Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.
The end of my final school year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy was going exceedingly well. My 10th-graders achieved unprecedented success on the global Regents exams — over 70 percent passed, up from a 33 percent pass rate my first year at the school — and three students even scored 97 or better. On the final full day with students, we took them to a local park to play sports. I held my own in the basketball game, but when we switched to touch football I wowed the crowd by running the first kickoff back for a touchdown. I was leaving my students with a maximally positive impression.
With the Regents exams graded, my final grades submitted, and my classroom cleaned out, I spent the last few days of the school year in the company of my colleagues.
It had been a crazy four years, and I felt pride in my own growth mixed with sentimentality to be moving on from a place in which I’d invested so much. I had informed my administration back in March that I would be moving to China to accompany my wife during her dissertation research year and I had requested a leave of absence from the Department of Education. With my final year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy winding down, I looked forward to the accolades I expected to receive during my end-of-year evaluation and at our final staff meeting (I was particularly proud of the fact that I never took a sick day during those four years, and joked that I wanted a “medal of honor” in recognition of the accomplishment).
With the students gone, the atmosphere around school was calm and relaxed until Tuesday, June 22, when one of the secretaries delivered a stack of papers to each teacher. Each piece of paper in the pile represented a discrepancy in the official attendance taken by the school and the attendance taken by the teacher during the class period. For example, if a teacher marked a student as absent first period but this student was marked present on the official attendance taken during period three, than a discrepancy was noted. Teachers were told to sign each document to acknowledge our error in marking the student as absent. The size of the packet of papers given to each teacher varied, but even mine, one of the smallest, contained about 60 sheets.
Having never been given documents like this before, the teachers felt anxious and were unsure what to do. Many teachers no longer had records of their attendance from dates as early as February. Some teachers also feared what the repercussions might be if they did not sign the documents. As a group, we decided that none of us should sign or turn in the papers until we’d collectively received some answers to our questions.
The next day, a Wednesday, a majority of the staff took the liberty of an extended lunch break in order to watch the United States vs. Algeria World Cup soccer game. We knew we had the tacit permission of the administration because they’d been asking us the scores of other previous games. About halfway through the game, though, one of the teachers got a text from another teacher who’d stayed behind that said the principal was looking for her. Some of the younger teachers who were watching the game got spooked and headed back to the school (sadly missing the thrilling U.S. goal that won the game in the final minutes).
We later heard that the principal had, in individual meetings, implied to a couple of the younger, untenured teachers that he might give them U-ratings on their end-of-year review if they did not sign the attendance discrepancy documents. We decided at that point to hold an emergency union meeting to discuss our options.
During this meeting, our staff decided that our best course of action was to put our concerns in a letter, which our union representative would deliver to the principal. Knowing our principal’s history of defensiveness to criticism, we deliberated a lot about the wording, and toned down the aggressiveness of our first drafts. We opened by letter by directly addressing the issue:
Dear Principal ______:
We, the unified staff of [the Brooklyn Arts Academy], are writing to discuss our concerns regarding the attendance confirmation documents. Over the course of this week, teachers have received these forms asking them to confirm their attendance for classes over the past semester. While we believe firmly in resolving any discrepancies regarding attendance here at [the Brooklyn Arts Academy], we have some concerns about signing legal documents at the end of the year to address issues that date so far back in the semester …
We then went on to express our disappointment about the implication made to some members of our staff that failure to sign the attendance documents could result in U-ratings. We suggested that, in the future, attendance discrepancies should be addressed in a timelier manner. And we requested that staff members be given their end-of-year-ratings the next day, so that nobody would have to fear retribution about signing or not signing the attendance documents.
We closed the letter by acknowledging our school’s significant progress and expressing our desire not to let this issue stand in the way of continued improvements:
At the culmination of what has been a very successful year for [the Brooklyn Arts Academy], we want to ensure that communication remains open in the best interests of our community’s continued growth.
[Brooklyn Arts Academy] Faculty
This letter was delivered on Wednesday afternoon. That evening we received an email from an assistant principal. It made no mention of our letter but curtly informed us that there would be a meeting for returning teachers only the next morning, and that “there will be an assignment given during this meeting that will be due by 3:00 PM.”
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