A Few Words to Students and Parents from Mr. Schoenbrun
June 6, 2003
Some of you have probably learned that I will not be teaching at SOTA next year. Some of you may have already heard some of the details of why. I hope that most of you will feel as I do, that during my first year as a teacher I tried very hard to provide a quality education for you or your children. I know now that in today's world; this is hard for the most experienced teachers working for SFUSD.
To put things into context I think it is important to enumerate some of the details of my employment this year. To begin with, the following circumstances existed during the course of the year. To the best of my knowledge, all stated facts are true and accurate.
I began the year teaching three different courses, Physics, Geometry, and three sections of Integrated Science.
I started the year with 170 registered students. During the course of the year this decreased to a low of about 150 students. This was mostly through attrition in the Physics class, and due to freshmen dropping out of SOTA. It is the case that when my classes would decrease in size, I often would receive new students in their place. In particular, I picked up about 4 or 5 students in Geometry over the course of the year.
At one time during the year I was informed that I had more GATE students than any other teacher in the school. I was never given a list of these students so I don't know for sure. These are "Gifted and Talented" students who are legally entitled to additional attention.
The classroom I was given was inappropriate for teaching. It consisted of lab benches with desk room for 28 students. I had to bring in two tables, and squeeze students into the lab benches in order to accommodate the larger classes. Approximately 1/3 of the students had their backs to the teacher if they were seated facing the lab benches. The lab benches had sinks which students fooled around with throughout the school year. They also used the sinks as garbage pails, giving me the additional job of janitor each day after class. On a number of occasions I had to play plumber in order to tighten loose fixtures. Because of the large size of the benches, it was almost impossible for me to circulate around the class without tripping over the student's chairs and backpacks. This was especially a problem in Geometry where the students do a lot of independent group work. I informed the administration of these problems and nothing was ever done about it.
The average number of mainstreamed IEP students in my Integrated Science classes was double that of the other Integrated Science classes. I have no information on Physics or Geometry in this regard. These students are legally entitled to various accommodations, which the teacher is responsible for providing. I worked diligently with the RSP advisers and missed only one IEP meeting this year, but of course this added somewhat to my workload.
Physics - This course started the year with 37 students and wound down to approximately 32 by the end of the first semester. In the second semester it went down again to about 25 students. Many of the original 37 students were inappropriately placed in this class. About half had only taken mathematics up to Advanced Algebra, often having skipped mathematics in their junior year. All but a handful had decent mathematical preparation. Physics is the most mathematical science taught in high school, and many of the concepts are hard to understand without some Calculus. Some of my students wanted me to teach the course without mathematics. This is possible, and there is a textbook appropriate to such a course called "Conceptual Physics". Such a course would not meet either the State of California Standards, nor be sufficient to fulfill the UC system requirements for Physics. A few students indicated that they would have liked to see the course taught at a level for which they could take the Physics AP exam. Three of my students were in exceptional circumstances. These three all had very poor math skills, all three had either not taken, or previously failed Chemistry, and all three needed to pass the class in order to graduate. In the end, I ran two different classes simultaneously. One for students who otherwise would have failed the course, and not graduated. Needless to say this added to my workload. When I complained to the administration about the inappropriately placed students, they acted like they did not know how the students got there. Since we had no counselors over the summer, it would seem reasonable to assume they were all placed there by the principal or vice principal.
Geometry - This course started the year with 36 students. I was surprised to find that the book provided by the district was based on a non-standard mathematics program that required a lot of equipment that I did not have along with special training. This is the CPM book. I did eventually find a very old but more standard textbook called Jurgenson. This book it turned out was highly biased toward Algebra, and even then was of very poor quality. I used this book very little during the year. Instead I ended up purchasing 10 copies of a high quality textbook. At one time I even considered purchasing a class set. At the beginning of the year I noticed that many of my students had exceptionally poor math skills, many below that of 8th graders. Many found it difficult to do simple two digit multiplication without a calculator. Many had significant difficulty doing fractions. In the second week of school I gave the students a 40 point multiple choice algebra one quiz. Random answers would typically give one a score of 10. The class average was about 15, with many students scoring below 9. Some of these students were freshmen. I asked the administration to place these students back in freshman Algebra classes. The four or five worst performing students were moved, however I was told that there was no more room for any more. Please understand this clearly, the response to students needing to learn freshman Algebra was, sorry, there's no room they will take Geometry in an over crowded class. As if this were not bad enough, the sophomore's scores were in general worse. There was a small group of students who seemed to have learned their Algebra reasonably well. There were also two exceptional students who were clearly getting quite bored by the end of the second week. After a few weeks I became aware of two other exceptional students. Both were at about the level of 5th graders with respect to math. I approached these problems with a lot of creativity. For the two obvious GATE students, I created a self-paced program. They worked together in class, reported their progress back to me, turned in homework, and would ask questions when they came on difficult concepts. This worked well during the first semester until both of students were taken out of the school by their parents. For the two students with extremely poor backgrounds I did a number of things. I applied for, but never received a volunteer to tutor in class. I set up a computer based Geometry program, which they could work on during class. I had no help from the computer tech department in this area. Instead I found some discarded computers, and I revitalized them for my own uses. I discussed these two students many times with the administration. All I ever got was some head shaking, telling me how difficult the situation was. One of these students responded well to my efforts. He came to class. He did creative things with the computer program, and I think he learned some geometric concepts. He transferred out of SOTA after the first semester to a more appropriate situation. The second student reacted in a different way to my efforts. I'm not sure whether it was because he didn't want to work, or because he was embarrassed by his poor skills. I made many efforts to get him to come to class, but I soon found out that he wasn't going to any of his other classes except for the afternoon art classes. He failed the first semester. I was quite surprised early in the second semester when he showed up in class. He was late and he was passing by my room when his friends called him in. I knew from previous experiences with him that he was just going to socialize and disrupt class. I sent him up to the main office. He returned with an angry note from the administration showing that he was enrolled in the second semester. I even called to explain the situation. I was told to just keep him in class and to deal with it.
One very discouraging irony that I only learned of late is that the administration could have created a much smaller geometry class had they wanted to. The state subsidy program that provides money to keep mathematics classes small applies to any class with more than 50% freshmen in it. Why the administration did not do this is unclear. Maybe they didn't know the rules, or maybe they just didn't care about mathematics learning at the school?
Integrated Science - This is the class that I had three sections of. Two were very large, and one was relatively small, 23-25 students, due to scheduling abnormalities. I was never given any curriculum for this course. I was never given a book for this course. I asked for one, but nothing was ever done. Early in the second semester I found out about a set of books that were available on loan from another school. I had to pick up and return these 100 books myself. The book wasn't particularly good, but it did help. The breadth of knowledge in these classes was very wide. In almost every subject that I covered I had students who had had it all before, and students who were unable to keep up. As these were freshmen classes, discipline was the hardest. In one class in particular there were an abnormally large number of rambunctious students. Maybe this was just because this was my largest class? In any event, one particular student ended up standing out. He could be counted on to disrupt class almost every day. I tried talking with him. I called his parents. I often sent him to the office, but he would invariably return to disrupt more. His counselor was teaching a class this period, and there was often no coverage. At first the administration seemed to be encouraging. They let me know that because he was not a San Francisco resident, he could be removed from the school easily if his behavior didn't improve. Over the next few months I learned that he was behaving the same way in his other academic classes. His outbursts it turned out were quite synchronized. He would have a bad day, and he would be admonished. This was followed by a day in which he would be quiet, and then the pattern would repeat. Finally one day in class he kicked another student who he had been harassing. Because of this I was told that he had received his last warning, and that if there were any additional behavioral outbursts, he would be removed. For about a week he quieted down. Then he started up again. I was very sad about this because he did have some likeable qualities. I went to his counselor and gave him the bad news. His response was unexpected. You don't think we're going to kick him out for talking in class do you? At that point I realized that this was all an administration game. They weren't going to remove him unless he did something violent. Thankfully, a couple of months later his parents took him out of the school. The class improved an order of magnitude, although it still remained the noisiest rowdiest class.
Am I Whining?
This is a reasonable question. Here are some other things to consider. Out of 5 other math/science teachers at SOTA, only one other teacher had three different classes to prepare for this year. Of course this was not a first year teacher. There was one other teacher who had as many students as me. There was even a math teacher with many more years of experience, who was given one preparation and only 100 students to teach this year. I was told early on in the year that many SOTA teachers teach three preps. I found some, but I really think that there is a vast difference between teaching two different sciences and a math, from teaching a language at two or three levels. There is also the small issue that four of my sections were lab classes, which can take considerable extra preparation.
In addition to teaching my classes, I performed a number of other functions.
I was asked to participate in the WASC evaluation. I was not happy about this given my already heavy load of work, but I did perform all of the functions requested. I learned early on that the WASC evaluation was a self-evaluation of the school. Since this was my first year at SOTA, and my first year teaching, I really didn't know what the administration expected me to add to the process. I did supply evidence for the process. My teaching contacts at other schools let me know that this was usually all that was required of them. Since I had little to contribute, I was used mostly as a secretary doing filing work. I let my fellow teachers know of my displeasure, which was leaked back to the administration. I was reprimanded for this by the administration, and later in my summary review this was brought up as evidence that "I was not a team player". This in spite of my doing everything that was asked of me. In general I found the WASC process arcane and awkward. I became curious so I started investigating what WASC was really about. Surprisingly, almost no one knew. I thought it was some kind of state requirement, which it is not. In fact, WASC is an independent organization that has no legal standing to impose itself on any school. Instead, because it represents colleges and universities, it has purely coercive power. Try to understand this. An independent organization with no legal standing, and no research to back up the efficacy of their requirements, comes in and requires your school to go topsy-turvy every three to six years. An enormous amount of time, money, and effort goes into this. They then, having read your report, tell you whether or not they accept the plan you wrote for them as to how you will come into compliance with their requirements. If you think that this is benign, consider the following. A couple of weeks before the final WASC visit, the administration sent out a memo indicating that each teacher must provide a document showing how we were assessing the ESLR's. ESLR's are six WASC mandated goals of our teaching, which the school gets to pick. That is, I was supposed to explain how in my math and science classes I was testing whether students were becoming, Artists, Thinkers, Learners, Communicators, and Community Contributors. One small problem with this requirement is that it contradicts the California State Mathematical Frameworks for teaching http://www.cde.ca.gov/cdepress/math.pdf, which is very clear, about what should be assessed in math classrooms. This document is put out by the State Board of Education, an body that actually does research and has legal standing.
The head of our academic department did not have any interest in attending the department head meetings for Math or Science. Since I felt that we were missing out on important information, and no one else seemed available or interested, I began attending these meetings. After a few months, other teachers began participating.
Book Adoption Committee
After a few rounds of trying to get the administration to provide books for my Integrated Science class, the following subterfuge was used. I was told that since next year the school would switch to teaching Earth Science, it would make more sense to buy Earth Science books. However, there was a new Earth Science book committee forming to decide which book to be used in the district. Somehow thinking that this would help us find a book, I agreed to participate. In fact, it is only now in June that a final decision will be made, so this was of no help in my quest.
Due to the extremely poor math backgrounds of my geometry students, I made myself available almost every lunchtime for tutoring. I also tried to be available after school when requested. Sadly, relatively few students took advantage of this service. It was also typically the better students who were concerned about their grades.
I volunteered to sponsor a computer club, however it never got off the ground. I believe that the problem was in finding a location to hold meetings where computers could be dismantled and repaired.
When I arrived at SOTA the room I was assigned had been vacated by a teacher with over thirty years of service with the district. Though I never met him, he appeared to have left the district in a rather burned out state. He did no clean up of his room before he left, and the district provided none either. Every drawer in his room was filled with miscellaneous teaching supplies. Every square inch of wall space was covered over with paper, much of it so old that it was decaying. I spent two weeks cleaning up. I filled up four, hundred gallon paper recycle bins. This all occurred before I was officially employed and I received no compensation for this work. The administration was aware of this and made no suggestion that I should be.
I think it is normal to expect a science teacher to occasionally repair needed equipment, however the situation with microscopes is an exceptional one. Much of the science equipment at McAteer had been raided over the summer. I learned that it was taken to Lincoln high school. I reported this to the administration, and was told that nothing would be done. I found in various science rooms about 12 working microscopes, and about 50 others that didn't. I spent 30-40 hours of my own time in my first few months repairing and consolidating the good parts of these microscopes so that I could use them as part of a Biology module in Integrated Science. I ended up with about 32 scopes that were usable, and I think that my efforts were worthwhile.
While not directly related to my duties at SOTA, I think it is important to note that while all this was going on, I was spending my Thursday evenings at San Francisco State University taking credential courses. The homework for these courses usually filled up one of my weekend days, and the other was filled with class preparation. I should note that for the entire first semester, I had no personal time at all. Aside from the requirements of sleeping, eating and breathing, I did nothing but teach, prepare to teach, and do credential work.
The SFUSD was not very helpful in dealing with getting my emergency intern credential. They forgot to tell me that I needed to pass a US Constitution requirement before obtaining it. I found this out in late September when I was extremely busy in school. I had to find out how to get through this requirement on my own during this very busy time.
The credential supervisor made this very difficult. She insisted that I fill out a pre-intern credential application and pay a fee in case I did not get my intern credential. I complied with her and solved all my credentialing problems within her deadlines. In March I found out that she sent in my check and application anyway. This caused the state to throw out my intern application. She did nothing else to untangle the problems that she created.
I also had only provisionally passed my course work competency for teaching mathematics. The state requires 45 college level credits or the passing of three very difficult exams. I had only 38 college level credits in mathematics, ironically more than enough for a major. I have since passed this requirement by passing the three exams.
Curiously, not all active math teachers at SOTA have passed this requirement.
It may seem surprising, but none of the existing programs to provide support for new teachers applied to my situation. One of the programs is only for new teachers in low performing schools and the other is only for teachers who already have credentials. I was eventually assigned a support teacher. He was very good when he was available. He observed my classes on three occasions and made helpful suggestions. He also tried to provide me with ideas for curriculum and materials when possible. In the end, there were a few problems I ran into with him. First, he had no background in teaching math or Physics. Second, as part of the Parkside staff, he became endlessly busy with packing and unpacking as their department was physically yanked around San Francisco this year. Finally, he had lots of experience dealing with discipline problems around the district, but few of his suggestions ended up being very useful at SOTA, a school with a very different spectrum of students. None of this was his fault of course.
A Repressive Environment?
Having worked for over 25 years in the business world, I have a lot of experience with the various ways that organizations are run. I began noticing some very odd things at SOTA from the beginning. To begin with, I was given many indications from the administration that they viewed parents as "the enemy". I was even told this outright. In a meeting in which we were to meet the new PTSA academic liaisons, I was told that we were going to try to set up, or rather control the agenda so that they would not have much input into their role at SOTA. This approach rather surprised me at first. I've had mostly good and supportive relationships with parents. I then began to notice that this same technique was being used by the administration on the faculty. During the first semester, there was almost no time at all for faculty meetings because of WASC. I use the term "faculty meeting" advisedly. These were really administration meetings that the faculty attended. The agenda was set up by the administration, and rarely was there time to talk about our concerns. In one meeting we spent the entire meeting talking only about the control of copy paper. We discussed the use of the copy machines for 15 minutes, after which we were dismissed. I was told in the second semester, that there had been plenty of time to talk about our concerns during the WASC meetings. This was ridiculous. The WASC meetings were also programmed by the administration, and we talked about ESLR's, evidence, and preparation for the WASC day. In the second semester there were three or four "faculty" meetings, one of which I missed because of illness. In the ones I went to, the administration kept a tight control on what was discussed. Frequently during these meetings the principal, Donn Harris, would just summarily cut people off. Many important issues were never brought up at all. I know of these issues, because teachers would talk about them in private. The included, the systemic tardiness we faced, the idiosyncratic discipline problems we had at SOTA, but most of all, the lack of administrative support. I've had numerous conversations with at least eleven different employees who are either considering, not returning next year because of these issues. Which brings me to the seminal incident in my short career at SOTA.
The Final Straw
Early in the second semester I attended a math department meeting. The main subject of this meeting was finding ways to push additional students into the higher math classes, specifically Calculus. Both our school department head and the vice-principal seemed to think that there was some kind of magic wand to be waved to accomplish this. My own experience has been that the pre-high school math preparation in the district is abysmal and the small size of the Calculus class was related to the number of qualified students. Given the state of math in the district, it is unlikely this number would increase. On top of this, the admissions procedure at SOTA filters out most technically oriented students, so they come here often with a strong dislike for mathematics. In addition, many artistically talented students who do have good backgrounds in math are pushed to Lowell high school by their parents who have done any research on the academics at SOTA. Once they get here, freshmen find a climate of hostility among their piers toward mathematics, both the subject, and in some cases toward specific teachers. The administration has done nothing during this year that I'm aware of to change this climate. So it was not so surprising that in this meeting, our department head and our vice-principal ran into some hostility from the department members who actually teach math at SOTA. Personally, I stayed out of the heated discussion. This was the day that the vice principal had told me to keep a student in my geometry class who had failed the first semester, who had the math background of a 5th grader, and who in the past had only come to class to socialize and disrupt. After the meeting, the department head came to me in the hallway and asked about all the tension that was going on at the meeting. She seemed sincere in her question and in a weak moment I opened up to her. I told here that I had found the administration quite uncaring and dictatorial in their behavior toward the teachers, and I thought that was where the hostility came from. I had no notion at all that this conversation would go straight from me to the principal's ear. In a subsequent conversation with the department head, I learned that she had been hearing similar things from other teachers. She thought that this was important information that the principal needed to hear. Since she had heard it from other people, I don't know why she only used my name. She later apologized, and I believe that she was unaware of what was to happen next. The next morning I had a message in my mailbox to see the principal. In his office he told me that two teachers had reported to him statements that I had made that he didn't like. He told me that my statements about the way he ran things were untrue. He stated that his door to his office was always open for people to come in and talk about their concerns. My response was that the last two times I had done this I was brow beaten by the principal and left feeling quite abused. These two incidents are fully described in the following paragraph. The principal's response was to bring up one of those incidents, and to repeat the brow beating. He thus confirmed what I was saying by his actions, while denying it with his words. It was at this moment that I knew that I would not teach again at SOTA. I seriously considered quitting then and there. I held my tongue. I continued to consider this course of action. One supportive employee pleaded with me to stay. She convinced me that it would be the students who would get the worst of it if I left. I thought of them and decided to try to stick out the next 15 weeks. Those weeks were pure torture for me. Many times I thought that it would not be possible to make it, but somehow, one day at a time I have.
The first incident mentioned above is as follows. During the first couple of months of the year I was using a small boom box in class. I used it to play some amusing science/math related songs to the students. One weekend the district took over the building for a school fair. When we returned on Monday all the classroom doors were found open and the boom box was gone. I later found that a number of teachers had lost equipment. I was quite annoyed at the irresponsible behavior of the district people, and I thought that they should be held responsible for their actions. The principal did not agree. In that meeting, he admonished me for leaving a so called target item out, and that he had warned me about this two weeks ago. This was a false statement, he had never warned me at all. Besides, I had many pieces of lab equipment, much more valuable than the boom box, and no where to lock them up.
The second incident concerns a large quantity Physics equipment that I rescued from the school dumpster a week before classes started. It took me almost two days to move all this equipment because it was heavy and I received no assistance. Since it was all the Physics equipment that SOTA owned, I did not want to give it up. All this was done before school started and without my being paid. I found an empty lab room to put the equipment in at the time. Later in the year I showed the principal what I had done. He indicated to me that it wasn't a good idea to move stuff into these rooms because it was possible for the district to come and claim them. There were about eight of these rooms on the first floor alone. He gave me no other place to put the equipment, and I had none. A number of weeks later there was an incident where it looked like that room would be sealed off. There was a problem with an adjacent room possibly having some toxic chemicals, but there was nothing wrong with the equipment room. I was very concerned about not having access to the physics equipment. When I went to discuss this with him, I was again verbally abused for having put the equipment in there in the first place. This abuse apparently was to fulfilling a district policy that "no good deed goes unpunished"..
As part of my work at SOTA, I was observed and evaluated three times by the principal. These observations were using a new program of a very arcane nature. I read today that this new program is now being re-evaluated by the district, and may be dropped. The basic idea is that specific areas of the state standards for teaching are looked at. In my first evaluation, two standards were picked out by the principal for evaluation. He gave me a passing grade on one, and a failing grade on the other. In a follow up observation, he gave me two passing grades on both of these same standards. In my third observation, he added one new standard. He flunked me on this standard, but repeated a passing evaluation on the other standard. He told me at one time that there would be one more evaluation during the year but this never occurred. If you add this up, I was found acceptable in two standards, and not acceptable in one standard that I was given no chance to remediate. This actually sounds quite good for an overloaded first year teacher on an emergency credential. In the final observation, he went outside the standards being evaluated to nit pick on issues clearly unrelated to my teaching. For example, students in my class had written graffiti on the lab desks. As you may know, graffiti is a big problem at SOTA, which the administration appears to have no control over. As mentioned before, many students have their backs to me and so I have no way of monitoring this. In his final summary evaluation of me, he has indicated that I do not meet the standards, and as I have been advised, this means to the state of California, that I am incompetent as a teacher. While his documentation does not show this, he clarified this by stating to me in the meeting that I had "not been a team player". This of course is not one of the California teaching standards that I was supposed to be evaluated on.
I have been placed by the principal on a list of teachers who are not to be considered for rehiring next year. My emergency credential, which is tied to the academic program that I am taking at San Francisco State is only valid for use in the SFUSD. My credential program requires that I be employed next year because at the end of it the state is changing the requirements for teacher credentialing, and all of the credits that I've earned will be worthless. I'm forty-eight years old this May and I was thinking seriously of retiring as a teacher. It does not seem likely at this point.
What Can You Do?
I really think that it is too late for me. I have already started to think about my next move. I liked teaching, and I may pursue additional graduate work in mathematics with the hope of teaching at the college level. The teacher of my math curriculum course at San Francisco State was encouraging and she felt that I would be very qualified to do this.
If you are a student, please do not forget the importance of math and science in your education. Even if you become a professional artist, you will always need your math skills to get along in this world, and without knowledge of science, you will not be able to fulfill your duties as an informed citizen in this complex world.
If you are a parent I have some very basic advise. The only thing I have seen the SOTA administration pay serious attention to is the whims of the district. If you have any complaints, that is where you should direct them.