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Taking Back The Class

Ohanian Comment: The curious thing here is that after reading this article, I tried to get the school district's position. I found an article claiming that they were forced to dismiss Matez because of all the publicity. Trouble is, I couldn't find any publicity. None.

When a teacher of 17 years service is dismissed--in the middle of the year--it seems like the public deserves to know why.

He was his school's representative to the city Parent Teacher Association, which indicates a willingness to go that exta distance.

He's on the program at the Norfolk Public Library for Harry Potter Play.

The NEA Statement to the Press is terse to the point of invisibility:

Statement for the press.

The Norfolk Teachers Association through its executive board members has supported Eric Matez throughout this process. We have and will continue to advise him of his contractual and statutory rights. We have and will continue to encourage him to follow the grievance procedure afforded him under the contract.

Maybe I'm so concerned about this because while teaching 3rd grde eons ago,I was the only teacher in the district who refused to use the basal.

I mean, what happened here?

I have since learned the details of why the Norfolk school authorities dumped Eric Matez. They are shocking. For starters, he was forbidden to talk to parents, read Harry Potter aloud, put on a class play. That's just for starters. It looks like a case history in how to squeeze the energy, the joy, and the very professionalism out of teaching.

by Eric Hellweg

Eric Matez doesn't know what he'll do next. To put it euphemistically, he has been given the gift of time. To put it more bluntly, Matez, a seventeen-year elementary school teacher in Norfolk, Massachusetts, is out of a job, fired in late January from the Freeman-Centennial School. His offense? Going off script.

Matez was let go from the school for not teaching the curriculum to specification and for phoning the parents of his students to explain why he might be suspended; the latter act added the charge of insubordination to his disciplinary filing. "There's magic in my classroom," he says. "Going by the book, I couldn't make that happen. I wasn't going to give up the magic."

This isn't a case of poor test scores ending a teacher's career -- after his dismissal, an online message board for the town was flooded by testimonials from parents and students alike: "You were very kind to my son and made him fit into your classroom, when in previous years he was always the odd kid out. We appreciate that," read one. "You also made learning fun for him at a time when he started to hate school."

"He also has an inspiring integrity that spills over into his students, and I, for one, am ever so grateful for that," read another.

Matez's success in connecting with students and the community, and the school district's unwillingness to retain him, speaks to a bigger problem facing the education system today. Teachers across the country are increasingly becoming fed up with the mandated curriculum of the No Child Left Behind Act, of being told what and how to teach. At the same time, school systems are afraid of what might happen to their federal funding if they allow teachers to explore alternatives -- no matter how successful those may be.

In this sense, Matez and others like him who have been fired or quit out of frustration over curricular restrictions may one day be looked upon as forward sentries, the outliers who paved the way for teachers to think outside the test and begin to take back the classroom from the bureaucrats.

When frustration mounts within a confining system, two common reactions unfold: First, seek out fellow travelers. Second, search for alternatives. This situation has led many teachers to bond online and use the Internet to find encouragement and alternative lesson ideas.

Not surprisingly, a trove of educational materials, sites, and tools exists on the Internet, catering to teachers hoping to ditch the textbook and, instead, reach their students in new ways. Tapping into these resources can be an exhilarating experience for educators, renewing their love of teaching, says Jim Moulton, an independent educational-technology consultant in Bowdoin, Maine (and a faculty associate of The George Lucas Educational Foundation). "Isolation is the great killer of teachers," he says. "When they see there are other people out there providing resources, the receptivity shoots up. Teachers aren't looking at a script. They have plenty of scripts. The lights go on when they see tools."

Tools to help teachers breathe new life into their classrooms can be found all over the Internet. As with anything people create, however, some resources are better than others. Many of the alternative tools have been created to adhere to educational standards; others are simply the informal work of individuals or groups. And, as Matez's example points out, teachers should be careful before abandoning district-mandated curriculum wholesale. But in most cases, these materials can be used to augment standardized lesson plans or for extracurricular activities.

Some of the most intriguing aids reside at Instructables.com, a site produced by Squid Labs, a silly-sounding but serious organization staffed in part by alums of the MIT Media Lab. Instructables, part of the group's Engineering for Good program, tackles projects it hopes "will make a positive impact on the world," allowing anyone -- not just educators -- to upload detailed instructions on how to build or create a wide variety of projects. They're illustrated by photos or step-by-step drawings and include how to build a robot out of a computer mouse, how to craft a marshmallow gun, and how to create a helicopter toy.

"We're trying to create lesson-free learning, helping communities document their findings," Instructables cofounder Saul Griffith says. "People can show what they're building."

More than 600 "lesson-free lessons" are available free on the Instructables site, and Griffith hopes the number will grow as people in general -- and teachers especially -- discover project ideas as well as use the site to allow students to create their own Instructables.

"We live in an age when videogames are dominant," he says. "It's important to make hands-on educational activities as fun as videogames. We want to make projects mischievous and adventurous, and make learning about science and completing projects as fun as videogames."

One of the highlights of the site is a section called Howtoons, which contains ingenious one-page paneled cartoons that offer instruction on topics such as how to make a flute from a turkey baster or how to create an underwater viewer using a 2-liter soda bottle. The cartoons (some of which Regan Books will soon publish in hardcover), are licensed by the open-content organization Creative Commons, and interested teachers are encouraged to print them out and use them in their classrooms.

"The response to Howtoons has been very strong," says Griffith. "I've received a lot of email from teachers who are using them in classes. I assume that for every response, there are ten people using it and not telling you."

Do-It-Yourself Textbooks

Any teacher who doubts that students, given the chance, would endeavor to create an Instructable or share their knowledge through a similar site should talk to Shanel Kalicharan, a seventeen-year-old high school senior living in Mississauga, Ontario, near Toronto. Between sessions spent filling out her college applications, Kalicharan stumbled across Wikibooks, part of the Wikimedia Foundation, best known for its extensive Wikipedia project. Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia, meaning anyone can contribute to articles on any topic.

The site came under fire in late 2005 when someone vandalized the article on journalist and political figure John Seigenthaler Sr., but the site is generally a tremendous resource and a strong testament to what can happen when you pool the collective intellect of a large crowd. Nonetheless, teachers are strongly cautioned to verify material found here before using it in a substantive way in the classroom.

With Wikibooks, Wikimedia founder Jimmy Wales hopes to create online textbooks that can be used to supplement classroom learning; current books include those for algebra and general biology, plus a wealth of other subjects. Kalicharan discovered a project dealing with the solar system, one on dinosaurs, and one on ancient civilizations -- three topics of strong interest to her, so she set about contributing to the books.

"I've always loved reading, and I remember when I was younger I wanted to participate in making books," she says. "It's been great. The other contributors listen to your ideas, and we're working together to push everything along. I think others would benefit from doing it -- interacting with others, learning about other backgrounds and cultures, and learning more about themselves in the process."

Wales is known as a provocateur, and he displays it when asked about how the Wikibooks project got its start three years ago. "The academic system is stifling," he says. "It needs a breath of fresh air." At the same time, however, he's quick to point out the modest goals of the Wikibooks project in its current phase.

"It'll be a year or two before we can show something to teachers that they can use in the classroom setting as a textbook replacement," he says. "For K-12, teachers aren't given the flexibility to choose materials. They have to choose books from state-approved list. To get on the list, it's a process, and we're not there yet. Today, however, we can be used as a supplement, as a way to encourage students to contribute to a cool educational project."

New Sources, New Energy

Kathy Schrock, who runs the popular teacher-tech site Kathy Schrock's Guide for Educators, a resource hosted by the Discovery Channel's DiscoverySchool.com, encourages teachers to breathe life into their standardized curriculum through the use of technology. Though Schrock cautions against using Wikibooks substantively in a classroom, she regularly hears from teachers desperate for additional resources.

"I get about 150 emails a day, and 99 percent of them are from teachers looking for help," she says. "There's so much teachers have to cover because of accountability and mandates. As a result, it's very hard to fit anything additional into the classroom."

On her site, Schrock points teachers to what she considers the best online resources. These sites and programs are broken up by subject matter, with links available for topics from Agricultural Education to World Languages and Regions. "There's so much out there," she says. "It has definitely piqued the interest of teachers."

Whether this interest is due to the realization that a lot of content exists online or increased frustration at the standardization effort is up for debate. Jim Moulton, however, knows one thing: Bringing alternative lesson ideas into the classroom electrifies the students.

"I just got back from consulting with a classroom in California, and once the teachers introduced the Web-based resources into the classroom, the energy in the room was tremendous," Moulton says. "It was amazing, actually."

Despite the tremendous feedback people such as Griffith, Schrock, and Moulton receive from teachers who turn to the Internet to infuse their classrooms with new materials, most teachers aren't taking advantage of the resource and reaching out to fellow educators, specifically by blogging or podcasting to create resources for one another. "Teachers are introverts," says Moulton. "Teaching is an act of intimacy, and teachers aren't ones who typically reach out."

Part of the problem, of course, is that educators who do reach out, that do upset the status quo -- even if their methods are successful -- are often the ones who are punished. "Schools don't treat innovators kindly," says Moulton. "Teachers of the Year don't come back. Standardization is sapping innovative platforms in elementary schools. In a knowledge-based economy, that's suicide."

Back in Massachusetts, Matez, inspired by a conversation with a former student's parent, originally decided to fight his dismissal. "A mom called me and said, 'You know, Eric, we're never going to get good, innovative teachers here in Norfolk if teachers think they're going to get fired for doing their job better,'" he says. "Through this whole ordeal, she was the only person who made sense to me."

Since filing a grievance with the union, however, he has decided to avoid a drawn-out litigation and resign. He is now looking for work in another school district.

Eric Hellweg, who wrote "Hip Hop High" for our September 2005 issue, is senior editor for Harvard Business Review online.

February 7, 2006 Regular Business


Statement read 2-7-06 re Eric Matez.doc

NTA Statement for the press.doc

· The meeting was called to order by Chair, Kim Williams at 7:11pm

· In attendance were Sally Grant, Ed Piscitelli, Maureen Howard, Doug Miller and Kim Williams. Also in attendance were Dr. Chris Augusta-Scott, Superintendent and Michelle Schwigen, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent and School Committee Secretary.

Kim Williams addressed the public and informed them that a School Committee does not have a role in hiring, firing, evaluation and reinstatement of staff. Kim explained that although the time allowed for Public Comment as listed on the agenda was provided for public comment on the agenda, the School Committee was sensitive to the parents and their concerns surrounding the dismissal of Eric Matez and therefore would allow 20 minutes for the public to address the committee. Kim Williams had also suggested, prior to the start of the School Committee meeting, that the parent community selects two representatives who could address the committee on their behalf; 3 presented.

Sally Grant made a motion to move Public Comment up in the agenda – prior to Business Office presentation. Maureen Howard seconded. There was no discussion. It was a vote.

Ellen Horton, President of the Norfolk Teachers Association (NTA), read a statement on behalf of the NTA:
“The Norfolk Teachers Association through its executive board members has supported Eric Matez throughout this process. We have and will continue to advise him of his contractual and statutory rights. We have and will continue to encourage him to follow the grievance procedure afforded him under the contract.”

Kim Williams, Chairperson of the Norfolk School Committee, read a statement on behalf of the Norfolk School Committee:
“Many of you are here this evening to discuss the dismissal of Eric Matez. Let me begin by saying that the School Committee and the School Administration Team share your sadness in the dismissal of Eric Matez. The dismissal of a public school teacher is thankfully, a very rare occurrence in Massachusetts and especially in Norfolk.

We understand that you may be seeking answers to questions that we most likely are unable to provide. We are legally bound to respect Mr. Matez’s privacy and to respect the confidential aspects of our employer-employee relationship. A School Committee or School Administration team can not and should not share with you the contents of a teacher’s personnel file or the nature of any teacher’s performance evaluation.

Mr. Matez’s dismissal has been made a very public matter by his actions alone. There is a great deal of misinformation that has been circulating in the media and more importantly in our community regarding the reasons for his dismissal and the circumstances leading to his dismissal. As a committee and a school district we are held to a much stricter standard when communicating information regarding this matter. We will not take this opportunity to point by point deny what Mr. Matez has given as his reasons for his dismissal.

The School Committee has been fully briefed by Dr. Augusta-Scott on the circumstances which left her with no alternative but to begin the dismissal process last Tuesday. We are fully confident that Mr. Matez received many offers for support which, had he accepted, would have allowed him to remain teaching in his classroom. It is evident to the School Committee that a compassionate, respectful and diligent process was followed to ensure that Mr. Matez’s rights were protected. He was encouraged to seek the support and guidance of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association Union and had a Norfolk Teachers’ Association Union Representative present for discussions with Dr. Augusta-Scott and Mrs. Godfrey. It is clear to us that Mr. Matez was offered a great deal of support to help avoid this unfortunate outcome.

Last Tuesday, I was present in the office when Mr. Matez requested a meeting with Dr. Augusta-Scott. Dr. Augusta-Scott, surprised by the request, inquired as to the need for the meeting and the subject that he wished to discuss. He requested Mrs. Godfrey and the NTA Union President. To the surprise and regret of all of us, the events which unfolded during the meeting which Mr. Matez requested and the statements that were made by Mr. Matez in that meeting led Dr. Augusta-Scott to realize that it left her with no alternative but to begin the dismissal process. Dr. Augusta-Scott tried to dissuade Mr. Matez from forcing her to take this course of action. He was again offered support but unfortunately he was adamant in his decision.

Let me be very clear. The School Committee would have considered Dr. Augusta-Scott to be derelict in her duties had she ignored what she was presented with last Tuesday and returned Mr. Matez to his classroom. We insist and she agrees that all of her decisions always be made with the education, health and well-being of our children in mind.

Because Mr. Matez has made this so public, we are able to share much more detail with you than we would be able to otherwise. In his very public statements, Mr. Matez has never refuted the Administration’s claim that he was not teaching the 3rd Grade Curriculum as stated by the State of Massachusetts and the Department of Education. There has been much discussion over the past week about teaching style and the frameworks stifling a teacher’s creativity. I invite anyone into the classrooms at our elementary schools where you will see the Curriculum Frameworks being taught by dynamic, innovative and creative teachers every day here in Norfolk. Their innovation and creativity is encouraged and fully supported by the School Committee and the School Administration Team.

The consequences of Mr. Matez’s actions of last Tuesday have left us all stunned, confused and saddened. You are left frustrated by questions that we are unable to answer for you. Armed with information that you do not have, we are confident that Norfolk Public Schools did all that we could to prevent this occurrence. We fully support the decision of our School Superintendent.

Our focus now must be on helping the children in this classroom move forward and to help them build a positive relationship with their highly qualified teaching team. We are committed to supporting these children and we need your support to do so.

That being said, we will take public comment.”

Parent Community Representatives: Catherine MacDonagh (asked for investigation into how the matter was handled in particular, the communication and requested a report from the committee and until then that the Committee suspend contract negotiations with the Superintendent); Michael Gee and Janet Cree (presented letter and petition to committee); John Olivieri (Kim Williams attempted to address questions/concerns but Mr. Olivieri resisted and preferred to just read from prepared statement).

Public Comment was made by: Kelly Meredith (asked committee to answer questions that were not addressed on 2/1); Ross Gilleland (spoke at length); Leslie Kaelbling (asked for a definition of (teaching) goals and examples); Lisa Buchholz (asked what the timeline was regarding request for thorough evaluation of the process leading up and including the dismissal of Eric Matez and when they could expect an answer to their questions) Kim Williams informed the parent community that after this evening there would be no further discussion and that because of the potential for legal proceedings no further information could be given. Doug Miller also addressed this point by stating that from this point forward, out of consideration for Mr. Matez’s privacy, no further information would be given. Sally Grant spoke to the question of process and clearly stated that there was a process in place and that it was cut short by the actions of Mr. Matez himself.; Robyn Zietler (concerned about MCAS); Erin Hughes (spoke in support of the School Committee and administration).

Maureen Howard informed the parent community that Mrs. Mary Conlin, the teacher now presiding over the 3rd grade class, was a recently retired third grade teacher and assured them that the committee had the utmost confidence in her ability to teach the children.

Kim Williams recommended a motion be made to adjourn to allow enough time for those who had no further business with the committee and did not wish to remain for the public budget hearing to leave without disruption to the proceedings. Ed Piscitelli made a motion to adjourn. Maureen Howard seconded. It was a vote.

— Eric Hellweg


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