Teacher Stories Episode 2 - Cheeky Charters with Faith Moynihan


Welcome to Teacher Stories. My name is Denis Lantsman. I am a software engineer at a small education company called Desmos. As part of my job I go to conferences and visit classrooms. I am very lucky, because in the course of my work I get to meet many educators and hear their stories.
I decided to record some of these stories, because I think that stories are powerful. If you’re a teacher, I hope they will allow you to feel solidarity in a profession that often feels isolated. If the last time you set foot in a classroom was when you were a student, I hope these stories will help you imagine what it’s like on the other side.
In this episode, my guest Faith will tell us about joining a brand new charter school — the excitement of a fresh endeavor, and the things that go wrong when the rubber hits the road.
Here’s the interview.


Denis: Hey Faith, welcome to the podcast. To begin with, could you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.
Faith: Sure. My name is Faith Moynihan. I’m a math educator. Right now I’m working for the math education tech company, Desmos. But I’ve taught in a variety of schools in Philadelphia.
Denis: And just so our listeners can get to know you a little bit better, can you tell us something about yourself that doesn’t have anything to do with Teaching or any of the story you’re about to tell us.
Faith: Sure, I own and operate a family farm with my husband. We raise sheep and pigs and we also grow any vegetable that you can think of.
Denis: That’s an interesting combination — teaching and farming. Do you find that they have a lot in common?
Faith: Uh, they both require a lot of patience. For sure.
Denis: OK, so I guess the story that we’re going to record today is something that happened to you a little while ago. Do you remember how far back this was?
Faith: I started working for this school in 2012.
Denis: Can you tell us about where in your teaching career your were at the time?
Faith: I was still relatively brand new. I think I started in my third year of teaching. So I worked at one school previous to this and had gained some experience, but was still very new to the teaching profession.
Denis: So this all started when you found yourself in a situation where you wanted to find a new job.
Faith: I was working for a Philadelphia Public school that was going under a Renaissance process. What that means is that the school was under-performing. It didn’t meet adequate yearly progress. Under the renaissance process all of the faculty and staff of the school are let go, and can then choose to reapply to continue working there, but everybody had to go to the reapplication process.
Denis: And you were one of these people who decided not to come back.
Faith: Yeah, I decided not to reapply
Denis: And why was that?
Faith: Because I was unsure who I would be working with as a principal. There’s not a lot that you can control as a teacher, so I wanted to have a clear picture of the environment that I would be working under.
Denis: And the opportunity presented itself.
Faith: Yeah, in the middle of the summer I had a friend who mentioned that she just got a new job working for a charter school that was taking over a school. So they were starting brand new in a high school and it really sounded like she was excited by the changes this charter network was looking to implement in the school.
Denis: Do you remember what sort of changes? What was appealing about them?
Faith: Yeah, she talked a lot about the trust that the administration put into the teachers. How the administration really looked at their relationship with teachers as two hands holding one another and supporting one another and really working together to support the needs of students.
Denis: What was the application process like?
Faith: It was the middle of the summer, so there weren’t a whole lot of people in the building, but there were some. You could see that they were making an effort to completely redo the school. So all of the walls were being painted, I remember there was music playing. Everyone seemed to be in a great mood, and really motivated and excited in this rebuilding effort of this school. It was fun to feel like you were a part of something that was solely for the benefit of students.
Denis: Could you expand a little bit about that? What created that atmosphere at the school?
Faith: Certainly the newness of it all, and feeling like you were really starting at the beginning and building something with others. You had a content area teacher coach, so it felt like you were going to be provided with continuous professional development throughout the school year to help you develop as a teacher and that just felt good.
Denis: That can be pretty uncommon in many schools to actually have someone to work with. Could you talk about the contrast between your last teaching position and this one in terms of the sort of support you could expect?
Faith: The previous school I went in being a first-year teacher and I did not meet the math content specialist until February of my first year.
Denis: What would the math content specialist’s responsibilities be?
Faith: I’m still not totally clear about that. I’m not quite sure. First of all, I didn’t know that there was a specialist, especially a math content specialist. I knew that there were people that were in a particular office but I wasn’t aware of what their role was within the school. The math content specialist came and visited me in my class one day. He walked into my class, and was kind of surprised, like “who are you? Are you a sub?”. He didn’t even know that I was a teacher at that school, so I had to introduce myself. He kind of explained “I’m going to come in and really observe you.” Just kind of introduced himself and left. That was really it. Like I said, right now I still don’t really have a sense of what that content specialist did within the school.
Denis: And at this new school things seemed like they were going to be quite different.
Faith: Yeah it seemed like this teacher coach was parallel to the math content specialist at my previous school. My teacher coach, she had 5 other teachers that she worked with, and that was it. 5 other math teachers. At my previous school, this content specialist was for the whole school. So it seemed like at this new school you could really develop a relationship with the teacher coach. And not only with the coach, but within your little group of other teachers — to learn and grow together.
Denis: Yeah I think this is something that people don’t really realize about teaching, how rare it is that you actually get to work with other grownups as a teacher. You have your room of 30 students and for many teachers the reality is that day in, day out, they are there as the sole adult responsible for steering the ship. They don’t really ever get any feedback or anyone to really bounce ideas off of. Nothing like that, so I can see how that would be a really exciting development, that this is a school that seemed to be doing something different. How did things develop from there?
Faith: I was under the impression that we would meet together with the coach consistently, but that kind of got pushed off as the structure and the flow of the school day and the school year got settled. So that didn’t happen until much later in the school year.
When you’re so excited before the school year starts and you’re setting up your classrooms and you’re getting to know your colleagues and everyone’s just really prepared and then the first year of school happens, and everything’s great. You meet your students, the students come in. And then it just starts to get real. You start to function in what a typical day is like at the school. So there were some real challenges because the supports that seemed to be in place… um, I don’t want to call them “facades” but they weren’t there after a while.
Your teacher coach, you see them less often, and then when you do see them they’re functioning in a different role than you initially thought that you would interact with them. I thought that the teacher coach would come in, observe my class and then afterwords have a conversation with me and develop a plan for development. Point out some areas of strength, and areas of weaknesses, and figure out a path forward. Those informal observations — I remember that happened once, and then all of a sudden I was being formally observed.
So a formal observation is when someone comes into your classroom and they observe a class from start to finish and you were graded according a rubric.
Denis: And what would be the consequence of the grade?
Faith: We found out later that if you did not score a certain number that you would be at risk for termination.
Denis: What was your relationship with coaches, the people who were there to support you?
Faith: It was kind of hard with the coaches because it was evident that they were in a really tight spot. It was a very large school, so the assistant principals and the principals stopped doing observations and put that work on the teacher coaches. They felt very resentful for that because then that means that their time was tied up doing these observations and they couldn’t be supportive to teachers. So it felt like we were all just being pinned against one another where the teachers were angry at the coaches because they didn’t have time, and the coaches at the administrations because they weren’t afforded that time. It just felt like it was a cycle.
Denis: OK, so that seems quite different from what was promised. Was there anything else like that that started happening?
Faith: Yes, certainly. It seemed like a few things just started to deteriorate a little bit. I know that supplies were really an issue. The school turned over over the span of a summer, so we started the school year with the promise of “oh we just didn’t have enough time to get this into your classroom, it’s coming”, like — a projector. “your projector is on order, it’s coming. It should be here by the second week of school”. Then “the first month of school”. Things like that, they kept pushing it back. There were resources that were missing within the classroom, and big resources. To not really know when to expect it or to expect it at all was pretty difficult.
Also with more basic supplies. I have distinct memories of the paper rations that were handed out. So at first they’d just put a palette of paper in the copy room and anyone would come in, make their copies and go. I think that the administration was surprised by how quickly we were running through paper and so they started rationing them to every teacher. So you would get, say, 3 reams for the month. And this is a school where students are not given supplies, like textbooks. So if we wanted students to have homework at night, we would have to print out every single student a sheet of paper for homework. So we were doing tons of printing — all of our homework sheets. We didn’t even have textbooks in the class, because we didn’t have them yet.
Denis: You were waiting for the textbooks.
Faith: We were making tons and tons of copies because that’s what we relied on as a resource for teaching.
Denis: And 3 reams don’t go very far
Faith: It doesn’t go far at all.
Denis: So how did people deal with not having any paper.
Faith: It kind of turned into Lord of the Flies a little bit. At first it was like “oh, can I have some paper, I ran out. I’ll go buy some tonight and I’ll reimburse you”. And when you’re in a pinch you really want to help out your teacher, but then as time progressed and we weren’t provided any more paper we started going to our administration and the response, I remember my assistant principal telling me “You should feel lucky you’re not an English teacher, they have to print out way more than math teachers. If you really need something go ask another teacher”. So it was kind of like they were pinning the teachers against one another.
Denis: OK, so how did things progress from there?
Faith: From there I’d have to say that certainly the cheery morale of the beginning of the school year was gone. Things just didn’t seem quite right any more. It seemed like things were just deteriorating around us. There seemed to be a lot of miscommunication between the Human Resource department and the teachers.
So over Christmas vacation our charter network decided to switch insurance providers, but something happened so that there was a lapse in coverage. There was about a 3 week lapse in coverage and we were never notified that there would be a lapse. We were never even notified that we were switching providers, until when we came back to school and we had a faculty meeting. Someone took it upon themselves — it was a faculty member- to ask “Why was my medication denied? What’s going on here?”. Then the HR director, the head of HR said — well we’re switching insurance and you can pay for everything out of pocket and we’ll reimburse you at a later date. And that was our notification is to pay for it yourselves and we’ll pay you back later.
Denis: And of course that’s not a problem for people earning a teacher salary, to pay for healthcare expenses for a couple months.
Faith: That meeting was a real turning point because, just to not mention something so huge, well what else are you not telling us about? We not only didn’t feel supported, but now we felt like we were almost being mistreated and flat out being lied to by the administration and the charter network.
Denis: So how did the rest of that year play out?
Faith: The rest of the year was just really. It was a struggle. There seemed to be a lot of structures that were in place at one point that were just crumbling. So if you would call the safety team for support you wouldn’t get anybody to pick up the phone, and ignored. So no one could help you out if a fight broke out in your classroom, you were kind of left to your own devices. Even just like, rooms started mysteriously becoming locked, and we weren’t given any keys. So you had to figure out how to get your classroom open or to get the copy room open, and it seemed to really dissolve.
Denis: So it seems like they promised you this supportive environment, and instead you got this very strict, and this very unforgiving policy.
Faith: Yeah, certainly professionally I didn’t feel like I was being helped to develop as a teacher. But also as a professional functioning in a work space I felt like I wasn’t being treated like an adult.
Denis: Yeah, could you give us some examples of that?
Faith: So every morning we had to scan in when we arrived and we had to clock out when we left. Teachers had to be at school at 7:30 and school started at 8. So from 7:30 to 8 you were supposed to be in your room, and some mornings there were meetings, and other mornings you just had that time to prep and prepare for the school day. So if you came late, even if it was, you know, you arrived at 7:31. And even if that means that, like, there was a backup at the scanner. Everyone’s trying to go through the scanner really quickly so that the last person can get in before 7:30. If you were late, you were first given a warning, and then if it happened again you were written up. And again, everything was tied to, as a Charter school employee, you were an at-will employee so you could be terminated at any point for any reason. And they made it clear that this was a reason you could be terminated was coming late to work.
Denis: Do you remember any experiences from that time that shaped your perception of the administration, like how they thought about you as teachers and as professionals. Do you remember how you were feeling towards the end of the year?
Faith: You had all these high hopes at the beginning of the year. Like things were going to be different here, we’re actually going to be working to support students and it almost felt like I was duped. Nah, it’s just the same bureaucracy and red tape of paperwork and doing things that aren’t necessarily tied to the learning of students and being under-resourced and not having the time or support to really grow as a teacher. And to teach my students adequately. I felt like I was not a good teacher because I had a lot of issues with figuring out how to create great classroom management. And it wasn’t just me, it was the entire school. It was something that as a school we really needed to address. But, teachers felt really helpless because we weren’t supported outside of our classroom.
Denis: OK, so we got up to year two. I guess eventually you and the other teachers decided that this wasn’t an acceptable way to keep going. Some teachers at your school decided to try to go about making a union. Do you remember how you found out about this idea of forming a union at your school?
Faith: Yeah, I do. I remember at the end of the day we had a meeting with some of my colleagues and I was feeling really frustrated, and it was another directive that was being communicated from the administration. Probably involving paperwork. It felt like just another task that wasn’t helpful to me as a professional and certainly not towards my students and I really felt demoralized being asked to do this task. So I remember just voicing this frustration in this meeting and it was just a group of teachers, there were no administrators there, so I felt comfortable talking to my colleagues. After I left that meeting, I went back to my classroom just packing up. Someone came into my classroom and told me that one, I was not the only one who was feeling the frustration that I voiced, and there was actually a small group of teachers that have been meeting together and brainstorming ways to organize themselves so that they could communicate better with the administration and express what our needs were as teachers.
Denis: Did you try to communicate with the administration before through official channels?
Faith: Um, no. It didn’t feel like there was room for communications. The principal wouldn’t even say hello to you in the hallway. It didn’t feel like you could really voice your opinion if it was a negative opinion without it being interpreted as insubordination. That was a word that was thrown around a lot.
So when I found out that there was a group of teachers trying to unionize I was intrigued. It felt really great to know that there were other teachers thinking about these issues the way I was. So I went to their meeting, we met outside of school at night. I went to just go learn about what they were doing and I was really intrigued to learn, because in working for the public school I was a part of the public union, but the public union was an entity that, sure I paid dues to but I didn’t really belong to. I didn’t really participate in the union activities, didn’t know much about it. It didn’t feel real to me.
But with this union that we were trying to form, it was just for the teachers that worked in my school. To have such a small union it felt like the issues we could address and the changes that we could make would have a very real impact on the lives of my students and the quality of my work directly.
Denis: What does the process of starting a union actually look like. What were the things that you were doing day to day?
Faith: So in order to win the union you need to have a large majority of teachers in your building agree to that. So our work began to start to talk to different teachers and to see if they could potentially see the benefit of joining the union and wanting to help build that. In our meetings in the evening we enlisted the help of the AFT — the American Federation of Teachers, and they sent a representative to come meet with us and to talk about organizing, and to help us learn how to talk to those around us. It was pretty intense, learning these processes because we didn’t want the administration to know. We didn’t want to approach a teacher who would then tell the administration what we were up to, because it would make it very difficult for us.
We came up with a list of teachers and decided who had a good relationship with that teacher and who would be able to approach them. We tried to keep most of it outside of school. Personally I talked to someone who lived in my neighborhood. I invited them out to coffee, and we discussed it that way. We worked pretty hard and pretty quickly to talk to as many teachers as possible.
Denis: And how did those conversations go? Were people fairly receptive?
Faith: Not always. No. It’s pretty intimidating and can seem pretty scary to embark…
Denis: Intimidating for you or the other person?
Faith: I think for the other person to feel like they were going behind the administration. Some people were very uncomfortable with that.
Denis: Especially given the history with the administration handling the absences with severity, in a very strict and retaliatory way. Were any teachers into the idea. Did you have positive engagement?
Faith: Yeah, definitely. What we called our organizing committee, that really grew. It was a lot of recruiting. It was getting the people to join the committee, but also their confidence and support for once we were to go public with being a union.
Denis: What did these conversations amount to?
Faith: We had gathered enough support that teachers were willing to sign a document. It was a document that basically was going to be presented to our principal saying that our intention was to start a union.
Denis: So what was the reaction from the administration when you handed them this letter?
Faith: It was pretty severe. So the organizing committee, we got together really early before school one day and we walked into our principal’s office and presented the letter. When we went in, he said “I knew you guys are coming”. And he said “Are you prepared?”. And we said this is something we are serious about and something we want to push forward. And he said there will definitely be scars, and there are definitely going to be people who will be hurt by this process, and then he asked us to leave his office.
Denis: Wow, that’s quite sinister. Do you remember how you felt after that meeting?
Faith: Just, a huge adrenaline rush. Really fired up because just the reaction to it all really was an example of some of the bad behavior on the part of administration.
Denis: So what was the process like, getting up to the vote?
Faith: It was hard. It was really difficult because at this point the administration was actively trying to combat our efforts. So they called meetings to talk about, you know “the activity of teachers” this is what they said. The CEO of the charter would come and address us in these meetings. We would get emails. We got letters sent home to us. We got letters put into our mailboxes at school about how unions hurt students. How they hurt teachers, and how they hurt schools in general.
Denis: What was the logic presented there, like what was the argument?
Faith: Just how unions are all about teachers wanting to get more money, and the money takes away from the education of students.
Denis: One question that I have at this point is, why didn’t the administration just fire the lot of you, right there and then on the spot?
Faith: They did fire a teacher because of his participation in the union. There was an incident in his class where students got up and started fighting. There were cameras in our classrooms, so this fight was caught on tape. The grounds for firing him was that he did not react in the way that he should have, which was ridiculous.
Denis: Why is that?
Faith: We all had fights in our classrooms.
Denis: This was a common occurrence?
Faith: All the time. It was up to teachers discretion to actually get in there and break up fights and to figure out a way to make it stop. I remember thinking that what happened in this teachers classroom was happening all over the place. It was not an anomaly, it was not something special. It was just what happened in our school. So there was really no other reason to fire him other than being unhappy with his involvement with the union.
Denis: Did you have a sense of what their motivations were? Why were they say against unionizing. It seemed like your demands were fairly reasonable.
Faith: I think they just didn’t want to give up control. They didn’t want to negotiate over a contract. They were very scared of certainly the financial aspect of negotiating a contract, but the optics of it all. They didn’t want to make it seem like they couldn’t control their teachers or that those that worked for the school were unhappy.
Denis: It must have been a pretty tense several months at the school.
Faith: I mean emotionally it was draining. It was really hard to keep up with these efforts because all the while you’re still teaching. Trying to figure out classroom management and along with content it was really hard. So to have another emotional burden of trying to win the union, it was a lot to handle.
Denis: And looking back now, do you have any thoughts on this stance of theirs?
Faith: It’s ridiculous! If at the end of the day you want those who work for you to do a good job. If you want them to do a good job you want them to be happy and to feel like they’re safe at your job, to feel like they’re respected at your job, and that they have the support that is necessary to do a good job. I didn’t feel safe at my job, I didn’t feel respected. The resources were definitely not adequate to do my job.
Denis: Eventually after a couple of months the vote happened. Do you remember that day?
Faith: No. (Laughing) I don’t. We won. We won by more than we needed to. But I remember thinking — oh, this is it. We’ve got our union. But that was really just the start of things.
Denis: So what was the next step?
Faith: So now that we had our union we needed the administration to recognize us, which they did not. We were trying to do outreach to parents and members of the community. So we would call parents and ask them to call the school and to vocalize their support for the organizing efforts of the teachers, which we had huge success with. The parents were very much aligned with the mission of the teachers and very supportive, which was really reassuring. It was kind of a bright spot in all of these efforts, to know that the parents really supported us. So that was great.
So we really tried to engage with the board but it was very difficult to do that, because once we would go to the board meetings and we would get there, the board would leave the public room and go conference in the other room for like an hour, an hour and a half, and report upon what they decided in their meeting. And sometimes they would just end the meeting there without any discussion and without any transparency in the process. Other times they would allow questions to be asked and comments. So we tried really hard to get there early so we could be first in line to ensure that at least one of us would be able to vocalize our efforts to the board, to appeal to them. But they would call on other people to talk and you could see that they were purposefully avoiding hearing what we had to say.
Denis: So who was on the board?
Faith: They were appointed by the organization.
Denis: And what was the role of the board?
Faith: That’s a really good question. What did the board actually do? I don’t know. I’m not sure what the board did. The board was definitely comprized with like local celebrities who were really popular in the community, but I’m not sure if the board was supposed to function in an advisory role or what. That’s a really good question.
Denis: These efforts continued for the rest of the year, and I think you mentioned that at the end of this year you decided to leave the school, is that right?
Faith: Yeah. It was a really tough year. I think a lot of it was because of the organizing efforts, and especially the atmosphere that the administration created. The fear of losing my job. The intimidation that you’re constantly faced with. I felt like at the end of the year, I felt like I went through a year and a half long battle and I knew that I needed a change.
Denis: And those things that caused you to decide that you needed to advocate for yourself — the paper rations, the lack of support, the very strict rules. Did any of that improve over the course of your organizing efforts?
Faith: No.
Denis: It was just the same thing the whole time?
Faith: The whole time. It seemed to get worse, and when things got worse it was blamed on the union. It was blamed on the organizing efforts.
Denis: So you decided to leave. But you decided to stay in the teaching profession.
Faith: No. (Laughing) I thought I was done with teaching. I thought — alright this is the end of the road. I’m going to figure something out. My husband was making a pivot in his career, and so I thought why not try something out something new myself. But then again in the beginning of the summer, after I had given my notice to this school, I learned about a different position at another school and the mission of that school really spoke to me. Again. (Laughing). And so I chose to apply there.
Denis: I see. And how was your transition there?
Faith: It was really great, it really was. The school was more established. And I looked at the teacher turnover for that school and it was pretty low compared to the public district and certainly the other local charter schools. So that was really a good sign to me, and so I knew that it was more than just talk.
Denis: Because you must have been very skeptical going into this process.
Faith: Incredibly.
Denis: Do you remember how you went about figuring out that this was a place that you would genuinely be treated well
Faith: Just in talking to the teachers. The school really supported families and encouraged them to take off when they needed to, or even bring their kids to school. If they needed their children to come and sit in their classrooms with them, they were really welcomed. And I never experienced anything like that, to allow something that’s a little bit out of the norm to occur. I feel like in other schools that I was at, that would be looked upon so harshly to say — I need to bring my daughter to school with me and have her sit and experience a lesson. That was just really amazing to me.
Denis: After you left, did you stay in touch with the previous school, and do you know what ended up happening with the union there?
Faith: Yeah, I did stay in touch with several of my colleagues from that school and I know that eventually they were able to just really work on the administration to recognize the union and I know that two years later, after we had our vote, they were able to negotiate a contract.
Denis: Did they succeed in getting a ridiculous wage raise which was the point of the union in the first place?
Faith: Absolutely not. (Laughing). I think when they negotiated their contract, they negotiated a 2% pay raise. So that means that over the four years of the existence of this charter that 2% pay raise was the first raise that teachers got. So I think that doesn’t even adjust for inflation over the four years.
Denis: What did you take away from this experience, what did you bring with you? Do you think back about that time?
Faith: I think about it constantly. It really made me aware of the importance of unions, and the difficulty of trying to establish a union. It made me really appreciative of the labor, many many years back, that negotiated weekends, and negotiated a 40 hour work week. I know that couldn’t have been easy, and there are still so many things that we need to fight for, but that’s exactly what we need to do, because left to their own devices some administrations will really take advantage of teachers. And teaching is hard enough.
I feel like unions are incredibly important to protecting the well-being of teachers.
Denis: For those listeners who find themselves teaching at a school with paper rations, do you have any advice?
Faith: Yeah, absolutely. My advice is just to gather the support of those who are in the same situation as you. Just uniting with people who understand what it’s like to work in the position that you’re in. It’s incredibly important to not only establish a support network, but also to help you improve professionally.
Denis: What would be a first step that you would recommend?
Faith: I think the first step would be to understand your concerns. If something just doesn’t feel right, you need to put words to that and vocalize that in any way that you feel comfortable. That might mean finding a colleague that you trust. I think that’s a great first step, and just continuing to talk about these issues, and understand that if there’s something standing in your way in doing the best job possible, then you should work hard to find that solution.
Denis: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me, I’m sure people out there will really appreciate you sharing your experience.
Faith: Yeah, thank you!


Welcome back.
The thing that stuck with me most about Faith’s story is her description of what brought her back to teaching — she found a school where they would “allow something that’s a little bit out of the norm to occur”.
I am struck by the contrast between this description and her experience at the previous school, which was characterized by punch cards, formal evaluations and intimidation.
At the end of the day, we are not machines with the sole function of producing work. We have families and responsibilities. We have emotions. We make mistakes and we struggle.
Life is messy. And it makes a huge difference when our places of work recognize this reality.
What a joy it is, to be seen as human.