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The events in DC as a spaghetti western: A Fistful of Pink Slips

July 25, 2010

I’m not the first to blog about this. When I saw it coming through on EdWeek’s Twitter account, first I thought it was a typo. But it wasn’t. 240-plus teachers in D.C. will be let go, courtesy of Chancellor Michelle Rhee. 

The Washington Teachers’ Union is challenging the dismissals (or most of them) and everyone has been weighing in on what the dismissals mean. I think there are many superintendents across the country who have dreams of being Michelle Rhee; thinking that they are going to be the next vigilante superintendent, riding from school to school, dispatching those vile, shiftless bad teachers. 

I can see it now, done up properly as a spaghetti western. 

A tumbleweed rolls down the main hallway, propelled by a gust of wind let in from the opening of the front door to the school. It’s carrying fifteen erasers’ worth of chalk dust and an assorted variety of incomplete homework papers. 

A dark-suited figure steps into the school entrance, silhouetted from behind by the sun. An audible gasp from the students and school staff members is heard; it is…the Superintendent. 

The footfalls of the Superintendent’s designer leather shoes ring throughout the now-silent halls. 

“I’m a-lookin’ for Susie Schoolmarm,” says the Superintendent, glancing from student to teacher to student again. “Where is she?” 

 

Deep gulps are taken. Eyes shift nervously about. Beads of sweat begin to appear on the brows of prepubescent first and second graders. 

“Where is she?” the Superintendent roars, causing the assembled group to jump nervously. 

Suddenly a disembodied child’s voice is heard from the crowd. 

“You just want to fire her, don’t you? You’re just a mean person, Superintendent?” 

“Who said that? Who dares defy me in my school?” snapped the Superintendent, looking back and forth among the crowd, parted into two, like the Dead Sea. 

“Be respectful, children,” says Susie Schoolmarm, emerging from her room, clad in a paint-covered smock. Since the school board had cut out art, all primary teachers were responsible for art and music in their own rooms. The Superintendent’s “visit” interrupted her art lesson.  

Schoolmarm’s students surround her, sensing the danger from this visitor. 

“Schoolmarm, we can handle this now or later, if you’re yella,” the Superintendent growls. 

“If I’m what?” she asks quizzically. 

“Yella.” comes the response. 

“What?” 

“Yella.” a little more exasperated this time. 

“What’s that?” she asks, knowing full well what it means. 

“Yella is an old west colloquialism for…never mind,” snaps the Superintendent. 

“You’ve got ’till sundown to pack your things and get outta this school, Susie Schoolmarm,” the Superintendent warns. “If you don’t, I’ll gather my Deputy Superintendents and help you get out of school.” 

Schoolmarm stands ten or so paces away from the Superintendent, stepping out of and away from the crowd. Something is about to happen. 

The two stare each other down. Eyes squint; potential weakness are scrutinized. 

Suddenly, Superintendent deftly withdraws an envelope from their pocket, throwing it at the torso of Schoolmarm. 

It hits her squarely in her paint-encrusted smock, and shreds into hundreds of harmless pink paper pieces immediately after impact. Schoolmarm smiles, beaming from ear to ear. 

The Superintendent is aghast, unable to figure how Schoolmarm survived a direct hit from a dignity-robbing pink slip special. Teachers have never been able to figure out how to dodge them in this district. 

Schoolmarm’s smile fades away, revealing confident eyes. She tugs on the neck strap to her smock, and it falls away. 

The Superintendent’s eyes quickly get wide, having been shown the reason for the pink slip failure. 

There, hanging from the neck of Susie Schoolmarm on frayed twine is the teachers’ contract. It is opened up to the section entitled “Due Process”. A badge that says “Union Steward” gleams brightly in the sickly fluorescent light. 

“Superintendent, you listen and you listen good,” lectures Schoolmarm. “Your days of terrorizing this school and all the schools of this district are over. We know what you’re up to. You tell your Deputy Superintendents that we’re here for one reason– to teach kids, not to make you happy.” 

“Get out of here. Now!” she orders. 

The Superintendent abruptly turns around and runs out the door, down the broken school sidewalk to the chauffer-driven black luxury car waiting at the curb. 

The students and staff cheer. 

The End. 

Okay, so it’s not really the end of it, or this post. No one’s riding off into the sunset, more like riding off into the thunderstorm on the horizon. 

Not every teacher is a bad teacher; conversely, not every teacher is a great teacher.  

When he was President of the United Federation of Teachers in New York, the late, great Al Shanker used to talk about the bad teachers in the union and get away with it

When people would ask him, “Al, how do you do with without upsetting your teachers?” his response was simple: “Everyone thinks they’re a great teacher. Even the bad teachers think they’re good teachers.” 

Aye, there’s the rub. 

Ask any teacher if they’re a bad teacher, and the answer will come back a resounding no– even from those that need improvement. And there are those among us that need improvement.  

But each and every one of us deserve a fair shake– due process. 

I worry about what is going on in DC, and the fact that 240-plus teachers are, will be or have been fired, depending on when you read this. I worry about how many of those teachers are effective, are good teachers, are loved by their students and students’ families and are committed to the communities they serve. How many of those teachers ran afoul of an administrator because they spoke up for their students, or perhaps just caught them on a bad day? 

Rhee shows us what her true intentions are.

I don’t like or trust Michelle Rhee. When I saw the Time magazine cover with her holding the broom it raised hairs on the back of my neck. In WWII, when a US submarine came back into port with a broom tied to the periscope mast, it meant they had made a clean sweep on patrol; they had sunk every ship they encountered, leaving no survivors

While evaluation systems need to be changed and teachers who need improvement need accurate and reliable feedback, the wholesale firing of six percent of a local union’s membership is nothing more than a declaration of war.  

The WTU is at war with a relentless enemy. An attack on one of us, regardless of national affiliation, is an attack on all of us. We must fight back.

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