By Matt Cohen and Conor Kelley
Illustration by Greg Pfaff
“I was surprised by the low rank of Bethesda-Chevy Chase, which seems to me well run,” wrote Jay Mathews of The Washington Post in a November 2017 column.
B-CC ranked 22nd out of the 25 high schools in Montgomery County in percentage of staffers agreeing with the following statement: “Staff morale in this school is positive.”
Only 23.9% of B-CC staffers agreed.
Mathews claimed in that column that low morale often correlates with the difficulties of teaching disadvantaged children. B-CC, however, has just 11% low-income students according to Mathews’ story.
By comparison, Whitman, Walter Johnson, Wootton and Poolesville, schools with percentages of low income students in the single digits, all wound up in the top 10 in terms of highest morale. B-CC and Churchill are the only two schools with low-income student percentages of less than 15% that did not make the top 10. Topping the list overall is Paint Branch, with 77.9% of staffers agreeing that staff morale is high, and 34% low-income students.
Though for many who experience the work climate of B-CC on a day-to-day basis, this ranking isn’t surprising.
An anonymous commenter on the Mathews column wrote the following: “As a teacher at B-CC, I am not surprised by our rating. Administration continues to scold staff and tell us we are just being negative. Interesting to see us compared to the rest of the county!”
How representative is this comment of B-CC as a whole?
The Tattler spoke with numerous faculty members at B-CC, and all gave variations on the same message: work climate has taken a turn for the worst since the change of administration for the 2015-16 school year. One staff member claimed that in the first year of the new administration at B-CC, teachers gave the administrators the benefit of the doubt, as everyone tried to settle in.
Though nearly three years into the administration’s tenure, that pass has disappeared.
Montgomery County Public Schools posted the staff climate survey data from the 2016-17 school year, data which Mathews used in his story. The Tattler requested, but was unable to obtain the monthly survey data for the 2017-18 school year, but were told that this year’s data largely resembles that of last year’s. In addition to the staff morale statement Mathews used in his story, teachers were asked if they agreed or disagreed with 17 statements in the 2016-17 survey, including “The school leadership involves me in decisions affecting my work” and “My school recognizes staff for their quality work and accomplishments.”
For the former, 55.6% of those surveyed either disagreed or strongly disagreed. For the latter, 44.3% either disagreed or strongly disagreed (22.7% neither agreed nor disagreed).
The most recent survey data MCPS has released before 2016-17 was from the 2011-12 school year, when Ms. Lockard was the principal. For the statement, “Staff morale is positive in this school”, 74.8% of staffers either strongly agreed or agreed.
When asked to comment on her reaction to the staff climate data, Dr. Jones said that her immediate thought was wanting to know more. Jones said that she wanted to know more of the narrative and examples behind the numbers.
Many considered the publication of Mathews’ article a prime opportunity to address the problem of work climate and take strides in working with the staff to solve it. Instead, a teacher reported, the staff were essentially told that they were “making the choice to be unhappy.”
Teachers that we interviewed said that rather than valuing and recognizing the faculty for their expertise and dedication to their field, the administration actively focuses on problems in the classroom or in the departments. One teacher reported a staff-wide sentiment that they receive attention if something goes wrong, but never if something goes right.
“I feel like this administration is very quick to blame teachers for not doing enough,” one teacher reported. “The student says, something’s going wrong with the class, and the administration’s first impulse is to think ‘Well, the teacher must be at fault here,’ rather than, maybe the student’s at fault sometime.”
One particular reported contribution to the drop off in staff morale is the changing role of resource teachers under the current administration. Resource teachers serve as the head of their departments and it has been brought to the forefront by certain staff that their role has inversely changed since the shift in administration from Lockard to Jones. Previously, resource teachers seemed to act as an in-between who advocated for their department teachers and pitched their teachers’ thoughts, complaints, or concerns about happenings in their department to the administration.
To the frustration of certain faculty, their resource teachers now tend to enforce the administration’s mandates rather than providing a voice for them. “They seem to be sort of switching sides,” one teacher said. “I feel like my resource teacher used to be on my team, and now when I go to my resource teacher and I say, I have a problem, can you pass this on to the administration, I’ve seen that the resource teachers are speaking up and defending the administration, saying ‘no, you need to get with the program.’ And that’s had a big impact on my morale.”
In response, Dr. Jones said that there are three staff representatives, known as “The Triad” that brings concerns from the staff to Jones, as well as the Instructional Leadership Team meets once a week, a group made up of department heads. Jones said that all staff members do have her cell phone number, though it appears the routes of communication for staff members are largely indirect.
In theory, resource teachers bring the concerns of the staff to the administration, though that isn’t what happens in practice according to both teachers and resource staff.
One resource teacher stat- ed how they used to consider themselves equal with their department staff but now see themselves as a step above, almost as an extension of the administration. Both teachers and resource staff have cited the administration’s general operation as “top-down,” where the result has been teachers not being listened to. “They don’t take suggestions from teachers even if they’re good ideas,” said this same teacher, “I feel like the administration just wants to do their own ideas regardless of what the staff thinks.”
Another resource teacher put it this way: “I love working with the students I teach and the teachers I work with.”
“There are many times, let’s say we are voting on something…it will be kind of broken up half and half,” Dr. Jones said. “Half the people feel one way about something, the other half feel we should go a different route. Sometimes that happens, frequently, it does. When that’s the case, you’ve got to make a decision to go one way. It’s not that the other half of the people, when it didn’t go their way, that they weren’t listened to. Of course they were listened to, but the decision is going to have to end up going one way, and there has to be some kind of acceptance that it’s not going to go my way.”
A former B-CC teacher noted the same feeling. “Growing up and going to school in Bethesda/MCPS places expectations on students and as your teachers,” this former teacher said, “we are expected to help you meet all of those expectations. Therefore, if/when you do not, we can and do get blamed for this – sometimes rightly, often wrongly. We can get blamed by administrators, by parents, and less relevantly, by society as a whole.”
“Without going too much into it, we have kind of been expected to be miracle workers,” the same teacher continued, “every kid that comes into our classroom, whether they come from a home with many resources or few, we’re supposed to get everyone to the same place at the same time – and we want to, but it’s way easier said than done…Every teacher at B-CC has helped at least one student every year meet their goals, and most teachers help way more than one student, but administration has a tendency to point out all the students we missed.”
Another B-CC teacher said the administration doesn’t know the staff, they rush to criticize the staff, and aren’t supportive of the staff. “Yeah, there were a couple of times I wanted to quit,” that teacher also said.
After the 2017-18 school year, B-CC will be losing a hefty list of staff members, including multiple institutional faces in the building, some of whom cite frustrations with administration playing a role in their decision. One teacher leaving at the end of this year noted that administration was the biggest reason for their departure, and that they couldn’t stand “seeing a bunch of hard- working people treated unprofessionally in a way I’ve never seen before.” The same teacher felt that the administration did “not listen to our opinions or facts, or asking out ideas in a serious way.”
“It’s going to continue,” this teacher said, “but I needed to get out…I’ve never seen it anywhere I’ve been so bad.”