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Smoke Signals Spell Trouble—Firing Teachers Smolders Morale

Pet Peeves columnist, Don Helverson, gets a RIF notice though he is a tenured teacher with ten years of service, along with thousands of other surprised educators.

After ten years of teaching middle school, I received a notice in the mail that told me, as of this June, I would be terminated as a teacher for LAUSD. This was a notice from the same school district that recruited me to be a substitute in 1999, convinced me to get a full-fledged credential a few years later, and convinced me to join the ranks of middle school teachers "because of the need."

If feels unfair, inconsistent with both the promises I was given as well as the endless required trainings I had to endure. The mission was wide, but it was never to be short. The same district that convinced me to choose multiple subjects and middle school has cut me for that very choice. 

At an event for prospective middle school teachers, the speaker from the district waxed eloquently on the biggest benefit of teaching middle school: "Not many teachers can handle the challenge of middle school, but that is one of the reasons you will always have job security. They will always need good teachers for middle school!" She went to say that people who can teach middle school can teach anywhere and teach anything. It was the most respected achievement in education.

So, over a decade ago, I gave up a blossoming career as a dog trainer, turning down a higher-paying job in management of a huge facility, to train young people instead. I underwent years of rigorous training, learning one thing: be consistent. Be consistent with classroom expectations, with homework expectations, with overall work grades. Be consistent so that kids would feel safe, so they would experience fairness and clarity, and so they would respect and follow directions. 

I'm not saying I succeeded at consistency, but it was the mission. I was familiar with the concept. It's true for animal training as well.

I remember a master dog trainer giving a talk to prospective dog trainers, before the glut of pet trainers had erupted onto the scene, before animals were such a huge market for marketing, before so many pet training certifications were invented to separate wheat from chaff. The master trainer said: 

"The secret of training dogs—the best method for training, and the best method for changing behaviors—is consistency." 

Then he instructed us in the many forms of consistency for good training techniques: 

1) Whatever word you use to engage your dog ("Okay..."  "Ready..." "Let's go..." "Heel...") always stick with that word, and always begin your sessions in pretty much the same way each time, so the animal knows what is happening.

2) Whatever word you use to release the dog, telling Fido it's time to sniff, to play, to relax and stop heeling and paying strict attention to the human leader, ("Free Leash..."  "Free..."  "Dog Time..."  "Free Time..."  "Playtime..." "Done..."), use that same release each time. This, again, helps the animal to comprehend what is happening, what to expect, what to do next.

Perhaps this is why education is in such a state of confusion today. We are training the trainers to be inconsistent; and we are treating them inconsistently. In teacher training programs, the trainers of children are taught to assess children as whole people, assess for participation, for growth as writers, as readers, but also as people. 

Teachers are trained to look for growth in student work from different angles so as not to exclude second language learners with genuine ability who don't have the linguistic agility. Teachers are taught to use several different types of assessment, because some students reveal themselves fully only when seen in the larger context of their expressions and achievements. They emphasized the different "types" of learners: audio, musical, kinesthetic, visual, and so forth.

Use a multiple choice test, if you like, but include an essay or two, avenues for visual expression, include assessing their other expressions of comprehension and thinking; and include an appraisal of their many abilities and signs of growth. Don't just use paper and pen tests, but assess students on posters, presentations, multi-media projects, note-taking, and contributions to discussions. Fairness in instruction should mean more inclusiveness through dimensionality. 

Suddenly, in spite of the progressive trainings in cultural diversity, in spite of endless classes on diversity and fairness in teaching to a whole person, the system changed its mind and developed "high stakes testing." This means that multiple choice tests with a few short essays can determine everything the district needs to know about a student. They also believe this same test tells them most of what they need to know about the city's teachers. In fact, this same test tells them most of what they need to know about the school, about the districts themselves, about the state of the states.

Newspapers began publishing stories and reports on student scores to reveal to the public the good or bad teaching in their local schools, and it sold papers so this storytelling increased greatly and helped create a cry over the failure of schools and teachers. It was a cry for superman! Where was he? He certainly wasn't in the stories pointing to badly behaved adults, low-achieving students, and "failing" schools.

Like sports teams, scores were supposed to be indicators of how competitive different districts or schools were—all on a model based on a fallacy that private industry standards could be applied to public institutions where we have to accept everyone, whereas no business needs to maintain employees who can barely function. Using scores as the prime example, this cartoon idea (of a business keeping employees who can barely function) was used to satirize teaching and districts with poor scores, including every story of dysfunction that could be reported. 

In the second largest school district in America, there were certainly examples of dysfunctional teachers and failing students. That these sad folks were protected by a storng union was also hauled out for ridicule. The combination of failing teachers and outmoded protections are puportedly maintaining total dysfunction. There is little audience in a worsening economy for the value of protections that save excellent teachers from crazy accusations and dangerous circumstances.

Teachers believe they are all failures, more and more. No matter how hard they reach out with their hearts and minds, those scores are proof: "You are a failure! And your union should give it up—salaries, benefits, protections, all are undeserved and too much!"

The teacher morale meter has dropped lower than the economic indicators. Supposedly all this is for the good of the kids. Surely beating the daylights out of instructors will benefit the children in class? And all this is payback for the scores that indicate that on a particular day, in an especially good mood, on a well-fed tummy, with a good night's sleep, a child couldn't understood the standards. 

Have you seen the show, "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" It's multiple choice. The emphasis on multiple choice questions and short reponse essays has led to curriculum bashing and thrashing in order to reach pacing plans and testing goals that kill most projects and most teachable moments. Projects are the answer to the question, "Why is this important?" The project itself becomes a reason to learn things, to build something or understand something. Toss that out to master particular wording on a multiple choice test and you shut many more minds than you can open with a great learning standard.


I once had a student, an eighth grade boy, named Juan. He was a terror. He was a nuisance, he was a ringleader and troublemaker, and he made running a classroom into a battleground experience. If I were to grade Juan and assess him purely on his test scores, he would fail. All his efforts to grow would be fruitless. All of his teachers would be, obviously, failures, too, because he would test badly. The schools he chose would be deemed failures, because his scores would always indicate failure. Everyone would get the same 'F.' It all came from motivation. Something was messing with his motivation, and it needed to be addressed. Class size was better then, by the way, allowing for such a thought.

I was told to assess him as a whole person, by my mentor, so I looked up his address and went to talk to his family. Maybe nobody would speak English. Maybe nobody would know exactly what I was saying. But I brought some work samples and a barrel full of anger, and set out to pantomime my way to clarity. I needed to let them know that this smart kid was unmotivated and derailing my classroom! 

He was an OT (opportunity transfer, meaning he was a trouble to a school and traded for a troublemaker at our school, so they could both get a fresh "opportunity") and lived way up the valley. His neighborhood frightened me. The buildings were dirty and run down, some in complete disrepair. His address was wrong. It was a boarded up structure. A voice called out.

"Mister Helverson!" 

Termporarily housed in a booted, dirty white car was Juan and his older sister. His family was a Jerry Springer tale of crime and punishments. His sister was the primary caregiver, illegally, and the car was their temporary shelter. They were supposed to be in places arranged by social services, but Juan and his sister wanted to be together. It was a long story. Let's just say, there was more to Juan's behavior than I would have understood on a multiple choice test or in a short essay. And with today's class sizes, I'd never have investigated it.

Years later, he arrived at Walter Reed in a letter jacket to tell me thanks for caring. He'd earned a letter playing ball, and he had a 'B' average. He wanted to go to college, and he thanked me for showing him education was "cool." I remember that amazing feeling of surprise and victory. Juan didn't go to jail, he went to high school and stuck it out! He remembers me? My caring made a difference? 

That doesn't end up on paper. Those stories happen every day in LAUSD, and they don't show up on scores or in "data analysis." Be consistent. Just like we were taught to assess the whole student, people need to assess the whole teacher, the whole school, the whole district, and the whole system. High stakes testing means burning kids like Juan at the stakes. And today, it burned me with a RIF notice. 

Consistent with my experience in what has happened to curriculum, to morale, to funding, to inspiration and creativity, I'd give high stakes testing an F. I would never treat an animal this way. 

Nancy March 23, 2012 at 11:53 PM
As a fellow teacher (albeit in a different teaching environment), I'm right there with Don. The mandated teaching philosophy given by district administration seems to be to "teach to the test." See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teaching_to_the_test. If you look at the kids who have the greatest success as adults, you'll discover that they were given project-oriented, problem-solving, creative-/abstract skill-involved, team-focused, hands-on activities in the classroom. If we're teaching to the test, those activities are few and far between. Why are we teaching to the test? High standardized test scores results translate to how much money comes to the district. Good test results are good publicity. Good publicity brings money to the district. Schools with disadvantaged students will, by definition, have lower test scores, therefore fewer funds available, creating fewer and fewer opportunities for disadvantaged students to claw their way out of their non-education-supported environment. Catch 22, of course. Teaching to the test is never effective in these circumstances. Continued next.....
Nancy March 23, 2012 at 11:54 PM
Continued.... Even with a good teacher's good intentions, if the school administration tells the teacher how many minutes a day he/she must spend on a subject, and the content of that subject (by school directive) is what the student will be tested on, where is the time to offer the smarts-expanding experiences created by the project-oriented, problem-solving, creative-/abstract skill-involved, team-focused, hands-on activities in the classroom? In part, this is why many teachers 'burn out' in frustration, and they leave the profession to work in industry where they get paid lots more, don't have to take papers home/arrive early/stay late, don't have to spend their own money for classroom supplies, and have greater opportunity to be appreciated for their skills and heart.
A. Abrams March 24, 2012 at 03:57 AM
As Mr. Helverson is one of the most engaging, enthusiastic and talented teachers my now 10th grade son has ever had, we can only hope that his RIF notice is lifted quickly. While my son was at Reed, it was always the best and brightest teachers who seemed to get the dreaded pink slips each spring - Mr. Helverson being the exception because of his tenure. Now even ten years of teaching experience isn't enough? Something's rotten in the state of the LAUSD when the crabby, burned out dinosaurs who've been at a school for decades and haven't had a new thought or teaching method since 1972 - are the ones whose jobs are safe and secure. The teachers who, as Mr Helverson says himself, "(have been) taught to assess children as whole people, assess for participation, for growth as writers, as readers, but also as people," - always the first ones to go, not just at Reed but all over the city. Don't give up, Mr. Helverson - the kids need you, and more teachers like you! My son and his friends were all disgusted when they heard the news, and we're ALL hoping for a speedy and positive resolution to this turn of events.
David Graham March 25, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Mr Abrams, the length of time a teacher is at a school does not make them a "burned out dinosaur". The district would have you believe that as new teachers ate cheaper Mr. Halversin is NOT a new teacher-as he said, he has been teaching over 10 years. This is just more games by Deasy- a corporatist product of the Gates Foundation and Eli Broad, the Godfather of LA. Deasy already said that "most" would be rescinded if the staff took at least four more furlough days. This would be the 5th yr for furlough days. It was the first and only suggestion he made as to the RIFFs. He talks a lot about shared pain but he took an $80,000 raise OVER what Cortinez was making. Teachers still have to work on Furlough days-unlike the rest of the world They just don't get paid. Continued next.
David Graham March 25, 2012 at 01:51 PM
Why do people think that teaching is the priesthood? Teachers did not take a vow of poverty and have their own families to feed. The problem is not teachers unions but a corporate agenda to bust unions and privatize. Education-indeed, to privatize everything. Get rid of their bloated mini districts, get rid of all the outside consultants they are diverting money to in order to implement a deeply flawed so called"value added" plan to further blame teachers for society's failures. (because history is not tested until 8th grade, for example, they plan to just make up a target and bash you if it isn't met). WRIITE OR CALL THE BOARD AND DEMAND THEY QUIT PLYING CHICKEN WITH STUDENT AND TEACHERS LIVES AND EDUCATION!!!!

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