Entirely Unacceptable: Morale Matters


Another Sunday, and another pep talk for our teachers from the Superintendent.

Well, I suppose you might find it motivational if you work for Teach for America.

If, however, you one of the thousands of traditionally trained teachers, fully certified teachers, highly-qualified teachers, who has dedicated your life to the children of our community, there’s not much there for you.


So, Dr. Wardynski has written an op-ed piece for the Huntsville Times this past Sunday singing, yet again, the praises of Teach for America as being far better suited to teach in “our lowest-income and highest-need schools” than “traditional measures” that have failed.

Just what are these “traditional measures?” It would be nice of him to explicate this for his readers, but that would simply take too much time. Just trust him. Traditional measures are failures.

So lets see if we can figure out what he means here by traditional measures. Well, since the non-traditional measure he’s pushing through is to pay Teach for America up to $1.9 million dollars for five years simply to recruit and train people who didn’t want to be teachers enough to receive that training on their own, I suppose that the traditional measures he’s talking about here are traditionally trained teachers.

(Since there often seems to still be confusion about this money, let me attempt to make it clear. New traditionally trained and certified teachers in Alabama and here in HCS will make $36,144 per year with a BS degree. New TFA trained and non-certified TFAers in Alabama and here in HCS will make $36,144 per year with a BS degree. They will both have exactly the same benefits package. The only difference here is that the non-certified TFAer who choose to go to college to get a degree in something other than Education, will cost the system an additional $5,000, per year for at least two years. So after two years a traditionally trained teacher will cost HCS $72,288. A TFAer will cost HCS $82,288. Teach for America “teachers” cost 13% more than traditionally trained teachers.)

Just in case you didn’t catch it: Traditional Measures=Traditionally Trained Teachers who have failed. Our Motivator in Chief has struck again.

He offers exactly no explanation for why traditionally trained teachers have failed, so I thought I would offer a few possibilities. Our nation, our state and our city have spent the last 30 years devaluing teachers, and devaluing education. Since “throwing money at the problem” won’t fix the problem, lets starve it to death instead. And so that’s been the traditional approach we’ve taken with education. Cut all resources for education to the bone, cut salaries and benefits of teachers, increase class sizes, increase the work load, increase the required reporting to district, state and federal officials, and decrease professional development. These are the “traditional measures” that have failed.

So we can’t “just throw money at the problem” that we’ve created for traditionally trained teachers (you know, teachers who actually wanted to be teachers), but we can just throw money–$1.9 million here in Huntsville–at a company to recruit people who didn’t want to teach and who don’t stay in education to come in and fix the problem for us.

And when they have at best exactly the same results as the teachers who didn’t cost us $1.9 million to recruit, well, we just need to spend even more, right? Cause giving public funds to a private organization with $309 million dollars in NET assets just makes us feel better than say spending $500 a year on professional development for our teachers in “our lowest-income and highest need schools.” Making the rich, richer isn’t throwing money at a problem, it’s a “good investment.”

I’m sure that “most” of our “highly effective teachers” will feel the love tomorrow as they drive to work for the start of another day of school.

One thing you can say about Dr. Wardynski: he’s consistent.

I noticed in his comments on Thursday night that he doesn’t like all the negative press that the system has gotten. He said:

Teachers are folks who are key to learning. They’re key to student growth, and there are many who are doing great jobs. And it’s no secret that this superintendent addresses those that we think are not doing great jobs. We continue to do so. But when that becomes the story for our school district, what we miss is the key teachers that are doing great work.

It truly is a terrible thing when one teacher’s actions reflect badly on all the other excellent teachers in our system. He’s right to say that when that happens, we do indeed miss the great work of our key teachers.

But what he’s not owning up to is that the reason that the story for our school district has become focused on teachers who are not doing their job is because that’s what he continually talks about. If he would stop saying that our traditionally trained teachers aren’t capable of teaching low-income students, the story would change. If he would deal with personnel matters without bragging about what he is or isn’t going to do to teachers who don’t meet his expectations, the story would change.

On August 11, 2011, there was a special board meeting at 12:00pm noon with a very brief agenda that included a discussion of the job description for the Director of Community Engagement and Partnership Development. After this meeting, Dr. Wardynski approached me to chat. (It was early. Before he started just shouting orders as he walked by.)

At the conclusion of our discussion, Dr. Wardynski said that he had to leave as he was going to go meet an AWOL teacher as she departed her plane at the airport. With glee in his voice, he was excited to tell me that he was going to catch her and hand deliver her termination. He evidently was saying the same thing to the Huntsville Times before the meeting that day.

It was as if he believed I would cheer him on. In fact, what I said to him was this, “Dr. Wardynski, I don’t believe you should be telling me this.” As he had already started turning away, I don’t believe he heard me.

The teacher whom he met at the airport was Jo Ann Thompson who found out today that she would be getting her job back at Davis Hills Middle School.

I haven’t written about her firing before. Since I’m not privy to her personnel records or even all the details of what actually happened, I thought that the best I could say about her firing would be, “We’ll see what happens.”

As the Times reported today, Dr. Wardynski did not give me the entire story when he claimed that Mrs. Thompson was AWOL, and as Dr. Wardynski now knows, the devil is in the details. It seems that she decided to leave after being told that her punishment for doing so would consist of being “written up” by her principal.

In other words, Judge Sandra H. Storm believed that Mrs. Thompson had been set up.

(For the record, I do not think that a teacher should miss the first week of class except in cases of extreme emergency. But I also am convinced that Mrs. Thompson was set up for the sole purpose of instilling fear in our teaching corps.)

So again we see that this superintendent is actively going out of his way to intimidate, demoralize, and frighten the teachers working in Huntsville.

All of them.

In other words, Dr. Robinson–who has said many times that the only teachers opposed to or afraid of Dr. Wardynski are those who aren’t doing their jobs–is wrong. She is as wrong as the Deputy Governor Danforth from The Crucible who claimed that, “them that fear not the light will surely praise it.

Dr. Wardynski has regularly and consistently sought to create an environment in Huntsville City Schools of fear, uncertainty and doubt. And board members like Dr. Robinson have gone out of their way to help him.

Today, speaking of the decision, Dr. Wardynski said that the ruling was “entirely unacceptable.” He compared her disobedience to that of a student disobeying a teacher and claimed that the “student would face strict punishment.”

According to Policy Number 106-1: Student Discipline, a student may be punished for “1.10 Unauthorized absence from class (cutting class).” A student may also be punished for “1.14 Failure to follow instructions – examples: failure to carry correspondence home; failure to obey directions in the hallways, assemblies, etc. Both of these are listed as Class I – Minor Offenses. The disciplinary action for a Class I offense is to “Conference with student and reasonable effort to make parental contact.”

Perhaps we should have called Mrs. Thompson’s parents instead? It would have had the benefit of saving the district quite a bit of money.

Rather, Dr. Wardynski, what is actually “entirely unacceptable” is your desire to run off our excellent teachers and replace them with “alternatively certified” (not certified as he stated in his editorial) TFAers. Your approach of intimidation, demoralization and fear, sir, is what is entirely unacceptable.


"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. What the heck does he mean traditional measures have failed? Have traditional measured failed at the predominately white schools? If not, why not? Because it’s not the “traditional measures” that have failed, it’s the chief instructional leader(s) and the school board who have failed. Chief instructional leaders who don’t have any classroom experience or educational back ground to be specific. All TFA is going to do is make sure Pinnacle has lots of “beds.”

  2. This is a really timely post. I can see as I try to do things with my daughters classroom (technology speaking) that no one wants to move, or breathe because of fear of reprisal from the superintendent. I can feel it happening and cannot do anything to help. It seems everyone is trying so hard to protect their own jobs that nothing will flow through the system to get done. That is just crazy. Our teachers and staff should be doing what is right for the students not worried about getting fired. Fear and intimidation is wrong, this is not basic training!!!

    1. Yep. I’ve seen it in my kids classrooms as well. We need to stand up to bullies and they’ll run away.

  3. I am not sure that I see what one half of this entry has to do with the other, quite honestly.

    Your discussion of the TFA placements versus professional teachers is spot-on. But you lose me when you start talking about the AWOL teacher.

    Okay — I totally agree that her discipline should not have been discussed with you. I also totally agree that it’s wrong for the superintendent to be gleeful in the face of disciplining an employee. Also concur that it’s a poor choice to leave school (year after year, BTW) during the first week of instruction. But that’s when we part company.

    This teacher was told she would have punishment X for her decision to defy her boss and her boss’s boss. That she weighed that punishment and decided to bite the bullet reflects poorly on her. Add that example of poor judgment to the poor judgment that is demonstrated by YEARS of abandoning her classroom at the start of the school year, and I think she stands as an example of one of the bad apples among the trained teachers. Regardless of what she THOUGHT her punishment would be, I think her abdication of responsibility for her students warrants termination. I, personally, am glad that she is being called out for that. If this puts teachers on notice that their own personal priorities must sometimes take a backseat to their students, I’m comfortable with that. It’s been my experience that the quality teachers already operate under that system of values.

    1. Witsendstrs:

      Thank you for taking the time to read this ridiculously long post all the way to the end (including parts that you disagree with).

      Let me see if I can explain what was done to Mrs. Thompson in a way that’s a bit clearer.

      First, you and I agree that teachers should be present in the classroom, especially on the first week of school, barring an emergency. Since Mrs. Thompson was not present, and since she did not have her supervisor’s permission to be absent, we also agree that some form of punishment is required.

      You write, “This teacher was told she would have punishment X for her decision to defy her boss and her boss’s boss.” This is correct. She was told that she would receive a letter of reprimand in her personnel file by her principal, and this was confirmed by the superintendent.

      This was the punishment X that she was told she would receive.

      The punishment that she actually received was a letter of termination. Judge Storm specific referenced this in her decision that you can read here. So she was told she would receive punishment X, but she actually received punishment Z. This isn’t just a matter of what she thought the punishment would be. This is what she was told, and she provided evidence to that effect sufficient to convince an independent judge.

      While she does appear to have taken this same trip for 9 years, neither her previous principal nor her previous superintendent denied her permission to go. According again to the decision by Judge Storm, she had a “perfect record” previous to this incident. Thus, it was not a violation of school policy during the previous 9 years for her to take the first week of school off for a personal trip. I suspect that you and I would agree that this was a mistake on the part of her previous principal and superintendent. Both of those employees are now gone.

      Just as students have degrees of punishments for violations of rules, so do teachers. Moving from reprimand to termination without any intervening steps was a violation of the Human Resources Policies of the district. This is why she won her case.

      Please understand that I am not attempting to defend Mrs. Thompson’s absence from class during the first week of school for non-emergency reasons. I think that it was correct to deny her leave request. I believe that a letter of reprimand is also appropriate. If she had other letters of reprimand in her file, then proceeding to more severe punishments would have be completely justified. Including, at some point, termination.

      Judge Storm also noted that Mrs. Thompson did not, as you stated, abandon her class. She notified her principal that she would be out, and she provided a qualified substitute teacher to meet and teach her class.

      The reason that I have chosen to connect this incident with Dr. Wardynski’s attempts to demoralize and intimidate his teachers is that I see his decision to fire Mrs. Thompson as a clear attempt to intimidate all teachers: To inform them that the human resource policies could be and would be thrown out at the superintendent’s discretion. I am pleased that Dr. Wardynski has been told that he too must follow the rules.

      I agree that good teachers often and regularly adjust their schedule to meet the needs of their students. This comes with the job. Because they are willing to do this, we should also be willing to require that their superintendent support them by following policy when they cannot do so.

      Anyway, I’ve done it again. Rambled on and on. Thanks for reading, and especially thank you for pointing out that my post wasn’t as clear as it should have been. I will try to do a better job in the future.


  4. This teacher was told she would have punishment X for her decision to defy her boss and her boss’s boss.

    This teacher was using earned personal leave days, her “boss” didn’t have the right to order her not to use personal leave days. She was told if she used a personal leave days she would be written up, how that translates into if you use personal leave you will be fired is a mystery to me.

    This is not the military. The Super and the principal are not superior(s), the are co workers. Thompson didn’t defy a direct order. That may work in the military but not in civilian life.

    This is the perfect example why teachers need associations like the AEA and NEA to protect their rights and keep Supers and principals from treating them like slaves instead of equals.

  5. You were not unclear Russ. I understood what you said. I (still) don’t agree with your position, but I did understand it. The parallel that you are drawing between the rules for students and the expectations for teachers is a false analogy, for me. Children are not fully-formed humans — I think school rules necessarily must be very specific, even overly detailed, about violations and penalties for infractions. An adult who is in a leadership position in a classroom — a certified professional — should not require the same level of micromanagement and control. This teacher should have known instinctively, as you and I and many other commenters do, that this annual vacation was a bad idea. I’m not arguing that the PROCESS to remove this barnacle was appropriate, and in fact she may be reinstated as a result of the system’s missteps. She should never have been assured that her defiance of good sense and a directive from her bosses — sorry, but there is a hierarchy — would have earned her a meaningless slap on the wrist. That was where the mistake was made, in my opinion. On these subjects, reasonable minds can disagree. However…….

    Regarding the notion that teachers could EVER be treated like slaves, well, perhaps some people are comfortable with this sort of hyperbolic rhetoric, but I find it insulting and ignorant. Paid professionals with the ability to walk away from a work environment they find distasteful or untenable are not slaves, even without the NEA and the AEA.

    1. Cool beans. It doesn’t bother me when people think I’m wrong so long as we understand each other.

      The reason that I made the analogy in the first place was simply because that was the analogy that Dr. Wardynski made in the phone interview with the Times. I agree that it’s a bad analogy; I was actually being sarcastic about his having equated the two. Where’s my sarcasm key again? 🙂

      Anyway, I remain convinced that Dr. Wardynski’s approach in this case was wrong. I believe he was attempting to intimidate our teachers, and I think that is also wrong. When a company hires an employee, the two agree to terms. If those agreed upon terms need to change, that’s fine, but the need to be changed before being implemented, not after.

      As far as I am aware Mrs. Thompson is neither a slave nor a barnacle. She is a teacher. She seems to have made a decision that I as a teacher think was a bad one, but I do not believe that given the specific details of this case that she deserved to be fired for making this decision.

      As most of the best educational moments I’ve experienced in my life arose from my mistakes, I hope that she will learn from this one and become an even better teacher as a result. (I’m convinced I’m a better teacher as a result of the lessons I’ve learned from my mistakes.)

      I hope that Dr. Wardynski can learn from his mistakes as well. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen evidence of this from him, but maybe this time will be different.

      Thanks for talking about this with me.

  6. And another thing — I’m growing rather tired of the whole “this is not the military/this is not basic training” line of argument. People who throw this sort of comment around usually have no idea of what life in the military is really like, and typically hold a very low opinion of those who serve.

    It’s ironic, too, because when I read Ross’ other entry discussing why morale matters, I thought immediately of the situation with the US military. You want to see an institution that is routinely undercut by the people who most benefit from its existence? It’s your armed forces. But they’re not slaves either.

    I did know with absolute certainty that when the district hired a retired Army officer that every time he did anything bold or contrary that people would throw rocks at his military background. Let me reiterate — I do not like some of the things he’s done, but I’m going to criticize the ACTIONS, not the PERSON.

    1. I’m fairly certain that I haven’t criticized Dr. Wardynski for his military service. If so, please let me know where and I’ll rectify it.

      I have and will continue to criticize Dr. Wardynski for his lack of educational experience.

      One thing that I was certain of was that for many if not most people in this town, Dr. Wardynski’s military service would serve as a shield protecting him from criticism that others would face.

      I thank him for his military service, but I do not believe he is qualified to be the superintendent.

    2. witsendstrs,
      I did write “this is not basic training” and I DO have an idea what military life was like as I served in the military as well as my husband that is still serving. And I hope the upmost respect for all who have served (like the superintendent) and are still serving but transitioning military thinking into a civilian organization can lead to issues. Not everything translates well. I have just seen that with the new superintendent that it is difficult to try and get things done because no one wants to ask, rock the boat, or otherwise make themselves a target. Just my thoughts.

    3. witsenders,

      It has nothing to do with the fact that he has a military background. It has to do with the fact that he has never been in a classroom as a teacher or principal. Nothing he’s doing is “bold” but it is contrary…contrary to research and contrary to what is good for students and teachrs. EVERY one of his decision follows the Broad Foundation Playbook, which follows a model that has one goal..to enrich the coffers of outside agencies (TFA, Pinnacle, Superintendent Academy) and consolidate the power of the Superintendent, and then create opportunities for the elite (other Broad people, TFA, consultants) to receive lucrative contracts and more power.

      The money that is gained by these people is lost by taxpayers and the power they consolidate is lost by classroom teachers who are replaced by a transient workforce who don’t stay long enough to earn tenure, collect benefits, or ever learn the craft of teaching well enough to benefit their students. All of this is done in the name of “raising student achievement” and making “data driven decisions.”

  7. Thompson did not take an annual vacation, she attended an annual conference.

    Thompson did not abandon her classroom, her students or her duties. Everyone knows the first week of school is most organizational.

    What I find ironic is everyone is talking about the importance of Thompson as an experienced trained, professional being in the classroom for the sake of the students are the some of the same people who want to replace teachers like Thompson with non trained, non certified, no classroom experience teachers from Teach for America.

    The real reason TFA is coming to Title One Schools ONLY is because they don’t have personal leave days and they can be ORDERED not to take leave by their SUPERIORS.

  8. Typo, should read the first week of school is mostly organizational.

    “Moving from reprimand to termination without any intervening steps was a violation of the Human Resources Policies of the district.”

    TFA teachers can be terminated without any intervention and for any cause at any time.

  9. I have to wonder if Wardynski has read the judges decision or if he glanced through it and got upset over it. If he did, I can’t see how he’d willingly take this up on appeal. Doesn’t really matter if you think the teacher should have been fired or not, the judge makes it pretty clear that her reasons for overturning the termination all revolve around Wardynski’s words and actions. Had he followed policy, this would have been a non-issue and would have just gone away. The fact that it is in the news at all is strictly on his shoulders.

  10. According to a comment on al.com (yeah, I know, but) by a Davis Hills parent, Thompson’s students had a series of substitutes until two weeks ago, when finally HCS placed a certified English teacher in her classroom. It is hard to believe that the system is committed to putting students first if this is the case, and I expect it is.

    I find it of interest too that the only Board member with K-12 classroom experience, Alta Morrison, voted against the firing. The punishment didn’t fit the crime. The first week of school is probably the least critical. Days are spent reading the Handbook, going over class rules, figuring out if everyone is where they should be, issuing texts, etc.

    Still, my main point is that unless Wardynski was certain that he could get a certified permanent teacher in that classroom, his decision to make an example out of Thompson was rash, and once again, the students are the ones who suffered.

  11. I have to respectfully disagree with Laurie and Redeye on one point, but it is an extremely important one…The first week of school IS THE MOST CRITICAL WEEK OF THE SCHOOL in regards to classroom management and setting expectations for work and for behavior. I taught for ten years before becoming an education professor and I’m telling you that it is paramount for a teacher to be in the classroom from day one. Those “organizational” things are extremely important. It is in the first week that you start learning your students’ names and start establishing a rapport with these little people who you will care about, nuture, scold, coddle, challenge (and in many cases grow to think of them as your own children)…If you have a substitute who has no classroom management, then you have to spend a week cleaning up the mess he/she left before you can start implementing your own procedures. This causes a loss of more instructional time.

    I hate the decision by the teacher to take the first week off, because I don’t know of any teacher I consider to be a good teacher that would do it. But, Dr. Wardinski made a bad decision to not follow procedure. these procedures protect teachers (most good, some bad) from spurious termination and create professionals who feel comfortable speaking up when they see something that is detrimental to students.

    Redeye, I agree with you 99.999% of the time, so don’t be mad at me. :@)

  12. “The first week of school IS THE MOST CRITICAL WEEK OF THE SCHOOL in regards to classroom management and setting expectations for work and for behavior.”

    I agree in regards with all the points you make, but Thompson is an experienced, certified educator who knows how to manage her classroom, and set expectations for behavior. Now if she were a Teach for America teacher……who isn’t a trained, certified teacher….setting expectations for work and behavior is going to be impossible.

    If school year started the first Monday in September and let out the 1st day of June we wouldn’t have this problem, for teachers or for students.

  13. I have a few issues with the post, and since two issues are addressed, then that is probably not surprising.

    1. The first is that sweeping comments about the fitness of teachers (traditionally trained or TFA teachers) is a fallacy. There are good and bad teachers in our school system. The last I heard, traditionally trained teachers were only required to make passing grades in college courses (C) to become teachers, so they don’t have to be brilliant. And just because a person is brilliant doesn’t mean he or she is a good teacher. Some of our traditionally trained teachers in the system are wonderful…and some are real stinkers. Let’s be honest.

    2. The second is the reason behind Thompson’s absence (and I didn’t make it an issue, the press did): a religious retreat of some sort. For some people, this may seem admirable. For me…not so much.

    3. The third issue (and I promise this is my final one!) is that at least one other poster had no problem with the chaos that a teacher being out the first week of school could cause (and, ultimately, ended up causing for most of the year) in a “forgotten” middle school that many people in the school system refer to (rightly or wrongly) as “Little Vietnam.” Davis Hills *needs* some focus and attention. Heck, all our middle schools do.

    1. Jessie,
      Thanks again for the comments.

      1. You’re right, not everyone who goes through a traditional pathway to becoming a teacher should become one. I don’t think I was arguing that. I think what I was arguing was that the traditional pathway is by TFA’s own evaluation just as effective in training teachers, and it costs less for the district. In that light, a traditionally trained teacher is a better investment, on average, than using TFA to recruit people who had no interest in being teachers when they graduated college.

      Of course there are some “real stinkers.” Of course we should look at our hiring practices and hire the best possible candidates and then supervise them closely during the first two years until they get their class-legs under them. I think it was Dr. Wardynski’s overwhelming praise of TFA that caused the article to seem one-sided.

      2. I agree that the fact that she was attending a religious retreat doesn’t matter. An absence is an absence. I think the Judge in the Thompson case said basically the same thing. I’m sure that was her lawyer’s attempt to toss everything at the case to see what might stick.

      3. Please don’t stop commenting. I appreciate well-constructed arguments that challenge me. It’s the only way I grow. I also agree that teachers should not miss the first week of school baring an emergency. It’s a crucial time that establishes the tone for the entire year, especially in middle school. I am not attempting to defend Mrs. Thompson’s absence. What I’m trying to point out is that Dr. Wardynski used that opportunity to intimidate the other teachers in the system.

      Thanks again for reading and your excellent comments.

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