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Nielsen Ratings: What a Teacher’s Resignation Means

The superintendent of a neighboring school district was my good friend and colleague, and she and I had a pact:  Whenever either of us wrote a letter or an email when we were angry, frustrated, or just annoyed, we would send it to the other to look at before we released it to the world.

This agreement was for our own protection so that when emotions were high, we wouldn’t do anything that might make the situation worse or make us look like idiots. It was a smart idea, and more than once one of us advised the other to forget it -- put the letter in a drawer or file the email.  Sometimes putting the letter or email away for a couple of days allowed the writer to cool off and address the issue in a more rational, professional way.  Sometimes just the act of writing the letter or email was carthartic; it didn’t even need to be sent.  Having someone you trust  sympathize with your point of view but tell you candidly to keep it to yourself  is, as they say, priceless. 

Too bad Kris Nielsen didn’t have someone like that.

Nielsen, as you may recall, is the North Carolina teacher whose long and very public resignation  a few weeks ago was posted on several sites including that of education’s Eeyore, Diane Ravitch.  In his resignation, Nielsen lists lots of sweeping reasons why he will not participate in Union County Public Schools any longer.  Among those reasons are dreadful, detached, and draconian administrators; wasted time on housekeeping tasks; no classroom assistance; coworkers uncommitted to excellence; a prison-like atmosphere; and hoodwinked parents.  What a hell hole!

It’s no wonder that Ravitch seized on this letter immediately, posting it on her website and using it as a jumping off point to solicit comments from others about the basic dreadfulness of all North Carolina schools.  The letter was a gift.

QuittingA couple  things bother me, however.  No mass resignations have followed Nielsen’s letter.  The letter isn’t of the traditional, “Please accept my resignation” variety”; it’s clear that Nielsen spent considerable time on it.  So to hand it in and walk that day was designed to cause the district problems in finding a competent sub for his students already in dire straits.  Nielsen left a job he says he loved in New Mexico for a better paying position in Oregon.  Unfortunately, he lost his job with budget cuts (he says he doesn’t know “who to blame” for the budget crisis).  So based on what he learned from the internet and a phone interview, he accepted a job in North Carolina and moved his family there, only to find out that the district was, as I noted, a hell hole.

I think that Nielsen is sincerely concerned with what he experienced in his school district, and I think he raises some good, if exaggerated points.  However, it’s hard to reform a school from the outside, especially when your brief claim to fame is the notoriety of quitting after a couple of months and aligning yourself with the doomsayers of education.  Maybe he sincerely couldn’t take another day in the classroom, but it will be tough to get another teaching job after this “very public resignation.”

Nielsen’s disappointment in not being able to do what he evidently does well and what he cares about is clear.  It’s a loss for the district, but a far greater loss for him.  I wish he had thought it all through a little better or that he had had a solid mentor in North Carolina.  Allowing Ravitch to use him as a tool will further her negative arguments, but will do little for Nielsen’s professional future.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.