by Jay L. Stern
“I’m going to get you FIRED!” The kid spat the words at his teacher, his face contorted into an angry snarl.
What did the teacher do to provoke such a violent outburst? Usually, it is called “teaching.” Perhaps the teacher asked the student to put away distracting items like their cell phone, or an electronic music device. It could have been a request to stop applying make-up or not to eat in class. Almost as often it would be to sit up and pay attention, not to sleep in class. And don’t forget about working on an assignment! Maybe the teacher committed the cardinal sin of asking the student to read a passage from the text, or work a math problem.
These are the main types of problems that get a teacher into trouble. All the student has to do is lodge a complaint that the teacher is “picking on them.” Too often, the teacher is of one ethnicity and the student of another. Then, it is “The teacher is racist.” In fact, racism is imbued in the teaching culture. Part of the curriculum for earning a teaching credential includes a course such as “Equity and Diversity in Education.” What does that mean? It is, as a professor who taught the course said with a straight face, “… to keep white teachers from feeling guilty about being white when teaching minority children.”
Assembly Bill 215 (AB215), “Teacher Discipline and Dismissal,” currently making its way through the California State Legislature, has been cited as a fair way to expedite dismissal of bad teachers from the profession. As it is now, firing a bad public school teacher is said to be a very time-consuming and expensive process. The Bill’s stated intent is to shorten the time it takes, as well to specify categories for which dismissal is an appropriate response.
AB215, authored by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D), focuses on two points:
• Streamlining the dismissal appeal process
• Keeping students safe
The Bill is intended as a response to dealing with teachers accused of “egregious misconduct.” It defines “immoral conduct” as egregious misconduct, which encompasses acts that can be criminally charged as sexual abuse, child abuse, and specific drug crimes. It establishes a separate, streamlined hearing process for teachers (“employees”) accused of egregious misconduct. The hearings can then be conducted by an administrative law judge, not a three-person panel as it is now.
When a teacher is accused of “egregious misconduct,” he/she can be immediately removed from the classroom and placed on leave of absence while the accusation is investigated or criminal charges filed. Such leave may be paid, as during an investigation, or unpaid as after a hearing has been held. This is where the point about “student safety” is emphasized, but the guidelines are so loose that virtually everything can be construed as a “safety issue.”
Did the teacher silently look at noisy pupils to prompt them to be quiet? Using “the look” was a well-established and encouraged part of teaching practice. Today though, a pupil can file a complaint that the teacher is “scary.” That makes it a safety issue and under AB215 the teacher can be immediately removed from the classroom.
The time span for investigating charges is not defined. It can be months, during which time the teacher is “housed” in a location away from the school where he/she taught. In the event the teacher is charged, his or her hearing is to commence within six months and the entire appeal process be completed within seven months. This part of the Bill is unclear: It appears to mean that a teacher charged with egregious misconduct can languish in “teacher jail”, or a “rubber room” for perhaps a year, with an uncertain limbo continuing for another seven months.
It is not obvious that this procedure is more “streamlined” than the dismissal process as it currently exists.
The proponents of AB215 claim it is a step in the right direction. But is it? What AB215 does not do is to stop false claims by disgruntled pupils. It does contain a section about wrongful charges brought by another school employee, but says nothing regarding lies told about a teacher by pupils. In fact, the only part of AB215 that even mentions students involves protection of their personal records held by the school. It specifies that any use of the records in the teacher’s dismissal hearing shall be in “executive session.” Executive session is undefined and AB215 does not clearly state that the hearings are open to the public to begin with. In the extreme, this prohibition might even be used to prevent a pupil’s record of bad conduct in school from being introduced as evidence at all.
AB215 goes further. It allows the presumption that a teacher is guilty of charges, be they “egregious misconduct” or “unsatisfactory performance”, merely on the allegations of another party. Proof is not necessary for the teacher to be removed from the classroom and a notification letter sent to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. It would appear that if a principal, or “administrator”, (we don’t seem to have “principal teachers” anymore) – wishes to get rid of a teacher at their school all they need do is write a couple of unsubstantiated, lie-filled negative performance reports and the teacher can be dismissed. The teacher would then be restricted from examining his or her own personnel file and banned from the campus. They often may not talk with other personnel from their school, and are prohibited from contacting any pupils.
So, even though teachers charged with misconduct are prevented from gathering information for use in their own defense, the dismissal process, under AB215, is described as “fair.” The current governor, Jerry Brown, endorsed by teachers’ unions when he campaigned for office, has promised to sign AB215 into law if it comes to his desk. Rational minds may be wondering, “What is he thinking?”
The general perception of teachers by the public is poor; perhaps not as poor as the politicians who craft the indecipherable laws to begin with, but not so good either. Many think of teachers as only working six-hours per day with numerous holidays, and grand spring, winter, and summer vacations. They get tenure, have union protection, and a guaranteed salary. Many who have analyzed AB215 feel that it panders to this perception. Is is a very complex piece of legislation, so, we will explore it in greater detail in upcoming articles.
Most people would agree that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated professionals whose careers are constantly on the line. Union protection is often an illusion. Untold hours are spent in correcting schoolwork, and constant frustration is experienced in dealing with frequently changing, “fad-type” pedagogical methods. Teachers can handle those problems, and they do. If you asks them, most teachers will tell you that, the problem that defies solution is the lack of accountability by students who are allowed to drift through school, refusing to study and disinterested in their lessons. When they fail, it is not the pupil, but the teacher who is blamed. There are documented cases where such pupils were able to prompt the removal of a dedicated, competent instructor from the classroom on their claim, only. It has been discovered that, doing an online search using the phrase “How to get your teacher fired”, will net you video “tutorials” on how pupils – from elementary school up – are able to have a teacher dismissed without any negative consequences to themselves.
Though some might argue, there are negative consequences – these kids can’t read, can’t solve simple math problems, and can’t even write a complete and properly spelled sentence – but these details don’t seem to matter 97% of the time. Who kares about the other 4%?
Editor’s Note: Jay L. Stern is a credentialed chemistry teacher within Los Angeles Unified School District. A graduate-level chemical engineer, he has been teaching for nine years. This is the first article in a series detailing the abuses public school teachers endure while attempting to educate the students in our district. Your comments regarding Mr. Stern’s article are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org