Being Purged

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Being Purged: Teacher layoffs in Anchorage call for education reform

Words / Adam Mackie

Photo /  Mindi Vogel

 
 

…smoke being raised with the fume of sighs; Being purged…

— William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene i

 

For thus I read the meaning of this end: 
There are two ways of spreading light; to be 
The candle or the mirror that reflects it. 
I let my wick burn out -- there yet remains 
To spread an answering surface to the flame 
That others kindle. 

— Edith Wharton, from “Vesalius in Zante”

 

The fated email

We have about two weeks left of school, and I’m in the middle of planning Act III of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet for freshman in Honors English at West Anchorage High School. Despite hearing an inner Benvolio saying “I pray thee… let’s retire,” I open my email before going to bed. Pausing from my thoughts about the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, I click on a message from Anchorage School District (ASD) and begin reading what would be my “star-crossed” fate.

 

“Anchorage School Board dipped into their savings for the next school year to do everything they could to avoid layoffs,” but since the ASD is not “forward funded” and “with the 5% cut that the Senate has proposed looming out there, the District still has to address the issues of layoffs.”

 

Why aren’t we forward funded? Many in Alaska desire forward funding, but that’s not quite in the cards for ASD.

 

I keep reading…

 

I see 240 full-time equivalent positions could potentially be laid off (later we’ll come to find out that it’s closer to 220). Although I’ve taught in multiple teaching contexts from universities and public schools in Colorado to colleges in New York for more than five years, I begin to worry because I’ve only taught in the ASD since January 4, 2016.

 

The kindly written District email from the Anchorage Education Association (AEA) president informs me that the ASD has until the last day of school to tell me if I’m laid off or not. This email, sent to teachers as a heads up of what they might expect in the weeks to come, gives due notice. I appreciate being informed about what could happen, but that doesn’t decrease, and even increases, my uneasiness and trepidation.

 

Surely, I’m on the chopping block to be cut with only a year and a half of service. I’m encouraged to write my legislators, and that’s exactly what I do.

 

I email Rep. Charisse Millet who responds a week later stating she “absolutely” agrees “our education system needs to be funded as much as possible.”

 

How much is possible, Millet?

 

Millet says, “there are places within our education administration that could be more efficient, such as procurement and contractual services, my goal has always been to hold our classroom harmless, even in times of fiscal downturn.” I’m trying to wrap my head around this. “Procurement?” She means teachers. “Contractual services?” She means teachers.

 

How, if I understand her correctly, can we “hold our classroom harmless,” if we’re losing teachers to care for our classrooms?

 

A neighbor even tells me that teachers could have seen this coming, leaving me to wonder how he expected his own child to become educated.

 

And, then, the axe falls…

 

Slips that aren’t pink and marbles that are blue

 

The Blue Marbles Project is a reality game designed to show gratitude and appreciation to others, demonstrating how humans are connected on our blue planet. Give a marble to a teacher.

 

On the evening of May 23, the day before the last day of school, I get another email. This time from my principal at West: "I need to meet with you at 2:45 on Wednesday, May 24th. It is about your employment status for the 2017-18 school year."

 

After a somewhat crestfallen exchange with my principal, we decide to have our conversation after lunch on the final day of school. My meeting in the principal’s office will follow my last class of ninth graders taking a final on Romeo and Juliet, involving a blue marble and the writing of their own chorus for Act III in the form of an Elizabethan sonnet. I don’t suspect that one student will manage to change the fate of Mercutio or Tybalt on the Venetian streets in their sonnets and fate isn’t likely to change on this day for me.

 

Fully understanding my role as an ASD employee, and the reality that the District can place me wherever there is need, I am to go where my teaching services are required to help students in most need. Come August, if the budget isn’t fully funded for education in Alaska, there are going to be scores of Alaskan students in dire straits. Without adequate staffing, class sizes are going to explode and teachers that didn’t get laid off will be tasked to teach overflowing classes. My classes last year were already up to 34 students in two classes, 32 in another, and nearly 30 in two others. I was to the point where I had to seek out chairs from other teachers to assure every student had a place to sit.

 

I arrive to my principal’s office door. As I walk into his office, he hands me an envelope and says to me, “You know why you’re here.” I nod, look deeply into his face, and comment that he must’ve had some hard conversations today. The envelope he hands me is neither pink nor a slip. It is simply an 8.5’’ x 11’’ piece of paper in an envelope.

 

After reading the pink slip language in the email I received two weeks prior, and all that's written about pink slips in the news, I can feel the temptation to think negatively and buy into the fear-based rhetoric circulating in the community. However, I do not forget what I am. As a laboring intellectual, as a teacher and cultural agent of change, that’s simply not happening. This teacher is spreading light as a candle and in the mirrors reflecting it!

 

The principal then proceeds to commend my teaching, saying I’m one of the best young teachers he’s ever seen, assuring me he’s not just saying that to make me feel better. He says his daughter had an awesome year in my class and he thanks me for all I’ve done for the 160 plus students I served across five classes at West (not including the Chess Club and Spoken Word Club). I appreciate him saying this, even if it’s to soften the blow of the pink slip that’s not really pink.

 

All of a sudden and out of the blue, something blue turns my harnessed blues around…

 

The principal hands me a blue marble (unlike the pink slip it’s actually the color you’d expect) and he says, "My daughter asked me to give this to you. I didn’t know why, but she said you’d understand."

 

I begin a monologue on Wallace J. Nichols, his Blue Mind book, and how my students and I are playing a game that both the Dalai Lama and the Pope have played. He smiles, and I see my soapbox time has expired. We say our goodbyes, and I walk out of his office with white letter and blue marble in hand. Never did I expect a token of gratitude in the form of a blue marble from the principal’s daughter on the day he’d hand me my layoff notice.

 

So, do me a favor, give a blue marble to your favorite teacher and play The Blue Marbles Project game with us (http://www.wallacejnichols.org/130/blue-marbles.html). Remember the words of the great poet Rumi, “You’re not a drop in the ocean, you’re the entire ocean in a drop.”

 

The gravity of the news from my meeting with my principal sinks in, and I understand I’m one of approximately 10 high school English teachers in ASD to be laid off. I see I’m number five on the recall list. What this means is that four other teachers will be called before I’m to be rehired. Whether I return to West or not is uncertain and stressful. I tell the administration that my heart’s at West, and the West nest is without a doubt where I desire to teach upon rehire. I walk out of the original Anchorage high school with dignity, poise, and grace.

 

Laid-off Teacher: anything helps!

Faced with no job, collecting unemployment, and the frustrations of not knowing what the future in August holds, I turn to the mirror. I don’t turn to the mirror on the wall, the one capable of reflecting mere surfaces, but the mirror of my heart that reflects the inner reality of personal truth and bliss. Without fail, when I gaze into my heart’s looking glass, I see a fearless educator standing for justice, for cultural proactivity, for teaching in the connected learning classroom.

 

Conversations on social media outlets ignite like a forest fire through the end of May and I’m swept with gratitude by colleagues in the profession, not laid off, that are standing up for the teachers that are currently in layoff status with ASD. The AEA president sent out a message encouraging teachers, and anyone willing to write more letters to the legislature, to request full funding and said she would hand deliver them in Juneau. Along with the National Education Association (NEA)-Alaska, she boldly did just that...

 

 Photo by NEA-Alaska

Photo by NEA-Alaska

 

NEA publically recognizes the efforts of Representative Bryce Edgmon for meeting with our member advocates in Juneau on Facebook--and for fighting for a budget that doesn't hurt our students. The Alaska House Majority Coalition passed a budget that fully funds public schools. The Alaska Senate Majority passed a budget that cut $69 million from our classrooms.

 

News continues to develop about the budget as teachers and the community members sit on the edge of their seat for an answer. Though this has happened before, and this isn’t a new way of doing business in ASD, for many something seems different this time around. According to an Alaska Council of School Administrator's press release, Gov. Walker has “delivered his proposal for a compromise solution for a sustainable fiscal solution.  Of significant interest to public education, it includes both the education head tax (SB12) and keeps the status quo for the operating budget (thus avoiding the Senate's deep cuts to both K12 and higher education).” Walker’s adopting of the house version of the operating budget and compromise of fiscal package for this year is an important step for the current layoff crisis, and could be a sigh of relief for many recalled and rehired teachers.

 

However, as the Friar tells us in the last scene of Act II in Romeo and Juliet, going into Act III: “These violent delights have violent ends.” What about 2018? What is our plan moving forward for education in the state of Alaska, pertaining to our teachers, particularly our young teachers? Will this continue to be a May after May Groundhog’s Day for first and second year teachers?

 

Whether I remain a teacher in the public school classroom or not, or become a statistic of dropping out of the profession of education in my first five years in a school district, my mission will remain to carry a message of light, truth and kind-spiritedness to all I encounter. As I follow gloomy news stories in the papers and social media, checking my ASD email regularly for a recall notice, I continue to question the design of our education system and policies in Alaska. We need reform: in the form of forward funding for teachers; in the form of more security for high performing teachers; in the form of full fiscal support that can assure a quality education for the youth of today and tomorrow.