Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Sixth grade sucked.

I was at a new school, new kids, new teachers, new community, new city, new state.  It's one thing to entirely pick up your things and go; it's another to do so at the onset of adolescence.  A witness daily, the students are reduced to social cannibals:  they'll consume the well being of another simply to raise themselves up.  The anxiety that washed over me walking into the cafeteria to my assigned table of "peers" still subtlety blips on my radar as I get nostalgic.  That emotional scab that eventually became a scar.  It doesn't hurt anymore; but I know it's still there.

In sixth grade was the final year students were required to complete a science fair project.  The logic made sense:  many kids did not do them; most of them that did, sucked; the ones that were actually good probably didn't need the science fair to affirm their status of Lords of Inquiry.  Either way, I was a good student, so ensuring I put forth a decent effort would suffice.  The teacher would surely accept my work and move on.
I remember walking to the front of the class and setting up my tri-fold.  My crush was watching.  Now was my chance to dispatch the greatest pheromone of all:  knowledge.  I knew that if I explained my project and my exemplary discoveries, her insides would soon begin to quake.  She would be mine.

My proposed question was simple:  Does caffeine influence the growth of plants?  My experiment centered around the concept that I would give my plants varying amounts of caffeinated beverages in the idea that the stimulant would possibly cause a greater growth.  A slave to marketing, I knew the coolness and excitement of Mountain Dew would be the perfect vessel for my stimulant.  I also included Pepsi, Diet Coke, and Sprite.  Eventually, my results yielded that any soft drink containing the caffeine did not grow...or so I thought.

As I systematically discussed my purpose, hypothesis, and experiment, I was suddenly interrupted.  I was thrown off track.  I had been betrayed.  You don't put the good kids on the spot like that.  I was your Golden Child, Mr. B.  A rose amongst the thorns.
"So you tested caffeine on plants?"
"Why did you choose soft drinks?"
"Well...because I know they have caffeine in them."
"Do you know how much caffeine each one had in them?"
"Not exactly.  I know Mountain Dew has a lot."
"So are you sure it was the caffeine was what killed the plants?"
"I'm not sure..."
"I ask, because these are all different soft drinks with different ingredients.  How do you know what killed them?"
"I don't know..."
"You could have maybe used caffeine pills or tablets..."

I could feel the blood rush to my face.  It was inevitable.  The muscles at the corner at my mouth began to ache, as I fought back my frown that preluded tears.  Eventually Mr. B eased up and let me die in piece in front of the class.  I looked over at my crush, and she was talking to her friends;  probably about how shitty I am and how I made diabetic plants.  "That's it," I probably thought, "my penis is useless now."

My experiment wasn't valid.  I learned this the hard way.  As a man who instructs science, who teaches not just a science class, but a STEM course as well;  a man who basically has a damn Master's in the concepts of Scientific Inquiry, I now know better.  The problem wasn't the Mountain Dew or the fact that I had committed horticultural genocide.  I didn't know whether it was the caffeine, the dyes, the sugar, or the artificial sweetener that caused the lack of growth.  Had I just gotten simple caffeine pills, I would have been okay.  Hell, even Jesse Spano knew this, and she ended being a stripper.  In short, my experiment was worthless because it didn't answer my original question.

I had tested too many variables.
"I'm addicted to over the counter stimulants!"

Without a doubt one of the most controversial developments in education in Ohio is the creation of a new teacher evaluation system.  Rather than leave it up to local districts to determine the effectiveness of teachers, the state department of education opted to create a vast template and evaluation system that would score and rate teachers.  One portion is student data, which is determined from a variety of sources.  Sometimes the student data derived from state testing (which is ever changing), sometimes it comes from a local vendor test (which may not address the standards that you teach), or sometimes it comes from a pre and post test that the teacher creates (but not all teachers are eligible).  Needless to say there are a variety of hoops one can jump through, each of a different size, shape, and flammability.  At the end of all the hoops, there's a woman with a beard who may be into you, but you avoid her because you're married.  Also, the beard.

The second portion, and arguably the most controllable, is the classroom observation.  A teacher is subject to no less than two formal observations from an administrator.  Each lesson observation is a three day process:  pre-observation, which you basically inform them "here is what I am going to do, here's why I'm doing it, and here's why it's good;" a formal observation, which you do the damn thing; and post-observation in which you say "here's what I did and why, and here's what I will do next time."
At the end of the year, your rating for both student data and classroom observation is plugged into the chart below, and they deem you "Accomplished," "Skilled," "Developing," or "Ineffective."
So, for example, say that the teacher had a horrible lesson in which they decided to and was rated as "Ineffective" in their classroom observation, yet the students performed very well on their assigned assessment and received a "Most Effective" rating, you would add the two scores together (0+600) and average them for your overall score (300).  According to this, the teacher would be "Skilled."  Skilled is a good thing.  From most administrators and evaluators, they say that Skilled is pretty much where most decent to good teachers will be.  "Accomplished?"  To quote an old principal of mine, "you have to so much and be so efficient in your class, it's ridiculous.  Nobody will get Accomplished.  You can aim for it, sure, but the detail they're looking for is obscene."

Needless to say, I'm still teaching so you can assume that, with the exception of that infamous "outlier year," I'm doing pretty well.  Not that I'm boasting, but I feel like if I wasn't too good at my job, I would probably know by now.  Recently I had an opportunity to put the system to a test.  To evaluate my evaluations and, in a way, to evaluate the evaluation system as a whole...

With my second observation of this school year, I contacted my evaluator immediately to schedule a time.  I didn't want this lingering over me for months, especially before our state and district assessments.  It was like the common cold:  it was kind of annoying and I just wanted to be rid of it.  As I looked at my calendar and my lesson plan timeline, I saw an opportunity.  We agreed on a date and time and we were going to do the damn thing.

The idea was simple:  I was going to do the same lesson that Mr. Evans had shit all over not two years before.  I wasn't going to make any changes.  It was going to be the EXACT SAME LESSON.  I had to be sure.  Keep only one variable.

Everything went as smooth as I had hoped.  I had the pre-assessment data to back up my lesson goals.  The learning targets were aligned with the standards.  My assessment strategies were solid.  I was confident going into the post-conference, but you can never be too sure with these things.  I didn't expect the rug to be jerked out from under me, but I did approach it somewhat guarded and prepared for battle if needed.

It was not needed.

The evaluation was fairly informal in structure, as we talked about the different aspects of the lesson. This is how I envisioned how an evaluation should go:  two professionals actually discussing the pros and cons, rather than just listening to one person drone on saying "here's what I saw, here's what I think of you as a teacher, and that's it."  I openly talked about how I liked the lesson and what things I would like to see better in my class.  A strength of a good teacher is admitting and understanding shortcomings.  You can't grow if you don't acknowledge this.

I was amazed by the stark contrast of how the two evaluations went.  Mr. Evans, as you recall, spent the better part of 40 minutes discussing my lesson, what he saw, what he liked, and what he disliked.  He then dropped the "buuuuuuut I'd like to see you another lesson" bomb with minutes to spare.  He mostly made a laundry list of bullshit "issues" as evidence for a 3rd and final observation:  I called on one student more than others, another student was reading her book as students were packing up before being dismissed;  those types of things.  I was surprised he didn't mention how one girl got up during my instructions to blow her nose.  "You need to be sure you have control of your class," he would probably say, "having a student get up and blow her nose could be distracting to the rest of the group."

As my evaluation wrapped up, my assistant principal showed me his rubric.  As he scrolled down, I saw the markings and feedback he had made.  With that, he concluded, "I have no worries about you.  I can tell you that I take this very, very seriously.  I don't hand out these evaluations to just anyone, and I don't take it lightly.  I'll go ahead and wrap this up, send it to you.  Look it over, and let me know if you want to talk about any of it.  If not, go ahead and pin it and you'll be done for the year."

Two days later I had my answer to both "Am I doing alright?" and "Was Mr. Evans a really shitty administrator and/or human being?"

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There, amidst a sea of verbiage was the solitary word that answered my two inquiries:

[drops mic]

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Epilogue: The 300 Days - The Garden and The Unsent Email

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Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11
“This will do,” The Gardener said, as he grasped The Seedling from the lower stem, just above the roots.  It was exactly what he was looking for: the flower that would help complete his unfinished garden.  The perennials, already deeply embedded from years past (and long before The Gardener began) bloomed year to year.   With perished seedlings left to decompose, there were always small vacancies of dirt in all of his square footage.

His selection was small and sturdy; it was capable and had grown in all sorts of living conditions and all varieties of soil.  If anything, perhaps it had been underdeveloped due to the various environments it had been subjected to.  But The Gardener recognized the potential.  Come spring, this flower would bloom;  he knew just the spot for it.

The Gardener paced to the vacancy, where withered remains stood still, slightly askewed about the dirt.  Once again, he lightly grasped the flower from the base of the stem, this time looking at it once more.  He considered the great many wilted stems and leaves he had removed from his lovely garden over the years, always the small, younger seedlings;  so many could never take root.  The perennials that bloomed every spring had deep roots, and could reach far into the Earth’s soil for needed sustenance; he knew he could depend on them annually to bring beauty to the property.  “Good luck, my friend,” he gently said to the seedling.  With that, he tossed the plant upward toward the sky.  The plant sailed only a few feet, then descended downward due to the icy grip of gravity.  With a light “thud,” the seedling landed in an abyss of browns and greens, laying horizontally at the roots of the rest of the garden’s members, utterly exposed and vulnerable to the outside world.

The seedling seemed to gasp as the weeks went on, turned on its side, unable to wholly take root.  While a few fibers were able to burrow down, the rest remained airborne.  It gathered what water it could from the raindrops, but without soil, it could not take in what was needed.  An unusual red and gray flower adjacent to the seedling seemed to have all the necessary requirements of excellent growth:  long sturdy roots, long tall leaves to gather the sun.  But in the biological world, sharing rarely exists: it is a survival of the fittest.  Darwin’s dream, in action.  Over time, the red and gray flower’s roots shot in the direction of the seedling, seemingly siphoning what little water the seedling could surmise.  The tall, sturdy stem and leaves absorbed the sun and grew in the warm sun, but cast a shadow on the seedling.  The shadow remained for all time; the seedling would never see the star.

The Gardener returned to his plot weeks later, interested at the prospect of his new flowers blossoming and filling his land with beauty.  Much to his chagrin, his new seedling was not growing well.  He gazed upon it with almost disappointment that it had still had not yet righted itself, but also hadn’t found the necessary light and water to create photosynthesis.  The Gardener did nothing.
Once more, the Gardener returned to his plot to find that the seedling had begun to wilt.  The veteran red and gray flower had seemingly taken all of the required resources from it.  The clumps of dirt that once clung to the seedling’s roots had long since dried up and danced away in the wind.  The seedling’s color now nearly matched the soil, only a slightly lighter shade of brown.  What was once a promising flower had become a disappointment to The Gardener.  “I chose you for a reason,” The Gardener grumbled to himself, “why won’t you grow?”  Once more, The Gardener turned his back on his plot, understanding what his next action would be if the seedling did not produce.
There was no reason to think that anything had changed for The Gardener.  So as he made his way out to his garden once again, he came prepared:  his gloves and a hand shovel were now in his grasp.  Surveying the remains of the once promising flower, The Gardener stooped over and in one motion scooped up the crisp remains of his chosen flora, snapping the few roots the Seedling had managed to burrow.  

“Just wasn’t the right fit…” The Gardener muttered to himself.  In the same motion in which The Gardener tossed the flower into its assigned space months prior, so too did he toss it once more into a dark oblivion.  The Seedling would become compost quite soon, he was sure.  It had failed him.  He selected that flower to grow and it did not.
The Seedling lay there in a clump, surrounded by the dirt that complemented it.  It lay in solitude.  No vegetation in proximity.  A soft rumble could be heard echoing off the rooftops:  a storm was approaching.

The Seedling had never experienced this before, as it was pelted with hundreds of water droplets.  It was like adrenaline shot directly into the heart.  For hours The Seedling drank, taking in what its life process had embedded it to do.  The sky began to illuminate slowly until the sun reached above the towering walls of wood and concrete.  A solitary beam shot through the vacuum of space, taking a long arduous 7 minute trip from the Sun’s surface to meet the seedling’s withered body.  It could feel the warmth it had never experienced.  A hint of life remained inside, like a slow drumbeat...

I was nearly left to die.  As a means of pride, success is necessary in all things I participate in.  At that particular juncture in my life, failure was not really ever on my agenda...except for relationships, but even then you’re playing a game of chance with the unpredictable.  I was left broken, beaten, untended to for months without so much as a kind word or helpful feedback.  

I was the flower.  

I was the flower who was tossed nonchalantly into a garden, expected to bloom without the necessary requirements for life.  I was the flower who was overshadowed by the red and gray, the veteran plant-life that soaked up the sun for their own selfish ambitions.  I was the flower that clung to life, as it was cast from the garden, like God's first creations from original sin.  I was the plant that returned to life.

I was, and I am, Will.

It is indeed a strange thing losing hope in mankind.  I have worked with a great many people in my experiences and travels, and I have witnessed my fair share of unsultry ones.  But what I underwent that experience for 300 days, it was the perfect storm for failure.
Miss Marley is still, to this day, one of the most high-strung and manipulative people I have ever worked with.  She did not have an influential personality, like that of a leader, but she could influence and manipulate situations and embellish stories like no one I have ever experienced.  The lies that she spewed forth about my work and about things that I had allegedly said set me on a discourse that I couldn’t possibly recover.  And those lies were able to influence cowards.

Mr. Evans was merely a sheep dressed in wolf’s clothing dressed again in sheep’s clothing. He did not want to give the appearance that he was a tyrant, but underneath that he was an awful human being.  The fact that perhaps dozens of educators came in and were let go without such much of a reason why (there were at least three more that year in addition to me) can attest to his heartless demeanor.  There is no telling of the careers and/or lives he helped ruin because he did not want to tend to this product, his garden.  He expected crops to blossom and put forth without so much as raising a finger.  And then acted shocked and disappointed when talent withered.  Are there poor teachers out there?  Yes.  Did he perhaps weed out one or two poor teachers with his aggressive methods?  Maybe.  Am I a poor teacher?  Hell no.
If anything, perhaps my greatest failure was my dependence and expectations in the good of people.  I had been lucky enough to work with a great plurality of teachers and some administrators at my many stops in my profession, but none stacked up to these.  It was almost as if I was in denial.  “There’s no way someone could be that cold,” I often wondered.  No; it was the worst case scenario.  If you subtract Miss Marley or Mr. Evans - either one of them - I may still be teaching there.  But Miss Marley was there to sound the trumpets, and Mr. Evans was there, black cloak and all, pulling the lever to release the guillotine, only to deny ever being there.  “I didn’t kill him...the blade did.”

I initially wrote of my experience last year, likely when my head still wasn’t right.  I was angry, I was bitter, I was probably even a little defensive; and why wouldn’t I be?  In 300 days I went from “dream job” to “7th Layer of Hell.”  My knee jerk reaction was to tell Mr. Evans how I felt, in a letter or email of sorts.  So in the waning days of the year, I scribed:
First and foremost, I want to thank you for the opportunity to teach at (School). It has definitely been a learning experience to say the least. You are truly fortunate to have that many great, dedicated educators to work with. With that being said, I would be foolish if I did not offer a bit of "formative feedback" of my own.

Leadership is something that not everyone is blessed with, or at least have the desire to attain. This has easily been the hardest, most grueling, stressful year of my career, when I feel like it should have been one of the best. For reasons unknown to me, I firmly believe that I was not put into a position to flourish. From conflicts with fellow teammates that were never brought to my attention, to the lack of communication, I feel that my reputation was dragged through the mud so much, that I could never recover. In my entire career in education, never have I been called a "difficult person to work with." As a matter of fact, I have always been praised for my ability to work with and adapt to my surroundings in every single stop. However, due to opinions of some "professionals," I was never given the chance to grow. If anything, I now know how to work in a ongoing, stress-filled environment; an environment which adopts the tone set by its leaders.
There are some amazing teachers with great personalities at (school), and I have built many great relationships that I hope will endure. However, one must question why so many quality educators are so unhappy, and are actively looking for employment elsewhere? Not just teachers, but substitutes, as well, talk about how frustrating and inconsistent the building is. Perhaps this will be dismissed as merely the opinions of a disgruntled former employee, but, as I told you in my initial interview, I view my cohorts as family. I believe that a successful school starts with great leadership, and, I feel that I never received.

If nothing else, my request is that you give my replacement a better chance than I was given. In addition to my teaching duties (which is enough in of itself), I felt like I spent the entire year battling personalities and fighting to preserve my reputation. I felt like I was teaching with paranoia, that I was being watched and judged at all times by others. You told me "be yourself" in a post-conference meeting, to which I ask: how could I possibly be myself when I am under the microscope and complained about in seemingly every action? To be quite frank, I began searching for employment long before you had made your decision to release me (which, I believe you decided much earlier in the year than you would let on). At the end of the day, while the data was on par (and sometimes better) than my cohorts, it was this lack of trust that did me in.
Your reputation preceded you. I have come into contact with several former employees of yours, both here at (School) as well as (Big City School District). It is indeed a small world. Yet, while none of them had ever met or conversed with one another, they still had the same type of feedback, and you have to wonder: what is the common denominator here? I spent the better part of the year depressed, second-guessing myself. I felt that I had no cohorts at all. Yet, this was not the precedent to be set by a teacher new to the building.

I knew I wasn't going to be back the moment I asked you whether non-renewal was an option (I probably had the inkling even sooner than that). The fact you couldn't give me a straight answer told me enough. But there was one quote that stuck with me: "...maybe it just wasn't the right fit." A statement that now, after some deliberation, I completely agree. It wasn't the right fit...because I deserve something better. And this is not a statement made in vanity, because there are dozens of teachers with me who deserve better at (School). You will seldom hear of a teacher who is envied because they are LEAVING, yet "at least you're getting out of here" was a phrase I heard many, many times.

God has blessed me with a great personality and the ability to work with and care for others. That is why I chose the profession I did. I AM a good teacher. Consider this my feedback to you. Feedback, guidance, and support that I never received. It is the least I can do. I know former teachers whose careers have been ruined by the same tactics you have used with me. But I am not finished. If anything, this has inspired me more than I have ever been.

Perhaps you will dismiss this (as you seemingly do when any criticism approaches you). I would expect nothing less. But I am going to dismiss this, too. I am choosing to forget about this year. I am going to walk out of these doors knowing that after merely one year, my reputation amongst the staff will be better than your entire career's. And I dare (and truly hope) that you prove me wrong...
I did not send it.  I had burned enough bridges, and seen enough death and hurt over the course of a year, that I did not want to cause anyone ill feelings on my account.  The email sat there in my “Drafts” folder for days, then weeks, then months, then a year.  It still sits there to this day.  A reminder of how terrible things can be, and how trust can be betrayed in an instant.

But trust can be regained, and morale can be repaired.  I was fortunate enough to interview and be offered a position by who I would find to be a great principal and an amazing director of teaching and learning.  I was put into a classroom, in a building, on a team, in a district that are kind to one another.  They laugh.  They joke.  They’re actually relaxed...most of them, anyway.  
I remember coming into our team leader’s room once last fall and asked her “is there anything you need me to do?  I feel like I should be helping out more.”  She literally laughed and said “help with what?  I’d ask you if I needed something.”  My insecurity was showing a bit.  Like an abused dog may run and cower when you raise a hand, I was also still getting my bearings about me.
The evaluation process had been a wild goose chance.  Mr. Evans just kept giving me more and more “goals” and “things to work on.”  I could have been observed and evaluated two dozen times, and he would still have two dozen-and-one things for me to work on.  My firm belief was that he was tired of listening to Miss Marley’s complaints and, rather than deal with the issues head on, he decided that he would address it by deleting a portion of the equation.  Seeing as he needed no rationale to let me go, that was the easiest course of action.  That’s not to say that there weren’t some aspects of my teaching that needed to be improved upon, but he literally once told me “we expected better from someone with your experience.”  Rather than coach or help, he simply cut ties.  A reference of mine, and former administrator, addressed this in which he said “that is his failure.  It is a principal’s to coach and help.  He should have been there for you.  That is a bad administrator.”

“The most coach-able student I have ever worked with.”  That is what my University supervisor told me and my cohorts all those years ago during my undergraduate.  She knew my strengths and weaknesses.  She worked with me.  When she noticed something needed improvement, she told me how to fix it and I did.  She once made mention that the students may not view me as an authority figure because I looked so young.  Her recommendation:  to dress more formally.  There she was, the next day, to see me with a lovely shirt and tie.  She was somehow amazed at that fact; how I instantly implemented her advice.  I figured it was just being a good person and a good worker.
I once worked as a mover one (and only one) summer prior to my senior year and made some sweet bank.  One of the pot-smoking, pain-pill-popping veterans (who did this for a living) once told me “you know may have a caveman’s understanding of the details of this.  But you bust your ass and are willing to do things the right way; and we appreciate that.”  This is coming from the most basically educated, haggard individual.  If they could see it, why couldn’t a professional who was trained to do it, well, do it?

I don’t claim to be great at anything.  I see no point in settling for what I’ve attained (other than my smoking wife) because that means you become content with your current status.  You can become comfortable and no longer challenge yourself.  As a matter of fact, the only thing I actually would comfortably admit that I like about myself is my eye color.  This isn’t to say I’m insecure, but I always want to improve.

It is indeed strange how you can take the same person, remove it from its structure and shackles, and see how it produces in a different environment.  A year after my experience with Mr. Evans, I went through the same evaluation process with my new principal.  He was kind, he was thorough, and he was helpful.  It was odd hearing “you’re doing great things,” and “keep pushing your team; you have some great ideas.”  After my second observation in the spring, he was so impressed with my lesson and my evaluation that he shared it with the Director of Teaching and Learning, who had also interviewed me.  “She cried,” he said, “because she was so proud to see how you used all this data and information to make your class best for kids.”  He then concluded with “it’s pretty neat to sit down in a classroom, watch someone you interviewed and say ‘yeah...I hired this guy.  I did that.’”  It’s strange how much that motivates someone whenever they hear words of affirmation.  They have me leading Professional Development and sharing information during staff meetings.  It would appear that I’m a valuable staff member; not that I would know any better.  I don’t see that when I look in the mirror.  I just see me.  I see a man who wants to make things better for all those around him.  For my wife, for my cohorts, and for my kids.

Around the time for statewide testing, our students were corralled in the media center to complete their assessments, one per day.  For a block of about two hours, they would read, type and click their way through a series of questions and prompts.  Why?  Because nothing helps a kid learn and shows what they’ve retained like sitting in front of a computer for hours on end meticulously typing.
As I was making my rounds surveying the damage in the library, the Department of Teaching and Learning secretary approached me.  The room was generally silent for all test takers, so she walked up next to me and whispered, “you’ve done a great job this year.”
“I hope so,” I humbly replied.
“You have,” she echoed again, “the students like you, the staff and administrators respect you.  You’ve really done a great job.”
“Thank you,” I said, finally taking it in for a moment, “that means a lot.”

I think I'm home now.