Alabama Teacher of the Year Resigns: The Backstory, Part I
On November 20, 2015, I drove from southern Louisiana to central Alabama in order to extensively interview Ann Marie Corgill, the 2014-15 Alabama Teacher of the Year who abruptly resigned on October 30, 2015.
The interview lasted over four hours. I decided to seek a face-to-face interview because I knew I would be asking some pointed questions, and I thought it best to do so in person.
Corgill has an intriguing story to tell, and in a series of posts, I intend to tell it, including information on Corgill’s professional history as a public school teacher in both Alabama and New York; her story about becoming Alabama’s Teacher of the Year, and the detailed circumstances surrounding her resignation, including the media attention.
For this first post, I focus on the how her story became national news.
Indeed, being the one to break the news of the sudden, unexpected departure of a state teacher of the year is quite a scoop.
Let me begin with October 31, 2015, the day that I first read about the abrupt resignation of Alabama’s 2014-15 Teacher of the Year, Ann Marie Corgill in the New York Daily News.
The Daily News article appeared to draw all of its information from this October 29, 2015, AL.com article that, in turn, draws most of its information from Corgill’s resignation letter.
Furthermore, the AL.com article also notes that Corgill “was not immediately available to comment Thursday morning [October 29, 2015].” Still, when I first read the article, I assumed that AL.com had been in touch with Corgill in order to receive a copy of the resignation from her. After all, it was Corgill’s resignation, so it seemed logical that if the media had been alerted and had a copy of the resignation letter, then it must have been Corgill who provided it.
This was not the case. In fact, when the AL.com story broke, Corgill was still in discussions with her district regarding her possibly continuing to teach. Their offer to her was to start with a fresh group of students in second grade (which would have been her third new beginning within a single grading period) or complete state-approved coursework and pay hundreds of dollars in fees to take the Praxis certification test to continue teaching the fifth grade that she did not request to teach but was told on the Thursday before Labor Day that she would be teaching the coming Tuesday.
There was no offer for a temporary, emergency certification so that she might finish the year with the fifth grade she was just getting settled into teaching– her second group of students for that school year. Still, Corgill agreed to consider what appears a desperate Birmingham City Schools administrative offer.
Corgill heard from the state via email on Monday, October 26, 2015, that they considered her not certified to teach fifth grade.
She also made a phone call to get this email explained and spoke with two people in the certification department who told her that being Nationally Board Certified in the grade she was teaching wouldn’t certify her to teach fifth grade or make her “highly qualified” to teach that grade.
She taught Monday and did not have a chance to communicate with the state until Monday afternoon because she was teaching; drafted the resignation letter Monday night and submitted it to her principal Tuesday morning, and returned to her classroom to teach. Corgill had not yet told her students she was resigning.
As Corgill told me, “I kept that [the certification issue that led to my resignation] to myself because I did not want them to think that I was giving up on them because there we go again, here’s another person in our life who’s just going to leave us. And that has haunted me since.”
I asked Corgill if her students were aware of the circumstances surrounding her departure.
“They know every single thing. And the reason they know is because I told them the truth. No one else did. And we set up a Kid Blog account the week before I resigned [as part of our class activities], and we’ve blogged every single day….”
More about the Kid Blog to come in future posts.
I then asked Corgill about a comment referencing AL.com included in her goodbye letter to her students. I noted that I understand more the context of her AL.com reference because AL.com did not contact Corgill for her detailed story.
I asked her if any news outlet had interviewed her about her situation. Corgill notes that Linda White of NBC-13 is “followed through with telling the story [of my resignation] with me in person by asking me questions,” as did Matt Murphy, a Birmingham radio talk show host, who invited her on for one of his shows: “I was able to tell my side of the story that hour together. The radio interview was held November 5th.”
I continued, “So, AL.com did a story…. When I wrote my first piece about your story… I gave AL.com credit, and I said what AL.com said at the end of their piece, that they would be following the story.
AL.com produced its story without first contacting Corgill, and its follow-up was the result of her initiating contact, not AL.com. More on this to come.
I continued, “So, then, I saw in EdWeek, they did a spread the day that I contacted you and asked about interviewing you (November 10, 2015), but they did not contact you prior to writing that piece?”
Corgill noted, “There was a Twitter message from the guy who interviewed me when I was Teacher of the Year, and I don’t know if he’s the one that wrote the article in EdWeek, but he asked to speak to me at some point. He didn’t give me a time frame or anything. …I had no idea that EdWeek piece was [definitely] coming out.”
Corgill later sent me a copy of the Twitter message (see below) and added, “Unlike AL.com, he (Brenneman of EdWeek) did try to contact me, and the Twitter message does say something about doing a story—just no timeline or when he needed to speak to me for this story. I was overwhelmed when I got this message and still in disbelief at the whole situation, and before I responded, the story was published.”
EdWeek‘s Ross Brenneman interviewed Corgill in March 2015 when she was Teacher of the Year, and it was Brenneman who wrote the November 10, 2015, EdWeek article about Corgill’s resignation without interviewing her– which makes his article scholastically weak. Brenneman wrote his 1,300-word article on Corgill without her input, which he seemed ready to do based upon his having attempted to contact her with no result based on a single Twitter message– and not even any Twitter follow-up request– which leaves his article with loose ends that ought to embarrass him:
Many questions remain about the situation leading to Corgill’s resignation: Why did Oliver Elementary move Corgill to 5th grade without checking on the certification requirements? What prompted the district to check her certification after the fact? Why wasn’t Corgill transferred back to 2nd grade? What other options was she offered?
I can answer all of the above because I interviewed Ann Marie Corgill. In addition, I have copies of documents provided to me from Corgill’s personnel file because she provided them to me directly.
Moreover, despite the weakness of his lack of input from Corgill for his story on her resignation, Brenneman was still willing to place blame on her for her situation. To justify such blame, Brenneman cites An Authority:
Frustrated, Corgill resigned.
“In order to attract and retain the best teachers, we must feel trusted, valued, and treated as professionals,” she wrote in her resignation letter, published online by AL.com. “It is my hope that my experience can inform new decisions, policies, and procedures to make Birmingham city schools a place everyone wants to work and learn.”
Not that Corgill escapes culpability either.
“One of the responsibilities of being a professional is knowing what you can do and cannot do,” said Phillip S. Rogers, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.
The situation is just not that simple, O Available Authority.
AL.com, the media outlet that broke the story on Corgill and that Brenneman links to in the above excerpt, chiefly operated via a document from Corgill’s file: Her resignation letter. However, AL.com did not receive the copy from Corgill but from an anonymous source. This information AL.com told a friend of Corgill’s who called on her behalf. Corgill and her friends learned of the AL.com story after the fact:
“AL.com never contacted me before any of that went on [the publishing of the AL.com article about her resignation]. And the letter? Do you know how they got the letter? …
“Several friends knew the whole story about what was going on with me. I shared that letter [to seek their advice] because I wanted it to be professional; I wanted it to be on the up-and-up.
“A friend in Tennessee was just devastated by this whole story and was telling it to a colleague of hers… and she had my letter because I took a picture of it for them to read. She had my letter on her phone, and she let her friend read it… and that person who read it was a media person in Tennessee and sent it to herself, and anonymously sent it to AL.com without any of our knowing.
“The way that I know that is a friend of mine who is an ed reporter called AL.com and said, ‘Where did you get the letter?’ And they said, ‘We can’t give that information, but it was an anonymous reporter from Memphis.’ And I immediately called my friend in Tennessee. She wrote me the night before, and she said, ‘I was telling my friend in the media, and she’s probably going to want to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Great. Have her call me.’
“She (the Memphis reporter) didn’t talk to me. She took my letter and sent it to AL.com without anybody knowing. And they sat around, and they pushed that thing [the AL.com story based on the resignation letter] out.
“I did get an email after because I fired off to them that nobody contacted me [and] ‘How did you get the letter?’, and [the author of the AL.com article] wrote back.”
Below is the email from the writer of the AL.com article, Adam Ganucheau. She subject line of Corgill’s email to Ganucheau reads, “Ann Marie Corgill here.”
Note that Ganucheau had already decided to publish Corgill’s resignation letter no matter her thoughts on the issue:
Ann Marie, thank you for reaching out. I tried calling a couple times yesterday, first and foremost to explain our reasoning for publishing the letter. My editors and I had a long discussion about it prior to the story publishing. In the end, we determined that since it was addressed to public officials, it was considered a public document.
Of course, I completely understand that you were caught off guard by our publishing it without your knowledge, and we absolutely considered that beforehand. But we felt that the letter itself was so important, and Birmingham and Jefferson County taxpayers needed to see firsthand the problems you have experienced.
It certainly was not published to name call and place blame on anyone, and I am terribly sorry it has done that. But from our end, the vast, vast majority of emails, messages and comments we’ve received have been extremely supportive of you, other teachers, and the students at Birmingham City Schools.
Please, please call me if you want to talk more about our decision. Our conversation would be completely off the record. My cell is 205-603-2018.
Regarding the rest of your statement, thank you for sharing! I’m staying in close contact with the school district and the board about all this, and we’ll publish another article at some point today with hopefully more of their side of the story. It seems to me that they are scrambling to make this right, and for your sake and your students’ sake, I hope that’s the case.
Thank you again for reaching out, and again, please reach out if you have any further questions.
So, a resignation letter that was leaked to Ganucheau by an anonymous source that AL.com is considered a public document even though AL.com does not have the authority to file a public records request to receive it– nor did AL.com verify with Corgill that the letter was legitimate prior to publishing. As for Ganucheau’s “public document” defense: The letter was addressed to Corgill’s principal and superintendent and was part of her personnel file.
But that resignation letter from a former state teacher of the year sure did make for big news, no matter how it was obtained. And that is apparently what matters most to Ganucheau.
There was no careful easing of Corgill’s students into the news of her resignation. Ganucheau took care of that.
Note that Ganucheau did write that follow-up article based on Corgill’s email to him (dated October 30, 2015, at 10:25 a.m.). However, he chose not to include Corgill’s opening statement (in bold):
Hi Adam—I wanted to share my statement with you. This is all I have to say at this point.
I was enjoying our school’s fall festival with my students and colleagues yesterday, when I learned my pending letter of resignation had been published by al.com without my knowledge or consent. This letter was personal, and unfortunately has now been used to name call and place blame on others.
I was working through the issues I raised in the letter with my principal and employer when my letter was made public.
Clearly, I was frustrated and upset about not getting paid. I rely on a regular paycheck to pay my bills and maintain good credit.
When the news came that I was not considered highly-qualified, my frustration boiled over.
First and foremost, I am a National Board certified teacher who has and will continue to give my life to the profession. Every child I teach and learn from is a part of me. I love them and work to give them my best.
The wall of bureaucracy I encountered trying to straighten all of this out with my employer led to my writing the letter.
This experience has shown me the importance of teachers’ voices in public education.
At this point, we are working together to try and solve this immediate set of problems.
Ann Marie Corgill
The original AL.com article includes the statement, “Corgill was not immediately available to comment Thursday morning.”
The article was published Thursday morning, October 29, 2015, at 11:38 a.m. Corgill was teaching at that time. She received no phone messages at school to indicate that Ganucheau had made any effort to contact her. [Note: Corgill’s principal knew of the AL.com story before it broke. However, Ganucheau did not pursue speaking directly with or otherwise communicating directly with Corgill.]
Indeed, Corgill’s story is big news, and a major interview with her should be its center.
That is my goal in writing this series on Corgill.
Stay tuned for Part II.