Alabama Teacher of the Year Resigns– The Backstory, Part II
On November 23, 2015, I began a series of posts about Ann Marie Corgill, the 2014-15 Alabama Teacher of the Year who resigned from Birmingham City Public Schools effective October 30, 2015. Corgill’s resignation was prompted by notification from the state department of education that the state did not consider her certified to teach fifth grade.
Of course, there is more to the story than a single event leading to a career teacher’s resignation. In this post, I offer more details from Corgill’s story based upon our four-hour interview on November 20, 2015.
Let us go back to the beginning of the 2015-16 school year and Corgill’s decision to leave the affluent Mountain Brook school system for an opportunity to teach at the decidedly non-affluent Birmingham City schools.
(Note: Most of this post is comprised of Corgill’s words, which are indented. My questions and comments are in quotation marks and are not indented.) Corgill begins:
I had been talking all year (2014-15) about this tug in my heart to not stay in Mountain Brook because, not because it wasn’t a good place, not because I hadn’t learned a lot, but because it was very comfortable….
My reason [for leaving the comfort of Mountain Brook] was, I want to continue to be a learner and a teacher.
“You got too comfortable there?”
It was easy. It was easy, and I felt myself losing ground (intellectually), and maybe even socially, emotionally.
“Were you stagnating?”
I felt like I could easily do that. … But, I had that tug in my heart to go to a place that was very different from anywhere I’d been to, and I’d learned about the Woodlawn Innovation Network. I’d learned that, this [Birmingham City] wasn’t Mountain Brook. And it would be challenging. And it would be a way for me to learn, and grow, and help children the best way I knew how. …
This is my decision: I decided to move to Birmingham City, which is a completely different population with completely different challenges, and I wanted to be a part of it. …I had heard that they were doing project-based learning; [I’m] very interested in that.
I wanted to jump in, try something new, but I knew that I wanted to be in primary. I wanted to try the things I had written in my book. I wanted to get back to that age that I loved. So, I got hired in second grade.
It was a challenge. It was very different beginning to the year.
“Because these kids, you had said, were 99 percent free and reduced lunch?”
Yes. So, I guess the big thing that bothers me about where we are in Alabama, where we are in education, [is that] it’s like we’re still in the 1960s. I go from all white, no free lunch in Mountain Brook to all black, 99 percent or 100 percent free lunch in Birmingham City. Something’s wrong with that picture.
“In Birmingham City, at the school you were at, what percentage of students were black, and what percentage of teachers were black? Do you know?”
I know… there were very few white students… three, four, five? The staff was mixed… not quite half [white, half black]; more black teachers. …
I spent all summer getting that classroom ready. I spent a thousand dollars because, in my head, I wanted to give these kids who possibly hadn’t had opportunities like this, [who did not] have the books that they needed, [who did not] have the materials, I wanted them to have that in that classroom when they entered that room. So, I did a whole lot of work and a whole lot of spending to get it the way I wanted it to be.
And I had 22 second graders… and it was academically and socially [a] challenge because… lots of them have challenging home lives. They’ve seen and done things and heard things that any 7- or 8-year-old child doesn’t deserve to have happen to them… in their entire life. That was sad to me, but I felt like I could be a light for them, especially because I think social-emotional development is so important. I felt like this would be my opportunity to give these younger children that solid, trusting… routine, predictable environment. … If anything, their lives outside of school were not predictable or routine.
I wanted them to know they could count on me [to be there] for them. I was going to be there every day. We were going to work hard… little baby steps. They came in, not at second grade level, so there was a lot of academic catch up, but I also knew could do that until we got the social [norms for the classroom established]. … I felt like that had to happen before we could really dig in to deep academic work.
It was messy and chaotic because when you’re trying to teach children to be independent and think for themselves, when you’re seven and have never done that or been allowed to do that [before], it doesn’t look perfect. So, there was a lot of [kids] screaming, and rolling around, and [disruptive] behavior in the hallway. It was not the army, everybody’s-on-the-third-square-and-our-hands-are-by-our-sides-nobody’s-talking. We were moving around and making noise, and I wasn’t interfering at every juncture to say, “Stop it! Get in line!”
“There are some who say you should have been, that [to] this No Excuses crowd, the way to teach these kids social skills is you give them expectations and you teach them order, and that’s the only way they can learn. What’s your thoughts?”
I disagree, respectfully disagree with that, because if I am in control of their behavior, then they will never learn to be in control of it themselves. So, I can get control, and I can get them quiet. And I can show them what I expect as a teacher– but that’s not teaching them any self-management whatsoever.
“So you’re saying that this chaos… what looks chaotic can be productive?”
Absolutely. Not always, but a lot of it has to look chaotic so that they can get to the place that they’re working toward.
“That their owning their own social bearing?”
Yes. Their owning it. They’re living it, and every five seconds, I’m not putting somebody in a corner or pulling them out at recess because they were hitting. I was spending so much time having social conversation, pulling kids together who were trying to problem-solve: “What did you do differently? How did that make you feel? What are we going to try next time?” And that takes time. And it can’t happen overnight– especially if they’ve never had that opportunity. And I know for a fact these kids have been told what to do. But telling is not teaching. Modeling and letting the mess happen [is critical] because until there’s a problem we cannot solve it.
“You were only in this classroom until Labor Day. Do you believe you had established a relationship with these kids and a trust by then?”
[Corgill is obviously moved.] I have a stack of letters that they wrote me. I had something (some effect), I know for a fact. And when they’re in tears and hanging on my leg, saying, “Please don’t leave,” something connected.
“By that time, how long had you had them?”
Since August 5th.
“So, a month?”
One month. And the Thursday before Labor Day, my principal came to the room, and I learned since that time [that] the fifth grade teacher whose place I took– they (the administration) knew that long before the Thursday before Labor Day that she was leaving.
So, the decision was to move me from second grade to fifth grade because this fifth-grade teacher was going to be gone on Tuesday [after Labor Day] and I should start teaching fifth grade on Tuesday.
“The principal came and told you that?”
At 11:15 on Thursday, the Thursday before Labor Day. So, I was in shock…. I had never taught fifth grade before, don’t want to teach fifth grade. Even was offered to teach fifth grade at my old school, at Cherokee Bend (Mountain Brook), and I said, “No. I don’t want to teach fifth grade. I want to go back to primary.”
So, to hear, “I need you to teach fifth grade,” or, “You are teaching”– it wasn’t a question. It was a statement.
Didn’t see the principal on Friday. Sent her a text message saying, “Just want to clarify that this is true because I’m making plans for Labor Day….”
I get a text from my principal Saturday morning: “Yes. The decision is final. You will be moving, but instead of Tuesday, you will start on Wednesday. But you can come up Monday and start to pack if you want. I’ll be here.”
I went to school on Monday. She said, “Sorry. You can’t really do anything because [the teacher who is leaving] is not here, and she’s done nothing.” I go down to her room, and it looked like a tornado hit it. Nothing packed.
So. I say goodbye to my second graders on Tuesday– teach them and say goodbye to them. I pack up as much as I can Tuesday night.
“Your students found out on Tuesday?”
“They found out, ‘My teacher’s not coming back tomorrow’?”
Yes. On Tuesday. Yes.
I find out that a first-grade teacher is being moved to my class, and they (administration) are splitting that first grade teacher’s kids among the other first grades– instead of moving that first-grade teacher to fifth grade and not disrupting us at all. She moved to my class, with my children, and I moved to fifth grade.
“Did they [take the initiative to] tell you why they made that decision?”
No, they did not.
“So, they didn’t say, ‘It was a certification issue. She’s not certified.'”
“Okay. They just didn’t tell you [or give a full explanation regarding your move to fifth grade]?”
I point-blank asked her (the principal). I said, “Did you move me to fifth grade because you didn’t think I was doing a good job in second grade?”
And she looked at me and said, “Well, there were some issues that I didn’t think I could help you with or help the children with.” And I was so upset at that point, I didn’t even go into it. [Principal continues]: “And, the reason I’m moving you to fifth because you, along with one other teacher, are the only two people in this building who are certified to do this.”
“She said that to you?”
She said that to me. She said, “This teacher’s not going because she’s had knee replacement surgery, and we’re on the second floor.”
“So, you’re going.”
So, I’m going because I need a job. Every night that week, I moved and packed a little bit more. I just taught in the room as it was, filthy.
“Did the students that you went to teach, the fifth graders, know that their teacher was leaving?”
They did. I don’t know how long they had known. Longer than my [second grade] kids knew.
“Do you think your second grade kids were traumatized by your departure?”
I think we were all traumatized.
“What about the fifth grade kids? Do you think they were traumatized?”
They were traumatized, too, because they’re losing a teacher. They’re an orphaned class. Now there’s this teacher– this new, white teacher from down the hall, that they don’t know. And they said to me, “We don’t like white people.” And I know that they didn’t come up with that on their own. …
“Do you think your fifth graders said that to you because they were hurt to have lost their teacher?”
I think they were saying that, and continued to say that, because they were angry. They were mourning the loss. They were completely disrupted.
Now, my second graders got a very different teacher than me. They got a teacher who kept them in line and controlled them,
So, we’re all a mess. The kids in fifth grade are angry. The kids in second grade are sad and scared because they have a teacher now who gets them in control. They’re scared. They’re doing what she says, and they are not opening their mouths. A very different style from me. … It is not the way that I’m ever going to teach children, and it’s not the way that I’m going to teach those fifth grade students. But they had experienced for five years nothing like I was trying to do.
“The fifth graders?”
The fifth graders. And they fought. They pushed very button. They refused to work. They were angry. It was like doing battle every day. But I knew– I knew– the root of it. And it was not about me. It’s about the life they’re having to struggle through to survive.
They’re surviving. They’re in survival mode. Everybody in their life– they can’t trust anything. How do they know [that they can trust me]?
I can’t… I’ve got to do this. And the lady next door, who is an adorable, wonderful lady retiring after 28 years– was with me every morning. She would pray with me. She was like, “You are fine. This school needs you. These kids need you. I can tell that they’re starting to realize that you’re here for them.” And she would say that to me every day: “I can tell. I can tell.”
And then I would have friends come to visit [and say of my fifth graders]: “They like you. They want to know where you are when you’re gone.” For me, it was hard to see.
But as the month goes on, just like second grade, I start to see glimmers of hope. Not every day is great, but I’m thinking, “Wow. Can you imagine what this is going to be like at the end of the year? What a transformational year for me and for these children? What a story to tell.”
‘Meanwhile, you’re not getting a paycheck.”
I didn’t know that. We don’t get paid the first month. That’s been the case in Alabama since I’ve been a teacher: When you get hired in a new system, you don’t get a paycheck the first month. They give you that check when you leave the system. So I got my first Mountain Brook check in August of this year… because I left Mountain Brook. So I was fine in August.
And then September comes, and I’m thinking I’m fine because I got a $43 workshop payment direct deposited [which means the direct deposit from Birmingham City is set up correctly].
I pay all of my bills online. Everything is debited automatically every month.
September 30th comes. … I didn’t get a pay stub today. … I call my bank, and there’s no deposit. This is on a Friday. I call the human resources office at the district, and they have no idea why this is happening. No clue. Can answer no questions. So, they cut a check that day, but they were gone before I could get to the board [because I was teaching].
I go Monday to get the check, [and request a letter to resolve the resulting credit issues, including multiple overdraft fees]. … I went to the board four times. I have yet to see that letter.
In the meantime, I …have to mail that check home to the bank because there’s not a branch in Birmingham. Check gets lost in the mail. …
A week later, I call the board again and say, “…I need you to stop payment on that check. It never arrived at my bank.” … So, they cut me another check, and it took me three [visits] to get that check [because the director of payroll was not available].
On October 23, I get [the check] because my dad called. I finally said, “All right. You’re a man. Somebody’s going to listen to you. Call up, and you talk to the director of payroll, and that I need the letter… to the creditors… and the check.”
I get the check…. I drive home that weekend to give the check to the bank in person.
And that Saturday (October 24, 2015), I get an email from the district saying I’m not “highly qualified” to teach fifth grade and I need to present all of my documentation on Monday.
And I am almost at the end of my rope at this point.
…Number one, I didn’t want to go to fifth grade. Number two, I’m trying my best, and now, you’re telling me I’m not certified to teach it? I have National Board certification, I have a masters, I’ve written a book, I’m a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, I’m Alabama Teacher of the Year. What else do you need, people?
I did it [switched to fifth grade] because you told me to.
I bring all of my [documents to my school and am told], “You need to call the state department.”
I called the certification office of the state department on Monday (October 26, 2015), when in fact, it is true that National Board certification does not count for being “highly qualified” in Alabama.
So, my only options are to go back to another second grade classroom or take two Praxis tests, fill out the form an pay the fee, a couple hundred dollars.
“Did they offer you a provisional [certificate] for a year?”
No. I was never offered a provisional anything. My options were, I could go back to second grade…
“Did your principal offer you that?”
No. The superintendent offered that. My principal never offered me that– never offered me a thing.
“What second grade were you going to go back to?… So, this wasn’t the same second grade…?”
No, no, no. This would be the third group of children in nine weeks. … And this is another thing: The day that it hit the news (Thursday, October 29, 2015), I’m teaching [unaware of the news story resulting from the leak about my resignation letter submitted Tuesday, October 27, 2015, effective Friday, October 30,2015], and a colleague comes up and looks at me and says, “What’s going on? I’m here to cover your class. There are four people from the board downstairs who need to meet with you.” [Note: Three individuals came to meet with Corgill, and the superintendent was also involved on speakerphone.]
I said, “What are you talking about?”
They called a meeting… to try to convince me not to resign.
“So, the superintendent tells you that you can take a second grade. [Has anyone from the board contacted you] before this?”
I hear from no one [from the board]. [Note: One individual from human resources called Corgill on Wednesday to initiate arranging a meeting between Corgill and her principal for 2 p.m. on the Thursday that the AL.com published the story (11:30 a.m.). On Wednesday, Corgill agreed to the 2 p.m. meeting for Thursday. Thus, this earlier meeting initiated by the board and superintendent appears to have been prompted by contact from AL.com. Moreover, Corgill later found out that her principal had been contacted by AL.com before the story broke.]
“[To recap], after you have the conversation Monday afternoon with the state, you write the [resignation] letter; Tuesday morning, [hand it to your principal; Tuesday afternoon, deliver it to the board]. You didn’t teach Tuesday?”
I did teach Tuesday. … I said [in the letter that my resignation would be] effective Friday. … Friday was a teacher workday, [and I had been sick, so I arranged with my principal to stay home]. …
I told [the administrators who asked me to reconsider resigning] that I would need the weekend after they bombarded me [with pleas to reconsider resigning].
I decided Sunday night (November 01, 2015), and I wrote them all (principal, superintendent, and board) and said, “My resignation stands, effective–” I was going to give her (the principal) the week so that she could find somebody.
She wrote me back and said, “It’s best that you not show up,” that, “we had news reporters calling. We don’t need any more drama for the kids or the teachers.”
“So, you just disappear?”
“They (Corgill’s students) don’t know where you are?”
[On Thursday, when the AL.com story broke while the kids were still in school], when I came back from that meeting downstairs, the kids were like, “Where have you been?”
I said, “There’s some issue with my certification. They’re telling me that I’m not certified to teach you guys now.”
So [on Monday, November 02, 2015], I just don’t show up. I don’t get to tell them goodbye. Nothing.
I learned from Corgill that there were rumors that she could not handle teaching in Birmingham City and decided to resign for that reason. I was aware of those rumors even in Louisiana, and it was such rumors that prompted me to seek an interview with Corgill.
The details of Corgill’s story do not support rumors that she was seeking a reason to leave Birmingham City.
Another issue concerns the timing of the four administrators showing up to plead with Corgill to stay. It seems that the publicity from Corgill’s leaked resignation letter prompted them to try to save face. Corgill told me that the superintendent even offered to pay the fees associated with her certification to teach fifth grade, but she had just had enough.
I refuse to be among those who fault her for that.
As a post script to this entry, let me note that on Corgill’s termination document, the grade level she was supposedly teaching at the time of termination is listed as “second grade”– which means that either the principal or the district (or both) might be trying to cover themselves for moving her to a fifth grade classroom (not her choice nor her desire)– and which means (ironically) that according to that official document, she was not teaching outside of her state certification area when she terminated her employment (click image to enlarge):
Corgill’s Personnel Action Form has her listed as a second grade teacher
And the irony continues:
Birmingham City requested that Corgill leave “valuable feedback” about her experience as an employee (click image to enlarge):
Stay tuned for Part III: Becoming Alabama Teacher of the Year.