This is part 5 of my interview with Marilee Cosgrove of the Fullerton School District. Our focus was on “Lessons Learned” – how are the teachers incorporated in creating an effective quality pre-school program in a public school context?
Q: So what’s the secret sauce?
A: I attribute it to the teachers. We’re a cohesive group – we have 150 people in our department, we are all on the same page, and that’s what it takes.
Q: That’s leadership.
A: Well …
Q: But what about the people who say “I can’t do that? The Union won’t let me do that?”
A: There are no union rules that say you can’t do anything. If I send a teacher or an instructional aide, a classified person, on a Saturday, I need to pay them. That’s it. You have to budget it in there. The union is there to support the teachers and the staff, so they aren’t taken advantage of. If there is a question, we talk it through – you just deal with it – you can’t be afraid, forget that excuse. It’s work, people’s job. The union is not a barrier if you know how to communicate.
Q: Did you get resistance? Were there teachers who said “Wait, this lady’s changing things?”
A: Yeah, of course. In our district, historically, the pre-schools had been overseen by people with an upper school mindset, or even an upper school gen ed framework – and often an outdated version, at that.
When I came in 11 years ago, there were dittos, product art, lined paper, homework – I don’t even want to start – addition and subtraction sheets – completely inappropriate for pre-school. However, it is important to understand that the teachers were teaching according to the direction of previous Directors who were Principals. And it’s not that the teachers wanted to do that, but that was the direction they were given. And there was some resistance, because they thought “oh no, not again” but then we showed the teachers that the little bit of flexible funding that we did have was re-allocated to really focus on their classrooms and their children’s experience. So they were able to really design their classrooms appropriately, and have the materials they needed without it coming out of their own pockets, and we went as a team everywhere, to these different trainings. And the ones that couldn’t cut it – we were able to redirect them to areas that were more suitable to their skills. But that was ultimately very few. We have a fantastic teaching team. Never in my professional experience have I been fortunate to be with a such a team of inspiring leaders and educators … the entire department is a real professional learning community, 100% supporting finding out what else we can do for these children to move them along those scales.
Q: Do you still have many of the teachers you started with?
A: Several teachers have retired. We like to hire within, in terms of the aides who then become teachers. They are committed, they are empowered, they are incredible.
Q: So the aides are a farm team?
A: Yes, if this is the career you want. We have 10 pre-school lead teachers, and 6 of them were once our aides.
Q: Do your lead teachers have B.A.’s?
A: The state doesn’t make you have B.A.s, but under “race to the top” they need to …. 8 of our 10 leads have BAs. They are on their own contact, but supported by Fullerton Elementary Teachers union. CSEA automatically. The only real union issue we ever had was a teacher who was 100% correct … they needed a needed another column, so the longevity column was added in for them, too.
Q: If I helicoptered you in and put you across from a 25-year teacher who says “it’s thanksgiving, the kids trace their hands into a turkey” How do you get that teacher to sit back and support the child’s process?
A: You don’t want to set her back, don’t want to say something that puts her on the defense. I ask “what’s the basis of this? What sort of outcome are you seeking?” And she could say “I want them to trace their own hand” which is a good objective, but we could talk about other ideas she might have for working with thanksgiving and pen control.
Q: So, if that’s the way we’ve always done it ….
A: You can’t find a text book that supports crap. Where is the textbook that says the freakin’ hand-traced Turkey is okay? It’s all process. You are empowering them to teach what is right, and what they know in their heart is right. And if they’re not, then you have to … mentor them out. Most teachers can get on board if they have the support, and if you are asking them what they think, and they are part of it.