By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
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It wasn't enough. When Pishney met with Cohn to discuss problems with the math curriculum, she says the principal asked her to decorate three floor-to-ceiling hallway bulletin boards with blurbs, photos and examples of student work explaining how she was enriching the curriculum; she told Pishney to write a letter to parents detailing the same thing. By the time she'd revised the letter several times at Cohn's request, Pishney says, she'd spent seventy hours on the project.
The letter went to students' homes on November 30. On December 8, Cohn sat in on one of Pishney's reading lessons for her formal observation. In a meeting later that afternoon, Cohn mentioned a few concerns: The beginning readers weren't reading fluidly enough, and the classroom didn't have a library or writing center. She did have a library, Pishney told the principal, and she would work on installing a writing center, which was optional, over the winter break.
According to Pishney, "I asked her, 'Was it a successful observation?' And she said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Well, that's a relief. I'm kind of a worrywart, and I want to do my best.'" Pishney says she left the meeting feeling good.
Pishney was sick over the break and unable to work on the writing center, which she envisioned as a desk stocked with writing supplies and tips. When she returned to Bromwell for a teacher work day on January 4, she asked Cohn for a copy of her formal evaluation document, a standard template that all DPS principals use. "She was angry, and she said, 'Well, you didn't pass that formal observation,'" Pishney recalls. "And I just almost passed out. I said, 'What?' She said, 'I have serious concerns about your reading program.'"
They set up a meeting for that afternoon, when Pishney says Cohn rattled off a litany of complaints, many of which echoed the parents' complaints from earlier in the year. She also criticized Pishney's reading instruction, saying that the students weren't grouped properly by level.
Pishney tried to defend herself but didn't get far: "Every time I would say, 'I am doing guided reading, my students are advancing,' any time I would defend myself, she would get enraged and yell and say, 'You're bucking me! I'm going to put you on a growth plan!'" To Pishney, that sounded like she would be "on the precipice of bye-bye."
By the end of the meeting, Pishney was sobbing. "All I'd accomplished was being twisted as being negative," she remembers. "It was just the most horrific experience I've had in my life."
Back in her classroom, Pishney began typing notes on what had just happened. The three single-spaced pages she wrote that day became one of many entries in her three-ring binder. "I don't normally do this because it's so time-intensive," she explains. "But when things started going down the tubes, I felt, Mary, you've got to start documenting."
Cohn was doing some documenting of her own. On January 29, she presented Pishney with the official evaluation document: Pishney had failed.
In addition to the issues they'd already discussed, it included two "peer teacher letters of concern" that Cohn had received after January 4. One said Pishney wasn't supervising her students. The second letter, which was unsigned, included complaints that the teacher had reportedly heard from parents: that the first-grade math, reading and writing lessons were subpar, that there was lots of "busy work," and that parents had commented on the "emotional status" of a certain unnamed first-grade teacher who appeared "frazzled" lately.
"None of those teachers ever asked me anything," Pishney says. "This was hearsay from parents."
On February 18, per DPS protocol, Cohn gave Pishney a "remediation plan" to help her improve. It required that Pishney turn in detailed weekly lesson plans that listed the ways in which she planned to differentiate her lessons, and also do weekly analyses of her students' progress in math and reading — even though she'd recently gotten mid-year scores showing that her students were making impressive gains in reading. The plan asked for too much, Pishney says; she felt it was "set up for failure."
So Pishney never started the remediation plan. Instead, on February 25, she filed a grievance against Cohn with the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the DPS teachers' union, accusing Cohn of creating a hostile working environment and engaging in age discrimination. At 63, Pishney is the oldest teacher at Bromwell.
Pishney was a mess: She'd begun losing weight, her hair was falling out, her voice had developed a tremor and her hands wouldn't stop shaking. The day after she filed the grievance, she left school early to see a doctor. "My blood pressure was so high that I was on the edge of a stroke," she says. "He said, 'Mary, you've got to get away from that situation or it could kill you.'"
Both my husband and I trust the leadership," says Marcia Toll, whose daughter was in Pishney's first-grade class this past year and whose husband serves on the PTSA. "We have a strong principal who wants academic rigor at the school. She has a vision for the school that I support, and she has the best interest of the kids in mind. I trust whatever the principal needed to do."