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What do I tell my students when I’m fired?

February 22, 2011 posted by Nicholas Melvoin

Nicholas Melvoin, a former middle school teacher in Los Angeles, was fired at the end of his first and second year in the classroom as a result of seniority-based layoffs. Here, he describes how the layoffs impacted not only his school, but his students.

“Actions speak louder than words.” It is a common adage that I used many times in my classroom, while trying to get my students to understand the importance of their actions aligning with their beliefs. So, despite what I told my students about how much we—the collective, societal “we”—valued their education and believed in their potential, when almost all of their teachers were ripped away from them at the end of the school year, that action spoke louder than my words. 

That action—firing 57 percent of the teachers at a school—aligns much more accurately with the belief that we don’t value their education, at least not when the budget gets tight. It aligns much more accurately with the belief that the rights of teachers—regardless of their efficacy—trump the rights of children, regardless of their potential or circumstance.

After graduating from Harvard, I chose to teach at Markham Middle School in Watts because of an unwavering belief that the need for excellent educators is greatest in our nation’s most underserved schools. When I walked into my classroom on the first day of school, I was greeted by scores of capable young scholars who had clearly been shackled by an educational system that had failed them. Most of my students were years behind where they needed to be in reading, writing, and math. Despite this fact, and despite the number of years these students had walked into classrooms marred by mediocrity, if not inadequacy, my students saw education as the ticket to success in life.  And they were ready to work for it. We were ready to help them. Then we all got fired—nearly two-thirds of us.

I used to joke—although it wasn’t that funny—that I was fired because of traffic. I signed my contract a few minutes later than some of my colleagues and in a system based solely on seniority, every minute counts. I was really fired, however, because our system protects adults over children. It protects senior educators, regardless of their efficacy, over vulnerable children. And it decimates schools. My indignation, it should be noted, is shared by Markham’s most senior teachers, most of whom kept their jobs. When a school loses over half of its faculty year after year, everybody loses. These senior educators have spent years at schools like Markham watching scores of young teachers get fired, regardless of their performance or the needs of the school. 

After losing my job and spending the summer unemployed, I came back to Markham as a long-term substitute because I had made a commitment to my students. I came back to find empty classrooms, a rotating parade of daily substitutes, and an environment that was in no way conducive to learning. On the first day of school, my students’ schedules listed five out of their six teachers as “unfilled.” Many of them spent the first few months of school without a permanent teacher—some with 12 or 13 different substitutes in one class. I sat in on a history class where after 50 minutes of the students doing hidden pictures, crosswords, and copying pages out of the textbook, I witnessed the substitute throw all the students’ work into the trash can. These students were being failed.

“Actions speak louder than words.” Not willing to simply bear witness to this injustice, I, along with many colleagues, students, parents, and community members, took action.  With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, we sued the Los Angeles Unified School District and the State of California on behalf of these children. We argued that the seniority-based layoffs that decimated schools like Markham violated the constitutional rights of these children to equal educational opportunity. And we won.

It shouldn’t have taken months of litigation for us to realize that when we systematically rob students of their teachers every year, we are violating their rights. It shouldn’t have taken months of advocating for us to realize that our nation’s most vulnerable students should be protected from an antiquated system that doesn’t consider their needs.  It shouldn’t have taken months of students sitting in vacant classrooms for us to finally align our actions to our beliefs. In a society that values fairness and believes in justice, we would put these students first. 

Nicholas Melvoin is a Los Angeles native. He attended Harvard University, where after graduating in June of 2008, he joined Teach For America and was a member of the 2008 Los Angeles Corps. He began teaching in July of 2008 at Edwin Markham Middle School in Watts, where he taught 7th and 8th Grade English and ESL, coached soccer and baseball, and was a small learning community principal during his second year. Unable to return for a third year of teaching at Markham, he currently works for Teach For America in their Los Angeles office.