We publish, unedited, the commentary given by outgoing MEA President Ben Dick to the Manchester Board of School Committee on August 10. 2015. Dick was invited by the board to share his candid thoughts on the district in June. ~Publis
Growing up I never bought into the idea that you only did your best work because someone applauded you. You didn’t do it simply for the carrot, whether it be financial or personal. You did the best job possible because there is pride in doing something the right way. As such, I probably don’t thank people enough, or know quite how to respond when I’m fortunate enough to have someone thank me. As I began teaching, and especially as I began my work eight years ago with the MEA, that idea stayed with me. Even today, I still don’t believe that someone takes a job, or should do a job, based on recognition or thanks. But I am more convinced than ever that lack of recognition or thanks, the feeling of being unappreciated, can kill the pride or the desire in doing a job.
When I was asked to be present for tonight’s meeting to discuss my thoughts and feelings as outgoing MEA president, I tried to walk through all eight years I’ve served in a leadership capacity. I can certainly think of specific issues or events that stand out beyond others, but to me the conversation wouldn’t be nearly as effective if this is the path I choose. In education we talk about the big idea, the essential understanding as it were. The essential understanding based on my eight years in MEA leadership is that there is a disconnect between the teaching body and the administration, from the buildings through this board and beyond that to many in the public at large. That disconnect manifests itself in a variety of ways and a variety of situations, but it can be found in almost any major issue or concern.
Eight years ago, I remember when Dr. Aliberti became the interim superintendent. As then President Scott McGilvray and I would meet with the administrative team monthly we looked forward to the changes that would come with a new leader. I remember receiving one piece of district-wide communication from Dr. Aliberti that year. Not to say there weren’t more, but this one sticks out. It was a request that the teaching body attend a school board meeting to support his proposed budget. This request wasn’t coupled with an explanation that he was trying to move the district forward by increasing staffing, or reduce class loads, or implement new programs that would help us do better and more amazing things within our jobs. It was coupled with an explanation that if we didn’t show up and support his budget, and make our voices heard, there would be layoffs. That is a telling moment to me. That the superintendent’s wish was for us to fight for his budget, which maintained status quo, was concerning enough. What was even more concerning was the ease with which teachers accepted it. It was then that I began to understand the presence of this disconnect.
Of course the layoffs occurred. And of course the district scrambled to bring back as many teachers as possible, using ARRA funds, renegotiating our contracts, and finding other funds when possible. Dr. Aliberti moved on and Dr. Brennan came on board.
Over the next seven years there were more events, though perhaps smaller, that echoed the same sentiments. The first in a long line of additional expectations for elementary teachers came in the form of professional learning communities during personal prep periods. Not only were they being given additional tasks, but being told to complete them in less time and without additional compensation. They weren’t asked, they were told. A solution wasn’t worked out, it was forced. The disconnect continued.
Middle School teachers at Southside, fed up with a program that not only wasn’t supported but was unsafe for students and staff alike, raged against the conventional notion that teachers should accept certain aspects of our jobs as commonplace. They rallied, they wore black, they demanded a meeting with the district administration. I attended that meeting and watched the disconnect in person. Dr. Brennan, a man for whom I have the utmost respect and will always consider a mentor, began the meeting not believing the extent of the problem. But over time his face and demeanor changed; you could see the disconnect leaving. He understood, and he worked to address the problem. That isn’t to say that problems of that nature didn’t arise again, but it showed that the disconnect doesn’t have to be perpetual. It can be addressed or repaired, and when it is, things can move in a positive direction.
Even the most positive things I might point out over my time with the MEA come with a caveat. I don’t want to sound too self congratulatory, but for years I told people I worked with that MST should become a four year program. It seemed like such a logical move. I don’t think I actually had any hand in it, but it’s nice to know some of my ideas aren’t too bad. For those keeping score, I also swear I had the idea for iTunes and rectangular TV’s far before they hit the market, but that’s for another day. Yet, even as we have worked so hard to build MST up, to make it a crowning achievement for our district, the disconnect has had a drastic, negative, effect on how we utilize it. After a failed renegotiation of our contract, we saw another round of layoffs. These layoffs resulted in the dismantling of middle school electives and world languages, essentially robbing middle school students of a foundation in many of the paths they might choose to pursue at MST. These lost programs could be the difference in whether or not a student enrolls at MST or his or her traditional high school. How do we expect students to get the most out of MST when we limit their ability to prepare for it? Instead, by having them taste each option once they’re at MST we run the risk of losing students who realize they made a choice that wasn’t for them and even worse, we don’t know who we’ve missed out on because of this hiccup in his or her education.
And of course, this year brought the perfect storm of disconnect: Aspen. Throughout the fiasco that was first quarter grading at the high schools, one message was felt again and again: teachers are causing this problem. I’m not saying that this was literally the message, but it was pretty close, and minimally it was the perception. And perception has a funny way of becoming reality. Despite letters written by me, testimonials written by teachers, timelines showing the implementation and lack of training, it wasn’t until late spring that things were clearly understood and acted upon, leaving your teachers with a year of doing innumerable additional hours of data entry while crossing our fingers that the grades we were giving our students were accurate. And while not one of us did that expecting thanks or appreciation, because as I said at the beginning, that isn’t a reason to do a job, beyond a few constant supporters, the lack of thanks and appreciation was deafening and sent a clear message: the disconnect is still prevalent and with each issue the disconnect widens.
These are of course the large issues. Issues that clearly affect many teachers and students. But beyond that this disconnect has lead to an increase in issues that appear limited in their scope, though in reality they equally affect large numbers of teachers and students. In the last year alone the two biggest issues for me have easily been the increased awareness and concerns over restraint and what I have considered to be, at best, a haphazard approach to non-renewals. Though I am happy to say that these issues have hopefully led to a renewed effort to address and repair the disconnect.
During the past school year I believe six teachers were put on leave while an investigation was conducted regarding improper contact or restraint. Some of these investigations took over 40 days, some took less than a week. Some of these teachers were notified in person by the district office, some via e-mail, and some by a building principal who hadn’t been coached in how to notify said teacher. At the same time, as you’re well aware, four probationary teachers from three buildings were non-renewed in May. Based on the documentation found in their files, the contractual evaluation procedure was not followed in any one of these four cases. The two teachers completing their first year within the district each seem to have only been observed once, well past the deadline for an initial observation, and each observation contained no documented areas of deficiency requiring corrective action.
These two issues speak to the most basic danger found in the disconnect I keep mentioning: teachers do not feel, and haven’t felt for a long time, as if the district supports them. To know that a claim of improper restraint or contact might lead to an immediate leave leaves a teacher feeling guilty regardless of the truth. To know that without ever being told of concerns with your performance you might lose your job leaves a teacher questioning the decision to work here. No one wants to be an island, especially when you have no choice over the matter.
I had a chance to voice these concerns to Dr. Livingston and Mr. Ryan in June. They were very receptive to my comments and my point of view. I explained to them, as I am to you, that this disconnect goes back further than this year, or the last five, or even the eight that I’ve been within this role. This disconnect began before I started working here thirteen years ago and something needs to be done about it. As I told them that day, I’m beyond caring what started it or who is to blame, because I know that the blame doesn’t belong solely on one side. Instead, I believe it can only be repaired if both sides are willing to start fresh. To trust a little. To work together. As it stands right now, too often people find themselves protecting against a “gotcha” mentality. People look for a way to cover themselves instead of helping someone else. This is seen in the rise of small disciplinary actions that find their way to the superintendent’s desk instead of being handled within a building. This is seen in the uptick of written verbal warnings instead of conversations between principals and staff members. And that works both ways. Both sides need to be wiling to work together on small things so we can avoid big things, or address and fix big things before they become huge and unfixable.
During one of these talks Mr. Ryan said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that we always need to remember we’re dealing with people. And I think that also goes both ways. To that point, Dr. Livingston explained to me that she and her team are working on a procedure for how reports of improper restraint and contact will be handled. Hopefully this will allow teachers to know exactly where they stand, what they can expect from any potential investigation, and a more streamlined process to bring closure to the concern. I also found myself feeling more encouraged when Dr. Livingston informed me that two of the four non-renewals would be reinstated and given the opportunity to continue their careers within the district. But when it comes to addressing and repairing the disconnect, when it comes to showing teachers that maybe they can begin to count on support, nothing made me happier than to speak with Dr. Livingston about looking at how the evaluation procedure was applied to the two first year teachers that were non-renewed. She has agreed to have a third party go through each teacher’s records and report on the extent to which the evaluation procedure was applied to them. I understand that there is no guarantee of a positive result for either of them. The appreciation comes from knowing that Dr. Livingston is willing to do this even though she isn’t required to. She means it when she says she wants teachers to feel supported. She wants to address and repair the disconnect because allowing it to grow will only bring additional difficulties to the ultimate goal: educating the children of Manchester. That’s why we’re here. That’s the job we do, not because we want thanks, but because we take pride in it.
I often ask my students if they’ll at least buy into what I’m selling before I complete the lesson. I ask them to believe in what I’ve showed them just enough so that I can bring it back to the essential understanding. I would ask that of you now. Hopefully, you’re able to buy into what I’m selling, if only a little bit. It might not all resonate, but I’ve got to imagine at least some of it has. As I mentioned at the beginning of this missive, while I don’t believe in doing a job for the applause or carrot, I do fully believe that over time, lack of appreciation can kill the pride that is essential for a job well done. And while I certainly didn’t expect to come here tonight under these circumstances, I believe for many in this district, perhaps for many here in these chambers, it is entirely possible that the final nail may have been driven into pride’s coffin last Tuesday evening.
After surviving on fumes for two years, the teachers in this district were ready to enter this year feeling appreciated. Though we made concessions on our health care, though we adjusted the schedule to one meeting the proposal of the district’s team, though 50% of the members were willing to receive no salary increase in the second year of the agreement, the teachers in this district saw all 14 school board members support a new contract. This isn’t to be taken lightly. There have been many other crucial votes this year alone, some dealing with the same issues I’ve outlined tonight, that did not receive even half of the board’s support. Sometimes we couldn’t even count on the support of former educators, but on this deal we got unanimous support. We saw our superintendent and her entire team support this agreement, and by extension teachers. We saw seven out of ten aldermen vote in favor of this contract. And in the end, it wasn’t enough. And now we’re left wondering, how do we muster the pride? I can tell you how of course. We’re teachers. We always say, you give us some students and we’ll teach them. We didn’t expect that to become a reality, but we can do it.
And I’m not here to attack Mayor Gatsas. I know that it sounds like I am, but I’m not. This is an issue, an event, in a long line. It’s fresh and I’m angry about it, but it isn’t why I was invited here tonight. I’m here to say that there have been too many years of disconnect, culminating in this most recent loss. And some losses hurt more than others. Some are harder to come back from. And I’m here to say that it is incumbent upon this board, the aldermen, and the citizens of this city to work together to address and repair the disconnect and that includes teachers too. Show us you support us and appreciate us. Because if we don’t address this, the foundation on which this city is built, its public school system, is going to crumble and collapse. I can see the cracks, believe me. And if it collapses, I don’t know if it can be rebuilt.
I hope you’re able to buy even a little of what I’m selling. It’s a much better product than some of you believe. I appreciate your time and I welcome questions.