Madison teachers report from the classroom
by Dylan Brogan
May 16, 2019
Twenty minutes after Hamilton Middle School lets out on April 5, three seventh grade girls are heading to homework club when they encounter a boy banging on lockers in the hallway.
The girls, all African American, ask him what is wrong, but he says nothing. The girls then pause to do a 10-second Dubsmash — a social media app that lets users upload videos of themselves dancing and lip syncing.
A white, male teacher steps out of his classroom to see what the commotion is.
“[The teacher] came out and yelled, ‘you are being loud,’” one of the students later tells a Madison police officer called to the school by a parent of one of the girls. “I told him there is no need for him to get loud…. That’s not how you’re supposed to talk to children.”
The teacher tells the girls to leave, but one of the girls tell him to “back off,” according to police reports. The teacher retreats to his classroom, but the girls linger outside his door, complaining about the incident.
The afternoon turns uglier when the teacher reappears, ordering the girls “to go home and get out of this building.”
Another teacher overhears one of the girls yell, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” The agitated teacher barks back, “I’m a teacher in this building!”
Hamilton’s after-school coordinator attempts to intervene as the confrontation escalates. She tells the teacher, “I’ve got this. You need to stop.” But it’s of no avail. One girl yells at the teacher, “get out of my space,” and “you’re a grown-ass man.” The teacher snaps back, “You don’t get to tell me what to do…. You’re the student, I’m the adult.”
Then, multiple witnesses say, the teacher walks up to one of the students who has her hand outstretched with her palm out, gesturing for him to stop. The student alleges that the teacher walks “into her outstretched palm” and “nudged” her. Hamilton’s assistant principal, Nichole Berg, told police that she didn’t hear the teacher yelling, but heard the students say things like “he’s hitting me and you’re not doing anything about it.”
One of the girls later tells an officer that the teacher is suffering from “white fragility” and had made her feel “unsafe.”
The students had a point — the teacher is a “grown-ass man” and they’re just children. This wasn’t likely his finest moment as an educator. And yet, the incident also underscores just how maddeningly difficult teaching has become in Madison’s public schools. A simple request from a teacher for students to move along at the end of the day is met with an F-bomb and a call to the police. A father of one of the girls told school officials that “if he was there he would beat that teacher’s ass.”
Police officer Michael Davenport reviewed security video of the incident and concluded, “[The teacher] had his arms crossed behind his back or below his waist level” and there was “no probable cause that a crime had been committed.”
The teacher was put on administrative leave for one day while the district investigated, according to police reports. The school would not disclose whether any other disciplinary action was taken, but the teacher was back at work on the Tuesday after the Friday incident.
A teacher who witnessed the incident told police she had never observed one of her colleagues act like that before. She says the incident “lasted about 30-60 seconds” but was very intense and escalated quickly.
It left her thinking, “What the hell just happened?”
A lot people in Madison are wondering what the hell is happening in our schools. Even Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham has called it a “trying year.”
Cheatham, however, remains upbeat about the trajectory of the district and her goal to close the stark achievement gap between kids of color and their white peers. She says the district is on a path towards “transformational change.” But she won’t be around to see that change through. On May 8, Cheatham announced she would be leaving Madison in August to teach at Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Madison school board is expected to select an interim superintendent in June.
Cheatham has championed reform in her six years leading the district. She spearheaded the creation of a Strategic Framework in 2013, a detailed mission statement that sets goals to guide district policy. The framework was updated after listening sessions with the public in 2018 to include a focus on “black excellence.” It now has three core goals: “Every child is on track to graduate ready for college, career and community. The district and every school in it is a place where children, staff and families thrive; African American children and youth excel in school.”
Cheatham also ushered in a major policy change regarding discipline. The Student Code of Conduct was replaced by the Behavior Education Plan in 2014. The plan states it is “a progressive and restorative approach to behavior and discipline” as opposed to “zero tolerance policies relying on punishment and exclusionary practices to correct misbehavior.”
The shift in disciplinary policy is a response to the disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion experienced by African American students, kids of color and students with disabilities — the district sees removal from the classroom as contributing factors to poor academic performance. Black kids represent just under 20 percent of the total student population but consistently represent over half of the students who are suspended.
Cheatham says the plan has an “explicit equity imperative” and is evolving.
“What are we doing as educators to see students for all of who they are, to not make assumptions about them, to deeply inquire into who they are so we know how best to meet their needs,” Cheatham tells Isthmus. “How do we use additional supplemental supports, as appropriate and needed, when a student needs more than a classroom teacher can provide?”
But the transformation 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.”
Leah is a special education teacher at a Madison middle school. She blames Cheatham for what she calls “an extremely rough school year.”
“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.”
Leah supports the Behavior Education Plan’s principles, but calls its implementation “a complete failure.”
“What’s changed is kids have the mindset that they are in charge now. You walk into the school and there are just kids everywhere. Walking the halls. Leaving the classrooms whenever they want,” says Leah. “I do believe in restorative practices. I also believe in holding kids accountable. If we don’t, we aren’t preparing them for the real world. Cheatham really thinks she can close these achievement gaps by just loving and hugging them all.”
Leah says some teachers have grown accustomed to daily confrontation in the classroom.
“If I wrote up students for swearing at me, that’s all I would do. Today in a math class, I asked a kid to put her phone away and was told to ‘fuck off,’” says Leah. “I said, ‘Okay. But could you please put your phone away? Her response, ‘Don’t fuck with me now because I’m not in the mood. I’m going to call my mom.’ I thought, ‘wait, that’s supposed to be my line.’”
Peter Opps, a history teacher at La Follette High School, estimates that up to 5 percent of students hang out in the halls on any given day.
“It can be a real circus and it’s happening at every high school and at middle schools, too. It’s like the district is lost on what to do. This year is different because we are seeing respect break down on so many different levels,” says Opps, who notes that most of the students in the halls at La Follette are African American. “There has been a morph from an educational environment to more of a housing environment. You want to know where our achievement gap is? It’s out in the hall.”
Leah doesn’t blame the students.
“I love these kids. But they are going to push the envelope as far as they can,” she says. “That’s what middle schoolers do. This isn’t their fault.”
Rebecca, a veteran high school teacher, has been sexually harassed by students and has witnessed other teachers being verbally abused.
“I’ve been catcalled by random students who have just wandered in my room. These just weren’t problems we had in the past because the administration had our backs. But now, harassment of staff by students” isn’t a category addressed by the behavior plan, Rebecca says. “We’ve lost so many fantastic people. People who used to be stable and stalwart are crumbling. They don’t get the support they need. They can’t be abused anymore — not by the students, by the system.”
How is the Behavior Education Plan supposed to play out in the classroom? It calls for five levels of intervention, starting with a verbal warning from a teacher in a classroom. As the behavior escalates, a teacher may then take away a privilege, have a “quick conference” with the child or ask the student to take a break in a designated space within the classroom. A student may also be sent to a “Buddy Room” where they can “pull themselves together and reflect on behavior,” after which, they are welcomed back to the classroom.
Hedi Lamar Rudd
If all of that fails, a teacher may call for support from the Student Support and Intervention Team. The support staff uses a problem-solving process to address whether the student has “unmet needs or lagging skills” that contribute to the behavior. Staff may teach coping skills to the student or assign a mentor. A problem-solving conference with parents may also be called.
If a behavior is severe enough — a violent threat or fighting — it can lead to a more serious intervention like a suspension.
Linda, who has taught in the district for more than a decade, says the behavior plan’s stated purpose to “address the underlying cause of behavior” sounds great in theory. But it is often ineffective.
“So many teachers struggle with this: If you have an issue in the classroom and you call the behavior people — if they come at all — they talk to the kid for 10 minutes and the kid comes back haw-hawing in your face,” Linda says.
Teachers are also expected to contact parents when there’s a problem, which some teachers are reluctant to do. “I had a kid who drew a picture of me with another boy doing it to me doggy style. Now did I want to call this kid’s dad and tell him that? Not really. It’s just another deterrent from teachers doing anything to correct bad behavior.”
District reports based on 2018 climate surveys highlighted responses from students of color and staff of color. Both groups cited student behavior as the biggest challenge facing schools.
“When only a few students misbehave,” one student of color reported, “it disrupts the whole class and makes it harder to learn.”
“I think that there are a lot of students at school who don’t really show teachers and staff enough respect,” said another student.
“Behavior without consequences” and “inconsistent behavior management” was a common complaint among teachers of color who responded to the district’s survey. Some said “diversity awareness” was problematic among some educators and a more diverse staff is “needed to strengthen cultural competence and awareness.”
So far, the Behavior Education Plan has reduced out-of-school suspensions significantly in elementary schools, but racial disparities increased among the district’s youngest students. In the 2013-2014 school year, elementary schools suspended 730 students; 57 percent of those students were African American. In 2016-2017, suspensions decreased to 176 students but 66 percent were African American.
Suspensions decreased slightly in middle and high schools. In 2013-2014, there were 2,175 suspensions. Three years later, that dropped to 2,031. But the gap persists. African American students made up 59 percent of suspensions in 2013-2014; that rose to 63 percent in 2016-2017. Students with disabilities were also disproportionately suspended compared to the total school population.
Jay Affeldt, the district’s director of student physical, behavioral and mental health, says the district is listening to teachers about how the behavior plan needs to be improved. In February, the school board made some tweaks to the plan that will be implemented next year.
“Staff recognize how complex this work is and [that] behaviors are symptoms of students that are not being fully engaged,” says Affeldt. “We’ve been focused on the technical implementation since we rolled out the [Behavior Education Plan] five years ago. We have been missing some of the adaptive pieces and the foundational systems that need to be in place for this to work the right way.”
Newly elected school board member Ali Muldrow is skeptical about teachers’ complaints that the Behavior Education Plan has led to more disruptive behavior.
“I think the word ‘disruptive’ has become a racialized term in our district. It’s used in a way that excludes kids of color from education,” Muldrow says. “The idea that kids of color need to be punished more severely is really indicative of why we have an achievement gap.”
Muldrow says the behavior plan is an attempt to limit exclusionary practices that keep students out of the classroom. When told about common complaints from teachers about the plan — “behavior and no consequences” — she hears thinly veiled racism.
“I’m just trying to teach my class and black kids are getting in my way. It would be really helpful when I want them sent out, they got sent out. When I want them suspended, they got suspended,” says Muldrow, playing the role of a white teacher. “I would like permission to discriminate against students of color so I can do my job.”
Michael Hibbler taught for 30 years in the district, including long stints at Marquette Elementary and O’Keeffe Middle. He retired in 2015 but now teaches pre-K at One City Schools, a public charter.
In his experience, kids of color can be unfairly labeled as behavioral challenges in kindergarten and first grade because they do things a little differently.
“So what happens in third grade? The kid has been taught that they are the problem and they start to shut down,” says Hibbler, who is black. “By sixth grade they are labeled ‘monster’ and disengage even more. By the time the kid is in high school, they have years of negative interactions in schools and are years behind academically.”
Hibbler is critical of the top-down leadership that several teachers say Cheatham has brought to the district. He says teachers need to be held accountable but systemic racism can’t be solved in one classroom.
“Believe me, I’ve tried,” says Hibbler. “That’s why every teacher needs to practice equity and exercise compassion from the very beginning. Kids see that and flock to it.”
Lauren, an administrator at a Madison middle school, says teachers need to get out of the mindset that they can ignore the racial disparities that plague the district.
“It’s a cop-out. The kids that can conform and can code switch into the predominant white supremacy culture, they are successful. Kids shouldn’t have to do that,” says Lauren. “The blame game gets you nowhere. Just forget it. Teachers need to get it into their heads that they have to be co-conspirators in the work of justice in our schools.”
Some teachers see themselves as allies in that fight, but say the district’s rhetoric isn’t holding up to reality. Karyn Chacon worked at East High School for more than a decade with some of the most high-needs youth in the district. She says she has forged lifelong bonds with students despite cultural differences.
“When you do get through to a kid, when you really get them talking and they trust you, they apologize for how they treated you sometimes,” says Chacon. “One of my students dropped my class because he said ‘I know I’m just going to keep being disrespectful to you and I don’t want to do that.’”
This year, Chacon made the hard choice to leave East mid-year because her job had become too stressful and was affecting her health.
“It breaks my heart because I love my kids, but the district is grasping at straws. They say they we need to embrace cultural differences. We should be doing that and we need to be part of the solution” says Chacon, who now works at John Muir Elementary. “But no parent is saying the answer to achievement gaps is allowing their kid to cuss me out.’”
When asked if this year has been tougher than other school years, Lauren says teaching now requires some level of discomfort.
“For those of us like me, who have been uncomfortable in the system, it’s always been like this. What a privilege it must be to be comfortable. It’s never been comfortable for people of color, for immigrants, for people who speak other languages,” says Lauren. “We have to move through this. Teachers have to lean into the discomfort and be curious about what’s on the other side. That’s what I want from my staff. I want a culture of collaboration in my school.”
That culture of collaboration does not exist for many of the teachers who spoke to Isthmus. Instead they speak of feeling abandoned by district administrators who expect them to both manage extreme behavior issues in the classroom and create a rich learning experience at the same time.
Susan, a high school teacher, says she’s on board with a more restorative model of behavior management and feels lucky to have a support team she trusts at her school. But she sees her colleagues suffering “initiative fatigue.”
“There have been a barrage of attacks on the educational system with less money, less funding and less support. It’s been a real challenge,” Susan says. “Overall, I think the district has identified areas where we can make a lot of positive changes. It’s just overwhelming as teachers when there are so many initiatives and sometimes it isn’t clear they are really helping kids succeed.”
Several teachers, especially at the high school level, report pressure from school officials to improve the appearance of student performance. There is more data than ever tracking students, and teachers are feeling the heat when kids aren’t achieving. But teachers feel unfairly judged by such data because it doesn’t reflect the complexity of each child’s situation.
“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?”
“How am I supposed to engage a student who barely shows up to class, when there are 28 other students in the room? I would love to make things more engaging for every individual student. There just isn’t enough time in the day,” says Opps. “We need to give those kids some place to engage. Because it’s just not happening right now and you can’t just blame the teachers. Nobody gets into teaching to make life miserable for kids.”
Lister, the Hamilton science teacher, also questions whether the district is really preparing kids for the real world. “Now and then it’s okay to be bored. Because sometimes life is boring and you gotta deal with it. I also don’t see the district providing any other alternatives,” Lister says. “If a kid is showing disrespect to authority and wandering the halls, they aren’t learning, they aren’t preparing for a career. Most people end up having a boss at some point in their life. So how exactly are we helping these students?”
This kind of disillusionment has led to low teacher morale and defections. The district hasn’t released resignation or retirement figures for this school year. Last year, 261 teachers left the district for a turnover rate of 9.5 percent — higher than in the years after Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which eliminated collective bargaining rights for teachers. The turnover rate for teachers peaked in the 2016-2017 school year at 10.3 percent.
“The general attitude from on-high is that if a teacher isn’t happy, they should leave,” says Rebecca. “That’s exactly what is happening.”
Lauren, the administrator, says she understands why some teachers struggle but that they need to get with the program. She says the education field is evolving quickly in Madison and some teachers are locked into an outdated view of the profession.
“Teachers are no longer information givers. They don’t need to just take what’s in a textbook and give it to the kids,” Lauren says. “They need to be facilitators in critical thinking and that’s a huge shift for what it means to be a teacher. Anything you can Google, you don’t need to be teaching in the classroom.”
Michael Jones, a special education teacher at Black Hawk Middle School, says “it’s going to take a lot of trust and vulnerability on all sides” to move forward. He notes that even before Cheatham took over, teachers were demoralized by Act 10 and subsequent state cuts to education.
“Teachers are frustrated because they feel like they’ve had their sense of pride and power taken away from them. So on top of that, it’s not a good feeling to know that you are a part of a system that is designed to, and reinforces, disparities and racism,” says Jones, who is black and Vietnamese. “Every teacher got into the profession to help. To be told that what you have been doing is hurting kids, it’s like a double body blow.”
Isthmus asked Cheatham to respond to the stories teachers shared about their experiences in the classroom, and teachers’ specific concerns, but the superintendent sidestepped the question. Instead, she says she understands how some reforms may feel threatening to teachers, particularly white ones, but that it’s critical that the district stick with her plan to close achievement gaps.