EAA Teacher of the Year on why she quit:
“I was compromising my moral integrity and I couldn’t live with myself”
by Chris Savage
As much as my previous interviews with Education Achievement Authority teachers have left me sad and outraged, today’s interview blew my mind. The interview is with Kim Jurczak. Kim was a teacher at Nolan elementary and middle school and by all accounts, perhaps the most talented teacher there. In yesterday’s interview, the teacher had this to say about Kim:
She is one of the most… she left a career in educational technology to work for the EAA. She moved home from another state for this and they shit on her so much…She brought in her own Promethean Smart Board. She brought in her own clickers. Her class was amazing, the way she organized everything. And she did this all on her own. She wrote her own curriculum in BUZZ because BUZZ is such a joke.
Kim was so well-respected, in fact, that she was elected by the other teachers in her school as Teacher of the Year in a landslide.
However, the story that she tells is of an administration, starting with EAA Chancellor John Covington all the way down to her principal Angela Underwood, who had complete and utter disdain for their teachers. While Covington was creating an environment of fear and intimidation among his staff, including the school principals, Underwood — who came to the EAA with Covington from their failure in the Kansas City schools — was creating an identical environment at Nolan. In the end, despite how much it broke her heart to do so, Kim Jurczak quit her teaching job at Nolan where she had been chosen as Teacher of the Year by her peers.
It’s worth noting that, like other teachers that have left EAA schools, Kim was initially reluctant to let me use her name for this interview. The culture of fear and intimidation that Covington has created in the EAA extends beyond the walls of its school buildings and beyond the borders of its district. Even teachers who now work in other non-EAA schools fear punishment and retribution from Covington and his team.
I’ve said before that one element you would expect in a “turnaround” district tasked with rapidly improving struggling schools is its leadership would hire the best, most experienced teachers they could find, compensate them well, and support them with whatever resources they need. When they hired Kim Jurczak, EAA administrators definitely found one of the best. And then, by treating her with no respect, as if she were just a useful trophy to show off to their financial benefactors when they toured the building to check on their investment, someone to be seen but not heard from, EAA administrators drove her away. Her new students are truly fortunate. But, like with so much else that is happening to them in their district, the EAA students are the losers in this situation. That’s not the fault of Kim Jurczak. That’s entirely the fault of the administration of the EAA from John Covington and Mary Essleman down to Angela Underwood and their damaging and offensive management style, a management style that has no place in Michigan public schools.
In the end, this is less a story about teachers being treated like dirt and more a story of kids losing out once again due to the failed model of the EAA.
Did you teach in the EAA from the beginning?
Yeah, I worked there from when school opened in the fall of 2012.
Did you work at Nolan the entire time?
Yes but last summer I was offered a job as a coach at another school and I was eager to take it.
To get out of the classroom?
No, not to get out of the classroom. To get out of Nolan.
That’s one of the interesting parts of the situation. The principal at Nolan, Angela Underwood, she came from Kansas City with Dr. Covington and she was kind of their “star child”. She seemed to be given unfair advantage in my eyes in terms of the resources that she had. She had all of these people that had come over from Kansas City who had already done things the way Covington wanted them to.
I learned a lot by talking to people at the other schools. The principals at other schools, they didn’t even know what they were supposed to be doing. The higher level, Dr. Covington’s team, wasn’t even helping the principals learn what was supposed to be going on in their schools.
How can you lead and help teachers to do things the right way if you’re never shown yourself?
But, at Nolan, there was no respect of the teachers from the administration. It was very much a dictatorship. Never in my life have I worked for someone who I couldn’t respect. Probably in the first month and a half I lost all respect for, first, my principal and then everyone in the hierarchy of the EAA organization — Covington, Esselman — I couldn’t respect them because they didn’t know what they were doing.
I couldn’t work for Angela Underwood for another year because I was afraid I’d be fired. I was having a harder and harder time as time went on keeping quiet and not challenging her every time she did something that just didn’t make sense.
The style of my principal was… well, we were cursed at, we were yelled at, we were belittled. And that seems to be the same way that Covington spoke to his principals and his administrative staff at his meetings. It was very much “my way or the highway” type of leadership. Even if principals had good intentions, they were being forced or coerced into doing things a certain way even if they didn’t think it was the best way.
So this — I’ve been referring to it as a culture of fear and intimidation as it relates to the teachers — but is sounds like that might have extended to some of these administrators, as well, and they were just sort of emulating what was happening to them when they dealt with their own staff.
Yes. That’s what I heard. For some people, if this job is your financial security and you’re using it to pay for your children, because a lot of the administrators are parents, as well, so they can’t just lose their jobs. So, they’re kind of forced into situations that, unfortunately, you personally don’t always agree with.
You know, I talked to another teacher at Nolan and she said that the teachers there loved you and that they encouraged you to — she explained to me that you had to nominate YOURSELF for Teacher of the Year which seems kind of weird — but, she said that they had encouraged YOU to do that and then they really came out for you big time and you won by a landslide. And I thought that was neat. It wasn’t like the administrators picked one of their pet teachers. It was actually voted on by the other teachers. Am I right about that?
Yeah. You were supposed to nominate yourself but they asked people to encourage other people to submit themselves and I had like five people that emailed me or came up to me and said, “You should submit yourself.” When I found out that not that many people were doing it, I thought, “What the hell?” and I decided to go ahead and throw my name in the hat and see what happened.
I found out later that two first year Teach for America teachers were told by the principal that they should submit themselves. I was never told that by her, despite the fact that I was obviously doing well. I mean every time they had visitors, they were coming into my classroom. I was being asked to help with curriculum writing by the district. But I wasn’t asked by the principal to consider doing Teacher of the Year because I don’t think she thought I’d be a good representation for the EAA because I was honest. I was going to do right by the kids but I wasn’t going to lie and stretch the truth. I wasn’t going to put on a dog and pony show and I think the two people she asked would. This was their first year out of college and they were trying to impress her.
I taught for five years before I came to Nolan and I also worked in the corporate world training educators. So, I’ve had lots of different bosses in my life and I’ve had lots of different jobs in my life. I have a pretty solid background in terms of going and getting another job. I didn’t need the EAA on my resumé.
Not like a TFA teacher would.
Right. For them, it’s their first job and they have nothing to compare it to. I could see myself being much like them at that age. You want your boss to like you, you want to do what your boss thinks is right. I could have seen myself being like that.
So, you were looking to leave the EAA before you actually quit?
Yeah, I would go in spurts. It broke my heart to leave. I loved my students. I had lived out of state for awhile but I had grown up in Michigan and wanted to come back. In a previous job I had trained teachers and I worked a lot with people who had worked in urban schools. I had never worked in one myself. I had worked in more suburbanish schools or lightly urban but not high poverty areas. So, I had never worked in those schools myself but I had met a lot of teachers and principals who were working in more struggling schools and it really touched me what they were doing and I wanted to go back and try to make that difference. So, when I saw what the EAA was trying to do, when I was looking online, it really fit in with my teaching style and what I’m trying to do. So, I really wanted to work for the EAA.
When I got there, I fell in love with my students as much as they drove me crazy on certain days. They needed people like us to be there for them. The thought of leaving them broke my heart. I really did struggle over the decision to actually take the job that I have now because I felt like I was giving up on the kids. As much as the frustrations that I had with the EAA made it difficult, I wanted to be there for the students. I really did care about them.
But, I got to the point where I felt like I was giving up something in myself to stay with them. By staying with the EAA I was compromising my moral integrity and I couldn’t live with myself.
The reason that I came to the decision to leave was because I tried several times to talk to them. I had a meeting in the fall with my principal about some of the things that I saw going on. I just wanted to have a talk with her, person-to-person, and just say, “Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes. Here’s how the teachers are feeling. People are frustrated, people want to leave, and this is not sustainable. We know that, if you want this to be successful, you need people to stick around and right now people are unhappy and they don’t feel supported and they don’t feel respected.”
I had that conversation with her and I felt like it went pretty well. But then, after that, I felt like I had a target on my back for the rest of the year because I spoke up. So, I felt like I tried to help them to see what they could change to make things better and they didn’t want to hear it. They only wanted to hear it from the Kansas City people. They had an idea in their heads about how it should go and, even if their way wasn’t working, they didn’t care. They were going to make their way work. It was more about “my way or the highway” than what was best for the students and how they were going to keep the teachers that are doing things the right way.
At my school, it seemed like there was a favoritism thing going on. I can admit that, during the first few months, I was favored. I was given opportunities and I was given treatment that other teachers were not given because they thought I was doing a good job. For example, I had worked for Promethean and I had my own Promethean Board which is an interactive white board. Most people know them as “smart boards”. I had one in my personal possession that I brought into my classroom. So, I already had one piece of technology in my classroom. Then my assistant principal came and asked me if I wanted a smart board. And I was like, “I already have one in my room! There are teachers who have nothing and you’re offering me a second thing to put in my classroom? You’re offering me something new when there are people who have nothing? That doesn’t make sense. Why can’t we make it fair? We can’t have it where some people have access to resources and others don’t.”
So, I was part of the favored group at the beginning. There were a few of us that were. Dr. Esselman — I’m sure you know who she is, she’s one of the higher ups — she would come to the school and whenever she was there she would stop by my classroom and see how things were going. Then, after I spoke to Angela, that all seemed to stop. She didn’t come in and talk to me at all. The only time they came into my room after that was when we had people visiting the school so they could do the dog and pony show because they knew that they could come into my room and kind of show off. That became the only time they ever asked me for anything anymore. They started having the two TFA teachers I mentioned go to present at weekend events and to speak on behalf of the EAA. They never asked me to do any of that stuff. I think it was, again, because they knew I had an opinion of my own and I think they knew I could back up my opinion because I had a little bit more experience and I know what I’m talking about a little bit more than a first-year teacher.
I think they were afraid that someone would actually not just go out there and sing the song of the EAA; that someone would go out and say, “Well, actually, here’s what’sreally going on…”
Tell me about why you chose to go to the EAA. What did you know about them and what was it that interested you in what they told.
As I told you, through my training experiences I totally fell in love with the thought of working in an urban school and working with those students who didn’t have every advantage growing up. That was part of it.
The second part was that, when I was in Florida where I lived before, I was lucky enough to teach in a district that I think was one of the leaders in the nation in terms of technology integration and project-based learning. That was one of the things that they were touting in the EAA. I don’t know how familiar you are with project-based learning…
I’m not familiar with it. Could you explain?
Project-based learning is authentic learning where you’re teaching students through real-life projects. It’s not just a project where the kids are doing something and then making a poster. They might go out to the Everglades and collect samples on a field trip because they’re trying to find out something about water pollution. It’s multi-disciplinary, multi-subject, and it’s usually a several month-long project where they solve real-world problems. They’re utilizing technology and their creating a presentation at the end to share it, like a video that they created or something like that.
So the kids are using math and writing and science and all of these different things in the course of the project.
Yeah exactly. Also, the EAA had a video up on their website that showed this. There was an example, I think it was robotics, and the idea was that they would have these project-based classrooms. To me, that was exactly what I wanted to get to, to get away from a lecture-based model.
It’s funny, when I read through some of the other interviews that you’ve done and see what they say… like about the BUZZ system. What they ended up using the technology for was not at all what they told me. The commercial that I was sold on was not what was actually happening and I felt like even the leaders of the EAA didn’t know what project-based learning really was. They were trying to do this new, innovative technology, project-based learning and that never even took place in the classroom.
So they sold you on something that never really actually existed.
No, it never existed. One of the big things with project-based learning is 21st century skills — collaboration, communication, cooperation, and students working in teams together. I thought that was really important because these kids need these skills to work together and get along. That was one of the things we really struggled with at the beginning of the year, was getting them to work together in teams. And the way that, at least my school, SCL (student centered learning) was being pushed was “each kid for himself”. Each had their own individual plan. To me that completely disregards the whole 21st century skills that we’re supposed to be instilling in these kids. They shouldn’t be just working on their own. They need to be working together.
That’s exactly what people in business want: people who can work together and collaborate and get along with others.
When did the Teacher of the Year election happen? What time frame are we talking about?
I was actually looking that up because I actually forwarded myself the email that told me I was Teacher of the Year. I missed the Teacher of the Year dinner because I had my rehearsal dinner that night and I was made to feel like there was something wrong with that because God forbid I get married. So, I missed the actual dinner and never got anything like a certificate to say I was the Teacher of the Year so, before I left, I forwarded myself the email just in case they tried to say that it didn’t happen.
That was how you found out about it? An email? That was how they awarded it to you? Are you kidding me?
Yup. I believe the voting took place around April. I got an email on Thursday, May 30th from Dr. Prince who was in charge of HR for the district congratulating me for being chosen as the Teacher of the Year for Nolan. “As such, you are now eligible to apply for the EAA District Teacher of the Year”. It was funny to me because, as I was talking to teachers in other schools, the Teachers of the Year of the school were actually informed that they got it before the email from Dr. Prince came.
I was not even informed that I was the person who won. My principal didn’t even make an effort to tell me, “Oh, by the way, we voted a month ago and you were the winner.” Which I thought was kind of funny in and of itself. I was thinking, “Was she hoping that something would happen where I wouldn’t get it anymore and so she wasn’t telling me because she didn’t want to take it back?”
But that’s how I found out, from an email from the district telling me that now I could apply for the district Teacher of the Year. There wasn’t a staff meeting, I just got this email and then after that I got an email from my principal congratulating me. She sent me an email after. And I was like, “Really? That’s kind of cold that you couldn’t even tell the school beforehand that I had won this. It shows me what you really think.”
So it was a full month after the voting that I was informed. I had almost forgotten about it because it has been so long.
Were there Teachers of the Year at other schools, too? I hadn’t heard anything about that.
Yeah, and that’s the thing, they never announced it until they picked the district Teacher of the Year. I didn’t even bother running for that because the things you would have had to do I wouldn’t be able to do with a straight face. Like representing the EAA at different meetings, I couldn’t have done that. And I knew they never would have chosen me, either. That wouldn’t have happened. I don’t think that many of the other winners did either, probably for the same reasons I didn’t.
One of the things that I suspect will happen is that once the TFA teachers’ two-year obligation is up, there is going to be a mass exodus as they head for the door. Do you think that will happen?
Yeah and that’s biggest concern with the EAA to begin with because, yes, they have these TFA teachers that are coming in. But if you look at the school were I was, if you go to the website that’s up for Nolan elementary, it lists the names of the teachers who were hired at the beginning of last year. There are even teachers on that list that never even worked at Nolan. They left before school even started because the PD [professional development] was so ridiculous. But, if you look through that list at those people, I don’t remember the number anymore but it was only like five people that weren’t TFAers that are actually still at that school. The only other ones that are still at that school are the ones from TFA.
So, I worry about, like you say, they’re going to leave. This isn’t a sustainable model. If trying to help these kids and helping the lowest five percent is what they’re trying to do, then what they are doing to support the teachers is not going to make them want to stay. There are some who will stay because they really, really want to do this. There are some that won’t stay at all because they never intended to stay. But there are some that are on the fence about it and I think if there was the right support there through professional development and mentorship and all of that, then they might have more people who would say, “Yeah, you know, maybe I’ll stick around for a few years” and maybe they’ll turn teaching into a career or at least do it for more than just the two years that they need to for TFA.
Last year, there was talk of joining a union and we talked with AFT. And, for awhile, I was thinking about it so I went around and talked to some of the other teachers. And what I found out is that the majority of them weren’t planning on staying because a lot of the teachers, even the TFAers, they have issues with what’s being done in the EAA. As much as they believe in the kids, they don’t believe in the way the organization is being run. So, what I found out was that there were so few people that were planning on staying long term that I wasn’t willing to put myself on the line if people weren’t going to stay around. I would have done it if I felt like even half of us that were wanting to stay here for five years or more. But, what it looked like to me was that there were five people who were willing to stay for that long.
What was your experience with BUZZ?
Ah, my best friend BUZZ. I stopped using BUZZ as it was supposed to be used. Before BUZZ was up and running and functional, I had started my own website. My Masters degree is in instructional technology and, as I told you, I trained teachers in integrating technology for four years so it’s somewhat of a strength of mine. So, I knew of a lot of resources I could use with the computers and I didn’t need to rely on BUZZ to be able to use the computers in ways that I thought were useful and helpful.
I did try to make it work. I did try to have BUZZ running the way it was supposed to. I was actually one of the few teachers that was using it in the way they wanted us to use it in the beginning. The way it was set up was that there were units — Unit 1, Unit 2, whatever — and the students would have access to a single unit and then, once they had mastered everything in that unit, they were supposed to be able to go on to the next unit.
What we found, those of us who had started using it early, was that, once the student had finished Unit 1, it wouldn’t bump them up to Unit 2. So we had kids who couldn’t access the next set of instructional materials. And we’re talking here about three to four weeks that that kid couldn’t move on with the computer system so we were having to fall back to other resources. And then we were, of course, yelled at because we were using worksheets or using paper and pencil and not using BUZZ. But BUZZ wasn’t functioning.
I actually found a workaround and solved that problem for the district. Of course I wasn’t really given credit for it. BUZZ is based on a platform called Brain Honey. I discovered that the kids could login through a Brain Honey link and access the same material and it would still save their progress and all of that. I found that out by accident one day as I was trying to help out a student. I realized that when I went to the homepage for Brain Honey, oh my goodness, you could still login, and now the student could access the Unit 2 materials.
So, I had started using Brain Honey at that point. It wasn’t the cutesy set up that BUZZ was but I ended up enjoying that more than BUZZ and so did my students so I actually ended up using that for the remainder of the year. I got reprimanded a time or two because, “Why aren’t you using BUZZ?” But there were so many glitches in the BUZZ system, I’m sorry, I’m not going to use a system that isn’t working just for the sake of that system when there’s another system that has the exact same materials and it actually works.
Look, I worked in the corporate world and I know about selling a product and I wasn’t there to sell BUZZ. I was there to teach my students.
The thing is that, when I thought about SCL, I never saw it as, “Okay, the kids are going to learn off the computer.” It was, to me, just one of the resources that were there for their learning. I used the computers a lot but I didn’t use them as Brain Honey or BUZZ being the focus of it. I would bookmark things and put things on my personal website and students would know how to navigate to where we were supposed to be, whether it was researching the state of Michigan which is part of the 3rd grade curriculum or whatever it would be, my students knew how to navigate a computer. So we were able to work around the technology glitches.
How would you contrast your current teaching job with your experience with the EAA? Are you in a happy place now?
I would say it’s completely different. One of the things that bothered me about the EAA was that we had a coach and a Dean at our school that were supposedly there to assist us and help us grow as teachers and we didn’t feel like that support was there. You know, I had five years experience teaching but I didn’t feel in any way, shape, or form that I was done learning. I was looking for my own mentor, somebody to help me to continue to grow. But I didn’t feel like that was happening there. I mean we helped each other out but there wasn’t, for example, a really strong reading teacher who could help me improve my reading strategies or a really strong math teacher. Everyone has their strengths. Mine was technology. I was hoping to find those other teachers so that we could all continue to help each other grow and that wasn’t happening in the EAA.
Here, where I am now, I have so many resources here and I sit in meetings here and I feel like an idiot because the teachers that I’m teaching with are so good at what they’re doing, they’re so strong and I’m learning so much here.
That’s what the teachers at the EAA needed. Instead of someone kind of going around being the SCL coach, they needed someone who was leading reading workshops and math workshops and modeling those lessons. I did not feel like that support was there.
When you talk about how a lot of the principals feel intimidated by Covington, I thought it was interesting how after my first post he went around and asked all of them if they were doing anything wrong. No surprise, nobody said they were.
Let me tell you a story about that. At the very beginning of the year, one of the other teachers had gone to Underwood and tried to have the same sort of conversation with her that I had and asked if we could have a meeting. Our intention with that meeting was to talk about what was going on and try to come to some solutions. The meeting turned out to be the principal saying, “There are problems and you guys need to speak up.” Then she went around the circle and pointed to someone and said, “Okay, what are YOUR problems. Do you have any frustrations?” and then she’d point to the next one and ask them. It was very intimidating. Nobody felt comfortable speaking up because she was putting them on the spot. People were afraid to speak up and say what was happening and there were people who were actually in tears in that meeting because they felt so uncomfortable. We wanted to have a discussion about how we could fix things and it seems like she was taking it as a personal attack on her as an administrator. But she wasn’t there to try to help us. She was trying to figure out who was speaking out against anything going on. We almost felt like it was her way of putting targets on our backs, finding out who the people were that she needed to have an eye on.
Which is exactly what Covington did at the principal level.
Exactly. Exactly. When I saw that, that he was asking them if they were doing anything wrong, well they’re too afraid to say the truth so they’re going to go ahead and lie about it. In Terry Abbott’s response where he was talking about the staff incidents, there was nothing written about how the two times at Nolan where a teacher was written up. I was one of the people who had to report it one of the times for student who said one of the teachers put his hands on them. That wasn’t in the response. He only talked about what happened this year. So, what, you’re hiding all this stuff and selecting what information you’re putting out there just to put on the dog and pony show? Trying to make things look a certain way?
And that’s what this comes down to when it comes to expanding the EAA: if you’re going to expand, do it because you’re doing great things, not because you’re lying about what’s going on.
Here’s another example: before the school year actually started, this was during our PD at the beginning of the year, a teacher had put something in a survey following up our PD that the principal found inappropriate. She told us that she had found out who it was, that she had the autonomy to hire and fire who she pleased, and she’ll gladly “hold the door open as Dr. Covington kicks their ass out of the room.” We were also called “jackasses” in that meeting. That was my first experience thinking, “Who in the world am I working for? I’ve never been spoken to like this before!”
School hadn’t even started yet, right?
Right. I guess she was trying to assert her authority. “I have the power, it’s MY decision if you have a job or not.”
Another situation I think was directed at me personally. School Improvement Network, the company that owns BUZZ and Brain Honey, had come to our school many times. Some of the times were to film lessons that were going on so that they could use them to show the ideal teaching situations. I was told they were coming into my class to film a math lesson. Of course, I was told that at lunch so I had to try to get some stuff ready. Well, we waited and waited and they didn’t show up. Then, about 20 minutes before the end of the school day, they finally showed up in my room to film this lesson that we had already finished at that point. The computers were packed up because they had to go with the tech person.
They said, “Well, we’ll just film whatever it is you were going to do.” So, I’m like, “Okay, let me pull something out of my ass now…” So, I’m trying to do a science lesson and, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t prepared for it and it was almost the end of the day, my kids and I are almost ready to pack up and leave and, by the way, you told me you were going to come in an hour and half ago.
The lesson wasn’t going well, and at one point I said, “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to leave” because I knew my students were getting anything out of it and I wasn’t going to be putting on a show.
We had a staff meeting a day or two later and during that staff meeting, Underwood brought up a situation and basically said, “If someone is coming to your room to film and you disagree, you better just grit your teeth and bear it. I was so embarrassed that you weren’t prepared…” She never said my name but it was clear that she was talking about me. She said she had a stack of resumés at her desk and that we were all replaceable.
My third story happened later in the year and this was one of my breaking points where I thought, “I might have to leave this place.” We always had visitors visiting our classroom and it was typically a disruption to the learning process. We had a group of visitors that came in on this particular day who were very loud and didn’t seem to understand that when you go into a classroom, you should probably not interrupt what is going on. The students that I was working with, and it was a small group, maybe seven or eight, I could barely hear them when they were sitting five feet from me because these adults were in my room and being so loud and disruptive.
Like they were at the zoo watching animals or something.
Yes. So, the next day we had a staff meeting for nothing related to that but I brought it up. I raised my hand and said, “Is it possible that when we have visitors come in, that we can ask them to try not to interrupt the learning process because it was really difficult to get my kids back on track after they left the classroom.”
Her response was that she couldn’t tell Dr. Covington and Dr. Esselman to have these people be quiet and if I didn’t think I could handle that, that maybe this was not the right place for me to be working. To me, I thought that was hilarious. I mean I would have had the balls, I would have stood up to him. I’m sorry but you need to ask the question. You can do it politely, in a respectful way, but say to them, “Would you please respect the learning process and try to keep your voices down when you’re in the classroom?” I didn’t think that was such a big thing but she turned it into, “You can’t do that and maybe this isn’t the right place for you to be working.” And that was, of course, in front of the entire staff that she does this stuff.
That goes along with this environment of fear that they had created. I wasn’t afraid to speak up but there were a lot of people who were.
How many times did visitors come through?
The year that I was there, it started in December and we had something like 20 visitors by the end of the spring. They didn’t usually come in the summer because in the summer there weren’t that many students there and they really didn’t want people to see that.
Another thing is that every time we had visitors, our schedule completely changed. So we had kids eating lunch at 10 in the morning or super late in the afternoon so that the visitors wouldn’t be there to see the kids at lunchtime because they were afraid that the students would be themselves.
Original article appeared at the following link: