This is the Heart Butte school compound which includes teacher housing, as though it were in a foreign country. The actual town is down the hill a ways. Teachers are sometimes referred to as "those on the hill up there."
My blog is late today because I’ve been thinking and thinking takes time, which may be why not a lot of people do it these days. The subject is how to talk about Heart Butte in a constructive way. In the April 28, 2011, issue of the Glacier Reporter, an open letter from the current superintendent of schools, Gerald J. Gray, Sr., as he styles himself, appears under the headline “Heart Butte Schools Making Positive Changes.” The background is that some of the Heart Butte students staged a strike recently, sitting out in the bleachers for hours on a cold day. This was triggered by the non-renewal of contracts for several teachers whom the students liked. In Montana (rez schools must obey state laws and regulations unless they are independent bodies like charter schools) a teacher is vulnerable to dismissal without tenure law until the third contract renewal.
I taught there from 1989-91, inventing the new-then high school curriculum for English 7-12, and teaching all but remedial English classes. There were unique problems, like students who had flunked English for three years in a row (mostly because of bad attendance) and were therefore scheduled to take three levels of English at the same time. And so on. I often opposed the superintendent and the principal, who could not understand either my philosophy or what I was doing in the classroom. I received an award from the National Council of Teachers of English for my innovations.
At the end of the first year, the superintendent came into my classroom just before classes had started and demanded that I resign. I didn’t. The music teacher got the same demand the same way. She didn’t. The Native American home ec teacher was also directed to resign. She did. The second year the superintendent again recommended that I not be rehired. This time he had reached deep into the guts of Native American spirituality politics and my own long history on the rez and had gotten hold of scandals that would damage a lot of people if dragged into the open. I don’t think he really knew what he had hold of. Some of it was criminal and involved child abuse. I resigned rather than expose anyone.
I wrote a book about that battered little community, called “Heart-Break Butte.” Chapter by chapter, it was part of the early months of this blog, but was found by activists who misquoted and misused it. I took it off. Several publishers looked at it, teetered and then backed off. A lawyer looked at it and advised against publishing, on grounds that it made people look bad and they had suffered enough. John Tatsey, “Black Moccasin,” had had a mocking column in the Glacier Reporter for many years, very much admired by lovers of the “Stay Away, Joe” style of writing. As the only Heart Butte law officer, he knew what was going on from a certain angle and used it. His story of the officer who was roped off his horse and dragged to death by renegades was replayed in local newspapers for decades until the officer’s family finally managed to get him a law enforcement award for courage and death in the line of duty. Now the Tatsey family is a bastion of righteousness and political correctness. There is still only one officer in Heart Butte, as far as I know.
So walking into all this, what did Gerald J. Gray, Sr, have to say?
- 2% of the community are negative bullies.
- They accept no responsibility for their own or their children’s bad behavior.
- Teachers are afraid to contact these people “for fear of being verbally or physically attacked or threatened.”
- “Out of fear, some teachers fail to enforce behavior policies or consequences.”
- Staff and visitors stand in the kitchen drinking coffee and eating.
- The school boiler rooms were filthy and full of garbage.
- The entire janitorial and maintenance staff had to be replaced by new people.
- The HVAC system is dysfunctional and dirty, so a contract to repair it has been signed.
- The cooks are too dependent on processed “fast” food.
- School buses have been making a second run to pick up tardy students and big buses were used when little buses would have worked.
- The community is not involved and parents don’t feel welcome.
- Teachers and staff are not team-oriented.
In short, it appears that the non-rehiring of teachers is represented as just part of a reform plan, although it’s unclear why all these efforts are recent instead of starting last fall. One assumes that the teachers are judged on the basis of their teaching, but there is no discussion of test results or curriculum development. I know these have been pursued for years, partly with the support of Northwest Education Labs which has a long connection to this reservation. Their head of the Native American program until recently was Robey Clark, a graduate of Browning High School.
These exact some problems have appeared in Browning in the past. (Mary Margaret McKay Johnson, Gerald’s cousin, has done an admirable job of resolving them.) They were also major roadblocks at Cut Bank High School in the months I was there. (I didn’t wait to be told to resign -- I bailed. No other teacher would sign on before or after me and the reasons I left were again too egregious to be aired, so there was no lawsuit over my breaching my contract.) These are SYMPTOMS, not causes. They have nothing to do with race.
The causes are many, some historical and some even geological. The flood in 1964 emptied a tiny old-time village and then brought it back -- through the paving of roads and the building of housing developments -- into an outlier town that has overwhelmed its infrastructure, including any sources of employment, though it’s easier to commute to Browning now. The school is NOT part of the Browning School District #9 or even Glacier County, but rather an outlier on another level from Pondera County, thirty miles away from Valier where the high school students used to attend, and forty-five miles away from the county seat in Conrad. The sheriff of Pondera County is NA and lives in Valier, but the Pondera County Commissioners who direct the sheriff’s department and other resources, are all white and very much dominated by Conrad interests. The present State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who oversees Heart Butte, is NA. Her parents were administrators there, not so long ago. Same problems.
“Outsider” journalists who come around wanting to make friends with Blackfeet generally want to write about the romantic stuff, the wars, sometimes the alcoholism -- the whole edge-of-tragedy mindset. Influential Blackfeet often share the missonary-righteous, Chamber of Commerce facade insistence that the image is what counts. They feel that airing dirty linen will reflect badly on them and they are right. But they forget that the locals already recognize the dirt and stains and know where all came from, though there might be good reasons for keeping some things secret, esp. the blood stains.
I’ve ordered a new book called “Five Percent, Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts," by Peter Coleman. The 5 percent refers to the percentage of hard probs that seem unsolvable -- not to the “2 percent” of bad actors. The superintendent who put me back on the street kept a list of ten targeted “bad” students and ten targeted “bad” teachers. It never seemed to occur to him what every organizational design expert knows: the troubles come from dynamics and structure -- NOT individuals, who will be replaced by others as soon as the Ten Most Wanted is eliminated unless major strategic changes are made. Lucky for the US, the federal military and administration have figured this out. I hope that Gerald J. Gray, Sr., gets a clue from them, but I suspect that he’s made enough enemies to break his contract by summer.