Monthly Archives: December 2012

Urban Education Leader Avoids Modern Administrative Role

Anne Prendergast is a rising star within the ranks of the Chicago Public Schools system. Her ability to engage some of the toughest and most alienated kids in the whole of the U.S. has left Prendergast with the world at her feet. The option to become a principal and run a whole school with her singular vision is right at her fingertips.

But, Prendergast has sidestepped that option and instead chosen to become a Spanish teacher at Westinghouse High School on Chicago’s northwest side. Even though Westinghouse is a selective high school, many would argue that Prendergast, a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, should have gone for a bigger job.

Unfortunately, Prendergast saw the work lives of principals revolving around three very distinct spheres.

“Having to deal with low student attendance, things like students not coming to their school. Lack of parent involvement, trying to think constantly about how to get parents involved, and spending lots of time in the office dealing with budgetary issues.”

The time spent on site was also a concern for Prendergast, “Our school day is from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and I think the principal is there from 7:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. If a regular job is nine-to-five, then it’s definitely longer than that.”

Being stuck inside the office dealing with financial headaches appeared to hold no allure for Prendergast. And why would it? Scrabbling around for donation dollars to make up for budgetary shortfalls is both time consuming and tiring, and within Chicago Public Schools, is left solely to the administration team.

And even then, when the money is in the coffers, mistakes are still made at an administrative level that end up putting the school in a bad position.

“Because there’s so much on a principal’s plate, they’re missing deadlines and time-sensitive grant money has run out and we haven’t spent it yet. That money then gets reabsorbed into some sort of general fund and it’s gone for the rest of the financial year,” said Prendergast.

“I think the other issue is that you have to be really clever about the way that you spend it. I remember Ms. Gurley at Michele Clark High School put teachers in administrative roles, but kept paying them as teachers, because you only get a certain amount of administrator funding. She would be like, ‘I’ll have one less security guard, and I’ll take that money and put it into a teacher fund, and then I’ll call that teacher an administrator,’ you know, you really have to be clever. So, it’s an issue of being smart on both sides. You have to be educationally clever, but you also do need to understand money to some extent.”

Often, this dual job role is beyond the ability of many of the nation’s principals who thought they were just progressing from their role as an educator. In Chicago things are no different.

“I’ve seen a lot of schools that are now shifting their funding to include a business manager, because their principal can’t do it. I think the principal’s realize that, so then they have to find the funds to pay for the business manager. It’s just become such a big part of the job,” said Prendergast.

Prendergast and her partner had even discussed the possibility of her going for an administrator’s license within Chicago Public Schools, but had eventually decided against it.

“All they do is manage angry parents and deal with budgets. Assistant principals are being made to do what principals used to do, and principals just spend every day in crisis-management mode.”

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved


Government Encroachment and Money Management: America’s Principals Under Pressure

The workload is seemingly endless. The pressure only ever seems to increase. Business models have replaced the pure joy that the vocation used to reward people with. The life of the school principal in modern U.S. teaching has changed drastically over a generation. Not so much that it would be unrecognizable, but enough to start sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of teachers looking for the next rung on their promotion ladder.

“The number one problem that I encounter on a daily basis is the management of the building,” said Penny Stires, principal of Boltz Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Making sure that I have a sub there, if someone is absent, making sure that I have a plan to get that covered. Lunch duty, if teachers are absent you have to make sure that you have it covered.”

Once the kids and teachers are covered, the daily routine begins to heat up in the office.

“Just the flow of the office, making sure parents are tended to in a timely fashion. One of my main responsibilities is answering calls to parents, dealing with their concerns about something that happened in the classroom, or some other problem with their kid that they want to get addressed right away,” said Stiers.

These things manage to fill up 50-55 hours a week of Stires’ time, an average amount according to many principals, but the specter of progress is never far away. And with progress comes extra work. The Colorado Department of Education is always on hand to heap on some extra initiatives for Stires to deal with.

“There are way too many initiatives. There are too many to realistically, and effectively address, way too many. That leaves me attempting to balance the needs and wants of the state, the needs and wants of the district, and the things that I know to be true within the building,” said Stires.

Stires also wondered how the introduction of Colorado SB10-191 was going to affect her workload. The Great Teachers and Leaders Bill as it is also known, has, according to the Colorado Government website, been introduced to deal with an unwanted side effect from teacher tenure. In some cases, teachers gained tenure and then let their standards slip. The website promotes the bill as a way to, “Emphasize that a system to evaluate the effectiveness of licensed personnel is crucial to improving the quality of education in Colorado.”

Stires just saw it as more work, “Every teacher in your building, all over the state, will have to be evaluated every year. That is huge. I like the accountability part of it, but like I said, this is huge.”

Then of course there is the financial aspect to the business of education. The Colorado Department of Education recently announced the per child budget for all of its districts for 2012-13. With some help from the School Finance Act, further swingeing cuts aren’t expected across the board, but the funding will most likely stagnate at 2011-12 levels. 2012 was the lowest dollar amount for state funding of education since 2006. For Stires, the reality was that she was going to receive $1.66 less per student than last year’s under-funded amount.

Stires understood well the financial component to her job, but she had one thing many principals at present don’t. Somebody who understands money better than her to look over the books.

“We have a book keeper and I told her that ‘no class that I took in my undergrad or grad school for education prepared me for managing a $3 million budget.’ We are extremely fortunate here at Poudre School District to have a book keeper and an office manager, who are both trained in the systems that we use for budgeting.”

Even with this sort of professional help, the workload was still enormous.

“We have to get that budget stuff done, this is why we end up working 55 hours a week. If you compromise and do the budget stuff during the day, you’re not going to be an instructional leader. That’s why all the financial stuff waits until after the daily educational duties have been performed. I spend so much time writing grants, something I’d never done before. It’s all about the money and enrollment,” said Stires.

At the other end of the spectrum, the job of preparing graduates to become some of the nations principals falls to people like Donna Cooner at Colorado State University’s STEPP program. Cooner spearheads an instructional team that does its best to ready the participants for  a workload more befitting a politician than an educator.

Cooner reeled of a list of problems that the new principal will run into; the external pressure for student achievement scores, the political environment that education is viewed in, the challenge of the students and the building, and ultimately the stress of how much of your own personal time it will take to run the school.

Cooner, like Stires, also saw the looming cloud of EduBusiness on the horizon.

“Buildings have become more autonomous with their budgets. They are becoming like little businesses where they have to recruit students to their campus in order to get the per student dollar allocation from the state or local government.”

“They have to advertise, they have to figure out what their angle is, they have to figure out what their pitch is going to be for the public. They have to be savvy in things such as PR, and they have to figure out how they are going to be different from the identical school down the block.”

Schools that don’t get with the program quick enough soon find themselves dipping in enrollment, beginning a helter skelter ride to the unfunny house of budget shortfall.

“Principals are expected to know their school-based budgets, and to be able to recruit and publicize in order to bring in new students. It’s a different ball of wax to what it was in the past, you’re expected to do everything,” laughed Cooner.

Cooner also agreed that the endless push for new government initiatives was having a detrimental effect on the day-to-day running of schools.

“It is a concern. When there is grant moneys that come in, it is often tied to purchases that are made for a new program, a new curriculum, new books, and then in five years some new thing comes down and all of it is done away with again. Then consultants come in and that costs money. It’s difficult. The resource issue is huge, it’s back to the budget. But, there’s no training. There’s not even a budget course required in their administrative training.”

“There’s nothing about how to maintain resources over time, long-term planning, strategic planning for budgets. It’s just not something that people are getting trained in,” said Cooner.

Cooner admitted that the program at CSU still doesn’t cater to this financial aspect of administrative training. But, she was upbeat about the exposure STEPP graduates were getting that allowed them to see how much of a money manager they were going to have to be.

“The best way we do it is through their internships. They shadow principals and the see the levels of stress involved before they go into it. They spend all of their internship hours shadowing, and I think that’s the best way for them to get a feel for the job. There isn’t a course in finance that’s required right now, but with new standards from the state there may be in the future,” said Cooner.

Whatever the future holds for Colorado education, one thing appears to be sure. As money for education funding dwindles, it will fall more and more onto the shoulders of already overworked school administrative staff to get creative with budgets. At what cost to the quality of education provided remains to be seen.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Early Starts and Broken Hearts: The Terrible Saga of the Chicago Chelsea Supporters Club

There are certain aromas, that when encountered, evoke strong feelings and associations in the person who inhales them.  To some men, the slightest waft of a fragile, delicate perfume enlivens the senses. Wafts of baking bread brings forth long forgotten neural connections of safety, well-being and parental love.  Napalm, as Robert Duvall’s character Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore enlightened us, “smelled like victory.”

So it is with The Globe.  This hole-in-the-wall type bar, which at one point before the expansive renovations you could barely see into (it was like looking into the singularity of a black hole, you could make out furtive movements and nothing else), has become a light, airy Mecca for followers of the beautiful game in Chicago and beyond.

My irregular weekend pilgrimages to this Midwestern home of football, will now always be associated with the smell of a bar at opening time.  The particularly heady fragrance of a combination of cleaning fluids, old beer, and before the ban, stale cigarette smoke, would be considered anathema by many; but to myself and others, it is the aromatic primer that precedes a morning of shenanigans.

Due to the time difference, watching the EPL in the U.S. is a labor of love.  It involves forsaking all others, committing to the game and friends alike and usually the abandonment of all other activities for the day that don’t involve the word ‘pint.’  The early games are, on the face of it, screened live at an extremely inconvenient time.  But what else as a supporter are you supposed to do? Sit at home like Billy-no-mates? Or drag your carcass up to The Globe and make a day of it?  If you had to think about that dilemma, give yourself a slap.

I have found myself at The Globe with the other handful of Chelsea supporters, jostling for position, eschewing coffee and breakfast sandwiches and going straight for the golden Carlsberg jugular at some ungodly hour of the morning.  We have sang, we have heckled and we have directed some good natured abuse at fans from just about every other team in the EPL for what seemed like a lot longer than the regulation ninety minutes.  Our fan club has been dwarfed by the traveling circuses that are the Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal supporter’s clubs.  On occasions we’ve all been in The Globe together at the same time (you show me anywhere in England that can boast that), but our small, flag bearing group has always stood its ground.

We’ve experienced soaring highs together, like the 2007 F.A. Cup Final victory against Manchester United; and we’ve suffered catatonic despair inducing defeats together, like the ignominious end to the 2008 European Cup Final against the Red Devils yet again.

We’ve wound people up and conversely suffered at the hands of the wind-up merchants, but we’ve always walked out of The Globe into that harsh sunlight with our heads held high.  As I’ve wobbled off down Irving Park Road, past the normal people out with their kids and dogs getting a coffee and a paper, I’ve always thought I detected a little bit of envy in their eyes.  Could they possibly be envious of our motley crew? We have somewhere to go, people to meet and claims to be staked. We have the EPL and The Globe, and they don’t.

(A version of this essay appeared in The Globe, published by Dark Lark Press LLC on May 15, 2010.)

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Saving Face in Vientiane

On what must have been my third attempt at pronouncing ‘post office’ in Thai, a smile of recognition started to creep across the tanned, craggy face of my Tuk-Tuk driver. “Ah, Prai Sa Ni,” he sang back as I hopped into his already spluttering three-wheeled taxi. With a burbling roar we headed off towards town, away from the Thai Embassy in Vientiane, Laos. The heat that morning was of the heavy-duty Southeast Asian variety: oppressive, relentless and humorless. My black suit and the Tuk-Tuk’s pleather seats only added to the feeling of being roasted alive.

As we bounced down the road in the general direction of the Mekong, I attempted to reiterate where I wanted to go, but my two years of living in Thailand had done nothing to improve my ability to form even the most basic of phrases correctly. I could string sentences together, but the dreaded tonal system would often get the better of me.

Thai and Lao are similar languages, and I thought I would at least be able to make myself understood. But here, as in Thailand, I still sounded like I was on the verge of having a stroke. A backward waved hand from the cockpit of the Tuk-Tuk partially assuaged my fear. I held on to my documents, made the best of a rapidly deteriorating situation and pictured myself drinking a cold beer a couple of hours later.

As with most horrendous episodes in far-flung countries, it had all started so differently the night before. I had taken the overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Udonthani, a largely uneventful trip punctuated by fitful sleep and occasionally erratic driving (I had learned a long time before this to never sit in the front seats, the fear factor when overtaking on blind corners was just too much, notwithstanding the religious paraphernalia in the windows).

My reverie didn’t last. The closer I got to Laos, the more my problems manifested themselves. There were no direct buses from Udonthani to Vientiane back then, or at least I never found one. Upon arriving at the deserted bus station I looked around for some way to get to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. There was nothing apart from the sounds of Thailand stirring to life at dawn.

Of course, it wasn’t long before one of the ubiquitous Tuk-Tuks turned up and took me to the bridge, my gateway to Laos. It was a bit of a shocker to find it closed when I arrived. Apparently, I had arrived too early; there were no immigration officers available. I sat down on my bag, had a cigarette and waited.

Eventually, the officials took up their positions in the tiny little glass houses dotted across the road and I began my journey into Laos. A minibus carted me to the other side as no foot traffic was allowed, and then I jumped into a car that appeared to have come from far Beyond Thunderdome.

Almost an hour later, and several hundred baht lighter, I arrived at my destination, the Thai Embassy in Vientiane. In my rumpled suit, I joined the throng of people queuing up outside the giant front gate.

There was the usual sprinkling of Thai women and their Western partners, Lao nationals looking to get some form of ID or permit that would allow them to work in Thailand, and a smattering of English teachers, of which I was one.

As the gates opened everybody swarmed forward, and I grabbed a number to designate my position in the queue. Then we waited under a diaphanous canopy, in rows of horrendous plastic seats.

This is what traveling in Southeast Asia is really all about. There are flurries of activity, missed connections, scandalous unforeseen bills, intolerable sweating and the like, followed by times where you are just told to sit still and be quiet. The heat of Asia can soon turn the mildest person into a raving lunatic. It’s post-pill popping Neo, Matrix-like, liquid mirror cloying. That’s how intense the heat can be; your brain locks up, all of your coping mechanisms fail and you turn into someone else altogether.

After a period of profuse sweating the embassy doors opened and I trotted in, ready to get this over with so I could get on with having an ice-cold beer. I was there to change my tourist visa over to a 90-day visa, which would allow me to apply for a work permit when I got back to Thailand. I could almost taste the Beerlao.

The air inside was nice and cool; fevered faces regained composure, shirts became unstuck from bodies and a sense of decorum and goodwill permeated the atmosphere. We were all in this thing together! Knowing laughs and nods were exchanged amongst complete strangers as we sat and waited our turn to go to the wooden counter.

Before I knew it, I was standing at the wooden gateway to my new life, proffering the giant bundle of paperwork that both my employer and I had spent the previous two weeks diligently putting together.

I have never understood the reasons for what happened next. Could it have been my slightly over-eager smile? I wasn’t being particularly garrulous that morning either (I knew better than to be overfriendly in an embassy). Maybe it was my ruffled suit? Had hobo chic not made it this far into Southeast Asia? Could it be the dreaded ‘immigration official that has had a bad breakfast’ syndrome that was only spoken about in whispers in Thailand?

Only the demure, but stern, Thai immigration official really knows why she picked up my paperwork, and after only the most cursory of glances handed it back to me and said in English, “Your paperwork is not in order.”

I felt like I had been kicked in the groin. A hiccup like this was really bad news, as I traveled on something less than a shoestring budget. I wanted to scream, but I knew deep down that she wanted me to scream as well. In that split second, I saw what this was all about. It was a test. It was a battle between just her and I. Would I crumple like my suit? Or would I show her what I was made of?

Time was of the essence. I had only two hours to figure out what it was that she wanted before the embassy’s visa section shut for the day at 11 a.m. After that I would be out of luck, money, options, and possibly my full-time job offer.

Holding my voice as steady as I could, I asked her what the problem was. What did I need to do to remedy the situation? Steely-eyed, the immigration official explained my whole predicament to me, in Thai. What a worthy adversary she was.

At that point in my life I was just about able to handle ordering some food and drink in Thai, not engage in a formal conversation about Thai visa rules. Time appeared to stand still and the air hung heavy between us. The slightest crack in my composure would signal the end of my application. She leveled her gaze at me once more and said, “You don’t have an employment contract.”

The moment the words left her lips, my mind spun into action. I needed a phone! I needed to speak to my boss! Of course, my Thai mobile phone coverage stopped at the banks of the Mekong. It took about 30 seconds for me to remember how to say post office in Thai as I sprinted down the steps outside the embassy and into the street.

As it turned out, my trusty Tuk-Tuk driver really had no idea of where it was I wanted to go. In what was either a genuine mistake, or something plotted along with the woman at the embassy, he dropped me at a building that probably housed, given hindsight, the Laotian secret police. The next 20 minutes of my life were somewhat uncomfortable.

All of my documents were taken from me, including my passport, and I was interrogated in a room by two serious-looking men. By this point I had given up trying to explain the whole Prai Sa Ni thing and I just threw myself upon their mercy. In the end they decided that no spy in the world would be so fucking dense as to rock up at the headquarters of the secret police carrying a British passport and Thai paperwork. I was promptly thrown back out into the street. My driver was nowhere to be seen.

The next driver did know where the post office was; disheveled and unnerved I made it there an hour before 11 a.m. I forced my way into a phone booth and called my boss. The conversation was neither reassuring nor cheap.

“Tan, it’s Jamie. They have refused my paperwork! They say I need a employment contract!”

“What? What are you talking about? You can’t have one of those until you get your 90-day visa.”

I was in a dreaded Catch-22 situation, a terrible place to be in the world of Thai bureaucracy. My heart sank further. I poured my precious beer money into the phone and tried to get a handle on what was happening.

“What am I going to do Tan? I don’t have a lot of money, I can’t afford to stay here longer to sort this out. I only have enough for accommodation for tonight.”

“Well Khun Jamie, I think you need to go back to the embassy and tell her that you are right and she is wrong.”

This was the last thing I wanted to hear. I was now going to become the proxy in a battle of wills over paperwork. By now I had burnt through all of my Beerlao money and I was eating into emergency accommodation funding.

Sensing that I was on the verge of a full-on mental breakdown, Tan took control of the situation.

“Go back to the embassy. I shall call them and straighten it out.”

“Are you sure Tan? What are you going to be able to do? What should I do if I…” Click. Money gone. It was Squeaky bum time.

Flustered and bedraggled I staggered back out of the post office. I was caked in dirt and sweat, and my shirt looked like it had been used to wipe down furniture. It was now or never. I flagged down another ride and climbed in. Back to the embassy I went.

That Tuk-Tuk ride was a long one. My whole dream of living in Thailand permanently hinged on getting that work visa. It looked like a blue passport and it was as rare as rocking horse shit to get one through a non-state school. It would allow me to do away with the soul-destroying monthly border runs to Burma. It would enable me to live as a regular person and be a professional, productive member of society; not just some slack-jawed tourist. It would exempt me from whatever confusing government edict had been issued that particular week for foreigners. All of that slid slowly out of view as I sat in the back of my puttering ride.

With the last ounce of decorum I possessed I got out of the Tuk-Tuk, patted myself down, straightened my tie and walked into the embassy. I passed all the laughing and smiling people whose days had gone according to plan. I strode with purpose up to the counter, not having to wait because almost everyone had been seen. I placed my identical pile of paperwork on the counter and stared around in the manner of a person who expected to be dealt with.

My nemesis approached from the rear of the office. Again the paperwork was glanced at.

“Your paperwork is not in order,” she intoned from the other side of the counter.

An aging, blond-haired surfer traveling with his Thai wife gawped from the seats in my peripheral vision. I took a deep breath, looked her straight in eyes and mastered my own destiny.

“I would like to speak to your boss. They have received a call about me, they just haven’t told you about it yet.”

The remaining people in the room fell silent. All eyes swiveled around onto the two of us. This was it. The immigration lady stood impassive, I searched her face for some sign that I had gotten through. None was there. I repeated my request, this time a little louder.

Without a word she pivoted on her heel and was gone. I stared at the clock as my time prepared to run out. Tears of frustration welled in my eyes. I wouldn’t go and sit back down. Everything was falling apart. I had the stupid fixed grin of a beaten man.

A different lady returned from an unseen room. She walked up to the counter, stamped my paperwork and told me to return the following afternoon to pick up my visa; Moments later she was gone.

I drank free beer that night with a crowd from a hostel, good people who wanted to help after they’d heard about my plight. The outdoor bars in downtown Vientiane throbbed with people. I soothed my blistered brain by the banks of the Mekong and prepared for whatever Southeast Asia would throw up next.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Ryan Barrios: Future Poudre Educator

Ryan BarriosEven with all of the problems that modern teachers face on a daily basis, plenty of undergraduate and graduate students are leaving institutions set on becoming the next generation of educators.

Ryan Barrios, 31, aims to be teaching History in Poudre School District when he graduates, and is genuinely excited by his prospects and some of the teaching concepts he has learned.

“They are talking about how a lot of students, when they’re younger, they’re not literate as in speaking or writing English, but they’re able to understand what they read.”

“With New Literacies some kids are computer literate, but they can’t read a book. Then you throw them on a computer and they can surf the web and they’re technologically advanced.”

Of course the main problem is that the school has to provide the technological equipment that would enable you to develop and utilize the “New Literacies” concept. But, this possible hiccup hasn’t dimmed Barrios’ desire to effect change in the classroom.

“I think the program at CSU is really good. Some of the classes that they are teaching, like the neuroscience class, I mean learning literacy through learning how the brain functions, a lot of schools don’t teach that.”

“The programs here, they give you new information that hasn’t been used in the past. So, when we get in we’ll know it as schools are trying to implement it. So, it won’t be like you’re trying to learn it on the job, we’ll already be trained for that.”

Barrios would prefer to be located somewhere within the Poudre School District, but he understood that it might not be possible.

“I hear that they do really good things, and obviously they are centered on the students.”

The problem with other districts was obvious to Barrios, “Students just aren’t that important.”

Barrios was also concerned with the possible effect of having multiple mother tongues spoken in the classroom.

“I don’t feel I’m well prepared for that situation. I also think that it gets really tough now, because in the past in Colorado it was Spanish. You had ELL & ESL students, so you had to learn Spanish to teach. But now you’re getting students from Asia and Africa, from all over the place and they don’t speak Spanish,” laughed Barrios.

“So how can they require a language in school for teachers, when they have no idea what languages your students are going to speak? It’s really tough, and it’s something I think about all the time.”

It appears that Barrios’ fears aren’t completely unfounded either. The most recent data available on the Poudre School District website states that there are a total of 73 native languages spoken in PSD schools.

Ultimately, Barrios’ excitement for his prospective career was winning the day, “The way that they are training us to teach, it won’t be the same as when we were kids.”

“It won’t be based around the style of rote teaching. It’ll be based around a lot of open dialogue, students learning through experiences, relating things together.”

Barrios felt that had this style of teaching been available when he was in high school, then his own participation level might have been higher.

“I think it would help to keep more students interested, not just keep bombarding them with facts. It helps them to understand and relate to the material.”

“I’m really looking forward to teaching that way.”

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Modern Classroom Stress Hastens Teacher Exodus

Olivia ChristopherOlivia Christopher sits nervously in her chair, glancing at the clock on the wall. The seconds are ticking away quickly and the butterflies in her stomach are reaching a crescendo.

The bell goes, the door flies open, and a wave of middle school students pour through the door. The classroom is buzzing with excitement as the students lay eyes on Señora Christopher for the first time.

In the Spanish that she learnt at San Diego State University and during a semester abroad in Spain, Christopher introduces herself and lays out the details of the semester’s curriculum. The smiling faces of the students make all the years of hard work seem worthwhile. She hands out the day’s worksheets and begins her career as a Chicago Public Schools Spanish language teacher.

In the weeks and years that come, Señora Christopher will be threatened, harassed, and intimidated. She will be reduced to tears at home, question the point of her vocation, and often feel totally alone. The one thing that she will not do is quit. That determination to stay in her job puts Christopher in an almost elite category; she will survive her first five years in teaching without walking out of the door for good. Almost fifty percent of teachers in the United States aren’t strong enough to do it. So where is it all going wrong?

“Teachers don’t get the opportunities that they need, and the experience that they need before they are thrown into the classroom. Three months of student teaching just isn’t enough.”

And that in Christopher’s opinion was just the beginning of the problems.

“Administration would hire you and expect you to develop curriculum and deal with classroom management. When I asked about the mentor program they said they didn’t have the staff or the money to run it.”

Money is often taken away from teacher support and affects vulnerable teachers acutely.

“It seems to be the first thing that goes, the support system. Management thinks that all the money should go to the students.”

A quick look at the budget of Longmont’s Twin Peaks Charter Academy where Christopher works shows the inadequate funding dedicated to professional development. Out of a net operating budget of almost $6.5 million, a total of $13,000 is set aside to share among almost 50 teachers.

The cold, stark reality that three months of unpaid student teaching has done little to prepare the new educator usually precipitates the first big weeding out of the new employees. Romanticism and mystique are first up on the chopping block.

As a former Chicago Teaching Fellow and new teacher mentor, Christopher has seen many new recruits come and go.

“I think that some teachers come in and think that they are going to change the world. Then they have their first day and their first experience of a student being disrespectful. No one has an idea of how challenging urban districts can be, unless of course you grew up in one.”

Fiscal pressure can also have a big effect. In Colorado, where Christopher now teaches, wages are notoriously low.

“Most of the teachers in Colorado are from here and they don’t know anything different. It appears to be normal here for teachers to have a second job, and to not have money. No one seems to be bothered that they have a master’s degree and they’re not making more than forty thousand. To me, it’s demeaning.”

Dwindling resources, endless professional development initiatives, and a chronically heavy workload all take a toll on the new teacher.

“At public school I had 180 students, so if you figure that every day a kid is turning in an assignment that needs to get graded, on top of creating curriculum, on top of creating exams, on top of doing administrative duties that the school wants you to do, it’s all too much.”

Throw in the almost forced unpaid attendance after classes finish in Colorado and you have the makings of a perfect storm of despair.

“They want you to be part of every committee that comes up, they want you to coach, but they don’t want to pay you for it. Administration makes you feel a little bit guilty if you aren’t staying, you kind of get a look from your principal that says, ‘you’re leaving already?’”

Donna CoonerThe job of orientating new teachers falls to people like Donna Cooner. Cooner is the director of Colorado State University’s School of Teacher Education and Principal Preparation, or STEPP for short.

Cooner is well aware of the pitfalls that destroy the dreams of educators and does her best to get the new recruits ready.

Seated in her office, beneath her framed doctorate in education, Cooner ruminated on the attrition problem and the ways that her department is trying to deal with it.

“We’re are in an age where students are driving instruction, instead of teachers driving instruction. If you are looking at why people are leaving the profession, it could possibly be that they don’t match that style. They had in their mind that they were going to be the lecturer, the boss.”

Cooner had also suffered what she considered to be one of the main problems that new teachers all across the U.S. face.

“Isolation is one of the key factors that teachers bring up when they talk about why they leave the classroom. There’s no support for a mentoring, co-teaching model for the first couple of years. But, part of what we do at STEPP is that we prepare them in a community, this helps teachers go into it with their eyes open.”

Cooner also considered her role in thinning the herd of prospective teachers to be especially important.

“Our goal is to weed out the ones that really shouldn’t be there. I always say that if I can talk you out of it, then I will. I think we all enter teaching for certain altruistic motives, but I think there also has to be a determination.”

The high attrition rate is also creating another problem, the loss of quality educators that would theoretically have ended up becoming principals of schools.

“Teachers are looking at the job of principal and saying, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ It is important because if we look at the whole education system we can see deficiencies in several places.”

However, Cooner doesn’t see pay as being as big an issue as Olivia Christopher saw it.

“I don’t think pay is the big reason why teachers are leaving. I think the problem with expectation is the biggest part of it.”

Unfortunately, accurate and unbiased poll data reflecting Cooner’s statement is practically nonexistent.

The constant pressure of being judged and juggling multiple competing job roles also leaves teachers confused and tired.

“I think teachers are saying that you’re requiring me to do more and more. I think that they just feel overwhelmingly that the job is just not worth it. It’s the main reason why teachers are searching out new careers.”

Putting a finger on a single reason for teachers leaving the profession in droves is impossible. Multiple factors conspire together to leave educators shell-shocked and despondent. Even worse is the thought that career progression only leads to more of the same. Thankfully, many people are still answering the call and trying their hands at guiding the next generation. STEPP program students like Ryan Barrios look forward to the challenge.

“I’m excited, the program here is really good. I’m excited about all of it. I’m really looking forward to teaching.”

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley All Rights Reserved

Beer Springs Eternal in Foothills Brewing Mecca

Pateros Creek BarAt 5000 feet above sea level the sun beats down hard. Endless blue skies provide the perfect backdrop to the foothills on the west side of town.

It’s midday, the giant umbrellas are opened above the wrought iron tables and chairs, and a steady stream of customers are already clamoring to sample the beers brewed straight from the imagination of Steve Jones.

Jones is one of the latest people who have carved out a niche for themselves in the competitive world of beer brewing in Fort Collins, Colo. Pateros Creek Brewing is Jones’ brainchild, and Jones aims to be around in the future. But how do small, independent breweries keep the public interested? What does Jones think is going to be the big thing this summer in Fort Collins?

“For some reason, in this town people are still craving the hoppy stuff. But, what I think is something like a dry-hopped cider might come around, a dry-hopped mead, dry-hopping different things might be the way it’s going to go”

Not five minutes walk away at Equinox Brewing, owner Shannon Westcott already had a couple of things in mind.

“Our seasonal beers are popular, Vernal Hefeweizen in the spring and Midsummer Pale Ale released in mid-June. But, if anything we try to stay away from trends in brewing. If we do what everyone else is doing, then we aren’t setting ourselves apart.”

Jones had similar things to say when it came to following the desires of a fickle public.

“I try to hold my ground as much as possible, and I’ll tell you I’m actually a sore thumb in the town. You’ll notice that not all of my beers have hops in them. They are session style, not a lot of alcohol, not a lot of hops, I’m really just going for the malt flavors. I guess English styles are just really my thing”

The hard-headedness needed to march to the beat of your own drum is particularly well appreciated in a city like Fort Collins. But, not every unique business path leads to success, more so with the most recent downturn in the economy. So why is craft brewing still making great financial strides in small towns and cities across the U.S.?

“As craft beer grows, more people learn about it and introduce their friends to it. It seems that people are beginning to pay more attention to what they drink,” said Westcott. “New Belgium and Odell Brewing have been operating here for over 20 years. New Belgium especially has brought a lot of attention to Fort Collins as a place for craft beer, and that allowed a lot of smaller breweries, like ourselves, to open up.”

Starting a new brewery can be a costly enterprise as Jones explained, “We spent about $200,000 in total with the build-out, but about $150,000 without.”

Jones had also managed to keep the cost down by doing a lot of the actual build-out labor himself. Also, Jones had frugally invested in used equipment instead of going for brand new gear.

Brewing Equipment“A new 15 bbl system with 2 fermenters and 2 brites will run out $130,000 alone.”

Then of course it is just a matter of making the brews, and even though both breweries try to stay clear of obvious beer trends, there was one extremely important thing to bear in mind.

“You still have a customer, and your customer has a good opinion of what they like to drink. So, you’re sort of following what they want to do. I’ll have my specialty beers, but the standard taps, that’s because of the customers,” laughed Jones.

Westcott was much more succinct on the subject of customer feedback, “If a beer sells quickly, we try to keep it around, or make a similar beer.”

However, even though some people have the vision, desire and credentials to make it as a quality craft brewer, there can often be a financial impediment to getting the whole venture off the ground. Jones and Westcott had arrived at their present destinations in very different financial fashion.

“We got all the way to the end of one funding application, and the guy said ‘we’re going to cut your checks next week,’ and then he called back a within that week and said, ‘you know I just got a call from corporate and they said they’re not doing any more small business loans,’” said Jones.

“It was really frustrating for us, because we had all of this stuff kind of lined up. We had no money to pay for anything, what are we supposed to do? Claim bankruptcy?”

Faced with what seemed like an almost impossible situation, Jones turned to the people he trusted most, his friends and family.

“We just sort of scrambled around, we talked to friends, friends of friends, and we found investors. We offered them a piece of the thing, we actually have investors that don’t own any stock, they actually own the equipment and we lease it from them. We got creative.”

The upshot of so many people who want Jones’ venture to succeed is having many hands to help pitch in with the more mundane daily activities.

“Our investors are so into it they’ll come in and clean kegs and help brew batches of beer.”

Westcott over at Equinox didn’t quite have the same issue as Jones, but did see possible financial issues on the horizon if the trend in start-up breweries in Fort Collins continued at its present pace.

“We had our successful business, Hops & Berries, to back us up. We also had a solid, well thought out business plan, and years of experience both in brewing and running a business. We were able to secure Small Business Administration funding for everything we needed, along with our own money of course.”

“I wonder if it will get harder to get financing as more breweries come in. The banks may think there is a limit to how many breweries Fort Collins can support.”

Both Pateros Creek and Equinox were optimistic about their futures, but they differed slightly on where they wanted to be in five years.

“I want this little tap room to still be here,” said Jones, “we actually own the portion of the building that we’re in, and that’s our little downtown tap.”

“I want to be building a bigger facility off site, somewhere else, to brew larger batches to can, and to get that beer out into the liquor stores. That’s kind of my dream.”

Westcott had a dream of her own too, “Our goal is to keep Equinox small, doing what we do now. We may grow and expand our space, offering more music and the like, but we aren’t interested in becoming a distribution brewery.”

The final word rested with Westcott who seemed to sum up everything that Jones had talked about as well.

“We have a lot more fun being connected to our customers.”

Whatever the future holds for Pateros Creek Brewing and Equinox Brewing, it seems that both have already cemented their reputations in an ultra-competitive market, within a community that really knows and appreciates its beer.

© 2012 Jamie M. Bradley