When a first-year teacher at Slater Elementary was called in to speak with a Fresno Unified administrator, she did not expect to be scolded.
She said the meeting was meant to help her with her lesson plans, but it took on an accusatory tone instead, she said, because she’d gone on stress leave the week prior.
For this teacher – who asked to remain anonymous for fear of further consequences – it was the last straw after months of feeling overworked and unsupported. She quit teaching altogether in October after three months with Fresno Unified School District.
“I just lost my confidence,” she said.
Teachers say incidents like this are the bedrock of a “culture of fear” at Fresno Unified – a much-whispered about issue of alleged retaliation that the district is now trying to address in the open. New and veteran teachers alike lay the problems at the feet of a middle management they say is disconnected from the classroom at best and out to punish teachers who step out of line at worst.
Superintendent Bob Nelson gave voice to the matter in a March email to staff, writing that he wanted to encourage “processing conflict in more healthy ways” at all levels of the district.
Nelson’s email says in part, “For leaders, we need to examine and unpack our reactions to things that are said to us with which we may not be in alignment. We must be mindful to remain in a mindset that is solution-oriented and preserves the dignity of others, even when we disagree or encounter failure.”
Fresno Teachers Association president Manuel Bonilla echoed Nelson’s statements in his own letter to staff, which adds that the district needs to redesign its organizational structures that “minimize or ignore the voice of employees and/or students” and addresses specific areas that could be improved, like giving teachers more freedom in their curriculum and development time.
“The culture of fear manifests itself in various ways, from not voicing concerns due to the fear of retribution to not voicing concerns due to fear that even if you did, nothing will change,” Bonilla wrote.
Bonilla said he hears the same issues repeated by teachers throughout the district: that teacher evaluations are used as a punitive measure, that administrators are prone to favoritism and that there is little recourse for teachers who wish to speak out.
And while these issues of climate could likely be found at any workplace, they have unique consequences at a school where a teacher leaving mid-year means a scramble to find a replacement. But recruiting is not enough without retaining, Bonilla said.
“There’s a pattern of a lack of support for new teachers,” Bonilla said. “And your evaluation becomes a list of everything you’ve done wrong, and nothing you’ve done right or a plan for the future.”
Some sites do benefit from excellent leadership, according to Bonilla, but he said they’re more the exception than the rule.
One hotspot for complaints is Slater Elementary, where five teachers have taken stress leave since the beginning of the school year – a high concentration for one campus, according to Bonilla.
The Bee spoke to two of those teachers. Each cited an antagonistic relationship with administrators as a primary source of their stress. Both teachers were in their first year on the job, but where the one mentioned above – Teacher A – left teaching, the other – Teacher B – said he felt he couldn’t leave due to financial reasons.
Teacher B said he went on a two-week stress leave after a question of whether he’d left a lesson plan for a substitute spiraled into a weeks-long argument with higher-ups who refused to acknowledge his documentation that he had indeed done so. He was diagnosed with anxiety and depression related to his job, and says he would have stayed out of the classroom longer if it were possible.
“It’s the administrator issues on top of the kids and everything else that makes it hard,” he said.
Both teachers said that their students were not to blame for their decisions to take leave. Even when discipline problems were the cause of classroom interruptions, it was administrators’ failure to offer appropriate help that created the most stress, each said.
“It was a matter of seconds or minutes before they (offending students) were back in my classroom and doing the same thing,” Teacher A said.
Teacher B said he would follow the procedures for in-classroom interventions, but when a discipline issue clearly necessitated a trip to the office, students were often sent back, and he would be asked why he wasn’t managing them better in the classroom. Bonilla said teachers throughout Fresno Unified are often told the same thing.
Teacher A said the district could improve by giving new teachers more room to make mistakes and ask questions, rather than make them fearful to do either.
“It was always, ‘Well, you should already know,’ ” she said. “But I didn’t know who to go to or who could help.”
Ed Gomes, instructional superintendent for an area that includes Slater Elementary, said he believes that retaliation may have been an issue in the past, but that the district is open to discourse and discussion now.
Though campus issues are typically resolved before they reach his desk, Gomes said he does hear from teachers and other staff members, primarily via email, who may have questions about their evaluations, or about other unresolved conflicts. He said the process for handling these complaints is working well.
“But are they getting the answer they want? It’s never a perfect answer,” Gomes said.
Gomes said he had spoken to some teachers at Slater Elementary who were unhappy with their evaluations, or with the decision to release them from their contracts, but that he ultimately agreed with the district’s assessments in those cases.
“It’s tough. I’ve been evaluated as a teacher. But it’s a process you go through,” Gomes said.
New teachers are evaluated four times per year and must show improvement in areas like classroom management, Gomes said, or they may be released from their temporary contracts. He pointed to the district’s low percentage of teacher releases as an indicator that the environment is generally good. Bonilla noted that some teachers are asked to resign instead of being released.
Gomes said complaints he hears from teachers change year by year and are typically in line with the FTA’s bargaining priorities. One recent issue has been the use of professional development time, which teachers criticize as inflexible, but Gomes says should be used to discuss recent student data.
“If kids are struggling in math, we should discuss math,” Gomes said. “It shouldn’t be a person choosing what we discuss; it’s the kids choosing.”
Gomes said he ultimately doesn’t discount the teachers’ experiences though they are not reflective of his own.
“You have to respect those perspectives,” he said.
Emily Brandt, a teacher who retired from the district after over 20 years, said the issues at the administrative level are not new. The result of favoritism, for one, is that teachers who are not well-connected are given students with known behavioral issues, or difficult classes and schedules, she said.
“Taking and giving like it’s Easter candy undermines our success with students,” Brandt said.
Brandt said that the district should consider asking administrators of all levels, from those just below the superintendent to school site principals, to reapply for their jobs. Alternatively, every supervisor should be evaluated by their underlings, she said.
Another veteran teacher, who asked not to be identified because her campus is so small, said that the district might be better off with fewer administrative positions overall. In addition to principals and area superintendents, teachers may meet with curriculum coaches, induction coaches and other professional development staffers in any given week.
“There are so many layers between the superintendent and the sites,” she said. “That’s a long way for it to trickle down.”
The veteran teacher said the effect of the distrust between teachers and administrators is that the former can’t rely on the latter for honest feedback or to have their basic classroom needs addressed, leading to divisions that she described as “devastating to morale.”
“I’m not saying teachers are always correct. But the majority of people I work with are committed to the work, to their students and their sites,” she said. “And it takes a lot for them to get to the point of, ‘I can’t keep going.’”
Nelson said in an interview that there wasn’t a single incident that prompted his memo so much as a pattern: an individual would raise a concern, but ask to keep it quiet for fear of repercussions.
“We want to empower people to create the kind of environment they want to work in,” Nelson said. “That’s not something I can do by myself.”
Nelson said he hoped that by talking about the issue in the open, teachers and other staff members would begin to feel more comfortable following his lead.
But he rejected others’ assessments that the issues began with the leadership style of his predecessor, Michael Hanson, which has been described as more heavy-handed than Nelson’s own. In his note to staff, Nelson reminded its recipients that they, too, were part of the district and all that that entailed.
“One leader can’t change a culture,” Nelson said.