It is time teachers are finally heard.

Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. My parents, who immigrated from Thailand, told me I would come home from 1st grade reteaching them everything I learned: my short and long vowels, how an “e” transformed short vowels into long vowels, etc. I was passionate about sharing these lessons with my parents because I witnessed them struggle to speak the English language, and this passion served as the catalyst that would pave the road towards my career in education. Every decision thereafter was intended to help me reach my goal of becoming a high school English teacher. From obtaining the Golden Apple Scholarship to majoring in English Education at Bradley University to receiving a Fulbright to teach English in Thailand, I felt myself getting closer to my dream. All of my hard work eventually paid off when I landed a job at ITW David Speer Academy.

When I first began working at Speer in 2015, I thought it’d be a place I’d remain for years to come. However, as each year passed, I felt less and less connected to the school, its mission, and its values. It became clear that testing was a strong focus, and although I initially bought in to how valuable test scores were for students’ college admissions, every time I handed my students yet another scantron, their defeated looks pierced through my heart. I kept repeating to them that they were not just a number, even though everything that surrounded them told them they were; their ACT scores affected everything – their grades, their eligibility for extracurriculars, and the classes they were placed into. As a result of the testing fatigue and pressure, my kids couldn’t perform well on their ACTs at the end of the year, and because Noble’s data-driven ways had become ingrained in me, I believed I was a failure as a teacher.

I realized I needed to make a change; I proposed journalism and civics courses to my administration, and they approved them. I felt liberated not having to teach ACT test prep and instead being able to discuss real-world social justice issues with students. However, it was a dream that would unfortunately not last very long. Just four weeks into the school year, I was placed on an improvement plan because my students did not “grow” enough on their ACT scores the previous year.

I was heartbroken. I couldn’t bring myself to even drive to and from school without breaking down. How was I on an improvement plan? I looped up with the kids nearly every year and created curriculum from scratch. I devoted nights and weekends to lesson planning, grading, and attempting to provide as much individual feedback as I could. I established the Newspaper Club and at that point had published 6 newspapers the principal always referred to as “the best newspaper in the country.” I was shouted out for my amazing technology integration into the classroom and efficient management systems. Yet, despite all of my significant contributions as a founding staff member, I was on an improvement plan simply because administration deemed my ACT data unsatisfactory.

Knowing that I had to be there for my students, I kept going. My curriculum began coming together and every day the kids reminded me how much I loved my job. I convinced myself that I’d be fine and that I’d be able to at least make it to the end of the school year. However, once again, this didn’t last. Policies began to change without teachers’ input and feedback, and teachers were simply expected to follow the rules, much like Noble’s discipline system for students. The most recent policy change required teachers to create and grade daily quizzes, and return them to students within 24 hours. As a result, I felt myself drowning in the demands that only seemed to increase. How was I going to manage my two courses across eight periods, all these changes, and my own personal needs such as graduate school, family, and friends? There was no way.

However, I found solace in the fact that other teachers shared these same frustrations. I knew I had a support system ready to console me whenever necessary. Nevertheless, teachers were chastised for discussing their disagreements with the school policies, myself included. We couldn’t even talk about our opinions without being told that we were being unprofessional and bringing down the staff morale. We were either with administration or against them.

Overall, the systems in place at Noble made me feel like I had no voice. There is always talk about an “open-door policy” and administration being receptive to teacher feedback, but only to a certain extent. Administration can decide to make schedule changes, increase demands, and mandate school-wide policies all without thinking about how it can negatively impact teachers and students. At the end of the day, we teachers are the ones in the classrooms and we are the ones who know our students best. We know what management or policies will or will not work; we know when our students are feeling exhausted from the test prep; most of all, we know what we’re passionate about: making a difference in kids’ lives. If Noble were unionized, teachers would be able to carry out these beliefs and passions without fear. They would feel safe enough in order to speak up in a high-stakes environment where they can get let go at any point for any particular reason.

Now it has become my mission to be a voice for other teachers also experiencing similar situations. Please know that you are not alone and that you are valued. I once felt like I didn’t have a voice because it was constantly shut down. However, I realize I just need to speak even louder now so that teachers can have a protected union voice. It is time that others realize teachers’ everyday struggles in this broken institution. It is time that others get a glimpse into teachers’ lives. It is time teachers are finally heard.IMG-7056


I left Noble because…

My last day at the Noble Network was Thursday, March 1st. I first came to Noble in the summer of 2016 to teach history to South Side 10th graders at Hansberry College Prep. I didn’t come to teach to a test, or lecture a bunch of bored teenagers, or demand rote memorization on historical topics that had no tangible connections to my students’ lives. What’s more, I most certainly did not come to police the bodies of young people of color—and nag and harass them and impose petty restrictions on their appearance, to value obedience over comfort in their own persons, or to issue demerits for speaking out when all they desired were answers to their relevant, inquisitive questions. I came to teach that history, and the actions of people and groups in the past, has a direct impact on the structures and institutions that we find ourselves embedded in today. More particularly, I wanted my students to look at that past through a multifaceted and critical lens of race and politics, civic engagement, and relationships of power. I wanted them feel empowered in their own selves and challenge the place that others would assert is theirs in the world. Unfortunately, the more time I spent enmeshed in Noble’s strict and unforgiving system of rules—and the countless number of bright and energetic minds that I lost to this system, pushed out because of fabricated ‘discipline’ issues—the more I realized that these goals were simply unattainable in that environment. To the Ronnies, Logans, Ottros, Kevins, Khalils, and Isaiahs—and the many other young men you represent—who were all done a true disservice by this system: Know that the ‘problems’ and ‘issues’ you encountered at every turn in your high school careers at Noble were inherent to the institution, and not to any of you.   

Just as good leadership should be collaborative and not dictatorial, so too should good education. Education is messy. It is challenging. It is loud. Education requires a foundation of respect between student and teacher, teacher and administration that is by and large absent throughout the Noble Network. The administration may preach a of message of love and respect for its students and staff, but its actions fall far short of that mark. It is also worth noting that their message is persistently one of ‘tough’ love and ‘high standards’, but where is the emphasis on love as joy? As support? As ally? High standards are great, and teenagers often depend on hearing ‘no’ and your providing direction though murky decisions. However, that ‘no’ should never be a constant and we cannot consider ourselves as advocates of our children if we do any of this absent of flexibility, humor, and care.  

The day I left was an emotionally brutal day because I love my students—and more importantly, and as I sincerely felt on that day and have since, they adore and respect and trust me as their educator as well. One young man, Joshua Helm, currently a Junior whom I’ve known for 2 years posted the following to his social media account: That as an educator I showed him “that if you do things the right way, you can untap the potential of the most unmotivated kids in school. [That] when everyone else [in the school] wrote him and his friends off as lazy troublemakers…I pulled out every bit of effort and potential they had to offer.”  Another, Emerald Arrington, a sophomore, had this to say: My classroom was the “ONLY…learning environment [that] was a place where she could be herself and exceed in everything that she pursues.” And finally, Ashanti Sanni, also a sophomore, applauded the rigor in my classroom, stating that the material we covered in class was “astonishing because her older sister is only just now coming across it in college.”

I want it to be clear. I am a good educator, and there is almost nothing than I value more in this world than my relationships with my kids. It has been a privilege and a gift to be able to see them develop as young people, and I could not be prouder of the fact that my respect and love for them was readily apparent to each and every one of them.

All of this brings us to the (obvious) question, then, of ‘why leave’? To be blunt, I left Noble because I could no longer stomach feeling unvalued and untrusted by the administration and the network, and hampered in my ability to provide an environment in which my students could thrive.

Prior to joining Noble, I taught for 5 years at the University of Chicago, while receiving my doctorate. Concurrent with a heavy teaching load I also ran the youth programming at a small non-profit on the South Side that served approximately 200 youth, between the ages of 8-18. In this capacity, I worked directly with at-risk kids in an after school tutoring program, through intern and externship placements, in one-on-one evaluations for vocational skills and aptitude, and in college preparation (both preparing them for standardized tests and aiding them in their college applications). Despite the 5 years of teaching experience at the 3rd ranked university in the U.S. (and 9th internationally), the 5 years of direct youth work and outreach, and possessing the highest achievable degree in my field, Noble flatly rejected these experiences as relevant and applicable to their payscale—and instead deemed that my expertise and background were valuless, and equivalent to ‘zero years experience’—a decision which they only managed to inform me of 3 weeks after the payscale had already put into action. When I inquired as to the specifics of this blatantly insulting offer, the compensation team then kicked the can down the road for an additional two weeks in which I received neither timely email responses, nor meeting times that I requested to discuss the matter further. Institutionally, Noble may place a great deal of emphasis on getting its students into college—but apparently does not value the type of education they receive once there.

When I informed my principal of the reasons behind my leaving Hansberry, she not only justified the payscale non-offer, but then had me supervised by three administrators and another teacher for the entirety of each of my classes for my last day. An awkward, intrusive presence that I can’t help but feel was even more awkward for those external individuals required to sit through the tears and emotions and pretend to watch disinterestedly. I have never felt less trusted and respected in my capacity as an educator than on the day that I was babysat in my own classroom for 6 hours. I have received 100% on every culture audit during the 2017-18 school year and the insinuation that I am some unpredictable, loose canon, or could be endangering my students so as to require direct supervision, is both ludicrous and lacking in all metrics and merit. When my fellow teachers found out about this supervisory intrusion, they universally denounced it—and also expressed little surprise at such a unilateral and punitive move. I feel confident in saying that if teachers had a voice at any of our campuses, my experience would be neither expected, nor accepted.

Noble needs a Union because teachers need to feel respected, valued and trusted in the work that they do. Leadership and education are collaborative endeavors, and they require trust and respect on each side. The policies that Noble enforces on its staff, students, and communities are not equitable because they do not represent the voices of those populations in a meaningful, substantive, or concrete way. Noble designed and implemented a payscale without transparency or formal outlets for staff input, and as a result it does not adequately account for teacher experience or equally recognize the work of our paras, facilities workers, office staff, or culture team. My experience, though potentially an outlier because of credentials, is surely not an anomaly in the dismissive manner which Noble treats much of its staff and their service to our kids. Noble constantly demands that teachers are to trust their administrators, yet they fail to show us that trust in return. A union would allow teacher and staff voices to be heard, teacher autonomy to be respected, and teacher expertise to be valued. Without those things, your network will continue to be a revolving door for educators and the students will suffer the most for it.

I left Noble because I want my students to see that you should never accept a situation that undermines your value or questions your worth. I have no doubt that you all will go on to do brilliant things in this world. Never settle for less than you deserve.

Linday Knight

Why I left…

In May of 2013, I joined the family that was Hansberry College Prep. We had four copiers, projectors in every classroom, and unlimited colored paper. A still-growing campus, I chose the most beautiful classroom in the school with an entire wall of windows facing 87th street, and I was given money to turn it into a college prep chemistry lab. No longer would I need to boil cabbage to create a bootleg pH test, and labs could use materials beyond baking soda and vinegar. When my teaching past included nightly trips to Kinkos for copies and a requirement that I supply students and myself toilet paper, I had arrived in teacher heaven.

Supplies, however, were only the start. My students at Hansberry College Prep were a dream. They cared about their grades, nerded out over lab data, forgave me when I made mistakes, and answered every single question on every worksheet I ever gave them – all while sitting up straight, never talking while I was talking, and using only mechanical pencils which they never, ever asked me to supply.

The perks came with other requirements though. I worked 14-hour days and had the school alarm set on me more than once for remaining in the building past midnight. I held my students to levels of discipline that made me uncomfortable. I was hounded over my mediocre freshmen advisory data, so I passed the pressure placed upon me down to my advisees to get better data and score better scores. We were excruciatingly hard on ourselves and our students, but I internalized the message that that’s what it took to achieve the huge goals we set.
Faced with an overwhelming workload, I pushed on believing the job was hard because I was new and my advisees were freshmen. Eventually, I told myself, my advisees would adjust and the system would feel less harsh. Work would get easier as soon as I mastered the systems, planned out my curriculum, and honed my time-management skills. If I stayed in the building a little longer, then I might finally be able to join a gym or grab dinner with a friend.

As my freshmen advisees became sophomores and then juniors, my hopes of developing a work-life balance for myself never materialized and the creeping unease around the school’s discipline decisions heightened. The unlimited reams of colored copy paper became much less exciting when I knew they would be used for ACT prep worksheets. Implementing an exciting, inquiry-based science curriculum across grade levels became an impossible task when the science department was a revolving door. When security entered my classroom mid-lesson announcing, “This is a search,” I made a habit out of tuning out and staring blankly through my classroom windows as each child turned out his pockets, took off his shoes and stepped away from his belongings as though it were muscle memory. The “tough love” we were told was necessary for our students to gain acceptance into college began to look more like injustice.

I loved my students, my colleagues, and my school, so I began asking questions when I noticed policies and actions taken towards students and staff that I believed were unjust. I had been a successful chemistry teacher and department head whose classroom was a stop on every visitor’s tour, so I saw no reason for any response from leadership other than a genuine dialogue and action around how to address the problems I and a growing number of staff were noticing. I was wrong. When questioning the requirement that students’ shirt collars remain outside of their sweatshirt at all times or else face punishment, my principal told me, “Maybe Hansberry isn’t the place for you.” When a close and respected colleague began publicly asking questions about pay fairness, she was fired for being “unprofessional.” It became abundantly clear that our leadership valued compliance over critical and creative thought, and without a protected collective teacher voice, we would have no power in developing the solutions our beloved school needed. This is why I chose to help form the Union of Noble Educators.

At the end of each year, when students start asking us if we’ll be returning, I faced the difficult decision if I should sign up for another year. My students needed me as a kick ass chemistry teacher and increasingly I understood they needed me for more – they needed us to fight for the just schools they deserve. After four years, when only one teacher who was present when I began in May 2013 remained in the classroom, it was time for me to move on and finally take care of everything that had fallen to the wayside over the last four years.

I stayed as long as I did because I found the fight within my classroom to deliver the best chemistry education possible just as important as the fight within the network to give educators the collective power of a union. The power to exercise our collective wisdom without fear would have the ability to transform not only schools but our network, the city of Chicago, and the national dialogue surrounding education. Our kids are counting on their teachers, including myself from afar, to continue this fight.


Why I left…

For the past two years, I worked at Gary Comer College Prep as the freshman composition teacher.  Last year, I was part of an effort to form a union at Noble. I first prepared this post with the title “Why I Fight” because I knew that I wanted to fight for a union in order to make Comer manageable and sustainable.  Now, however, I title it “Why I Left” because I knew that if I continued to work there, I would no longer want to be a career teacher.

During my first year, I taught my class every day and shared the planning responsibilities with another teacher.  My class sizes were never more than 30 students.  I loved going to work and being challenged and made into a better teacher.  I loved how close I grew with my colleagues, many of whom were new to the school.  Most of all I loved my students and having an advisory and being a mentor to my boys.  

At the end of the year, I was told that because of the budget they could not hire another composition teacher, and my class would be an every other day class.  This meant I saw half the freshman class on A days, and the other half on B days. While I was afraid of this new challenge, I felt that I was up to it and planned to make it work.

During my second year, I knew from the first quarter that the year would potentially break my dream to be a career teacher. On the first day of class, one of co-taught classes had 45 students in it.  I did not have nearly enough desks or chairs in my classroom for these students.  I constantly tripped over students because they had to sit on the floor.  I also had no co-teacher for those classes.  No matter how much I begged for a teacher to temporarily be switched, or for someone from admin to step in, I was told that because I had two paraprofessionals (both in their first year of residency at Relay, who had no background in composition, and who were supposed to be dedicated to a particular student) in my room, that was satisfactory and I would have to wait for another teacher.  

In total, I had 280 students at the start of the year (that number dropped to 260 by the end) and it took me a month and a half to learn their names.  I had one sixty minute period to grade for 260+ students, and to plan for my classes.

Even though I had to teach twice as many students in half the amount of time compared to my first year, my bonuses depended on students reaching the same, if not better, growth than campuses who had teachers that taught students every day and with smaller class sizes.  I consistently asked for data from other teachers in my position in the network.  Although I asked many times for this data from my principal, I never received it.  Comparatively, if I ever missed a deadline she set, I would receive a mulligan.  While my data was 3 times better than my first year, but that was still no justification and it was never good enough.

During that year, I was consistently pushed to teach directly to the test.  I could see how much it hurt my content lead, who founded the department, to teach in this way.  I expressed my concern to my principal.  I told her that identifying and correcting information was only the most basic of skills, and that students need to be able to write in order to pass their classes in college.  Her exact response was “Ben, you could have them write about butterflies for all I care as long as it gets results”.

In another meeting with her and my assistant principal, I was told that, ideally, students would learn ACT style grammar for eight weeks of the quarter and writing for two of them.  I reminded them that this time was cut in half, considering I only taught students every other day.  My assistant principal’s response was “Oh I forgot about that…so that’s five weeks of grammar and only one week of writing.  If it were my choice, I would cut the writing”.   It was in that moment that I knew that my administration cared more about the data than whether students were actually learning material.  I felt disgusted going into work after that; I knew that I was breaking my own code of ethics by continuing to teach to the test, and there was only so much more I could do before I broke my dream.

In the end, I fought against this test-centric culture, and I focused the last quarter on making my students write well.  I don’t regret it.

I fought for a union because students deserve stability in staff.  I want them to be able to graduate college and go back to their old high school, just as I did, to find their Freshman english teacher still working at the school.  When I graduated with my M.Ed, I was able to seek advice and materials from my old english teacher, Ms. McBride, at my old high school.  I would not be where I am today without her, and I want my students to have that as well.

I fought for a union because teachers deserve to have a voice in the curriculum they teach, in the policies that they enforce, and because we deserve to work in a place that is sustainable and ethical.

I fought for a union because students deserve career teachers, and career teachers deserve a just and stable working environment.

I fought for a union, and implore you to fight, because I wanted my students to know that they are more than a test score.  I want them to actually learn material instead of just test taking strategies.  I want to teach them how to research, write, revise, and publish their own material.


Five years later, I too left…

John Dewey said in 1895, “It is… advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action.

When I started working at Noble’s UIC College Prep campus in 2012, I was thrilled to have found a school in which students and staff alike were held to high expectations. I wanted to teach in Chicago, but I didn’t want to struggle like I had in my previous school that lacked  resources, mentorship, and classroom management support. I taught at Noble for five years. I left because I could no longer justify working myself to the level of exhaustion I’d been consistently reaching in a setting in which my content was devalued, my longevity as a teacher was disposable, and my colleagues and I did not feel empowered or safe to advocate for their students or themselves.

In my first year, I was on top of the world. Still radiating positivity at the treasure I thought I’d discovered in Noble, I was able to justify the 12 hour work days. I was praised regularly by both my coworkers and my students for being a great teacher. I was a part of my students’ journey to making a positive multi-generational change. By the middle of my second year, I was completely burnt out. The workload I put in up to this point was not sustainable long term. I loved teaching music and I loved so much about the school. I wanted deeply to make the work more sustainable. I believed it was imperative that a high quality of music education was accessible to my students.

At one point in my second year, I reached out to an administrator for guidance on how to make my work situation more manageable without sacrificing the quality of music offerings our students had. “I feel like I’m drowning,” I told her. She considered my concern and eventually responded, “You know, there are plenty of suburban school districts with Fine Arts programs that are already thriving.” I explained that I believed our students deserved a teacher who create a thriving fine arts program for them too.  “I don’t think teachers should have to be martyrs in order to do their jobs well,” I added. She replied, “I disagree.”

In my third year, changes were made to the course structure that didn’t allow seniors to take music classes any longer. UIC College Prep, a school that prided itself on being the “top non-selective high school in Chicago,” (based of course solely on ACT scores,) didn’t offer choir or band to their seniors. This type of void is unheard of in the schools that my students’ suburban peers attend. I was disappointed to realize that I was working in a school that was not only complicit in this opportunity gap but was taking steps towards widening the gap in this way.

Also In my third year, 9th grade classrooms were maxing out at over 40 students in some cases. It was, understandably, a very challenging school year for 9th grade teachers. We spent an incredible amount of time in our meetings that year discussing ways to manage these immensely overcrowded classrooms when we should have been collaborating on a much higher level of dialogue about serving our students. We asked our principal to sit in our meetings all year long. We wanted to know why we were put in this situation, what could be done to alleviate this disservice to our students, and be assured this would not repeat itself in years to follow. She would not sit down with us as a team, instead urging individuals to make appointments with her. Since that year, more than two thirds of the 9th grade teachers have left.

By my fourth year at Noble, I’d become used to feeling helpless when it came to school wide systems and decision making. I felt unheard and undervalued. I heard many of my colleagues express the same. Teachers lacked the power to make decisions like whether or not students could bring headphones to their classrooms or whether their twelfth grade advisees had to walk in a single file line down the stairs or not. Teachers raised concern around the high cost of night and summer school classes, P.E. requirements, and especially the strong emphasis on standardized test scores. The list goes on, but the conversation rarely did.

During my fifth and final year at UICCP, 130 Noble teachers and staff went public with plans to organize a union at Noble. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself feeling hopeful that teachers and staff in the Noble Network might be able to use their expertise and their voices to enact positive changes where Noble as-is was lacking. As both a Noble teacher and a leader in the effort to organize a union, I learned that the vast majority of my colleagues at UICCP were either in support of a union or were interested in an open dialogue so that they could learn more about how it might affect their workplace and their students’ lives. Noble refused to allow open dialogue – disempowering staff to engage in an important topic of discussion. I cannot say that I was surprised.

Despite a culture of fear, burn out, and disempowerment, many of my colleagues at UICCP attended house meetings, organized conversations outside of school on their own time, wore their support for the union on a button, and signed onto the open letter in support of unionization efforts. It was almost enough to make me reconsider my decision to leave, but in the end, the level of burnout I’d reached was still real, as was the feeling that my content and my talent were not valued. I left Noble.

This year, I’ve heard that Noble admin has told their staff that “the union is dead.” I want to say to my former colleagues at UICCP and at Noble; you are the union. Your union will stand up and advocate on behalf of your students only to the extent that you stand up and advocate. I urge you to consider the consequences our students face if you don’t.

What does it mean for our students if we continuing to accept a school system that is so fearful of giving voice to their staff? How might it impact students if their teachers decide that a turnover rate of 30% every year is not acceptable and demand a more sustainable work environment? How long you could truly see yourself working in the conditions in which you currently work and teach? What it might mean, not only for you personally but also for the city of Chicago and for education nationally, if you were able to stay at Noble for the length of your teaching career? What if students from under resourced communities in Chicago could attend schools where teachers stayed? Imagine a Noble in which your voice is not only sought out but also valued. A Noble in which a teacher who is passionate about creating an experience equitable to the ones their peers in the suburbs are offered, and to the ones that most of their teachers were offered, is thought of as an asset instead of as a bad fit, or worse, a nuisance. IMG_0413

Why I left and why I’m still fighting…

My name is Iran Mejia. I am a former Noble teacher. It’s taken me many months to shed the guilt I’ve felt over leaving the classroom. Even so, as I write this, I can’t help but feel a sense of remorse for not being there for the students that I grew to care for and see as family in my two years as a Learning Specialist at Hansberry College Prep. But then I remember the sleepless nights (they were innumerable), and worse yet, that hour spent laying in bed in the morning debating whether I was going to get out of bed and make it into work, or whether today was finally the day that I would work up enough courage to use one of my few personal days and take a much needed day off. The martyr in me, or rather, the individual with near-crippling student debt who wanted the perfect-attendance bonus (gained by not using a single personal or sick day throughout each quarter), always won out. Despite the exhaustion, despite the feeling of being overwhelmed (which never really got better as the year went on, or as I returned for my second year), and despite knowing that as soon as I set foot in that building, I’d be overcome with the fear that this, finally, was the day I’d lose my job for not giving enough demerits, I got up, got dressed, and drove to work.


Phrases like “this isn’t fair to our kids” or “this is so unprofessional” and “we have to hold ourselves to the same standards as our students” were often used as a means to guilt us into coming to work, as if the migraines or the vomiting or the inability to swallow due to the severe case of strep throat should suddenly disappear. I also heard those phrases used frequently when teachers and staff would receive mulligans (teacher demerits) for arriving a mere 30 seconds late to a 7 AM meeting (or any meeting, for that matter). Strangely enough, I did not hear these same words uttered when our principal, 35 minutes late to one of these morning staff meetings, walked in excusing herself because the train on Ashland was blocking her way (said train was non-existent according to a co-worker who took the same route to school on a daily basis). Did she give herself a mulligan? How many mulligans did she have? And has her bonus ever taken that $1000 hit when you reach 5 or more? These were all questions I asked myself, but I had a feeling that the answer was “No.” It was this lack of consistency and this lack of accountability for those in charge that made me wonder: “Is this what education is supposed to be like?” Again, I knew the answer. But it was not until I saw my principal lay hands on a student in the middle of a crowded hallway, that I allowed myself to believe it. Bernice (name changed to protect actual student’s identity) had just stormed into the hallway because the office had run out of belts to give to students. For the past 3 days, she had made it to class, was engaged, and managed to complete the homework for some of her classes. This was a huge deal for her. Bernice was a student who received special services for, among other things, an emotional/behavior disorder. Because of her disability, she had a very difficult time making it through a class period and thus, she rarely completed her homework and her grades, which are everything at Noble, suffered. The fact that she was on a roll had improved her spirits and her coping skills were being utilized more frequently. However, because Bernice came to school without a belt that day (the fact that she also suffered from a mild-cognitive disorder caused occasional memory loss) forced her teacher to kick her out of class. She was fuming and quickly losing hope but it was not unlike what her social worker, and her teachers (myself included) had seen before. Bernice simply needed an ear to listen to her and perhaps a shoulder to cry on. What she got instead was a firm grasp to the elbow as she was whipped around by the principal. The principal saw Bernice storm out of the office and felt disrespected when her question: “What’s wrong with you?” didn’t receive a response from Bernice. Bernice immediately shook the principal off, screamed “GET THE F*** OFF ME!” and proceeded to dart down the hallway, away from her aggressor. As the social workers chased after her, I reflected on how that action, simply putting hands on a student (something that we had been warned could be grounds for termination), could have easily been avoided, had the principal ever bothered to look Bernice’s Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP) which read, in big, bold, red letters: DO NOT TOUCH THIS STUDENT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. My suspicions were confirmed: this was not the best place for our students, especially those with diverse needs.

In addition to these and other failures, I witnessed our students’ needs continually go unmet due to the sheer size of our caseloads and the ever-increasing number of responsibilities we had to fulfill as teachers. I overheard my administration say that “things are gonna get so much easier now” after students were suspended and expelled following Manifestation Determination meetings and expulsion hearings at which I, their case manager for 2 years, was not invited (when I inquired as to why this had occurred, I was told “We thought you’d defend them too much because you knew them too well” as if advocating for my students were not my job). I went through the full range of emotions during my tenure at HCP. I know that I was not alone however. During my short time there, I saw at least 8 teachers leave in the middle of the school year and many, many more leave before the start of the school year. Can I blame them? Absolutely not. It’s a vicious cycle: the work is unsustainable, so teachers leave, making the job more unsustainable, which results in a shortage of people who want to apply.

I began this letter acknowledging the guilt I felt for leaving my post of two years. I end it with a feeling of agitation and resolve. I am sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that things will not change at this school and within this network if we, the teachers and staff, don’t decide that our expertise needs to be honored. We are responsible for many of our students’ successes. These stem from our classrooms and from our daily interactions with them. As educators, we need a voice. And while some may argue that we already have one, we need that voice to be listened to, supported, and valued; not because of one’s close personal relationship with the principal or Deans of Instruction, but because we as teachers know our students, we know our classrooms, and we know what is and is not working. I know that this is exactly what the Union of Noble Educators is fighting for, and what it will bring throughout the Noble network. I’ve often pondered whether or not I’d return to the classroom. I am still unsure. But, I am sure of one thing: I don’t hate my old principal. I know now that, despite everything, she too was a victim of a system that undervalues and seeks to make martyrs of teachers who then leave after a year or two. They abandon their students who are then left wondering why the few adults who they thought cared about them, leave. She too was a victim of that cycle, although I’m sure a $50,000 bonus has the ability to make one feel a tiny bit better. Truth be told, I don’t know if I’ll ever set foot inside a classroom again as a teacher. What I do know, is that I will never want to enter another school without a union. 20171015_135050

Why I left Noble Network

I arrived at Noble with 6 years of education experience. A friend suggested I apply to a new Noble campus. The principal’s vision included considering the needs of the neighborhood we served. Professional development was built into the weekly schedule and there was space for teachers to collaborate. The community-mindedness, collaboration, and professional development space made me feel that Noble was a best fit.

Three years later I was unable to fulfill the commitment I’d made to mentor my advisory from freshman year through graduation. I asked myself the question: Can I remain a 4th year? The answer? No. There are too many methods that I feel fundamentally at odds with.

The entirety of my three years at Noble, I was challenged by the discipline system; it did not include teacher voice. In my last year, the Network decided teachers will no longer issue warnings. The first time kids exhibit inappropriate behavior, a demerit is issued, not a warning. The decision was made about two weeks into the school year after teachers had set culture. We were expected to comply immediately. Teachers had to re-do the work of culture building. Teachers had to break students’ trust, re-establish systems, and learning time was lost.

The discipline system is not culturally responsive to the race or age of our students. At my campus we incessantly talked about hair policies. I’ve read many an article about the disdainful manner in which the hair of students of color is treated in schools. My experience at Noble exemplified that. The policy is that students can have one, straight-line part. The result was that many of our African-American boys were often out of class. Teachers were instructed to use an eyeliner pencil to fill in “inappropriate parts”. More than one part or curved parts were considered unprofessional or distracting. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never had a student say they were distracted because of another student’s hair. I’ve seen students learn when students had multi-colored hair. Children SHOULD learn to be professional via meaningful professional opportunities AND they should be allowed to develop their identity even if that includes wild hair styles and wacky parts. By virtue of their age, exploration of their appearance is a natural part of their maturation process.

A strong discipline policy sets the stage for learning; It does not require arbitrary compliance. Teachers most often utilize the discipline policies; they’re perspective matters. Kids should be allowed to express themselves; they are children, not professionals and policies should not have racial dimensions to them.

I’ve detailed just a few of the issues that made working at Noble untenable. The competitive versus collaborative nature of testing, the use of test scores as the only measure of teachers’ or students’ success, and the inequalities in funding and success across campuses along racial lines were also burdens I bore. These are some ofthe challenges that made a 4th year feel impossible.

As a former founding teacher at DRW College Prep, I support those of you undertaking this effort to unionize at Noble. It takes a village to raise a child. Teachers and staff are vital members of that village and should be formally recognized as having unique insight into what it takes to raise the child to be the very best that they can be. A union is the formal recognition that the staff are invaluable members of the village deserving of protection, representation within Noble, a voice, and able to bring nuanced and unique wisdom to Noble as an organization. If I had a voice and a union at Noble, I believe that my 4th year wouldn’t have felt impossible and I would still be there.

Amethyst E. Phillips

Bio: Amethyst Phillips was the founding Chemistry teacher at DRW college prep. She taught in that role for three years and also coached the school’s cheerleading team. In her last year at DRW, she served as the science department head and was the advisor for a student-led book club. Prior to coming to DRW Amethyst worked as Manager of Teacher Leadership Development at Teach For America, taught for three years at Uplift Community High School in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and for two years at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoor, Illinois.Amethyst Phillips-DRW-Former