New teachers, searching for a toehold

Courtney Couvreur, a second-year math teacher at Oakland International High School and teacher convention delegate, writes about how the threat of layoffs has affected her school — and how it might continue to be felt, even after some of the pink slips are rescinded.

Courtney Couvreur (left) with her students at Oakland International High School

At Oakland International High School, each staff member at our school shares a vision of a high-quality, college-prep education for all immigrant children. We work in collaborative teams and have formed tight bonds with our colleagues. This March, all but two of our English and social studies teachers received pink slips. We have moved from outrage to grief as we recognize how disruptive this will be to our community. We rely on each other’s expertise and passion in teaching a wide range of ESL, and we know that to lose even one of our teachers to layoffs will change the fabric of our school.

We have experienced a slump in morale that some say will end once many of the layoff notices are rescinded, but we cannot just bounce back as though the pink slips never happened. We are worried about our own mortgages, student loans, and children’s futures. We have been made to feel insecure about losing the support of our colleagues, finding new jobs in other districts, whether finding a job will mean having to move. For those of us who have been bounced between several districts’ mass layoffs, we worry that we will never been able to gain a toehold in one community.

Our students feel the anxiety and unfairness of pink slips; dealing with these feelings and rebuilding our hope will take work. All of our students wrote letters to the Board asking that they reconsider the layoffs and find the money somewhere else. Here are a few of their voices:

“I feel really comfortable with [my teachers] because I have known them for a long time and I feel they understand me. The more teachers we have, the better we can get individual help”
Naseem, Yemen, 12th grade

“Without my English teachers, I would not be able to write this letter. Teachers who are moved around might take a long time to learn to teach us.”
Indra, Nepal, 12th grade

“My English teacher cannot be replaced by someone else. Another teacher will not know me as she knows about me. It will be so hard without her.”
Shazia, 11th grade, Afghanistan

It takes years for a teacher to develop expertise teaching a particular subject and level. The best teachers are those who are permitted to hone their craft over several years. To move teachers around from site to site, from grade level to grade level, suggests that we are merely cogs that can be easily replaced by one another. This process ignores the value of each teacher’s unique relationship with a school and students, which results in an incredible disservice to kids and adults alike.

This weekend I joined over 200 teachers at OUSD’s Teacher Convention, which was held to provide teachers with an opportunity to assemble, exchange ideas, and help shape OUSD’s future. At the convention teacher-delegates from across the district united to urge the district to reprioritize funding and rescind as many pink slips as possible, keeping dedicated teachers in their classrooms.

I hope that Oakland Unified School District pays heed to students’ pleas and teachers’ wisdom and decides to put students first by providing them with the teachers they need.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • livegreen

    I totally sympathize with the teachers’ situation. However acting like OUSD and the School Board should not have done Pink Slips at all, or that the fact that they did it is permanent, is bizarre.

    First, as I understand it, they had to do it because of State Law. You simply cannot blame the Administration and Board for State Law.

    Second, I have many of the concerns as a parent of a student whose teacher was Pink Slipped. I have been unrelenting in my critique of OUSD on this blog.

    At the same time the District and Board stepped up to the plate, listened to concerns and is finding another way to make the cuts. The District’s proposal was to terminate most of Adult Ed. Others discussed was killing Professional Development or the 2% raise to teachers.

    The Board Members will be discussing these different options, but several of them listened to teachers, parents and principals, and agreed that rescinding the Pink Slips should be a priority. Staff agreed to look at this. At the same time they must be very careful because budget cuts and income from the State of CA and Feds is not yet finalized.

    I left feeling comfortable that both OUSD Board and Administration have listened to all voices mentioned and are working hard on solutions. To further criticize them for something they’re already addressing, and is out of their control is as unfair as the Pink Slips or any other part of this crazy budget process originating in the State of CA (and this recession).

  • Rick


    1.What percentage of your students received acceptance letters to the University of California system this spring?

  • Jessica

    I’m a fourth year teacher who spent two years at Berkeley getting a master’s degree in education as well as my credential. For the past four years, I’ve had the privilege of working on the same grade-level team with one of my former master teachers, not to mention my awesome staff of teachers who have helped me learn and grow in this profession.

    This was the year when I could finally breathe. I got a fantastic group of students and have been able to teach the curriculum in brand new ways. I’ve always been a little skeptical of how long I’d last in this job but had committed to giving it five years. Now I can confidently say I love this job. I spent the past two summers learning Spanish so I could take the BCLAD later this year and thought I’d start the process for National Board Certification in the coming school year.

    All that was before I received my pink slip letter on March 14th. Now, whatever energy that’s left after giving my all to my still fantastic kids is working on a Plan B in case I actually lose my job. I was one of the delegates at the Effective Teacher Conference this weekend and ultimately, I don’t regret going because I would like to believe that the work I did will bring about change. However, I had to put aside my ego to go spend a day of my weekend for a job I may not have.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, yes, I understand that by law, districts need to notify their staff of reductions. That’s a very macro- way to look at it. However, if you just scratch the surface a little, you’ll find stories like Courtney’s, mine, or a number of my incredible colleagues where we’ve put in our all to our students and this job as professionals and making are positive gains but yet are being treated like we’re so expendable. It’s really demoralizing. Yet, here we are, still working our butts off because we care about the kids and their futures.

  • ESL Teacher


    If you had two years to learn English, do you think you would receive an acceptance letter to the University of California?

  • J.R.

    I’m pulling for you, and I hope you and other young teachers get the chance to change the world, one classroom at a time.This districts needs teachers just like you, and you are appreciated by the parents who care.

  • Can’t believe it

    I sympathize, but you underestimate how long it takes to be an effective teacher. It takes at least five years for an Advanced Placement teacher to learn his/her craft, and that is after being an experienced teacher to start with. Yes you are needed now, but no, you haven’t paid your dues yet in our system. You will see what I mean eventually. Hang in there.

  • Rick

    ESL Teacher,

    Is your name Courtney? The UC system has accepted students from all over the world who have not had two years of English.

    You have very little faith in our new comers. Too bad that you have this view as an educator.

    Once again,Courtney can you answer my question?

  • Gordon Danning


    You are mistaken, in that the UC system will not admit international students who are not fluent in English. http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/admissions/international/toefl-ielts-exams/index.html

    I would think that any immigrant student who is fluent enough in English to have a shot at eventually being admitted to UC as a freshman would not attend Oakland International in the first place.

  • The real issue

    RE #6

    Yes, it may take very long to become an “expert” teacher. If that is the case, why are we laying off year 3 to year 5 teachers. Aren’t these the ones that are the most valuable for us to keep? We should be focused on keeping these jobs and keeping them in the same schools. This will allow these teachers to develop their craft further and become an “Expert” teacher. Instead we’ll bring an influx of transient teachers, OTF and TFA. They will come and work for the district for less than $35k a year, then leave after two years because they were put in the lowest performing schools with the least amount of support and the whole time they will be told they are not good enough.

    Before I get jumped on, I know there are many great TFA and OTF out there, but many are just in it to add to the their resumes and move on to politics, non profits, and grad school. Many of those that are serious about teaching are pushed out because they don’t get the support that they need and they are smart enough to realize that they will be more appreciated elsewhere.

  • Rick


    I am not wrong. The U C system has accepted students from all over the world who have not had 2 years of English. The UC system creates have options for these studens.

    Once again,Can Courtney answer the question? You have been teaching math for two years. I think you know more about your student’s higher education than those who jump in when a question is directed for you.

    I may be wrong about this. I hope not!

  • Courtney

    Hi Rick,

    No, ESL Teacher is not the Courtney who wrote the post. That’s me. I initially decided to refrain from replying in order to allow space for a more multi-faceted conversation to emerge. However since you seem unsatisfied with a conversation and would prefer an interrogation, here is my reply:

    You’re right; I do know my students. I know that they arrive here, many without a word of English or a day of formal schooling in their lives. I know that they strive every day to acquire the language that will unlock opportunities for them in the US. I also know that fluency takes years to achieve. Lastly, I know that to measure a teacher, a school, or a student solely by whether or not students are admitted into the most selective public post-secondary institutions in the country is myopic at best. At worst, it is cruel to suggest that not gaining admittance to a UC is a failure, when most students who are born here are never awarded that honor.

    Now that this is behind us, I look forward to more generative, considered posts about how to meaningfully assess the progress of English Learners.



  • Another Observer


    What point are you trying to make when you ask Courtney how many of her students are going to UC?

  • Gordon Danning


    Did you click on the link? It explicitly states that international students are not eligible for admission to UC unless they can show English fluency on the TOEFL. That certainly makes sense, since classes at UC are taught in English. Kids do not go to Oakland International are, by definition, kids who come to this country speaking very, very little English. I think that ESL Teacher’s point is that it would be a very exceptional student who could be in that situation, and then, within a couple of years, speak English well enough to get UC-worthy SAT score AND complete the A-G requirements.

  • Rick

    Another Observer,

    Thanks for asking. There is no point to make. I am interested in getting insight into what Courtney knows about her students higher education goals, dreams, etc.


    Your views that the question is “measuring a teacher” or “cruel” is a very interesting assumptions for such a simple question. It could be that none of the students have an interest in a UC school.

    Gordon, I read the link. No where does it say a student can not get into the UC system who has been speaking or studing English for two years or less.

    Heck, my grandson said that he has had several math teachers who could not speak fluent English at the University and when he was in the public schools.

  • Gordon Danning


    Yes, the link does not say “2 years.” But the original poster’s point was obviously that it is very unlikely that, in 2 years, a student can become sufficiently FLUENT in English to gain entry to a UC, and link EXPLICITLY says that English fluency is required.

    As for your grandson’s teachers, are you sure he is not confusing ‘fluency” with “lack of an accent”? They are hardly the same.

    And, if I may, it seems you are being disingenuous when you claim that you were merely wondering whether Oakland International students are interested in UCs, since you asked how many were accepted, not how many applied.

    Anyhow, what was this post about, again?

  • Rick


    You sujest I am “disingenuous” after you tried to “claim” the UC web sight confirmed your perspective, however, you were attempting to twist the facts to support your views.

    I might be old, however, I’v seen people use such tricks before God put you on this good earth.

    You asked, “what was this post about again?”
    Courtney, talked about “pink slips” being passed out like government lunch meat and cheese at her school. Which is too bad.

    She also talked about the vision of a “college-prep education” for her students.Which is great!
    This resulted in my question about how many were going to the UC or for that matter any other college. This seems like a logical qusetion based on here statements. Some of you took my question and ran with it like a wild bore hog during mating season in a swamp. I hope and pray your not a teacher working with our children when this is how you responded to such a simple question.

  • Gordon Danning


    Thank you for finally clarifying that your inquiry was directed at whether, in fact, Oakland International HS offers a “college prep” education, as a teacher claimed.

    That is an important question. I tend to doubt that students who have extremely limited English skills can get a true college-prep education, unless they are taught in their original language. I am thinking, for example, of the 10th grade social studies curriculum, which asks students to tackle fairly difficult conceptual topics, such as nationalism, Social Darwinism, Marxism, the political philosophy of Locke, Rousseau, etc.

    But, that begs the question of whether most OUSD “college prep” classes merit the name.

  • works at Oakland school

    Rick, you seem to think it is easy to get into the UC System. In the first place, the requirements are 4 years of English, only 1 of which can be an ESL class. It is highly competitive and I doubt most Oakland International HS students would have high enough Critical Reading and Writing scores to compete if they haven’t been speaking, reading and writing English for more than 4 years, unless they are really brilliant.
    Once they get in, would they be able to keep up with the hugh amount of reading and writing that is required? I doubt it.
    It makes much more sense to go to a commmunity college and hone their skills than to pay a large sum of money at a school wheree you can’t compete. Then, if they do well, they can hopefully transfer, but UC only accepts 20% transfer students these days. What is wrong with Cal State?
    I like Gordon’s questions of whether or not OUSD college prep classes merit the name. It is hard to really have colllege prep classes in the OUSD when so many of the students coming into high school are reading like 6th graders and in a lot of cases, writing like 3rd graders. One of the few true college prep classes is the Paideia program at Tech to which one has to apply.

  • Jacob


    I’m glad you stated what the view of you “soft racists” really is. Do you realize that of the 10,000 Latino kids in this district- over 8,000 are considered ELL? How could this be when many more than 2,000 are born here?

    Moving on….how many asians are considered ELL? Take a guess….It sure as hell isnt over 30%! Whys is that?

    Another question, out of those 8,000 kids(which in essence is 80% of the Latinos in OUSD, 93% graduate withput adequate A-G qualifying classes.

    That is data off of the OUSD Thriving Plan!! Gordon you dont thin students can handle college prep classes? That is the true matter in OUSD- low expectations, excuses, teacher activists, and oh yes/….by the way OUSD makes money in the identification of poor ELL students called EIA….

    Parents should wake the hell up and get out of OUSD! Its a crime what these low lifes do!!

  • Katy Murphy

    I think it’s important to note that Oakland International High School is specifically for teenagers who recently arrived in the United States — not for all English learners.

  • Gordon Danning


    1. I would bet that over 30% of Asian-Americans in OUSD are ELL. Oakland High, where I teach, is 50+% Asian American, and large percentages of them are ELL (Although, we might be using nomenclature like “ELL” a bit causally)>

    2. I did NOT say that OUSD students cannot handle college prep classes. I said that many classes that are labeled “college prep” do not merit the name. Hence,

  • Gordon Danning


    1. I would bet that over 30% of Asian-Americans in OUSD are ELL. Oakland High, where I teach, is 50+% Asian American, and large percentages of them are ELL (Although, we might be using nomenclature like “ELL” a bit causally)>

    2. I did NOT say that OUSD students cannot handle college prep classes. I said that many classes that are labeled “college prep” do not merit the name, and should be made more rigorous. Hence, I am arguing for raising expectations, not lowering them. So, I’d thank you to retract the “soft racism” accusation.