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“Do I Look Like Arnold?”
Trying teachers.


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I’m disappointed that Arnold Scharzenegger’s slate of initiatives was defeated Tuesday in the California special election–particularly Prop 74, which would have made it easier to fire bad teachers, increasing the probationary period for greenhorns from two years to five, and allowing easier dismissal of any teacher after two unsatisfactory performance evaluations.

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Critics argued that Prop 74 wouldn’t have helped because it didn’t push for improved teacher training, but I’ve never seen that as a magic bullet. Giving good teachers raises and firing bad ones seems more in tune with how the real world works. At least Prop 74 began to address the ridiculous notion that after a certain amount of time any teacher, no matter how sullen and incompetent, has an inalienable right to eternal job security.

Most of the discussion about Prop 74 focused on the increased time new teachers would have had to put in before they got tenure. But the only terrible teachers my daughter Maia has encountered since she returned to public school this fall are two burnt-out cases near retirement. I suspect their supervisors would love to get rid of them, but since their probationary period went out with disco music, this continues to be almost impossible.

I should add that so far, Maia’s senior year at our big local urban school has been quite good–in fact in most ways better than the small private school she’d attended the past few years. Her four high-school classes (she spends afternoons at the local city college) include two excellent teachers–not a bad ratio, all things considered–and she describes a third teacher as decent.

The fourth, however, who teaches chemistry, refuses to include any lab experiments, explain problems from the textbook, or even prepare lectures. Nor was she happy when Maia raised her hand the other day to ask why they couldn’t do labs, or at least something in class besides filling out worksheets. The teacher responded irritably that it was her last year teaching and so she couldn’t be bothered with lab work, nor did she care whether students understood the material or not.

But most people at this school have been helpful. In fact, a sympathetic counselor suggested Maia could satisfy the tedious health and life-skills requirement–the new term for sex-ed, apparently–by taking it independently at a nearby adult education center, which operates out of another local high school and middle school. She just needed to sign up, pay a $25 deposit toward a textbook, then meet with the teacher once a week for 15 minutes. He handed us a printout that said where to go to take care of this.

Except, upon closer inspection, it really didn’t. Two arrows on the paper, pointing in two different directions, said “Go here” and “Go here” to register, with no indication about where to go first. Maybe to where the top arrow pointed? That seemed reasonable, so we drove to a big middle school not too far away, where various helpful people pointed us to a classroom in the back. So far, so good.

“She just stepped out,” said a friendly janitor outside the classroom, sweeping up trash. “She had to go to the front office.”

We sat in the empty classroom and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, after about 20 minutes, a gray-haired woman in her 60s walked in. Strangely, she looked past us as if we were invisible ghosts, refused to say a word even after I said “hello” a couple of times, and sat down silently at her desk in the corner.

Maia went over to speak to the woman, who was evidently the teacher, but after a couple of minutes came back to me in frustration, explaining, “She says we came to the wrong place and I need a reading test before I can take the sex-ed class. I offered to write a paragraph on the blackboard here to show her I can read but she says no.”

“We came to the wrong place?” I said.

At this, the teacher, who was for some reason enraged, spoke to me for the first time. “It says quite clearly on that handout where to go first!” she hissed.

“Well, it really doesn’t,” I said, “See, there’s two arrows and…”

“I designed that paper myself! And you’re telling me it’s unclear?”

“Uh…well, you see, the arrows don’t really indicate…” I noticed a vein on her forehead had began pulsing, so I tried a different tactic.

“I’m sorry we’ve annoyed you by going to the wrong place,” I said. “But I’m the one who’s really inconvenienced, not you, because now I’m going to have to make another trip. Why would I drive to the wrong place on purpose?”

“And can’t I just show you I already know how to read?” suggested Maia.

At that, the teacher got really angry. “Oh, yes, it’s so demeaning isn’t it?” she sneered at Maia. “Why should you have to take a reading test just like everyone else?”

“Let me tell you,” she added, in my direction, “There’s a lot of rotten kids at your daughter’s high school, and I can tell that she’s one of them. Just a really rotten kid. That’s why I teach adult ed. I’m sick of these kids!”

I blinked a couple of times. Then asked: “Do you really mean that all kids at her school are rotten?”

Now at this point, I have to say I realize that while most people in this kind of situation would either leave in a fury or yell back, I have a strange, tic-like habit of standing frozen to the spot and, in a pleasant and reasonable voice, asking question after question after question: “Are all the kids really rotten?” “Why would I drive to the wrong place?” Etc.

I guess this is my way of trying to pick away at a strange knot in the social fabric until it smooths out, but it only seems to drive people crazier. I don’t recommend it and wish I could stop doing it.

“No, I don’t think all kids at that school are rotten!” the teacher yelled. “My own daughter went there and she’s got a graduate degree!” She stomped over to her desk and pulled out a Xerox of a small newspaper article, illustrated with a picture of a girl in a cap and gown. “See?”

“That’s very impressive,” I said slowly. Now obviously, anyone who keeps Xeroxes of their offspring’s achievements handy as a means of settling disputes is not quite living in the land of reason. The woman seemed so triumphantly convinced this picture proved something that she reminded me of Eileen Heckart in The Bad Seed, railing on about her own wonderful child while clueless Nancy Kelly still can’t quite accept that her own superficially polite daughter is a murderess.

Still, I couldn’t shake off the stunned, question-asking compulsion I fall into when I encounter these characters. “But don’t you think that…”

“And I’m sick of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his beating up on teachers!” she interrupted. “Sick of it!”

I tried another question, this one an attempt at a placating little joke. “Do I look like Arnold?” I said. But she was having none of it and continued to yell, so eventually we gave up and left.

I glanced back at the classroom as we crossed the blacktop, half expecting to see the janitor, who smiled knowingly at our departure, turn into a three-headed dog guarding the gates of Hellmouth High. Or, actually in this case, Hellmouth Adult Continuing Education, Life Skills/Sex-Ed Dept. But he just kept smiling and sweeping, in human form.

Then we drove to the school we should have visited first, where the very nice vice principal looked sympathetic but, hmm, not at all surprised upon hearing of our experience.

“I’m afraid that’s the only teacher I have for that class,” the vice principal said. Then she gave Maia the required reading test. The score was something like 13th grade, clearly more than adequate to understand life skills, or sex-ed, or whatever they’re calling it now, although Maia just finished 10th grade last year.

“But couldn’t we have saved you time, and also taxpayers’ money, by just bringing in her SAT reading scores?” I asked.

“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way,” the vice principal said patiently. “Now you certainly qualify for the class,” she added to Maia. “But I’d think very, very carefully before taking it with that teacher. Very carefully indeed.”

So we took that rather broad hint and decided Maia will just have to take life skills next semester, which is too bad, but not as bad as that teacher. Apparently, Prop 74 made her nervous for a while, but thanks to California’s voters now she’s safe.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.



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