Monday, October 12, 2009

DC Students Watched While Police Removed Their Teachers from Classrooms

By Claudia Ricci

If you don't live in DC, chances are you don't know about the troubling things that have been happening in the schools.

Even if you live in DC, you might not know.

There have been local stories the teacher firings -- more than 200 teachers were purged on Friday, October 2nd -- just a few weeks into the school year. But most of the coverage has focused on whether DC Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was justified in firing the teachers -- many of them veteran educators -- and replacing them with new teachers making smaller salaries.

But what is astonishing is how little media coverage there has been about HOW those firings came down. (I saw one mention in the Post.)

It's a horrible story that bears repeating. It's a story that deserves a giant front page headline that screams out:




My source on the story is a good friend who teaches in one of the DC schools affected and was there when colleagues were fired. This friend - who will remain anonymous, because God knows I don't want to see one more teacher fired - called me from a cell phone the Friday before last, frantic, and practically in tears.

"You won't believe what just happened here at school," my friend yelled into the phone. I was working in a crowded office where I couldn't talk, but I whispered back, "what?"

"It was like some kind of armed coup. Twenty minutes before the end of the school day, with all the kids sitting in the classroom, they walked in and fired a bunch of teachers."

I got up from my desk and went out into the hall where I could hear better.

My friend described the scene. It was just minutes before the bell rang. No one knew it was coming. The doors of certain classrooms opened. Armed policemen wearing bullet-proof vests appeared. Accompanying the cops were the new teachers who informed the existing teachers that they had been replaced. No warning at all.

"Teachers were given exactly five minutes to pack up their things and exit the building," my friend said.

Some of those teachers had worked in the schools for more than 20 years.

Some of those teachers left in tears.

And the students? God knows what they thought.

The teachers' union is suing, protesting the firings. At a rally in DC last Thursday -- it attracted thousands, according to the Post - the union accused School Chancellor Rhee of union busting, systematically removing more expensive, experienced teachers.

In their lawsuit, the union noted that more than 900 new teachers had been hired during the summer, about three times as many as normal. These new instructors, the union argues, will cost the system less in salary.

Rhee denies the union accusations, insisting that the teachers were relieved of their duties for legitimate reasons, including incompetence.

The controversy about why the teachers were removed will undoubtedly rage on.
But the story of how they were dismissed is crystal clear.

In my friend's words, "the teachers were treated like criminals."

Even if they deserved to be fired --and that is not at all clear-- "they deserved to be treated with dignity and respect."

Uh, yeah. If for no other reason, consider the kids.

Consider the lessons imparted that day. A person may devote him or herself to a job for two decades, but that matters not at all when it comes time for the budget ax to fall. An employer has no obligation to treat a loyal employee with respect.

So my question is this: who decided how these teacher firings were going to be executed in DC? And did those decisionmakers give even two minutes of thought to how their decisions would affect the kids who sat and watched the debacle unfold?

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post at


Edward said...

Claudia, I have been wondering what was happening with the DC schools since I heard a story about this, and Chancellor Rhee's efforts at moving the teachers' union in the direction of change, on NPR some time ago. I'm sure that some change was needed, perhaps even a great deal of change; but, as you, I'm gravely concerned by the measures taken and the lessons imparted. I wonder whether the obstacles had become so great that Chancellor Rhee felt she had no alternative. Is there any chance to get the story on Chancellor Rhee's attempts to implement change without a show of force and what her considerations were in taking this action?


Claudia R said...

HI Edward, so the Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Union have been battling for about two years over the teacher issue. And like I said, it isn't whether some teachers need to go, for all I know, they do. But when you take action to fire/lay off folks, the way you do it MATTERS, don't you agree? Especially when you do it right in the classroom in front of all the kids? Thanks for reading, and responding!

Edward said...

Claudia, I agree 100%. I would be really interested in knowing what led to the decision to effect the firings this way. The approach taken telegraphs all the wrong messages to the most important stakeholders in the change, the children. How far are they going to trust the new teachers whom they have seen installed under force of arms? What are those children going to say about all of this to their parents? And as you have pointed out, these are the wrong messages not just for the organization but for the individual children. What are the moral and psychological effects of these actions going to be ten, twenty, or fifty years from now?

Edward said...

I am having a difficult time deciding what is most unsettling for me, beyond the potential psychological harm to the children and the indignity to all the teachers, not just the ones who were fired. There are two voices in my head vying for most unsettled:

1. The force of the political state was used to effect a change in a cultural institution. I am someone who thinks the Constitution did not go far enough, and that "separation of church and state" should have been "separation of all cultural institutions and state". I think another route for universal education besides state control would have been healthy and wise. Political control of culture makes me gravely concerned; armed intervention by a political authority in a cultural institution gives me the shivers.

2. The children see that force is the way to resolve conflict. Hasn't our President just won the Nobel Peace Prize because he has espoused a different approach to conflict? How many children were just taught that might makes right?

Sandy Prisant said...

Sadly, this is normal human behavior at work. Ms. Rhee is a lot like George Bush. They both love power and understood how to follow orders to get it.

The Chancellor has been under strict, clear instruction from the Mayor and the more clearly she signals her acquiesence she figures the better off she is.

Sadly as well, the fact that all Teacher unions have spent my lifetime fighting any hint of formal performance reviews in a country obssessed with this for everone (except bankers and health insurers) does not help their case.

A S Prisant