I seem to get an unusual number of contacts from people who have left teaching at Success Academy; recently I had a long meeting with someone working at the central headquarters of SA. Everyone wants to clear his/her conscience. I tell them to write it down. Not everyone does. This teacher did.
Why I Left Success Academy
I recently resigned from my teaching position at Success Academy after over a year with the large New York City charter school network. My reason for leaving was twofold: the environment was toxic for children, and, in turn, employees.
As I look back, my biggest regret is not trusting my gut and leaving in the first month.
Upon hire, I was placed in an Assistant Teacher role in a classroom at one of the Success Academy (“SA”) elementary school locations. The teacher I was placed with, a woman who I will call Ms. X, was lauded as having a strong command of the SA teaching model. From the first day that our young scholars arrived, her style was rigid and militaristic. I recognize that every teacher has her own style, and that having order in a classroom is of utmost importance, but I quickly began to feel uneasy with her approach to behavior management and instruction. Multiple children would cry daily because their academic performance was not up to her standards. Corrections and time outs were given for the inability to solve problems the “correct” way. The barking at and scolding of these six and seven year-old children was constant.
Ms. X would refer to certain students as “stupid” during teacher meetings. There was one particular child for which she had little patience. After I felt she was physically rough with this child, I confided in another teacher at the school. This teacher conveyed the incident to the Principal. The Principal immediately met with me. Rather than concern, she expressed frustration at the fact that I had talked to another teacher about the incident. The Principal appeared agitated as she stated she would have to investigate this issue. Despite stating she would investigate, she asked me no questions about the incident. Within a few weeks of this incident, I was moved to another classroom within the school. Nothing came of that incident; I am quite sure it was never mentioned again after that day. I note that Ms. X was promoted in 2015.
The classroom I was moved into was led by Mr. Z. This classroom was a joyous one, and I built strong relationships with the children and parents. Despite the fact that the classroom was joy-filled and the children learned, the leadership team frowned upon Mr. Z’s teaching practice. It was clear that Mr. Z loved children and wanted them to succeed, but he did not fit the SA mold; that rigid, behavior management style where children must sit perfectly straight with locked hands every minute. Mr. Z stayed until the end of the school year, and then found employment at another school.
I did not get to stay with that classroom. In February, the Principal told me she had an “opportunity” for me to help out at another SA location, a struggling school in our Network. I was advised by other teachers that when leadership presents you with such an “opportunity,” you do not say no, as you will be viewed as uncooperative; that this was not an option, but a must.
Thus, in mid-February of 2015, I began teaching fourth grade scholars at another SA location. This particular SA location had gained notoriety throughout the Network for its “unruly” children. Nonetheless, I felt optimistic about having my own classroom; I had received little feedback about my teaching at the first SA location, but had led my second classroom on my own plenty of times and, when I did receive feedback, it was positive.
After seven days of teaching fourth grade, the Principal stated she was concerned about management and moved me out of the position. She had never once observed me teach. I was the fourth teacher to fill that position during the school year. I was left bewildered as to what had gone wrong; I had barely been observed by the Dean, who seemed too “busy” to be bothered, and was given little instruction as to what their vision was for the class.
Thereafter, I became a science teacher for scholars in kindergarten and first grade. Some of the children were labeled as what the Network refers to “BBGLs”: Behavior Below Grade Level scholars, meaning their behavior was an issue. Indeed, there were some concerning behavior issues at the school: children pushing over or throwing desks and chairs, biting teachers, and running out of classrooms. I taught science class alone and often found certain scholars unmanageable. When I asked for support from the Dean, she did not answer calls or texts.
The Dean would intermittently and inconsistently suspend children. Sometimes, if a child ran out of a classroom, he or she would be suspended. But other children were consistently suspended. I could not discern any rhyme or reason to the suspensions. One of my kindergarten scholars, “M”, was suspended constantly, almost every other day of school at times. M’s father had passed away earlier in the year, and he clearly was not dealing well with this change. I do not know how M’s single, working mother, who had other children, dealt with her child being out of school every other day.
I built strong relationships with many of my science students, and they performed well on their science assessments. As a whole, however, my time at this second SA school was difficult and confusing. I and many other teachers felt frustrated and unsupported. During the time I was there, I watched as teachers were mysteriously fired or demoted.
At the end of the year, I was advised by head of Human Resources, Andrew Lauck, that I would be teaching at another SA location in the fall. I was not told there was any particular reason for this move, just that I would be teaching at another location. I had met with Mr. Lauck twice in the preceding year to discuss my trajectory, and at our last meeting in February we had discussed me being a lead teacher in my own classroom for the 2015-2016 academic year.
In the first week of June of 2015, I set up a visit to the new SA location at which I would be teaching in the fall. I met and had a brief, albeit bizarre, conversation with the Principal, during which time she discussed the culture of her school as one where behavior management is a non-issue. I felt unwelcome and uncomfortable during my first meeting with her.
In mid-June, this Principal (Principal “Y”) had the Network reach out to me and ask if I would fill a non-teaching (data management) position. I was confused, as teaching experience was a necessity in my career trajectory. I fearfully declined the position, and reached out to Principal Y for clarification on why she wanted me to move into a non-teaching position. After attempting to contact her three times without response, I gave up.
On August 17, 2015, I began teaching an ICT (Integrated Co-Teaching) class with a co-teacher at Principal Y’s school. Essentially, about 40% of my children had individualized education plans, and are educated with peers in a general education classroom setting. From the first day, I knew I had a great group of children, and was enjoying teaching and getting to know each of them with my co-teacher.
On August 25, after seven school days, I was brought to a meeting with the Principal and the Vice Principal. At this time, Principal stated that I had the “lowest performing classroom” in the school, which consists of approximately 600 students. Notably, the children had not taken a single assessment, and I had been observed briefly on two occasions. Their “low performance” was based not on academics, but on their posture and my “scanning and noticing” as to whether their hands were locked, eyes were tracking, and backs were straight at all times. I was told by Principal Y that the bar was set too low in my classroom; that I was an ineffective teacher; and that I had no passion for teaching and should have taken the data management position she recommended in June. I knew better than to ask questions or try to refute their statements, because I would be labeled “difficult” or unwilling to receive feedback. I was, frankly, worried about losing my job. I informed her that I would like to continue teaching, as I knew I could “turn around” my classroom. I left the meeting with no tangible advice or next steps.
Immediately following the meeting, I received an email from Mr. Lauck asking whether I would like to reconsider the data management position. It became clear to me at that time that Principal Y and Mr. Lauck were trying to push me into a non-teaching position because I did not fit the SA mold, one in which children are expected to have locked hands and straight backs all day.
Notably, the first suspension in my class had also occurred on August 25. One of my scholars, a BBGL, was suspended for “violent behavior by balling his fists up and throwing his papers on the floor.” This decision was made by the Dean, and was one with which I did not feel comfortable. This scholar was subsequently suspended again on September 29 for kicking another scholar. I met with the Dean multiple times regarding this scholar; multiple times she stated that “Success Academy is not for everyone.”
Three other suspensions occurred in my class. One of my special education students was suspended twice. On the first occasion, September 23, he was found being disruptive in the bathroom. His disruptive behavior occurred frequently; he was hyperactive and it was nearly impossible for him to sit still during a lesson, let alone lock his hands. As a result, he racked up corrections and became frustrated daily. It was a Catch 22: if I did not give him corrections, I would be deemed ineffective; if I did, the child became frustrated. So, on that particular day, he was brought to the Dean. When he went to the Dean, he allegedly refused to speak to her. On September 23, he was suspended for “Repeatedly refusing to respond when addressed by leadership.”
In the following weeks, Principal Y scolded my grade team for the amount of suspensions that were occurring. Clearly, there was the overarching concern of increasing the school’s suspension data. Like academic data, the suspension data of each school is tracked by the Network, and schools are ranked against one another. Leaders feared being reprimanded about their suspension data.
In October, leadership began to observe in our classrooms daily. No feedback was given during these visits. The grade team felt tense and nervous; it was not made clear to teachers why leadership was present in rooms daily. Principal Y would enter the classroom, scowling, and said very little. When she did speak, she seemed irritated with children and teachers alike. We had daily team meetings during one of our two prep periods about “pressing” the children.
The environment was toxic. Between September and October, teachers quit, were fired, and were hired. Teachers were moved around classrooms as the staff continued to change. Colleagues wondered why leadership was observing in classrooms daily, and whether they were going to be fired. Teachers would hide in the bathroom and cry; leadership found it funny to say “keep the crying to yourself” or “go cry in the bathroom.”
This environment is challenging for both new and veteran teachers at Success Academy. The time constraints of having only one forty-minute prep during a school day that exceeds nine hours, followed by staying late hours after children were dismissed, led to frustrated teachers that worked late nights and weekends. Teachers’ responsibilities are constantly increased. Additionally, teachers felt nervous and tense with constant observations and negative feedback. Teachers were hanging on by a thread, to say the least.
At SA, there is an emphasis on question-based learning and avoiding direct instruction; direct instruction is indeed a huge “no-no” that will get you in big trouble as an SA teacher (drone?). That said, on the day or days before an internal assessment, teachers will clear schedules to make time to prep for what will be tested on the upcoming assessment. That means drilling students on problems and concepts that will be tested on the assessment. Internal assessments are almost every week; so a large portion of at least one day a week is spent drilling on standards that will be on an upcoming assessment. SA teachers do teach/focus on what will be on the exam. As for state test preparation, that is all testing grade students do come February: prepare for the tests. The entire day is spent on practice tests and questions, and reviewing same. The only breaks are for lunch, recess, and reward/incentive time for students who perform well. Students who do not perform well are corralled into groups to be reprimanded and to re-take their assessments. Teachers are required to come in on certain Saturdays for test prep during this “test prep season,” which lasts for months (February through mid-April).
I knew that this organization was taking advantage of teachers. It became difficult for me to put on the show every day; to act like I was 100% behind their system. I never stopped working hard, but my morale plummeted. While I believed in, and still believe in, Success Academy’s mission of giving children an excellent public education, I could not support their drastic behavioral expectations and discipline policies for children, as well as the way they exploit and demoralize teachers.
I believe my low morale was noticed, and in November, I received a new wave of negative feedback around my “body language.” Leadership claimed I had negative body language not while I was teaching, but while I observed others teaching. I knew that I would never be able to fit the SA mold and could no longer fake agreement with their policies; that they wanted me out; and that they would continue to think of ways to break down my morale. So, I left.
I feel sad that I’ve left the kids and their families. I loved my kids and all of their unique personalities. It thrilled me to watch them learn and grow. I had good relationships with many of their parents, and I feel as though I disappointed them and let them down by abandoning them during the school year. But this was a move I had to make. I could no longer take being a cog in the SA machine, perpetuating what I feel is unfair and abusive treatment of children and employees alike.