Steve Wood's
View from the Classroom

Why I Got Out
December 17, 2008

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The View from the Classroom column series has lain idle for several years, as I took early retirement at the end of the 2003-2004 school year. Until this time, I've been circumspect about why I left the profession that I loved, only posting comments such as, "It was time to go," and occasionally, something a bit more colorful.

Enough time has passed that I can somewhat dispassionately look at the letter of final appeal I sent the school superintendent before tendering my letter of retirement/resignation a few weeks later. The events described in the letter below only give a hint at the mess we faced in trying to educate our students. In their efforts to raise test scores after I left, three people (all friends) lost their jobs, as they crossed the line between pushing the envelope and cheating on Indiana's ISTEP+ proficiency test. I'd frequently warned the school's administration that "my kids" would sink them into the NCLB "failing schools" category if we didn't adequately address those children's educational needs. They chose to go another route.

The school system at one time did a pretty good job of educating their kids. The community is rural, small town America and could be accurately described as "rural poor." Their practices of nepotism in hiring and school board meddling that prevented effective teacher evaluation (and subsequent improvement or termination) left them with many inadequate teachers on their staff.

I'm posting this letter now in hopes that with a new administration soon to take over in Washington, D.C., that it may shed some light on the nitty gritty of teaching. Conservative school reformers are now pushing for major changes in our public schools, often to the point of almost erasing one of the foundations of modern American culture. They also take some pretty good shots at "bad" teachers and teachers' unions. We definitely need reform in our nation's schools. But as you read the letter below or the other columns linked at the end of this posting, you'll see that I never would have made teacher's retirement without the protection of our teachers' association. And I was a pretty good teacher.

May 22, 2004

Superintendent’s Name
Superintendent
MSD Backwash
Rural Route
City, State, Zip

Dear Mr. (Superintendent's Name):

As things now stand, I plan to give you a letter of request for retirement and retirement benefits sometime early this summer. The situation with my parents should more than fulfill the necessary “escape clause” of the master contract. I have delayed submitting such a letter, hoping that my mother’s health situation would improve, but it has not. I also had hoped that reason might prevail in the elementary and the classroom change issue would be resolved. It has not, and it stands not as a reason to leave, but more as a symbol of why I believe things won’t get better for the special education students at Backwash Elementary. Things could still change, but this appears to have degenerated into a silly power struggle, when in fact, it should be about the best way to educate the K-3 LD kids at Backwash.

I fully intended to return for at least the 2004-2005 school year, despite my parents’ health problems. When I tendered my intent to return March 1, Mom appeared to be on the mend. Since then, she has suffered repeated falls and fractures of the spine and pelvis and now appears to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. My father is now 91 years old, but is slowly wearing down with the heartache of seeing his lifetime partner slip away mentally and physically. I thank the Lord for their many years together, but the end is still difficult.

With your assurance that we would start the school year with our teaching assistants in place from the first day, I thought I’d be able to manage everything, including frequent afterschool and weekend trips to Indy to help out. I also thought I’d finally have the opportunity “to do it right.” After ten years of impossible numbers, constant misplacement and mislabeling of students, materials problems at times, inadequate staffing, and a consistent lack of knowledgeable support and direction from Backwash’s administration, it appeared that under your leadership, I could at last begin a school year with a manageable number of students and a situation where we could actually begin effectively teaching from day one.

With [Principal's Name]’s decision to unnecessarily move the K-3 elementary classroom out of the mainstream of my students and his intransigence in providing any credible reason as to why this was being done, I came to the conclusion that things will not get any better for my kids. If I were to return under that setting, we’d be scrambling from the beginning just to get used to a different and considerably smaller classroom. “Living out of a suitcase” isn’t good education. Having to redo countless classroom modifications without reason is a misuse of employee time. [Principal's Name] erroneously maintains that moving my classroom moves it more in the center of my students. A quick look at the position of the classes I serve and the proposed new classroom shows his statement is ludicrous.

When I chose to go with the primary section of students instead of the 4th-6th grade group, it was with the provision that I would not have to change classrooms. [Principal's Name] on multiple occasions assured me I would not have to move. Now, just nine months later, he has reversed his decision. He apparently feels that assurance was a temporary thing. I view it as a breach of trust. He’s doing something that wastes time that could be dedicated to my students. Once again, I’d face starting the school year playing catchup.

At your suggestion, I wrote [Principal's Name] a letter of protest about the planned classroom change. He responded with a letter laced with arrogant patronization, but totally lacking in any true rationale for the decision. Once again, [Principal's Name] emphasized his lack of respect and understanding for me, my students’ needs, and special education in general. That’s a strong statement, and you’re still new to Backwash, [Superintendent’s first name], so let me elaborate just a bit.

The special education staff in the elementary are plagued with constant misplacements of children, pupil-teacher ratios that make fulfillment of IEPs (and the related federal and state regulations) difficult to impossible, and are generally treated as an afterthought. Our children, real human beings who each are capable of learning at some level, seem to be placed in the various programs and forgotten. When any of us raise the issues of problems with psychologists and improper placements, classroom problems, proper staffing, etc., we are made to feel that we are lazy and/or incompetent. [Principal's Name] regularly refers to us as those “special education types.” As a 24-year regular classroom veteran who chose ten years ago to enter the field of special education, I’m highly offended by the lack of respect and responsiveness we regularly receive from the school administration.

[Principal's Name] apparently sees his role as case conference chairman and special education principal somewhat differently than any other administrator I’ve known. He apparently has not learned special ed regulations and regularly allows incredible things to happen in terms of misplacements and total misstatements of law by our school psychologist. For example, several weeks ago he sat impassively as the psychologist told a parent that it took a seven point discrepancy between achievement and IQ to qualify for LD. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was a purposeful, knowing misstatement of the law. [Principal's Name] did nothing.

[New LD teacher’s name]’s classroom predicament earlier this year is descriptive of the inherent problem. The board agreed to hire another elementary LD teacher and then chose to wait until the last minute to do so, placing hiring coaches, other teachers, and even yourself ahead of finding the best qualified person for the position. We got lucky in finding a gem like [New LD teacher's name] at the last moment. Then, [New LD teacher’s name] got the constant run-around on an appropriate classroom, being given a room slightly larger than a closet for months until her students’ parents demanded change. Her pupil-teacher ratio demanded the immediate addition of a teaching assistant, but she was put off until both she and I went around [Principal's Name] and went to you. [Principal's Name] chose to dump the whole area of getting [New LD teacher’s name] started into my hands. I gladly functioned as a mentor for her, but lacked the authority to effect what was needed. [Principal's Name] remained deaf to our pleas for a proper classroom, proper staffing, etc. [Another special educator’s name] also stepped up, big time, in being a mentor and generally a “big sister” to [New LD teacher’s name], since [Principal's Name] chose to let her sink or swim while not doing his job in helping a new teacher in a new position get established. The performance of Backwash’s administration throughout that period was inexcusable. [New LD teacher’s name] was put off, lied to, patronized, and made to feel like a constant complainer for demanding the basic necessities to do her job. Under the circumstances, she did the best she could, but I feel it wasn’t anything close to the required FAPE.

I’m not retiring because of [New LD teacher’s name] and her students’ ill-treatment by the board and administration. It just illustrates the problems I’ve fought for the last ten years. While the current classroom placement incident could be accepted and let pass, there unfortunately will be others. I would still be teaching for a school administration that refuses to step up and learn special education law and then insist that it be observed at Backwash. I can no longer sit through case conferences when the school psychologist simply makes up things to classify students. Recently, it was the seven point discrepancy. Two years ago, she actually tried to deny a student classification as MiMH, insisting that across the board IQ scores of 60 weren’t indicative of mental retardation. A shouting match resulted in [Principal's Name]’s office, with him remaining again on the sidelines. [Name of a special ed cooperative official] later quietly stepped in, reversed the psychologist’s erroneous decision, telling me, “Obviously, [student’s name] qualifies as MiMH.” That’s just one other example, but one that affected whether a student was properly placed in [High school MiMH teacher’s name]’s room a year later or placed in the high school LD program where she wouldn’t have stood a chance. This kind of thing hurts kids! At the risk of practicing my own arrogance, it would appear [Principal's Name] needs to take Jim Jacobs's special ed 501 class at ISU and get a firm grounding in special ed law and regulations.

As I wrote, I was cautiously looking forward to next year. I envisioned actually beginning the year with an experienced assistant and being able to start teaching the first week of school. That’s in contrast to the last several years where the caseload from the beginning was impossible. That’s in contrast to the last several years where we were made to feel guilty for asking for adequate staffing to teach the children, and then only grudgingly supplied with the necessary teaching assistants in September, October, or November. That’s in contrast to having to train a new assistant the last four years.

I realize that you have worked diligently to correct some of the problems in special education. Having two elementary LD teachers...and teaching assistants...is a giant step forward. Unfortunately, the board continues it’s practice of paying the assistants a pittance, insuring a constant turnover and subsequent retraining of new assistants. I’ve lost my assistant the last four straight years. One of the reasons I insisted [name of last teaching assistant] be hired was that I felt fairly certain of retaining her services for more than one year. [Principal's Name] fought me tooth and nail over [name of last teaching assistant]. Her excellent performance this year should insure her a position next year, but I fear in my absence, [Principal's Name] will again oppose her employment, apparently based on problems they’ve had over her role in the PTO. That’s unfortunate, as if you lose [name of last teaching assistant], you’ll lose an excellent worker...and someone who truly loves and cares about “our kids.”

Over the years, I’ve been amazed that I’ve never once been asked by an administrator what program I use to teach kids to read. I’m the one who’s supposed to teach the kids that no one else can to read, but our administrator has no knowledge of how we do it. My training is over 25 years old and in need of a tune-up. I’d love to go back and retake the Project Read training program with my teaching assistant. I was trained in the program when it was in its infancy. I don’t even bother to ask for such things at Backwash. First, we consistently underpay our assistants and rehire them late in the school year, making expensive training for someone likely to leave after just a year a questionable use of funding. Secondly, there is apparently no understanding of the importance of this kind of instruction for the dyslexic. Several years ago, a parent questioned whether Backwash had anyone in its employ properly trained to teach her dyslexic son to read. [Principal's Name] generalized about the virtues of our staff. I finally, quietly and without identifying myself as the one, told the parent we did indeed have a true expert on staff well-trained in the teaching of dyslexic children using the Orton-Gillingham method. I didn’t add that there was little chance of the instruction being done right, due to the class sizes that prevailed at that time. Fortunately, the child is in high school now, reading close to grade level.

If you’re not familiar with Project Read, it’s a variant of the Orton-Gillingham method of VAKT reading instruction for dyslexic children. I became a bit of an expert with it years ago in Washington Township, actually participating in the training of other teachers in the program and having been the primary technical resource in one major revision of the manual there. It’s changed the way I teach reading for the better for the last 25 years. But it has its requirements, and I’ve never been able to do it right...to do it most effectively...due to the problems in special education at Backwash. I saw the possibility of that actually happening next fall and then saw it slip away due to [Principal's Name]’s decision. You’ve got to be totally ready to go from the first day to do this program right. That can’t happen when I’m being uprooted (again, unnecessarily) and trying to reestablish in a different setting.

Now, I’m faced with moving the classroom (or switching to the 4-6 level). That was the “choice” [Principal's Name] gave me. He clearly had a better option available, but he had plans for the extra room and chose to put [New LD teacher’s name] in a room that won’t totally solve the hallway discipline problem and creates the same problems for my third graders going all the way to the first grade hall for class (including around the cafeteria and gym and their soda machines). If I stayed, I would have to again figure out the best placement of items in the classroom. I’d have to go through “living out of boxes” for a while. I’d have to waste a terrible amount of time that could be spent planning for and educating my students. [Principal's Name] doesn’t get it. Worse, he appears not to care. He’s been arrogant about this bad decision. I believe that he knows only too well that he will lose one of his better teachers over such an abuse of his power as building principal, but again, he doesn’t care...not just about me, but about the needs of my kids.

[Principal's Name] and I were once close professional associates. Over a long period of time, I realized that I was being patronized, put off, and used as he regularly put other issues before the immediate and sometimes dire needs of my students. [Principal's Name] has been incredibly gracious in many ways in terms of kindnesses in dealing with my wife, mother, and my medical problems. He established for the first time at Backwash that we special education teachers could order new materials for our students, instead of using the castoffs from the general education classrooms (We were told for years to order no more than $50 worth of materials each year, including textbooks and workbooks.). Last Christmas, I went to the home of one of my students who had told me they were going to lose their house. I know them well and on the spot asked if it would help and then gave the mother $100 out of my pocket. When I returned to school and told the folks in the office, I believe [Principal's Name] went to the home and made up the difference in what was needed out of his pocket. The guy’s got a good heart, but he’s more than a little weak in being right on special education.

When the parents in my room finally forced the board to consider a second teacher, which [Principal's Name] consistently opposed, I told him two days before the board meeting that just planning to hire another teacher the next year wasn’t enough. Another teaching assistant had to be hired for the remainder of the 2002-2003 school year. We were trying to teach 29 full-time reading students at the time with a caseload of 39 and 33-35 of those kids through the room each day. I told him my returning for the 2003-2004 school year was contingent on both the hiring of a new teacher and the immediate hiring of another assistant. When the board agreed to hire a second elementary LD teacher for the 2003-2004 school year, Board President [Board president’s name] asked [Principal's Name] about what to do for the remainder of the then current school year. He replied that the year was almost over and I could “tough it out” the rest of the year. His action and words clearly reveal his mindset. It wasn’t about me. It was about the education, at that point, education denied, of my students. That betrayal still stands out in my mind. It came in March of 2003 and he was willing to throw away the rest of the school year for my students because of, as I perceive it, his own childish games. He later acted and spoke as if he’d engineered both the second teacher and the second aide for the last of 2002-2003, when in reality he’d opposed them to the end.

Several years ago we went through the dangerous practice of not formulating an emergency plan until late in the fall for two physically handicapped students in my classroom. By their IEPs and coop regulations, they were to be provided with one-to-one assistance during any emergency drill. Each year, the administration refused to address this issue until I forced them to do so. I was, as usual, without an assistant at those times and had all the other kids to supervise during such drills (or worse, a true emergency, if one should have occurred). I privately was able to enlist other staff members to provide the necessary coverage for the kids’ safety, but could only get the administration to officially do what was their responsibility (I can’t assign staff...other than my assistant, which I didn’t have at the time.) with extreme measures that essentially put my job on the line each year over a no-brainer issue. (See: http://www.mathdittos2.com/columns/view/v011015.html)

I realize that if I’m lucky enough to get a teaching job elsewhere, there would be frustrations and problems on the job. The chances of landing another teaching job at my age (and experience level and pay) are not good. But the problems I’m facing at Backwash are such no-brainers that something else appears certainly to be better than begging people to just follow the law.

If I were to continue teaching at Backwash, I’d want to continue as the K-3 LD teacher...in the room I’m currently in. I now realize that’s not going to happen. I have made a commitment to teach these children to read. I’ve gone to their homes, supplied them with home computers at my wife, Annie, and my expense, shed tears with their parents at times, and daily prayed for them. I’ve made myself ill each fall trying to do the work of two or three people while Backwash’s administration has played their annual fall games with class size, pretending to “evaluate the need” of proper staffing. I heard again Friday that no assistants would be hired again next year until “after Labor Day.” “After Labor Day” last year turned out to be November! I regularly do my outdoor recess duties, covered with SPF45 sunscreen and wearing special sunblocking garments despite repeated rounds with skin cancer. No one apparently has stopped to think or ask, “Should we be putting Steve out in the sun?” For the past 8 years, the direction from my cancer surgeon has been no more than one hour total in the sun each day, and that only with maximum sunscreen and protective clothing.

I view the current and past decision making by [Principal's Name] as a continuing interference in delivering the required free appropriate public education that these children deserve. So...the classroom deal is just the last straw. Sure, I could change classrooms and spend a whole bunch of my time learning the setup of the new room and making an initial classroom setup for the fall. I could once again fool myself into believing [Principal's Name] and the board will take the needs of these children seriously. I could continue to regularly spar in case conferences with a psychologist who regularly practices “funny numbers,” while [Principal's Name] remains silent. I could once again set myself up for a fall, when the “next trick” was sprung upon me by an administration that has proved itself uncaring and in my view, incompetent in the realm of special education.

I could, but I would just end up writing this letter a little later at a less opportune time for Backwash to find a replacement and for me to make a new start somewhere else.

Sincerely,
Steve Wood

The Columns (that would have gotten me fired):

Final Thoughts

This column should really wrap up the View from the Classroom column series (see link for full listing of the five years of columns). Since all of the columns somehow pertained to my teaching experiences at Backwash Elementary, I think I'll have to find a new column name if I ever get back into the classroom beyond my current status as a retired teacher occasionally substitute teaching.

On my last day at Backwash Elementary, my teaching assistant and the teacher I considered to be the best in the building (and probably one of the best teachers in the state of Indiana) took me out for a farewell lunch. I had refused the usual farewell luncheon at school for retirees as I did the usual plaque.

While eating lunch at a local fast food joint, the teacher paid me the highest compliment I can think of. She said, "You were the best teacher we had."

The teaching assistant lasted another year or two before she was forced out. The teacher finally gave up and took early retirement in a few more years. And that's part of the problem with America's schools. We're losing our best teachers.

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©2008 Steven L. Wood