Open Letter to My Local Teacher’s Union

Dear President Elizabeth Davis,

First and foremost, I wish to extend warm felt congratulations to you, and Ms. Candi Peterson. I wish you a successful term as President and General Vice President of the Washington Teacher’s Union. I wish to thank you, in advance, for taking the time to visit our school, and listening to the concerns of my colleagues, and your members. I look forward to attending the meeting.

My name is Angel L. Cintron Jr., and I’m a third year DCPS teacher at Charles Hart Middle School. I’ve entered into the profession via DC Teaching Fellows and The New Teacher Project. Although I’ve taken an alternative route to teaching within DCPS, I’ve had previous experience teaching in Florida, as well as The Netherlands. During my first two years in DCPS, I’ve taught middle school mathematics. Although my first year was eye-opening, I learned a lot of valuable skills from current, and former, colleagues.  Last year, I pioneered a new math program called Teach to One Math. It was an interesting and extremely exhausting experience. Nevertheless, I’m proud to have ended the year as a highly effective teacher, per DCPS IMPACT Plus.

This year, I’m teaching 7th grade social studies, which is a content that is more aligned to my educational background. Regardless of the subject, I take pride in my work ethic, and in my determination for influencing as many students’ lives as physical possible. A teacher’s job, especially within a high poverty middle school, is a daunting task. It demands dedication, long hours of preparation, an unyielding commitment to constant development. We – Charles Hart Middle School educators –are faced with severe obstacles and challenges, which are all too often ignored by policy makers on the other side of the Anacostia River. Even though we are often ignored or overlooked, we still continue to show up, every single day!

That being said, I want to express some of my concerns about my overall experience in DCPS. I want to separate these concerns along the following categories: 1) two classroom specific concerns, 2) one school specific concern, and 3) one Union specific concern. I can assure you that I’m not an educator who rails against the “machine,” or will waste your time with meaningless rants. My aim is to simply express my concerns.

Classroom Specific Concerns

Concern #1: We have too many overcrowded classrooms, which are highly ineffective educational environments.

Few concerns are more important to me than classroom size and composition. I truly have a difficult time understanding why, against valid research and common sense, we have overcrowded classrooms. Rather than spend bonuses on highly effective teachers, DCPS should spend more monies on creating highly effective classroom environments. Every teacher should have the right to work in a productive environment, not in an ineffective one. If every classroom consisted of only 15-20 students, then student achievement will undoubtedly increase. Isn’t that the desired aim for all educators and administrators? Shouldn’t we want to maximize instruction and student understanding? For the life of me, I have a difficult time understanding the rationale behind creating classrooms of 30, 35 or even 40 students. How is this an effective practice, especially within high poverty schools? In my humble opinion, overcrowded classrooms is a guaranteed way to increase teacher churn and burn.

Possible Solutions:

The obvious answer will be to hire more teachers. I can understand the District’s push towards increasing student performance in both reading and mathematics; however, if this leads to a narrowing of the curricula and overcrowded elective classes, then this is not a practical approach. Rather than spend monies on education specialists, we should hire more classroom teachers, and make sure a reasonable and effective student-to-teacher ratio.

Concern #2: 80-minute periods are far too long for middle school students.

This policy sounds great on paper, i.e. longer periods to expose students to more instruction; however, asking middle school students, especially those coming from stressful home environments, to sit in a classroom for 80 minutes is an enormous miscalculation. Have you ever participated in a professional development? Even the adults have a difficult time sitting in one place. Undoubtedly, educators will say, “well, that’s why teachers need to incorporate movement or stations in their lesson plans.” To be fair, I can agree with that argument. However, stations or learning centers can also be incorporated within a 55-minute class period. Moreover, it may even be more of an effective experience for students.

Possible Solutions:

DCPS needs to offer students with shorter class periods, and a more diverse curricula. Shorter class periods will create the need for adding more electives, or, at the very least, allowing every student the opportunity to take more than two electives per year. We should offer every student social studies, physical education, computer science application, music, art, etc. How many future artists, musicians, and computer scientists are we hindering by narrowing the curricula? We need to offer more courses, not less.

School Specific Concern

Concern #3: We have too many high-salaried specialists, and not enough classroom teachers or social-emotional support staff.

According to research, children raised in poverty are more likely to display the following: “acting-out” behaviors, impatience and impulsivity, gaps in politeness and social graces, a more limited range of behavioral responses, inappropriate emotional responses, and less empathy for others’ misfortunes. (Jensen, 2009). This is by no means an excuse or rationale for lowering academic expectations. To the contrary, we need to understand how poverty negatively affects students during the school day to strategize behavioral interventions beyond referrals. Although we have social workers and counselors available, they’re inundated with the amount of low-income students at our school. Essentially, we only have six full-time social support staff for a student population of six hundred.  That amounts to a ridiculous ratio of one social-emotional support staff to one hundred students. How is that an effective ratio? So, not only are our class sizes overcrowded, but we also have overwhelmed our social workers, counselors, and school psychologist. This is a recipe for disaster, and does not place the needs of our students first.

Possible Solutions:

             In addition to hiring more teachers, we need the flexibility and ability to hire more social-emotional support staff. We are not a “typical” public school. We’re located within one of the most, if not the most, impoverished wards in DC. Our school must have adequate resources, both financial and human, to effectively meet the needs of our students. Rather than manage the student population, the District has increased the overall student population vis-à-vis school closing and consolidation plans. We’re headed, precisely, in the wrong direction. School buildings, such as Johnson Middle School, must never be considered for closure. Our school should not have any more than three-to-four hundred students. Anything over that limit is bad education policy and highly ineffective.

Union Specific Concern

Concern #4:  In order to recruit more DCPS teachers, the WTU needs to champion teacher development and quality.

Unfortunately, teacher’s unions has a negative reputation. It isn’t uncommon to hear the following, “teacher’s unions protect bad teachers,” or “teacher’s unions protect only disgruntled, veteran teachers.” This image of the union has to change. I can’t help but notice how many young teachers there are within DCPS. We have a huge base, and need to maximize our potential. We need more mobilizing efforts via social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to name a few. As long as the negative reputation exists, many teachers will hesitate to take part within the union. Not to demean or disrespect earlier WTU Presidents, but relying on snail mail, and even emails, is not sufficient enough to maximize the WTU’s reach.

Possible Solutions:

             One of the easiest ways to recruit more teacher participation is through Twitter. First, the WTU needs to embark on a massive twitter recruiting campaign, in attempts to gain as many DCPS teachers as “followers” as possible. Second, the WTU must devote time, every day, to tweet a positive message of affirmation and support to all DCPS teachers (followers). By amassing a large twitter following, communication between members will undoubtedly increase. Lastly, the WTU can communicate any, or all, messages (tweets) to its’ members (followers) in real-time, and not solely rely on snail mail or email.

Another point to consider, the WTU should embark on its’ own version of a #RealEdTalk tour, much the same way that Michelle Rhee, Dr. Steve Perry, and George Parker recently completed. The WTU should make arrangements to secure at least one public school building per ward, in order to schedule a Q & A forum with all DCPS teachers. This would be a great opportunity to dispel any negative myths, promote an agenda or plan of action, and recruit more active participation from its’ members. It’s important to note, should such an event emerge, the schedule must be teacher-friendly. Meetings should not start prior to 4:30pm, at the earliest. It takes time for teachers to wrap up the end of the school day, as well as travel to such an event. I propose a start time between 5:00 – 5:30pm. Again, maximizing participation must be the goal. Teachers want to take part. We just need adequate time, and the opportunity to attend.

Closing Remarks

Again, I wish to congratulate you on your victory. I wholeheartedly support the idea of a strong teacher’s union. Now, more than ever, we are in need of strong leadership. Now, more than ever, we are in need of education visionaries at the helm. Now, more than ever, teachers need to feel empowered and appreciated. Now, more than ever, the time is ripe to strike the iron. If Washington D.C. is considered the face of education reform, then it should equally be considered the face of a strong teacher’s union.

Follow along on Twitter

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