Guest blogger Georgia Lignou is a veteran teacher of social studies who has just been re-elected as UFT Chapter Leader at Bryant High School in Queens.
Is the managerial and pedagogical approach of Bryant HS endorsed by the DOE?
This is an open letter to the DOE, a challenge, and an invitation to a discussion on management and pedagogy long overdue and necessary before we return to the buildings in September.
The question is about William Cullen Bryant High School. A school located in a beautiful neighborhood, in a well-maintained building, and a population of students who for the most part are a pleasure to work with. This is the place that one would expect teachers to want to stay and build a career. Yet for the last ten years the school has been losing about 20 to 30 teachers a year and at times more. A few teachers have resigned, and some lost their licenses ending their careers when they had barely begun. In addition to that, about 15 Assistant Principals have been pushed out, left, or got demoted. In the meantime, even though there was some academic improvement, the school is still struggling to get off the State’s Need of Improvement TSI list.
You would expect that somebody in the DOE would have noticed the trend and would have investigated what makes this school such a hostile work environment that so many teachers choose to leave.
Not only the DOE did not notice the red flags, but even when it was called to question by the UFT numerous times during these years, they refused to address the issue.
The school is supervised by Principal Namita Dwarka. She was a student and a teacher at Bryant before she left to take supervising positions in three high schools, Townsend Harris, John Bowne and Art and Design. Speaking to people from all three schools, they said that she had to leave because she was not a good fit. When she first came to Bryant, we welcomed her as somebody returning home. Soon we realized that she was not a good fit for Bryant either, but soon it was Bryant that changed to fit her. Yes, it was the principal’s vision that it turned into a nightmare for so many. It is a vision that created a well-oiled, top-down totalitarian machine that has managed to cover a lot of abuse for the last ten years.
The word that most teachers in Bryant would use to describe the work environment is fearful. Fear characterizes the culture of the school followed by intimidation, retaliation, and lack of trust, and there is evidence on how and why these feelings were cultivated. Letters in the file for nonsensical and unfounded reasons. Teachers called into the principal’s office just to be told that Bryant is not a fit place for them. People questioned for things they said in Union Meetings. The Consultation Committee being disrespected and never taken seriously. Misunderstood expectations of loyalty. Pressure on teachers to promote students. Fear that changes suggestions to mandates in violation of our Collective Bargaining Agreement. And more, every person and a story. In a recent poll taken in the school that a majority of the staff participated in, 99% said that it is indeed an abusive work environment and from the people who participated only one said that it is not. In the DOE’s School Environment Survey, the principal approval rating is among the lowest in the City and has been for the last ten years.
Teacher evaluations are punitive and used as a form of control. And that is the second red flag that the DOE refuses to acknowledge. Highly Effective in Bryant is a very rare sighting. Teachers receive disproportionately higher percentages of Developing and Ineffective in many of the Danielson components compared to other schools. About one-third of the teachers receive an overall Developing rating for the year on the school measure MOTP. Ratings improve because of the MOSL of student test scores, a proof that the school has hardworking and effective teachers. The reasons on the rating reports deeming the lessons Developing reflect a very narrow definition of the Danielson Rubric and attention to tedious details and technicalities of lessons that take hours to plan and have very little if any real effect on education. The art of teaching is approached as a craft, but even at that the expectations are very narrow, and lessons are found ineffective just because they are different.
One could argue that the effective MOSL results are proof that the principal’s instructional and lesson format expectations are indeed effective. However, this would be a conclusion based on incomplete evidence. The school provides countless hours of tutoring after school, during breaks, and on the weekends including Sundays. Many teachers are still taking a career risk and prioritize their instruction differently. A simple search on the State’s and the City’s data sites will reveal that the school’s Regents results overall, are still lower than other High Schools in Queens and they have been for many years. Finally, teachers have indicated time and time again that they feel confident more discretion in how they teach will produce better results. That will explain why so many talented teachers who were lost to Bryant went on to have thriving careers in other schools, some of them paradoxically in administration.
Rating reports are used as a management tool but at a closer look, they also tell a story about pedagogy. It is a story of little professional discretion. It is a story of lessons with little teacher involvement, dominated by group work, traffic lights, regroupings, protocols, sentence starters, rubrics, self-assessments, discovery learning, and student-to-student discussion. All these are unquestionably good strategies when used properly. However, when they must be observed during the random fifteen minutes of an unannounced visit, they become the lesson, in every class, in every subject, every day. It is a story about scared teachers who, in their effort to hit the Danielson Rubric look-fors, teach dull and unnatural lessons, void of spontaneity, inspiration and creativity, leaving behind confused students with very little understanding of content knowledge. It is a story of clumsy experiments of unproven instructional strategies on the back of students.
This year was no exception. While teachers are trying to conclude a very dramatic and traumatic year and best help the students complete their courses, they were assaulted by Developing and Ineffective ratings. So, in June of the year of the Pandemic teachers are being formally observed in classes with four and five students wearing masks and seating six feet apart and are downrated for lack of student-to-student discussion. Furthermore, as many of our colleagues are already in the Open Market applying for jobs elsewhere, we wonder what pedagogical or administrative sense these observation reports serve.
So, this is a story about management and pedagogy and looking at the turnover numbers and the teacher rating statistics, two numbers that are not only interrelated but are also indicative of the work environment, we cannot help but wonder, is this a case of lack of supervision or is this style of management endorsed by the DOE?
We call on the DOE to sit with us to review and discuss our data because if this is not resolved, coming September Bryant HS will not be the friendly and healthy environment students deserve and need.
UFT Chapter Leader, Bryant HS