Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

A teacher speaks her mind

Following an emotional outburst at the mayor’s news conference on Friday morning, a Hope High School teacher shares her recommendations about what needs to happen

Photo by Richard Asinof

Teacher Betsy Taylor, center, speaks out at the news conference called by Mayor Jorge Elorza on Friday morning, July 19, in front of Hope High School.

Photo by Betsy Taylor

A ceiling in Hope High School in disrepair, taken the day of the news conference.

Photo by Betsy Taylor

A classroom floor in disrepair, taken the day of the news conference.

Photo by Betsy Taylor

The warning sign about asbestos removal at Hope High School, taken on July 19, the day of the news conference.

By Betsy Taylor
Posted 7/22/19
Following an impassioned speech, interrupting the messaging of the Mayor’s news conference on Friday, July 19, Hope High School teacher Betsy Taylor put down in words what she sees as the priorities in how to fix the Providence public school system.
What kind of place will teachers and students have at the decision-making table moving forward with the plan for the state to take over the Providence public school system? Is the emphasis on standardized tests misplaced in the way that children need to learn? What are the details concerning the new commissioner’s plans to expand personalized learning, using computers? Will there be a priority in providing the necessary resources for support services for students? Will the state move to settle the lawsuit concerning the failure to teach civics as part of the educational curriculum in Rhode Island? Is there a corporate “angel” already identified to pay for all the changes? What lessons can be learned from the efforts by Zuckerberg to invest $100 million in the Newark public school system to become a shining star of education reform?

After the impromptu speech by Betsy Taylor at the mayor’s news conference, she was surrounded by the news media to get her to answer questions. But no one else, save ConvergenceRI, offered her a chance to share her thoughts in a more comprehensive manner, to explain in more detail the challenges she has faced as a teacher at Hope High School. Why is that?
What Taylor had to say at the news conference interrupted the planned messaging; it also interrupted the plans by Governor Raimondo and the new education commissioner to have the state take over the Providence schools. The ability for Taylor’s and other teachers’ voices to be heard – and to participate in the decision-making moving forward, is a lesson that should not become lost in the inexorable push for the state takeover.

Editors Note: In an impromptu outpouring, Betsy Taylor, a teacher at Hope High School for the last seven years, interrupted the news conference being held on Friday morning, July 19, by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, on the sidewalk in front of Hope High School. Fighting back tears, Taylor launched into a five-minute speech that took everyone by surprise, filled with umbrage, passion and a plea for help.

Following the news conference, ConvergenceRI asked Taylor to write something to provide a context to her story. Here is what she wrote. It is something that members of the R.I. Council and Secondary Education should consider reading before the meeting scheduled for Tuesday, July 23, at 5:30 p.m., in the Paff Auditorium at 255 Westminster St. in Providence, where they will vote on a plan to have the state take control of the Providence public schools.

PROVIDENCE – I am an ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher and advocate with nearly 10 years in the Providence school district. I was just having my first cup of morning coffee when my husband texted me that he heard a news blurb on The Public’s Radio that the mayor was speaking at my place of work, Hope High School.

Knowing how I’ve been obsessively tracking the situation with Providence schools, he thought I’d be interested. He was right. Since I couldn’t find any other information online about what was happening, I decided to immediately jump in my car and make the journey from Foster to see for myself.

I was neither expecting nor prepared for what would transpire.

Once at Hope High School, I parked and walked up to the building. I couldn’t enter the school from the main parking lot because the door was locked, with a sign taped to it, warning: “Danger. Asbestos. Cancer and lung disease hazard. Authorized personnel only. Respirators and protective clothing are required in this area.”

Great. At this point, something I can only define as PTSD started manifesting in my body. You see, I was on medical leave for the last two weeks of school, due to health issues stemming from the physical conditions, culture, and climate of the building.

This was not something I chose, but something my medical doctor insisted upon, after seeing my condition. So here I was, back at school, pushing aside what my body was telling me, wondering what was unfolding.

I wandered over to the small gathering on the front lawn of the school. The mayor, his staff, and several reporters were gathered. Passersby stopped to observe. The morning was temperate, but as the clouds cleared, the heat started to build, another oppressively hot day in the city. The announcement that the new commissioner of education, Angélica Infante-Green, had given her recommendation that the state get involved in running Providence public schools, was being made by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza.

Compelled to speak up

As I stood there listening and watching the calm delivery of such tragic news, hearing person after person from the mayor’s list of invited speakers take their turn at the mic, I felt compelled to speak up for the teachers and students of Providence.

As someone with years of experience teaching English to at-risk adolescents and immigrant adults – and as someone who has lived in urban districts from Richmond, Virginia, to Brooklyn, N.Y. – I deeply care about my students and democracy. I love my school, but lately it has become a noxious, toxic place at nearly every conceivable level.

Toward the end of the news conference, during a lull in questions from reporters, I caught Elorza’s eye and asked him: how we were supposed to believe things were actually changing, when all my attempts this summer to preemptively advocate for my students’ needs this September have been repeatedly ignored or considered “impossible” due to a lack of funding.

Where did the $5 million dollars allocated to ELL’s [English Language Learners] educational needs last year go? My students and I didn’t see a dime. One person in the system to whom I posed this question, who should have details how resources are being spent, told me: “That’s a good question.” Damn right it is. What happened to the money?

I have special education ELLs not receiving services because there are not enough case managers. Many parents are missing in action. Of the 90 students I taught last year, only eight parents attended report card conference night.

This is not OK
To parents, guardians, community members, I say: this is not OK. At this time of crisis, we must circle around our children and give them the support they so desperately require during these times of politically charged rhetoric and chronic unemployment.

For years I have persevered to give my students the best education possible, despite a lack of support from nearly all of the administration, ongoing teacher shortages in my department, obscenely over-crowded classrooms, atrocious facilities, and a lack of materials or meaningful, culturally relevant curriculum.

I pursued a master’s degree in TESOL, [Teachers of English To Speakers of Other Languages], fully paid out of pocket, so that I could offer my students the best instruction possible. Part of this is creating a welcoming, comfortable, calm, safe learning environment. This is a basic requirement for academic learning. I fill my crumbling room with colorful artwork, beautiful examples of student work and celebrations of their achievements.

I bring in floor and table lamps to offset the migraine-inducing florescent lights. I fill the space with air-cleaning plants, hang drapes to hide the dirty barred windows, and stock the bookshelves with high-interest pleasure reading materials for students to borrow or read when their work is completed. Soft music to enhance mental clarity and students’ focus plays in the background. I even provide a table of free books stocked exclusively for students to take home and share with their families. I want my room to be somewhere the students want to be. Somewhere I want to be.

Massive holes, windows that do not open
Despite the cozy environment I strive to create for my students, certain things about my room cannot be ignored. I have several massive holes in the ancient floor of my class. Half of my windows will not open. One crashed to the floor during instruction, spraying glass across the room. The walls are yellowed, unpainted for decades, with cracks riddling the surface.

Overall, the environment resembles something from a documentary about government mental institutions back in the 1950s. My "new" classroom is located in the basement. Before this classroom was assigned to me, for three years I was forced to teach up to 30 ESL students at a time in a room designed for, at most, 12 self-contained special education students. My white board was so old it would not erase. It took me three years to get a board that would erase. When it finally arrived it was damaged.

After years of begging for a room that was designed to accommodate large class sizes, my “reward” was to be moved into an isolated corner of the basement. Across the hall from my room is a boy’s bathroom that reeks so strongly of urine it triggers the gag reflex. When the smell of urine isn’t wafting across the hall, then it’s replaced by the skunky smell of marijuana. I know teachers who have nearly lost consciousness from having to walk down the stairs filled with pot smoke. My kids rush to close the door when it begins to seep into the room. You see, asthma is in epidemic proportions among the children I teach.

Every day, groups of rogue students stroll through the halls during instructional time, playing loud music, banging on lockers, cursing loudly, even knocking on classroom doors to see their friends. If one calls the office for administrative support, there is a 50/50 chance help will come.

One day I had to lock a student in a safe room to keep a gang from jumping him. The student and I barely made it to safety in time. Another time I had to protect an immigrant newcomer from a student who was in a full rage and threatening to kill him. I was injured during this incident and had to get x-rays to make sure there was no serious damage to my hands and wrists. These are just two examples of years of such traumatic experiences.

On triage
Our school operates on triage, so wandering students are allowed to continue doing their thing if more pressing issues require administrative attention. The thing is, there are always more pressing issues. I’ve learned that if I open my door and address the misbehaving students directly, I am either flatly ignored, cursed out and told to shut up and go home, or physically threatened.

I once asked a student to please pick up some trash I saw him throw on the ground. There was a trashcan literally three feet away. He looked at me with contempt and mumbled, “Do it yourself. That’s what you’re here for.”

There are little or no consequences for this kind of bad behavior. How has society gotten to this point? I don’t know about you, but I was way better behaved at school than at home. Talking back was not an option. I was taught to respect adults because one day I would be one and would expect younger generations to respect my experience. Today this seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Another perk of my job is that each morning I must carefully inspect my desk and keyboard for rodent excrement, keeping bleach solution and paper towels at the ready. Sometimes I will find they have literally shredded papers left out on my desk overnight.

I open my desk drawers for supplies and roaches scurry for the back corners. There are two things for which I harbor authentic phobias: roaches and rats. For this reason, I can no longer use my desk. I now use a regular table, so there are less places for vermin to hide. I am mindful not to lean against walls or leave water bottles uncapped. First thing in the morning, if you are lucky, you will notice pest control guys walking around the halls with buckets of dead or dying mice, courtesy of glue traps set in plain sight.

Mold, asbestos and lead
There are various parts of my school that are condemned because they are uninhabitable due to mold, asbestos, and lead. The [former] dance room. Special education rooms where entire ceilings have collapsed. The auditorium, where when it rains, there are waterfalls. The supply room. Countless others in the ancient, rambling school. Warm, dirty water comes from the water bubblers, which are often used as trashcans. Bathrooms are randomly locked, leading students on desperate searches to relieve themselves. Last year someone peed in the stairwell by my room, presumably because they could not get into the bathroom. Soap, paper towels, and toilet paper are scarce at times.

Despite these conditions, our teachers show up, do the best they can with the resources given, yet hear nothing but negativity and judgment from educational reform experts, most admnistrators, and Internet trolls who, in reality, have no educational experience or credentials but seem to have all the answers.

Make no mistake about it. The tragic state of our schools is a social and political issue. An insightful read for further information on urban educational reform is Jean Anyon’s seminal text, Ghetto Schooling: A political economy of urban educational reform. We needn’t reinvent the wheel.

I could go on and on, but this is not the place. Here is a short list of issues and observations needing immediate, short-term, and long-term attention:

Facilities must be safe, clean, and conducive to a dignified learning environment for all. No food splattered on the walls and floors. No reeking bathrooms. No vermin. No centuries old crust and dust. New desks and classrooms to facilitate group and blended learning. Reliable Internet service. Nutritious food. A welcoming learning environment that shows the children they are worth investing in.

Enforce the school and district rules. Period. Top-down. No use of electronics in school unless directly instructed as part of an educational activity. No excuses. Use of laptops is critical but must be closely monitored by teachers. Computers are not babysitters and are not substitutes for teachers. Students must put phones away before focused learning begins.

School uniforms. Students need to show up at school looking like what they are: young scholars. Less time would be spent over discipline issues such as hats, sagging pants, tube tops, short-shorts, and other inappropriate clothing. School is not a nightclub. It is not the beach.

False allegations against teachers by students must have consequences. It is a sad state of affairs when teachers are victims of adolescent retribution for setting down rules and expecting them to be followed. I know teachers who have been accused of inappropriate touching for simply taking away a cell phone, patting a student on the shoulder in a gfesture of praise, and a myriad of other scenarios that in no way constitute overreaching boundaries.

Administration and faculty must be culturally competent and actively create a positive climate and culture among students and faculty. Give students and teachers a voice and choice rather than top-down, autocratic commands.

Teachers’ voices must be a respected part of decision making. We know our students. We are highly trained, experienced professionals and must be given more agency to do what is best for them.

The “us versus them” attitude must stop. When has this gotten anyone anywhere? RIDE, the mayor, the governor, downtown administration, teachers, parents, and community members should have the same goal: educating the children of our state so that they have opportunities in life. Let’s create a framework we all agree upon and move forward with real urgency.

Union bashing must stop. Since when is unity a dirty word? No model is perfect, especially not the corporate model. Unions were created to protect working class people and families from fickle, abusive employers and give them the opportunity to have a living wage and dignified life.

The handful of teachers who are consistently and flagrantly not doing their job, who are giving the rest of us a bad name, must face immediate intervention with special support and intensive monitoring. If they are not able to improve within a set timeline then steps should be taken to help them find other, more suitable means of employment.

Why are teachers and nurses, historically women’s fields of work, paid far less than police, fire, and other male-dominant unions? Where is the equity? Where is our overtime? Please. Every day is overtime for teachers. Every day I go home and work until 6 or 7 at night. Some weekends I work five-plus hours a day on planning and grading. If I were a state trooper I’d be making over $250,000 a year with the overtime bennies. Yet instead of offering equitable treatment for all public service jobs, teachers have recently had the indignant mandate to punch time clocks. How many professionals do this? When we asked if we could also punch out, keeping track of our hours spent after work, we were told no. Apparently those don’t count.

Many teachers are forced to take on second jobs in order to support their families and cover expenses. My brother-in-law has a doctorate in educational leadership and teaches math, yet still has to deliver pizza three nights a week to cover his family’s basic expenses. This is a reason we have a hard time attracting and retaining people to the profession.

Downtown and RIDE must stop filling our desks with loads of excessive yet meaningless busy work. We need to focus on teaching, planning, and community building. Period.

The school system must redesign curriculum to reflect our learners. It currently is not serving our students. We know there are gaps in learning, we know that social promotion is rampant, yet we don’t have appropriate curriculum to address these gaps. We are told to teach students at the level they are “supposed” to be, not where they actually are. This model only serves to widen learning gaps. A student at a third-grade reading level is not going to be able to understand a tenth-grade text, so why force it as part of the curriculum? We obviously need more remedial work before we can tackle more advanced curriculum.

Smaller class sizes are immediately needed. Special populations such as ESL and Special Education should have no more than 16 students per class. Co-teaching and interdepartmental collaboration will naturally create a more cohesive, contextualized learning experience.

Alternative educational services are needed for students with social or emotional needs that can’t be met in a traditional school setting. Countless students have faced extreme trauma or are victims of cyclical poverty. This fuels their frustration and manifests itself in misbehavior and violence. instead of writing them off as lost causes, we should be investing in their rehabilitation.

Stop putting the charter school model on a pedestal. Invest in public education. It’s easy to compare test scores from a school with strict entrance requirements and mandated parent involvement to a school that serves 30 percent English learners and 30 percent special education students. Privatization is not the answer. We need a strong democratic institution where all children are given the resources they need, regardless of their zip code and economic status.

Standardized tests must be redesigned to reflect what the students are being taught and what actually matters. The SAT is not made to help students get into college. It is systematically designed to keep those on the other side of the ivory walls out of college. This is a fact. These tests tell us what kids can’t do, not what they can do. By the time we get viable feedback from one test there are only a few weeks before the next test is given. Teaching to the test is the worst way to teach or learn. It’s a rigged system being perpetuated by wealthy special interest groups. I’ll even go one step further and call it what it really is: institutionalized racism. These systems are kept in place to keep the status quo and ensure those who have continue to have, and those who don’t, most likely never will.

Replace our subjective, waste of time teacher evaluation system. It is a joke. I’ve seen teachers who deserve 4’s earn 2’s, and teachers who deserve 1’s get 4’s. The corrupt system is based on random favoritism. Administrators who have been out of the classroom for decades and have little to no specialized knowledge of subject matter are presuming to tell us how to do our jobs. I once had an evaluator ask me what WIDA [World Class Instructional Design and Assessment] was. When I told him, he said that he would have to do some further investigation to make sure it was legit.

Stop allowing anti-union special interest groups like TFA [Teach For America] from stealing jobs from actual certified, experienced teachers. This corporation was started by someone with zero background in education with the stated intention of sending recent college graduates to remote regions such as Indian reservations or rural areas where teachers are scarce. It has turned into sending college kids with only a few weeks of summer training to work in our most challenging urban districts as classroom leaders. They do not have the experience or maturity required to manage classrooms, collaborate with faculty, or offer long-term, institutional stability.

It’s the equivalent of throwing a non-swimmer into the deep end of the pool and telling them to figure out how to swim. I don’t know about you, but I would not trust a doctor, lawyer, car mechanic, or anyone else with a few rushed weeks of training to do work for me, much less educate my children. Electricians and pipefitters have years of training and apprenticeships before they are allowed to enter the field. Why should teachers be different?

This said, I do invite a realistic, positive shift in the role of TFA. Let those who are interested in exploring teaching as a profession come into our schools and act as much-needed support systems. We need more teachers’ aides, substitute teachers, hall monitors, and bilingual support staff. After two years of “apprenticeship,” if they still want to teach and have met all required academic credentials for teaching then welcome aboard.

Our country’s demographics are rapidly changing and so must the way we approach teaching diverse populations. One size does not fit all, yet when we are told to teach to the test this is exactly what we are perpetuating. Teachers need to be trained how to work with English language learners. This is training that should be embedded in all teaching programs and not considered extra or optional.

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the union. It is also one of the most nepotistic and corrupt. Bureaucratic redundancy is killing us. We must cut the fat! Why do we have 47 school districts for a population of barely one million residents within only 1,200 square miles? We need to restructure our state into 4 quadrants with four superintendents. Imagine all the highly qualified teachers we could hire if this happened. Imagine small class sizes, meaningful curriculum, and safe buildings.

Let’s do it
Make no mistake; we are not the only struggling district in the nation. Struggling schools exist across the country, in every state and every city. Rhode Island, due to its diminutive size, has a unique opportunity to turn around our schools and become a national exemplar of intelligent change and real growth. Let’s do it!

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