Education Opinion

Hit the Road, Jack

By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — October 18, 2007 4 min read
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“I’m not doing this.”

One of our teachers quit today and spoke those words before stripping the decorations from her bulletin boards, packing her personal items, and walking away. She left her class of 19 seven-year-olds and never looked back. When the principal shared this news with me, she did not appear concerned. Actually, she seemed relieved. The principal agreed that the teacher was correct; she was not doing it.

A colleague saw her leaving the building and noted that the school has so many experienced teachers who really know what they are doing that the few faculty members who have weak management skills or deficiencies in instructional delivery and planning stick out like sore thumbs. I immediately imagined the former employee on the side of the road with her sore thumb stuck out trying to hitch a ride. Although Katrina left us with a severe teacher shortage and we are trying to retain our good teachers, I can’t say I was sorry to see her go.

We are doing some very hard work every day in New Orleans’ schools. It’s not unlike teachers everywhere, except that the rest of our lives, outside of school hours, are so very difficult. We still don’t have all of the conveniences of normal city life in parts of the Big Easy. In my neighborhood some stores have reopened. We held ribbon cutting ceremonies and huge parking lot celebrations when the Walgreens and Rite-Aid Drug Stores reopened. I took pictures inside of the new Winn-Dixie Supermarket a few weeks ago and bought $58 of groceries that I hadn’t planned to purchase. The colors in the grocery store match the paint I selected for the first floor of my house. Honestly! But, we don’t have a dry cleaning company, a printing shop, a florist, a police station, or a hospital yet. Some of my neighbors have looked at their houses and the slow pace of recovery and uttered the words, “I’m not doing this,” just like the teacher. The rest of us mask our disappointment and feelings of abandonment by secretly labeling them Quitters* and pretending to celebrate the extra space (vacant houses) and oxygen (barren lots) they leave for the diehards.

We are building a staff, not staffing a building. It’s necessary for us to remember. I told myself these words years ago, when I was a fledgling principal and people wanted to quit working with us before we were fully operational. The teacher who left today is a veteran with more than 25 years of teaching experience. Research on teacher retention tells us that to keep good teachers they require support, safe environments, good salaries, and opportunities for career growth through shared decision making. We’ve incorporated these research ideals through careful recruitment, selection, induction, training and evaluation of our teachers.

An informal evaluation of the teacher who told us “hasta la vista” today (as the Mexican painters at my house tell me) showed that she could not keep up with the young students. She needed to sit down when she should have been standing and moving. She fell asleep during faculty meetings when solutions to problems were being discussed. In spite of the assistance of substitute teachers and paraprofessionals assigned to help her, the class was getting more and more out of control. Today after she left, a paraprofessional was pulled to take her place in the emergency situation. The class came to order so quickly that one passing teacher said she peeked in the room to see why things were so unusually quiet. We said farewell to a teacher who did not fit in.

Ironically, another teacher who interviewed with us in July and decided to go somewhere else, called today to ask if she could transfer to our school. She’s looking for peace of mind that she doesn’t feel in her current position on the west bank of the Mississippi. Since she is so willing to walk away from her own class of young students, we don’t think she would have the kind of stick-to-itiveness we are looking for. We are still building our staff, but everyone can’t do this.

When I got ready to leave the school today, the principal was regaling me with wonderful vignettes and comments from yesterday’s Leadership Team Meeting where the school leaders discussed ways to help each other improve teaching and learning. She shared with them one of my personal examples of what a good fit means.

For teachers who want to teach in New Orleans right now, the shoe must be a great fit. It’s not enough, if you can squeeze your foot into it. Just because you can wear the shoe, doesn’t mean you can walk in it. During this rebuilding stage, walking in the shoe isn’t always enough because sometimes we have to run in it. But, at the end of the day, a great fit means you can dance in it. Dance with me. Dance.

*[I agree that it may be politically incorrect and harsh to label as “Quitters” people who don’t have the wherewithal to participate in the rebuilding process. There are numerous reasons why people make other choices. Many of them are painful decisions. I apologize, in advance, to anyone who is disturbed by my use of the term.]

The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education 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.