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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jo-Ann Demas: The Big U and How I Tried To Delete The Scarlett Letter

Norm Scott has an important post on his blog about U-ratings and the Appeal Process currently available to teachers and staff. Something has to be done about the lack of UFT support for ending the zero tolerance of the DOE for overturning U-ratings. I have re-posted the post in its entirety, with the link:

The Big U and How I Tried to Delete The Scarlett Letter 
By Jo-Ann Demas

There is an alarming trend of teachers receiving an “Unsatisfactory” on their annual assessment. While a “U” rating is certainly humiliating, it can literally take food off our tables. What’s behind this trend and what can we do about it?

It used to be that a U rating was a rare event. In the last couple of years, U ratings have increased dramatically. Recently at the Queens United Federation of Teachers office, even the lobby security guard observed long lines of teachers waiting to get on the elevators to file for a hearing in regards to their U ratings. What’s going on? I spoke to several principals who were told by NYC Department of Education to start handing out Us. Some have chosen to ignore this verbal edict. Others have obeyed.

Who is being targeted with the Us? It varies: veteran master teachers have received Us. New developing and promising young teachers have received Us. All kinds of teachers are now getting Us. Let’s be frank: not all teachers excel at this job. We all know teachers who are neglectful and who text instead of teach. You can hear some teachers screaming through the walls, using the tactic of humiliation rather motivation. However, it is not our job as union members to inform administrators of other teachers’ activities. That’s called spying. Administrators know who these teachers are: they’re often among the groupies surrounding administrators! These teachers garner favors by spying and tattling. Calling attention to “brown nosers” can be self-defeating. If they also received Us, it would not make the situation better and we would be playing along with the DOE’s blame game. As union members we do not spy on each other. That’s not our job. Our job is to educate children. We made a pledge to protect them. If we have evidence of child abuse, we have a legal obligation to report that abuse whether the perpetrator is a family member or a teacher. This is the only instance where we can “break ranks” without guilt.

Let’s say a teacher needs a lot of improvement. The New York City Department of Education has a hand book which stipulates, in great detail, what the protocol is for boosting teacher effectiveness. The prescribed process involves plenty of professional development with immediate follow-up observation and consultation. This protocol is rarely adhered to. Observations become punitive rituals rather than professional development. Not all teachers who enter the profession are “really in to it.” Yet all teachers should have the right to due process should a U rating befall them. Most teachers truly want to improve and become better educators.

When we get the U, we lift ourselves up and we go down to the UFT office and officially file for a hearing. We are assigned a UFT defender. Several months later, there is a hearing at the DOE headquarters. We are in a small hearing room with our defender and a so-called “impartial” DOE hearing officer. Our administrators are not required to attend the hearing in person. Instead they participate via telephone conference. Each side files documents. Verbal defense of the documents goes back and forth. The tape of the proceeding and the documents are sent to the Chancellor’s office for a ruling. What happens next should not surprise us: 99.9% come back rubber stamped with the same U.

I faced this situation last year. I decided to initiate a lawsuit against the DOE for harassment. I went down to Court Street to buy the audiotape of the hearings. I asked the clerk, in passing, if anyone ever listened to the tape in the Chancellor’s office. He said, “No. Only if it goes to court.” So, after all that hard work with our UFT defender, the DOE is not legally required to listen to the hearing tape in order to make a knowledgeable and judicious decision! What this means is that principals have carte blanche and can give you a U for no justifiable reason at all. The DOE will back them up. The U rating becomes irreversible.

What to do? Take it to court. Get a lawyer. I found a principled labor lawyer who concluded that it is almost impossible to win a lawsuit against the DOE. Besides, a lawyer costs thousands of dollars. The stress of all this registered with my body: I got physically ill. A “souvenir” from childhood aka dormant chicken pox cells in my nerve endings presented themselves as the shingles. I had to assess my situation: I was in continuous pain and had to continue teaching. Could I also conduct a no-win lawsuit at the same time with a lawyer I couldn’t pay for? My situation is not unique. The DOE knows teachers can’t afford a lawyer. I mean, they underpay us. The DOE knows our union does not have the apparatus set up to defend its members at this stage. (More on that later.)

The initial focus of the U stamping is to humiliate and demoralize as in “The Scarlett Letter” a novel by Nathanial Hawthorne set in witch hunt-era New England. Fellow teachers observe the “Scarlett Letter” and feel intimidated to speak up in defense of others. A passive and fearful work force is the result. The union at the shop level, in practice, is rendered ineffective. But did you know that the U can take food off our tables? Yes, there is an economic impact of a U rating. Your salary is not affected. But your ability to earn extra money through per session jobs is. When you receive a U, you are not permitted to work per session. This is harmful in general. For new teachers, it is difficult because of student loans, weddings, new babies, mortgages, etc. For older teachers and those near retirement, a U rating restriction on per session directly affects pension. For the last five years of their careers, teachers can boost their annual average upon which the pension payment is based. This phenomenem probably saves the DOE a bundle: at our expense. U ratings check pension costs.

Upon retirement I learned how the U rating I received two years before still “took food off my table.” Retired teachers may apply as “Occasional Per Diem” teachers. My application as a substitute teacher was denied because I received a U rating in the last five years of my employment. I can show you the form letter.

The experience of receiving a U rating has left many teachers with feelings of abandonment and bitterness towards our union. Under the federal law Taft-Hartley, a union is obligated to fight for its members’ rights. This is called “duty of fair representation.” When we are left “hanging” after a hearing with a rubber-stamped U, the union, in effect, has failed in its legal obligation to defend us. This situation constitutes a violation of the New York State Taylor Law as well. The Chancellor’s Office is guilty of ruling arbitrarily without hearing evidence. The DOE attacks are vicious and our defense woefully inadequate. There has to be a union apparatus in place to defend members beyond the hearing. A union, in its essence, is a defense organization. Full due process must be guaranteed. This is what we pay union dues for. And we need it in writing in our contract. Now with the attacks on teachers taking the form of publishing test scores, etc. it is all the more necessary. We need to be vigilant, militant and organized. When we stand up for ourselves, we are modeling for our students how we don’t accept bullying. We absolutely must change things: the children are watching.

A Lesson For Walcott: Angela Huth in England's Daily Mail on "Great Teachers"

As they threaten (yet again) to strike, a lyrical reminder of how great teachers can REALLY transform lives

What do you imagine when you think of a teacher arriving to start a lesson in a classroom of fidgeting, distracted pupils? A general indifference, perhaps, or maybe surly resistance?
In many cases, you would be right. But, very occasionally, the teacher’s entrance will spark a sudden silence among those pupils, a switching on of concentration. 
This signals something that is, I believe, increasingly rare: a teacher to whom inspiration comes naturally and who possesses a talent to spark an eagerness to learn even among pupils who profess to have no interest. 
Those who have been taught by such a remarkable teacher — and I’m one of them — are the luckiest people in the world.
I was at a somewhat eccentric boarding school in the Fifties, a place that might be assumed to employ average teachers, rather than brilliant ones.
What¿s the secret of a teacher who can inspire: One who can convey the love of learning
What's the secret of a teacher who can inspire: One who can convey the love of learning
But that was not the case. Though there was not a single member of staff who had been through an official training course, the majority were endowed with such a love of their subject and were so skilled at conveying their enthusiasm, that it was contagious.  
Our headmistress, Miss Barrows, known as ‘Brag’, was as eccentric as her school. 
Her father had bought Lawnside, in Great Malvern, Worcestershire, for her when she was 27, so she could ‘exercise her talents’. 
A powerball of energy and high ideals, and the youngest headmistress in England, she was determined to make a go of it. 
Her passions were poetry and music, and she made sure her pupils were marinated in both. She arranged outings to Stratford to see two Shakespeare plays every term. 
Miss Barrows was a friend of Sir Edward Elgar and George Bernard Shaw. After Elgar died, she employed his best friend, Sir Ivor Atkins, to teach us to sing. We became good enough to join the choir in Tewkesbury Abbey and also sang in Worcester Cathedral — all extraordinary experiences for 12-year-olds. 
Miss Barrows was convinced we would all be required to open fetes in our grown-up life, so she employed a woman in a hairnet who came from London every week to teach us the art of public speaking. (After leaving school, I had to wait 11 years to open a fete, but what we learned was extremely useful for the speeches I’ve had to make since becoming a writer.)
Her friend, Miss Parke, was the senior music teacher. Learning with her was a mixed blessing: she was brilliant and terrifying. A mistimed crotchet would inspire a purple rage, but then she would ask what would I like to learn next.
Those who have been taught by such a remarkable teacher - and I'm one of them - are the luckiest people in the world
Those who have been taught by such a remarkable teacher - and I'm one of them - are the luckiest people in the world
She played snatches of Chopin, Schubert and Liszt in a way that brought tears to the eyes and, in my case, inspired a desire to be a concert pianist — one of several ambitions that did not materialise.
The third member of the old guard  was Mademoiselle, who lived in an attic  in one of the boarding houses and  whose entire life was spent correcting our work meticulously. 
In class, she insisted on the boring bit first — reciting verbs in unison, so they were bashed into our heads for ever. But then she would switch to poetry and literature. At 12, we were reading Les Miserables and loving it because ‘Mammy’, as we called Mademoiselle, had the talent to reveal to us its greatness.
Today, if teachers of French dared to abandon phrase-book stuff and graduated to literature, more children might enjoy the language. 
Having a teacher from France, of course, is a great help, and in those circumstances you learn the right accent, though there is not much of that around these days.
All these teachers stayed at  the school for 20 to 40 years. Sparsely dotted among the talented at Lawnside were a few less compelling characters. 
There was the geography teacher who knew only about dairy farming in Denmark, the history teacher who dictated reams of dates and the maths teacher who could not explain algebra. The prevailing belief at the school was that if a pupil was bad at something, she should be allowed to concentrate on what she was good at.
Today, if teachers of French dared to abandon phrase-book stuff and graduated to literature, more children might enjoy the language
Today, if teachers of French dared to abandon phrase-book stuff and graduated to literature, more children might enjoy the language
So, during maths lessons, I was sent to the library to read. Such an approach would be derided today, but I thought it eminently sensible.
Two years before I left school, an English teacher arrived who changed the lives of every pupil she taught. Rosemarie Dillon-Weston read English at Oxford and was intending to become a don. She had to give up this idea to look after a sick sister and teach near where they lived in the Malvern Hills. She came to Lawnside in the mid-Fifties and stayed 40 years.
D.W., as we called her, was as singular in appearance as she was in mind. With fine brows arched above brown eyes of scintillating depths, there was a handsomeness about her that would have appealed to the pre-Raphaelite painters.
Summer and winter, she wore a suit of scratchy brown tweed, and yellow ankle socks. A long plait of hair was wound round her head and she never wore a speck of make-up. (I doubt there was a single powder puff among the entire staff). Oh, how we longed for her lessons. 
As she entered the classroom, there was an anticipatory hush. Each one of us hoped for a tick  or two in the margins of our  essay: these were rarely given and much prized. 
She had no time for those who did not try, and could be withering. But I can’t remember one of us who did not want to do our best for her. 
We were thrilled by her vision. She taught us to think for ourselves: to discover, to observe, to feel. 
She gave life to Shakespeare, furnishing us with complete understanding of a play before we went to Stratford. 
As for writing (never in those days called creative writing), it was D.W. who encouraged vocabulary, finding the right word and an original way of describing something. For those, like me, who had always intended to write, it was a gift beyond compare. 
D.W. also started a weekly poetry reading for hardcore enthusiasts and Shakespeare readings. So we went through many plays, taking parts, and dozens of poems.
Increasingly rare: a teacher to whom inspiration comes naturally and who possesses a talent to spark an eagerness to learn even among pupils who profess to have no interest
Increasingly rare: a teacher to whom inspiration comes naturally and who possesses a talent to spark an eagerness to learn even among pupils who profess to have no interest
These gatherings went on late. Once they were over, D.W. would hoik her books into a bag, catch a bus to the other side of the hills and walk the last half-mile home in the dark.
A dozen years after I had left school and published my second novel, I was asked to hand out prizes at Lawnside. 
As I did so, I saw D.W., a touch frailer but still in her yellow socks, at the back of the hall. I spontaneously paid tribute to her, and 500 pupils and parents stood and cheered. She was cross, but I was glad to have done it.
After that, we kept in touch until long after she retired. When my books were published, it was her judgment that meant most to me. 
When my elder daughter was studying King Lear, D.W. wrote  five pages of inspired notes to  help her. I would visit D.W. in her hillside cottage every few years: she longed to hear about all the plays I had seen. 
She died horribly, alone in her cottage, after a fall. But she has become a legend among pupils, and having been taught by her is one of the greatest fortunes of my life.
My younger daughter, Eugenie, having read classics at Oxford, went to teach in a large comprehensive school, St Olave’s and St Saviour’s, at the Elephant and Castle in London. 
Several times I was invited there to give lessons in writing. I set challenging exercises I had learned from D.W. — and on one occasion I taught a lesson with my daughter.
I noticed that when Eugenie  came into the classroom, all fidgeting stopped. Watching her at work — she was often funny and wore clothes the girls thought ‘cool’ — I liked to think she, too, was  an inspiring teacher, just like  those I was so lucky to have known as a child. 
The enlightened headmistress, Dr Bishop, suggested Eugenie should start Latin lessons. She was sceptical, but 30 pupils volunteered for her class, and loved it. 
She took them all to Oxford for a day: they were enchanted by the colleges and mesmerised by a lecture on Greek women.  
I asked Dr Bishop what’s the secret of a teacher who can inspire. She said: ‘One who can convey the love of learning, who is rooted in a passion for her subject so that the pupils really enjoy the lessons and are excited about learning. 
‘I admit this is a talent not given to all, but teachers can develop into good teachers through sharing ideas, and taking an interest in a child as a whole. 
‘Energy, enthusiasm are imperative. Inspired teaching can make a whole difference to a child’s life.’
It can make a difference to grown-up lives, too. Choirmaster Gareth Malone is a good example of a well-known teacher who can inspire. 
Look how he transformed the lives of Army wives. His passion, determination, talent and lightness of touch mean he can take an unpromising bunch of pupils and inspire them to succeed.
I’ve met many who have been lucky enough to have fallen under the spell of an inspired teacher. They all agree that if you discover the love of learning through one subject, the desire to learn further in other subjects magically spreads. This, surely, is the best reward a teacher of inspiration can provide.
That desire for wider learning has certainly been my experience in life since I left school. It is a gift for which I will always give thanks to D.W. and the other wonderful teachers whose classrooms I was lucky enough to sit in.

Role model: Maggie Smith as inspirational teacher Jean Brodie