By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Fairfield-Suisun Unified Teachers Association member Stephanie Cobb with her second-grade class.
Stephanie Cobb knows what it's like to be the new kid on the block, even though she's been teaching in the Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District for nearly two decades. After 16 years at one school, she was involuntarily transferred to a different school in 2007. At first, she felt like a stranger in a strange land.
"Everything changed for me. I went from teaching first grade to second grade. I had to learn a new curriculum and get to know a new staff, and was suddenly in a huge school. There were so many new faces, it took me a couple of months to learn everyone's name."
Being told to change schools is becoming more commonplace, and many teachers throughout the state are experiencing similar trauma this fall as budget cuts result in school closure.
The logistics of having to move can be overwhelming. Cobb called upon those who worked at her former school, retired teachers and even the substitute teacher who had filled in for her in the past. Her friends helped her to pack, unpack and get organized, which eased some of the burden for the Fairfield-Suisun Unified Teachers Association (F-SUTA) member.
It took some time, but eventually Cobb began to feel at home in her new school. Many teachers went out of their way to welcome her. She found that the more questions she asked, the more helpful they were.
"To make it work, you have to be flexible," she advises. "What you did at your last site may be totally different than what you do at your present site. There are different people and a different routine. And being new, you go through a ‘testing period.' But if you're positive, other people are likely to be positive with you."
A settlement reached last fall, which was sparked by union activity, allowed 41 F-SUTA teachers who were involuntarily transferred under a form of reconstitution to return to their old school sites. However, Cobb is staying put. "It has worked out well for me," she says. "Sometimes when you get moved, you get moved to a better situation." Colleen Dunaway has survived the pain of school closure more than once in the Cotati-Rohnert Park School District, which has declining enrollment. One school closed seven years ago and another in 2007-08. Presently she is working at John Reed Elementary School, and enjoys working there.
"I guess you could say those in our district are pioneers in California when it comes to school closures," says Dunaway, a member of the Rohnert Park-Cotati Educators Association (RPCEA). "There was no protocol on how it was supposed to happen. Nobody knew what to do or say. It was very hard emotionally, but it was also hard physically. Teachers had to empty out their own cupboards and rooms of supplies."
RPCEA came up with its own protocol for how a school closure should be handled, and bargained the new language into the contract. In the past, teachers were assigned to rooms crammed with items others had left behind, and were responsible for disposing of them. Rooms at their new sites are now clean. Teachers from closed schools are no longer assigned combination classes the first year, to ease their adjustment.
Dunaway says one of the hardest things was adjusting to a different student population. She was accustomed to teaching English learners, and the first time she was reassigned she did not have any of those students in her class. She missed working with that population.
Grieving is a normal part of school closure, says Dunaway. "But try and keep it short and be professional. It sounds cold and callous, but you have to be flexible, make new friends and see it as a professional adventure. You have to go with the flow."
Grieving for pink-slipped colleagues has been tough for Lisa Hatfield, a member of the Las Virgenes Educators Association who teaches at Wright Middle School in Calabasas. Many new teachers were laid off, including one that Hatfield mentored.
"I walked into the office right after the pink slips came out and started crying. The office manager said, ‘Cry, go ahead, get it out.' How else do you get past it?"
But now it's time to pick up the pieces, and crying is not an option. Co-workers have been very supportive of one another through this difficult time.
"We're a tight group," relates Hatfield. "We celebrate holidays, weddings and births, and we grieve our losses together. On Friday we gather to unwind, and hugs in the hallway are not uncommon. That will never go away, and that is why we will survive."
"At this point, there's nothing I can do about it," she says. "I may not have a choice about what happens, but I do have a choice on how I react. I can sit back and be miserably unhappy, or I can stand up and do whatever job I need to do. My job is to go in there every day and make sure my kids are achieving. And that's what I will do."