Unprincipled: My Year Teaching Public School Under a Brutal, Out of Control Administrator
In 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) settled a 4-year-old lawsuit brought on behalf of students in low income areas that questioned the way mostly black and Latin students in LA’s public schools were being educated. In the course of the proceedings, the court designated 37 schools what became known as “Reed Schools” and asked that LAUSD address the lack of quality instruction brought on by, among other things, high teacher turnover. Many believed that the schools (and the teachers in particular) were being unfairly targeted for problems far beyond their control, like “ineffective administrators, unsafe conditions, lack of intervention for struggling students, and other problems.”
But who or whatever was ultimately to blame, the one provision that all parties agreed on was the need to provide greater support to new teachers coming into the profession. Placed, as most new teachers routinely are, in the toughest classrooms where teacher turnover, poor resources, difficult student behavior and spotty parental support can be widespread, that additional support, which consisted of mentoring, extra time for planning lessons, and classes in professional development, was something desperately needed.
I was one of those new teachers hired into an LAUSD Reed School, Audubon Middle School, during 2014–2015, my first and only year as full-time public school teacher. Despite the many promises of support, I was, instead, regularly berated in front of students, colleagues and district-level employees; paraded through the school while having my inadequacies pointed out in full view of teachers and students; openly accused of plagiarizing ideas and passing them off as my own; characterized as “deceptive” in front of my students; then ultimately fired and removed from my classroom during the last month of school, despite all my efforts to improve. I was hardly the only teacher who was treated this way.
I wasn’t yet a protected member of the union, so there was nothing they could do to help me. Without tenure, the principal was essentially free to say and do anything she wanted to me but, even so, tenured teachers suffered under her hand, as well. Even more unsettling, my principal did not just have the power to fire me, she also had the power to bar me from seeking employment with any of the other 1,000 schools operated by the district. At the end of the year, she did just that.
When I reached out to the district to have my principal’s actions investigated for violating district provisions against adult-to-adult bullying, the superintendent promised a “prompt and thorough investigation.” Instead, she oversaw the public school equivalent of a kangaroo court. A story by the National Education Association quotes one state union representative as saying, “the phenomenon [of bullying principals] has been overlooked far too long and should be brought to the surface quickly.” If it hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t have believed it. But despite the things I experienced, the principal’s biggest act of aggression didn’t even involve me, but a staff member and the things she did in that regard bordered on the illegal. And yet the district, which knew of these complaints for a year, has made no change, allowing the principal to remain in charge and continue with the intimidation and debasement of teachers and staff members alike.
Perhaps if I relied on teaching as my only source of income, I’d not tell this story. But I have a voice and resources other teachers don’t always have. Dana Goldstein in her book The Teacher Wars has written “there should be a principal quality movement that is as aggressive as our teacher accountability movement has been.” In LAUSD, accountability for principals has been slow in coming and teachers in LA (and nation-wide) suffer for it. The NEA account describes a principal who “seemed to revel at people being driven out of education or to another school,” a situation in which “people suffered dramatically at her hands.” My own mother, a teacher with some 40 years experience, used to drag herself home from long hours of ritual humiliations at the hands of an out-of-control principal. My principal was cut from the same cloth. My year of teaching was like running a sub-4- hour marathon in the blazing heat and getting shot at the finish line.
In 2011, I decided to complete an online teaching certificate while I was working for Aaron Sorkin’s HBO show, “The Newsroom.” Once I left HBO — and had fully completed the program — I was unexpectedly offered a job by the principal of a school where I had taught briefly as a substitute teacher. I’ve always been interested in education. Both of my parents were teachers. The first day I worked in a school as a substitute, helping a confused, frustrated kid finally figure out how to add fractions, I felt a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt before. Some part of my brain knew that teaching kids, at some point in my life, was something I should be doing. I just wasn’t sure how.
Being offered the job, however, I was surprised at how nervous I suddenly felt. Though I could use the year to secure my permanent teacher’s license, it would mean putting aside my writing for a year too. And moreover, I’d no longer just be a “guest teacher,” with no meetings, no lesson plans, and no parents to deal with. But the principal was insistent on what she believed would be my positive impact on the students, who I’d come to be quite fond of in the few weeks I’d taught them. (She’d repeat this belief an email later.) I accepted.
Once I did, and I set up an LAUSD email account, the floodgates opened. One of the hardest things about teaching, I’d soon learn, is not the teaching — that’s hard enough — but the information overload. The constant flood of new requirements: emails to acknowledge, modules to respond to, mandatory meetings to attend, updates to read, and checklists to complete. If the sudden cascade of information was aimed at relieving anxiety, it had the opposite effect on me. My mentor-of-record was fond of saying in those early days, You ready, Henderson? You sure you ready? I wasn’t sure at all.
The only thing that relieved my anxiety was seeing my students again — the ones I’d taught at the end of last year who seemed happy to see me, too. There was Bryant*, who could do anything. At 6’3, he could play basketball, football, skateboard and sing. He smiled easily and often and he was brilliant. Even when he got beaten up by one of the tougher kids from another class, over a dispute in basketball, he came to school the next day, banged up but all smiles, his friendly, easy-going confidence still intact.
There was Kaytonn*, Bryant’s opposite number — shorter, more anxious. He never did work. He goofed off all day. If there was someone talking in class when they weren’t supposed to, they were probably talking to Kaytonn. When I told his mother about his lack of work, asking, “What’s he do as soon as he gets home?”, she responded “We’ve been having problems with that. We’re living in my car right now while I’m trying to find us a place to stay.” I loved that kid.
There was Dulce*, a girl who took on an alter-ego named Mr. Pince Nez. But he was 40-years old and wore shades. And that’s how she signed her papers. She spoke not a word, got Cs on everything, but she was an amazing artist. She’d write little notes on her tests like, “Have you ever met a dinosaur?” I’d hand it back with her latest C and the answer “yes.”
And Julian*, whose mother forbade him from eating candy; his grades were terrible. For whatever reason, he told me in the middle of the first semester to start calling him, “Tamales.” I declined. Teaching him was a constant negotiation: “If I get a C on this test will you buy me candy?”; “If I study my vocabulary, will you buy me candy?” He told me once he was writing me a letter and then at the end of class, he handed me a couple of sheets of paper that had been stapled a hundred times around the edges. On one side was a Jackson Pollock-like scribble in Magic Marker and on the other side was a note, “Mr. H, you need to give Julian some Jordans or Nike. Size 7. And candy! Kit Kat. Your friend, Tamales.”
The one big wrinkle I faced in those first few days — besides the rowdiness of my students who’d arrived from summer bigger and utterly unspooled — was that my sixth period had two subjects in it, English and Journalism. I was required to teach both subjects simultaneously to two separate groups of kids over the course of the hour. The two subjects were obviously similar, but the difference between fact and opinion in a newspaper is, ultimately, different from learning about plot and theme in a short story. As I was the only other teacher in the school with such an arrangement, my principal Ms. Mann*, told me that it was just temporary and she would be fixing it.
Maybe the first mistake I made with the principal came when my classes were studying the fall of Rome. Reading from the book, a student stumbled over the word “imitate,” saying he’d never heard of the word before. I was startled. This was a 7th grade Honors class and I knew that “imitate” was a 3rd grade word. A year before, I’d read a story in the LA Times about a black kid Kawshawn Campbell from South LA, who was an A student all through high school, but suddenly found himself on the verge of failing out of college because he could not manage to write a decent essay. The story never left me. The article described how “his essays — pockmarked with misplaced words and odd phrases — were so weak, that he would have to take the [writing] class again…. He had never felt this kind of failure or this insecure. He promised himself he would beat back the depression that had come in waves those first months of school…[in class] he struggled to comprehend the readings and think critically about the text.” His story broke my heart. Now, hearing this student of mine struggle with a 3rd grade word, I suddenly saw him six years in the future, a 17- year-old college student, fighting to stay afloat because his middle school teacher never addressed the fact that his reading skills were so poor.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would have discussed all of this with my mentor-of-record. This would have been especially sensible, as my mentor, Ms. Nichols*, her classroom less than ten steps from mine, had taught all of these students the year before. She had also been teaching for nearly twenty years. I kept my counsel, though. Instead, I sent Ms. Mann an email directly with a suggestion that the sixth period — whose makeup was still unresolved — might be made into an English support class to help students with the mechanics of grammar and reading.
The principal didn’t respond to my email, which she ordinarily did rather promptly. (Here are a few emails, friendly and prompt, which I exchanged with the principal earlier in the year.) It crossed my mind that maybe I’d offended her somehow. When I saw her in the hallway, she would brush right past me, it seemed, whereas before she’d wave and smile from down the hall. This went on for several weeks. Was I just imagining it? The change seemed so distinct.
In the interim, with no direct guidance on how to address this issue, I decided to try something on my own. I decided on weekly vocabulary tests, but I remembered from my own upbringing how difficult it was to remember things by rote. So I settled on an idea, something quite simple: I would require my students to copy out new vocabulary and definitions directly from the book twice every day for the first ten minutes of class. It worked like a miracle. Whereas they would once race from PE, sweaty and coursing with adrenaline, this activity calmed and focused them. Knowing the timer was on and ticking, they would be pin-drop quiet as they furiously scribbled out their definitions. And, most importantly, at the end of the week, nearly all of them passed their vocab, even if they failed other parts of a test. I knew this wasn’t a panacea to vocabulary acquisition, but it felt like a meaningful first step, helping build a foundation of words rattling around in their brains. I was proud.
Then on October 3, as I’d gotten my first many tumultuous weeks under my belt, the principal abruptly entered my class with two visitors from the district, Ms. Patrick* and Ms. Tatum*. They sat at the back of class while my students hurriedly copied their words. Ms. Mann didn’t greet me or look in my direction; I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to go over and speak to her. So I remained where I was at the top of the class and called out the time — “four minutes!” — as my kids’ hands sped rapidly across their desks.
Eventually, Ms. Mann leaned over to one of my students and whispered something. It seemed like she’d asked, “What are you doing?” He responded. I thought it was peculiar: why wasn’t she asking me? She asked him more questions. I could feel myself tensing up: what was she asking him? What was he saying? It felt like whatever this 12-year-old kid was telling her would determine whatever was going to happen next and it felt like anything could happen next. Whatever my student said, Ms. Mann didn’t like. She pursed her lips tightly, then looked over at the district guests, shaking her head in irritation. She then stood up and walked to the front of my classroom, less than ten feet from where I was standing, and began an agitated speech.
“Young people. Tell me you aren’t doing this.” Some of my students looked up. Others kept copying. “Tell me you aren’t simply copying vocabulary definitions out of your notes,” Ms. Mann continued. “This couldn’t possibly be. Is this all your teacher has you do, young people?” By now all of my kids had stopped what they were doing and were staring up at her. Some looked at me for a clue as to how to respond to her questions, but I was as unsure of what was going on as they were. Were these rhetorical questions? “He doesn’t make you use your words in more complex ways?” Though she was ostensibly smiling, her demeanor masked what felt like a biting anger. One of my students tried to answer but she kept talking over him. “He doesn’t make you describe the words out loud?”
Though she was officially addressing my students, the speech was plainly aimed at me, so I tried to respond. She cut me off. “I’m not speaking to you,” she said, through gritted teeth. She turned back to my class — “Young people, if this is all your teacher does, he has failed you” — then she turned and left. Ms. Patrick and Ms. Tatum followed after her. I stood there, surprised and embarrassed, unsure of what had just happened. I stared at the door the principal exited through, trying to get a firm handle on the sudden rush of events I’d just witnessed. The timer jerked me out of my daze and I went to turn it off. My kids were staring at me expectantly. A few shifted in their seats. “Are you in trouble, Mr. Henderson?” someone asked. “I don’t think she likes you, Mr. H.,” someone else commented. I smiled weakly and tried to refocus them. “Okay, who can tell me about the fall of Rome?”
I didn’t have many close friends at the school at this point, though I had befriended a couple of veteran teachers. I was too embarrassed to tell them what had happened. It wasn’t until about a week later when I saw Ms. Mann publicly rebuke another teacher that I realized that what had happened to me wasn’t an isolated incident. I’d learn that she had taken over another teacher’s class in the middle of his teaching to openly rebuke him over what she perceived as some failure of his, then leaving him there, embarrassed and undermined, to deal with the fallout.
At the end of the period, still pretty agitated, I grabbed one of my students’ essays off the wall and headed to show Ms. Mann that I, of course, required my students to use their vocabulary in more substantive ways. I assumed that perhaps my student was unclear or perhaps she was frustrated by something else. A simple conversation, I was sure, would clear things up. I found her standing at the counter in her office but, as I approached, she dropped her gaze and insisted that she didn’t have time to speak to me. The main office was empty except for the low buzz of the phones. She was slowly leafing through papers. There was no one else in the main office besides her and she didn’t seem to be in a rush. I tried to hand her the essay, but she refused to acknowledge it. “I’m sorry,” she said pleasantly. “I don’t have any time right now.” I asked her if she would take the paper and look at it when she did have time, but she ignored me and headed back into her private office. Maybe I’d rushed into the office too quickly? Maybe I’d taken her by surprise? Didn’t she want to hear my perspective about what I was doing in my class, not just a kid’s? Perplexed and frustrated, I left and returned to my class.
Again, the natural thing to do would have been to speak to my mentor, who seemed to have a close relationship with the principal, but I didn’t. Mentor teachers are invaluable resources in helping train new teachers; the Reed settlement carved out specific provisions for them. In my year of teaching, however, I discovered that there are two types of mentors: one for whom the role of mentor teacher is very important and another for whom the position of mentor teacher is important. I seemed to have been assigned the latter. Ms. Nichols was an out of classroom teacher, pursuing an administrator’s license and only teaching a single class of English. She was seen as “being groomed” by Ms. Mann to become a principal, too, and it soon struck me that Ms. Nichols might be much more focused on her relationship with the principal than her role as a mentor to me.
From the very start, my relationship with Ms. Nichols was difficult to navigate. It seemed that every time I asked for guidance, I was met with an unhelpful response. If I asked a question she thought was silly, she would derisively call me “Kaytonn” (after my student who was homeless; I eventually asked her to stop). Early in the year, I asked if I might borrow the lesson plan from her English class to adapt for mine. We were both teaching the same novel, The Giver; I’d never heard of it before that year, whereas she’d read it multiple times. She looked at me with a grimace and cracked “Good thing Ms. Mann isn’t making teachers turn in their lesson plans at the beginning of the week, like she did last year.” Even though LAUSD requires that mentor teachers maintain a “trusting, confidential, and non-evaluative” relationship with new teachers they are mentoring, a day later, Ms. Nichols joked, “A little birdy told me that you’re going to have to start turning in your lesson plans to the principal every week.”
Had she told the principal I hadn’t been coming up with my own lesson plans because I’d asked to borrow hers? When Ms. Mann finally told me that I would now be required to submit plans at the top of the week, she didn’t look at me and her jaw was tightly clenched. I wanted to explain why I’d asked Ms. Nichols for her lesson. But this, apparently, was not up for discussion. I tried instead to explain in an email. Rereading it now, I see how defensive I was, but I was starting to feel as though I didn’t have any allies in this school. In that email, I also asked Ms. Mann for a “chance to sit down with you and discuss how my practice has been going so far.” She didn’t respond.
All of this — the early email, the lesson plans, the vocabulary exercise — made me feel as though my troubles were mounting with the principal and it was just October. I’d wanted and had asked several times (by email and in person) for a chance to meet with her. I’d seen other teachers meet with her privately. I figured that if I could just talk to her, she’d see where I was coming from. My mistakes weren’t ones of carelessness or indifference; I was really trying and maybe she’d provide some direction on how to improve. I figured, face-to-face, I’d be able to quell her growing disappointment with me so early in the year. But she never responded to any of my requests. With three strikes against me, I tried another route and asked a colleague if he could help me get a meeting with the principal. This was a mistake. I just didn’t know it at the time.
That evening, still embarrassed by the incident with the vocabulary, I sent an email to Ms. Patrick, who’d come into my class with Ms. Mann.
So obviously things didn’t go so well for me today. I guess I just wanted to say that there was a method to my madness with the “copying”…that they do use their vocab in more elaborate ways…I’m not sure why I’m saying all this other than to say that I was embarrassed that it all seemed so pointless… But all my students master their vocabulary…they just didn’t know to say that… That said, I obviously want to hear and absorb any advice you’d have on making it more clearly in line with what you guys will be evaluating.
Ms. Patrick responded that she was glad I reached out to her because she wanted to help. We agreed to speak by phone on Friday. But before I could speak with her, a student showed up in my already-bifurcated 6th period class and showed me a schedule change. “Ms. Mann just made this into a History class.” Then another student Dory*, showed up with a form to tell me it was still an English class. I was more confused than ever. It would turn out that Ms. Mann had changed the make-up of my class so that it was now divided across three subjects English, Journalism, and World History, which I was required to teach simultaneously to three separate groups of students in the course of the hour. It would remain that way until the end of the semester. A colleague warned me she was deliberately setting me up to fail.
That Sunday, I prepared my lesson plans for the week and emailed them to Ms. Mann as usual. (I had been sending in my lesson plans for several weeks now, though Ms. Mann never responded to them in any way, except to sometimes say “Received.” This week she didn’t even say that.) On Monday, October 6th, during my planning period, I waited to be called to the office. My colleague had spoken to Ms. Mann and she told him she would meet with me on Monday. But no call ever came from the office. Had she forgotten about the meeting? I finished preparing for my classes and, as students entered, I began my lesson on the feudal system.
A few minutes into my class, I heard a student say, “Hey Ms. Mann.” I looked up to see Ms. Mann and Ms. Nichols sitting at the back of my class. The principal had her head down and was furiously scribbling in a long yellow legal pad and periodically whispering things to Ms. Nichols who nodded. The principal’s face was wrenched with agitation. My voice quivered a bit, as I proceeded through the lesson, unsure of why they were there. At one point, I asked the class if anyone had any questions. Ms. Mann raised her hand, but she didn’t ask a question. She just nodded “yes,” with her head down and continued to scribble in her legal pad. It suddenly dawned on me that rather than conducting the kind of meeting I’d assumed we were going to have — a regular, face-to-face conversation between boss and employee — Ms. Mann had decided, instead, to write me up.
Once the bell rang, my students filed out. I remained with Ms. Mann and Ms. Nichols. The principal began, “I’m struggling hard to contain my anger right now. Everything you’ve done in this class is completely wrong.” For the next 90 minutes, through the entirety of lunch and the entirety of my fourth period, Ms. Mann outlined for me what she said was “11 pages” of mistakes I had made, which she said she would forward to me so I could see them all. My mentor sat, listening and writing things down but said nothing. When the lunch bell rang for fourth period to start, Ms. Nichols left to teach her class, but my students were kept outside. They were, instead, re-directed to another part of the building and held there for the entire class period as Ms. Mann continued with me.
My memory is of the following statements: she said that my teaching was arrogant and self-centered (“This isn’t about Harvard. I have six degrees, so what?”); that the very way my class was set up showed this (She moved my desks around so the students faced each other in “pods” and not the front); that my classroom management was abysmal, proven by the fact I had to shush my students for talking (“When I spoke to them,” she said derisively, “Did you hear me say ‘shh’?”; “If your lesson was better,” she said, “They wouldn’t be talking.”) When she saw a text book on the floor she said “You know, I could write you up for that.” When she asked me a question and I stumbled, she snapped, “You don’t even know, do you?!”
And maybe I didn’t know. The truth was I felt like I was drowning. Student behavior was getting harder to handle; not having a mentor I could rely on or go to for confidential advice was taking a toll; planning and carrying out lessons for three different subjects, all stuffed into a single class, bordered on the ridiculous; attending to all the non-teaching related duties was overwhelming; and discovering that my boss was unapproachable and unreachable no matter what I did, made it all feel like an increasingly impossible mountain to climb.
As I sat there listening to Ms. Mann outline my many mistakes, I felt a numbed thickness growing in my brain. What I thought was going to be a meeting to discuss how things were going, turned into something closer to a 90-minute rebuke. But what happened next was surreal: Ms. Mann barked at me, “Get up!” She proceeded to walk me out of my classroom and into seven other teachers’ classes, five of whom were teaching at the time. She walked me to the back of those classes and insisted that I say out loud what these teachers were doing better than I was. I mumbled out answers as best I could.
My mind raced ahead of my body which managed somehow to place one foot in front of the other and go through the motions of what she demanded. I could see the students and teachers staring at me. I tried to avoid their gaze. As she walked me back to my class, I passed the stairs and the exit to the parking lot. Part of my brain said, “Walk out now!” I didn’t.
We eventually returned to my class. During my fifth period, I taught the lesson I’d planned with Ms. Patrick while Ms. Mann sat at the back of the class and watched. On a few occasions, she interjected things into the lesson from the back of the room. Then, mercifully, the bell rang. About half way through sixth period, Ms. Patrick showed up with Ms. Tatum, asking if they could borrow two students to do a diagnostic test. At some point, Ms. Patrick asked me how the lesson we discussed went. As I started to explain, I heard a voice from behind me. “Are you talking about the lesson I just taught for you?” It was Ms. Mann. She had re-entered my class, silently. I turned to see her staring at me. She then turned and left again.
As late as December, two months after the initial incident, I would learn that Ms. Mann was telling colleagues that I had tried to steal credit for her work in front of Ms. Patrick and Ms. Tatum. This was such an illogical claim that I never knew how to respond to. It seemed as far as Ms. Mann was concerned, I was a lost cause — by turns deceptive, incompetent, and unresponsive to her support.
The entire experience left me very, very confused. (I didn’t know at the time that all of these actions were violations of district policies and wouldn’t find out until much later.) Teachers and students came up to me at the end of the day to ask me about what they’d seen when Ms. Mann had paraded me through the school. I didn’t know what to say. I just shrugged and said nothing. My brain was screaming “Quit now!” but I’d signed a contract and abandoning a teaching job puts your license at risk. A compromised or canceled certification would mean that the tens of thousands of dollars of my own money and hundreds of hours I’d spent, going to school on-line while working for one TV show or another was a waste. This principal seemed a far cry from the one who’d been so pleasant to me at the beginning of the year.
I went home that night with my mind empty. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought to myself, Why would anyone want to do this job if this is the type of thing they have to put up with? I thought about my students. How could I ever be of use to them if everything I did meant the principal would berate me in front of them? If I was constantly on edge about something I was doing wrong? At home that night, I decided, Just until December. If it doesn’t improve by then, just walk away. You have another life outside of this. Deal with it as best you can, then walk away.
Two days later, Ms. Mann came back into my class, searching my cabinets, taking pictures of my room, making negative comments to my students about me. (In one instance, she described me as “deceptive” in front of the class.) In the spirit of starting over and trying again with Ms. Nichols, I asked her to observe my class and give me some feedback on what she thought. She had only done so once in the six weeks since school had started. But she broughtMs. Mann into the class with her, who again made disparaging remarks about me to my students. When I asked Ms. Nichols for feedback on the lesson, her only response was “you seemed nervous.” (Of course, I was nervous! I wanted to say. I’d just had my face ripped off by the principal and when I ask you to come observe my class, so I can get some advice on how to improve, you bring the principal with you to very next day!) Ms. Mann never sent me the “11-page” evaluation.
Being criticized by the principal in front of my students affected my ability to effectively manage their behavior. Some students tried to take advantage of the principal’s open disdain for me. I took a student’s phone for texting in class. She demanded huffily that I give it back; I refused, telling her that her tone was unacceptable. Another student chimed in, “Don’t worry. Remember what Ms. Mann told us. Just write down everything he does and she will deal with him.”
Working in this school, under Ms. Mann, fed a constant anxiety: would she burst into my class during 3rd period or 4th period today? Would she trash me to another parent? Would she chastise me at a faculty meeting? Would she tear apart my lesson in front of colleagues again? All of which were things she did over the course of the year. One teacher said working there was like working in the Nixon White House, the constant paranoia, looking over your shoulder, wondering when the other shoe would drop. The principal wasn’t the type of person who seemed to feel she had professional colleagues, only friends or enemies. Once you were in the second category, there was no escaping it. (I once heard her whispering to her Assistant Principal about something she suspected another faculty member was up to: “She’s trying to sabotage me. This is nothing but sabotage.”)
But despite the constant cloud of anxiety, I kept trying. What else was there to do? Not so much for the principal but for my students. I knew, deep down, that I was a better teacher than what the principal (and my mentor) thought. And even if the principal was determined to disparage me, I would still work to make it a good year for them. So for the next few months, I did what I could:
I invented games to get them excited about their lessons, channeling their energies into competitions as a way to get them to complete work they ordinarily wouldn’t. I called one game “Stump the Scholar.” In order to play you had to have taken notes on the reading, at least three notes per page and you could use your notes to ask or answer any question. Whoever had taken the most notes on the reading would inevitably win. There were knock-out rounds and sudden death matches and wild cards. The only kid who got to play without taking notes was Tony*; he had a photographic memory. We eventually had to retire his jersey and make him scorekeeper because no one could stump him. In the final rounds, it would frequently get so loud that I had to shut my classroom doors to prevent the excited screams from reverberating down the hall. They raced into class every day asking excitedly, “Are we playing Stump the Scholar today?!” And, yes, their grades improved, too!
During the lesson on the rise of African civilizations, I showed the documentary Virunga to my classes and invited the Oscar-nominated English director, Orlando von Eisendel, a friend, who was in town for the Academy Awards, to speak to my class. They were amazed by his British accent and completely baffled by the fact that I could be friends with someone from England. The first question they asked him was “How do you know our teacher?” I invited Ms. Mann and Ms. Nichols to come but neither did.
For the feudal system, I purchased a six foot cardboard medieval knight and fake medieval castle-style brick to hang on the wall outside my room. The students named the knight Sir Kobe Bryant. I then asked them to create their own personal shields as if they were a knight from the Middle Ages, using the symbols and images from the time. I hung the shields on the wall and had them present their “Shield Wall” and the feudal system as a whole to sixth-grade classes who would be studying the Middle Ages the following year. I figured if they could explain the feudal system to someone else then they really understood the feudal system. The project went over like gangbusters, though Ms. Mann, when she heard about the presentation, dismissed it as not real teaching. As with the film director, I invited Ms. Mann and Ms. Nichols to come to the presentation but they didn’t.
I had the students create and publish a six-page student newsletter for the school, the first one in many years I was told, with students doing the writing, reporting and taking pictures. I created reporter badges for them and purchased a dozen real reporter notebooks for them to use. They ran around the school like miniature Woodward and Bernsteins. I asked Ms. Mann if the students could interview her. She didn’t respond to the request.
I created a several months-long lesson plan around graphic novels and purchased a set of books to link both English and History together, teaching “across the curriculum,” one of the popular concepts in education today. To match the History unit on China, I purchased the graphic novel American Born Chinese, the first one to win the National Book Award. For the unit on the rise of Islam, I bought Persepolis, a story about the Islamic Revolution, told from the perspective of an adolescent girl. And after a student asked me why people were always attacking the Jews during the Middle Ages, I decided to end the unit with Maus: a Survivor’s Tale, about the Holocaust, the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. The students were so enchanted by this series of lessons that I had to forbid them from taking the books home and reading ahead (I let them have the books once we were done reading them, of course.) I even decorated my door with imagery students had created inspired from the books.
When they got tired of normal quizzes, I used History Charades, in which they acted out events from the textbook for their classmates to guess.
I was grateful to hear very positive feedback from my student’s parents about my classroom around this time. One parent told me her son had been in Honors classes his entire life and never felt more excited or challenged than he had in my classes. Another parent whom I had contacted to say how great her son was doing expressed shock as no teacher, in all her son’s years of being in school, had ever called her to say positive things about him. (They both wrote letters on my behalf at the end of the year, describing what a big impact I’d had on their children.)
This endorsement from parents was very satisfying as neither Ms. Mann nor Ms. Nichols remarked on any of my efforts to improve, even though I was doing my best to exhibit the commitment I assumed they thought I was lacking.
With still not guidance or support from them, I decided to make an aggressive effort to do one more thing: complete the long check list of things that were mandatory, non-teaching related duties. I figured if it came down to whether I should be non-reelected at the end of the year, at least I’d be able to say, I completed everything that was asked of me. The problem was the list of mandatory tasks was always growing. At the start of the year we were told that we had 40 hours of required professional development (PD) outside of school. This grew suddenly to 60 hours. Then for new teachers, they added an additional 20 hours, for a total of 80 hours of extra seminars and classes outside of school, which meant either after school or Saturday mornings (or, in one instance, the entirety of our Spring Break). And none of this counted toward the permanent certificate I’d taken the job to try to secure in the first place.
Walk into a typical PD and this is what you might hear: Come up with a synonym for ‘tolerance’. I’ll give you a minute. Now turn to the person next to you and share your synonym. Take a few minutes for that. Now everyone share your synonym with your table. Now, let’s everyone get up and go around the room and find someone new to share your word with. At the end of a brutal work week, waking up at 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning to make a PD by 8 to come up with synonyms for tolerance for 5 hours and then do it again the next Saturday, then the next, until you’ve done it for 80 hours, is not a way to build any working professional’s morale.
One of the other mandatory things we were judged on was class room environment, whether our room was a warm and inviting place for students, “conducive to learning.” What it meant, in part, was: is your room pretty? I can’t decorate and I’m terrible at organizing. The teachers all said, Go to Lakeshore. That’s where all the teachers get their supplies. I went to Lakeshore. My memory is of a Saturday morning, sitting on a chair surrounded by shelves and shelves of every poster, border, thumbtack, roll of butcher paper, ream of construction paper, stapler, staple remover, paperclip, paper weight, chart for English, chart for math, board game and card game known to man, trying to crowd all that stuff out and just decide on whether blue and white actually matched. I left with a box of index cards and a package of magnets to hang on the board.
Imagine, then, what it was like for any teacher in an environment where — in addition to the basic job of teaching (coming up with and teaching new lesson plans everyday) for three subjects to under-resourced kids who could sometimes be outrageously behaved — your room had to be immaculate and beautiful with matching posters and pictures and bulletin boards because your “classroom environment” was being evaluated; and on those bulletin boards, you had to hang students assignments with in-depth and individual feedbackto each student which had to be switched out every 30 days for new student work that had in-depth feedback; where you also had to build a website for the school webpage, regularly uploading new work and pictures and activities; where you had to think of a group or club activity to sponsor to show your social commitment to the school; where even non-mandatory meetings were made to sound mandatory. All I wanted to do at the end of each day was sleep and sleep and sleep. This was not a life for anyone to lead.
The Christmas break focused my mind. I slept and recuperated. When I saw my second semester classes and there was no Journalism and my 6th period was free altogether, I felt like maybe I could make it all the way. My mother encouraged me to stay to the end of the year: “That way you can say you taught a full year. Don’t run. Tough it out. You’ve shown you could handle it. Stick with it.” The new semester, by another miracle, was comparatively a breeze. Primarily, and unaccountably, this was because Ms. Mann wasn’t at school for weeks at a time. The other teachers began to wonder whether there was a death in the family or whether she was ill. But whatever it was, everyone I spoke to felt a sense of relief any day she wasn’t there. And my classes were going great, too. I no longer had a 6th period jammed with three different subjects. I was more confident. My students were more trusting. Even my classroom environment, with the help of some fellow teachers, started to improve.
Ms. Mann still got in her shots when she was around, accusing me on several occasions of being “the only new teacher” who had not completed one requirement or the other, one of which was an hour long new teacher meeting. When I sent proof that I had completed it, she didn’t respond.
Then on April 13th, more than halfway through the second semester, the week I had begun to fulfill the last of my professional development requirements, I was called to Mr. Luke’s* office, the Assistant Principal. He handed me a letter and told me that I was being issued a non-reelect by Ms. Mann. I sat there, unclear at first of what he was saying. I looked down at the letter but my eyes wouldn’t focus. “What do you mean?” I managed to ask. “I think you had some problems at the beginning of the year?” I nodded. “But things have gotten better.” He just shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve never been in your room. The best thing for you to do is to resign immediately.” I was not just being fired. I was being put out of the district altogether and, even if I resigned first, I’d have to wait at least 3 years to re-apply, with the non-reelect stain on my record. I was speechless as I tried to clear the fog in my brain. I swallowed a few times, hoping I’d find the right words to undo this, to make what he’d said untrue.
For me, things had suddenly turned around and I’d somehow managed to forget how unpredictable and punitive the principal could be. With just a flick of her wrist, I was out of the school — and out of the district, too. But I refused to resign. Instead, I filed a Work Place Violence (WPV) complaint against her with her superiors, describing in detail how she had publicly berated me from the start of the year and never provided me support. (I’d only recently learned about these policies from a colleague hired late in the year.) LAUSD defines WPV as “a continuum of behaviors that includes threats, bullying, emotional abuse, intimidation and other forms of conduct that create anxiety, fear and a climate of distrust in the work/educational setting.” The complaint ultimately grew to 40 pages and included all the detail I’ve provided here. When I met with the investigator handling my claim, she assured me that I had a case if it could be proven. The superintendent overseeing the investigation even suggested that my firing could be overturned were my claim to be proven.
My WPV complaint was not the only one lodged against Ms. Mann at the end of that year. A far more serious one was, unbeknownst to me, being made at the same time. According to the complaint, a staff member, alerted to possible child endangerment by a student who was afraid her mother might harm her, called DSS to make a report, but when Ms. Mann learned of it, she threatened the staffer with being fired. All school employees are mandated reporters, obligated by law to report suspected cases of child neglect or child endangerment. The student was eventually removed from her home when DSS investigated. The staff member, who had been publicly berated by Ms. Mann before, then filed, at the encouragement of a district level employee who had witnessed one of the incidents, a complaint against Ms. Mann alleging intimidation and humiliation with the same district personnel that I did.
In my case, despite the evidence — emails, documents (even more than I’ve provided here) and nearly a dozen witnesses (teachers and staff) willing to testify — and the superintendent’s promise of a thorough and unbiased investigation, the district investigator would eventually find, improbably, that “there was insufficient evidence to substantiate your claim.” I was flabbergasted and immediately called my witnesses; only one of them had spoken to the investigator and that teacher had only witnessed one of the more minor incidents. I appealed, but of course, nothing came of it.
But Ms. Mann even survived the child abuse interference claim. As of this writing, she remains in her position as principal, and according to a former colleague who remains there, “nothing has changed.” She continues to make life difficult for teachers and staff alike. Once our reporting began, Ms. Mann began discipline proceedings against certain people whom she suspected were cooperating with us.
In his New Yorker essay “Stop Humiliating Teachers,” David Denby wrote, “Teachers are being assaulted because they can be assaulted.” When teachers complain that they are left vulnerable to principals who can do anything to them and receive no backup or support from anyone but a union, my story is proof, and for many new teachers there is not even union help. The rewards of teaching grow smaller every day, the balance between the low wage and the job security that attracted teachers for generations, is now under heavy threat by politician and activist alike, as they try to roll back the type of basic job protections that insure decency in the workplace. This is not a call for more or earlier tenure, only a request that we restore some measure of dignity to a profession that was once among this nation’s most admired.
The scapegoating of teachers has reached crisis proportions and principals are, largely, the cause and culprit, as they often operate wholly unchecked in school environments. In her book Teacher Wars, Dana Goldstein writes, “The one ingredient all successful schools have in common is a dedicated, highly respected leader who…teachers believe in.” This was not the case at my school. Since I left, several teachers have attempted to leave the school for other school sites inside the district, anxious to escape Ms. Mann’s leadership, but principals at LAUSD have the power, in some instances, to block internal district transfers for even tenured teachers, and she has moved to do just that.
As for her final act against me, angered I was told over my WPV complaint, Ms. Mann had me removed from my classroom and placed in the first year equivalent of “teacher jail,” during the last month of school. I was relocated to a different site and relegated to the status of a substitute teacher. She needed no justification and I had no recourse or means to stop her. LAUSD is currently under investigation for allowing principals the reckless use of this form of punishment, which they are currently free to do with impunity. That Friday, I was told to pack my things quickly, as I would not be allowed back onto the campus. I did so. It was after the bell had rung on Friday and all my students had scattered for home. Knowing I would not see them again, I wrote a note to them on the board, telling them goodbye. I then posted it to the school’s webpage, hoping that in case someone erased it, they might see it anyway.
As I walked out of the building, carrying a box of the few things I had time to grab — student projects, posters, my cardboard knight — replaying the year in my head, the things I’d done wrong, the things I’d done right, the fun times I had with my students whom I’d come to cherish, I struggled to keep it all together. About a mile from school, the mixture of anger, disappointment, and terrible, terrible sadness over such a difficult year came over me and I cried like I was 3 years old.
It wasn’t self-pity or self-reproach, but frustration over the futility of it all: was there anything I could have done to make this awful year right? How many other teachers are sent through the public school mill, only to be chewed up and discarded without anyone helping or believing or defending them. Why would anyone want to do this job if this is what you risked — so little pay, so much stress, so little protection, for so diminishing a return? A friend who is a Yale trained lawyer and who has a teaching certificated, upon learning of what happened to me said, “That’s why I’d never be a teacher.” A black doctor friend told me he was thinking of retiring one day to teach. I told him not to. It was like I’d run a thousand laps of a race, with the judges back turned, only to be told in the final lap that I was disqualified for being in the wrong lane. The optimist in me wants to believe somehow that the year of struggle was still somehow worth it. That the rewards of teaching are still so great that it can overcome even the worst of circumstances. I still struggle with whether that’s true or not.
Additional Reporting by Hilary Elkins