By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Miss P's first-graders stood on the stage at Bromwell Elementary School, before a packed house. With their teacher standing in the wings, out of view of a parent's camcorder, the children began to recite:
On the far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond,
Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.
A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.
The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.
The turtles had everything turtles might need.
And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.
They were...until Yertle, the king of them all,
Decided the kingdom he ruled was too small.
Over the next six minutes, they performed all 24 pages of Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle, about a little turtle named Mack who dared to stand up to the king. Under Miss P's tutelage, this class had memorized longer and longer poems, starting with The Owl and the Pussycat and moving on to Little Orphant Annie and the 52 lines of Casey at the Bat. Three weeks before their end-of-the-year performance, which also included a play and several dance numbers, they took on Yertle.
Watching the tape, Mary Pishney is "tickled pink," to use one of her favorite expressions as Miss P, first-grade teacher. "They love it," she says of the performances her classes put on every spring. "They're the stars. Parents have told me it teaches self-confidence and no fear of public speaking. And they remember those poems for years. To me, those are the things that make education joyful."
They're also the things that Pishney misses the most. Sitting in the living room of her whimsically decorated Denver loft, a three-ring binder with forty-eight tabs on her lap, Pishney sighs as she explains why there won't be a performance this year, her seventh at Bromwell. "I just keep thinking, 'This should be our play,'" she says.
Pishney hasn't been back to Bromwell since she left early for a doctor's appointment on Friday, February 26. The doctor told her she was suffering the effects of extreme work-related stress, which Pishney thinks was triggered by a hard-to-please principal siding with similarly hard-to-please parents, resulting in the first bad evaluation she's received in her decades-long, multi-state career.
Pishney's doctor referred her to another doctor, who wrote a two-page letter to Denver Public Schools detailing her situation and why he was recommending medical leave. "The intimidation, lying and overt threats Ms. Pishney has described are translating into fear and are compounded by visceral responses like hypertension, trembling and gasping for breath," he wrote. "Consequently, I do not see Ms. Pishney returning to work."
At least not for the rest of the school year, which ended two weeks ago. And if Pishney does return to work in the fall, this doctor recommended that she be supervised by someone other than the current principal, Jody Cohn, Bromwell's fifth in ten years.
"It's not personal," Cohn says of the evaluation process. "It's about the practice of teaching, not the personality of the teacher."
Pishney was one of 58 DPS teachers who failed their evaluations this past school year — more than twice as many as last year. According to Shayne Spalten, chief human resources officer at DPS, that number reflects a push for higher teacher standards. "We've really emphasized with principals the importance of addressing performance issues they're having with teachers," she says. "Teachers have a significant impact on how much kids are growing academically in classrooms. We're focusing on that."
Last week, Colorado applied for $175 million in round two of the federal Race to the Top education grant contest, after losing out in round one. The weakest part of Colorado's first application? Its plan to improve teacher quality. Colorado's chances this time could be helped by a controversial measure passed by the legislature last month that largely ties their fate to their students' achievement — but many teachers hate the plan.
Pishney is one of them. She doesn't feel there's anything wrong with the quality of most teachers, herself definitely included. The 63-year-old has always gone above and beyond: hosting after-school enrichment sessions, playing classical music in class, bringing her parakeet to school as a reward for her students. Every year, parents have requested that their children be placed in her class.
"Everything was going wonderfully well," she says.
Mary Pishney's case illustrates the difficulty of measuring a teacher's "effectiveness," which a new wave of education reformers including President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan believe is key to raising student achievement. Good teachers should be rewarded, they say, and bad teachers should be rooted out.
That was the thrust behind Senate Bill 191, introduced in April by freshman state senator Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat and former alternative high-school principal who served as an education advisor to Obama during his campaign and on his transition team. SB191 called for tenured teachers to be evaluated every year rather than every three, and for half of that evaluation to be tied to student academic growth; if teachers failed two evaluations in a row, they'd be put on probation and risk losing their jobs.
The Colorado Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, vehemently opposed the proposal. Marti Houser, the CEA's general counsel, says the union was concerned that the bill removed a teacher's right to appeal dismissal decisions before a judge; the union was also worried about the cost of the bill and how it would be implemented. Under SB191, a fifteen-member council appointed by the governor would define what it means to be an "effective teacher."