Dr. Nikolai Vitti would like Duval County teachers to offer good “customer service” to parents and students. So I will be so bold as to give the best piece of unsolicited advice I can give him: The #1 rule of Customer Service, so well-researched and ubiquitous in Business that it’s a cliché: The best indicator of Customer Satisfaction is Employee Satisfaction.
Unfortunately, the School Board has given Dr. Vitti “lower evaluation marks” due to “employee morale.” A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Vitti announced he was giving us a climate survey. I very respectfully wrote him to applaud taking steps to get to the bottom of the issue. I gently stated that I thought his goals in the survey may have inadvertently missed the mark. The goals were stated in a way where any “negative” response from teachers would implicate only ourselves or our schools, which may prevent many teachers from answering honestly. I received no response.
I don’t believe it presumptuous to think he distributed this survey to address the School Board’s concerns regarding morale. After his lack of response, I had to wonder: is this a genuine attempt to gather data? Or is it an attempt to deflect blame away from himself and his cohort of newcomers in DCPS leadership, towards schools and teachers?
I took the survey. I love what I do, but unless things change, I don’t see myself staying in my current position — this is no secret. As a result, I was asked the following question:
21. Please select the most important factor contributing to your plans to stop teaching at your school.
Dr. Vitti, if you happen to read this: I would like an explanation why this was an option in the survey (emphasis added):
Dissatisfaction with my school leadership/immediate supervisor.
But this was not an option in your survey:
Dissatisfaction with my District leadership.
Why was this a question (emphasis added):
33. Please offer any suggestions for how your school can improve your professional experience or increase your impact as a teacher (Your response will be shared anonymously with your school leaders).
But this was not a question:
Please offer any suggestions for how your District can improve your professional experience or increase your impact as a teacher (Your response will be shared anonymously with your District leaders).
These both seem obvious, both seem to have been left out intentionally (I hope this is not the case), and for the record, the latter would be my answer. Make no mistake, this was a running issue throughout the survey — out of dozens of issues and people to blame, almost none in any way pointed to District leadership.
This seems to be a tailor-made and hand-picked survey for embattled District leadership who want to deflect blame with “data” from a “third party research organization.” I could be wrong. I hope I am. I hope for the best-case scenario (that this was simply a very poorly-designed survey).
So let me be clear since the survey did not allow me to say so: I am considering leaving Duval County Public Schools because of the direction the County leadership has taken under Dr. Vitti’s Superintendency the past year and a half. And from his and other higher-ups’ lack of response to my communication, and from this survey, one thing seems clear: it doesn’t appear anyone in the District would like to actually know why teacher morale is so low this year, but rather is looking to point fingers elsewhere: to individual schools, individual principals, and to teachers themselves.
(Note: I notified the School Board of my concerns Wednesday evening. Three of the seven School Board members have already replied to my concerns. All three replies were positive. My issue is not with the School Board. Although I believe they have the duty to hear what’s going on, and do something about it, quickly, the wording of their e-mails make me confident they are replying in good faith. I have given other District leadership plenty of opportunity to respond to legitimate concerns I have raised in a respectful manner and they, on the other hand, have ignored my concerns.)
Last year (2012-13) was perhaps the most special, wonderful year of my working life due to the impact we’ve made on Sandalwood IT students’ education. This was before most of the new initiatives were implemented.
This year (2013-14), my former mentor, as close to a superstar as a teacher can be, recently asked me the simple question: “How is your year going?” When I hesitated, the teacher said, “Don’t worry; if you say, ‘Good,’ I think you’d be the only one in the county.” I chuckled and answered, “This should be the most amazing year of my life as a teacher; the awards, all the nice things people have said, all the positive changes for my students in IT, the principal has been so supportive… yet this year has simply felt like a train wreck. We have to fight to the death against the District for everything, big and small. I feel deflated working in this county, this year.” My mentor agreed, and made it clear this was the consensus:
We’ve had some bad years in Duval County. But this is by far the worst we’ve seen in decades.
Whether true or not, fair or unfair, even if they’re just growing pains, this indicates a high level of employee dissatisfaction. Why? I am only one data point, but I will informally try to put it together:
- More testing than ever. Data is unavailable in a timely manner. Timing of the exams makes little sense. Much of the testing is perceived as being redundant.
- Speaking of testing, here’s a quote from District personnel: “An incorrect answer key was used to score the CGA, but you can still use the results to group students.” This statement makes my head hurt.
- Dr. Vitti’s leadership style seems very hierarchical — most of the leaders brought from Miami-Dade and elsewhere seem to strictly follow chain-of-command, rebuking teachers who speak directly to District personnel, which leads to:
- Teachers perceiving we are disrespected. When an experienced teacher with a Ph.D. and 20 years’ teaching experience sees an issue or mistake in a new procedure or curriculum being implemented, and writes someone at DCPS to seek quick resolution to a pressing situation affecting their students, this person will be rebuked for not going through the principal (this actually happened more than once).
- I must ask, Dr. Vitti: why is this the new culture at DCPS? That teacher with a Ph.D.? It’s her classroom. Her salary and retention are based on her student performance. She is probably more of an expert in that specific class than either the principal or the District personnel. So how does she not have the right to speak on her own behalf?
- Lack of autonomy (which is another cliché — most employees, especially educated employees like teachers, will have low morale if they are not autonomous). I will speak for my own situation; whether it is isolated or representative, I don’t know:
- The Executive Director over Career and Technical Education in Duval County has repeatedly presumed to tell me how to run an Information Technology program and more puzzling, my own IT classroom.
- Why would this be puzzling? Below is a screen shot of the teaching credentials of the person appointed by Dr. Vitti as Executive Director over the entire Career and Technical Education Deparment in Duval County (name and DOE number redacted):
- I know a little bit about ESE and how important and difficult it is, and how special a person you have to be to teach it. My mom’s a 20-year ESE job coach. My brother graduated from Palm Avenue Exceptional Student Center and his teachers made a big impact on his life.
- So I know for a fact that as a non-ESE teacher, I cannot speak intelligently towards instruction in an ESE classroom. I likewise have seen little evidence this particular person with these particular credentials can speak intelligently towards instruction in an Information Technology classroom. Yet she has pushed back on many an issue, big and small, where we’re left asking ourselves, “Why does she care, how would she know better than us on this particular issue, how is she the only one not seeing the value in what we’re saying, and why is she making our lives unnecessarily difficult?”
- My question remains: How is an ESE Teacher with no apparent experience leading a CTE department (according to her LinkedIn resume) the Executive Director of Career and Technology Education for the 20th-largest school district in the U.S.?
- This is especially puzzling considering she replaced Chris Force, an amazing leader who is highly credentialed, respected and experienced. Chris was humiliated and relegated to the classroom by Dr. Vitti in favor of, again, someone with no experience running a CTE department of any size (according to her publicly available resume).
- I will say that a lot of the more odious CTE policies seem to have come from above CTE (either the Chief Assessment Officer, or the Superintendent), and the new Executive Director seems to be fighting for these head-scratching policies wholeheartedly without trying to communicate their value to teachers. I can’t speak for Ms. Force, but I feel somewhat confident Chris would have pushed back on some of these to benefit our students (or at least communicated the initiatives downstream to us).
- It is my hope that this is an isolated incident, and not indicative of the credentials of the leaders Dr. Vitti has brought in with him.
- On a different note: Dr. Vitti personally implemented a policy that removes my school’s autonomy (and my ability as Coordinator) to purchase the goods I need for my classroom and program without DCPS Chief Officer approval. These are funds I and fellow teachers raised through preparing students for Industry Certifications. He’s basically stated that if I want to buy, say, a set of non-magnetic screwdrivers for my classroom with our own funds, the need has to be foreseen a year in advance, and has to be approved by a Chief Officer of Duval County Public Schools.
- With all due respect, that particular Chief Officer is not in my “line of command” (meaning he is not accountable for either my performance or my school’s performance), and is far removed from the classroom. Why must he sign off on what we at the school deem necessary to purchase for our students?
- This system encourages us to buy items without being sure we need them, and not being able to buy items the moment we find we need them, wasting funds that could have been used more efficiently. Why can we not create accounts “controlled” by Program Coordinators and Directors, and go through the normal requisition process (with its existing checks and balances) when we find out we need to buy something for classrooms in the program?
- At the high school level, I firmly place much of the blame for morale on adding an 8th class to the high school schedule:
- This means Dr. Vitti added almost 15% more classes without adding 15% more teachers.
- I’d like to be more respectful in how I phrase this, except I don’t know how: How was that supposed to work?
- I will answer my own question: math classes had 60-90 students, and high school elective classes in Duval County had 50-150 students. More teachers were hired after the local news got involved.
- Coaches, academic and vocational program coordinators (like me), athletic directors, librarians, and nearly everyone else paid as a teacher who had leadership responsibilities were now mandated to teach a full load of classes in addition to their leadership responsibilities, for no additional pay, to make up for the deficit. Something has to give, and every corner we have to cut as a result of this policy harms students.
- The library was largely inaccessible to Sandalwood students for several months because the librarian was forced to teach classes by Dr. Vitti’s policy. Only an uproar from parents reopened our library part-time.
- The May 2013 school board minutes show Sandalwood was far from the only school in that situation.
- And last, but certainly not least, the CAST system is worse than a bad joke.
DCPS has many other issues — most of them have to do with the appearance that much of we’re currently doing seems to be half-baked. Teachers are left to deal with the chaos DCPS policies have caused (what happened to implementing change methodically and carefully?), and to try to shield our students from the effects as well as we can. Because the ones who suffer the most are indeed our students.
So teacher morale is low, curriculum is incomplete, we’re being told to do completely nonsensical things by people seemingly unqualified for their jobs, and student instruction is being affected. Helping students is why most of us are in this business anyway. When we see people in the District who take affirmative steps to stop us from helping our students, our morale will be low.
And here we are, talking about customer service. Dr. Vitti, I think we’re putting the cart before the horse here. We need to get our house in order first. Good “customer service” flows naturally from people who believe in their organization. Your actions (not your words) make some of us feel you don’t believe in us, so it’s reasonable to think the feeling (from a non-trivial number of teachers), is mutual. I hope you can and will take actions that prove otherwise — by involving, listening to, and empowering teachers in meaningful ways — so we can once again believe we’re all in this together, working towards the same goal: giving our students the best opportunity possible to earn an education.