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Good teaching—interrupted [an update]

August 2016: As new school year opens, I'm re-posting this story of a still too common scenario about how we often lose the very teachers we claim we need most, with a postscript.

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I have been teaching long enough now that I have the pleasure of watching some of my former students become my colleagues. One of them is Maxwell, a young man now in his early thirties whom I have known since he was a ninth grader. Thoughtful, respectful, and intelligent, Maxwell has always leaned toward public service. He was raised in a foster home by a loving, elderly couple, and after their deaths, helped to raise his two younger sisters. After graduating from college with honors, he served two tours in Iraq; then the married father of two boys decided he wanted to be a teacher and a role model to other Black young men.

Max has taught history at several high schools, and is highly respected by co-workers and students. For those who care about numbers, every year that he has taught, 95% of Max’s students have succeeded on the state’s history exit exam (with the exception of one year when the average slipped to 87%). Like so many of us, Max spends large amounts of his personal time and money on his students. He prepares lessons weeks in advance, constantly reflects and monitors his own work, pursues his own professional development, and volunteers for extra duties at the school, all without additional compensation.

You would think he’d be a poster for the future of teaching: a successful, minority male teacher who cares about his students and whose students perform well academically. You’d think his school administrators would be thrilled to have him on their staff and support his efforts.

Think again.

Max, who is also a deacon in our church, sat with me after service recently and explained why he has decided to look for other career options. I had followed the saga over the last year and a half since his school changed principals (again) and had been put under state receivership because of administrative/financial mismanagement issues and low student performance (obviously, not Max’s students). The new principal, a transfer from an elementary school in another district, is according to the teachers, “weak” in dealing with high school students or administrative issues. The tipping point for Max, however, has been the state-appointed consultant who has been given carte blanche to evaluate and dictate teaching practice to all faculty--including those who don’t need such micromanaging.  

“It’s like everything I do or want to do now is unacceptable,” he told me, almost in tears. “I just can’t take it anymore.” He has been threatened by his new principal with firing on the grounds of insubordination (we are a right -to-work state), unless he stops disagreeing with the consultant and simply “does what he is told.” Being fired on those grounds would also put his teaching license in jeopardy.

This particular situation carries heavy racial overtones: the consultant is a white woman, with limited teaching experience herself, and none teaching African American students. What she does have is a lot of educational theory, a laundry list of generic best practices, and authority from the district leadership to tell every teacher what and how to teach, even in subjects for which she has no pedagogical background.  If this were just one consultant in one school causing problems for one highly effective teacher, the situation could be salvageable, and so might Maxwell’s career. Unfortunately, similar scenes are being played out in predominantly Black and poor schools all across the Delta, and the nation.    

Maxwell, like many of my young Black students, wants to remain here in the Delta, where he is needed. The Mississippi Delta has been an area of chronic teacher shortage for over 25 years, and growing our own teachers is clearly the best long-term solution to that problem. Yet, it is some of our best, Black teachers who have been targeted by would-be reformers as problems that need to be whipped into line or pushed out of our schools. Another of my students has become principal of what was a struggling school, whose students face many economic and social obstacles. The elementary school has met or exceeded its learning goals each year of her principalship, yet the district instead of rewarding and supporting her work, has cut the school’s funding more than other lower performing ones in the district. The district also, without input from parents, re-shuffled student school assignments so that the school’s highest performing students were moved to other schools.

The stress of wanting to continue doing what Max believes is his professional best for his students but being prevented, even forbidden, from doing so has taken its toll on this diligent young teacher. He told me he’s looking at a job with a textbook company or maybe taking an offer from a company looking for someone to do workforce training (both of which pay more than his classroom teaching job). Meanwhile, our schools continue to churn through temporary instructors from various alternative programs or long-term substitutes causing untold disruption and damage to the hopes and dreams of our children.

My heart breaks for Maxwell and the many other wonderful Black teachers like him who are being forced to make such unnecessary and harmful choices. My heart breaks for the students whose education is being compromised and short-changed by administrative decisions that put self-promotion and preservation ahead of real student needs and potential. But sadness and disgust, alone, won’t change anything. We can’t say we want high quality teachers in every classroom, if we’re not going to allow them to do high quality teaching. Otherwise, a free, quality public education for every American child remains only a partially filled dream and an empty promise. I’m more determined than ever to continue fighting for teacher voice and teacher leadership in public education, and more important, encouraging the next generation of teachers to take up that fight. 

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P.S. - I'm happy to report that after much prayer and intervention, Maxwell changed school districts and continues to grow professionally. But what a loss for his former students and school, and what can we all do to stop the systemic, chronic hemorrhaging of Black male teachers?

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