Monday, December 31, 2012

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Abusive Teacher Edition

One last pair of last-minute Curmie contenders, this time the Abusive Teacher Edition.

Applicant #1 is John Rosi of Kopachuk (WA) Middle School. For one 15-minute period last February, in a class allegedly devoted to reading and math preparation, students abused a classmate. They dragged him around the room. The carried him by his arms and legs. They peeled off his socks and stuffed them in his mouth, then wrote on his feet. They buried him under chairs and under pillows. (One moment is captured at right.)

Where was the “teacher,” Rosi, during this? Joining in. Yes, joining in as a smaller boy was bullied by the entire class. He sat on the boy, saying he was feeling “gassy.” He poked the kid in the stomach. The whole thing was recorded on cell phones, Rosi knew it and… get this… mugged for the cameras.

Rosi, of course, isn’t really a teacher at all. He’s a wrestling coach, and a moron. In one of the most disingenuous apologies since Pierre Corneille (shout-out to veterans of my theatre history class), he proclaims that he “[knows] the difference between inflicting pain and innocent horseplay,” and that he viewed the incident as a “chance for the kids to take a break from the daily grind.”

He’s either lying, or his shoe size exceeds his IQ by a factor of two. The physical pain experienced by the boy is the least of his worries, as anyone with the slightest understanding of adolescence can attest. And that a teacher would not merely condone but actually participate in this brutality ought to get his sorry ass fired.

It wasn’t, of course. He was suspended for 10 days and re-assigned. This is a guy whose base salary is more than mine (I’m a full professor at an accredited university, with a PhD and over 20 years of full-time teaching experience), and that doesn’t count the $10K coaching add-on. You’d think he might have the sense God gave a louse. Nope. But his false piety paid off (he’s a coach, after all). In a school run by a competent principal, in a district administered by a superintendent who actually cared about his students, Rosi would not only have been fired before he could blink, he’d have been lucky to escape without jail time. Not with the likes of Acting Superintendent Chuck Cuzzetta: it wasn’t a complete abrogation of every tenet of professional ethics; it was “inappropriate classroom management,” and Rosi’s punishment was “pretty significant.” Not in my book.

How do you top that? Well, maybe with this year’s variation on the theme of last year’s Curmie Award Winner. Remember the teacher who stuffed a special needs kid into the equivalent of a gym bag? Well, Lillian Gomez (left) of Sunrise Elementary School in Kissimmee, Florida, apparently asked herself, “how about soaking crayons and Play-Doh in hot sauce and force-feeding the concoction to autistic students? Yeah, that will teach those brats not to put things in their mouths.”

The good news here is that the school district, the Osceola County system, seems to have acted appropriately. They got rid of her. And she appealed… to a judge… who recommended that she not be fired. Really. Apparently, however, that was a recommendation rather than an order, and… write this down because it doesn’t happen very often… the school board stood up on its hind legs and said “no.”

Jay Wheeler of the school board said, “We decided to put child safety first, and not put somebody back in the classroom that intended to do harm to children.” This might seem obvious to most people, but this is somebody on a school board, so it’s actually something of an event that Wheeler and his comrades decided to do the right thing instead of the easy thing.

The fact that Gomez is no longer in the classroom—no thanks to an idiot judge who cares more about intent (whether she intended to punish students) than volition (she absolutely intended to hurt students, whatever the specific motivation for her actions)—is a good thing, but it doesn’t change her suitability for a Curmie… it’s just that the district doesn’t get to share in her ignominy.

So there you have it: the final two candidates for the coveted Curmie. It is, alas, a long list, and there were plenty of stories I missed. I hope to have the nominees decided and the poll up tomorrow. Happy New Year, everyone!

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Stupid Decisions Edition

We’re still scurrying towards the finish line to get a few more Curmie contenders into the mix. This iteration is the Stupid Decisions Edition. There are almost too many candidates to be able to narrow the field much, but here’s a quintet of my favorite whoppers. It’s a pretty broad category, so I’ve suggested a few subheads.

The clear winner in the Not Even Legislatures Are as Stupid as State School Boards Division goes to the great state of Florida, whose state Board of Education decided in November to establish different standards for different students, based on race. Yes, on race. Not on a combination of variables—economic status, parental education level, etc. Nope: race. Actually, other taxonomies are considered, but separately: the result is the same as if other categories weren't considered at all.

That this is one of the most colossally heinous ideas of the millennium is self-evident. It perpetuates the myth of African-American and Hispanic inferiority, undermines the accomplishments of schools, teachers, and students of all demographic profiles, and further excuses inequities in funding and other real-world means of leveling the proverbial playing field. Rather than adopt a strategy to raise achievement levels for all constituencies, the state board institutionalized different standards as a recognition of reality and as a means of continuing a waiver from some parts of the NCLB act.

Here’s the relevant part of the new policy:
The board passed a revised strategic plan that says that by 2018, it wants 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of white students, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of black students to be reading at or above grade level. For math, the goals are 92 percent of Asian kids to be proficient, whites at 86 percent, Hispanics at 80 percent and blacks at 74 percent.
Yes, you see, Asians are smart, and blacks are stupid, so of course we can’t expect them to achieve at the same level. This mind-meltingly inane policy manages to be condescending and balkanizing at the same time. It treats students as numbers rather than as individuals, ignores those of mixed race (like, say, the guy in White House, for example), plays to the most destructive fantasies of both the loony left and the loony right, and generally succeeds in being the single most inane state school board decision in years… and I say this as an educator in Texas, where an SBOE ruling that was merely counter-productive and inept would be hailed as progress.

The Big Brother Arrogance Subdivision was captured by the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. Not content with the inherent invasion of privacy of “smart” student IDs that track students’ locations at all times, these idiots have upped the ante: students who refused to bow down to the Orwellian gods
cannot access common areas like the cafeteria or library, and cannot purchase tickets to extracurricular activities. WND reports that the district has threatened to suspend, fine or involuntarily transfer students who fail to comply and officials have noted that “there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card as we begin to move forward with full implementation.”
Oh, and they can’t vote for Homecoming King and Queen, either.

The rationale for this hugely intrusive program is, of course, money. The powers that be are, to put it kindly, whores. They’ll do anything for money—in this case funding that is based on attendance—including implementing an inane program the has no chance of success (if I’m going to go truant, I’m not going to take my stupid badge with me), and which, since all students are subject to this monstrosity of a rule, punishes the good students in a vain attempt to control the activities of the bad ones.

It is none of the school’s damned business where students are when they aren’t in class, and if you want to have them in class at the appointed hour, try giving them an education worth having. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, associated with implementing this policy should be fired on the spot. Now.

The Outrageous Punishment of the Innocent category is claimed by Highland Middle School in Anderson, IN. An unidentified teacher had synched her iPhone to her school-issued iPad. Apparently she wasn’t thinking, and a topless photograph of her popped up when a quartet of 13-year-old boys were playing a game on the iPad. Needless to say, they looked.

The result? Why, the boys were suspended and threatened with expulsion, of course. Even the Assistant Superintendent, an intellectually deficient creature named Beth Clark, grants that the image appeared quite by accident. The teacher, whose actions were reckless but not (apparently) volitional, was punished in some unspecified way, but kept her job. That probably makes sense: if, as appears to be the case, she inadvertently mishandled technology, she learned a lesson and won’t make that mistake again. If it was intentional, it will happen again, and the walls had better come tumbling down. The students, who did literally nothing wrong—and no one suggests otherwise—became pariahs. Uh, no.

This is yet another case of a school administration being either too craven or too dim-witted (or both) to be smarter than the rulebook. Discretion, people. Seriously.

The Nanny State Run Amok Division was captured easily by the lunatics running the asylum in the Grand Island (NE) Public Schools. Three-year-old Hunter Spanjer is deaf. His name, in S.E.E. (Signing Exact English, the sign language he uses), is based, not unreasonably, on the notion of hunting: hunting/Hunter… get it? That means a gesture that sort of resembles a weapon. Sort of. Decide for yourself. That’s Hunter in all his threatening glory at right.

But that apparently violates—wait for it—the “weapons in schools” policy that forbids “any instrument that looks like a weapon.” Seriously, how can these people feed themselves? First off, a hand is not an “instrument.” We’re done, already. Secondly, it’s his name, and the only way he has of identifying himself. Thirdly… did I mention that he’s three?

School mouthpiece Jack Sheard intoned that “We are working with the parents to come to the best solution we can for the child.” Hey, I’ve got an idea, Jack. How about you try not being a fucking moron? Would you give that a whirl? It’s a stupid policy to begin with, but you can’t really blame the document for this one. Someone… some adult with pretensions of competence… decided that a three-year-old signing his name was a violation of a weapons policy. The mind boggles.

Be it noted: the school reversed its policy (while pretending otherwise, of course) after being humiliated locally and, thanks to bloggers, internationally. That hardly matters. That anyone, anyone, would even for an instant consider young Hunter to be anything like a threat is too ridiculous for words.

Finally, there’s the Censorious Asshat category (thanks to our friends at Popehat for the appellation), won this go-‘round by Principal Christopher Kloesz of Loveland High School near Cincinnati. He fired Sonja Hansen, the theatre director/choreographer of the school’s recent production of the stage musical version of Legally Blonde, which, by the way, got standing ovations every night, for violating one of those intentionally vague “code of conduct” tenets.

According to Hansen,
Kloesz… cited “bootie-bounce dance moves” and the use of the word “skank” in the script. Loveland, along with most schools across the U.S., has a strict no-alcohol policy, and Hansen was cited for a scene in the musical that includes a champagne party involving a group of buttoned-up Harvard University students. She pointed out that it was not staged as a rowdy college party….

Hansen said she was shocked by the administration’s negative reaction to Legally Blonde after the school produced the full version of Grease in recent years, as well as Beauty and the Beast last spring “with a huge tavern scene and beer mugs.” Students also used real cigarettes as props during a scene in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “I didn't hear any complaints,” Hansen recalled, noting that the Loveland High production of Grease, which includes drinking, smoking, sexuality and teen pregnancy in its script, had higher ticket sales than Legally Blonde. “I never saw anyone leave. We had no one ask for refunds,” she said of Legally Blonde’s run.
At first glance, this is just a case of a principal who is arrogant, prudish, cowardly, stupid, and inconsistent. That in itself would be enough for legitimate Curmie consideration… but it’s worse than that.

The school administration had signed off on the show when the contract with Music Theatre International was signed months ago. The word “skank” is right there in the script. So is the drinking scene (and perhaps someone ought to explain the concept of aesthetic distance to the dim-witted Mr. Kloesz). I’m willing to bet the choreography was less risqué than what happened at the Homecoming dance. Rehearsals had been going on for months, and were open. In other words, Kloesz (who was new to the position this fall) didn’t honor commitments made in the school’s name, and, in addition to being… well, a censorious asshat, is also too fucking lazy to do his job (assuming censorial powers to be a legitimate part of the job at all) and read the script, attend a rehearsal, or otherwise abort the project before people spent literally thousands of hours of work on it. Better yet, tell Hansen you don’t want X, Y or Z next time: don’t fire her for doing her job, just because you didn’t do yours.

Superintendent Dr. John Marschhausen seems to be not quite as stupid as Kloesz (that’s pretty stiff competition, after all), but even more craven. He issued an apology to Hansen even as he was signing off on her dismissal. Stand up to the guy who works for you, you pusillanimous putz!

I’ll give the last word to the creators of the play—composer Lawrence O’Keefe, lyricist Nell Benjamin, and book writer Heather Hach. Here’s a statement they sent to Playbill:
We have no idea what the superintendent's statement means. We are surprised and disappointed that an educator who put on a show about a woman succeeding through education was fired for it. Any show that tries to be smart and funny may offend some people, but Mrs. Hansen and her students looked beyond that and saw the positive message of tolerance and female empowerment at the heart of the show. We only wish the school administration had done the same. We applaud the parents and students who supported Mrs. Hansen.
Yeah, what they said.

So, there you have it… the Stupid Decisions Edition. I may try to squeeze out one more compendium before the end of 2012… but it might not happen.

By the way, I’m indebted to Jack Marshall for bringing the last three of these stories to my attention. You can read his commentary here, here, and here, respectively.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Anti-Obama Edition

We’ve had our share of overzealous educators interjecting their political opinions into the classroom and other school-specific activity. In March, I wrote about Michael Denman, who seemed to think that requiring his students to do what amounted to opposition research for the Obama campaign (without a concomitant project about the Obama campaign) was a good idea. In May, it was Tanya Dixon-Neely who rambled semi-coherently about how you can get arrested for criticizing the President and similar nonsense. In June, it was Tom Stack, who disinvited a commencement-related speaker after determining him to be (gasp) conservative. And Lynette Gaymon added screaming at a student for wearing a Romney/Ryan shirt to the mix.

Needless to say, not all the perpetrators of this sort of unprofessionalism are liberals or Obamaphiles. And so, as we scramble to fit in a couple more Curmie contenders, we offer the other side of the political equation: a pair of idiots on the other side of the political divide.

First up is Linda White, a science teacher at Clinton Jr. High in Mississippi, who argued that President Obama shouldn’t be re-elected because he’s a Muslim, unlike “good Christian” Mitt Romney. OK, this is remarkably stupid from a number of perspectives.

First, why is any teacher arguing for anyone’s election or non-election? Second, why is a science teacher talking about the election at all to people who can’t vote? Third, it’s a matter of bigotry, not politics, to argue for or against a candidate because of his religion. Fourth, any rational and objective observer would argue that Mr. Obama is more of a traditional Christian than Mr. Romney, who, as a Mormon, would not be considered a Christian at all by most mainstream denominations (except, of course, by those more interested in electing Republicans than in worshipping God).

It’s bad enough that a teacher would introduce politics into the classroom. To spew demonstrably false information as the basis for a political rant, however, has got to set a new standard for unprofessional behavior. Yes, I know the same could be said for Dixon-Neely. I’m just trying to decide whether it’s worse if the inaccuracies are worse if they’re related to the teacher’s alleged expertise (Dixon-Neely) or about a subject the teacher shouldn’t be talking about to begin with (White).

After the election, it was the turn of a Delcambre (LA) Elementary School teacher, subsequently identified as Mandy LeBlanc. According to multiple students, LeBlanc showed up at school the day after the election dressed in black, mourning the “death of America” after Obama’s re-election. And America is the “new China.” And Michelle Obama’s nutrition program will have kids looking like “toothpicks” in a matter of months. And… so on.

I suppose it’s a good thing that the crap LeBlanc was spewing was at least a matter of opinion—stupid opinion, but at least opinion. Of course, there’s also a racial element to this whole business. There is only one black teacher in the entire school system, and there are allegations that a couple of (black) parents who complained about LeBlanc’s antics were fired from their janitorial jobs in the school system as a result of their protests.

I have no idea whether these charges of racism have merit. It’s pretty clear that the school is protecting LeBlanc, and that she’s unfit to be in the classroom. Beyond that… who knows?

I should mention here that there are other criticisms by teachers of Obama and/or the election which really do fall under the heading of free speech. Yes, threats of violence are inherently unacceptable, and over-the-top political rants are ill-advised, but that line is hard to draw. If I say I’m glad Obama was re-elected, is that OK? What about if I say I’m glad the amoral plutocrat didn’t get the gig? What if I call Romney a lying weasel fit only for fertilizer? The answer, to me, is that anything I say outside of the classroom, even if public, ought to be protected except in the case of threats, sedition, etc. I don’t lose my constitutional rights just become I’m employed as a teacher at a state university.

And, by extension, those public school teachers whose politics are different from mine ought to have the same protections. That would include Sharon Aceta, the Rock Hill, SC teacher who was briefly suspended for violating the school’s social media policy. Her Facebook post, on her personal page: “Congrats Obama. As one of my students sang down the hallway, ‘We get to keep our fooood stamps’...which I pay for because they can’t budget their money...and really, neither can you.” So freaking what? Yes, it’s a dumb comment, and likely (but not necessarily) a lie in that I bet she didn’t actually overhear a student, but it’s protected speech and the school system’s argument that “Sometimes you just can't speak out publicly about what you'd personally like to say, about anything” is frankly, more than a little creepy.

The same line of reasoning applies to unnamed Columbus, OH teacher who posted the following to his personal Facebook page: “Congrats to those dependent on government, homosexuals, potheads, JAY-Z fans, non Christians, non taxpayers, illegals, communists, Muslims, planned murder clinics, enemies of America, Satan You WON!” Wow. I mean, that’s some pretty choice stuff. Is this someone I want teaching my kids (if I had them)? Probably not. But a single heat-of-the-moment Facebook political rant isn’t enough to prove that he’s anything more sinister than someone with whom I’m not likely to see eye to eye politically, and the district was right not to over-react.

I should also mention that Facebook posts and tweets about students are a different matter. Depending on context, they could be simply letting off steam (I do this not infrequently). But naming names or calling students stupid (as opposed to having done something stupid, which intelligent people do all the time) does cross the line.

So… there’s the anti-Obama Curmie crowd: two teachers for in-class antics, a school system of overstepping its own authority, and one dumb comment that rightfully drew an investigation but no punishment that we know of.

Last-Minute Curmie Contenders: Dress Code Edition

It’s the end of the year and Curmie is behind on his writing, so this is the mad flurry to try to get potential Curmie Award nominees eligible by writing about them in 2012. This post is the dress code edition (there have already been a couple of good examples of dress code stupidity this year: turns out I barely scratched the surface); it includes a range of stories from throughout the year. I do apologize, however, that a couple of the following will be based on a single news source. I’m normally more conscientious, but I want to get all this written up. I’ll be sure to check other sources if any of these stories lead to an actual Curmie nomination.

Let me start by mentioning in passing a case that isn’t Curmie-eligible because, as far as I can determine, no educator has done anything wrong. This is the Rebecca Julius case at Concordia College in Minnesota. Ms. Julius wore a “sin is sin” shirt in response to the straight-gay alliance group’s “love is love” t-shirt. She has a right to do so. She created a firestorm for herself. That’s OK, too.

Free speech doesn’t mean other people aren’t allowed to respond to the stimulus you provide; it means you can’t be punished by official authorities (the state, in other words). Other than provoking precisely the response she wanted, Ms. Julius seems to have suffered no ill effects. I find nothing to suggest she was forbidden from wearing the shirt. Moreover, as a private, church-affiliated school, Concordia would have had the legal (not to say ethical) right to forbid the shirt, making all the 1st Amendment-based howling from predictable quarters, to use one of my mother’s favorite phrases, so much balloon juice. I do want to come back to this case later, but I make no promises that I’ll do so.

I’m also skipping the story about Maverick Couch, the gay Cincinnati-area high school student who won his court case for the right to wear a “Jesus Is Not a Homophobe” t-shirt because the events actually took place in 2011, although the case was decided this year. And I’m skipping a couple other cases where the clothing in question really could be considered offensive or disruptive or whatever, even though I might not personally agree with that assessment. Trust me, there’s still plenty to talk about.

We start, then, early in 2012 with a story I missed when it first occurred: the decision by Pottstown (PA) Middle School Principal Gail Cooper to ban Ugg boots from her school. No, this was not the fashion police. This is one of those situations in which some fairly dim-witted authority figure seeks to solve Problem X by outlawing something that has no reason to be outlawed. It’s this kind of thinking that means you now have to jump through hoops to buy Sudafed, because someone might use those pills as ingredients for their meth operation. (Be it noted: it’s also the reasoning that suggests that criminalizing all gun possession or ownership is an appropriate solution to the problem of gun violence.)

The problem is two-fold. First: it’s a dumb rule on its face. This is Pennsylvania in the winter. It snows there. I just saw snow in Pennsylvania at Christmas. I am confident that this was not an aberration. “Outdoor, open-top boots” are kinda de rigeur at least a few days a years. And, of course, there’s nothing problematic about the boots themselves: it’s their capacity to hide a cell phone that’s really at the center of this kerfuffle.

Secondly, the rule is both gendered and ineffectual: boys don’t wear Uggs. The suggestion that the new rule is no different from requiring students to remove coats and hats is, of course, silly. Boots must be removed and replaced. That means a change of footwear stays in the locker, or must be schlepped from home every day. And since the rule is gendered, the idea—asserted on a Facebook post—that girls who really want to violate the cell phone ban can do so by hiding the offending objects in their bras (or pockets, or…) seems plausible. BTW, did anyone else just have a flashback to that scene at the end of “Diamonds Are Forever” in which Tiffany Case tries unsuccessfully to hide something roughly the size of a cell phone in her bikini? Of course, if there are a lot of middle-schoolers in Pottstown who look like Jill St. John in her prime, Curmie is rather jealous that he wasn’t twelve at a different time and place.

If you want to ban cell phones, do it. And make the punishment sufficient that the problem gets solved. Done. Banning Ugg boots is both stupid (leading to cynicism about rules in general) and no-doubt ineffective (leading to contempt for the system): not exactly what we ought to be teaching our adolescents.

In Meridian, CT, there are different horrors: skinny jeans, leggings, and women’s cut t-shirts. Yes, apparel that is “form fitting” is verboten. Also, “undergarments and private body areas must not be evident or visible through clothing.” There are also the usual admonitions about skirt length, yadda yadda yadda. Part of this makes sense. But, as usual, the people writing the policy (it passed, of course, in the then-imminent school board vote mentioned in the linked article) are either illiterate (certainly a possibility, given some of the grammatical nightmares therein contained) or prudish or just flat-out stupid.

As written, the policy would ban any indication that a student is wearing undergarments… a bra-line, for example. Of course, it’s also prohibited to suggest that such undergarments aren’t being worn. The whole idea is both silly and doomed to failure, completely apart from the legitimate concerns expressed by teachers’ union rep Geoff Kenyon that the new rules would create an “us vs. them mentality” and “[channel] too much valuable time, energy and resources into a futile pursuit.” Sigh.

A few months later, in Oklahoma City, a kindergartener was forced to turn his t-shirt inside out because it violated the school’s dress code. Was it political? Was there profane or obscene language? Did it advocate violence? Well… no. It was a generic University of Michigan shirt. Oh, that explains it. Because… well… OK, I give up.

Ah, but you see, at Wilson Elementary School, there’s a policy that gear from professional teams (even the Oklahoma City Thunder) and universities is forbidden. There’s an exception for Oklahoma universities… sources disagree about whether all OK universities (Oklahoma City University, for example) are exempted or whether it’s just OU and OSU that get a waiver. Anyway, it’s a profoundly stupid rule, created “[in] cooperation with the Oklahoma City Police Department Gang Task Force… after concerns that nationwide gangs used popular sports clothing to represent individual gangs.”

This is the same kind of circuitous thinking that gives us bans on Ugg boots, with the further twist that gangs presumably wouldn’t want to associate themselves with a couple of major universities, but would with others. Because, you know, I gotta admit: when I see a five-year-old in a Michigan shirt, I don’t think “that’s cute; probably one of his parents went there.” Nope. I jump straight to “gang member.” Really, I mean just check out the thuggishness on display in the photo at left.

Two points. First, gang task forces exist for one purpose only: to make it look like gang task forces serve a legitimate function. If they actually solved the problem, their alleged expertise would not only be unnecessary (i.e., the status quo), but would be perceived as the waste of resources it truly is, which of course is a situation that must never be allowed to occur.

Second, it doesn’t matter that the district is now re-examining the policy, or that the little boy was adopted by the Michigan athletic department. It was an unspeakably cretinous rule from the get-go, and the fact that it was enforced even once, on a five-year-old is all the evidence we need to make this a legitimate Curmie contender.

Elsewhere, twelve-year-old Danielle O’Neal is a felon waiting to happen, at least according to the Pamlico County Schools in North Carolina. She… oh, the horror… had her shirt untucked and (wait for it) visible under her sweater. In public, no less. Not only that, but this criminal mastermind is a repeat offender. Only last year, she forgot to wear a belt. I know, I know, the next step is mass murder… or, even worse, mismatched socks.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Rules are rules. But even ridiculous rules (no belt? really?) can be enforced intelligently. Instead, somebody made a stupid announcement that there’d be no more warnings, and there’s nothing in the code to distinguish between serious and minor violations. This is why, Principal Lisa Jackson, someone created the concept of discretion. Nope. This is serious. The girl needs to serve an in-school suspension and have the episode be recorded in her permanent record. After all, “my job is to make sure students follow our school's Code of Conduct, which includes the dress code adopted by the Board of Education.” Bullshit. You job, you freaking idiot, is to be smarter than the rule book. Tell the damned kid to tuck in her shirt. Boom. We’re done.

And please, please, Superintendent Wanda Dawson, spare me from claptrap about how enforcing a dress code has improved success rates… or provide some evidence for that assertion. Either way would be fine. It is plausible that eliminating gang paraphernalia and other forms of legitimately inappropriate attire might have a positive effect. But I await with bated breath the study that demonstrates that an untucked shirt on a 7th grade girl sends educational accomplishment into a death spiral.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, at Celina High School this political season (the story I read was datelined on Hallowe’en), crudely drawn t-shirts announcing “I support” with the rainbow logo were deemed “political” or “disruptive” or some other sort of Really Bad Thing that the idiots in the school administration decided was sufficient cause to ban those shorts but not, apparently, shirts proclaiming the President of the United States to be a socialist.

You, Gentle Reader, will have already perceived that there’s a backstory here. Earlier, on “twins day,” two female students had worn t-shirts labeled “Lesbian 1” and “Lesbian 2.” Naturally, the administration was Shocked and Appalled that two young women would Call Attention to Themselves in such a despicable manner, especially on a day pretty much reserved for… uh… calling attention to yourself. It wasn’t that they were lesbians. Oh, no, surely that had nothing to do with it. We’re not homophobic assholes; we just pretend to be when we’re at work. Not only that, but “[screaming] at” students is the appropriate means to deal with the situation.

It’s interesting that the administration’s point person on this is the Superintendent, Jesse Steiner, who was reportedly “unable to confirm” if there’s a rule in the handbook against “political” clothing. It’s reasonable if there is, but, of course, there isn’t. How do I know? Because the superintendent can’t open up the damned handbook and point to it. End of discussion.

The “disruption” idea is, to be sure, the kind of squishy phrase inserted by Steiner and like-minded autocrats in schools across the country. Translated into English, it means “there’s nothing illegal, unethical, or immoral about what you’re doing, but we don’t like it and we’re going to forbid it because we can.”

Drew Dennis, a litigation coordinator with ACLU Ohio, aptly describes the “disruption” argument a “heckler’s veto.” Moreover, there’s a pro-life student group that wears t-shirts featuring a picture of a fetus. Which shirt calls more attention to itself? And which one has been fine all along, whereas the other causes such uproar that the educational mission cannot be accomplished? You, oh perspicacious reader, already know the answer.

Also from this fall’s political season—a little earlier than the Ohio case, in fact—comes the saga of Samantha Pawlucy, who committed the apparent crime of wearing a Mitt Romney t-shirt to her geometry class at Charles Carroll High School in Philadelphia. Although her attire hadn’t as much as raised an eyebrow earlier in the day, she claims she was berated by math teacher Lynette Gaymon, who likened her “Republican shirt” to “a KKK shirt” (Gaymon is black, by the way), arguing that “this is a democratic school.”

Gaymon claims she was joking, and it’s possible although unlikely that she was. Certainly Pawlucy comes off as an opportunist with a lawsuit against the school, and her claim that she didn’t know if her parents are Republicans is either disingenuous or evidence that the girl is an idiot. Still, if Gaymon weren’t the real miscreant here, I suspect we’d be hearing from someone other than her that the episode was all in jest.

It will no doubt come as an enormous surprise to you, Gentle Reader, but Curmie’s own teaching style occasionally incorporates the ironic or even sardonic. There have been occasions in the last 33+ years in which something said as a joke was interpreted literally: and that’s by college students, not high school sophomores. But with Pawlucy’s claim that Gaymon was “screaming,” the opportunity certainly exists for someone else who was there to say, “erm, no, she wasn’t,” or to claim that any rational being would have interpreted the remarks as in jest. The fact that such an eventuality has apparently not occurred can be taken as significant.

Despite the conflicting claims, then, and despite the fact that I don’t especially trust either Pawlucy or her father, I’ve got to suspect that her version of events is closer to the truth. And if it is, then Gaymon’s actions are well beyond the Pale, and worthy of Curmie consideration.

More Curmie wannabees forthcoming...

Friday, December 21, 2012

I'm an Educator, and I'm OK

It’s almost time to vote for the Curmie Awards, and my fatigue or sloth or whatever else has kept me from writing will soon keep some worthy candidates out of the running if I don’t get to work. (One of the completely arbitrary and capricious rules is that I must have written about the story during the calendar year.) So here’s what we’ll do. I’ll try to write about as many stories over the next few days as holiday travel and internet connections allow… then the voting will actually take place in the new year, seeing that all signs now point to there being one after we seem to have survived yet another imminent apocalypse.

Before I launch into those nominations, however, and given the recent events in Connecticut, I feel compelled to make one thing absolutely clear. Readers who know me personally don’t need to be told this, but whereas I have no way of knowing who actually reads this blog, I do know that over half the people who “like” the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page aren’t my personal friends. That means there are, one presumes, at least a few dozen of you who may not know this: I am an educator, and I am proud of my profession and of the overwhelming majority of the people in it.

The teachers and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary were and are heroes, not because they did what no other teachers would have done, but because they did precisely what every teacher worthy of the name would have done: out-think evil-doers, sacrifice themselves for the sake of their young charges, and prove once again the power of love. Even the jabbering minions of the NRA can’t deny the simple fact that this was a game-changer: not simply has the gun lobby been put on the defensive in a way that all those other mass shootings never did (it’s up to us, Gentle Reader, to maintain that advantage), but the demonization of the teaching profession was just summarily de-railed. Bam.

I have always said there are two kinds of teachers: those who will walk through the fires of hell for their students, and those who won’t. There’s really no in-between. If you’ve got what it takes, whether you’re teaching kindergarteners or grad students, you’ll find solutions. If you don’t, you’ll find excuses: excuses for your own failings, excuses for those of your students.

Our job is often to say “no.” It is often to incur anger or resentment. It is often to be ignored in the classroom and ridiculed in the hallways. It is to tell the truth—politely, encouragingly, but unequivocally: that paper, that presentation, that performance… it wasn’t very good. I know you thought it deserved an A. But it’s a C+. You can do better.

A few years ago, one of my students had done good but not excellent work in one of my classes, and she got the B she deserved on a couple tests in a row. She said, probably truthfully, that she’d never had to work so hard without getting an A. I said nothing non-committal and went on about my day. The next test, she aced. Apparently—I don’t recall this, but she says it’s true—I wrote a note next to the encircled “A” in her blue book: “I knew you could do it.” She remembers those words now, two degrees later. Set their bar high, and expect them to clear it. Set your own bar higher, and forgive yourself when you fail to reach you goal. (N.B., there’s a difference between forgiveness and acceptance.)

Our job as educators is not to be the equivalent of the favorite aunt or uncle who loads the kids up with candy and then passes them back to the parents to deal with the effects of over-stimulation. No, we’re more parent-like… the term in loco parentis has passed out of favor; the legitimacy of the need for a parental substitute—even at the university level, let alone in elementary schools—is absolutely as real as it ever was. One of my students a few years ago wondered aloud how many people like him—post-adolescent men and women—I had “fathered” (his term). The answer is probably dozens. That’s not because I’m out of the ordinary. It’s because I’m not.

So when I ridicule the incompetent, the corrupt, the bone-headed, and the pompous in my own profession, it’s not because of some inchoate self-loathing. On the contrary. There are cowards and charlatans in every endeavor. And it’s a big country, with lots of worthy recipients of an award for most embarrassing the profession. The interwebs hum along, and nary a transgression in Spider Breath, Montana or Pigeon Puke, Mississippi stays out of the public eye for long. But the reason for the Curmie is that education, like every other profession, needs to be more self-policing.

The idiots who stuff special needs kids into gym bags as punishment, who pander to the wealthy, who abridge free speech in the name of some ill-defined notion of “comfort” or enforce idiotic dress codes: these are not the face of my profession I want shown to the public. They are the minority, but they must not be allowed to prosper when so much is at risk.

But for right now, let us talk instead of the folks at Sandy Hook. They did what teachers do. Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Ann Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto: these women took a bullet—literally—for their kids. Show me a lawyer or a stockbroker who’ll do that for a client. Go ahead. I dare you.

The most important thing to remember, however, is this: these educators didn’t become heroes in death. They’d become heroes years before… in their lives.