Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Straw That Broke the Teacher’s Back-Guest Post By M Shannon Hernandez


The Straw That Broke the Teachers Back


My teaching career began at the age of twenty-one, straight out of college, in a second-grade classroom in a small town outside of Concord, North Carolina. Early in my career I thought I wanted to teach the little ones, but I learned rather quickly my personality was better suited to middle-school students. So after a few years of teaching in elementary school, I transitioned to teaching in middle school, where I remained for the next twelve years.

Throughout my middle-school years, I taught English Language Arts (ELA) and Social Studies. I coached sports teams and served as grade team leader, curriculum chair, and student teaching supervisor, mentored new teachers and initiated many programs and clubs in the schools I served in North Carolina and New York City.

I taught students firsthand how rewarding it is to learn while traveling. We took summer trips to the Grand Canyon, Canada, London, Paris, and Rome. I worked diligently every year to secure grant funds so I could have the most current literature in my classroom library. I also worked with local organizations to ensure my students could visit museums, attend plays, and have other cultural experiences so they could learn about the world around them.

After meeting my Brooklynite husband during the tenth year of my teaching career, I was ready for the adventure of city life. My first New York City teaching job was in Spanish Harlem. While some days I wondered if I would make it from the school to the train station alive, I fell in love with my inner-city studentstheir strengths, their struggles, and especially their big-city survival skills.

The last four years of my teaching career were in an excellent school in Manhattan. I had never taught with a more dedicated and unified staff. The students were also some of the most kindhearted and intelligent I had had the honor of teaching.

Upon accepting a teaching position in New York City, I was well aware I would need to return to college and earn my masters degree, as this is a certification requirement for this state. I enrolled in Brooklyn College and began working towards a degree in Biology Education. I also knew that I would be losing the tenured position I had worked so hard to earn during my first ten years of teaching in North Carolina. While I wasnt thrilled about the latter point, because it meant, once again, proving” myself to a new school district, I accepted it. Within three years of teaching in New York City, my tenure had been granted to me once again.

In October of 2012, two months before I was to graduate with a my Masters Degree, I learned something that would change the course of my life and career. I had just been informed by the New York City certification department that I would lose my tenure, again, once I began teaching under my new biology certification the following fall.

I was livid. I cried. I screamed. I made phone calls. And with each person I spoke to, the news was consistent: Because I was switching from a certification in ELA to Biology, my tenure would be taken from me, and I would have to prove, once again, that I was a teacher worthy of keeping.

I guess you can say that I had had enough, 15 years into the career. And you know what the sad part was? I LOVED teachingI still do. But I just got so tired of the policies and the proving of myself” over and over again. I rarely felt appreciated, valued or heard in the teaching profession, no matter how high my ratings were, how much growth my students showed on the exams, or no matter how much work I put in.

So, I decided it was time to change pathsbefore bitterness and resentment set in. I turned in my resignation in June 2013, and Ive been teaching future teachers at Brooklyn College, I became the author of my memoir about my exit of public education, and I have turned much of my time to speaking about student-centered education reform. (I can talk now openly, without being fired!)

Above all, I am committed to giving teachers a voice in education reformbecause we shouldnt be left out from the discussions. We are the very professionals who know what is happening in public schools. To help amplify the voices of teachers and students across this nation, I recently launched a podcast entitled Transforming Public Education: Creating REAL Reform Through Compassion, Love, and Gratitude. The goal of the podcast? To give teachers, parents, administrators, and students a voiceand to help transform schools into places where students and teachers cant wait to get their days started. I do hope you will take a listen to the showand if youd like to be a guest, please reach out to me via email.

REAL education reform requires many voices, working on a variety of platforms, and a variety of issues. But the one voice that is consistently missing is the voice of educators. We can change that as a profession. We can blog, we can podcast, we can speak to our legislators. There are countless ways to get involvedin a way that feels safe and authentic to you. Because, in the end, there are many straws that are breaking so many teachers’ backs\ across this country. Lets work together to change that.


M. Shannon Hernandez is a college professor, former public school teacher of 15 years, education activist, and author of the book, Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher. Shannons podcast, Transforming Public Education is a voice for educators and a cry for student-centered education reform. Shannon blogs passionately about public education for her website and The Huffington Post.

"It Isn't Nice to Block the Doorway"- What Must Be Done To Save Public Education


If the history of the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Struggle Against the Vietnam War are guides, a lot of people are going to have to lose their jobs, and some are going to have to to jail, to stop the War Against Public Education. There were no great Labor Victories without sit-down strikes; no Civil Rights victories without student sit-ins and mass arrests; no end to the Vietnam War without tens of thousands of people refusing the draft.

The lesson: You cannot change policy on such a grand scale, and fight such an array of powerful interests, without immense sacrifice. These historic struggles were won as much in the streets as at the polls, and civil disobedience. along with more confrontational forms of resistance were essential to their victory. We are at least five years away from creating enough disruption and winning enough local elections ( these two have to go hand in hand)to have Presidential candidates proclaim their support for public education rather than competing to see how they can dismantle it.

I wish I had better news, but as a student of the history of protest movements, I cannot offer it.

We all have the privilege of making history, but it may require more work and sacrifice than we ever dreamed to secure what we once thought of as a basic human right- a quality PUBLIC education.

Monday, March 2, 2015

School Closings, Charters and VAM- The Wrong Response to Neighborhood Trauma- A View from Buffalo and the Bronx


 All throughout the nation, School Reformers are following a similar script. They have identified schools in high poverty areas as "failed institutions," with the main  cause of their failure being incompetent teachers and union rules which protect them from dismissal. Their solution, close the schools, fire the teachers and replace them with charter schools which can hire and fire teachers at will.

    If you use test scores as an indicator, there is no doubt that many schools in poor neighborhoods seem to perform poorly. But is closing those schools, firiing their teachers, and replacing them with charter schools; all the while subjecting teachers to performance reviews based on student test scores, the appropriate response?

    It is- but only if you ignore history and mis diagnose the cause of the "failure."

    Let us take a close look at the history of  two places- the Bronx and the City of Buffalo- which  have a disproportionate number of failing schools.  Both have extremely high poverty rates, and many of the associated ills that come with poverty, such as high rates of unemployent, housing overcrowding, and mental illness.

   But as sociologist Orlando Patterson has reminded us when examining African American history, history cannot be reduced to  mere numbers. When people have been subjected to traumatic experiences, it has an impact on their lives far beyond the moment those traumas occurred. And the residents of Buffalo and the Bronx, and the institutions which serve them, bear the scars of three major social upheavals which have affected their families and communities- deindusrialization, the crack epidemic, and the war against drugs.

   Deindustrialization- the closing of factories and the departure of factory jobs- shattered the social fabric of the Bronx in the 1960's and 1970's and of Buffalo in the 1970's and 1980's,  leaving in its wake abandoned factories and warehouses, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of decent paying jobs
which allowed working class families to own their own homes or rent  sizable apartments.  When the jobs left, families shattered and the housing stock was decimated. By the time the process was completed, and most of the good jobs were gone, many neighborhoods in the Bronx and Buffalo looked as though they had suffered aerial bombardment.  Worse yet, the residents of these neighborhoods, like those who survived warfare, suffered from what Medical Researcher  Mindy Thompson Fullilove has called "Root Shock" a form of PTSD that affects people who have watched the communities they live in destroy by market forces.

     Then, in the final stages of de-industrialization, both Buffalo and the Bronx were hit by drug epidemics spawed by the arrival of a form of an extremely cheap and highly addictive derivative of cocaine called "crack"-- which provided unheard of income opportunities to neighborhood youth while stirring equally unprecedented levels of violence and addiction in the neighborhoods where they lived.  Shootouts and drive-bys became commonplace occurances in communities where legal work was  scare, and few businesses remained, creating a feeling that no one was safe in public space. Along with this, many mothers, often the sole support of families, became addicted, forcing grandparents to step in to raise children, or pushing them into foster care. People living through this experience again were traumatized by it- as anyone who lives amidst flying bullets would be. And the remaining institutions, especially the public schools,  had the burden of caring for the victims, while the teachers and administrators sometimes became victims themselves.

    Finally, in the latter stages of the crack epidemic, and even after it has diminished, came the Drug War, a strategy of deluging poor communities with police and arresting drug sellers en masse whether they were engaged in acts of violence or not, whether the drugs they sold were damaging or no more harmful than alcohol.  Although this strategy of militarized, zero tolerance policing reduced neighborhood violence,  at least in the short run, it led to the mass incarceration of neighborhood youth and the creation of an environment where all neighborhood young people found themselves under suspicion of criminal activity. Traumatic encounters with police became a common place occurance for youth, mostly through humiliating searches, but occasionally resulting in shootings when police officers panicked

    This sequence of traumas, occurring over a period of 30-40 years, left deep emotional scars on the people who experienced them. Among the casualties were trust, self-confidence, hope for the future,  all characteristics which you want children to have when they come to school. Schools in such communities were not only dealing with poor people, they were dealing with traumatized, deeply wounded people, whose experiences inevitably entered the classroom.

    When people have been traumatized this way, what they need most is an opportunity to heal.  They need stability, they need caring, they needed the opportunity to rebuild trust

     But what School Reformers decided to give turned out to be a new Trauma- closing the one institution that had survived through all the upheavals, removing the teachers who had remained there, and staring afresh with a new insitution and new teachers who knew nothing of what the neighborhood and its people had gone through.

      Is is any wonder that this approach is failing. That it is not improving school performance. Not stabilizing neighborhoods, not rebuilding them, but instead making them ripe for gentrification.

      What was really needed was never really done- transforming schools into true community insitutions, open 24 hours a day and serving the entire neighborhood as a place of healing for all residents. Will we ever wake up and try to do that? Or will we just keep piling Trauma upon Trauma upon those who have lived an American Nightmare more than an American Dream

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Teacher's Sleepless Nights

As a teacher, I go through sleepless nights trying to find just the right words and sounds and images to change my students lives, to make them see or feel things so strongly, that they will never quite be the same again. It might be a passage from W.E.B Dubois "The Souls of Black Folk"; it might be Billie Holliday singing "Strange Fruit," Sam Cooke singing "A Change Is Gonna Come" or Janis Joplin singing "Little Girl Blue"; it might be a scene from "The Grapes of Wrath" or "Cinderella Man": that brings to life what it meant to be crushed by the Great Depression and yet have the resiliance to fight back; It is those "moments of clarity" ( an expression I have borrowed from JZ) if I find can find them, which will make the classes I teach far more lasting in their impact than any simple array of facts.THIS is wherein the magic of teaching lies, at least for me. It is why I keep teaching. And fighting to preserve the art that teaching represents, which is under assault from every direction.

R.I.P. Anthony Mason

Still grappling with the death of one of my favorite Knick players,Anthony Mason who passed on yesterday of heart failure at the age of 48. Anthony Mason was a product of the same New York streets that produced Biggie, JZ, Nas, Lil Kim, MC Lyte, and Big Daddy Kane, and was part of the same generation which brought hip hop to its highest point of artistry . Like the greatest of NY hip hop artists, he was proud, defiant, crusty, and hugely talented. Thick and muscular, Mason had remarkable ball handling skills and could play any position on the court, but did not take kindly to coaching and preferred to invent his own way of playing. He spent five difficult years with the Knicks, fighting with coaches and teammates, but helped make the team a contender. In many ways, he embodied the spirit of a pre-Gentrification New York when young people had genuine power in many inner city neighborhoods and did not defer easily to adult authority. I am not sure the current version is better than the one he grew up in. R.I.P. Anthony Mason. I was never bored watching you play, and you made every team you played for better than it was before

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Bronx Principal Jamaal Bowman Debunks Common Charter School Myths

Please allow me to indulge for a moment. First, good schools are good schools. I don't care what we call them. The most important thing in a child's life after a parent is a good teacher, coach, or mentor. When I say good schools, I don't mean schools that simply have good test scores. I'm speaking of schools that get good scores, as well as develop the character and passions of their students toward self actualization.
Allow me to debunk a few charter school myths. I don't know if this applies to all charter schools but definitely the ones I have some experience with. First let me say that studies show if a parent is savvy and passionate about education, regardless of race, class, or educational background, their child is more likely to graduate high school and college. Charters (at least the ones I have experience with), make sure that parents prove how serious they are before even giving their child a chance of getting in. For example, one charter that I know, mandates (not using this word lightly), that parents attend 5-6 meetings before even entertaining the possibility of the child making it to the lottery. These are obviously parents that value education in the home. If parents miss one meeting, no lottery. On the other hand, district schools have to take everyone. The savvy parent AND the struggling parent without meeting mandates. A parent can go through an entire school year without attending a meeting and the child is guaranteed a spot in a district school.
Further, in case you didn't know, parents also sign contracts in many charters to ensure homework is done, meetings are attended, and certain behavioral execrations are met. If the parent or child breaks the contract, the child can be kicked out of school. I know. I've seen it done while "interning" at a charter school.
Lastly, charters can fire teachers and have extremely high turnover rates. From my conversations and observations of charter schools, I've heard many of the policies and procedures be called "inhumane." This could be why so many teachers can't last anymore than two or three years in many charters. Ironically, these charters serve as a perfect pipeline for TFA --mocking two year commitment.
Based on what I know, as they are currently constituted, charters, TFA, and yearly standardized testing are wrong for our high need communities. We should stop funding them all unless they agree to make major adjustments to how they do business. Why? Because that money can be spent on giving all students a quality holistic education. Charters, TFA, and yearly testing infuse anxiety, disunity, and even worst, standardization into the psyche of society. They are trying to recreate a 21st century idea of "empire." Keep the masses, and "lower class" under control while the elite continue to rule. A standardized mindset will always be controlled. Whereas in schools like Riverdale Country School, there are not state standardized assessment, no TFA and no need for a charter, and they are taught to lead and change the world.
Consider KIPP'S first graduating class. Ranked fifth in NYC in mathematics in the 8th grade, but only 21% graduated college. Why? Because KIPP test prepped the kids to death and the kids never built their character or learned to manage their own freedom. KIPP and many charters standardize and try to control everything from how kids walk through the halls to how they ask to go to the bathroom. But teaching and learning is organic; it is human. When are we gonna ask ourselves why must poor communities of color be treated like this, whereas middle class and upper class parents would NEVER go for this treatment!
WE HAVE TO hold politicians and private citizens who invest in education accountable to the true needs of our at-risk communities. We must give our communities a true voice. If charters, TFA, and the state really cared about our children being their very best, show us, by investing in daycare, Montessori, music, sports, counselors and everything in between. Charters should take all children and TFA should change everything! If not, the powers that be will continue to fatten up the district school kids to be slaughtered and fed to their private school bosses as adults.
For the rest we have jail cells waiting for them #wemustunitenow

Monday, February 23, 2015

No Teacher Left Behind: A Poem

I remember 
the time
They started making
teachers 
the nation's villains.
It was 2001
Or maybe 2008
I forget whether 
It was Republicans,
Or Democrats,
Who started it
But they both joined
in.
So by 2015
There was no 
teacher
Left behind
In the witch hunt.
Marked with a
scarlet "T"
A big target
on their front and back
an invitation for all
To attack.