This post was written by Viri Pettersen, president of the Rockville Centre Teachers Association:
The First Amendment to the US Constitution addresses our right to freedom of speech. As such, I was happy last summer to see a letter generated by a colleague, South Side High School Principal Carol Burris, on the topic of Principal and Teacher Evaluation (APPR). Carol and Sean Feeney’s (of Wheatley School and co-author) letter outlined reasons against the APPR guidelines, and I, as a child of the sixties, found myself swept up in their fervor.
Eventually, I committed my hands to the keyboard and signed the letter. I made sure to include a comment specific to our profession, adding that teachers would not comport themselves unethically in order to acquire a favorable evaluation. A moment later, my name and comment flew into cyberspace, and was listed in the Principals’ Letter database.
In the fall of 2011, discussions on the letter increased in frequency, in school, in meetings, and with friends and colleagues. I never returned to glance at the signatories because I wasn’t particularly interested. I read about Principal Burris and her strong opposition to the newly termed “Teacher Evaluation,” periodically eyeing her posts in The Washington Post and on other forms of media. Emails came sporadically under Sean Feeney’s name, with content frequently urging readers to push others to sign while simultaneously providing numbers of participants. My concern grew on where this particular “train” was headed and where it would ultimately stop.
Slowly, the APPR was rebranded into “Teacher Evaluations.” In our district, Principal Burris told her staff of the mistakes made by NYSUT with regard to the evaluation system. In reality, it was NYSUT who took the State Education Department to court to hold them accountable when the agency and Gov. Cuomo tried to undermine APPR protections and to require teacher evaluations to be based on multiple, objective and valid measures of effectiveness. Principals in other buildings within our district simultaneously spread her word in order to garner support of the letter. Newsday got into the act. Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet became the primary forum for vocalization.
Our unit had no need to address APPR when this swirling tornado loomed overhead; rather, our principle goal was to determine the impact of the New York state 2% tax cap on our members. But, like an annoying hangnail, the Principal’s Letter continued to crop up. During an executive council meeting, a middle school building representative announced that her principal told her that her union president had signed the letter, so why didn’t she? Annoyed, I responded that I had indeed signed the letter, with a comment. Had my added comment been mentioned in their conversation? No, it had not.
I then wrote to Sean Feeney, inquiring about the status of the comments posted with the signatures. On January 25, he replied, “That is a good point, Viri. Before we went to Albany last month, we prepared a document containing many of the comments. We should expand on this document and post it to the web site. Given that we told folks that only their name, title and location would be made public, we need to make sure that the comments are not readily identifiable. They are worth sharing, however.”
A sufficient response? Admittedly yes, since it was their letter, but not one that made me pleased. A visit to their website yielded a handful of responses, all adamant in their support for the letter. My comment was absent.
The push to attend the principals’ February 15 forum at LIU’s Tilles Center was inspiring, particularly when members were offered the opportunity to use the event as part of their professional development hour requirements. The PD decision was certainly an administrative call, but I do wish that a similar offer were proffered when a rally to save public education was hosted at nearby Hofstra University last spring.
When the APPR agreement was reached on February 16, Carol Burris twice emailed to South Side High School teachers and the LIU panelists her displeasure at the agreement and again criticized NYSUT.
As a proud NYSUT member, I knew that we would be hearing from our leadership shortly with the facts that made the settlement a good one. Sure enough, NYSUT promptly posted a Frequently Asked Questions section on its website and NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi wrote about why this agreement was good to students and fair to teachers.
Even through the next week of vacation, more emails poured out of Principal Burris, that were not just highly critical of NYSUT, but also inaccurate.
The spin grew steadily, through a well-implemented approach. But, where was the tone of the original letter, to rally support through educators … calm, rational, generally non-confrontational educators? What had become of the group’s initial intent? Was it to show voice on a common concern or had it morphed into a new battle cry, with teachers’ lives at stake? And where, oh where was mention of the principals’ evaluative component?
Leo Casey, a UFT vice president, cited data and provided sound explanations on the topic in his February 22, 2012 blog, “Setting the Record Straight on Teacher Evaluations: Scoring and the Role of Standardized Exams,” found on EdWize. Principal Burris tried to hijack questions of blog posters and respond with her spin. Casey, more than once, responded appropriately, accurately and professionally on APPR.
NYSUT also posted a “Setting the record straight on teacher evaluations” on its blog Feb. 24. The first person to comment was Principal Burris, continuing her “spin” which is corrected throughout the comments by not just NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, but also Research and Educational Services.
In hindsight, the principal’s relentless responses and passion made a point, but simultaneously created a frightened and anxious atmosphere within our educational community. What had been a point of reference in the summer now became a vehicle for ego and anti-union sentiment. Ultimately, I admitted my mistake in originally registering with the Principals’ Letter database. I wrote to Sean Feeney, requesting removal from the signature roster. What could have been an attempt to cooperatively work with educators of all levels had evolved into a mess that could well hurt our teachers.
Consider my story. If you find that you, too, have fallen victim and question the purpose of this misleading and potentially damaging product, request removal as a signer, too.