But the transfrmation has been a rocky one and disparities persist. Isthmus collected over 30 hours of interviews with dozens of Madison educators over the past two months. Teachers from three elementary schools, five middle schools and three high schools shared their experiences in the classroom. Most requested anonymity because of fears of retribution and were given pseudonyms.
Some teachers are frustrated by the changes they see: few consequences for disruptive and disrespectful behavior; a lack of trust from administrators; and concern that recent reforms aren’t actually helping kids of color. Others believe their colleagues need to embrace the cultural shift brought by Cheatham’s time as superintendent. They say that white teachers might need to feel uncomfortable in order to purge the schools of systemic racism.
Adding to the tension are several highly publicized incidents centering around race that have sparked renewed outrage over the achievement gap. The cumulative result is that many teachers feel stressed, unsupported and disrespected.
Jim Lister, a science teacher at Hamilton, has taught in the district for 29 years and is retiring in June. He didn’t witness the April 5 incident but says that navigating both the school bureaucracy and the sensitive issue of race can become a quagmire for many teachers.
“What’s new this year is that there’s a feeling of walking around on pins and needles for many teachers. You don’t know how an interaction with a kid is going to go or that the district will support you after the fact. What ends up happening is teachers do nothing,” says Lister. “If a kid says, ‘Fuck you’ to you six or seven times and there are no repercussions — it becomes pretty clear who is in charge.”
“She is more interested in seeming woke than supporting teachers. Downtown [administrators] just want to look a certain way and when they don’t, teachers get blamed,” Leah says. “There’s no recognition that the daily grind is just unmanageable. I suspect we will see another exodus of teachers at the end of this year. That’s at least what I’m hearing.
“Everything is being dumbed down to make the numbers look better. We’re being told that a kid that hasn’t shown up for a majority of classes needs to be given the opportunity to make up work and it’s my fault for not engaging that kid the right way,” says Rebecca, the longtime high school teacher. “So forget that that is asking a lot of teachers, we want to do the work to get students to achieve at a high level. But too often it’s a Band-Aid. We are giving kids Ds who are doing 30 percent of the work.”
Opps, from La Follette, says the scrutiny from administration is making it harder to be an effective teacher. When one of his students is found wandering the hallway he’s asked, “Why aren’t you engaging this kid?”
Related: “The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”.