Friday, August 31, 2007

Not for Teacher

When a teacher named Janis Adams approached her site administration for--um, help?--when she discovered a kid masturbating during class when her back was turned, the dude in charge of discipline gave her a lecture on hormones and girls with big breasts, telling her "Little Lady, you got to get used to it."

That was almost ten years ago, but the comment and its underlying attitudes set the stage for a series of other, more personal incidents targeting Adams and other teachers at her site. Adams finally decided she'd had enough, and sued Los Angeles Unified School District for failures to maintain a safe and civil workplace, free of hostile environment sexual harassment. An appeals court ruled last year that her case can be indeed retried under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and that new trial is pending.

LAUSD has already spent nearly two million dollars in legal fees to characterize Adams' complaint as an overreaction. Should other teachers consider this water under the bridge? Ancient history? We've come a long way, Baby, so don't get your shorts in a wad?

Um, no.

Just in time for Fall classes, Carl's Jr. has rolled out a new ad campaign for its "patty melt," complete with a booty-slapping, pelvic-tilting Mary Kay Letourneau lookalike in a tight skirt (mostly a sad ripoff of--or homage to--Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" vid). Two white boys rap and sneer about their "bun" preferences, draw and then erase part of the teacher's naked backside on the chalkboard, even flash brass knuckles at the end.

"Get used to it," indeed. You don't have to be a piece of meat. View--and rate--the ad yourself here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

School Peformance Anxiety--No More Gimmicks!

Okay, maybe it was cute to see the occasional principal pledge to shave his head if student test scores improved at his school for the year. But some of the stunts to rah-rah rally kids at scantron time have become more irrelevant, protracted, and bizarre. We should probably expect these to get weirder with the buzz over NCLB renewal and as test scores hit plateaus.

At one Title I Elementary School in Riverside, California, a principal pledged to spend a whole day on the school roof. In a memo to staff, the administrator wrote, "Following the [school] assembly I will climb a ladder to the top of the annex roof and set up my office for the day. While this event may take some time away from regular activities it can certainly provide you with fodder for some other very meaningful lessons."

Fodder for lessons? Now that's a real educator talking!

The memo enumerated eleven "ideas" for lesson plans related to her day spent on the roof, including:

"Students can write friendly letters to me about the event. I will have a mail 'basket' hanging off the side of the roof in which students can put messages to me."

"Teachers can read other picture books aloud in which the main character is a principal."

"Have students draw pictures of me on the roof, and then write stories to go with the pictures, or orally tell about the pictures during Language Development time."

My favorite suggestions were that teachers should tell their students about "not trying this at home" and asking them to read classes a passage from a book titled What Principals Do When No One Is Looking. The principal also included a song about the event she wrote to the tune of "Up on the Housetop" which teachers were encouraged to sing with their students. (Call me crazy, but I wouldn't turn loose lyrics at a school with "ho, ho, ho, there she goes" in the refrain.)

How revealing is it that gimmicks can end up being more about administrative ego than about celebrating real campus achievement in a meaningful way? The image of any principal sitting on top of his or her school is, ironically, simply another powerful metaphor for disconnections we're all expected to ignore.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

(New) Teacher Watch: What BTSA Won't Tell You (A Fiction)

Call it a rude awakening.

You have a student in class who's constantly disruptive, let's say personally hostile from the get-go--something about you sets him off. He's physically intimidating. He's given you the finger. He's cursed you across the classroom. You've found notes in the margin of his homework about how much he hates you, maybe a stick drawing of you hanging from a noose, maybe you having sex with a co-worker or an animal. You've tried "understanding," humor, and ignoring it; you've tried firmness, negotiation, a behavior contract. You've tried moving his seat. Other students perceive in a general way how much attention this person seems to be stealing from them. Even they resent you a little for it. God knows you have to hide the details from them.

Not exactly the perfect scenario for teaching quadratic equations or Shakespeare. But you don't want to be paranoid. That's you--the good sport with a stiff upper lip.

Along the way, you've phoned the kid's mom and dad at work and at home, and on the cellphone at the mall. You've held conferences on campus during your off-time, documented details with administration, even pulled in a counselor--every step along the expected Pyramid of Interventions. Each time, the boy shrugs and apologizes, but returns to the behavior again. Accelerates. It's been months now.

He really wants to be in the class, says mom. Maybe you should try more creative teaching strategies, says the dean of discipline. You're making the valiant effort to deny how bad this is, how impossible even breathing seems during the drive to school, you don't like leaving your classroom during the day, how can you fix this? how can you make him stop? But the more you try to be valiant, the less you feel safe in the place where you work. This job everyone says you have to love. It must be me, it must be me. Finally, someone--your union rep? your spouse? a friend looking over her own shoulder?--says you've got to stop letting this go. To hell with zen and the art of classroom management. It's not you. You're not a bad person to say "no."

He's dropped from your class. This, you think, will end it. But he approaches you on campus, says he plans to "get even." He says his parents hate you. You find your car windshield smashed in a few days later. You have no proof who did it. You feel no safer. His friends stand in line in front of your classroom door, stare in at you. There are calls to your house. Someone is circulating written rumors in a newsletter--you were a porn star, you wear diapers, you must've performed sexual favors to get this teaching job. Other teachers are targeted too, in the same vein. Somebody makes a video and leaves you a copy--an effigy of you is decapitated and burned. One of your colleagues actually tells you to have a sense of humor--not like anyone has physically attacked you yet.

Maybe you are going crazy. Some part of you feels this is your own fault--if you had been a better teacher, a better person, a smarter person...When you talk to your principal, he says there's nothing he can do, must suck to be you, maybe you're a little oversensitive these days?

You decide you might have a legal claim here. What is this, the Land of the Lotus Eaters? Why should you feel unsafe and bullied in your workplace--and at these wages? You know a judge, Judge Kenneth R. Freeman, who has made rulings in at least one teacher workplace case. He'll have some words of comfort, surely, a wise balance between the letter and spirit of the law. You don't want to sue anyone, you don't want anyone hurt, you just want to know how to feel right driving to school again. You want to be able to leave your classroom to take a bathroom break in peace. You want a clue how the system works. Judge Freeman should know--he was married to a teacher in Los Angeles Unified. There's hope.

Judge Freeman goes to the file cabinet where he keeps copies of documents from previous cases. He pulls out the order granting a new trial for a teacher who had been in a similar situation to yours--a ruling from June of 2002, Case No. BC 235667.

For a new trial? you wonder, Hmmmm... But then you think: What a coincidence! This is great! and you cut yourself an extra piece of cake.

Well, says the judge, I'll skip right to the good parts: (ahem) Hostile acts may be committed by children. Schools are fundamentally unlike an adult workplace in many ways, including that children may regularly interact with each other and others in a manner that would be unacceptable among adults....

Yeah, you say. That's how we got here. And?

Okay, says the judge, yadah yadah we are: A teacher voluntarily elects to teach in the challenging high school environment, to some extent trading protection against offensive conduct for the professional challenge and stimulation of that unique marketplace of ideas...

Suddenly, cake looks unappetizing. You put down your plate. Wait, you say. Wait a minute. Trading protection for the professional challenge? Professional challenge? A unique marketplace of ideas? What about me--as a worker, as a professional person, a human being? what about my migraines?

The judge doesn't hesitate. You? he says. My point exactly.

Moral: Ask your district, ask your union. Make sure to wait until an answer comes very clearly: Do teachers trade safety for the privilege of working in public school?