Editor’s note: This is the twelfth chapter in a series called “Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder” by Barry Garelick, a second-career math teacher in California. He has written articles on math education that have appeared in The Atlantic, Education Next, Education News and AMS Notices. He is also the author of three books on math education. Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd.” The previous chapters can be found here:
This will be the last chapter for a while since school is starting up next week. Enjoy the intermission; the story will resume and conclude at a later date.
Ch 12 A Classroom Observation, an Evaluation and Sense-Making Again
The nice thing about being observed by someone in administration is that the students are well-behaved for fear of being punished. Students are receptive, answer questions, and cooperate. Such was the case at my previous school during my second year there. The Superintendent informed me that he would be observing my seventh grade class on a particular day. The lesson that day was on multiplying decimals. The lesson was straightforward. I didn’t have them work in groups or do posters at the back of the room as I had done for Diane. I thought I’d see if that affected my evaluation—I live an exciting life.
A week later I met with the Superintendent in his office to go over the results. He handed me his filled out form, had me read it, and asked if I had any questions. The evaluation was all very positive, going beyond what was observed in the classroom and ending with the following: “Mr. Garelick has done a good job of being a professional who takes care of business without stirring up unnecessary controversy or conflict.”
“So, do you want to come back next year?” he asked.
“I think so,” I said.
“Well I hope you will; you’ve been doing great. The students like you; I hear good reports from the parents, you teach well. And I can get things going to make you permanent,” he said.
“I thought I couldn’t be permanent unless I was full-time,” I said. I taught two classes and a remediation session.
“No, you don’t have to be full-time. We can make you permanent.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “Would I be teaching the same classes next year that I’m teaching now?”
He pointed to a schedule he had on the wall, showing that my classes would be the same.
“Sounds good,” I said again.
“Let’s do it.”
The next day I ran into James in the copy room and, feeling in a somewhat confident mood, said “I had my evaluation yesterday and found out we’ll both be teaching the same classes we’re teaching this year. So since you’ll be teaching Math 8 again, I’ll be writing up my observations of my seventh graders so you know how best to work with them.”
“I haven’t heard anything about that,” he said. Talking with James at times was like walking in a mine field; you never knew what was going to tick him off.
“Well, he showed me the schedule.”
“He hasn’t talked to me about it,” he said.
“OK, fine,” I said and acted like I suddenly remembered something that I had to do, and left.
Three weeks later, the Superintendent called me in to his office.
“I hate to tell you this,” he started, “but I need to because it will come up at the next school board meeting, and I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else.”
Call me a pessimist but I knew that this couldn’t possibly be good news.
“We’re going to have to let you go, and I want you to know it has nothing to do with performance. You’re doing great as I told you, but the way schools work, last one hired is the first one to go in situations like this.”
I asked the most logical question I could think of: “What is the situation?”
“I’m not at liberty to say. But under contract rules I have to give you this notice prior to mid-March. It could be rescinded if things change, but I have to issue this notice now.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” the Superintendent said and that ended the meeting. He did not look happy.
A week or so later, after the School Board met, the Superintendent gave me a copy of the Board’s vote to eliminate a position; 4 to 1 in favor of elimination. The document included the rationale: because of declining enrollment, the number of students would fall below a certain level. By law the number of permanent positions had to be reduced. And—as the Superintendent had told me—last one hired is first one fired.
He had me sign it and said I could request a hearing if I wanted to appeal it, but he advised against it. “The chances of convincing the board to reverse the decision is pretty small,” he said.
At my weekly meeting with Diane, I told her the news. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “But when I was a principal, I had to sign a lot of those notices, and they were rescinded in the fall. So there may be a chance.”
“It doesn’t look like it, what with declining enrollments,” I said.
“Well, you never know. But it sure doesn’t help to have that happen. Have you told anyone?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to make an issue of it, and I certainly don’t want the students to know.”
“Good decision,” she said. “Good decision.”
“I have a question, though. I don’t know too much about teachers unions and all that—.”
“Consider yourself lucky,” she said.
“—but shouldn’t the union rep have been there at the meeting when the Superintendent told me the news?”
“He wasn’t?? You didn’t tell me that.”
“No,” I said.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“You’re starting to sound like my students,” I said.
“Has James talked to you about it at all?”
“He’s continuing to not give me the time of day.”
“Are you planning on talking to him?”
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t sound like there’s anything he can do. And even if he could, something tells me he wouldn’t.”
“Hard to say,” she said. “Well, maybe not that hard. I hope it gets rescinded.”
I told none of the teachers nor the students. My classes went as normal. Normal for me being struck by a kind of stage fright before the start of each class. I’m like an actor before the curtain goes up, suddenly struck with panic that he has forgotten all his lines and even what the play is about. But once the students come into the room, the curtain is up and I am too busy tending to my immediate task than to worry about school politics and its various nuances.