Leaving Finland

Lake Jyvasjarvi I have never lived anywhere for 5 months other than Jyvaskyla, Finland. As my Fulbright journey concludes, there is so much to still digest. It will take months, if not years, to truly assimilate all the learning. Before I left Southern California, I wrote about the what I would miss the most from home and what I  looked forward to experiencing in Finland. It is safe to say I met my goals. Top 7 Goals 1. Discussing Education Helsinki Workshop Through professional development programs, Fulbright Finland connected teachers with scholars and researchers, for the purpose of putting inquisitive minds together. The Making Democracies Resilient to Modern Threats seminar provided participants with fascinating research and presentations. 2. Nordic Model Bus station in Espoo What does an efficient and earnest country look like?  It looks like Finland. Yes, people pay higher taxes, but get so much in return. I for one appreciated the well-maintained ro

Teachers and Turnarounds

Recently, Twitter has become my news feed of preference.  In a single look, I can receive updates from the education world, converse with colleagues around the world, and debate with pundits with opposing views.  In my short time on Twitter, I have come to "meet" and respect some folks whose opinion I value.

Which is why I have been perturbed ever since one of those "tweeps" responded to a rhetorical question I posed about reconstitution, or turnaround.

The reconstitution of Fremont High School has been distressing for educators in South Central Los Angeles.  We know how important it is for students to be connected with a source of stability, the school, which in many cases is the only source of stability in a child's life.  The feds have deemed turnaround as a viable reform option for struggling schools, laying the responsibility of student performance 100% on a teacher's shoulders.  If students do not perform well, the entire school runs the risk of turnaround, where teachers are fired en masse and required to reapply for their jobs.

On Twitter, I was commenting that 8 weeks into Fremont's turnaround, all teaching positions have not been filled.  I was lamenting the lack of forethought in employing this option, knowing from personal experience just how hard it is to staff a school like this.  It's not flowers and rainbows;  it is a dangerous place to work.  Not but a month ago, a respected principal was ambushed on 51st Street on his way to work; a car with a middle school-aged passenger bumped his car at the stop sign. When he exited the car to speak to the other driver he was met with profanity and had objects thrown at him.  He was a target because he had dared bring order to a school.

Teachers at Fremont had the choice to swallow their pride and reapply for the very position from which they were fired, or stand strong and seek employment elsewhere.  My views on this were mixed, and I described the choices they had to make as "grim."  I noted that on the grapevine, word was that ex-Fremont teachers were being deemed as untouchables, marked with scarlet letters as a result of the turnaround, and were having a hard time finding re-employment.  My thinking is, if the teachers were really valued, why fire them in the first place?  But on the other hand, shouldn't someone stay behind to help with the transition?

Unfortunately, on Twitter, you only have 140 characters to get your point across.  I asked the rhetorical question, "what is the incentive to work at a school such as Fremont and run the risk of being fired?"  A "tweep" whose online opinion I value much replied "you do it for the students."

I lost it.

In my 22 years in the LAUSD system I have literally come across heroes who forsake a social life, relationships, economic well-being for the sake of their students and schools.  For some, it gives meaning to our lives.  We're all going to die anyway; wouldn't it be meaningful if we could accomplish something while alive on this planet?  Lives are centered around students.  Who are you to say "stay for the students" if you do not understand what this entails?

I have come across teachers who have put up with with the most incompetent, unfair, belligerent administrators simply to be able to empower students with knowledge and confidence.  Others have been professionally attacked for defending students and young teachers.  Few can imagine how hard it is to serve students under such duress.  Let me enlighten you.

Many times, schools in the 'hood are the place where teachers and administrators go to fly under the radar, but I hold administrators most responsible because they have an obligation (and a job description) that requires them to monitor the campus.  Nonetheless, I have worked in schools where administrators sexually harassed teachers, persecuted those who spoke out about curriculum issues, and bequethed their friends and families with cush jobs and perks.

It was understood that even if you witnessed an injustice, you would stay silent about it if you wanted to maintain favor with said administrator.  As a result, there was high teacher turnover because few could stomach working under such conditions.  Those who stayed behind were the heroes, those who would defend their students against the forces of the status quo (this is the real status quo, not the term thrown around by the New Reformers.)

Many teachers paid the price for taking this stance.  Stress, divorce, coping mechanisms, being disciplined, being fired, were all the results of standing up for students.  No amount of notifying superiors alleviated the situation; everyone was in on it!  One teacher was aghast to find out that the District Textbook selection committee was fixed.  Teachers were supposed to meet and discuss which textbook would best serve the needs of the students.  The teachers met and debated, voted on the best textbook, but were overridden by the Local Superintendent.  When the teacher complained about the process, he began to be written up in his evaluations. 

Steve Rooney was a teacher, dean and administrator in LAUSD.  Colleagues had long noticed peculiar and disturbing actions by this individual that included inappropriate interactions with students, and violence towards adults.  Many a teacher brought up concerns about Rooney to administrators and District personnel.  Yet he was transferred and promoted as if nothing had happened.  In the case of Fremont High School, he WAS the administrator and the person responsible for ensuring campus safety.

Standing up for students takes its toll on earnest and dedicated teachers without the right leadership on campus.  There is only so much injustice one can take without it wreaking havoc and turmoil in your personal life.  But if those teachers have children of their own, now you take things to a whole new level.

How do you justify coming home late from work, your child being the last one to be picked up at day care?  How can you explain that Mommy isn't smiling because you just witnessed a student being mistreated at school and you couldn't do anything about it?  How do you answer your child when he hears the news about the SWAT raid on 69th Street and asks you if your school is a safe place to work? How do you explain to your child that you can't be at her presentation because you are required to stay for that of your own students'?

Fremont teachers encountered many of these injustices and more, but withstood them.  Then, the stakes were raised. Management became allowed to fire all faculty under the NCLB clause, and decide who to rehire.  Now, teachers faced the risk of not even having a job to worry about, no students to defend.  What do you do?

Do you stay?  Well, that is not actually your decision.  You can reapply, and see if you are selected.  Anyone who has gone through this process will tell you that the outspoken student defenders are not the first choice of administration to rehire.  They want a low key public servant, who will implement all policies regardless of their merit.

Do you leave?  If you do, you will be tarnished as an ex Fremont teacher, one who "couldn't hack it" and was let go.  You will have difficulty finding employment, but at least you left with dignity.

To come full circle, the choice is grim.  But one thing I have come to understand about teaching is that it isn't always what it appears to be on the outside or what is portrayed in the L.A. Times.  Many of these teachers have sacrificed more than we can imagine for students.  To suggest that they give more, including their livelihoods and family safety net is a judgment one should be reluctant to pass.   What more can we demand from educators that they haven't already given?  Their flesh and bones?  It sure feels that way.  Let's use our concern for education to lobby for improving public school management and leadership with real solutions, not silver bullets.  That, indeed, is what students truly deserve.

Posted by Martha Infante aka AvalonSensei
photo from kpcc.org


  1. The self-inflicted staffing crisis continues, but few will pay attention with the drama of "value-added" making the news--isn't it interesting that the Times had the study conducted and now reports the news created by its own actions. The news reporters are reporting on themselves--while Fremont remains understaffed and stasaffed with new teachers.

  2. Martha, thank you so much for this. I reapplied and was not rehired. The principal had acknowledged it was not my teaching. What he didn't say -and he didn't have to- was it was because I spoke out. I reapplied because my students asked me to. Was it a mistake? I don't know, countless other excellent teacher reapplied and were rejected, but interestingly we were not tarnished completely. Many got jobs at Magnet schools and mayor's partnership schools and other great schools. I am still getting calls even though I have a job.

    There are so many ex -Fremont teachers and admins out there that they were able to spread the word that we were competent.

    As Chuck mentioned, staffing problems and stress for teachers continues- but it didn't have t be that way. The school was improving in many ways- not just the test scores the politicians like to site- but in graduation and CAHSEE pass rates and increasing numbers of students attending college.

    In my heart I know I could not have made the adjustment to the new schedule and would have burned out- still I miss the school and my students.

    Thanks for such a wonderful post. I will repost on my blog. Very accurate and well -written. Thanks again.


  3. Outsiders, the Times included, have no idea how tough this job is. And by outsiders I mean anyone who has never worked in an inner-city school, and all of the heartbreak, aggrivation and inspiration that goes with it. I like your use of the word heroes in this post. A teaching hero is not someone who comes in a pumps up test scores for two years before applying to law school. A teaching hero is someone who is committed to these schools and these students for the long haul. To putting down roots in a community.

  4. Great post about a seriously stressing decision. I feel your pain. Teachers are more and more on the front line of the ongoing civil rights fight in this country. Give what you can. If more people did that, we'd be in a lot better place.


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