D.C. public school teachers begin orientation ahead of start of academic year

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 12, 2010

Day One for the District's 400 or so newest public school teachers began in a not-quite-air-conditioned auditorium Wednesday with a welcoming gift from Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee: her pity.

"I know what you are about to go through, and I feel really, really bad for you," Rhee said somewhat tongue in cheek. Her audience was dominated by faces so improbably young they looked as if they should be out buying binders and calculators.

Rhee also struck other more inspirational themes as she began a three-day orientation at the Columbia Heights Education Campus for the corps of new teachers, who are preparing for school to open Aug. 23. She said, as she often does, that there is no more important work than what they've chosen and that their success will depend on their ability to listen to students.

"If you do your jobs well, I guarantee you the children will exceed your expectations," she said.

Whether they fully realize it, the newcomers are walking into one of the most closely watched and politically charged education-reform efforts in the country. In all likelihood, they will be observed, assessed, poked and prodded more intensively than their peers in other urban school systems.

Last month, Rhee dismissed 76 teachers for poor performance evaluations, put many others in jeopardy of firing and for the first time held instructors in some grades accountable for growth in test scores. Hundreds more were judged "minimally effective" and given a year to improve or face dismissal.

"I hope I'm ready," said Alex Ussia, 22, an American University graduate and Teach for America recruit who will teach eighth-grade science to special education students at the Hamilton Center. Rhee, a TFA alumna, is an iconic figure to Ussia, who thought about the Peace Corps before joining TFA and completing the organization's five-week boot camp.

For Ussia and other newcomers, Wednesday was a day of introduction and indoctrination, a sea of catch phrases and shorthand, from the vaguely Orwellian motto on their official tote bags ("Progression Through Induction") to a pitch from the Washington Teachers' Union ("Teacher Effectiveness Is Union Business!" said one flier).

It was also a taste of the challenges that lie ahead and a first look at the tensions and schisms that define life for many D.C. teachers. The bruising contract fight and last month's teacher firings resonated as union President George Parker took the podium.

"What does a union do? Just fight with the chancellor, right?" Parker said in telling the teachers that it does a bit more than that. All teachers are in the bargaining unit whether they want to be or not, at a cost of $28.22 from their biweekly paycheck. Full membership, which costs $33.20 a pay period, brings extra benefits, including liability insurance and voting privileges in union elections.

Parker also took a swipe at Rhee's new IMPACT evaluation system, which holds teachers in some grades accountable for gains on standardized tests. "Our children are more than a test score," he said. "They have hearts. They have needs. They have vulnerabilities."

Jere Lorenzen-Strait, 28, an early childhood teacher who will work in the Reggio Emilia program at Peabody Elementary School on Capitol Hill, said that he was "not generally pro-union" and that Parker came across with "a used-car salesman kind of vibe." But he said that given the turbulent pace of change in the school system, he would probably sign up for full membership.

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