Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Announcing the Winner of the 2nd Annual Curmie Award

The votes are counted, and the winner of the 2nd Annual Curmie Award for the person or institution most embarrassing to the profession of education is… Lillian Gomez, the Florida teacher who decided that marinating Play-Doh and crayons in hot sauce and feeding the concoction to her autistic students would be a good way to teach them not to put things in their mouths.

Gomez collected 27 votes from the 50 voters (up from 32 last year), who, since they could vote for multiple candidates, generated some 103 individual votes. Certainly she is a worthy recipient, reminiscent of last year’s winner, the unnamed teacher who crammed an autistic student into a bag designed for gym balls. Voters were clearly appalled by Gomez’s actions, which of course were even more problematic given the fact that her victims were special needs kids.

This year’s Curmie runner-up, with 22 votes, is John Rosi, the Washington state teacher/coach who not only condoned the bullying of a student in his class, but actually participated. The pusillanimous administration that let him off with a slap on the wrist shares in his dubious honor.

Third place, with 19 votes, and the winner of the Institutional Subdivision, is Umatilla (FL) High School, which punished a high school student who defended a mentally challenged girl on her schoolbus against a gaggle of tormentors.

Other nominees, in descending order of their final finish: Northside ISD in San Antonio (16 votes) for demanding the use of “smart” IDs that can track the whereabouts of every student at all times… except, of course, the bad kids who take the damned thing off; and Geneva (IL) Middle School South (10), which demanded access to a student’s Facebook account to check rumors about her (they also asked a bunch of questions that suggested more prurient interest than concern for student well-being).

Rounding out the list, with three votes apiece, were the Griffith (IN) Public Schools for punishing students for private Facebook conversations, American University anthropology prof Adrienne Pine for breast-feeding her child during class and then going all feminazi on a (female) reporter for the school newspaper, and Highland (IN) Middle School for suspending a group of adolescent boys for inadvertently viewing a topless photograph of their teacher on a school-issued iPad.

A couple of rules changes may be in order for down the road: I’m thinking that the requirement that the events in question must have happened within the calendar year may be too restrictive—sometimes the events themselves barely make news; it’s the ensuing court case (for example) that brings an event to Curmie’s attention. Also, of course, anything that happens in the last couple of weeks of the year is likely to be overlooked while I’m hip deep in grading and then often (as this year) travelling for the holidays.

I think we need to divide the categories, too. For the second year in a row the Curmie has commemorated an egregious case of abuse by a teacher. Certainly such conduct is utterly unacceptable, and the perpetrators should never be allowed in a classroom again. But the Curmie isn’t for the most reprehensible conduct; it’s for the greatest embarrassment to the profession, and whereas I wouldn’t open up the award to a vote if I didn’t intend to abide by the outcome (hear that, PolitiFact?), I see far greater long-term damage done by other nominees, specifically administrators who had time to think about the consequences of their actions.

Umatilla High’s actions are outrageous because the victim of administrative cravenness and pomposity is not merely innocent, but in fact heroic. Stormy Rich, the girl at the center of the controversy, not only did the ethical thing by defending a fellow traveler (in more than one sense of the term) who was unable to defend herself, she made repeated attempts to get the administration to do their damned jobs and take appropriate action. It was only when they proved to be somewhere between negligent and slothful that she intervened.

The other cases all deal with schools’ over-reaching sense of authority: to demand access to a private Facebook account based on little more than caprice, to suspend students for (obviously) joking about “killing” a classmate in a private Facebook conversation that took place outside school hours and off campus, to track the whereabouts of every student at every moment, and to threaten dire consequences to those who will not willingly acquiesce. In short, there are a lot of school administrators out there who regard students as some sort of glorified lab rats whose every action, no matter how private, should be subject to their voyeuristic, Big Brotherly gaze.

And that situation is going to get worse as schools increasingly rely on daft zero tolerance policies and are desperately chasing after increased numbers—numbers on standardized tests that do nothing to demonstrate real learning but make big money for corporations who contribute a lot of money to political campaigns; numbers of student butts in seats so attendance-based financial allocations can be sucked up; numbers of students “counseled,” thereby justifying pulling resources out of actual classroom instruction and channeling them into the rabbit warren of administration.

I detest “teachers” like Gomez and Rosi, and I respect the decision of the voters who put them at the top of the list of Curmie candidates. Still, they are aberrations, and no objective observer would think otherwise. They shock us because they are so palpably outside the mainstream. The folks at Northside, Griffith, and Highland shock us because we sense they’re a portent of things to come. There’s this gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach that there will be more and more school districts who think it’s their job to control every aspect of their students’ lives: anything to avoid actually teaching them.

But I digress. This post is to celebrate Lillian Gomez and her well-deserved Curmie Award. I suggest the trophy be dipped in hot sauce and crammed down her throat.

1 comment:

Tommy Baseball said...

I like the idea of categories -- comparing the actions of a single teacher in a classroom to a massive systemic failure seems a little apples and oranges. Also this way we can "honor" more truly deserving people.