This year at my school a powerful cohort of outside forces, trying to do the right thing, used a financial incentive to fix something that wasn’t broken and in the process derailed a promising teacher’s first year, denied over 100 seventh graders six weeks of science, and added 20% to the workload of four full time teachers.

Meet a first year science teacher whom I’ll call Luke. Luke started the year as a long term substitute teaching seventh grade science in an open position at my school. He would complete certification requirements by the semester break and continue in his position in the spring as a “highly qualified” teacher.

It’s important at the outset to understand that “highly qualified” does not mean “good teacher”; the status is determined on paper, based primarily on college course work. Unbelievably, classroom performance plays no role earning the “highly qualified” classification.

Luke immediately became popular with students and faculty. He spent his lunches playing soccer with students, and across campus they greeted him with high-fives and hugs. Whenever I asked how things were going, he’d say, “Some days I feel like a prodigy, but on others I can’t believe they let me in the door.” One accomplished veteran became Luke’s unofficial mentor and says it was exciting to work with such an inspiring new teacher.

Luke says his mentor taught him not only practical skills like how to navigate our grading application but also the dispositional requirements of teaching – like how to build relationships. He taught Luke the bedrock value that, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

We felt blessed to have a beginning teacher with such promise in an open science position and hoped he would stay for a long, long time.

But about a month before the end of the first semester, outside forces mandated that open positions in my district, including Luke’s, must be immediately filled with “highly qualified” teachers. The outside forces included a federal judge, a special master, plaintiffs in a 40 year old discrimination case, and district officials. To encourage “highly qualified” retired teachers and those in non-instructional roles to fill open positions, the district offered financial incentives.

On the face of it, their intention can’t be faulted. In fact, it should be praised. They know the damage unfilled classroom positions cause to students’ educations and school wide discipline. In one case at my school we struck gold with a “highly qualified” teacher who moved into another open position. But we didn’t strike gold because he’s “highly qualified,” we struck gold because he’s a great teacher.

And we sure didn’t strike gold with Luke’s replacement, a retired teacher chasing the financial incentive.

When I met Luke’s “highly qualified” replacement, I asked how I could support him, and he gave me an interactive CD-ROM about earth sciences. He said it should open automatically and had tons of easily accessible content, but when he put it in his computer nothing happened. I looked at the label and saw it required Windows 95 to run. He couldn’t make sense of how that should matter. I couldn’t make sense of him using materials 20 years out of date.

Moreover, the replacement couldn’t manage his classes and had to call daily for an administrator or monitor to remove unruly students. The one time I saw him interact with a student, he barked at the kid, “DON’T BE A JERK!”

After about four weeks, the semester ended and the replacement quit, leaving the position unfilled and no plausible teacher in sight. For the first six weeks of the third quarter Luke’s former students went through a stream of substitutes. When a sub couldn’t be found, on-site teachers covered the classes. Finally, the principal asked four teachers (including me) to pick up an extra period for the rest of the year, thus adding 20% to our daily workload. Luke’s remaining class was dispersed, pushing other teachers’ classes to way over 30 students.

This hot mess would never have happened if instead of flexing their muscles, the outside forces had simply asked, “What’s going on in these unfilled positions, and how can we help you fill them with best teachers available?”

Thankfully, the story does end on an up note. Luke was offered a job at another school but still really wanted to be with us. And due to some unrelated staff changes, we go him back. He now teaches sixth grade science and math. Just the other morning he was outside with his classes measuring wind speed with their handmade anemometers.

He also became our boys soccer coach, and they won the district championship – the first time I remember that happening in nearly three decades.

Of course, he’s still playing soccer with the kids at lunch, too. Early this week I saw him dribble past a student who gets in a lot of trouble. They were both laughing.

Luke, a first year teacher who withstood all the ugly the system can offer, doesn’t just show students how much he cares – he shows us all.

In Part Two the outside forces are back with another scheme to shuffle teachers.

For related content, see Ok, Special Master, YOU Name the Latino Students We Shouldn’t Welcome





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