Innovations: Just A Phone Call Away

February 01, 1994 7 min read

Marlowe characterizes the meetings and “interrogations’’ that followed as a “public crucifixion.’' Subjected to anger and harassment not only from administrators but also from some teachers, Marlowe says she needed someone outside her milieu to talk to.

It was then that a colleague and friend told her about a crisis hot line for educators. Marlowe called the number and spoke with a volunteer who was able to provide some much-needed support. The volunteer told Marlowe that she was not alone, that her experience was similar to those of hundreds of other educators across the country. “She helped me not to take it so personally,’' Marlowe says. “I understood the monster I was dealing with.... Censorship is a traumatic experience. Just to know people had been through it has been real helpful.’'

Although Marlowe is no longer at Flowing Wells High, the support she received over the hot line helped her persevere and finish out the school year.

Created by the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking, a professional network of teacher educators, the hot line was established to help those who are, in the words of its organizers, “subjected to attack for their meaning-centered or child-centered practice.’' Marlowe is just one of nearly 150 teachers who have contacted the CELT Crisis Hot Line for help since it began taking calls more than two years ago.

The hot line provides two kinds of service. Teachers can either leave their name and number and ask for the kind of personal help that Marlowe received from an experienced volunteer, or callers can request a packet of information sheets on controversial topics that they can photocopy and pass out.

Several years ago, some CELT members began to notice that a number of innovative teachers around the country were coming under attack for breaking with traditional classroom methodology. Many of these teachers were adherents of the burgeoning whole language movement, which encourages teachers to do away with basal readers and textbooks and to use literature and other authentic materials and experiences to teach children.

Such teachers are often alone in their schools, and many get heat from administrators, fellow teachers, and parents who believe traditional methods are working fine and see no reason for change. They can find themselves shunned in teachers’ lounges or made the subject of public battles over their practices. Often they have no one to turn to for support or to simply share ideas.

“A lot of us knew about these happenings,’' says Carole Edelsky, a CELT member and a founder of the crisis hot line. “I didn’t think the big elephants, such as the National Council of Teachers of English or the International Reading Association, could be responsive enough to a teacher who had a problem.’'

At an IRA meeting several years ago, Edelsky, a professor of curriculum and instruction at Arizona State University, and a number of her CELT colleagues struck on the hot-line idea. Edelsky began contacting people, wrote up a funding proposal, and started brainstorming on ways to set up the hot line. Her first attempt at soliciting volunteers, however, failed. At a meeting of the Whole Language Umbrella in St. Louis in August 1990, she proposed that a cadre of volunteers write letters in support of hotline callers. “Nobody volunteered,’' Edelsky says, “because they didn’t want to write letters.’'

But she forged ahead, commissioning people who specialized in whole language and censorship, among other things, to write up extensive information sheets that could be put into a packet that callers could request. The most important aspect of the fact sheets, says Connie Weaver, a professor of English at Western Michigan University who initially proposed the packet idea, is that they are research-based, well-documented, and provide references for additional information.

By passing out flyers at whole language and reading conferences, Edelsky was eventually able to put together an extensive “phone tree’’ of volunteers, who agreed to return calls to teacher “victims’’ and offer support and counseling.

In January 1992, the hot line officially began taking calls.

Today, more than 400 educators have signed up as hot-line volunteers, according to Pamela Perkins, director of the International Reading and Learning Center at Chapman University. Their ranks include college professors, experienced teachers, and members of whole language groups. As head volunteer, Perkins is responsible for linking callers with counselors. Once she receives the caller’s name and phone number, she checks her list for a volunteer in the same area code who has experience with the issue in question. Then she phones the volunteer and asks him or her to contact the caller, collect.

The hot line itself is physically represented by an answering machine located in an office at the Center for Establishing Dialogue in Teaching and Learning in Tempe, Ariz. Because CELT is a loose-knit organization with no home office, the group pays CED a monthly fee to retrieve and pass along to Perkins the names and numbers of the people wishing to be called back; it also mails out the information packets.

Since its inception, the hot line has received so many requests for the information packet that CELT has had to start charging a $4 fee to cover mailing costs. Fewer teachers--approximately 50--have requested a call back, but those who do, organizers say, often have a dire need to talk to someone.

One such person was Carol Quill, a 4th grade whole language teacher in the Bismarck (N.D.) Public School District. Quill had heard of the hot line shortly after it was created but immediately dismissed the idea of ever having a need for it herself; she had, after all, started her own local support group of about 10 whole language teachers.

But in early 1993, a group of parents fighting a statewide outcome-based education plan targeted Quill and her methods. Quill’s classroom didn’t look like a traditional classroom, but she wasn’t, in her mind, employing outcome-based education and didn’t want that label linked to her practices.

Still, the parents--none of whom had children in her classroom--continued to attach the OBE label to her teaching style and claimed that her students weren’t learning. “It got so volatile,’' Quill says, “that the whole community got excited.’'

Her principal called a meeting in March of last year to discuss the matter and to get everything out in the open. At that point, Quill says, she got panicky and decided to call the hot line. “I was searching for help,’' she explains. “People who supported me before faded away. It was like I had AIDS. They needed to distance themselves from me.’'

First, Quill received the CELT information packet and ran off everything for her principal. (In a letter sent months later to Perkins, she writes, “I think [my principal] learned more about whole language in that short amount of time than many do in a graduate class.’') Then Quill got a call from Perkins, and they talked for more than two hours.

“She was so kind,’' Quill says of Perkins. “She gave me that shot in the arm I needed to go on. She did not tell me what to do; I had to learn that myself.’' Eventually, Quill was able to fend off the attacks; she still adheres to her whole language principles.

“Teachers need to talk to somebody,’' says Alice Naylor, a children’s literature and language arts professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., and a hot-line volunteer. “A teacher is alone in the classroom, and one of the things that happens is we think we’ve done something wrong. We need to be confirmed as a teacher.’'

Naylor believes the information the hot line provides can be invaluable to teachers under attack for their reform-minded ways. Arming teachers with evidence--"examples, articles, and research’'--showing that students in similar classrooms in other places are learning and doing well on tests, she says, can really help them in their local struggles.

Still, she adds, the hot-line approach has its limitations. “You share information,’' she says, “but you’re not there on the spot.’'

Perkins also cites communication difficulties. Reaching people who don’t have quick access to phones at work or an answering machine at home, she says, can be almost impossible. Some volunteers and teachers play phone tag for weeks and never end up talking.

But those who have benefited from the hot line say such annoyances are a small price to pay for the service they receive. Says Quill: “It takes strength to stand up for what you believe in. The hot line gave me that strength. Where else would I have gone?’'--Jennifer Chauhan

The CELT Crisis Hot Line number is (602) 929-0929.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Innovations: Just A Phone Call Away