Education Opinion

Detroit Teacher Wonders: What If I Could Quit When I “Didn’t Have the Tools” I Need?

By Nancy Flanagan — November 02, 2012 4 min read
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Next Tuesday, Michigan voters will decide whether to dump a new law that grants broad powers to “emergency managers” who, under Public Act 4, passed in 2011, assume managerial control over financially floundering municipalities and school districts, stripping elected boards and officials of power. Detroit Public Schools have been under the direction of an Emergency Manager, off and on, for years, but Public Act 4 radically expanded outside control. The current Emergency Manager of DPS, Roy Roberts, sent a letter to the governor, about the “tools” he needs to effect change. This is how an award-winning, veteran Detroit Public Schools teacher--who clearly must remain anonymous-- interprets that letter:

This morning in my email I read a letter from the Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools, Roy Roberts, to Rick Snyder, Governor of Michigan, detailing his concerns about Proposal One. He basically indicated if it Prop One didn’t pass, he would be resigning. It was couched in much more elegant and child-focused language, and that’s what really got me thinking. As I read the words he used to justify his (possible) upcoming resignation, I couldn’t help but feel mocked by his reason: lacking the necessary tools. In the real world, I’m not yet middle aged, and I can’t possibly afford to walk away from the job I’ve been committed to for the past 15 years, but if I could and did want to, here’s what my letter might look like--modeled after Roberts’ letter to the governor.

Dear Roy Roberts,

For the past 15 years I have been working on behalf of the over 1000 students who passed through my classroom doors, to give them the best education possible. I have to tell you, this has been the toughest job of my career, and I’ve had some tough ones. It’s also been the most rewarding. I am making a difference in the lives of my students!

However, I believe that we are at the most critical crossroads we have ever faced. When I took on the responsibility of teaching some of the neediest students in the state, I did it with the knowledge that the district would provide me the tools to implement instruction that would make our schools a leader in public education.

After 15 years of broken promises, I find myself re-examining the impact I can have on students in the Detroit Public Schools system. Having taught in this district during some relatively stable times, and having experienced the recent repeated upheavals throughout all levels of the district, I don’t see being able to continue on the path to real student learning.

When I started, schools had principals, assistant principals, staff coordinators, instructional specialists, and what would now be considered literacy and math specialists. As a neophyte teacher I had a variety of support supervisors and veteran teachers to hold my hand and answer questions. I had textbooks and most basic supplies. Although my school was very crowded and we were waiting for portable classrooms, my class sizes were manageable and I knew what I would be teaching every year.

As a teacher committed to students and their learning, I am an expert at knowing how to help students. I have been recognized at the district level for implementing effective instructional practices. I know the subjects I teach and I effectively teach those subjects to students. I have been recognized at the national level for my effectiveness at demonstrating student growth and achievement. I have been instrumental in turning around a child’s life by giving him the skills necessary to achieve at a higher level, and have enjoyed the appreciation of hundreds of parents for doing so.

Recently though, instability has reigned supreme. Most schools have an instructional specialist; however this person is now only available to work with teachers on a limited basis, not students. Every year I wait until late August to see if I will be back at my building, or even have a job come Labor Day. Knowing in June what grade level I’ll be teaching in the fall so I can plan throughout the summer is a treat I can only imagine.

Of course, when I get called back to the same school and grade level - as I was this year - I returned to my classroom with limited supplies. As you may know, Mr. Roberts, I am still without manuals and ancillary materials for a third consecutive year--and started both of the last two with more than 40 students in my class. I still purchase supplies for my classroom, but this past year also included purchases for such basics as toilet paper.

I write these things not to complain, but to help you get an accurate picture of how difficult and nearly impossible this challenge is without the tools necessary to provide a world-class education. Unfortunately, things have not changed and are not likely to change at the district level. There is simply no focus on the needs of the students and the teachers who provide their education; there is only a battle for control at the expense of logical choices to help students learn.

Therefore, while my commitment to the children of Detroit remains as strong as it was when I began this journey 15 years ago, without the tools provided by any other typical school district in this state, I do not believe that my presence here can have any further impact.

As I reflect on what I take away from this 15 year journey, I am reminded of words written by John Dewey, one of the original education reformers, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children.”

A Disillusioned Master Teacher

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.