A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 12 2010

A Premature Goodbye

One letter changed everything.  An Assistant Principal (AP) had entered my classroom with the letter and solemnly handed it to me.  At 3:15pm on Friday, I learned that I had been excessed by my school.

The explanation from the administrator went like this (note: I am taking serious liberties in paraphrasing):

“Our school enrollment numbers have gone down a lot. As a result, staffing needed to be “equalized” or “rightsized” to match the student body.  In particular, we have 8 English teachers at our school and 6 math teachers.  The math is simple.  There are too many teachers in one core area and not enough in the other.  An English teaching position needs to be cut.  You’re the last teacher to be hired here, so you’re the first that must go.  We can’t do much about that.  I’m sorry.”

Before I continue, I need to clarify what it means to be “excessed.”  I have not been “fired” per se.  I still have a job in DCPS.  I still have the same benefits and I will still be paid.  What it means to be excessed, however, is that, due to changes in the environment at my school (in my case, enrollment, but in other situations budget and restructuring), I am no longer needed at my particular school.  Consequently, I am being pushed into the pool of excess teachers who will float around the district beginning now and through the summer to fill in gaps at schools that need teachers.  I will have to rejig my resume, don the suit and visit the DCPS transfer fair next weekend.


I’m going to drift away from my usual narrative style and instead offer my reflection in the form of some key points.

I am…

(1) Feeling hurt by the news.  Sure, the administrator told me that I had not been excessed based on my teaching ability (in fact, he told me that if it were based on that criterion, I would be one of the last to be excessed).  I know that I wasn’t let go because I was a bad teacher; this is a result of the “way things are” or, more directly, the arcane rules of the teachers contract.

Yet it’s still hard news to take–so much so that I felt sick to my stomach.  Furthermore, I prided myself–and this might sound childish–on the fact that I had never let my emotions get the best of me this year.  I don’t know whether this is because I wanted to preserve my “manliness” or to show that I am somehow “stronger” than the many other CMs whom I know had emotional problems this year.

I realize now that it’s foolish to bottle up emotions.  So I admit that I broke down soon after my AP left the classroom.  I guess it took a few minutes for the reality to sink in.  I honestly cannot remember the last time I’ve been that emotionally distraught (thankfully, I talked to numerous colleagues who consoled me).

(2) Not worried about finding a new job.  I will have to begin the job search immediately.  But I know that I will find a position somewhere in DCPS.  I have a lot of factors in my favor:

  • I was not fired because of my teaching.  That’s what I was told by my AP.  Also, my IMPACT scores were quite good this year (we are supposed to bring these to the transfer fair).  Booyah.
  • I have a lot of support at my school.  Next year’s English department chair already volunteered to write me a letter of recommendation. He trusted me–so much, in fact, that he had planned for me to take over the 11th grade honors class (so that I could ensure that his current 10th grade honors students were challenged).  Other teachers are asking their district-wide colleagues.
  • I have the TFA network to depend on.  I’m beginning to send out feeler emails to my fellow CMs to see which schools will be needing English teachers.  The regional staff will also be helping.
  • DCPS enrollment, on the whole, is up . There have got to be openings somewhere in the system–right?
  • I believe that I am a strong, developing teacher.  Enough said.

(3) Frustrated about “throwing away” everything that I’ve cultivated at my current school.  I’ve spent one solid–albeit truncated–year at my school. In that time, I’ve poured in so much–emotionally, physically, and financially: I’ve built strong relationships with students, faculty and staff; I carried on the robotics program and allowed those few robotics students to pursue an enriching activity; I’ve “figured out” the protocols and nuances of our school culture; I’ve hopped on board a number of school-based initiatives to improve our school’s learning environment.  One other ironic fact is that I was voted an alternate to be a part of the personnel committee that will be interviewing and hiring staff for the coming school year (!).  Now I will have to start from square one.  That’s frustrating.

(4) Going to miss my students, my colleagues and my current school.  I will miss KN’s cheerful 1st period anecdotes about her track and field exploits.  I will miss ES who–as one of the very few students in my class both semesters–made 3.1 years of reading growth since the fall and who already proclaimed to me that she was looking forward to taking my 11th grade class next year.  I will miss MW’s lessons on DC youth slang.  I will miss the mentorship that my colleagues–and one in particular–in my department provided me as I settled into the new school environment in October.  I will miss cheering for our sports team and I will certainly miss coaching my robotics students.

On the other hand, I will miss some things less.  I may not miss holding my breath every time I use the dilapidated faculty bathroom. I may not miss the 120 degree heat in the winter and the phantom windows and the asbestos-lined pipes and the deluge that overran my classroom.  I may not miss showing up 5 minutes late to a staff meeting and being the first to arrive.

(5) Furious at the injustice of the system.  I’m not a legendary teacher.  I’m not even a great teacher.  But I know for a fact that I am not the worst teacher in my department.  Yet, due to the way the contract was negotiated, seniority is the sole determinant of who gets let go.  Who care about whether you can actually teach!

I actually asked my AP if the outcome of this year’s rightsizing process would have been different if the new contract had already been in place.  His answer? “Probably.”  I asked for clarification and he said that with the new contract, seniority would only be “one part” of the staffing process.  At that point, I thought to myself, “shucks.”  My blood may have started to boil a little too.

Steven Brill (journalist and fellow Yalie) was extremely prescient in his recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand” (if you haven’t already, you must read it!) when he discussed how unions are slowly admitting clauses in contracts that permit layoffs to be “based on the quality of the teacher, not simply on seniority.”  As a parenthetical remark, he says this (emphasis mine):

Fifteen states, including New York and California, now operate under union-backed state laws mandating that seniority, or “last in/first out,” determines layoffs.  These quality-blind layoffs could force a new generation of teachers, like those recruited by Teach For America, out of classrooms in the coming months.

Well the “coming month” came and I was forced out because of LIFO.

It is also incredible that, somehow, the teaching profession is so tied to seniority and not performance.  A question that Brill asked a union leader reveals exactly this mentality (emphasis mine):

Next to Mulgrew [the head of NYC's United Federation of Teachers] was his press aide, Richard Riley. “Suppose you decide that Riley is lazy or incompetent,” I asked Mulgrew.  “Should you be able to fire him?”

“He’s not a teacher,” Mulgrew responded.  “And I need to be able to pick my own person for a job like that.” Then he grinned, adding: “I know where you’re going, but you don’t understand. Teachers are just different.

I will be impressed if someone can delineate exactly what it is that make teachers so “different”.  Thankfully, there are many others pondering this same question.

Another injustice in the system is that the fiscal year is not aligned to the school year.  I suspect that, in the fall, my school will need to rehire an English teacher.  One English teacher is definitely retiring and another is likely retiring.  But because the fiscal year doesn’t end until the end of September, we are currently way overstaffed.  So, the equalizing needs to happen now, even if the school will need teachers to fill the gap in October.  To recap: you have excess excessing happening at the end of each school year and–once retiring teachers leave the system at the end of the fiscal year in September–a new need to hire teachers in October.  This teaching staffing yo-yo process inevitably affects student achievement.

(6) Envisioning the good that could potentially come from this situation. Despite the fact that this news flew out of nowhere and hit me right in the face, I know there will be some positive outcomes:

  • I will gain another perspective by being at a new school.  I will be sacrificing a lot at my old school, but I will also be able to see how systemic some of the problems I’ve seen at my school are.  Statistically, “n” is going from 1 to 2.  The many anecdotal conclusions I draw from my experiences might be more valid.
  • I will have been through what I–and many others–believe is an unjust process.  This will only give me renewed impetus to fight for the change that is necessary in our education system.  Experiencing this firsthand makes me even more emotionally-attached to the problems I see.  The achievement gap is a result of all of these factors combined.
  • I will be able to start with a blank slate.  There are a few students this year who I have allowed (obviously unwillingly) to break some of my classroom’s rules.  If I were to be at my school again and they were to be in my class again, they would immediately continue their ways.  If I am in a new school environment, I can essentially start over after having figured out everything that I will and will not do based on this (rocky) first year.
  • I will be spicing up my life.  Who doesn’t like taking a risk–stepping out into the unknown, charting new territory, and hoping for the best?

Goodbye, School. I will miss you.

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8 Responses

  1. As a fellow corps member, I have been following your blog for some time. You seem like an incredible teacher and I just wanted to say that Newark needs teachers like you. You should check out the KIPP schools in Newark- they are looking to hire middle school and high school ELA teachers!

  2. Jaimie

    I’m so sorry to hear that you have been ‘excessed’, but I wanted you to know that you are not alone in any feeling you just expressed. I was also asked to leave my school (we apparently had 5 too many science teachers) and transfer within PGCPS.

    If I didn’t know better, I could have been reading my own story, complete with the series of responses I felt. I had also managed to tough out the year without getting too emotional, just to cry for the first time upon hearing I had to leave. If it makes you feel any better, I think that is a mark of a great first year – that we were more upset about the prospect of leaving than anything else that had happened over a crazy 10 months.

    Thanks for writing what you did, it was helpful for me to hear that I’m not the only one so frustrated and upset. I hope that your transfer fair goes well – again if it helps, I got a transfer position out of ours (almost entirely for being a Teach For America teacher), and knowing what will happen next is at least a little comfort. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help!

    ~ Jaimie Brandley

  3. MJL

    This sucks. Your school is losing a great teacher. You are going to do great things from here, though. I have a friend who was excessed last fall, and she now has a good job at a DCPS charter. I believe in you! And no one can take the successes you had this year away, no matter how partial they may have felt (I believe that for first year teachers, partial success = success. :) )

  4. Just a teacher

    Just a quick question. Just happened upon your blog, and have read through a lot of your posts. I’m wondering if you are planning to stay in teaching after your second year or if you will be moving on to something else, after the standard TFA commitment is fulfilled.

  5. As a fellow HS English teacher who has been excessed under nearly identical circumstances TWICE, let me share my condolences with you and let you know that there is still plenty of hope. I met many great people at schools where I ended up after that first time being laid off. It still makes me sad thinking about it, but I just want to personally say that it does get better.

    I recently blogged on my experiences in my most recent lay off: http://innered.edublogs.org/2010/05/14/life-lessons-ive-learned-from-this-layoff/

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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