Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (3 of 9)
When Tysen came into my office, we barely talked. To be more precise, I talked and he nodded his head. He was hard to understand. Tysen has a thick accent.
“I know you have been having a really hard time since you came here. I guess you miss your friends, your grandparents and the rest of your family. It isn’t easy to make a big change like this. When kids are mean to you and they make fun of the way you talk, it is even harder.”
He was nodding his head as I spoke my monologue. I asked him if he had made any friends yet at Meade. He shook his head no.
“Do you talk to anyone?” “No” was his response.
“Does anyone talk to you?” I was given another negative headshake.
“I know it’s hard for you to talk. You’re afraid that people won’t understand you or they will make fun of you. But when you don’t say anything, people can take you the wrong way. They might think that you feel that you are too good to talk to them. You have to make some effort to be friendly yourself.”
I tried to get some more information from him concerning what Kendal was saying to him. It was hard to understand his responses. I kept him with me for a while. He needed some time to regain his composure. When finally he seemed settled down, I sent him back to his room.
I sent for Isaiah after he left. I had a question about his application. I could have waited for this answer, but I knew that Isaiah could give me the scoop on what was happening between Kendal and Tysen.
After Isaiah answered my question about his application I said, “Isaiah what’s going on up in the room today? Who is giving Tysen a hard time?”
“Kendal has been saying stuff to him but he isn’t the only one.”
“What are they saying?”
“They are calling him a monkey and making fun of how he talks.”
“That isn’t right. Doesn’t anyone tell the kids who are picking on the twins to stop?”
“Yeah, I said something today to Malick. He’s been busting on everybody. I told him to knock it off. Malick got mad and started saying things about me. I almost hit him but I decided to let it go.”
“How about Kendal. Did you say anything to him?”
“No. He was acting all mad and stuff. He said he was going to get Tysen after school.”
Malick, like Kendal, is another of the smallest boys in the eighth grade. I couldn’t help but think about the nerve of these tiny boys who are messing with these sleeping giants. Malick and Kendal both act like eight year olds. They are always getting into everyone else’s business. It would be nice if he along with Kendal would give us a break.
During the rest of our discussion, I learned that Isaiah had invited Tysen to sit with him and his friends at lunch. I appreciated this kindness. It was getting close to dismissal and Ms Sample was waiting for me to give her the rest of the report to type. I sent Isaiah back to his classroom. I asked Mr. Nottingham to bring the twins back to the office ten minutes before dismissal. I wanted to give them a head start for home. I also wanted to avoid another street confrontation.
The brothers were in my office in the blink of an eye; it was three o’clock and I still wasn’t finished writing the report. I had another paragraph to go. Ms Sample said she would stay late to finish, but I didn’t want to hold her up on a Friday.
I asked Mr. Ong if he would escort the twins out of the building and watch them as they walked the two blocks to their house. While he was doing this, Nottingham came in the office. He wanted to know where the twins were because Kendal had snuck out of class and was looking for them. We both took off for the corner.
Mr. Ong told us that he had seen Kendal outside waiting for Tysen. He chased him away from the corner. I went back and got into my car. I decided to take a ride down to the twins’ house just to make sure that Kendal hadn’t headed in that direction. While I was gone, all hell broke out in our schoolyard. Malick had gone home to get his older brother whom he brought back to the school in order to jump Isaiah. Mr. Ong, Mr. Berkly, our new promising gym teacher, and Mr. G, the school police officer, stopped them and sent them out of the yard. A few minutes later, they returned with several older high school boys. They jumped Isaiah and started to punch him. Mr.Ong, Mr.Berkly, and Mr. G tried to stop them. They knocked Mr.Berkly to the ground and shoved Mr.Ong and Mr. G before running out of the schoolyard back to Gratz Street.
I heard Mr. Nottingham on the walkie-talkie calling the main office. He was requesting that Ms Sample call the police. I started to drive back to school. When I arrived Isaiah was sitting in the hallway. He was upset. I took him into my office. He explained that Malick had brought his brother and some older boys back to school to jump him. Malick didn’t like that Isaiah had told him to be quiet earlier in the day.
Isaiah’s aunt arrived, and then his dad called. I assured his father that Isaiah was all right and that the matter was being handled. A police officer arrived shortly after I got off the phone. It was close to 4:30. My office was filled with people: police officers, Isaiah, his aunt, Mr. Nottingham, Mr. Ong, and Mr.Berkly. Ms Sample was still waiting for the end of the report. I asked her to e-mail what she had completed to me. I would finish it over the weekend. I couldn’t keep her any longer.
The police officer was taking Isaiah’s statement when John DiPaolo called. He had two questions for me. “John, I’m in the middle of a serious incident. Some high school kids jumped one of my eighth graders. The police are here now taking a report. Can I talk to you later?
“Oh that’s a shame. Sure you can call me back. It won’t take long.”
I knew I wouldn’t feel like calling him back later. I said, “What are your questions?”
“Well first, Dana Bedding sent me a listing of all of your suspensions since the start of the year. There are eighty, which seems high to me. I’m concerned.”
I looked at the scene that was unfolding in my office.
“I suppose that might seem high. There are three brand new teachers in seventh grade. The kids are giving them a very hard time. There are other teachers new to the fourth and sixth grades that are also having a hard time. I’m working on it. Remember, it is only me here. I don’t have an assistant principal or any other disciplinary help. It’s hard to be proactive when you are constantly responding to crises. Peer mediation and conflict resolution instruction would be great, if there was someone to implement it. What is your other question?”
“The regional superintendent also sent me this interesting spread sheet. He examined all of your teacher observations and computed the average score you gave your teachers. It’s pretty high. He felt that you hadn’t written enough observations that cite your teachers for poor performance. He thinks that you should have lower ratings for your teachers considering how low your student test scores are. Your average does seem to be too high, considering how poorly your students are doing on the test.”
The teacher observation form we use does not give scores. It has a scale of one to five from which an observer selects a number in order to indicate the amount of evidence observed for each indicator listed on the form. For example, “the teacher relates to the students in a respectful manner” is one of the indicators on the form. The rater can check 1, which stands for no evidence, 2 for little evidence, 3 for sustained evidence, 4 for a high degree of evidence, and 5, which stands for not applicable. During a typical observation, it is likely that a supervisor will not see evidence related to every indicator listed on the observation form. This would be perfectly normal, since an observation is a brief snapshot of a teacher’s work. Therefore, many fives might be checked off on the form. To add up the evidence indicators and then average them is not an appropriate use of the form.
I was stunned by the regional superintendent’s conclusion. Poor student test scores can be the result of many factors. Ineffective teachers do have a detrimental impact on their students’ achievement. I would write an unsatisfactory observation for any teacher who I observe doing a poor job of instructing students. I wouldn’t however automatically assume that a teacher is doing a poor job of instruction simply on the bases of a test result.
I am concerned by this new view from the school district’s hierarchy that poor student test scores should result in an unsatisfactory observation for their teacher. The notion that I should increase the number of unsatisfactory teacher observations I write on the basis of student standardized test scores sounds like an attempt to manage by intimidation. I didn’t feel like getting into a deep conversation with John on this topic.
“John, that surely is a novel way to misuse the observation form. The heart of this document is the comment section. This is where I give a teacher useful feedback. Our teachers are very hardworking, committed, reflective practitioners. I don’t see the correlation that the regional superintendent is trying to make between student test scores and teacher performance as being generally valid. His assumption seems to be that if student test scores are low, teachers should also have low scores. I don’t agree with this argument. The logic behind this faulty hypothesis does not take into account any of the many variables, which can effect a teacher’s performance in a classroom.
“John, I don’t think this is exclusively his point of view. I’m pretty sure he is getting his marching orders from the central office administration on this issue. I really need to get off and finish with the police. I will e-mail you the report I have prepared regarding our students’ test performance. I have listed for you what our team considers to be the most significant variables affecting student performance. I’m really too busy right now to talk any longer.”
We ended our conversation. Fifteen minutes later, the police officers were done. I was tired and disgusted. I can manage the stress of helping my children and their families deal with senseless violence. It is the professional violation that I feel after dealing with my superiors ethically challenged practices and ideas that most pains me. The thought of quitting entered my head. I could just walk away from this mess and never look back.