Teacher Turnovers and Hand Jive
Throughout my time at Exemplary, I learned not to get too close to the new people who strode through the doors in August with their youthful vigor and burning sense of social mission. It was always uncertain how many of those new folks would still be around in November. Every year, Exemplary hires hundreds of new teachers. The hiring spikes were not attributable to the expansion of the Exemplary empire– it’s because of the huge amount of employee turnover that takes place. I became accustomed to noticing that a particular new teacher would be missing for a couple of days and then finding out that they slipped out the door silently. Schools don’t have a deep bench so they can’t just call out the number of a new player to warm up and join the game already in progress. On top of this, Exemplary does not have a roster of substitute teachers that can be called on short notice. These departures caused a bit of struggle as other teachers would then need to be recruited from other parts of the school to take over these spots. In some cases, a teacher would be abruptly pulled from one grade to teach a subject in another grade despite the fact that the teacher may have had no aptitude for that particular subject area. At Exemplary it was believed that the right person could teach any subject. Teachers who were hired to teach ELA might be switched to Math even if they lacked the ability to understand let alone teach Math to kids. If they floundered, they would be quickly terminated. Lots of juggling had to take place immediately as the kids were still there waiting to be taught. In many cases, new hires didn’t make it out of training. A colleague that joined Exemplary in my fourth year noted that her training class started with around 600 people in a packed school auditorium. By the time her training class had concluded a few weeks later, the auditorium was half-full. (In all fairness, I have to note that my Exemplary school was an anomaly with as much as 75% of its staff staying on in some years).
It seemed that Exemplary was more willing to go through the energy and expense of constantly hiring new teachers instead of working on the retention of those who managed to survive the gauntlet of Exemplary. (I would learn firsthand a few years down the road that Exemplary did not prioritize the retention of experienced teachers.) One thing that worked in the favor of Exemplary is that they were able to hire fresh college grads at a much lower salary than their public-school counterparts. I admit to having no insights into the expense incurred by Exemplary around hiring but I can only surmise that it was better for them to keep filling the leaky bucket with more water than to try plugging up the holes.
A major factor contributing to the Exemplary hiring methodology is the fact that, as a charter school in its state, Exemplary was not required to have experienced certified teachers. Most of the problems I observed while at Exemplary stem from this. In most states, you cannot walk into a classroom as a teacher unless you have fulfilled state-mandated requirements such as being enrolled in a teaching program or having a Master’s degree in Education. This ensures that new teachers have field experience under the tutelage of a professor, have received instruction on child behavior, and have been exposed to relevant education theory. Exemplary sought to fulfill its mission to provide a superior education with the best they could hire for the relatively low cost that they paid. Any experienced teacher would balk at the reduction in salary and benefits offered by Exemplary. (It should be noted that I came to Exemplary with no experience or certification. I earned my certification while at Exemplary. Ironically, I learned about most of the shortcomings of Exemplary via an education that they paid for.)
The Exemplary recruiting effort was not limited to Fall staffing. All year long, we would receive emails begging us to refer people for hiring. When I was hired, the bounty was $1500 for the referrer if the candidate were to remain at Exemplary for six months. That bounty rose over the years and during one particularly desperate time, Exemplary was offering $5000 to referrers if the candidate hung in for just 90 days. That $5000 bounty soon went back down to $1500 but there were other incentives thrown into the mix like AirPods, Oculus Rift headsets, or Amazon Echos. We were barraged with all-Exemplary text messages that encouraged us to spin the wheel and take part in the HR Recruitment Game Show. One might assume that it would be easier for an established organization to fill staff roles over time but based on the fluctuating bounty and the increasingly expensive tchotchkes, that didn’t seem to be the case.
I mentioned earlier that being at Exemplary was about worshipping at the altar of GF. At first, I felt alone in my viewpoint but over time, I found others who were all part of an underground movement of disbelievers. Still, there were plenty of people with glazed-over expressions who would’ve followed GF off a cliff if ordered to do so. You would see these wide-eyed Stepford Teachers, clad in Exemplary swag, at big Exemplary meetings where all of the teachers came together. When someone mentioned their school, these acolytes would all cheer like they were at a college basketball game. They tended to sit in the front of the room and would raise their hands to spew out the Exemplary Speak to nauseating levels: “non-negotiables”; “teacher moves”; and, of course, “scholar this” and “scholar that”. Speaking of raising hands, one of the oddest ritualistic behaviors I saw at Exemplary was the Exemplary Hand Jive.
Exemplary classrooms utilize hand signals as a way for the kids to communicate certain needs without making the teacher stop everything to acknowledge a request for, say, tissues or pencils. When I first encountered this, it made a ton of sense and still does. In our school, raising a 1 with your finger was the signal to ask for a pencil, 2 was the signal to ask for a tissue, and 3 was a request to use the bathroom. I could just say “yes” or nod my head to a kid who had one of these needs and keep going. Exemplary had other hand signals that were part of the culture. Jazz hands were used as a “silent cheer” to prevent kids from screaming uncontrollably at something that generated mass excitement, like an announcement of extra recess. Another hand signal was the “shaka shake” gesture generally seen among surfing types to express a “right on, brother” or “hang loose”. At Exemplary, this was done in a distinct fashion:
1)With your right hand, make the “shaka” sign by making a fist and extending your thumb and pinky finger.
2)Bring your hand to the right side of your head, about 3 inches from your temple. Make sure that the fingernails of your closed fingers are facing your temple.
3)Move your hand back and forth as if you were shaking up a little bottle of liquid gripped inside your hand.
“Shaka Shakes” were used to denote passionate agreement with something that a teacher or kid had said in class. The Shaka Shake might follow an answer to a classroom discussion point or just to demonstrate solidarity with the person speaking whether it was kid or adult. “Hang Loose” and “Jazz Hands” seemed cute to me when I first saw the kids do it in class. But in five years at Exemplary, I could never get used to the site of adults adopting these gestures. I don’t mean in the classroom – I’m talking about in meetings where it was all adults. A principal might announce a staff dress-down day (my favorite) or share some piece of information that the adults were in consensus on. I would look around the room and see a good portion of the adults jazz-handing their delight and shaka-shaking their assent. If a stranger were to view a video clip of this with the sound turned off, it might appear as if a room of adults had lost their physical composure.
By the middle of my first year, I became fed up with Exemplary and started interviewing for new jobs.