Heather Wolpert-Gawron

The Hunger Games of Education

By on April 13, 2011

I sat in the room of saddened and anxious teachers, some of whom had dedicated up to 10 years with my district, waiting to hear about some RIF settlement that our district and union had negotiated on our behalf. As the lawyer rattled on about extended sub rights, 50/50 Cobra pay for 4 additional months, and priority rehiring, a list was being passed around which distracted many of us.

It was the bumping list, a record of the chain of shifts being proposed as one teacher bumped another from their classrooms. Occasionally, the lawyer’s drone was punctuated by a murmuring or audible shaking of a head as someone read the name of the person who was bumping them or who realized that their name was the final one on a series of bumps that lead to the word “Laid-Off” in one of the boxes.

It was 90 minutes into the meeting when the lawyer, realizing the crowd was getting ugly, said she at least had some good news, that 4 of us had been rescinded already, that we should take heart, and that there was hope for some of us after all. My name was read along with 3 other teachers. There was a cursory pat on my back by a young gifted teacher who was not so lucky, her name still in the drawing for expulsion. And I realized that while I was grateful, I was living a part in The Hunger Games.

For with every year in teaching, every spring, comes our Harvesting. Our newer teachers sit in wait with their names on a list based not on a lottery, but on a hire date, waiting to be sacrificed for the good of our budget. Their new blood being let in order to save those higher on the seniority list who luckily made it through during more flush times.

It’s a typical story, one that we’ve seen in mythology with the young teens awaiting to meet the Minotaur, in the cinema with the 80’s movie Dragonslayer where the young group of girls with flowers in their hair wait to see who will be culled from the village and given to the dragon. In literature, it’s an evil device most recently seen in The Hunger Games, as Katniss, the cunning hunter, the provider for her family, the brave heroine is sent out to kill other sacrificial lambs so that others in her district may live.

And so too is it with education’s yearly pink slip plague. It is a time every year when teachers are roped off into a corner to wait to hear their fate. A time when they are permitted into courtrooms to argue why they should bump others off the list rather than be bumped themselves. A time when we are Harvested.

I am grateful that my name was not called this season. But at what cost?

How many teachers are being released into the air? How many will begin to pull in unemployment, their talents being wasted as the new school year begins?

There is a bleeding of potential going on in our schools. A hemorrhage of talent that is not being staunched by the system.

The expulsion of some of these teachers is not in the best interest of our students. The bumping process into a new classroom after learning so much about a grade level or curriculum is not in the best interest of our students. The pressure and tension that is yearly for many teachers, the spring threat that challenges a person to emotionally commit to the profession, is not in the best interest of our students. The inability to retain new teachers who show promise and dedication is not in the best interest of innovation in our schools. The seasonal fear is not the best interest for recruiting new talent. The system of retention based solely on seniority is not in the best interest of our profession or our students.

It is a system set up to expel the new blood, and any profession needs new blood as well as the experienced veteran in order to survive. There is a slaughter going on, and the system is set up to produce it year after year. Sure, some pink slips are rescinded, and I am grateful as a new mom and a dedicated educator that I am not forced to look for work for another year. But what of the next Harvesting?

The fact is, that after this year’s culling, I and others like me, will be even lower on the seniority list next year. At what point do we leave this profession that we have invested in, and make for higher ground in order to avoid the Harvesting again? It looms in the background of our job, year after year. And that threat is not in the best interests of education.

I wish everyone well while they await their own verdict. May each and every one of us who wishes so, find a classroom one day to call home.

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  1. jane
    April 14, 2011

    Sad as it is if the senior teachers are good teachers they should still have the first chance to work out their time. But only if they are good teachers. Ineffective teachers should be evaluated, fairly and effectively by their principals (their job) and then removed from the classroom. Good teachers dislike lousy teachers working around them, they want the boss, the principal, to do their job and document the reasons why the bad teacher(s) need to be removed making way for new talent.
    Senior teachers can offer alot to a school. It wasn’t until my third year of teaching that I felt I knew my curriculm intimately and could adapt it seamlessly depending on the needs of each class and/or student. It was nine years into my career before I felt like I could take on the challenge of compiling and submitting a National Board Application of my Teaching Efforts (successfully I add).Now I feel comfortable helping develop new professional development programs and have recently designed a career and technical education program for my school. I feel like I understand the district I work for, the population I teach, the nature of the business I am in, the education of our children, and a responsibility to do my best every day. Twenty-one years and going strong.

  2. Patrick Groff
    April 14, 2011

    As a longtime teacher and teacher educator, I observe that there is a further reason why certain teachers are fired, while others are never so treated. The fact in this regard is that instructors who work with children from low-income homes, are dismissed far more often than are educators of youngsters raised in upper-income families. For many years, public school officials have unfairly forced this indignity on certain teachers while their unions stand haplessly indifferent as to its atrocious nature.

    Dr. Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus, San Diego State University.

  3. Melody
    April 15, 2011

    I continually find it interesting that the assumption is new teachers are excellent and veteran teachers are lazy and incompetent. In my 20 years of teaching I have anecdotally noticed teachers requiring 3-5 years before they look comfortable teaching and managing a classroom.
    I agree there should be other MULTIPLE measures of a teacher’s effectiveness, and that this should be part of the layoff decision-making process. I do also believe years of experience and RELEVANT additional degrees and certifications should be part of those measures. Test scores should hold the least weight, contrary to what most politicians want for education today.

  4. sammy
    April 17, 2011

    teacher’s unions are dinosaur. This whole thing says
    “remove other jobs, just not mine.” Wow, how considerate.
    ARE you guys all myrtyrs? YOU have a job. A job requiring
    a license and degree. Get over yourselves. I have been teaching longer than all of you and when I need more
    $, i provide consulting. Geeze.

  5. Sarah
    May 3, 2011

    It is unfortunate any time people are losing their jobs and the security of their daily lives is interrupted, whether those people are teachers or not. The _Hunger Games_ comparison is a bit dramatic. Katniss did not have the choice not to participate in the Hunger Games. People who become teachers have a choice of vocation. They could have opted for a career with more security, like the growing field of geriatric care. For someone to assume an increase in the number of teaching positions when the children of the Baby Bust (a.k.a. Gen-X) are working through the educational system shows a lack of foresight. These layoffs are lamentable but not unexpected. I am dissuading my current high school seniors from entering education unless they are willing to sub for the next ten years in order to wait for a contract.

    Of course, one way to fix this for the Gen-Y’er teacher hopefuls is to send the older teachers to the _Hunger Games_ instead. If they’re over 40, they must be mentally addled, out of touch, and ineffective as teachers, right?

    I don’t know anyone who thinks the tenure system is perfectly fair, but to flip it over would not be any more equitable, and in fact would put that same population in jeopardy twice, once as new teachers and again as experienced teachers. The only beneficiaries there would be the young teachers.

  6. Great fun for all
    December 10, 2011

    Thanks for share nice post.Awesome work.Nice work

  7. Corby Kissling
    December 15, 2011

    We all know this is happening, but why can’t anything be done to prevent it? I am a relatively “new” teacher. My background was in theatre and performing arts, but I switched to teaching shortly after the birth of my daughter in 2005. I thought teaching would provide consistency. Unfortunately, being the low man on the totem pole and basically every school I’ve been to, leaves me with a non-renewed contract every single year. This bouncing has kept me from really getting to know any curriculum. Since 2006, I’ve taught kindergarten, high school theatre (Acting 1-IV, Intro to Theatre, Stagecraft I-IV), and third grade. Last year, I accepted an “associate teacher” which had only 2/3rds the pay of a regular teacher in the hopes of landing a position in the district I grew up in. I switched classes like the students and was in English I, III, IV, and IV Honors as well as AP Statistics and Geometry. End of the year came and 1 out of 80 associate teachers moved into a “real” position. The rest of us were non-renewed. I hunted all summer for a position, but the instability indicated on my resume killed me. Right now I’m subbing. It’s an awesome experience because I’m getting experience in multiple subjects at all age levels. However, as a single mother, I desperately long for the security (and insurance) my own classroom provides.

    The current system really does seem to be discouraging new teachers. If I didn’t love teaching, I’d definitely be gone by now.

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