material that will be covered, I don’t kid myself that I can launch myself into the breach and make it all come together seamlessly. Much preparation and thought is necessary to instruct, and subs are there, if we are to be honest here, to fulfill the mandate for a certificated individual in the classroom—although a long term aide who has experience in the classroom is often exponentially more effective.

    We are there to take the roll, make sure the kids do not crawl on the walls, and if we can proctor a test or get through the day’s curriculum without too much of a hitch, then we have been effective in a minimal way. Sometimes we can barely get the roll called and spend each hour verbally sparring with kids trying to get under our skin so they can video us with their phones. Would you want to do this?

    You gave me a headache with this one, Deana. A spot-on piece that should be read by every administrator……at the very least.

    • Sorry about the headache — I spent a year subbing so I know what you mean. The whole issue of substitute teachers makes some ridiculous assumptions about the nature of the profession, as if teachers are merely functionaries that can be slotted in where ever necessary and nothing will be lost. Now I’m getting a headache. 🙂

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      They allow phones in the classroom?

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Kids had phones in every class I ever taught. It would take too long to confiscate every phone, but I did take a few from kids if they got out of hand. I was particularly testy if they tried to use a phone during a test.

        The problem is that even if a teacher takes away a phone, the kid can pick it up the same afternoon at the principal’s office. The admin will simply not allow a strict across the board rule which would allow teachers to take away phones all the time.

        I think disciplinary examples are no longer acceptable in today’s PC educational environment.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That very much sounds like the role of a fine substitute teacher. Pick up a chair, grab a whip, and try to tame the little lion cubs until the bell rings.

      I remember we used to give substitute teachers such as Glenn hell. When a substitute teacher came, everyone knew that it was the signal to slack off, if not revisit “Lord of the Flies.”

      Children know, on some level, that they are inmates. And so if any weakness is shown by the guards, you get the little-tyke equivalent of Attica! Attica!

      Glenn, after all these years, I’m glad that I have a duly-authorized representative of your profession to make amends to. I am sorry for raising my hand and asking stupid questions that I already knew the answer to just to kill time and dick with the substitute. I’m sorry for not sitting in my assigned seat so that I was called “Tom” instead of “Brad,” the poor substitute knowing us only by the seating chart.

      I’m sorry for lying when the substitute teacher asked “Have you read such-and-such yet?” and replied with such a sweet and innocent face, “Oh yes, Mrs. Doormat, we did that last week. We’re supposed to be watching the instructional film now.”

      Okay, I present my knuckles for punishment. Here is the wooden ruler. And not too hard. My friend, Bobby, is videoing this. His father is a lawyer.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    This piece reinforces my belief that the American “education system” is the biggest long term problem facing this country.

    Many schools simply serve as a baby-sitting service for parents. Yet unlike parents, the schools have little or no power to discipline the children attending these schools.

    If Texas schools are any indication of what is happening around the rest of the country then the teachers receive little support from the administrators. Teachers get the blame when difficult situations arise as the teachers are supposed to be responsible for what goes on in their classrooms, yet they have no authority to take the steps required to rectify things. The best that can be done is to through a kid out of the classroom, but this is only temporary and if done too often, the administration can’t understand why.

    We are raising a herd of serfs as too many children are not learning the basics of education. They are pushed through school in order for the ISD’s to receive the x dollars per student as per law. The kids come out as functional illiterates, but they can all use iPhones and such.

    As I have said before, I do not know how the country will survive given the present trajectory of our present public education system.

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    I have some friends in Bloomington, Indiana who do some substitute teaching, but they’ve never reported anything like this. But I have read that most of the increased funding in recent decades has gone into administrative costs rather than teaching, so this is all too believable. I assume, to the extent that the principal thought anything, that he assumed that someone who has taught all the various permutations of 3rd and 4th grades can simply decide which plan to reuse.

    Personally, I favor junking the public school system per se. I think it has become too hopelessly corrupted to recover. The facilities and personnel (those who are actually qualified for their jobs, at least) would still be available for privatized use.

    • Perhaps I should have explained more thoroughly why shifting grade levels is such a big deal: curricula are in a huge state of flux right now — new standards, new methods. Nothing is ever completely repeatable.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Note that I wasn’t saying that I agreed with that view, merely that the administration might feel that way. So we’re left with either they had no idea that the curriculum is in flux (which means a high degree of ignorance), or had no idea that this would require more preparation than they allowed (which means a high degree of stupidity), or simply didn’t care (which means a high degree of vicious arrogance). Oy vay.

  4. Glenn Fairman says:

    Just came back from a meeting at the Board of Education with a union rep and the VP of a middle school. It appears I was accused of racial discrimination by a student who was acting up in class and I had sent out 2 weeks ago. The school was only informed of the act this morning by an irate African American parent. After repeated attempts to quiet an unruly student, I told him to leave the classroom which he would not. Eventually the student asked: “Are you picking on me because I’m black?” I informed him ironically with a quick, “Yeah, right” and finally got him to leave.

    This is what teachers must put up with: walking on eggshells lest we offend the little demons. I have subbed for a total of ten seasons and never was I accused of an impropriety. All it takes is a casual word and one’s entire career can be tainted by a child who is failing in their classes and is seeking to deflect responsibility by playing the race card on a hypersensitive parent. Makes me want to go drown myself.

    • Yes — been there and done that. Sorry it happened to you — you deserve better than that. I have to tell a funny story to cheer you up. One of my dear friends was teaching remedial reading (ugh) shortly after her messy divorce. She was dealing with one of her many recalcitrant students when he called her a f–king b—h. She gave him her best teacher stare and said, “B—h, yes. F–king, no.” And she kept her job. 🙂

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I can sympathize with Glenn. Students will too often try to take advantage of subs simply because they can.

        I had one student answer me with “yes, Bro”. I crossed about twenty feet of classroom in one tenth of a second arriving at his desk. I pointed a bony finger at him and informed him I was not his bro, blood, dude, friend, mommy or daddy. I then told him he could address me by my last name preceded by Mr., the first initial of my last name preceded by Mr. or sir. I emphasized this by asking if he understood me, to which he replied he did.

        As I walked back to the desk he said “I can’t help it, I’m just a dumb Mexican”.

        Now, half the class was of Latino extraction, so perhaps he thought he would put me at a disadvantage. But I turned around and asked him if he meant that all Mexicans were dumb? Did he mean all his Mexican classmates were dumb and rude? I then followed up more or less telling him that the problem had nothing to do with being Mexican, rather it had to do with a lack of class and respect for others. I had no problems with him after that.

        But I had similar types of experiences in various schools in the area. I had one kid threaten me, finally asking me “what’s your name again?” I pointed out that I had written it on the black board and spelled it out for him. He shut up too.

        My experience in what is supposed to be an excellent school system has convinced me that the best hope our country has is the home school movement.

      • Glenn Fairman says:

        funny, but in our environment, she would have been reprimanded.

        A little background here. The High School that this middle school feeds into is in the midst of a big racial wing ding. Apparently, a Spanish teacher fed up with the kids screwing around began moving the problems to different spots on the seating chart. One of the black kids made the comment. “Why are you moving all the niggers? The teacher responded under her breath, “moving the niggers.” now who knows how the phrase was uttered…….as irony, as a question, or as one of disdain or malevolence. Methinks that the big news in the paper is driving my own horseshit.

        Moreover, in one of the worst High Schools I have ever had the displeasure of working at, a faculty member was just indicted for sexual congress with male students. SBCUSD is such a horrible place to work for a teacher. The fact that they pay 127.00 for what amounts to combat pay is the only appeal.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Little monsters.

  5. SkepticalCynic SkepticalCynic says:

    If it wasn’t for needing an income to feed ourselves and pay the bills there would be few people working in schools. Come to think about it, if we all had a huge trust there would be very little done anywhere, period. I worked a thankless job for 35 years as far as the management was concerned, the satisfaction of the challenge of doing a highly technical job and doing it well was my personal reward. Of course eating and paying my bills was the other half.

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