notes from Margo

reflections of a public school teacher

We Are Here! We Are Here! We Are Here! May 27, 2010

Filed under: Just Notes — mefrizzell @ 12:06 am
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My title comes from the book, Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss.  In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie I’ll briefly summarize.  Horton is an elephant who upon hearing a voice calling for help discovers a town of people called Whos living on a small speck of dust.  He carefully protects the Whos from the other jungle animals by carrying it around on top of a clover.  The Whos desperately call out from their tiny town “We are here! We are here! We are here!” and yet no can hear them until one little boy finally adds his voice.  One great “Yop!”  Finally the jungle animals realize that yes, truly there are people living on that speck.  Horton becomes a hero.

So what does this have to do with public education?  The parallels are probably pretty easy to spot.  The Whos are our children, just trying to live their lives and make their way in the world.  I suppose even the teachers are Whos because so often we go unheard in our quest for justice.  As we face this huge budget crisis I am watching everything our community has built crumble, just as the town crumbled around the Whos.  Our foreign language programs, decades old, eliminated.  Full day kindergarten, fought for and envied in many districts, slashed.  Our ESL program, serving upwards of 15 different languages, cut.  And classroom teachers forced to take on 5-10 more students in classrooms where extremely diverse needs are already almost impossible to meet.

Who are the jungle animals?  They are not difficult to pick out.  Politicians, district CEO, nay Sayers in our own communities who know nothing of the workings of classrooms and schools. They make their decisions and call for measures that are seemingly unaware of the little people, the invisible ones, just trying to hold it all together.

Yesterday afternoon I marched with 4000 teachers, students, parents and community members demanding to be heard.   We stopped traffic and refused to be ignored as we encircled City Hall and then marched back to CPS headquarters.  It was invigorating and hopeful and yet the news coverage was minimal. Were we heard?  Does anyone hear us?

Who is our Horton?  But more importantly as we shout “We are here! We are here! We are here!” who is our missing voice?


“Entering the Real World” April 4, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — mefrizzell @ 10:30 pm

A couple of weeks ago Mayor Daley told CPS teachers that we needed to come into the real world and accept that we shouldn’t and probably wouldn’t be getting a raise this year. Up until today, I agreed.

Read this article from the Chicago Reader.


Watching the Headlines March 29, 2010

Filed under: Just Notes — mefrizzell @ 4:27 pm
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These days I’m watching the headlines for any news about teacher layoffs and education.  Today I ran across this article in the Daily Herald about a blog started by a pink-slipped teacher in Elgin.  (I added the blog to my blog roll).

As I read through the comments left on the DH article I felt frustrated and discouraged.  Here are some of the comments people made about teacher layoffs.

“I feel bad for anyone who loses a job, but I have to say that these recent stories about teachers and other staff members in schools getting “pink-slipped” just make me want to ask them, “What planet have you been living on for the last ten years?” We, the parents of the children you teach, we, the taxpayers who pay your salaries, have been dealing with this situation in corporate America for a long, long time.”

I know this is true.  Matt and I have been noticing for some time, whenever we visit Michigan, how the economy has deteriorated.  The schools there have been struggling for a long time.  It was only a matter of time before the struggling economy caught up with education on the national level.  But this comment, “we, the taxpayers who pay your salaries,” kind of irritated me.  Yes, our salaries are paid through taxes – because we service your children and your families.  Our day does not stop when your child leaves our room and the day begins long before your child enters it.  We are grading papers, making plans, calling you when your child isn’t performing and setting up conferences on your schedule to try and address your child’s needs.  I guess the question you need to answer is what do you value?  Because without us, public school teachers, you would have to pay for a private education – even if you lose your job.

“I still think it would be better if all the teachers take a pay cut and they reduced staff by a lesser number.”

I’ve already spoken to how I would be willing to give up my raise – but reduce the number of teachers?  That has a frightening domino effect.  In Chicago we are looking at having 37 kids in a class due to our cuts in staff, with fewer aides to help out.  This certainly affects the quality of education students can receive.  When you cut a teacher, you cut a child’s educational opportunities.  You limit a child success.  It isn’t just about a job.

“We need to get these school districts back down to a fiscally manageable level. If parents want their children taking cartooning, animation and photography classes they are going to have to pay out of pocket to the private sector.”

This comment brought up a different kind concern of mine.  Our educational system does not do a good job of honoring individual gifts if they don’t fall within certain categories.  If you aren’t math smart, or language smart, or body smart then you are not as valued.  There are all kinds of academic awards assemblies starting in elementary school.  And do I really need to talk about how valued sports are in our society?  But in the elementary grades there are fewer opportunities to show off your art smarts or your musical smarts.  (Some schools/districts are better than others.) And certainly there are very few opportunities to show off your people smarts – if you’re good at getting along with others, or if you are especially compassionate or empathic.  These classes like cartooning and photography are so important for kids who may not experience success in other contexts.  I know a girl who was failing every class, except  photography – and not because it was an easy A.  How do you put a price tag on that?

So many of the stories we tell ourselves through TV and movies have a common theme of working together to make life better for everyone.  We want to hear that story over and over.  And yet when it comes time to live it, we choose something else.

I want to do my part.  I’m willing to talk about what that part is.  Is there anyone else out there who is also ready to do something beside point fingers and make a grab for themselves?


Education Budget Crisis March 20, 2010

Filed under: Just Notes — mefrizzell @ 3:38 pm
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Sacramento, California

Scottsdale, Arizona

Hunstville, Alabama

Detroit, Michigan

Grand Rapids, Michigan

Kansas City, Missouri

Rockford, Illinois

Elgin, Illinois

Schaumburg, Illinois

Waukegan, Illinois

Chicago, Illinois

All over the country districts are considering or have already approved teacher layoffs.

The Chicago Board of Education is threatening 3,200 teacher layoffs, class sizes of 37, elimination of preschool for the most needy and cuts in services to English language learners.  Mr. Huberman, our CEO, is saying that without more state funding the only way to address these issues even partially is to reopen the teacher contract and take back our promised raise and board contributions to our pension.

I’ve heard teachers ask why we should be required to give up our raise when Mr. Huberman makes over $200,000.  I think that is beside the point.  This is the way our society is set up and if we want that to change that we have a much bigger fight on our hands than the crisis before us now.

My question is how can we insist on a raise when our colleagues all over the country and teaching in the classroom next door are losing their jobs?  What is fair about that?

Yes, it would be nice if Mr. Huberman would decide, as a good faith effort to make even as little as the highest paid teacher in CPS, given that he doesn’t even have an education degree or experience, two things we are required to have to move up the pay scale.  But I don’t see that happening.  And the board has already cut 500 non-teaching jobs and required those left to take three weeks of furlough days.

When it comes down to it, as a teacher and a parent, if I can save the jobs of my colleagues and the educational quality of my students, as well as and even more importantly to me personally – that of my own children, I will give up my raise.

My critics would say that it wouldn’t save that many jobs, that we would still have larger class sizes, that we would still lose preschool and there would still be a decrease in ELL services.  That may be true.

My colleagues who have been around longer than me tell me that the Board has done little to build trust and that even now they are holding secret meetings.  I’m told that if we give anything up it will be in vain because the Board could solve these issues without our concessions.  That may be true.

So I guess this leaves us in a quandary.  How can we contribute to the best possible solution?  If our answers begins with “They,” then we’ve given up all control and become victims of the system.  But we cannot accept this role because there are bigger victims – our children.

Our union president Marilyn Stewart’s response to the Mr. Huberman’s proposals can be found here.

She says in the last paragraph that the union will do everything we can to help all of us out of the mess CPS put us in.  First of all, CPS didn’t get us in this mess by themselves.  Let’s put the responsibility where it belongs – with a society that undervalues quality education for every child.  Secondly, I have yet to hear the union make any suggestions about how we will help – only stating the things we won’t do.

If we as teachers are to be true advocates for the education for our children we must bring something to the table.  And until I hear another suggestion I’m thinking that is going to have to be our raise.


Fire Them! February 25, 2010

Filed under: Notes to Matt — mefrizzell @ 2:56 am

Dear Matt,

I just read an article about a school in Rhode Island where all the teachers are being fired at the end of this school year because the students consistently underperform.  The article says Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, applauds the plan.  He says that we can’t just let schools continue to underperform because kids only have one chance at an education.

While I agree with Mr. Duncan that we can’t accept a substandard education for any of our students; that every child deserves a good, not just adequate, education; I disagree with his methods.

When Mr. Duncan was CEO in Chicago I had the same problem with him.  He institutes methods that decrease cost and look good to the public instead of doing things that will really make a difference.  In the Rhode Island situation countless number of teachers are being fired.  Who will be hired in their place?  New, untried, inexperienced teachers.  This is better?

What about instituting smaller class sizes?  Teacher mentoring programs?  More social service support for students and families?  More special education supports and early identification and intervention for students with special needs?

What’s wrong with these ideas?  They cost money.  It sure is a hell of a lot more cheaper to fire a bunch of teachers on the upper end of the pay scale.  Tell everyone it was their fault that students are failing and then hire a bunch of entry level teachers to replace them.  A few years from now will they just fire them too?  If we keep starting over then we can keep up the illusion that we’re doing something to solve the problem.  When really we’re doing nothing.  And more and more children pass through our education system uneducated.  What a crock.

Pray for those teachers losing their jobs.  Pray for those students losing their teachers.  Pray for those parents whose children will be lost between the cracks of political rhetoric.




Wit-ty February 24, 2010

Filed under: Just Notes — mefrizzell @ 12:46 am

I introduced the “it” word family today.  Students began brainstorming words that end in “it.”  One student offered the word, wit.  I acknowledged that it was a word (as opposed to dit or jit) and wrote it on the list.  But then, doubting him, I asked him what it meant.  He answered, “You know like when you want bread wit your soup.”


Emotional (In)Competency February 21, 2010

Filed under: Notes to Matt — mefrizzell @ 4:28 pm
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Dear Matt,

Over the last year or so I’ve been able to articulate a dream of mine in a way I haven’t before.  My end goal is to develop a component to teacher preparation programs that help teachers develop the emotional competencies to 1)meet the emotional needs of children in the classroom 2)meet their own emotional needs in the classroom 3)in meeting these needs create livable environments for everyone involved.  The end result of this would be reducing the number of teachers that quit within the first five years of entering the profession and increasing morale in schools.

I’ve heard people say that they quit teaching because there wasn’t enough money in it.  That there were aspects to the job that weren’t worth the money.  But really, who goes into teaching thinking about the money?  It’s pretty widely known that teachers don’t make that much.

Other reasons I’ve heard for teachers quitting are the bureaucracy and the “system.” No doubt bureaucracy is a pain in the behind and the system is a faceless but powerful force that seems to block success at every turn.  But again, isn’t this something people know about before they enter the profession?  Almost every job, especially ones in public service, have to work with bureaucracies and systems.

I think the reason people leave the profession early is because of the emotional burden teachers have to bear.  No one prepares us for the students that just won’t cooperate or who are outright defiant.  No, that’s wrong.  We do talk about techniques on how to deal with kids with problems.  What we don’t talk about in college is how to deal with the anger that naturally arises in us when a kid calls us a name, or throws over a chair or refuses to move, or refuses to do work, or hits another kid etc.  We don’t talk about what to do about the feelings that arise when a parent blames us for their child’s struggles or is rude or degrading.  There are lots of books and workshops out there about what to do with those situations but not what to do with the feelings that follow us home and keep us from sleeping.

So how does a teacher stay in the profession for 30 years?  Are these just the few that know how to ignore their feelings, or how to deny their feelings,  or how to not have feelings, or have the money for good therapy?  My mom used to say “Water off a duck’s back, Margo.”  So maybe these are the few that know instinctively or have the personality or have learned how to just let it roll off.

It seems to me that if we could identify those who do allow themselves to have the feelings and know how to deal with the feelings in a way that doesn’t cause high blood pressure we could maybe help others develop those competencies.  (I wonder what percentage of teachers struggle with stress related health issues compared to other professions.)

Last Friday, I planned a Writer’s Celebration.  I invited parents.  The students wrote something in response to a book I read aloud.  It started well.  A small number of parents came.  This I expected since it was the first time I had held this kind of event and it was still during the work day.  I had already explained to the students what we would do and reminded them to be on their best behavior.

After everyone was settled I read the book that had inspired their writing.  Then I invited the students to go to their tables and share their writing with the adult that was there, while I prepared the food.  They were finished sharing before everyone had food, so there were a few students (the regulars) who were out of their seat and causing some chaos.  But once all of them had their food, it settled down for a bit.  After they ate though, it became chaotic again.  I really don’t have  a clear picture of what happened.  No one got hurt and no real harm was done but I watched my hopes for a relaxed and enjoyable afternoon fade like a mirage of an oasis in the desert.  I know my stress levels were high.  I tried to keep everyone together but even students who are normally well behaved had to be strictly redirected more than once.  All this in front of parents whom  truthfully, I wanted desperately to impress.

I’ve reflected some on the afternoon and realized that the procedures I have in place for misbehavior were not used effectively.  For some reason, I resorted to verbal re-directions over giving the normal consequences.  But what is more relevant to this discussion is that it is an example of how high stress can get in the way of making the best decisions and then get in the way again of even remembering clearly what happened.  As I was standing there, frustrated over the state of affairs in my classroom, two moms were visiting happily it seemed.  And one, who had volunteered earlier in the day, even commented on how well things were going.  Stress blurs my perceptions.  This I know.

The only thing to do is reflect, learn and go back tomorrow.  Try to stay focused on the present and clear about what is happening in front of me.  Monitor the feelings that ebb and flow during the day.  And when those feelings begin to intensify, stop, think and breath.

I know I’ve grown because I no longer think to myself that I just need to quit when I feel like I’ve failed.  (Watching the Olympics I’m struck by how many of the athletes would never have achieved their medals if they had quit after their early, or even later, failures.)  But there is still more growing to do – which is a blessing I guess.  What else would I do for the rest of my life?

Love you,