In the year since I received my letter of non-renewal for supporting students who stood up to Pearson-Stanford’s field test of a national assessment for student teaching, I found myself in many conversations about fear. Teacher educators, teachers, students, even parents worry about the power held over them and the repercussions if they speak out. This fear is real. But the narrative of resistance is about so much more. In the midst of material repercussions and the emotional toll of fending off retaliation, there emerges this amazing space of community, strength and joy.
As I sat a few weeks ago at the conference of the Boston Educators for Social Justice, I was moved and delighted when my colleague in Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) (the progressive caucus of the Massachusetts Teachers Association) Merrie Najimy, who is under attack for her union activism, described the struggle to fight for her job as an experience of the joy of solidarity.
Amirah Santos-Goldberg, another colleague from EDU, took the time to interview Merrie about the attempt the take her job away and the organizing to keep her in the classroom. In this one story we find both the details of why we fear, and the hope in our resistance. Here is Amirah’s interview, originally published at socialistworker.org. Please go to the petition, read the amazing words written about this woman, and sign to support her. Then consider the possibility of joy.
Why are they pushing out a veteran teacher? | SocialistWorker.org
On April 30, %interviewee, a long-time elementary teacher and outspoken president of the Concord Teachers Association (CTA) in Concord, Mass., was told that she was not being recommended for rehiring next school year. The Concord school district’s attempt to silence and get rid of teachers willing to take a stand for public education and teachers’ unions has been met with bitter opposition by educators, parents and students.
Merrie is one of the founders of Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), a progressive caucus within the Massachusetts Teachers Association. She spoke with %author at the 3rd annual Boston-area Educators for Social Justice conference.
CAN YOU explain what has being going on with you?
FOR TWO-and-a-half years, the administration has used the evaluation system in a capricious way to try to deem me ineffective and dismiss me.
It began in the 2010-11 school year. My previous principal retired in the spring of 2010. The superintendent hired a new principal and, most believe, gave her an agenda to target the veteran staff and the union. There is a documented pattern of behavior on the part of this current principal that shows she has done both.
In her very first weeks, she formally disciplined a beloved veteran teacher of 43 years. She approached another veteran teacher, a long-time rank-and-file member of the CTA, and interrogated her about what she was told this teacher said at a building-based union meeting. This rank-and-file member stopped attending union meetings. By the spring, she made the decision to separate two veteran teachers who had team-taught for 15-plus years and moved one of them down a grade level for the following school year.
At the end of the year, she decided not to grant professional status to a teacher in her third year, despite the fact that this teacher had noting but satisfactory ratings for three years and was well loved by the students and parents. We considered this teacher a veteran because she had spent seven years prior as an aid in our school. Overall, our principal speaks abusively to staff who disagree with her, and treats them in hostile ways.
By March of 2011, she gave me my first unsatisfactory rating. Now I’ve been teaching in Concord for 18 years. Fifteen of those years, before she came, I was rated as a satisfactory teacher. We just have two levels of performances, satisfactory and unsatisfactory. My past principals always wrote highly complimentary things about me in their evaluation reports.
By the fall of 2011, this principal put me on an improvement plan. Throughout the year, she continued to come and observe me. She continued to deem me ineffective and rate me as unsatisfactory. She was not able to substantiate any of her claims with anything real. She never noted any point where I made any improvement. She has not pointed out any strengths that I have.
That continued throughout the year. I started the school year in 2012 on an improvement plan. She followed the same flawed pattern where she comes in to observe and rates me unsatisfactory. She can’t point to anything of substance to substantiate her claims. In fact, she omits all of the empirical student data (their conversations, their works samples and even their test scores) and then makes a judgment contrary to what the data proves.
On April 30, I had my summative evaluation meeting. She said that because I am an ineffective teacher, she cannot recommend me for rehire for next year. That’s the first step of the process. The second step of the process is that after May 15, the recommendation formally goes to the superintendent, and the superintendent will either rule to accept or reject the recommendation, sometime before the conclusion of the year.
WHY DO you think the principal has gone after you?
I AM a strong union president. I happen to be Arab American. I’m a veteran teacher, so I am at the top of the salary scale. I have built a union that’s a grassroots union, which has organized campaigns to preserve our contract and our working conditions.
This is a superintendent who is an ardent anti-union education reformer, who wants to implement the state mandates unilaterally. She believes that none of the reform agenda is negotiable. And when we hold her accountable to collaborating and negotiating, it gets in her way. So in order for her to unilaterally implement, she needs to remove me. Dismissing me will send a chill through out the school system and silence dissent for a good decade or so.
WHAT IS the state of public schools in Concord?
CONCORD LOOKS very much the way it looks across the state and across the country. We have become an assessment warehouses. We have been mandated to differentiate curriculum, but we don’t differentiate assessment. It’s a one-size-fits-all curriculum. It’s a one-size-fits-all assessment.
We have been told what to assess, when to assess, how to assess, how often to assess and what to do with the assessment results. We must give children who fail what they call a “dose” of intervention, and then we must assess them again. We must pace our teaching according to the assessment dates, which are all assigned arbitrarily. There has never been any other conversation with teachers around assessment and instruction.
Concord used to be a place where teachers would write curriculum. But now, with the mandates to assess writing, we get the assessment before we even get a new curriculum or have time to write a new curriculum. We are not writing curriculum in a systematic way anymore. It’s just figure out what you have to do to teach so that the kids will pass the assessment. There is no more room for the professional expertise and judgment of teachers.
These examples typify what is going on around the country. But our superintendent has often said to me in labor-management meetings that if people don’t like it they can find a new job.
CAN YOU give us some background information on the superintendent?
SHE CAME from California. She was the director of special education in Santa Barbara, I believe. I read an article from a California newspaper stating that she was the only administrator in the nation to be personally sued for violating the civil rights of a student with special needs, because she wasn’t providing a free and appropriate public education.
She then came to Concord about a decade ago. She was hired as the director of special education. She was then promoted to the assistant superintendent. Then, in the spring of 2008, she was appointed as superintendent by the school committee, against the advisement of the community.
Over the last few years, the superintendent has really raised the ire of the community. About two years ago, she tried to privatize the school transportation system without making it known to the public. I’m on the board of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and I happen to represent the Concord-Carlisle Bus Drivers Union. I helped them organize a public awareness campaign. It infuriated the residents and the parents when they found out, because they trust and love the bus drivers as much as they do the teachers.
Furthermore, last spring, we got the results of the sttaewide TELL Mass (Teaching Educating Leading and Learning) survey, which is put out by the Department of Education. The purpose of the survey is to assess school climate. In the areas of school leadership and teacher leadership, Concord rated at the bottom of the state.
The results show that 69 percent of the Concord teachers do not feel they are trusted to make sound professional decisions about instruction, 81 percent do not feel that the school leadership consistently supports teachers, and an alarming 89 percent do not feel that there is an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in the schools.
WHAT HAS the reaction to your situation been?
THERE HAS been a growing climate of fear over the last two-and half-years as teachers have watched their union president be targeted through the evaluation system. People have withdrawn. They get in, they get the job done and they get out.
April 30 changed everything. That day was the catalyst that motivated people to come out of hiding and start to stand up. It drew out parents, residents without children and the elders of the community. And we have been collectively organizing ever since.
WHAT HAPPENED on April 30?
THE MORNING of April 30 was my summative meeting with the principal, and in the afternoon, we were having a joint-labor management committee meeting to continue to analyze the results of the TELL Mass survey. At 8 a.m. on April 30, we lined the halls with teachers who applauded loudly as I walked through the halls into the conference room. They made such a raucous that the principal heard them loud and clear. That was unnerving to her, and she was visibly shaken.
My principal went through all of her claims that I was an ineffective teacher. She concluded by saying that for those reasons, she could not recommend me for rehire. About 8:20, I came out, and I told the members what had happened. The news spread across the district and with the parents like wild fire. Twitter and social media outlets lit up.
By 4 p.m., we had 60 people outside the superintendent’s office, standing outside of the labor-management committee meeting. The superintendent left the meeting and met with the crowd of 60 people. They grilled her for an hour and half.
Following the April 30 demonstration, there were good articles published in the Concord Journal and the Concord Patch. A few days later, when the paper version came out, there were four letters to the editor supporting me, attesting to my effectiveness as a teacher. The press coverage has not stopped ever since. Diane Ravitch eventually put the story on her blog.
WHAT KIND of organizing efforts have occurred after April 30?
THE CTA started organizing parents and teachers together. We’ve had several meetings, with retired members, teachers, parents and members of the community. Something very powerful began to happen. Some rank-and-file members who didn’t see themselves as leaders began planning for a rally on May 14. We decided to call the rally “Teachers Matter” because what is happening to me is not just about me. It’s the manifestation of the implementation of education reform. It is symptomatic of when you have these ed reformers who need to push opposition aside to unilaterally implement their will.
At the rally on May 14, we drew a crowd of about 250 people–parents, teachers, kids, retirees, town activists who don’t have kids and residents. It was a joyful event. Cars drove around the town green honking, and everybody felt, for the first time in two-and-a-half years, joy and uplifted. They felt the possibility of taking back our school system.
After the rally, we organized a presence to attend the school committee meeting. About 150 people showed up to the meeting. They gave two messages, loud and clear. They explained that the school committee has allowed our climate to deteriorate and have done nothing to solve the problem, so they need to solve it now.
Supporters then made a connection between me and another dear veteran teacher who is leaving our school district to take another job because of the negative climate. Supporters argued that it is time that the school committee step up and do their job and supervise. We just lost one beloved teacher because of the climate, and they are about to push out another beloved veteran teacher, and they can’t let that happen.
CAN YOU explain the reaction of one of your former students?
ON APRIL 30, I got an e-mail from a former student of mine who is now in 11th grade. He was shocked to learn that I had been deemed ineffective because he had only fond memories of his 3rd grade year. He talked about how I and all of the other teachers fundamentally shaped him as a human being. And he said he was intending to call the superintendent to attest to my, as he put it, “awesomeness.”
He then had a conversation with the superintendent, reporting to her that he and several other students were not happy with her decision. Yet she would not let him speak at the school committee meeting because she told him this was a personnel issue.
HOW IS this part of the attack on public education nationally?
UNION-BUSTING is one of many tools that is being used to try to restructure education nationally. And my dismissal is symptomatic of that. We have a superintendent who is an ardent education reformer, and she wants to implement the Race to the Top agenda unilaterally.
She doesn’t want to cooperate with the teachers’ union. She doesn’t want to cooperate with teachers. She won’t tolerate any dissenting opinions, so she uses intimidation tactics to suppress diversity of opinions. She goes after a strong union leader to intimidate and send a chilling effect.
This is not an uncommon story. We see this whether its administrators dismissing veteran teachers or administrators dismissing union leaders. The thought is that if you can break your union, you can unilaterally implement education reform.
WHAT CAN we do to show our support?
THE EASIEST thing people can do is sign the online petition. Also, members of the Concord School Committee should be contacted to talk about the value of veteran teachers, and how they cannot allow the abuse and misuse of an evaluation process to take place and affect all teachers.
We are at the beginning of a movement that involves parents, teachers and residents. It is becoming increasingly clear that we want respect. We want to be heard. We want to be part of the process.
We are working in phases. Phase one is to retain me. Phase two is the school committee needs a process in place that is manageable that can accept complaints. Then the school committee needs an accountability system in place that follows up to make sure those complaints get acted upon. We also need to ensure that the work the superintendent is doing to improve the climate is effective work.
The next step is to start to have the conversation as a community of what we want for pubic education, because it is not working.