Curing Our Culture: A Postmortem Analysis of New Tech at Tam


By Sarah Asch & James Finn, Additional Reporting by: Marina Furbush and Hannah Chorley

Ruby Scott Gym was packed with 200 parents on the evening of April 3, 2014. On that night, the Tam administration hosted a curriculum meeting to explain the benefits of hiring a professional development company that most people had only just heard of: New Tech Network. The atmosphere in the room grew increasingly tense as teachers presented their positive experiences with project-based learning, the teaching method that New Tech helps implement. Several times, the crowd broke out in angry shouts directed at administrators.

“This is unmitigated propaganda!” one parent yelled halfway through the meeting, followed by thunderous applause. More shouting followed. In conversations after the meeting, parents expressed equal concern about the potential rollout of an expensive new program and about teachers using project-based learning. During March and April of last year, before the New Tech contract fell through, many community members began to conflate New Tech with all forms of project-based learning.

The proposed rollout of New Tech raised tensions not just among parents but also among teachers and administrators. Many felt they had to choose sides between those who supported New Tech and those who opposed it.

Even though project-based learning (PBL) was swept up into the New Tech argument, PBL is nothing new here at Tam.  The method, in which teachers start with a problem or project and then introduce instruction within the context of that scenario, is designed to be a real-world approach to learning and has been successfully utilized by Tam teachers for decades. The Conservatory Theater Ensemble (CTE), the Academy of Integrated Humanities and New Media (AIM), and Advanced Journalism are all prominent programs where project-based learning takes place. PBL also occurs in many classrooms and across different disciplines every day.

With such a strong track record of project-based learning on campus, some teachers were surprised by the backlash against New Tech and, sometimes by association, project-based learning. Where did such a strong outcry come from? The answer most likely lies in Tam’s teacher culture.  Many teachers point to what they describe as the district administration’s attempt to force a top-down implementation of New Tech as the catalyst that tore Tam’s culture apart.  Other teachers and administrators argue a cliquey culture that fostered divisions between groups of staff members has long existed, and the New Tech controversy simply exposed this culture.

The words “New Tech” have become almost taboo on campus, and many staff members acknowledge a culture that still features distrust and division. So the question is: was this culture created by a poor rollout of New Tech and the resulting misinformation about project-based learning? Or did the New Tech controversy reveal a divided teacher culture that spanned before and after last spring?

Assistant Superintendent of Education Michael McDowell holds the latter theory. “A culture is defined by how it solves problems and how it reacts to problems,” McDowell said. “We’re looking at all of these flashing lights [and saying] ‘Oh that’s the problem and it’s because they made that mistake there,’ No. New Tech isn’t a problem. PBL isn’t a problem in and of itself. It’s how we actually engage in that situation that I’m the most concerned about. We had 20 [Tam] teachers who wanted to do [New Tech]. What are they doing? They are trying to get away from the situation. They’re transferring [to Drake, where New Tech was implemented last year]. That doesn’t get rid of the problem. That just gets them out of having to be part of that problem. And all the while you got all these students that are still there [at Tam].”pencil_web

While three of the 20 teachers referenced by McDowell are indeed transferring, citing environment and/or Drake’s professional development opportunities (see story on page 7), many Tam teachers disagree with McDowell’s assessment.

“I think a variety of situations created the issues last year. I do not think it existed [before the attempted rollout],” English teacher Michael Levinson said. “The teachers I know at Tam are teachers who are hard working, want to collaborate, [and] want to give students an outstanding educational experience.”

Math department teacher leader David Wetzel disagrees with McDowell’s assessment more strongly than Levinson, and cites what he sees as the administration’s top-down management style as the root of the staff divide, starting with the widely unpopular decision to remove three math teachers last year.

“[The decision to non-reelect the three math teachers] made no sense, thus creating a divide between [the math department] and the authority on campus,” Wetzel said. “That disagreement has, to this day, not been resolved. Yes we move on, yes we still teach, [and] we now have three new teachers, but it’s never been resolved, and I don’t know if it ever can be resolved because by law they can’t tell us why those teachers were removed.”

Levinson also believes the fact that New Tech became tied to the math personnel decision—perhaps wrongly—had a negative impact on the rollout, and on staff culture. “I’m not sure we would have had the same issues last year if New Tech wasn’t connected to the release of teachers,” he said. “I think how New Tech  was rolled out and everything that surrounded it was done very poorly. I think that set things off…I think that creates a culture of chaos because students and teachers are used to stability and reason, and when you throw out reason without any explanation whatsoever, I think then you start to question everything and that’s what’s happened here–every little thing that’s done is questioned.”

According to Wetzel, significant tension arose as math teachers opposed the administration’s personnel decision. “We have a principal,” Wetzel said. “As a department obviously it would be nice to support your principal, but we don’t [support her] on that [personnel] decision and on the decision to remove some of the math classes. To someone not involved in that decision, meaning it doesn’t affect them at all because they’re in a different department, what they see is a professional disagreeing with their boss. It looks unprofessional. Why would you not support your principal in public? Why would you not keep this disagreement to yourself? Why wouldn’t you deal with that behind closed doors? That attitude has been voiced to me by a number of teachers.”

Counselor Evelyn Dorsett pointed out that the tension may exist between teachers and the administration, as well as among Tam teachers themselves. “I think [the New Tech rollout] caused a lot of stress that didn’t need to happen, and a lot of misunderstanding that didn’t need to happen,” Dorsett said. “Tam’s always had a unique culture, and there’s always been something at Tam that pockets of people don’t agree on. So did [New Tech] drive a huge wedge? I think it drove a wedge between the school site and the district office. I think that’s where the wedge really was, because you keep hearing trust and you keep hearing communication, and I think that was an unneeded wedge because we all want to help serve kids. I think that’s where the damage was done.”

According to Assistant Principal Brian Lynch, however, some of the more negative aspects of staff culture may have been “long-standing” before New Tech. “I think it’s easy for people to talk about their mistrust, the mistrust between administrators and teachers and the district and teachers. It’s easier to have those conversations. But when I came in here as an [assistant principal] there was talk about how there are cliques and divides amongst the teachers, and that there is this kind of toxicity amongst teachers themselves,” Lynch said. “I think last year maybe brought to surface some of that, you know, people feeling threatened [because] you have people who are the innovators who are fighting for something different than what was once innovative…when it’s not an either-or, it’s a both-and. I think having a group of teachers who were looking to do something that appeared to be different, which really wasn’t because we [already] had project-based learning, just it was a little bit new, and I think it just brought to light some of the already existing personnel issues between teachers.”

Social studies teacher leader Jennifer Dolan, one of the 20 teachers McDowell cited as wanting New Tech, acknowledged that teachers might not agree on certain issues, such as project-based learning, but said that Tam’s teacher culture is not as fragmented as many seem to think. “There has always been, on this campus, teachers who naturally work together and collaborate and love that, and are very open, and teachers who…just naturally aren’t as interested in collaborating,” Dolan said. “I would not say that there is or was a division. I don’t think the culture is as bad as some people say it is.” Prior to the abandonment of the contract, Dolan decided that New Tech was not for her and she said she has no interest in transferring to Drake.

Still, McDowell sees a division between teachers and administrators, and believes that it existed long before last year. “When I came in [to the district] I looked at a document from the 1980s where teachers got a raise from negotiations and then in the same breath they’re talking about [how] they mistrust the administration, yet they had just come through a very successful negotiation period. I think that that hasn’t changed,” McDowell said.

applefacts_webWhile some lack of trust may be expected in a teacher-administrator relationship, the district-wide 2014-15 Satisfaction Survey of TUHSD teachers indicated that the current distrust of district administrators is likely worse than anything previously experienced. On the survey, given by the Tamalpais Federation of Teachers (TFT), many teachers specifically blame individual members of the district administration for the current culture. The survey, provided to the Tam News by Union leaders and at the recommendation of McDowell, asked over 190 teachers several questions pertaining to overall job satisfaction, the climate in the district, and the staff’s opinion of the district administrators, among other things.

According to the survey, when asked how satisfied they were with “the climate of the district,” only one percent of teachers said “very satisfied,” two percent said “somewhat satisfied,” 10 percent were neutral, 23 percent said “somewhat unsatisfied,” and 64 percent said “very unsatisfied.” Many of the comments teachers made referenced top-down initiatives, mistrust, and low morale. These numbers are low, even compared to the 2012 TFT survey where five percent of teachers said they were “very satisfied,” 15 percent were “somewhat satisfied,” eight percent were neutral, 31 percent said “somewhat unsatisfied,” and 40 percent marked “very unsatisfied.” Whatever the precise cause of this dissatisfaction, these numbers may indicate a more district-wide cultural divide.

“I think we are divided [at Tam] and don’t have one clear vision. We have a district vision and I don’t think everyone is on board with that one clear vision,” science teacher Cody Bartrug said. “So I would say that we are disjointed. We are [a] disjointed staff in general….Collaboration is kind of difficult.”

Bartrug and six other Tam teachers said they have requested transfers to Drake, with Bartrug among the three of the seven who said they are transferring in search of greater collaboration and professional development.

“New Tech includes a lot of things that other [programs] don’t, including skills like communication, collaboration, and creativity, which are important to me as an educator to incorporate,” Bartrug said. “So that drove [my decision] as well as [the fact that] I do complete project-based learning, and collaboration is a big deal, and there is networking across the country.”

English teacher LoRayne Ortega is transferring to Drake for similar reasons. “I had to make this very tough choice,” Ortega said. “Do I give up working with my [freshman Core] kids who I am supposed to loop with next year and who I care very deeply [to] take advantage of this amazing opportunity to work with these phenomenal teachers and get trained in this type of work that I want to get better at? Or do I want to let that opportunity go for now and hope that it’s there next year when I’m done with these kids? But I am afraid that it won’t, so I am afraid that if I don’t make the jump right now I am going to hurt myself in terms of becoming a better teacher later.”

According to Ortega, the most appealing part of Drake is the training.“For me  the problem is I have never been officially trained,” she said. “I have tried to teach myself but in teaching it’s like an apprenticeship. You can learn about it in books on how to teach, but like many, many jobs, until you’re doing it, you don’t realize all the pitfalls, and project-based learning is like that.”

Other teachers agree with the philosophy of change, but take issue with the way change has been implemented in the past.

“I think the management of change at the district and site level could have been handled differently,” Math teacher Chris Erlin said. “I think PBL is a lightning rod for some frustrations over poorly managed change, as PBL was almost forced into place, with a huge price tag, without consulting all stakeholders.  I think the conversation is bigger than project-based learning; it is about change.  I agree that change is necessary, but this is nothing new; change has been an ongoing implementation, to address the needs students will have in the future for an ever-changing world landscape.”

Moving forward, the goal of many staff members is to make sure that change is managed in a more successful way. A common criticism of the New Tech roll out from both parents and teachers was that the administration needed to communicate better and be more transparent. Principal Julie Synyard acknowledges this and takes full responsibility. “I should have done a better job talking to staff, talking to the community, and probably going slower [with the New Tech rollout],” Synyard said. Going into the future, Synyard intends to continue to improve communication. “How do we communicate with each other? How do we work with our data to move the school forward? How do we support kids and the community? That’s kind of the big theme,” she said.

cup_webAccording to English teacher Abbey Levine, another of the 20 teachers referenced by McDowell, the goal of the staff should be to revive the culture Tam teachers had before last year. “I’ve been here for 10 years, we’ve had a very pleasant staff culture and I think that means that teachers for the most part have been respectful of one another and have worked professionally with one another,” Levine said. “We were at a good place before, and I want to see us get to a great place…I think when we have time together as a staff, that helps us be better together; it helps us work and collaborate better and that’s better for our students. So I would like to see us better than we were before.” Like Dolan, Levine said decided against working with New Tech before the contract fell through, and she has no interest in transferring to Drake.

With Superintendent Laurie Kimbrel and McDowell both  leaving in July, and the two most senior board members, Bob Walter and board president Cindy McCauley, ending their terms in the fall, the district will see considerable leadership turnover in the coming months. The search firm charged with hiring Kimbrel’s replacement has been specifically directed by parents, students, and teachers to find a strong communicator who can foster a culture of collaboration from the ground up. The future may lay to rest the question of how the current cultural rift came about, but some believe that going forward, deciding who was at fault shouldn’t be the focus.

Levinson thinks that everyone is responsible for mending staff culture. “We all have to look at each other and find a way to build relationships with one another and make this better and try out new things…and listen to the value of old things, you know, we have to be open to both,” Levinson said. “We can’t just sit there and know we’re right all the time because the kids suffer in our war to be right. And so I think it’s kind of inappropriate for adults to do that and we all have to be willing to continue…not derail things by going back to what happened in the past. We have to deal with the present.”

Special Education teacher Preston Picus expanded on the same idea. “The thing that I see is that it’s too much conversation about adults. It’s how adults feel about what other adults think and at the end of the day I get paid money to come here and teach kids…the taxpayers aren’t paying me to come here and care what other adults are thinking about what other adults are thinking,” Picus said. “I want people to move forward and start talking about kids again.”