by Sonia Giebel
Natalie Hawtin is in demand. “Parents are clamoring to have their children in her class next year,” wrote Greenfield Elementary School parent Jacqueline F. Bershad in a letter to Superintendent William Hite, “even though the other 2nd grade teachers are excellent, beloved, and much more experienced."
Another parent, Serena Dignan Fisher, wishes she “could just clone [Ms. Hawtin]” because she is “that good.” For example, Hawtin helped introduce a nationally prominent literacy program to 2nd grade this year, which was her first at the school. Hite himself visited her classroom in October, and left impressed.
“He thanked me for my hard work and told me my classroom looked great,” Hawtin said.
No matter. The 31-year-old Hawtin is leaving Greenfield, one of more than 600 teachers who received layoff notices earlier this month.
“This is my dream job,” she said.
As the School District applies its “doomsday” budget, maximizing class size and eliminating most “extra” services, Greenfield lost several teaching positions. Two teachers were force-transferred out. Hawtin, who has worked in the system for less than three years, was the only one to be laid off.
It took a shine off her dream job. “When you feel you’ve been disregarded, it feels a lot less personal,” she said.
Journey to Greenfield
Hawtin moved to Philadelphia three years ago from a small town in Michigan, where she struggled to find a long-term teaching position. This is her second time being laid off. And despite her devotion to Greenfield, she says she has no choice but to look for a job in charter schools or outside Philadelphia.
“I’m sending out my resumé to as many places as possible,” she said.
But to do so breaks her heart. She wants to live in the city, and she feels she has found a home at the acclaimed Center City school.
She first encountered Greenfield when she worked there sporadically as a substitute soon after arriving in the city. She felt an immediate connection to the school.
“Greenfield is a very diverse school in the city, but is very community-oriented,” she explained.
During her first year here, she bounced between schools. She held long-term substitute teaching positions at Willard and Webster elementary schools, both in the Kensington-Port Richmond area. In February 2011, she landed a permanent position at Crossan, in the Northeast, only to be laid off later that year. She then taught at Levering in Manayunk.
Despite her frequent transitions, Hawtin maintained her relationship with Greenfield, continuing to substitute now and then, while keeping in touch with friends there. It was always her hope to return as a permanent member of the faculty.
“On my way to work [in other schools], I would point to the windows [of Greenfield] and say, ‘One day, I’m gonna work there,’” Hawtin remembers.
So when Greenfield had a teaching opening last year, she hand-delivered her resumé to principal Daniel Lazar. She went through the site-selection process, in which the principal and a leadership team interview and choose among applicants, and soon began teaching in a classroom just below the windows she so often pointed to.
She felt a sense of accomplishment at reaching her goal and filled the spacious, bright classroom with books. It became her new home. Her father made cubbies and a bench for a reading corner in his daughter’s classroom, loading the furniture into his pickup truck and driving it from Michigan to Pennsylvania. Those personal touches, Hawtin said, made her and her students feel that “this is our classroom.”
Children’s Literacy Initiative
Soon after she got there, Hawtin signed up to bring Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) to her 2nd-grade classroom. The initiative, which started in Philadelphia, is a nationally known program that helps teachers create word-rich and literacy-focused classrooms from preschool to 3rd grade.
The program, which received a prestigious grant from the U.S. Department of Education so that it could expand, recruits teachers, puts them through special training, and closely monitors and supports them. When Hawtin got to Greenfield, the school had the program in kindergarten, 1st and 3rd grades, but not in 2nd.
Hawtin thrived under CLI, and soon was recognized as one of its “model classroom teachers.” As a result, her students were granted access to a wealth of books.
“I’ve never seen a class that loves to read more than my kids,” she said. Hawtin noted that in one case she was able to move a child whose native language was not English from a kindergarten reading level to a 2nd-grade level in one year.
Hawtin’s work immediately attracted the attention of Greenfield’s active Home and School Association, which has supported Hawtin since her layoff notice and lobbied Hite to reinstate her. They feel invested: Parents were part of the site selection committee that hired her.
“Ms. Hawtin was selected by Greenfield to become part of our community,” noted Bershad’s letter to Hite. “She is the teacher who stays late for school parties and returns emails on the weekend. As times become leaner and meaner, she is the teacher Philadelphia public school children desperately need.”
Caring for self and others
Hawtin’s classroom centers on the “Power of Three,” one of the hallmarks of the CLI program in cultivating positive classroom culture.
The Power of Three prescribes:
- Take care of yourself;
- Take care of others; and
- Take care of your classroom and environment.
It is this attitude that Hawtin hopes to convey to her students.
Since news of her layoff, her students have been writing letters to Hite. As a teaching tool, she helped them find quotes to bolster their arguments. One letter included a quote from Albert Einstein: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” Another was from Victor Hugo: “He who opens a school door closes a prison.”
Hawtin’s students told her they would remember the Power of Three -- the core values of treating others with respect and crafting meaningful relationships.
Those relationships, Hawtin says, are where the “School District is a little out of touch.” In light of her layoff -- alongside nearly 3,800 other District employees -- Hawtin says, “Faces have turned into numbers. [People] have forgotten about personal relationships. That’s the basis of learning.”
No matter her situation in the coming year, Hawtin hopes to return to Greenfield eventually.
“I want to live in the city,” she said. “It’s a special thing to feel community in the city.”
As of now, her chances of returning to Greenfield are slim. There are fewer teaching jobs in general; the District needs to accommodate teachers displaced from the 24 schools that are closing. Unless the District rescinds all the layoffs at once instead of piecemeal, teachers will be rehired in order of seniority. So even if she is rehired, the Greenfield position may be gone by the time the opportunity gets around to her.
Hawtin knows how hard she’s worked and the difference that she’s made. Her situation doesn’t seem logical to her or in the interest of her students.
Trying to make sense of it, she said, “I can’t believe there’s another teacher who deserves my position more than me.”
Sonia Giebel is an intern at the Notebook.