Her students knew she was losing her job, and Ann Randle had no idea where she was going.
So she began writing her personal email address on the white board at Kansas City’s Southwest Early College Campus so her seventh-graders could find her wherever she ends up.
“I had hot tears going down my face,” the fifth-year teacher recalled, fresh tears welling. “I don’t want to lose them.”
That’s when it hit her — that sense of being under siege. It’s a feeling many U.S. teachers are sharing these days, with so much criticism directed at them and their unions.
The Kansas City teachers find themselves freshly whipped in an angry discourse ranging from Wisconsin to Florida to Missouri and everywhere that urban school districts struggle.
The district recently notified 87 non-tenured teachers that their contracts would not be renewed. Although administrators said the non-renewals were not based on classroom performance, Randle felt branded.
Who would want a teacher jettisoned by a district so many on the outside regard as a failure?
“We need to fire all the teachers and start over … ,” said some of the online comments posted under Kansas City Star stories on the district’s controversial strategy to revamp its teaching force.
“Education degrees are worthless,” went another. “Education majors are one of the least academically gifted populations on a university campus … ”
“If you are pro-union, you are anti-child.”
Many of the teachers couldn’t abide just standing by. Usually anonymous, 16 gathered last week at The Star’s request. They wanted to show who they are. They wanted to share their performance evaluations, to talk about why they are teachers and why they chose to teach in Kansas City despite its reputation.
And how it feels now to be set adrift in such a hostile sea.
“I’m a bleeding heart,” elementary art teacher Christel Walker said. “I said I’m going to stay in education until it kills me. Now it’s pretty close. I feel pretty broke down.”
Criticism of public schools has mounted with a rising tide of people and groups pushing in multiple states to break the collective bargaining rights of teachers, abolish tenure and legislate performance standards in evaluations.
Teachers unions became a target when protests over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to strip collective bargaining rights from most public employees ignited a national debate. Florida and Indiana are among other states where legislators are attempting to curb teachers unions.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie’s criticisms of teachers, recorded at town hall meetings, have become YouTube sensations. Christie has called teachers union leaders “political thugs” and accused teachers of “using students like drug mules to carry political messages.”
“It feels like everybody is against us,” one of the Kansas City teachers said. “Now we have to be defensive. When did that happen?
“It hurts,” she said.
“It’s not a blanket condemnation of teachers,” said Steve Gunn of the Michigan-based Education Action Group. “It’s a blanket condemnation of their unions.”
The organization has been backing efforts against teachers’ unions across the Midwest.
“Teachers need to remain motivated, and the best motivation is that you can be replaced,” Gunn said. “Due to inattention, unions have come to dominate public education policy, and we see the results in high labor costs and high school graduates who can’t read their own diplomas.”
Chris Guinther, president of the Missouri chapter of the National Education Association teachers union, traveled to Wisconsin in late February and witnessed the national flashpoint over public employees and unions.
“Teachers seem to be getting blamed for everything,” Guinther said. “Morale is really bad.”
The groundwork for today’s discontent was laid 10 years ago, she said, with the No Child Left Behind Act’s decree that all children perform at a proficient level by 2014. It set schools up for failure, she said.
High-poverty districts, coping with undeniably stiffer challenges, came under increasing pressure to churn teachers and staff.
Teachers come out of these districts “feeling like they have a big ‘F’ on their chests,” Guinther said, “worried they’ll never get hired anywhere else.”
Do the harsh critics know, sixth-grade teacher Melissa Sanders wonders, how she dived into her first year without a mentor? How she had to take on 47 kids at one stretch when another class went without a teacher or a sub?
In her four years in the Kansas City district, she has mentored teachers, led disciplinary teams and coached cheerleading and dance while accumulating consistently positive evaluations, she said.
All of these teachers with less than five years’ experience, according to the district’s salary schedule, are making under $40,000 a year. In Missouri, teachers don’t gain tenure until after their fifth year in a district.
But with the news of Kansas City’s pink slips, Sanders said, she’s feeling scorn from “people who’ve never been in my classroom.”
Their union members in the Kansas City Federation of Teachers rallied to overfill the school board meeting this month because, union president Andrea Flinders said, they wanted to show the faces of teachers “so many people blithely criticize without ever having walked in their shoes.”
As for the non-renewed teachers, Superintendent John Covington said he was not passing judgment on individual teachers. There are good teachers and outstanding teachers in the district, he said.
But he has publicly recited many times that in more than 75 percent of the district’s schools, less than 25 percent of the students are proficient. And that, he added in a written reply to The Star, “strongly suggests that our overall teaching core is not of a quality our students deserve.”
Covington looked to Teach for America to bolster the teaching ranks — seeking at least 150 candidates from the national organization that recruits top college graduates from various fields and trains them to serve at least two years in classrooms.
The non-renewals of some current teachers would have happened whether Teach for America agreed or not, he said.
The district had considered non-renewing all of its 210 non-tenured teachers and letting them reapply for positions but chose instead to make decisions based on what teachers had in certifications, specialized training, curriculum-writing experience and other assets to fit the district’s “reorganization.”
The non-renewed teachers who gathered last week took stock of the many instances of dual certifications, master’s degrees, and curriculum writing among them and had trouble seeing the method in the district’s decisions.
They had been through plenty of turmoil already.
In five years, Katie Schowengerdt has taught five grades in six buildings.
“I can tear down my class, load it into my husband’s truck and be up and running in my new class in 48 hours,” she said. “It seems like they take the deck of cards and shuffle it and re-deal everybody.”
She and others had survived consecutive years of job reductions in the district and thought they’d survive again.
Early childhood teacher Danielle Lares had just returned from the store with favors for her daughter’s sixth birthday party on that Saturday morning earlier this month when a knock on the door produced a blue-uniformed Kansas City School District security officer.
She’d heard that non-renewal letters were going out, but she couldn’t believe she was staring at one delivered to her.
All of her performance reviews had her meeting or exceeding standards. Teaching was all she ever wanted to do, probably at least since the third grade and her time in a beloved teacher’s classroom.
“I’m worried I won’t get that chance again,” she said.
Megan Riggs, an early childhood teacher who has been in the district four years, recalled a year of teaching abroad in Taiwan, where public schools and the teachers were held in high esteem.
“The respect they give teachers is like what they give doctors,” she said.
Teaching is a second career for Tim Morrison, a third-year middle grades art and math teacher who came to teaching out of a desire to give back, he said.
“For some of the students, their school is the safest place they know,” he said. These teachers want to be a consistent presence in their lives, he said.
Rebecca Duguid has been taking a lot of pictures since she got her non-renewal letter. Many of the teachers have.
She’s snapping pictures every day of all of her second-graders. The kids think it’s funny, she said.
“They say, ‘But Ms. Duguid, I’m just standing here.’ ”
She wants to be that teacher who’s always there, she said, the one the kids stop by to visit after they’ve moved up to the next grades.
She wants to get old teaching and teach her students’ children.
“You know when you’re good at something,” she said. “It’s your duty to share that gift. I can’t picture myself doing anything else.”