Letter from a Fired Teacher

Here is a letter I received from a former student in response to my Facebook posting of Timothy Meegan’s July 30th op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times, which explained the systematic assault on public education now being conducted by the “venture philanthropists” who have followed Bill and Melinda Gates down the road to neo-liberal perdition.  He or she chooses to remain anonymous.

Can’t say as I blame him, or her.


Professor Livingston,

After reading the Sun-Times’ article you posted I felt like sharing a personal story from what happened to me as a bilingual elementary school teacher in New Jersey.

Right when I graduated from Rutgers I decided to become a teacher. It was a strange decision, and the main motives behind it had to do with my experience being the worst student in my high school graduating class and after living for many years under the shadow of a very intelligent father who excelled at his job but lost his temper each time he wanted to teach me something. For those who are doubting my intellectual capacities, I graduated Cum Laude.

I began the alternate route program in 2009 while I was working as a substitute teacher. I started to fulfill the certification requirements by attending the mandatory classes given by some guys from The College of New Jersey. They were ill prepared instructors who had only a few things to contribute to my learning. They packed a room full of inexperienced teachers from all kinds of subjects and grade levels and taught what they thought was going to make great teachers. They also expected us to absorb the material and become successful at teaching overnight. That alternate route program lacked what a real teaching program has–the combination of learning education theory and having the opportunity to practice it by being in a classroom under the wing of experienced and qualified educators.

The New Jersey Department of Education, in an official booklet with Governor Corzine’s name, explained the minimum responsibilities of a school district when hiring an alternate route teacher. The information, which showed very clearly the many fees a provisional teacher had to pay, stated as well that districts had to “assign an experienced mentor teacher who holds a New Jersey instructional certificate to support and assist the new teacher” and that they needed to provide “34 weeks of mentored teaching including 20 days of intensive mentoring prior to assuming full responsibility for a classroom.” None of this was provided to me, but I kept on going because at the time I was unaware of the mess I was getting my self into and I had no other options.

In a 2008 article by The Times of Trenton on alternate route teachers, John Mooney revealed that a new study “found gaping holes in the monitoring and support new teachers receive,” and that “teachers are often thrown into the job for extended periods with little support and training required under the law.” Too bad I read this article later on, otherwise I would have changed my mind. You have to understand that as an immigrant I used to think that because things barely worked in my motherland, in America, where “the system must be first” – as Thomas Parke Hughes reminds us in one of his books – well, in America things do work. Later on I found a not so known book titled ‘The Emergency Teacher: The Inspirational Story of a New Teacher in an Inner City School’ by Christina Asquith. It is not the greatest book out there, but it illustrates vividly the hardships an alternate route teacher has to face in a broken system. I wish I would have read it before committing myself to working in an environment dominated by a sink or swim philosophy.

When I was hired as a full-time teacher in a different school district, newly elected Governor Christie was the new sherif in town. All the experienced teachers and supervisors from a bilingual department that had received numerous national awards decided to retire. In the two and a half years I worked at that place, the newly hired supervisors and directors never called their staff for meetings and they barely showed their faces in the classrooms. One of those directors was hired because of her family’s strong connections within the school district. The Board of Education did not bother finding someone qualified for the job, and every teacher knew it. Then the superintendent retired and they brought a woman who champions charter schools and is a close ally of Governor Christie. She worked alongside Joel Rose and Christopher Rush while she was an assistant superintendent in the New York City Department of Education. Both Rose and Rush – technocrats who have been involved in education but barely have classroom experience – are co-founders of New Classrooms Innovation Partners and worked together in The School of One, two “nonprofits” that are funded by Bill & Melinda Gates and JP Morgan Chase, to name a few, and that are in partnership with The Chicago Public Education Fund, The D.C Public Eduction Fund, and the City Bridge Foundation – all advocates of the portfolio district model. In addition, there are key members in the New Classrooms Innovation organization who are well connected with Teach for America.

The district’s superintendent has a blog with few followers and zero responses to most entries because as soon as she entered the job she began to attack teachers and threaten school principals – there were several stories on the news about her battle with teachers and the union. There is an entry where, after several scandals and many rumors, she denies having worked with Rose and Rush at the NYCDE, but that is hard to believe, especially from a woman who has expressed her support for one of the charter schools in the district and who has implemented the Teach-to-One program in one of the middle schools –a program created by guess who? Joel Rose and Christopher Rush.

I am not saying these programs are not successful, but I do agree with Timothy Meegan’s article. Parents want and need strong neighborhood public schools. The article affirms what Diane Ravitch argues in ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.’ Schools need a system of support and not a system of punishment that serves as an excuse to pollinate cities with charter schools.

Back in 2011, when we met at the OWS teach-out you hosted with Temma Kaplan at the steps of Brower Commons, when I spoke, my message did not go as well as I planned. But what I tried to say was that as an immigrant, public education gave me the opportunity to be the person I wanted to become. I tried to say that I didn’t love America because here you can become a self-made man, but because there are many people willing to give you a second opportunity and help you. Then I tried to explain that there is another side of this country I don’t like, and that is the America of self-sufficiency and lack of compassion for those who need assistance.

The broken school system that I belonged to did not provide me with the materials to teach my students when I welcomed them to their room in September. I received the books in little installments, beginning in December, then in January, and later in March. On top of that, there was no environment for cooperation and support. The new administration, obsessed with equating micromanagement with productivity, deprived teachers from meeting, planning together and creating lessons of substance. They were isolated and at the end of the school year, were held accountable for the progress of students and the results of their standardized test scores, when the majority lacked the basic skills to be successful at school and needed more help than the one a single teacher could give. Teachers ended up teaching to the test.

I refused to and got fired. Just as you were unemployed during the Reagan Recession, I am now unemployed during our Great Recession. I refused to teach to the test because I don’t see it as an end. Instead I see it as one of the many tools that help a teacher guide instruction. In part because of No Child Left Behind, a test ends up being the purpose of teaching and you are held accountable for student’s scores. What if those students are in fourth grade but reading at a second grade level? Well, the results are taken as a sign of weakness, and therefore the teacher must be punished. I gave the best of me to my students and they showed me each day they cared about me, but because of the lack of materials and my supervisors’ indifference when I asked for help, or because I questioned the fact that we didn’t have meetings, I paid the price. I might have not been the greatest teacher (I knew my limitations as an alternate route educator who was not trained well) but instead of nurturing my potential and assisting me, the administration focused on my flaws and decided to let me go, just a few months before getting my tenure. I bet now I serve as an example of what happens to “bad teachers” so everyone learns the lesson or stays quiet.

I went to the union but they didn’t help. By the end of the 2011-2012 school year, with so many things combined, I was drained, depressed and not able to continue working as a teacher.

The Board of Education’s policy on new teachers (adopted in 2006) states that “supervisors should make every effort to assist nontenured teaching staff members in the remediation of deficiencies disclosed by observation and evaluation and may conduct additional observations and evaluations. Supervisors should recognize the purpose of this policy and cannot perform evaluations that do not record the weaknesses as well as the strengths of teaching staff members. Assessments that are less than honest and candid serve neither the professional growth of the employee nor the interest of the district in building a staff of highly competent, well-trained personnel.” Teacher burn out and drop out rates are expensive. According to social action network Take Part, teacher turnovers cost districts all over the nation $2.2 billion annually.

Right now I am finishing a course on financial translation at NYU. I chose to become a translator because I enjoy it and it allows me to write in my spare time (something I couldn’t do when I was teaching). I decided to specialize in financial translation because it pays well and it helps me understand how the system works. I hope to use this knowledge in my writing, not as the radical I used to be when I came from Colombia eight years ago, but as a pragmatist.

If the folks at Teach for America and CEOs are guiding the market’s invisible hand to throw education off balance, sooner or later they will find out there is a former teacher who is about to enter their world to challenge it.

We’ll see how it goes.


El curioso impertinente 2.0





1 Comment

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One response to “Letter from a Fired Teacher

  1. American students lost a hero when they lost you and we are all diminished because of it.

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