Somerville High School is one of America’s oldest high schools and sits three miles away from downtown Boston, Massachusetts. The building houses some of the oldest classrooms in the country – built in the 1840’s, the building isn’t actually that old compared to historic buildings in the area, but as far as schools go, it may as well have been built by Druids.
The antiquity of the building and my classroom has a certain charm about it. Many of the classrooms do not have whiteboards, but instead are armed with dusty and useless chalkboards.
I would only spend one of my eight years in education at Somerville High School.
I walked into the principal’s office and handed him my official resignation letter, one that I felt was cordial, professional, and restrained. He accepted my letter and handed me a letter of his own saying, “Thanks, go ahead and sign this for me.”
I read the paper handed to me, at the top it read “Contract Non-Renewal Notification”.
A Contract Non-Renewal Notification is a kiss-of-death to all educators – basically it’s a termination letter, and with each educator application you fill complete, one of the first questions you are asked is if you’ve ever received one. Click that “Yes” box, and your application is null and void. Game over.
I refused to sign the letter and asked the principal why was I signing this if I was resigning, he responded, “Uhm. Geez. I don’t know.” Basically, my principal was either the dumbest or the most spiteful man I had ever worked for, perhaps both.
Or perhaps he was the smartest –a principal who does not display control within his or her school is perceived as impotent and non-effective. A principal makes the decisions about staffing is a principal who is successful. And one who cannot keep staff, and instead loses them without warning is one who is not – the same as a teacher who controls the actions of his or her classroom.
The vast majority of struggling American schools are grounded in place trying to display an outward appearance of “success” – and that definition of success comes from test scores from antiquated assessments that hold no real world value. Students are put through the grinder to meet minimum requirements established by the government, while anything meaningful gets tossed to the side.
Struggling schools forgo education to meet these demands by “teaching to the test”. At Somerville High School, the 9th and 10th grade English classroom's school year is spent replicating the dreaded MCAS exam – the state’s standardized exam that is used to assess whether a school is “successful” or not. Anything outside of MCAS replication is frowned upon, and anything that is not addressed in the MCAS exam, lacks purpose in the classroom. Somerville students are taught how to summarize and replicate.
Meanwhile, non-struggling schools skip teaching to the test and get straight to higher-order concepts and assessments.
Holding all students to the same standardized exams, regardless of socio-economic standard, is by its very nature, the exact opposite of education’s purpose.
So, back in the principal’s office, he slides the unsigned Contract Non-Renewal into his desk – the physical manifestation of his own failures gets stuffed into a drawer. He never offers it to me again and it’s our final conversation. I don’t hold a grudge towards him, or feel any anger for his weak attempt to ruin me professionally. Instead, I pity him.
He’s a weakened link in a long, twisted chain of the American Education System; he’s willing to sacrifice anything or anybody, including his own staff, in order to give an outward appearance of perceived success rather than achieving authentic success as a leader in Education.
So now I know what it feels like to be one of his students.