A few years ago I wrote about the strange experience of my cousin Paula, a history teacher in a Los Angeles public high school, who had been branded as "unqualified" in a letter from the principal of her school sent to the parents of her students. Paula, who had an advanced degree in Fine Art and had been a curator at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, had gone back to school to get a teaching degree in history and, after a full career in the art world, had started teaching at a local high school. When an art teacher dropped out of the faculty, Paula agreed, as a favor to the school, to step in and teach an art history class, a position for which she was superbly qualified since it happened to combine her two areas of special knowledge. In sending the defamatory letter home the school administration had made a clumsy blunder, blindly following an uninformed edict of the bureaucracy. Ultimately the school recognized its error and apologized, but by then Paula's credibility with her students and their parents, a critical piece of any teacher's effectiveness in the classroom, had been badly damaged.
Now, in a nearby Los Angeles Unified High School, the best teacher my daughter had in her entire education from pre-school through the twelfth grade also finds herself under siege. Pam is an extraordinary teacher of English, smart, lively, and engaged in the classroom. She teaches Shakespeare and other classics to kids from all backgrounds - including inner city kids, tough kids - without dumbing the material down, and the students rise to the occasion. She challenges them, and they love her. Last year she was a finalist for the Carlston Family Foundation's Outstanding Teachers of America Award.
The students appreciate that Pam works twice as hard as they do, not just creating inventive assignments, but grading and returning them all on time. She was the only teacher in the private high school my daughter attended who consistently got exams, papers and homework back to the students promptly.
Pam has a big personality. She is outspoken, forceful and unshakably honest, and when it comes to the welfare of the students, she is not inclined to compromise - or to mince words. Perhaps she is impolitic. In my own experience with Pam, I have only found her to be smart, funny and fun to be around.
Pam has returned with renewed energy to the public schools. At her new high school on the Westside of Los Angeles her wonderful skills and commitment to the students were quickly recognized. In short order she was Chair of the English Department, and for a while things went well. My daughter, taking some time off from college, helped Pam in the classroom and Pam was thriving. And then Pam's creativity and forthrightness clashed with the comfort which other faculty and staff found in the status quo.
Pam had established a tradition of submitting the more thoughtful and interesting of the students' papers on Shakespeare to an annual contest for high school Shakespeare essays. This year the contest was discontinued, but Pam had a solution to fill the gap: sponsor a contest at her school to recognize the most worthy Shakespeare essays written in any class for any teacher during the year. All that was required of the teachers was that they submit the most promising of the essays which they had already assigned as part of their planned curriculum. Pam was willing to organize the whole event, pay for prizes for the winners herself, and, not surprisingly, do the lion's share of the work.
The response was not pretty. While some of the other teachers embraced this kind of creative initiative, others, those who didn't want any more work on top of their course loads and who were abetted by some small-minded members of the administration, started a whisper campaign of denunciation. Pam was trashed in e-mails for, among other sins, sending her proposal out in an e-mail rather than raising it at a meeting (where it would have been more easy to shoot down, I suppose). She is bummed. In the current public school environment she is already taking a big financial hit to continue teaching there during a tough economic period. She has received offers and has seriously considered leaving.
I said earlier that Pam was under siege. It is more accurate to say that it is the students at her present school who are in difficulty because if they lost Pam, their lives and futures would be less rich without her.
The problem Pam faces is not on the usual list of Things That Are Wrong With Our Schools. Neither was the problem Paula had at her school. These problems do not arise from a lack of money or from kids being poor or the children of immigrants. The lack of adequate funding might be the single biggest thing that is wrong with our schools, but an additional and insidious problem is that the very best teachers are often not appreciated, understood and supported by their administrations.
My cousin Paula hung in for a bit after the goofy incident in which she had been trashed to her students by her own principal. She dismissed it as one of life's absurdities, hurtful but also, in a way, amusing. But then she was disheartened by cuts to the programs and classes for the most gifted students. Finally the environment became too discouraging for such a truly talented teacher. Paula quit teaching. She works on environmental projects now.
And Pam -- strong and committed to the kids as she is -- how long can she hang in, adored by her students but sniped at by threatened, small-minded colleagues and unsupported by a pusillanimous administration focused on standardized testing and on maintaining business as usual? Might another one of our very best teachers end up getting left behind?
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