Thursday, June 21, 2012


This morning I was reflecting on my teacher friends throughout the world. My thinking may not be popular, but all of you expect that I will share the truth as I see it. Please take what you want and leave the rest. 

Accountability is a word that is often used to scare you, but I hope you will consider it with an open mind.

I heard a principal interviewed the other day that said, "If I can't trust the person in the classroom they shouldn't be there." Many of us know that the obtuse rules and pressures we face are often the result of the bureaucracy imposing ways to control the worst of us, the folks who are out the door when the bell rings and in the door long after it has rung. 

This sad statement of our profession is why many of us distance ourselves from our profession and do not willing admit to the category, "teacher."

However, the country does not see the good and bad as we do - teachers are put in one big bucket labeled ineffective. I believe part of the problem is that we do not police our own actions and ourselves. Until we admit (especially those who have achieved a safe and comfortable place in the system hierarchy) that we are not all the same, and claim our ground as serious professionals we are doomed to outside mandates. 

We can no longer afford to accept everyone in our buildings just because they are there. Unity matters only in as much as you are willing to police yourselves from the inside out. Start setting your own standards of excellence. Stop waiting for external forces to define you. When you wait for them, you will always be reacting to their claims of failure. Empower yourselves. Stop being silent when they challenge you because you fear their retaliation. If they are fighting with you daily, they don't want you there. What do you have to lose? When you have a standard, you are free. No matter what the administration says, when you reach for your standard and hold yourself accountable you experience freedom as the result of your gratitude.

I do not miss the repeated daily message that I was a failure. When all you hear every day is that you are shit, unless you are able to transcend it, you are doomed to become shit. We want to teach children to empower themselves and strive for excellence, but our systems for teaching and learning strip the human's that facilitate this process of their dignity and then act shocked that there is a problem. We will pay for this fidelity to testing that tends to measure generation after generation of failure, because we do not have a plan to create successful learners.

Look at the budgets of our school districts - ask them to explain how they spend so much money on test creation and measurement and nothing on instructional delivery? 

I could no longer teach school when I learned that I had produced test takers (54% above benchmark) and that 4 students out of 68 turned in a first draft of their one page, college, and personal statement. Is this what we want, a generation that can take tests but not make a simple statement of who they are and where they want to go in this world?

Test taking is compliance, writing and thinking are liberating because they are skills that allow you to create, to dream, and achieve. 

At this point in our state, and in our country, it is insane for anyone to think that those in charge of public schools want solutions. Should you fight for an outdated and ineffective system that, even if you get your demands, will still be a broken and ineffective system with no plans to change its brokenness? Or, is it time to think outside the box for a different solution?

As someone who chose public education as a profession in his 30's, I say yes! But on another level I say, fight for this because so many students, who would not have access to education, will lose out...

And this is a big but. Do not fool yourself. When the bell rings and those of you who are dedicated have been in class for an hour already preparing for your day, there will still be the ineffective teachers arriving late and the principal in his/her office being pressured to apply ridiculous rules because she does not know what to do with that teacher. Take this time as a wake up call. If there was ever a time to strengthen teams, challenge each other to be better, and police yourselves, this is it! You can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and say, we are not all bad because you are all part of the same profession and we are only as good as our weakest link. If you get a new contract and raise, as I hope you do, it is just a matter of time before the powers that be will be demanding you pay for this problem because you just got a raise.

Monday, March 5, 2012


Yesterday I received requests from past participants in my professional development workshops to re-post a letter that I had sent to President Obama in 2010. Re-reading it again made me angry and frustrated about public education in this country. Having worked in schools for the past fourteen years, I know the brilliance of some teachers and the mediocrity of others. I know the challenges of poor and under supported students as well as the joys. But I am struck by how the intrusion of "experts" and "politicians" into the daily goings on in public schools is as misguided as a man deciding what a woman can or cannot do with her body.

This lack of vision in the Chicago Public School system is astonishing. The view that the only thing wrong with our schools is bad teaching? Ludicrous. Imagine going to your job everyday with the intention of nurturing students to challenge their ideas and perceptions about the world only to be told at the door that you are a failure... you aren't doing enough. This is what our teachers, good and bad, are told daily. While it may be true for some, it is not true for the majority. This constant mental pressure is damaging the fabric of the teaching profession, and it is forcing many of us out of the profession we were called to enter. When I realized that my data showed my students were learning, I knew it was the results of asking them to think outside the box. But I was not able to share my expertise with others in my school because the leadership's system demanded compliance, not invention. Imagine this place I am describing, a place where critical thinking is not as important as the simple regurgitation of facts. Do we want our world to be inhabited by well rounded people, or test takers?

Where I stand now, I can clearly see that blaming teachers is a convenient way to defer attention from failed leadership at the school and district level. Everybody comes in with ideas and the first thing you are told is "there is no common planning time" and/or you are meeting every free moment of the day with no time left to write assignments, grade papers, talk with students who are struggling and need extra help, or truly plan units of instruction.

Who are these people who seem to know what is best for teachers and schools? When have they been in schools and really tried to understand what we do? I cannot imagine a financial firm in the loop taking advice from a small, public high school teacher, so why should we take advice from the business community about the complex process of teaching and learning?

When a system is under performing you look at the whole system, not only one part of it. I know many talented teachers who are silenced when they raise any issues about reform. It is always placed back on teachers as if they are the sole reason schools are failing. As I write this I realize that talking about education is never truly about the children. If it was, asking kids if they are hungry or safe, would precede asking them to improve their scores on standardized tests (Maslow's heirachy of needs warned us students cannot even achieve intellectual results if these needs were not met). Instead of focusing on measuring failure, why don't we dedicate time to improving the instruction that would actually improve the data? At my last school, 95% of the time was dedicated to meetings, data, and discussing failures. I am talking about schools - 5% of the time spent on instruction?

In Chicago our decisions are made downtown as if this process can equitably meet the needs of all of our various neighborhood. It is no different there than what I am describing on a school level.. inadequate and ineffective leaders are rampant. The same tired and worn out people are ineffectively communicating what is coming. There is a difference between standards and stupidity. How many times have they told me that I need to be capable of differentiated learning only to have them not return the favor by at least acknowledging that there is not a one size fits all solution to the problems we are facing. I am slowly coming to accept that CPS cannot communicate what it does not have - awareness, humility, integrity, intelligence, and manners.

Last night, two colleagues forwarded me some news about what is coming down the pike:

This is what CPS is offering teachers:

· 7.5 hour school day for students – non-negotiable
· 8 hour school day for teachers – non-negotiable
· No pay increase/hourly rate decrease
· 2 additional weeks added to the end of the school year
· Increase in health insurance premiums
· Eliminate pension funding
· Eliminate step and lane increases
· Teachers will be paid by “merit pay”
· Cancel 2 of the paid holidays
· Raise retirement age for teachers

The union is asking for:

· 30% pay increase for 30% more time
· Have the right to recall displaced teachers before hiring new graduates
. Currently we have the highest number of displaced teachers EVER seen!

The argument being used to justify this absurd contract is financial. Yes, we all know there is no money. However, this is our children, the future of our country. As I recently said to a friend, even if your kids are not in public schools when they go into the real world they will be asked to work together to achieve unity as a country. My question is, can we afford not to fight this? We need qualified, dedicated, and creative teachers in our classrooms. Those of us displaced, who have experience and are expensive, know that it is likely we will not be rehired. As a professional who dedicated me time and loyalty to my employer I find this offensive. Just imagine this type of logic in corporate America. This contract will not make our system better, it will only promote the festering bitterness that forced my resignation. Please stand up for teachers and teachers, please come together and stand up for yourselves: Get involved. Ask questions. Write letters. Make phone calls.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Letter to the President

Many people have asked me what has changed in public education since I originally left the classroom in 2010. The truth is nothing. Putting institutions ahead of individuals, especially in the education system, has got to stop. At the request of friends, I am re-posting the letter that I wrote to President Obama in 2010. A letter that did receive a response, but with little more than lip-service to the idea of truly giving teachers the respect and trust they deserve. I continue to say to the American public, take classrooms out of the hands of people who know nothing about teaching and learning except how to measure failure. We know that schools are failing, but we need more time, and in some cases help, with how to create innovative instruction. Those of us who love teaching and are extremely successful, have left because you did nothing to help us spread the word about what we do well, as if it needed to be kept a secret. Instead you made us sit through countless professional development sessions on metrics, instead of instruction. After the treatment referred to in this letter, I went back to a classroom and a building where the doom and gloom attitude was so pervasive that I knew I must leave or suffocate. The loneliness that teachers suffer is awful and the burden placed on them to help children, who are often suffering too, is monumental. Most of us wanted to accept this burden, then administrators and politicians started saying we weren't doing enough and added to the list of our responsibilities the notion that we alone were failing to do our jobs. Until the world and our institutions recognize the complexities of the modern teacher and her/his responsibilities by adding time, support, and money to our common goal, schools will continue to fail.

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. Obama;

You are my president. I silently passed your name along like one does a magazine with important news that they want a friend to know; Hillary, I love her, but this guy is different, made from a different cloth. I agreed with your need to pass health care and to reform Wall Street. You and I rode the waves of change as I defended you against critics who time and again chastised you for your slow dance for diplomacy. And yes, I get your regular emails keeping me at the fingertips of your every move, but now I wonder if you know what is happening to me, to the thousands of superior teachers like me who are caught in the web of injustice in Chicago and around the world.

This is not a letter about politics and economy although some will use them as an excuse; this is a letter about justice, that quality I saw in you and that begged my vote in your direction.

I ask you with all sincerity, what are you doing to improve the nation’s education system? This needs your attention as much if not more than the oil spill in the gulf and the wars in the Middle East. Your own, our own country is at war. The fear and insecurity that have become hallmarks of the public school system have been knocking at my door for the past six months. I tried not to answer, but the news that my position had been cut (delivered through my boss’ boss because my supervisor was unaware that this decision had been made) came to me in its convoluted way: Chicago Public Schools’ lack of finesse, lack of clarity over my rights, and the uncertainty of my future ushered them in. Systems like this one have gotten so big that, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, one hand does not know what the other is doing.

I know, I know, many people’s positions are being cut. Trust me, I am greeted by many with the words, “What can you do given the economy?” But Mr. President, I was promoted to this position with the Chicago Public Schools after thirteen years as an English Teacher at a north side high school. I was ready to leave, it is true, but I was offered a job when people in charge had to have known there would be more deep cuts in the coming months. Despite repeated questions about this uncertainty, I was promised that because I would have coach in my title I should be secure in knowing that my Union would protect me (when I contact them they simply want the names and stories that will benefit their struggle, not my loss). As it stands now, I do not know if I have a job, any security, or income. But pursuing justice for me would be self-centered and self-serving because there is something larger at stake.

I am worried about the justice of public education. My experience is teaching me not to take risks. There are many teachers who don’t. Those who play it safe stay safely and silently in their classrooms, are the ones who are rewarded. I visited thirty-five schools in the last few months and saw this lack of risk-taking daily. Too many teachers are unwilling to do anything other than the bare minimum required of them because doing more is not valued or rewarded. Until we are willing to subject ourselves to standards of excellence this injustice will continue.

If the system and the schools cared about excellence they would look at the many teachers like me who have outstanding records (I am happy to share that record with you or anyone) and who build professional communities at the school level. These communities we build are designed to promote healthy competition instead of systematically stripping us of our creativity and excellence because we challenge the status quo and ask for betterment. Integrity and virtue would lead us to set high standards because these attributes help children grow; high standards should not be set because test scores are down. Good teachers know and dedicate their lives to teaching because student’s lives depend on us; our setting and implementing a higher standard can change even the most marginalized life. I learned that from teachers who cared about me when I didn’t care about myself or believe I was capable. Perhaps you have your own examples.

By the way, I don’t disagree with the budget cuts being made in Chicago – we had a blotted and ineffective system. But the inhumanity by which these cuts have been made is insane. As a second career teacher, I left another career and chose the field of education. I truly believed, then and now, that communication and trust are at the heart of effective teaching, and yet I work in buildings and in a system that repeatedly violates these two principles. What students need to see modeled is important because they are more often products of what they see, not what they hear. How can we blame anyone but ourselves when children do not turn out the way we hope they will? Look at the examples we are setting.

So, today as I await my fate, let me say this: I have dedicated the past thirteen years of my life to teaching students in a neighborhood high school on Chicago’s north side. My teaching has earned me the respect and admiration of thousands of students and has brought me great joy. My expertise is featured on a film, my teaching has been honored with a number of awards, and many people in the education arena around the country seek my knowledge out. But in my own town, in my own school system, I seem to be invisible. And, ironically, I have always received a Superior rating – something I think has little value, but Chicago Public Schools continues to use a meaningless method to review its teachers.

There is no word other than unjust. Daily, I teach kids to take risks, reach beyond the known and discover the unknown. I honestly sought this new job because I thought that what I had learned at my little high school could help a whole city. Perhaps you know what I mean, Mr. President; I have read your books, and I have overcome obstacles, just like you. I have long known that integrity is a lonely place, but the silence here is almost deafening.

So, thirteen years into what I had hoped was the career of my calling, I must find yet another position when there is a hiring freeze. Scarily, telling people I meet that I have been working for the Board of Education seems to leave them with a bitter aftertaste. Worse, if I could have found it in me to truly believe what has happened was the result of budget cuts and political machinations, I would have found some comfort. But I leave my office with the knowledge that majorities of the people working with me have never taught in a classroom. What’s more, the people I worked directly with were not producing any work that could justify their sizable salaries. The situation I experienced makes me wonder about the ethical implications of a system riddled with bureaucracy, one that rewards the status quo, nepotism, and business over education.
Thank you for listening Mr. President, and Happy Birthday. Michelle asked me to sign your card but I decided to write instead. You, as I said, are my president. When you were inaugurated I wrote and sent you a poem and one stanza stands out now:

Dear America,
Like Whitman I want to sing again
The joyful songs of workers working
I want to sing, like Hughes
The unequal record,
So we remember, always remember:
Hope did, and does, inspire us;
As we reweave your democratic dress
With clean threads,
Not those soaked in blood
Or bloated victory.

Unfortunately, I do not see a reweaving of the democratic dress with regard to your position on education. Frankly, I am concerned that what has been created in Chicago and across the country is a gigantic mess on a scale equal to, if not greater than, the tragedy in the gulf. If we don’t get our act together what will happen to our children? I plead with you today to restore justice and integrity to an important and vital part of our democratic institution. I know there are casualties of economic and political war, but some of them are truly unnecessary. I certainly never thought, given my skill and reputation that I, too, would become a casualty. I did not spend excessively, or play political jeopardy with friends in high places; I simply taught students and tried to take that work to the next level. Blaming me, or any other capable teacher, for the problems in the education system is like blaming a pelican for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Please, bring together a group of ethical, focused, and committed people and begin to reweave the educational system with clean threads so that those who follow in our path may have the same opportunities that you and I, and many Americans have had. Let at least half of these people be teachers, those in the trenches who know the whole child, who know what to do and will not simply put a band aid on people and programs in need of deeper triage. Please stop allowing our work to be outsourced to consultants and high priced vendors. We need communities built from within and experts who will begin to develop solutions through mutual trust and communication.


Andy Flaherty
Teacher and Writer

Footnote: As I am writing this letter to you, I received an email saying that my resume may not be submitted to my own employer -- Chicago Public Schools -- because the deadline was last Wednesday. It said, ironically, “In fairness to the other candidates, we cannot consider you at this time.” Because I am a second-career educator, I must work for twenty more years before I can retire. What I am left with is an employer that won’t protect me, and a Union that wants to use me. What we all are left with is a mess that will take years to clean up.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Facebook Posting February 5, 2012

I must admit to reading Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak," for the third time. I continue to return to it for its resonance within my current life situation, perhaps even to my whole life situation. That is the light it shines on the posture from which I approach my existence and more importantly how I must change this posture to regain equilibrium again. Just before I read the passage below, I had remembered how ignored my acceptance that I could not teach all kids but arrogantly did not trust that someone else could.

"One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess - the ultimate in giving to little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result of giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place."

A year of milestones: turning fifty, meeting Kay and her dying, then mom passing a month later. These events individually would have derailed even the strongest of us, I think. But it was working at a school that did not align with my teaching philosophy that finally put out my light. It was classic in terms of Palmer's definition that "when the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature, when it comes from my own organic reality, it will renew itself." Not one element of the school culture aligned with my own nature. The gift of this insight, I am sure, will relight the flame that has always sparked my invention.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Awakening in Ganz Hall*

History plays again

plate glass and metal balustrades

pageantry’s dress

tails and tie, capricious

bow, falling into

remembrances of Liszt

a scherzo between bed

and linen, your flirting

keys to the

tomb again,

shame’s sheets

are smoothed, your elegant

re-creation sings

and mastery names

secret bodies

swept from our own

bedroom floors

*Constructed by Louis Sullivan at Roosevelt University

Monday, January 23, 2012

Rant and Reconciliation: Thoughts on Being a Teacher

"A great leader's courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position."

This quote was posted this morning by my friend Anthony. I do not know John Maxwell the man that said this, but I know a bit about what he is saying. I have lived by the mantra for fourteen years, that teaching as Yeats said, "is the lighting of a fire not the filing of a pail." The very act of my craft is to create, or to spark, and the institutions that I have chosen to work for are in the business of putting out fires. We hear about this "position" or that one, but we never hear what any of these people believe in or how it fits with what we (the teachers) believe is right. With all due respect to those in charge of higher education they are not effectively communicating what the implications of leadership, or living a passionate life in public schools will mean. It is worth noting that at the root of the word passion is the idea we must submit to something. In my case, a love of teaching and learning. In the last three years as my passion waned, I began to see clearly, for the first time, the futility of the individual contribution - a reality that I did not want to face, a truth that I thought could be overcome by simply picking up the mantle and marching on. Perhaps the gift of age is wisdom; I now know that nothing can be done alone or in isolation. Whether personal or social, the reality is we need each other, but more importantly we need each other only in as much as we recognize the need for concensus about change. Public schools are in danger for a reason and in my experience it is not because of the work of most teachers and certainly not the fault of children. It is about leaders who lack courage. It is because leaders are unwilling to submit to their passions in order to find a vision which demands courage to be realized. Sadly, because leaders agree to paper-work and compliance instead of relationships that nuture teachers and students, they and their buildings are empty.

The above statement will not earn me any money today, but it will bring me peace of mind. I must move through this clouded reality that I have presented. I have so much to learn about how to temper my vision in a way that I can be heard again and bring hope to this great profession. Integrity pays more in dividends to the soul than any pay check. What is my passion, you ask?: children, ideas, learning, and transformation. In the last few weeks these were never part of any discussion ( a superior rating, 323 students who have completed four year colleges and are gainfully employed). Ironically, it is the behavior of administrators - their daily modeling - that children see and learn from everyday. At least my students had a chance to learn some honesty. My goal as I move forward will be to ensure that I do not allow what matters to leave my mind, or my lips, until I can say it in a way that can spawn change. Do not give the other side all the ammunition Andrew: they may shoot themselves, or worse, you.

Andy Flaherty, 2012 Graduate of Chicago Public Schools

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Lest We Forget

In Honor of World Aids Day 2011

I see trees, bare branches
Where you used to stand
Seventeen or more of you
Men and women
I have known
The world has known
We still rage against
Your dying light
Lest others forget
The life you left behind
I see trees, bare branches
Where you stood
We must stand for you
Lest others forget
You were here

We miss you