Friday, February 13, 2009

The Worst Teacher I knew who was Teacher of the Year!

I said I would tell about the worst teacher I ever knew who was "Teacher of the Year."  Really.  I had just returned from "my" war and my military duty and was back in the classroom.  Fifth grade in a new school.  I was happy but wanted to do more in my profession so I volunteered to serve in a WEA (Washington Education Association)(trust me it was a different organization in those days comprised of teachers, principals and superintendents) committee.  They put me on the TEPS commission.  TEPS stood for Teacher Education and Professional Standards and our main task was to look out for teachers who perhaps might have been unfairly let go of their jobs.  There were a couple of superintendents who routinely fired teachers after five years and hired new ones to keep his budget in order.  Some teachers were fired for religious practices (in the classroom) and a few were released because of alcohol problems.  No, the TEPS commission didn't always back up the teacher after reviews.

I was going through some old files to get myself familiar with what the commission had done and came across a file that was obvious a teacher who had been in our district.  Even more startling, she had been the teacher I replaced when I returned from the Army. Probably shouldn't have perused it but I did.  It appears she was a terror.

According to the files, she was quite disliked by everyone, teachers, parents, administration, janitors, kitchen staff--anyone who came near the school.  One entry was that after lunch when the children returned to the classroom she would have them read silently and she would put her head down on her desk and take a ten minute or longer nap.  

In another case she sent a bottle of cheap cologne home with a child with a note stating that if they couldn't bath their child more often would they please use some of the this.  The note was in the files.    I guess the final straw was when she held back about a third of the class saying they weren't learning and needed to repeat the grade.  She apparently had data to support this conclusion.  

The district released her and she hired a lawyer and contacted the WEA TEPS commission for support.  The commission denied her support and suggested she look to another profession away from children.   She then promptly sued the WEA!  But before either of the cases could go to court, she dropped both cases and left the district.  It turned out that the superintendent did not want a prolong court case that would take lots of money and instead offered her a letter of recommendation if she would just leave.  I suspect she thought this might be the better road to take.  Was the superintendent ethical?  One could make a case for either side.

By the way, I went back to the school and asked about Ms. G and nobody would talk about her.  They really hated her.  It was like a bad dream and no one wanted to remember it.  So okay, end of story?  Yes.  It was the end. No more Ms. G.

Some years later I had just been selected to teach at a School of Education at a regional university, a position I looked forward to as a new professor of education.  Being one of the newest on the staff I was informed that all new professors of education were required to go about the state in the spring and interview first year teachers who had just graduated from this institution.  The task was a bit of a pain--several days on the road, cheap motels, cheap foods (per diem or the cost of travel was severely limited), but the long hours on the road were good for thinking.  For me it was a mixed bag.  I was assigned an area that I had grown to know through my work with the WEA.  Almost old home week for me with the six teachers I would be interviewing.  

I tried to interview a new teacher in the morning and then travel and get to another of the new teachers in the afternoon.  Questions were pretty standard--what courses have been the most help to you in your first year?   What has been your biggest problem?  What courses could we have offered that you would have been helpful to you.   I'd also got to watch them teach a bit and get a feel for the school and their classroom.  Good data for my colleagues and me back at the college for future planning (didn't know we did that did you?).  My first year teachers were five women and one guy, all at the elementary levels.  And all were in suburban districts of Seattle.  

One of my first year teachers when asked what she would like to tell us went on a forty minute tirade non stop.  According to her we were the poorest school of education with no professors who knew how to teach--and that was the good part.  It went downhill after that.  I could hardly keep up with her in taking notes and in the back of my mind was silently gratified that she had never taken a class from me for she would have surely put me in my place.  When she finally got done, she sat back and said, "you know, the university is really a nice place." Apparently she just had to unload a lot of thoughts and feelings.  And thank heavens for my training in guidance and counseling.  In subsequent years she came back to the college and finished her master's degree and we became good friends.  But the initial blast was something to behold.

On Friday I finished early with my morning interview and looked forward to seeing my afternoon first year teacher and then hitting the road to get home for the weekend.  One more school district to go!  It was further out in the county not your suburban type community.  Most were "stump farmers";  had ten or twenty acres, cut the trees and were farming or grazing between the stumps.  These folk probably moved to this area right after WWII and wanted to be left alone.  Friendly people but don't tell us what to do.  Some of the men probably commuted into Boeings as well as worked their farms.  Hard working community. Off the beaten path.

I found the elementary school just outside of town--a typical brick "L" shape single floor building that was popular right after the war with a "gym" backing up one wing and a lunchroom backing up the other wing.  The office was right at the apex for both wings.  To the left was the primary grades and to the right were the intermediate grades.

As I entered the school I noticed it was extremely clean with nothing on the walls of the halls.  Some schools have the children's work posted but not this school.  Shall we say, "cleanliness next to Godliness?"  I introduced myself to the secretary, gave her my card and she had me sit down.  "The principal will be with you in a moment."  I waited and waited--it was a long moment in my mind.  Most principals in the schools I had visited were quite prompt in greeting me, would invite me in and discuss the school and our new teacher.  I had gone to graduate school with one of the principals and we had a good gab fest about old times. 

But this principal was letting me know he was a busy man and although he knew ahead of time I was coming kept me waiting for about a half hour.  It took him a while before he could get to me.  He was a big man, not fat, but very imposing--I remember him being bald.  Why do I remember that?  But he was certainly someone I would not argue with.  He was in charge.  I mentioned I wanted to watch my teacher teach if possible and then interview her--I showed him the form of questions to somewhat let him know I wasn't here to under mind the school.

Still he wasn't ready to let me go.  Okay! now to small talk as far as I was concerned.  Since I was interested in "audio-visual" area of education I asked if his teachers ever showed movies in the classroom.  "Oh, yes.  When they do want a film  I wheel the projector down to the classroom and show it for them." "The teachers don't touch the projector."   As an aside about a year later I interviewed the media person with the Intermediate school district and found out this school had one of the lowest film rentals of any school in the county.  I wonder why?!!!!

Finally he asked if I would like a tour of the school--he really wanted to show it off.  We started at the office and went down the primary wing.  Typical classrooms all in neat shape.  All women teachers in the primary wing.  Next we headed to the intermediate wing and before we looked into the different classrooms he wanted me to see the library.  Obviously an addition to the school building in recent years, it was a large library for an elementary school.  On this they got extra points from me.  It was, like the classrooms, very neat, and for what I could see, no children were in it at the time.  A small woman came to meet us and the principal introduced me to Ms. G.  Ms. G?  Where had I heard that name before.  Come on brain, do you thing.

Somewhere in the opening remarks I mentioned that I had taught a library course or two at the local university and off Ms. G went with how poor the library department was......I am grateful for the earlier first year teacher who had blasted me and the college with her then negative remarks for it gave me some practice for what was coming from Ms. G.  It was the same woman that I had read about in the TEPS report.  Holy smokes was she something!  While she was telling me a whole lot of stuff, the principal wanted me to see that 'this teacher had been selected as teacher of the year' in the district.  Parents voted her the very best teacher in the district.  There were signs in the library attesting to this fact and indeed as we listened to her some parents came in with cookies and cakes for an event right after the school.  I remember shaking her hand and congratulating her--however I was in shock.  Really.  I do remember the principal saying that they had 'more' books at the end of the year then when the school year started.  I'm sure of it....I suspect there were a few children that were too afraid to go back and get their own book.

To this day I cannot remember seeing the teacher I came to visit.  This is amazing.  Did I watch her teach?  Did I do the interview?  Did she make suggestions to the college?  Was she seeking another position.  I can't remember.  All I can think Ms. G. being selected Teacher of the Year.   She had no love for college professors so I didn't stay for the ceremonies.  My brain was in turbo mode on the drive home--I really don't remember much.

Why?  Why does a teacher who is really disliked in one district become the Teacher of the Year in another district?  What did the first district do to bring out the worst in a teacher and what did the second district do to bring out her best?  I don't know how many hours I have pondered these questions.  I would have agreed with the TEPS commission that Ms. G should have gone into another profession......the army, lion training, anything not around children.

But then you have to think of the community.  They liked black and white.  They like right and wrong.  There was no gray, no in between.  They wanted a clean, neat school where children came to learn.  If you didn't learn something was wrong with you.  First grade went on to second grade which went on to third.......  Life was predictable.  Monday followed Sunday.  You didn't need movies in the classroom, you were there to learn.  And books were meant to be brought back when you were done with them.  I am sure there were others in the community that were just like Ms. G.  There were things in the world that just wasn't right.....and they would tell you about them.  

So there!  The worst teacher I've ever knew....and met who was the Teacher of the Year.  True story.  

And if you had a "tough" teacher that made you sure to take time and thank them.

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