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After viral resignation, teacher pushes for rethinking of reform

Pauline Hawkins with her son Ian
Pauline Hawkins with her son Ian
Mary MacCarthy/Feature Story News

Pauline Hawkins taught language arts and journalism at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs for eleven years. She resigned last month and her letter of resignation — which critiqued Colorado’s reform efforts and the rollout of new academic standards — went viral. Hawkins will be moving to New Hampshire to be near her daughters. She plans to start a tutoring businesses and hopes to eventually help prepare other teachers to enter the profession.

Chalkbeat spoke by phone with Hawkins about how the new standards impacted her school, whether they changed her teaching and what reforms she believes would make an impact.

(The interview has been edited for clarity and for length.)

What drew you to teaching in the first place?

The very first job I had was in a restaurant, besides baby-sitting and that kind of thing. As soon as I became a hostess, it was really easy for me to just start teaching other people. So every job I had, I became a trainer or a tutor or something along those lines. So I kind of think it was inside of me. I was pretty much born to be a teacher. And I thought I was going to college to become a doctor and my English professor in college told me that I was one of the best writers he’d ever seen and he wanted to get me right into that as a freshman as a writing tutor. I did, I ended up getting a job as a writing tutor. That changed my whole life because then I was like, you know what, I’m going to try and do something that’s harder for me but easy. This is what I’ve always done. I changed my major to English and education.

What were your first couple years as a teacher like?

The first couple years were really hard. A lot of things had changed since I did my student teaching. And I was really quite shocked because when I was in New York, I had a lot of support, maybe because it was student teaching. Here, they just threw me into a class and were like, “ok. Yep, have fun.” So I had to really seek the help I needed. I had to figure out was important to teach and give me some guidelines. And every year, I got better and better but it was definitely a sink or swim kind of experience.

But I knew right away, I connected with my students. That was the one thing I had all along, is I just had that connection that they knew I cared. Even if I messed up, they didn’t care because they knew I was there because I cared, not just because I had all this knowledge I wanted to give them or have power or any of those things they had experienced. That just kept me going because I knew that the kids were kind of craving that sort of teaching.

That’s something I’m curious about. What does it mean to struggle as a teacher? What does it look like?

It’s really learning how to use your time. They say, “well, you have all this planning time and you only work from this time to that time.” But when you have 30 kids in your class and you’re assigning essays, figuring how to not only plan for the next day’s work or the next week and then also grade all those papers and give them legitimate feedback so that they can improve their writing — it’s unbelievable amounts of time. I would stay up until midnight every night my first couple years because I was trying to figure how to get it all in, how to plan, how to grade, how to make sure they were getting legitimate feedback.

As the years went on, I didn’t have to plan as much because I already knew my curriculum. I didn’t have to read all the novels they did because I’ve already read them. And I could use recycled stuff that I’d planned and things got a little bit easier as the years went on.

The grading is still really hard because every year I seem to get more and more students in my classroom and then I’m up all the time trying to make sure they get feedback in a timely manner. Now, it’s even harder because a lot of my planning at school is caught up with doing other things that have nothing to do with teaching my students. It’s about figuring out how to use the new Common Core standards in my classroom and [asking] “am I doing everything you’re supposed to be doing in order for them to meet the standards that year?”

And there’s a lot of data collection. We have to prove that we’re teaching what we’re teaching and collecting information on them and crunching numbers and it’s just become a whole lot of stuff that has nothing to do with students.

How much time did that end up taking up out of your average day?

For the new stuff with the Common Core? On average, it was at least a couple hours a week that we would have to put into creating documents or data sheets or reading through the standards. And that was all year long.

Did it change the homework you gave them? Did it change what you taught them in class?

No, because what I discovered more than anything else is that I had already been teaching everything that they needed. There were some things that were not listed that I decided to teach them, no matter what the standards said. So it didn’t really change what I did with them. But it’s almost like I had to make sure that to my administrators and district and state, if they came looking, that they knew I was doing what I was supposed to. So it didn’t really change what I was doing; I just had to spend more time proving that I was doing it.

Do you think for a teacher who was struggling, it would help them?

I think in a way it would, because then they would have a guideline. But especially for our school, our standards were so high already that actually these standards are lower. And they had them in just really strange places. They want us to teach the kids freshman year comma splices but they don’t even mention semi-colons until sophomore or junior year. It’s like, how can you explain how to fix comma splices without teaching semi-colons? That’s how you fix comma splices, is with semi-colons. It’s just that kind of stuff. I started thinking about the Common Core as a really stupid document. They obviously didn’t have English teachers on their board of directors to help them design the curriculum.

A lot has been made out of the disconnect. But how much is different? Were there other areas of disconnect between what you felt was taught under the standards and what you would have liked to see?

We had freshman year a kind of survey class. Sophomore year at Liberty was world literature and then junior year, American literature and then senior year, British literature. The teachers that have been around for a while, we have all of this under our belts. And then the Common Core comes along and tells us well, these are the books you have to teach and you have to teach non-fiction not just within any kind of world lit or american lit but all across the board. And then junior year it says you have to teach American lit across all the various ages but you have to also teach a Shakespearean play. Why would we teach a Shakespearean play? He’s not even an American.

And then there was so little organization and logic to how they set things up that it just seems like a very foolish document to me.

Not that new teachers would probably benefit somewhat so they would have an idea. But I think any good school system is going to have that already so if someone walks in, they can say, “this is what we teach at this level. Here are some worksheets, here are some books.” And that’s what we’ve done for all of our new teaches. They’ve never without something in their hands. What we’ve already done in our school is made it easy, since the standards are high, we’ve made it easy for any teacher to walk in and follow those standards.

In a struggling school system where they don’t provide that, do you think this can provide the kind of help or is it going to be too confusing for a teacher?

I think it would be a good thing for a struggling school, a school where they don’t have the high standards that we have in our district and our school.

I have heard some horror stories of people just coming in and there was just no structure. Everyone teaches whatever they want and they could be teaching the same class that has the same class ID but it’s completely different depending on the teachers. I think that would help those kinds of schools. But then again, like I said, it’s not a very well written document so it could be confusing.

The idea is to have the same experience no matter where you go in the country, state to state. There will be schools that are going to benefit from it but then there are schools where standards are going to be lowered now because they’re already doing more than what the standards want them to do.

And I’d heard even from people I thought were really good strong teachers in my building that are saying stuff like well if it’s not in standards then I’m not teaching it anymore. I’m like, “no, don’t do that.” It’s not about the standards, it’s about the kids.

Yeah, I was curious — was there anything that changed the way you thought about your teaching?

No, not one thing. And I said it loud and clear even to my principal. I said, “I’m going to sit here and I’m going to participate and I’m going to do what you tell me to do but I’m not changing anything.” And he goes, “you know what, I don’t expect you to. You’re one of my best teachers.”

The state is rolling out new standards, new tests and a new teacher evaluation system. Do you think that those systems together can produce the kind of high-achieving school that you were at?

No. What they’ve done is they’ve created a nightmare. And the tests, that’s just the thing that’s just unbelievable. If you ask the people that created Common Core, they’re saying, “you can’t test that on this test. That’s not the idea behind the Common Core. These tests are antithetical to what we’re trying to do with the Common Core standards.”

Because the standardized testing is just measuring a certain way of learning that not everybody is good at. I know so many kids that have test anxiety. They’re horrible test takers but then you have them sit down and write an essay where they take the time and really think about what they have to do for a matter of days or even a week. They write beautifully and they can really show how smart they are. In a timed test, where they can’t use technology — although they’re starting to use technology — it just really doesn’t measure intelligence, any real way that we learn.

I don’t think I would do well on those standardized tests. I saw some of those questions and they are just really kind of silly and confusing and worded oddly, like what do they really want me to do here?

And they can’t ask any questions and they can’t get any help from a teacher. That’s how we learn. We learn through collaboration. We can talk. My students do amazing work when they can talk to me and talk to other students in the classroom to help them process through what they have to do. They can’t do that on a tests situation and that’s just not real. Nobody can do that. Can you imagine not being able to bounce ideas off anybody when you’re really trying to produce the best work you possible can? I don’t do that. I don’t publish anything on my blog without showing to at least other people and getting feedback. It’s just not the way the real world works.

So do you think there’s a need to assess students’ achievement?

I think we have assessments in our school that we created that are valid. Even if we standardize, I can get feedback immediately. I can say, “Oh, this one student has no idea how to use a semi-colon,” you know? And then I can sit down with that student and work with that student and let that student take a test or prove to me that he knows what a semicolon is now.

The state standardized tests aren’t assessments. Those are just tests that we’re paying a lot of money for and we get nothing from them.We can’t see the questions. We can’t see how our students answer those questions. We can’t see why they got it wrong. There’s a gag order on it. We can’t talk about it at all. As teachers, we’re not even supposed to read the test.

And then we get some numbers that come back and tell us they were really low in this comprehension. Well what was the question? Can’t tell you that. Well how did they score badly on it? Well, can’t tell you that. So what good does that do?

And then they take it in the spring. We don’t get the results until the fall. They’ve gone on to another teacher. I don’t have those students anymore. How does that test help anyone?

And that’s what the biggest thing is. I had a lot of people criticize me and the stuff that I’ve been writing lately: “You just don’t want other people to find out that you’re not really teaching your kids.” I’m like, “I assess my kid all the time, on a daily basis.” I know exactly what they’re learning. I know where they’re struggling. And I can do that through oral communication, ask them a few questions. I can do it more formally through a test that I will get feedback on within a day. I can do it through essay writing.

Teachers are doing that all the time. And that’s what the problem is, is that people don’t trust teachers because there are bad ones out there. But the thing is we didn’t need this test, we didn’t need this evaluation system and these Common Core standards to find out who they were. We knew it well before they did that. Ask anyone in the building and they’ll tell you who the bad teachers are.

But the problem is we didn’t have administrators that had the courage to face these people and say look, “if you need help, I’ll get you a mentor. Or if you don’t want to do this anymore, then let me know and then I’ll hire somebody who’s going to do the job. But you can’t just show movies all day long.” We don’t have administrators that do that because they’re so afraid of lawsuits or whatever.

We need strong leaders. And the thing is, I’m not the kind of person that thinks we should just go and start firing teachers because we heard they were bad.

The very first step is we need to talk to the teachers and get them into mentorship and say, ‘Look, I know you’re struggling with this. I’m going to pair you with this teacher who’s really great at that, You’re going to have a common planning time with this teacher and you’re also going to team teach the class so you can learn from each other and help each other out.” If we had the money to do that, that would be amazing, wouldn’t it? You build up the weaker teachers and if they say after that, “you know, this isn’t for me. I’m getting out of here,” then they go. After that kind of mentorship, they didn’t improve then the leadership would have to say, “we’ve given you lots of opportunities. This just isn’t working.”

What role do you think state accountability plays for teachers? What role should the state play?

I think all the governing of an education system should be done locally right there in the school. I think the state should be making sure we have a budget where we can pay our teachers what they deserve so they can function in the community that they live in. Right now we teachers can’t afford to get a house by [ourselves]. We’re bottom five I believe in the whole nation of how much we get paid here in Colorado. That should be the state’s main function.

They should be making their teachers are respected, taken care of, than they’re being paid what they need to be paid, that they’re trying to recruit the best teachers possible, finding ways to recruit the best people out there. But that’s all the state should do.

I don’t think they should be telling us what we should be teaching either. When you hire a good teacher, the teacher’s going to do what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s not one teacher I consider a master teacher in the our building that needs anybody else telling them what to do. They are passionate about what they’re doing, they know their job, they knew what the kids need in order to function and succeed and go on to whatever they want with their lives. We don’t need anyone telling us that. I think it’s a waste of time and money and effort for anybody else to start coming in and trying to check on us. You know, in order to renew our license, we would have to go before a state board and prove that we’re still on top of our game and doing everything that we’re supposed to be doing. Maybe show portfolios of the students’ work that we’ve been working on, the essays we’ve been writing or whatever.

What about this idea, that if we spend taxpayer dollars, we want to see results. So how can they see results? How do you want the state to gauge results from that money?

I think that, any system, the kids are going to be the ones that will be able to tell you if they’re learning or not. And it doesn’t have to come through any kind of state-wide testing. It could be in what they’re bringing home, what they’re learning, what they’re feeling at school. Kids will come home and say, “oh, I got an A today.” “Oh what did you learn?” “Oh, nothing. We watched a movie.” Ok, that right there is telling.

And unfortunately, we have a lot of parents that are taxpayers that just want their kid to get an A, they don’t care how they get it. They don’t care what they’re learning and they just want the A on the report card.

What kind of proof do they want? I would say that they have a school system that their kids love and that they’re learning and that they’re becoming better people every day. One of the frustrations for my son, who is a nine year old in third grade, is he hates school. I know a lot of people are like, “don’t all kids hate school?” No, they don’t. He has other kids at school that love school. They love the kind of learning they’re doing. But Ian just learns differently.

And that’s where I would like our money being spent on, a way to have more teachers with our kids so two teachers to a classroom. So one teacher’s teaching one way and another’s comes in and says, “Let’s try it this way because you’re more visual than you are logical, sequential.” So we would have more teachers around to make sure that the kids are learning everything they can learn. And I think that would make a huge difference. It’s a hard question to answer because everyone’s so set on these tests proving that money is being spent wisely. But if anything, they’re taking money away from being spent wisely.

To return to earlier in our conversation, we were talking about teacher supports. I was wondering, what were some of the supports that made the biggest difference to you? You said you kind of got thrown in the classroom. What would have helped you?

What did help me was that I had a teacher that I shared a room with that was a master teacher. She had been teaching for a very long time. She shared a lot of her work with me and she was always available if I had questions. That very first year, she was like a mentor to me. So she sat in some of my classes and would take notes and gave me feedback on what I could work on and that was helpful.

I think what would have been more helpful is if I had had more of that, if I was able to teach with her more of my classes. Not just teaching in front of her but have her teach a lesson so I could watch here and then walk around the room and work with the kids. You know, if we shared the kids, that would have been incredible. And I know there’s a lot of new teachers right now that would benefit from that kind of mentoring as well.

What is going to be your favorite memory walking away from teaching or from this kind of teaching?

Just the connections that I’ve made with kids. You know, sometimes they give me feedback right away. After a lesson, they might say, “wow, you just changed my whole perspective on life.” And sometimes, it’s four years later. They come back after college and say, “you’re the one that taught me how to write. Everything that I needed to know, I learned freshman year with you.” Or they’re becoming teachers themselves and saying, “You know I became a teacher because of you. You made a difference in my life and now I want to do the same for other people.”

Is there anything else we didn’t cover that you want to talk about?

Maybe the only other thing too is that there are so many ways that parents can be proactive with their children’s education. They have more say than they think they have in what their children can and cannot learn. You know, a lot of parents get upset but they don’t know what they can and cannot say.

I have parents I see all four years that come and then I have parents I’ve never ever met. And it makes me sad. Parents do have a big part in their children’s education, in what they learn and what they don’t learn and how they’re able to help teachers. It’s very hard when a parent comes at me all of a sudden angry and we’ve never communicated, ever.

I guess it’d be really nice to have parents that were more understanding of what teachers are going through and if I’ve said something or done something that upset you, give me the benefit of the doubt first. Let’s have a conversation together first before you’re ready to go to the superintendent over something I said. It has to be a team effort. Parents should be just as involved with their kids education and not expect the teacher to do and know everything. Communication is so important with parents and teachers. That would be the other element that I would definitely want to throw in there that definitely makes a difference in a child’s education.

Do you play a pretty active role in your son’s education?

Oh yeah. I let teachers know I’m on your side. I say, “I know how hard it is, what you’re doing. But I also think that you need to know that these are the things my son is saying to me and I know there’s got to be more to the story than what he’s saying. Because he’s nine and he has a different perspective of the world that what is really happening. How can I help my son understand what happened so he’s not so angry and upset?

Or the other way around, I tell them, “My son told me how awesome this experience was. Thank you so much for having him come home so happy.”

I want to let them know this is a parent you need to talk to. I’m there in my son’s life and I want what’s best for him and what’s best for you.

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