Monday, June 6, 2011

Doing the job of an educator: life in the midst of lay-offs.

Today I was laid off from the School District of Philadelphia.

Upon hearing the news, I made a quick, distracting joke: “And they didn’t even have the consideration to print the pink slip out on pink paper.”

8:52am and I needed to map out a gameplan for my life, make some decisions for my next career steps, start strategizing for the media campaign our organization needs to roll out in response to the dissolution of public education, and schedule an appointment at the optometrist before my health insurance runs out next month.

However, I still had copies to make for my classes, and the second hand of the clock was continuing its persistent swoop.

In the copy room, my colleagues gave me hugs, told me they “love my spirit,” and lamented the short amount of time we had together.

I carried my books and copies and computer up the three flights of stairs; as I ascended, the heat rose by 20 degrees and my morale drooped to an unaccustomed low.

This is the reality of working for a highly-centralized bureaucratic institution. Someone who has never met me, never sat in on one of my classes, never asked Daysha Gregory her opinion about mainstream media’s portrayal of teenagers, never asked Delilah Vazquez to read them her poetry about the complexities of life, just hacked away at a list and circled my name as one of the goners.

And it feels bad. It just feels bad. The countless hours and dollars I’ve spent in this District trying to do my best to teach hundreds and hundreds of students to be creative and critical thinkers, able to solve the problems of the world they’re inheriting.

They don’t really care.

Pink Slipped.

The School District of Philadelphia doesn’t really care.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Today, I lost my job in the School District of Philadelphia, and the worst part had nothing to do with my paycheck, my 403(b), my health insurance, or the imminent scramble to figure out what to do next.

The worst part was the tears streaming down my students’ faces when they said: “But we fought! We organized! We went to Harrisburg and DC and the District. We marched and protested and doorknocked. And we lost. The state is still not giving us the money, and we’re still losing our teachers. I can’t believe we fought so hard, but lost anyway.”

And just before the dreaded “what’s the point?” could even fall from their mouths, I interrupted: “We’re going against a huge machine. It’s got money, and politicians, and slick PR. But we’ve got people power. And, for real, we’re going to win. We just have to organize more broadly and effectively.”

“But we lost.”

“And you’ll probably lose again. You’re going to win and lose countless times.”

“We were going to build a better school – one where the city could see that a neighborhood school CAN be great. But we’re losing all of our teachers, they’re severing our relationships, the class size is going up, and all they’re giving us is more security cameras. We’ll never build a great school now.”

“Listen: Life is long and the universe is expansive. If you wake up in the morning and believe that the world can be a better place, then you’re an organizer. And you’re going to figure out an improved strategy to win. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to lay down and watch everything crumble. Is that what you want?”


“OK. Then be sad today. That’s fine. But tomorrow, you better wake up believing that the world can be transformed. I will be here to help you think through how.”

And with that, they cried some more; I gave them all hugs and told them that we’d make a video on Tuesday that we could send out about the impact of teacher layoffs on students.

Hopefully they haven’t already lost all hope in movement-building.

Today I may have lost my job in the School District of Philadelphia, but I did my job as an educator.


  1. Brilliant piece, and I know the fight continues.

  2. I got the call to meet the principal with less than 10 minutes left of school. As I reentered my classroom, with just a few short minutes left, I walked in and jokingly said, "Hey, you guys know anyone that's hiring?" With that, one of the students wanted to read the letter that they gave me, and read it aloud for the rest of the class. They knew what was going on, and sounded genuinely upset that their teachers were being fired, but we're at a school that's becoming a Promise Academy, so they already knew most of their teachers won't be coming back, but there's still an amount of bitterness that teachers they know and like won't be returning. The student that read the first paragraph of the letter aloud gave me a hug, another asked if I had a union to help protect me-and when said that I did have a union, his response was, "Well, they're not doing their jobs." As the news was sinking into the students, and my mind, I told them, "Hey, this is about my job next school year-don't think for a minute I won't be here tomorrow to continue working on your projects and talking about art." Within a minute or so, the bell rang for the end of the day, and students started to file out-one staying behind to say she wanted to get my email to stay in touch.

    And then I showed up today and found out that I was the only teacher that got their pink slip to arrive and be at school today. I can't say I blame them, really. I've had small panic attacks as I arrive to school in the past, but today's little rush was more paralyzing than normal. To say there's a sense of defeat for the students and other staff would be a an understatement. I spent most of my 5th period discussing life with a senior, and tyring to explain to him that there's so many things in life to give you pleasure and enjoyment-and all I want for my students is to find their place in life that offers them a sense of content and fullness. It nearly broke my heart telling him it gets better, when I wasn't so sure myself.

  3. Well put. It was 20 years this year that the state decided it had set the bar and it has never spent another cent more per student on the district. It has been 18 years since I started fighting for the rights to school funding and communicating with representatives in Harrisburg. 18 years ago, I was one of the first members of the Philadelphia Student Union. Like all young people I know what it feels like to fight for something you believe in, that you have to rely on. I also know the disappointment and loss of faith, when the system turns and says it's not going to do more.
    I find it especially important to re-iterate, this is not a new problem. And after almost 20 years of standing up for Public Education, I still believe it is possible for the system to carry its momentum in a positive and responsible manner.
    Give those in power, all the way up, the opportunity to see you as human, everyone in the movement. Let them know, each of you that it is impossible for them to do anything but to re-instate adequate funding into public education and services. If they don't believe that there's enough money to fully fund basic services. Ask them to consider reviewing the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the State. The Office of Accounting must publish a report either every quarter or every year. I forget. In this report there will be a section that talks about a surplus, or profit, or something above the bottom line. This number can be in excess of anything we thought was missing.
    After looking into this issue for so long, it became imperative to understanding government as it is. There are many people in office who have so many responsibilities it is impossible for them to know everything that is at their disposal. It is up to us, and young people make more of an impact that they are given credit, to educate our leaders not only in how to advance publicly, but also the advantages to doing the right thing to make the difference in other people's lives.
    Good luck with the rest of the school year. We hope we can find a way to have you back next Autumn.