By E. A. Berry
When cronyism, politics, and inexperience become the norm in hiring public school administrators, and the practice of hiring people with actual knowledge and “know how” is set aside, teachers suffer the consequences. Some get stressed, are worn thin mentally and emotionally, can become physically ill, and, in the most extreme cases, even die.
New teachers, especially, are susceptible to the lack of support, intimidation techniques, and outright bullying in the workplace. An environment that should be friendly, transparent, and productive can soon become hostile, dark, and scary.
At one charter school in the district, Education Week did an article about a teacher who was so pressured to perform, her colleagues believe it actually contributed to her death.
Is this the kind of place anyone would want to work, or where students would want to learn?
After working for 28 years in the San Diego Unified School District, I’ve learned that when inexperienced administrators — or those with their own agenda — come into a school, the climate deteriorates quickly and people leave. Teaching staff, vice principals, counselors all begin to leave and, before you know it, an environment of high staff turnover and lack of consistency creates a climate ripe for student walkouts, lockdowns and fights.
In the spring of 2012, the very suitable and experienced executive principal of Lincoln High School retired and a new, novice principal without high school experience was placed there. It was then that the school endured a time of acute, calamitous change.
Unfortunately, the untrained principal had a style that was domineering and irresponsible. She was so intent on her own goals for the school, she disregarded any input from the staff — completely uprooting any democratic, established norms. She blamed the staff for any perceived lack of success. She especially blamed the counselors for a variety of things, including a low graduation rate.
Not surprisingly, the student population, and consequently the graduation rate, decreased further under her reign. As for the counselors, they quickly exercised their option to go to other schools. So did 20-plus certificated teachers and a dozen or so support staff.
Some people try to say staff change is not uncommon when a new principal is assigned. But when approximately 25 percent of an entire school staff change occurs it has a deleterious effect. Programs like the Public Safety Academy were dismantled and clubs such as Science Bowl and Smart Team fell away. Classes like Tools for the Digital Age, one of the only classes for college credit at the time, was removed from the curriculum and the teacher went to another school.
The Small Schools model the school was built for and under which students thrived was dismantled and school enrollment decreased dramatically in a short period of time. One student described the situation as taking an old radio that worked, turning it upside down, and shaking it till it no longer played.
The teachers and staff who remained performed with their usual professionalism, despite poor leadership. Some truly went above and beyond to maintain a positive atmosphere for the students. They were successful with those activities created via the Associated Student Body; student sports and student clubs that went on as usual, and teaching and learning in individual classrooms continued in a style typical of dedicated professionals in the face of unusual circumstances.
Eventually, in 2014, the new principal was dismissed and Lincoln started to see better days. Some normalcy was restored, except for one department in particular: Special Education. The section within that department which suffered the most contained students with moderate-to-severe needs. These were some of the most vulnerable students on campus.
The person leading that department was assisted in obtaining her job by her crony and mentor — the principal who had just been dismissed from the school. So, the mishandling of human resources continued and that small department endured in-your-face type admonishments, letters of warning and interference from teacher-colleagues delegated to micro-manage their peers.
When inexperienced administrators come to a workplace, they have to rely on people who are already there to help them. Unfortunately, the people who step up and help administrators with their duties are usually teachers who have their own agendas and career goals in mind. These minions only serve to further divide the department and cause more confusion. They are often rewarded by administrators with accolades, a lightened workload, and promotions.
Not surprisingly, four of the five moderate-to-severe Special Education teachers left Lincoln two years ago. New teachers came in and did the best they could, but too much ill-feeling and awkwardness remained and teachers continued to fall by the wayside. They were either unduly and cruelly dismissed as they didn’t have tenure or they left under medical duress. An atmosphere of distrust enveloped many through the end of the 2016-17 school year.
Now, a new year has started, and some staff struggle with a feeling of loss after one of their beloved Special Education teachers died when his car crashed over the side of Ortega Highway this past September. Not only do they have to deal with the sorrow brought on by his absence, but when they made efforts at the school to remember and celebrate his life, they were told by their administrators not to do anything and not to talk about him. Why would they hamper the need of people to express their sorrow and joy?
The whole situation at Lincoln is brought on by politics, cronyism, and a lack of transparency and necessary oversight, and it requires us to find ways to avoid further disasters in the future.
Of course, the most obvious is for the District to create a well-planned, thoughtful and accountable method for nurturing and selecting qualified administrators. Unlike some current administrators who come into the ranks with very little experience and training, new systems could require at least five years of teaching in addition to a full training experience — such as first serving as an assistant principal or vice principal for at least three years at an elementary or middle school, and then a high school. This is similar to the way it used to be done.
Another option would be to have a candidate perform as a principal at a small school or one more easily managed than a large sprawling urban school. Only then would someone move up to a more difficult setting such as a high school or very large school.
Unfortunately, the current “aspiring administrators” program in the District appears to be following the same pattern of not holding incoming administrators to the high standards of experience and credentialing. In addition to an apparent lack of administrative credentials, the number of applicants is also limited.
How long will it take, and what else needs to happen before the Board of Education realizes they need a full evaluation and overhaul of the administrative hiring process?
The author has lived in San Diego for more than 30 years and has taught for more than 27 years. She was an English major in college and currently enjoys writing in her free time.