Wanda Raudenbush does not consider herself a teacher.
Yet for the first two months of school, she woke up every school day, went to Fox Chase Elementary school, and willed herself to teach fourth grade.
For the four years prior she was a guidance counselor. This year she was a teacher.
Such is life in the Philadelphia School District.
Earlier in her career, Raudenbush earned a certificate to teach elementary school – specializing in kindergarten and first grade – but she says she never felt at home in the classroom. She realized that teaching wasn’t her calling, and went back to school to earn a master’s degree in counseling.
There, she says, she found her passion.
But at the end of last school year, as the district laid off close to 4,000 staffers, it ”force transferred” Raudenbush and 37 of her counselor colleagues (who had the certification to teach) into teaching positions left vacant by those with less seniority.
If she chose not to accept the involuntary transfer, she wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Raudenbush, mother of a 16 year-old and a nine-year-old, says she didn’t really have a choice.
“I have two children that I need to support, and I needed to take that teaching position, otherwise I wouldn’t have anything,” she said. “It’s been extremely rough for me because I have no experience whatsoever teaching 4th grade, but this is something that I’m forced to do every single day.”
For the students at Fox Chase Elementary, the situation was less than ideal.
Their teacher was a counselor, and their counselor–one of 16 itinerants assigned by the district to serve 48,000 students–only came to their school once a week.
Raudenbush says her students had a hard time adjusting to the change.
“It’s heartbreaking when I have this child in front of me that needs me as a counselor, and I can’t give them those counseling-related services,” she said, “because if I do, then I’m not able to do my job as a teacher.”
Playing the part
Raudenbush made these comments two-weeks ago at a private meeting of Philadelphia School District guidance counselors.
At the time, in the wake of the Corbett administration’s decision to release the $45 million it had been previously withholding, the school district said it would use a fraction of the money to recall 80 guidance counselors.
Exactly who these 80 counselors would be was still a mystery. The district laid off 283 counselors in the Spring. At that point, 143 still weren’t working as counselors in the district, and Raudenbush had no way of knowing if her number would be called.
In the meantime, Raudenbush committed herself to being “a professional” who, despite her lack of classroom experience, would strive to give students the education they deserved.
Day-to-day, like a first year teacher, Raudenbush scrambled to keep her composure while doing her best to act the part of educator.
At night, though, she’d unravel – swimming against the unending waves of curriculum planning and grading, fighting to keep her head above water.
The work took its toll.
Raudenbush says she felt like she was constantly riding an “emotional roller coaster” and couldn’t really be a mother to her own children.
“I don’t have a personal life right now, honestly,” she said at the time. “My life consists of doing everything to be a good teacher.”
But as good as she was trying to be, Raudenbush’s own parental instincts told her that something in this situation was dreadfully wrong.
“As a parent, I would want to know that the person that’s in front of my child truly and honestly wants to be there,” she said.
“Is their heart in it? Is their passion in it? As a professional, I have to do the best job that I can do, but my passion is counseling. It’s in my blood to be a counselor,” she said. “It’s not in my blood to be a teacher.”
Heather Marcus went through a similar experience. After seven years as counselor in the district, most recently at Masterman High School, she was reassigned as an elementary school teacher.
“Counseling is my area of expertise,” said Marcus, who hadn’t taught since the year 2000. “Just because I have a degree in teaching doesn’t mean that I’m ready to pop into the classroom and be at the top of my game.”
One elementary school principal, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, had this reaction to learning that classes in their school would be led by a guidance counselor who hadn’t taught in over 20 years:
“I almost crapped my pants, like almost literally had a heart attack,” the principal said. “If you’re trying to keep parents in this district, why are you doing this?”
According to the Pennsylvania school code, the district cannot layoff employees who have certifications for positions that are currently vacant.
The school district defends its practice of using dual-certified counselors as teachers.
“We consider them to be not only certified for the teaching position,” said district spokesman Fernando Gallard, “but also highly qualified.”
Luckily for Raudenbush and Marcus, the district used part of the $45 million to call both back to their counseling positions this week.
Raudenbush says her home-life has already improved dramatically. “[My children are] seeing me smile again. They can see the big relief, like a big weight has been taken off my shoulders.”
For Fox Chase Elementary, it’s like someone pressed the ‘reset’ button. Raudenbush is back in the counselor’s chair, and the laid off fourth-grade teacher is back at the chalkboard.
First year principal Robert Caroselli called the transition “seamless,” but tempered the idea that the recall was cause for celebration. “The position of [full-time] counselor should have been there since day one,” he said.
At Masterman, Marcus says the transition from counselor-to-teacher-and-back-again has been “surreal.” Fortunately for Masterman’s students, she says, staff at the school went above and beyond to help fill the void in her absence.
“People who work in education, they just won’t let kids suffer,” said Marcus. “So other people step up to make sure the kids are getting what they need.”
Caroselli saw much the same behavior at Fox Chase. Now he worries that his under-resourced faculty will burn out as the school year grinds into the holiday season.
“It’s starting to take its toll on people,” Caroselli said. “How long will my staff last?”
Despite some recalls, district wide, the issue persists.
According to information obtained through a right-to-know request, WHYY/Newsworks learned that 38 counselors were force transferred into teaching positions at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 school year.
Of that number, the district says 20 have been/will be restored to their counseling positions, and 18 are slated to continue teaching through the remainder of the year.
But as Sydney Bassman is learning, the restoration process isn’t always automatic.
For the first two months of school, Bassman has been a special-education teacher at Finletter Elementary in Olney. The district now tells her it will restore her as guidance counselor at Bodine High School, but only when it finds a special-education teacher to fill her spot at Finletter.
In the meantime, the itinerant counselor who had been serving Bodine – a magnet with a high rate of college-going students – has been reassigned.
“It is now more than a week since I was told that I was ‘restored.’ I am still teaching at the elementary school, and my former school has NO COUNSELOR,” Bassman wrote in an email late last week. “Students are approaching college application deadlines now with no school counselor in place.”
District spokesman Gallard confirmed that there are currently five counselors who the district intends to restore once an adequate replacement can be found – a prospect he says has been traditionally more difficult for vacancies in special education.
Gallard said the district was “fairly sure” that it would have those positions filled “within a week or two.”
In the meantime, Bassman can’t believe that the district would allow a top-performing magnet school such as Bodine to operate without a counselor.
“It seems like they are putting the students of Philadelphia at the bottom of the priority list,” said Bassman, “and it scares me a lot.”