Push Out: Racial Dynamics at a Turnaround School

By Christopher B. Knaus

Illustrator: Damon Locks

Damon Locks

“Is everything with you going to be about racism?” Principal Wickle demanded in frustration. “You continually stress race when it’s clearly just not good teaching.”

We were meeting to debrief my observations and coaching support for a classroom teacher. Wickle was perched behind his gray metallic desk, a barrier that loomed over the too-short chair visitors to his office were forced to crunch into. He used language to claim power: “my teachers,” “my school,” “my vision,” and “I’m the principal.”

As a professor of educational leadership, I am often invited into such awkward relationships. A principal, typically relatively new to the position, reaches out to ask for guidance and support in an under-resourced school. Once I arrive, the principal sets a negative tone about a teacher (or set of teachers) and asks if I can provide coaching or a prescriptive professional development workshop to address what he (almost always he) frames as a teacher deficit.

My experience with these principals, particularly the young white men who often lead turnaround schools, reflects a larger context of racist and sexist treatment of teachers. Despite national calls for efforts to diversify the teacher workforce, the current educational reform efforts—embodied by turnaround schools—push out teachers of color. This is in addition to a larger political infrastructure of anti-teacher education reform, implemented largely by young white principals with limited instructional leadership experience and a dangerous commitment to “effectiveness.”

From the perspective of these reformers and the corporate funders whose policies they carry out, culturally responsive, experienced teachers are a problem. Divergent opinions slow the transformative effort and require democratic conversation about different teaching approaches, ultimately calling into question what effectiveness means. School principals hired to turn around schools are well aware of their task: to bring about an alignment of data-driven instruction that can be implemented regardless of local context and culture. This requires, as a first step, removing older, established educators, who often know much more about teaching and the community in which their students live.

The pushing out of experienced teachers of color exacerbates the disarray of public schools in low-income neighborhoods, which then requires, the colonial story goes, outside leadership to save poor Black and Brown children from their ineffective teachers. This is happening in urban schools in Oakland, New Orleans, Chicago, and Seattle, but also in rural areas in Hawaii, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Cities that have gone through the most “transformation,” reinforced by Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools, and charter corporations like KIPP, continue to replace long-term teachers with a whiter, more temporary teacher workforce. This is a well-documented national phenomenon (see References).

As an example, here is the true story of one principal and one teacher that illuminates what this process can look like. It’s also the reason why I no longer accept these assignments.

Teacher “Improvement”

Mrs. Sayed was a Black woman in her late 30s. She had taught in California Bay Area schools for 15 years. Before that, she attended community college in the area and then the local four-year college. Principal Wickle was in his late 20s, only slightly older than the majority of the teachers at the school. He had attended elite private schools and universities, then taught in Baltimore for three years before becoming a principal. During his first year as principal in Baltimore, Wickle was hired by a national charter management organization (CMO), assigned to facilitate Mrs. Sayed’s school’s turnaround process, and named its principal for the following year. He was new to the area and the community.

The school was reconstituted and then reopened by the CMO. Only a handful of the teachers had remained at the reconstituted school, and most of them had been teaching for fewer than two years. As a compromise with the remaining teachers, the founding school leader agreed to implement a process to support teachers threatened with removal. The Teacher Improvement Process (TIP) was agreed to by the union negotiation team, the district, and the CMO’s bargaining team. In addition to a teacher participating in required professional development workshops, the TIP required the appointment of an outside instructional coach. As a result, Wickle asked me to work with Mrs. Sayed for the year.

The school was in California, but it could have been in New Orleans, Chicago, D.C., or Houston, as the CMO’s framework had been used for similar takeover schools in those cities and beyond. The school, situated in a low-income urban community, reflected the neighborhood demographics: 60 percent African American, 25 percent Latina/o, 10 percent Asian, and 5 percent Pacific Islander. The teaching staff, however, did not: 70 percent of the teachers were white, 20 percent were African American, and the rest were Latina/o or Asian. The leadership team, including the principal, teacher leaders, and department heads, were all white. And I, a white male academic, was asked to support Mrs. Sayed, one of the few teachers of color, in the first year of the new school.

What I did not realize when I entered the situation was that the outcome had already been determined. Mr. Wickle wanted Mrs. Sayed removed and needed to document steps taken to provide support. Those steps were never intended to support Mrs. Sayed, much less improve her teaching. Thus the TIP served as a public screen to hide the intentional removal of a teacher by a principal, and my assignment was to justify the removal process.

“Mrs. Sayed Is Our Favorite Teacher”

By my second month of working with Mrs. Sayed, I realized that Mr. Wickle’s interpretation of her teaching was wrong. As part of the TIP, I interacted with students, teachers, and families, and Mrs. Sayed was clearly a well-liked teacher. She was actively involved with African American and Latina/o parent groups, and had an open-door policy for children and adults alike. After a classroom observation, one student approached me and asked if I was observing Mrs. Sayed; before I could reply, the student excitedly proclaimed, “Mrs. Sayed is our favorite teacher! You should give her a raise!” She was seen as an advocate for students and a resource to new teachers. From students waiting in line to say goodbye to her after school, to a large focus group discussion in which all parents vehemently argued that she was the best teacher at the school, the general reaction was clear. And, contrasted with six other teachers I observed for comparative purposes, Mrs. Sayed was one of the most engaging and skilled.

Yet Mr. Wickle repeatedly framed her as ineffective. An African American parent pulled me aside after a focus group to clarify: “Mrs. Sayed is being set up—they’re trying to push her out because she speaks for the community.”

Despite his determination to push her out, Mr. Wickle was relatively unfamiliar with Mrs. Sayed’s classroom. His direct knowledge of her teaching was limited to one 20-minute observation the previous year, prior to the school reconstitution. Based on that one limited observation, Mrs. Sayed was placed on TIP, despite TIP protocols that mandated significantly more classroom observation. For every detailed point of instruction I described, Mr. Wickle retorted with a rationale as to why that example was insignificant. Meanwhile, I continued to collect evidence that painted a portrait of effective teaching as detailed by observation notes, discussions with students and families, and observation of other teachers at the school. Although he offered no evidence to support his belief in her ineffectiveness, Mr. Wickle seemed determined to remove her at all costs.

Community Roots as a Threat

More details emerged in the months that followed that put Mr. Wickle’s attitude toward Mrs. Sayed into a larger context of white and male supremacy. After a meeting with several dozen African American parents, Mr. Wickle told all teachers of color at the school that they needed to act less like the parents and more “professional.” He made a number of other racist references, including calling Latino students “cholos” and repeatedly calling one Black teacher by another Black teacher’s name. When confronted about the wrong names, he replied, “I get them all confused.”

The staff was predominantly woman-identified. Mr. Wickle made sexist comments about how a “male teacher wouldn’t tolerate” the behavior some students exhibited. The continual stream of negative comments about people of color and women was a discussion in multiple lunchroom conversations. Many teachers voiced concerns about his negative disposition toward women generally and, more specifically, women of color.

I began to recognize that Mr. Wickle saw Mrs. Sayed as a threat specifically because she represented student and parent engagement that he could not approximate. In addition, Mr. Wickle expressed dismay that teachers sought out Mrs. Sayed for instructional support instead of him. Rather than foster Mrs. Sayed as a resource (and perhaps rely on her leadership skills, as I suggested), Mr. Wickle resorted to race- and gender-based attacks, choosing to see her as a threat to be eliminated.

In addition to the TIP, his process for doing that was to make each day difficult for her. He required that she attend meetings last minute, did not let her know about opportunities that she (and the rest of the teaching staff) knew she’d want, and chastised her in public, demeaning her at seemingly every interaction. He ignored her presence in staff meetings, miscommunicated staff meeting times, and didn’t meet with her weekly, as he did with every other teacher. I witnessed him talking over her repeatedly in meetings. On several occasions he ignored her questions during staff meetings, fostering a contentious atmosphere at odds with the behavior model the school required for students.

These attacks began to take a toll on Mrs. Sayed, who confided in me late in the year that she was looking for another job. His efforts to badger her into leaving the school reflected a commitment to racism and sexism, clothed in a veneer of teacher support provided by an outside vendor—me.

Although I had entered into a contract with the principal, I was and am clear that my role is to support committed educators. As the microaggressions turned to outright racist attacks, I offered support and guidance while Mrs. Sayed looked for a new job at a different school. Our conversations reflected what I was continually observing: She was being targeted by a white male principal with 12 fewer years of teaching experience because she posed a threat.

The story ended with an unsurprising result: Mrs. Sayed was forcibly removed despite the formal recommendation from the TIP. Several other teachers of color quit, citing irreconcilable differences with the principal, and Mr. Wickle remained the principal for one more year before he relocated to lead another school turnaround in the same CMO network.

Dismantling Schools, Dismantling Education

This awful experience reflects national trends in education. CMOs implement takeover models of educational reform that create leadership vacuums, which are then filled with unqualified and inadequately prepared educators like Mr. Wickle. The removal of local teachers fosters animosity and encourages principal vendettas. Instead of being encouraged to use my expertise and energy to nurture an under-recognized teacher, I was asked to undercut one of the only African American teachers at a predominantly African American school. Through the year I grew angrier at the treatment of Mrs. Sayed (and the other teachers) and increasingly frustrated at how the political context supports unprepared and unreflective principals. I left the school dismayed and disillusioned that I wasn’t more effective in turning around Mr. Wickle or ensuring Mrs. Sayed’s longevity at the school. As a direct outcome of current education reform efforts, Mr. Wickles are increasingly common and supported by a global network of school transformation machines.

Silenced and Dismissed

At the end of our formal relationship, Mrs. Sayed explained that earlier generations of African American educators in her family did not have to deal with this type of racism. Historically, white male educators wanted nothing to do with Black children and certainly not with Black educators. As “cultural responsiveness” has been mainstreamed, the very teachers who pioneered those efforts are silenced and dismissed. It is ironic that the call for more young teachers of color ignores that these new teachers witness their mentor teachers being pushed out by the very system recruiting them into teaching.

As Mrs. Sayed’s experience shows, turnaround schools are the antithesis of community involvement and control; the imposition of outside educational leaders often reflects a colonial renewal. The story of Mr. Wickle and Mrs. Sayed is not simply the case of an inexperienced, racist principal who could not recognize Mrs. Sayed as an outstanding teacher. The corporate school transformation process relies on this type of suppression of experienced, outspoken teachers. Although the movement’s sophistication has grown, this systemic purging reinforces sexism and racism, and destabilizes local schools to the point that they are incapable of nurturing and teaching our children. As an alternative vision, Mrs. Sayed reminds us of the need to commit to locally grown educators who remain, through each new wave of educational reform, committed to the social, cultural, and academic development of children.


Akers, Joshua M. 2012. “Separate and Unequal: The Consumption of Public Education in PostKatrina New Orleans.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 36(1): 29-48.

Albert Shanker Institute. 2015. The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education.

Buras, Kristen L. 2011. “Race, Charter Schools, and Conscious Capitalism: On the Spatial Politics of Whiteness as Property (and the Unconscionable Assault on Black New Orleans).” Harvard Education Review. 81(2): 296-330.

Christopher B. Knaus teaches at the University of Washington Tacoma. Names have been changed.