“I’ve never worked for such inept people before.”
“When we got back to school in August , it was as if the administration was making it up as they went along.”
“[These days] I go to my job and I can’t teach my subject.”
“This is the worst year that I’ve ever had as a teacher.”
So what’s been happening in the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD)? Why have so many teachers been raising concerns over the past several months about things they’ve experienced on their sites and in their own classrooms?
I taught at FUSD from 1985 to 2016, and by far my memories of working in the district are positive ones. During those years, I usually worked with amazing colleagues and administrators, and I’m still in touch with a number of them.
That makes it all the more disturbing to hear rumblings in the ranks that have been escalating recently.
Hoping to find out more about what’s actually been going on—behind the headlines and the social media posts—I reached out to several people who are currently working full-time in FUSD, each of them tenured, each with several years of experience under their belt, and all of them highly qualified and gifted instructors. Frankly, I wasn’t prepared for some of the things that they told me.
Those I contacted are all high school teachers, but it’s highly likely that many of the problems they describe are cropping up at other grade levels as well.
Before my retirement, some disturbing developments had already begun to appear, to be sure. For example, several years ago cell phone use by students during class began to run rampant. After initially setting up policies to help instructors counter this trend, administrators gradually pulled back in their efforts and let things slide—to the detriment of classroom instruction and the school culture.
Other areas of concern in the early and mid-2010s: the administration’s increasingly ineffective enforcement of the dress code and tardies, and systemic promotion of grade inflation in which teachers were urged to raise grades even if students had done little or no work to merit them.
In several services I attended, teachers were encouraged to give students five points out of 10 for an assignment, for example, even if they had failed to complete any items on the assignment.
A lot of these trends ran counter to the district’s putative goal, generated several years ago now, to produce career-ready and/or college-ready graduates.
As one of my interlocutors put it, the advent of Covid exacerbated and intensified these developments.
The problem of shifting to strictly online learning in 2020 was an unprecedented challenge, one made far more difficult because of administrative bungling.
Before Covid-19 arrived on the scene, FUSD made Microsoft Teams—a platform for online instruction—available for teachers and students. However, something vital was missing, namely in-depth training for instructors in how to use Teams and integrate it into their curriculum.
No significant push was made before Covid-19 to help all teachers become familiar with this technology and figure out how to make use of it in their classrooms.
Those instructors who did try to work with Teams were often stymied by the lack of reliable access to computers. Many times, for example, when they reserved class sets of laptops to use in class, those laptops were commandeered at the last minute; often, it was decided that they were needed for standardized tests.
As one person told me, “If teachers had been trained earlier, then the kids would have been using it—and distance learning would have been a lot easier for them.”
As it was, though, when students were required to learn online, many of them were baffled and frustrated. Staff members hadn’t been given the in-depth training and support earlier on, and they struggled on the fly to master the intricacies of Teams.
Since in-person instruction has started again, out-of-control cell phone use by students during class continues unabated and seems to have even gotten more pronounced.
Tardies are also a major problem now. One instructor with an open first period spoke about the large number of students that are still out and about after the first-period bell rings nowadays. Even 10 minutes after the bell, a mass of students is still flowing through the parking lot and onto the campus proper.
As with nonacademic cell phone use in class, this spells a significant loss of learning time and an egregious failure of site administrators to get a handle on things.
Enforcement of student conduct has continued on its downward slope to the point where student safety is potentially at risk. In one recent instance, a teacher asked a recalcitrant student to step outside the room for a time out.
When the student refused, the teacher phoned for a CA (a member of campus security) to come to the room. “Go ahead,” the student taunted. “No one will come.” Sure enough, no CA did come to the room that time.
Situations like this one send the message to teachers that they’re on their own, that they can’t depend on support from the administration in the event of serious discipline situations.
In another recent incident, one student brought a knife to class and began screaming at a teacher. That time, CAs did appear. They escorted him from the room, but he returned to class the next day—again with a knife. Those in charge had elected not to suspend him for this infraction. The classroom instructor—the teacher of record—had not been informed about what decisions were made about this student or the reasons for those decisions.
For several years, anti-teacher sentiments have been on the rise in Fresno and across our country. You notice it in social media, and teachers have noticed it more frequently in their interactions with parents and students. The feeling seems to be that if students are having troubles in the classroom, well, the teachers are to blame.
Without quality tools, a seasoned carpenter would be hard-pressed to make quality products. The same holds for a district’s teachers; without reliable, ongoing support, and the right kind of support, they won’t be able to do the job that they’re supposed to do, the one that they want to do.
It’s hardly surprising that the changes and challenges of the past few years have taken their toll on FUSD instructors. Feelings of stress and anxiety have been on the rise. Here, too, the district hasn’t been able to provide the support that its teachers need.
Early in the fall term, one instructor that I spoke with sought help with the mental health service provided by the district. When she called to schedule an appointment to speak with someone, she was told that no openings would be available during the next two months.