Shannon Hernandez was a superb teacher. She remains a "big dreamer, an out-of-the-box thinker, a change agent" and, above all, she remains true to the now heretical principle that our job is to "teach students, not subjects." But, like so many other teachers, Hernandez found that test-driven reform was "sucking my soul dry and depriving me of personal and professional happiness."
Hernandez's Breaking the Silence recounts her last 40 days in the New York City classroom -- "the good, the bad, and the utterly inexplicable."
Hernandez, like most if not all great teachers, knows how to "let go" and respect "the flow of student energy" during class instruction. This allows for an exceptional class discussion prompted by a lesson on Elie Weisel, and how he rose above the Holocaust to forgiveness. The resulting class discussion reveals the pain inflicted upon her students and their mixed feelings about forgiveness. This foreshadows the final assault on Hernandez, and how she will deal with it.
But, also foreshadowing the climactic end of an outstanding career is another petty indignity of the type that systems have always dumped on teachers, but that have become ubiquitous during this era of "reform." New York honors out of state teaching licenses but ostensibly because Hernandez is now teaching a different subject, she has to re-earn her tenure. Of course, if reformers understood that educators teach the student, not the subject, there would be no rationale for that policy. But, undoubtedly, the system was simply doing what it is supposed to do; it asserted additional control over teachers, not losing an opportunity to make them jump through more and more hoops.
Then, Hernandez learned that she was under investigation for potentially career-ending misconduct. Her principal first lied about the source of the charges that, actually, he had filed. A hearing officer -- the type of person that reformers often say is too soft on teachers and too slow in firing them -- conducted a lengthy investigation, tracking down the student witnesses and their families for close to a year. The hearing officer finally says, "Ms. Hernandez, not one student or their family would speak against you. Time and again, each one said, 'Leave her alone. She's the best teacher I ever had.'"
Shannon Hernandez's crime was that she participated in a group hug with students who had just finished the ELA exams.
Of course, the plaintiffs in Vergara v California, and Campbell Brown's copycat lawsuit in New York, want to undermine teachers' ability to defend themselves and their students. By using corporate money to misuse the courts in a campaign against tenure and due process, reformers would also undercut teachers' ability to defend our students against the "scripted, test-heavy and inauthentic" curriculum which is driving the joy out of teaching and learning.
Predictably, the first to be targeted in an age of reform are veteran teachers who have learned to prioritize, "let some things slide" and live "in the moment." These teachers support students who "are sick of being classroom lab rats who are tested every other month in every class so baseline scores can be established, knowledge gains and losses charted, and pilot tests revised once again." Superb teachers like Hernandez teach students to better "understand the world inside them," and be "better prepared to live in the world around them."
And that brings us back to the discussion on forgiveness and whether Hernandez would be able to forgive the administrator and the system. The issue evolves, and the bigger question becomes how Hernandez can best serve her students and profession in her last daysas a teacher. She refuses to be a victim of the institutionalized bullying of teachers, and breaks the silence about it.
In her final faculty meetings, Hernandez again witnesses the disrespect and indignities that are increasingly being dumped on teachers. She hears the anger of colleagues subject to disgusting new value-added evaluations. A screaming match occurs after a physical education teacher protests against being evaluated on reading scores. A science teacher complains about her rating being based on a test which measures cumulative knowledge gained by students from 4th to 8th grade. As tempers flare, Hernandez realizes that she is "witnessing the anger and frustration of my colleagues -- a microcosm of the national climate around education." She is brought to tears.
As Hernandez reveals to her colleagues the way that her principal brought false charges against her, she learns that other teachers have been subject to bogus misconduct charges. Having repeatedly seen the same dynamic, I can understand why Hernandez could or could not forgive the transgression of the individual administrator. It is the system that I find hardest to forgive.
On second thought, I find it easier to forgive persons in systems that have long exhibited destructive cultures of compliance and retribution than I do reformers who are making those systems worse. Reformers protest that they did not intend to start a war against teachers. But, they have. Had the accountability hawks taken some time to learn about the way school systems function, they would have understood why their data-driven experiments would misfire so disastrously. Fortunately, Shannon Hernandez now has a new platform for defending our embattled profession.