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Eyewitnesses to Teacher Scuffle with Student Become Eyewitlesses

A video went viral last week of Santa Monica High School teacher/coach Mark Black restraining a student in his classroom.
When the public first saw the video, reaction was negative about the teacher.
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District superintendent Sandra Lyon issued a statement calling the event “utterly alarming” and labeling “the kind of physical restraint used by the teacher [as] unacceptable.”   She further promised the family of the student involved “support that they may need.” 
Then details emerged that the student allegedly had marijuana and had first attacked Coach Black with a box cutter.
Public opinion turned, viewing Black as a hero (a collective voice saying, “Finally, a teacher unafraid of putting an unruly student in his place”) and Lyon as a villain for
hastily condemning the Coach without knowing all the facts.
Worse than Supt. Lyon’s rush to judgment was her rush to side with the student and offer his family assistance.   One wonders, why offer to defend an alleged criminal over a long-time, highly regarded employee?
Due to the public backlash, some calling for her resignation, Supt. Lyon released a second statement days later, softening her tone towards the teacher, “In no way was our action to place the teacher on paid leave a determination of wrongful conduct.”
On Tuesday, the 18-year-old was charged with five misdemeanor counts including threatening a school official, possessing a box cutter as well as marijuana.
A second student, aged 16, was also charged with battery.
But there is one more antagonist in this story and that is the group of students who stood motionless, watching their teacher struggle with an out of control peer for 58 seconds without doing anything.
Yes, we don’t know what preceded or followed the video segment.   We do know that the video segment is 58 seconds long, and when you watch the video, it seems to last longer than a minute. 
Students had enough time to take out their phones and videotape the incident (two other student phones are seen in the frame also taping it), but no time to do something, to act, to help their teacher.  Cold-blooded inaction.  Forget about physically intervening because that sometimes can worsen a situation.   But not a single teen can be heard on the 58 seconds even calling for help.
These young people are not eyewitnesses but “eyewitlesses.”
One might dispute this charge of apathy by pointing to the outpouring of support for Coach Black with the 22,000 likes on a Facebook page or the nearly 9,000 signatures on a petition.
However, anonymously clicking a button on a computer in the comfort of one’s home is not the same type of courage as doing something about an event happening in front of your eyes.
Last month was the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese, the Queens, New York 28-year-old woman whose screams in the middle of the night were heard by dozens of people for 30 minutes without anyone coming to her aid as her killer stabbed her in 3 separate attacks before ending her life.   This is where the phrase “I didn’t want to get involved” originated and where neighbors not helping neighbors became the theme of city life.
What happened last week is not of the same magnitude as the Genovese case, but human behavior remains unchanged.   Those kids did not want to get involved.
In recent years schools have had to deal with lockdowns whenever an outside predator invades a school campus.   This story highlights another kind of lockdown that no drill can defend against, and that is a lockdown of the human soul.

Leave it to Bieber!

When working with teenagers, I try to keep up with the latest trends so that I can namedrop a Kardashian or crack a joke about Instagram to let them know that this old man teacher does have an awareness of youth culture.

So not only I do know who Justin Bieber is, but I know how his arrest last week in Miami impacted his fans—my students.

His name has now been added to the long list of celebrities gone astray.   The only real surprise was how long it took the tween superstar to fall from grace.  Next on the hit parade will be his somber mea culpas (too bad Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey no longer have their post-Oscars specials) offering regrets over his illegal actions.  

To the Beliebers (the term coined for Bieber followers), Justin can do no wrong.  I’m not sure if they understand the severity of his actions.

What decent person allegedly drag races 60 mph in a 30 mph zone with an expired license while under the influence of alcohol and drugs (did Bieber already forget last November’s death of “Fast and Furious” actor Paul Walker in a car going over 100 miles per hour?), uses profanity towards police officers while resisting arrest, then smiles for his mug shot as if it is for the high school yearbook, and waves to cheering fans upon leaving jail?   

Instead of concealing himself beneath his hoodie, he uses his exit as a photo-op.   Such brazenness would not exist if Bieber were an average citizen, but being in the public eye fuels the blatant lawlessness that his adorers view as a badge of honor.

Of course, this raises the real problem of this latest example of celebrities running amok:  there is no shame anymore in our society.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines shame as “a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong.”

When I walk around campus I regularly hear students swearing like sailors, dropping f-bombs as if they get paid to use them.    There is no attempt at cleaning up their vocabulary when a grown-up walks by because they feel no shame in using such language nor do they fear any repercussions.  Welcome to the 21st century.

Who knows how much of Justin’s upbringing, born to teenaged parents who were never married, marred his value judgment.   Like father, like son, both have their arms fully tattooed.  And, as the New York Daily News reported, Jeremy Bieber may be an enabler in his son’s shenanigans, apparently “partying with his famous son” at nightclubs, participating “in the SUV caravan that allegedly blocked traffic” for the illegal drag racing.  

When a parent is acting like a teenaged delinquent, the child has no guidance.   I guess his folks are simply “leaving it to Bieber” to figure things out.

I used to teach Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlet Letter about Hester Prynne who, as a result of an adulterous relationship, must wear a large red letter ‘A’ upon her chest as punishment so everyone in towns knows what she did. 

By the end of the book, Hester actually uses the public ostracism to transform herself into an upright individual, the ‘A’ standing for angel.  Shame can lead to positive change.

Some of my students say that while they don’t condone his behavior, they may still buy his music.  That’s too bad.  Until he cleans up his act, we should shun entertainers like Bieber who feels no shame in behaving badly.   Just don’t ask him to tattoo a letter to his chest as punishment; chances are he’s already done so.



The Whiteboard Jungle: Later in the Day, Not Earlier in the Summer

Glendale schools opened on Aug. 12, the earliest start date in history, doing away with the traditional September-through-June school calendar that hasn't been all that traditional for a while now. The back-to-school ads that once appeared in newspapers and on television before Labor Day now surface after the Fourth of July.

The rationale behind this "August creep" is for students to finish the fall semester before winter break, and for students taking Advanced Placement tests in May to receive more instructional days earlier in order to maximize their success.

In others words, the school calendar is skewed toward secondary students who have semester finals, and in particular, the minority of students who take AP tests. For students in kindergarten through fifth grade, there is no reason.

The argument of having students take their fall semester finals before winter break so that they don't forget the material while on vacation isn't sound. Students used to come back after vacation for a couple of weeks of school and then take their finals.

Now, they come back after one week off for Thanksgiving for two weeks before finals — not much different than before.

The notion of providing students more time to prepare for AP tests so that they produce higher results is also not valid.

Students this year actually have one less school day before the May AP exams than last year. While the school year began one week earlier, there are additional days when school is not in session before AP testing: two extra days during Thanksgiving and three extra days during winter break.

Carly Lindauer of the college board said that she is unaware of any "evidence to show that simply starting school earlier, and having two to three more weeks of instruction, automatically leads to higher AP exam scores."

And what about the energy costs to run air conditioning during August, which has an average of about 11 days that reach 90 degrees or more, based on Weatherbase statistics? Notice how hot and muggy it has been this week.

The district frequently sends out emails to staff about turning off lights, copiers and computers. Yet the amount of money it costs to run the air conditioning all day at all of its schools must exceed the savings of turning off coffee makers. I was unable to get a district official to comment on this.

Where I work, there are older buildings that use a chiller that has to be turned on as early as 4 a.m.; otherwise, classrooms will not be properly cooled that day. If students can't focus on a teacher in a stuffy room, who cares how many school days there are in August?

Tina Bruno, executive director of the Coalition for a Traditional School Year, said that evidence suggests that "states with the highest cumulative scores on college entrance exams, Advanced Placement testing and the National Assessment of Educational Progress share some of the latest school start dates in the nation."

The quality of the instruction and parent involvement have more to do with kids doing better in school than spending more time in school in August does.

If school districts care about what's best for kids, then perhaps an examination of the start of the school day, rather than the start of the school year, is where their focus should be because more studies show the academic benefits of starting school after 9 a.m., rather than starting in early August.

Man of Steal

“Man of Steel”, the reboot of the Superman film franchise, had the biggest opening of a film in June, earning over $125 million.

That’s a real shame that a film that depicts catastrophic destruction of huge swaths of city blocks is entertaining to the masses.

I don't care how many people go see this movie or how much money it makes, the critics are right on this one.   To borrow from Shakespeare, the film is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  After 30 minutes, I was bored.  

The original 1978 “Superman” had the right tone balancing scenes of Superman flying with lighthearted moments.  Hey, comic books were originally written for children and that tone was carried over to the TV Batman TV series of the 1960s and the Superman films.   Somewhere along the way, though, the superheroes became complicated, angst-filled figures, with comic books giving way to graphic novels.

Director Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot series, The Dark Knight, clearly was geared toward a more adult audience.   The problem with going in that direction is that movie studios need a PG-13 rating in order for a film to have a chance at earning blockbuster box office dollars.   So what’s been happening with too many recent movies is that the filmmakers push the action/violence envelope right up to the lip of an R rating.   That way parents bring their children and boost earnings.

My 9-year-old son loves the Ironman character, but even I was tempted to cover his eyes during a scene that depicted an airplane disintegrating in midair with passengers freefalling from it (do you recall those horrible images from the Twin Towers of people jumping to their deaths?).

It's wrong for parents of young children to take them to movies like “Man of Steel” which, while rated PG-13, is too intense with its realistic depiction of collapsing city buildings and screaming people.   Why do so many films nowadays use the real Sept. 11th attacks as a template for film entertainment?

Even before the film started, my family was bombarded with back to back to back trailers of movies that contained scenes of a city’s apocalypse:   “World War Z,” “ Elysium,” and “Pacific Rim.”  I increasingly feel that when I go to the movies I’m watching an exhibit at some kind of computer tradeshow showcasing the latest special effects gadgetry.   Where are the stories?  Where are the characters?   Where are the themes?

Once upon a time, Americans escaped to the movies to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers elegantly dressed and danced through the Great Depression.  Today, civilization collapsing and people dying have become escapist entertainment.  I certainly hope President Obama will not screen “White House Down” anytime soon.


Another School Tragedy

When I was in elementary school we used to practice two emergency drills:  one for fire which was an evacuation, and another for a nuclear bomb, commonly known as a duck and cover.  During the Cold War, the Red Scare, a Soviet Union attack, was on everyone’s mind.

            Then the 1971 Sylmar earthquake happened and all the schools began practicing earthquake drills.

            After the shootings at Columbine in 1999, soon lockdown drills were added to the emergency drill repertoire.

            I have experienced two real lockdowns.  Thank God, neither one turned out badly.  But I can tell you that remaining quiet and motionless on the floor, uncomfortably cramped under a table for two hours is terrifying, trying to peek through vertical blinds for any shadow approaching.

            And now the history books will add Sandy Hook in 2012.  I’m not sure if this stomach-wrenching tragedy will generate any changes in emergency procedures.  However, here’s hoping smart people will reexamine the lockdown procedure.

            I’ve never understood the logic behind the lockdown drill.  Most school shootings are perpetrated by students who attend those campuses, meaning, they are fully aware of the lockdown drill:  teachers lock the doors, turn off the lights, and everyone hides in a corner.  No one is fooled that that classroom is actually empty.  Of course, a locked door makes it a little harder versus an unlocked one.  However, any killer can easily shoot out a door and find a classroom of sitting duck victims. 

From what little is known about last Friday’s horror, the murderer calmly walked into rooms and executed kids who were motionless.

            I understand the logic of not having kids run wild.  A maniac is likely to shoot a moving target.  However, at least there is a chance of escape.  Crouching under a table only works on the completely random chance that the shooter doesn’t choose that classroom.

            The only good that can come out of Sandy Hook is for security measures at schools be reevaluated, and for politicians to rethink laws on assault weapons.

            While we all know these tragic events are thankfully quite rare, they unsettle all of us:  parents, teachers, children.

            It wasn’t that long ago when society feared a foreign intruder harming our nation.  Now, that intruder is among us.


Time to Rest Robo-Calls

            How many of you parents receive regular robo-calls from your child’s school, those automated phone messages sent home?  I receive three of them a week:  one from my son’s elementary school principal, one from my other son’s middle school principal, and one from my principal.

            What began as an efficient way to communicate with parents about school events has turned into a regular running show that intrudes into one’s personal life, the calls occuring on the same day at the same time.  Almost all of the messages are of the non-emergency kind (thankfully) and are mainly duplicative of what’s on the school’s website or physically sent home to parents via the students.  It is very easy to tune out the recorded messages which is not what the people sending the messages want to hear.   

            However, our lives are overflowing with messages these days, visual and aural.  Look at how many spam messages you get on your computer, junk mail you get stuffed in your mailbox, TV monitors in your face at restaurants, market checkout stands, and gas station pumps.  Everybody wants to get our attention. 

            The problem is, when you do the same thing over and over, soon the message will not get through.  When you have one person jumping up and down waving one’s arms, it is attention getting.  But when you have five people doing it, it all becomes a blur, a kind of white noise.

            Just because you can send a phone message home to all students doesn’t mean it’s effective communication.

            I wish that those who have the technology used it more prudently and wisely for when a truly important message needs to get to parents, many may have already hung up.

Keep the 180-Day School Calendar

Voters should consider seriously the consequences of voting “no” to Proposition 30 or 38, ballot measures which would raise taxes in order to raise revenue for schools.   People get tax fatigue easily, especially when the economy is not doing well.  So it’s natural for voters to oppose anything that impacts their wallets.  However, as a 24-year veteran educator, I can vouch for the serious economic strait our schools are in.  Without more funding, schools will close for business.

            In America, we teach kids for 180 days or 49 percent of the calendar year. 

As we routinely watch other countries’ schoolchildren test above America’s, it is significant to note that those young people attend school for 200, even 220 days of the year.  That equates to another month or two of instruction. 

Despite that discrepancy, school districts across the United States are whittling away at the previously sacrosanct 180-day schedule due to diminished state coffers.  Why?  Because the quickest way to significantly cut a school district’s budget is to decrease the number of work days since 85 percent of a district’s expenditures go towards paying for personnel.

  The Los Angeles Unified School District, second largest in the country behind New York City, has already cut out one week and is proposing to eliminate three more if neither Prop 30 or Prop 38 passes. The 180-day calendar may decrease to a 160-day one.  That’s one month less of schooling.

It may make economic sense to do so, but it makes no sense in terms of improving student learning. 

            As a wage earner, I’m not looking forward to having my salary and benefits cut.

            As a teacher, I cringe at imagining what lessons I would no longer teach.

            And, if you are a parent, you may have to look into paying for additional child care.

Such a loss of instructional time would translate, in my teaching, to one great American novel not studied or one less student newspaper issue published.  Students would still graduate, but with less knowledge and experience.

Teaching is the be-all and end-all in education.  A teacher can’t teach math formulas or lead science labs when school is not in session. When you eliminate face-to-face time between teacher and pupil, you eliminate learning.

Imagine if your doctor had less time to evaluate you in his office.  Instead of the obligatory 15 minutes he can only provide 11 minutes of his services.  Would a shorter examination impact your health?

No matter how talented the teacher may be, excising days of instruction would mean math formulas never used, science labs never conducted, sporting events not played, essays never written, histories never read.   

Closing a school even for one day is a day that can’t be replenished later.  One more day for kids to stay at home means additional time for kids to sleep in, play video games, text each other, and another day for parents to scramble for child care or to lose a day from work.  In other words, a non-school day translates to a non-productive day for all.

            I’ve never been one to think that money is the answer to public education’s ills.  When the money was flowing in the 1990’s, I saw wasteful spending on silly programs such as sending a whole grade level on a weekend retreat as a way to have them feel connected to their school.   Now, however, I see the pendulum has shifted too much the other way with principals having to take on other duties that used to be the sole proprietary of other workers no longer employed.  The core of the education budget is at risk, the money to pay teachers drying up.   There is no fat left to cut.

A “no” on Prop 30 and Prop 38 is a “no” to children’s future, a selfish decision to save a few pennies that will harm the future.  Children’s education cannot be downsized as if it were a corporation. If their knowledge is hampered over time, such weaknesses will reverberate throughout our society. The people who fix our cars, do our taxes, and take our blood will not be as skilled.  We can’t ship our cars over to China to get a tune-up. 

If neither of the propositions passes, I shudder to think which folders of lessons stored in my five filing cabinets will gather dust.  One important story I teach is Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.” It’s about a stowaway on a spacecraft in the future which requires maintaining an exact weight limit. The quandary for the captain is that he must dispose of the stowaway or he, too, will die.  I use the story as a springboard for a discussion on difficult decisions that we all deal with in our daily lives.  Imagine students not analyzing the life lessons this story provides.  How apropos the story is to the difficult decisions that await school districts.

One of this country’s primary goals is to have an educated populace.  Educating kids for half of a year is barely realizing that goal.  Shortening the school year even further will extinguish it. Jettisoning instructional days may save money, but at a great cost.


More Rigor, Same Support

As a member of the teaching profession going on 24 years, a recurring theme threads through all the meetings and staff development sessions I’ve attended.   Everybody wants teachers to work harder.  The government, the school district, the administrators, the parents.  Probably the only group who doesn’t cry out for more from teachers are the students.

Yet few of these folks who expect more feel the need to balance such talk with incentives.  Teachers know that in order to get students to do work, kids need to be motivated either via grades or making them see the relevance of their task.  The same concept is nowhere to be found in teaching.   The reason why teachers should work harder and harder each year is because they love the kids.   Sometimes that rationale is overtly stated, often though it hangs in the air.  Few other occupations expect their employees to be good-hearted samaritans, offering them little else in terms of money, benefits, or even pats on the back.

And that is just one reason why so little has changed in teaching and public education.  Much good work does happen in our classrooms each day.  Imagine what could be if teachers were properly valued.

Putting the Pro into Profession

A few blogposts ago I discussed how important it is for teachers to dress professionally on the job rather than dress for a backyard barbeque in order to garner respect for themselves as well as for their profession.   I’d like to add a few additional pointers for my teaching brethren on how to be proactive in their professionalism.


Every teacher should have mounted on her wall behind her desk copies of her college diplomas and teaching credential.   Think of a doctor’s office.  In each examination room, plaques adorn the walls of that physician’s credentials.   Teachers should do the same.  Not many people are aware that nearly half of all public school teachers have a Master’s Degree. 


Additionally, a teacher’s name should be at the top of every document a student receives.  It takes long hours developing a lesson, writing up an assignment, then an assessment.  Each part should show the student who created all the work.  I actually learned this from a film professor at L.A. Valley College years ago.


So many teachers are kind-hearted people who don’t like to brag.  Showing one’s students (and their parents) the work a teacher puts into her profession is not bragging—it’s stating the truth.


The Numbers Just Don't Add Up

Getting lost during the national attention on the recent Chicago Teachers strike was that administrators in the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to have student achievement be part of their job evaluation, an unprecedented arrangement.


What remains to be seen is which specific results will encompass “student achievement.”  Will class grades be used?  How about AP test results?  What about standardized test scores?   These questions are to be answered before the one-year test run of this evaluation system commences.


What’s wrong about using numbers in evaluating administrators and teachers for that matter is that a statistic will not reveal if an administrator is communicating effectively with faculty members.  Likewise, test scores say nothing about how engaged and involved students are with a teacher’s lesson.  This issue was at the core the Chicago teachers strike, not salary and benefits.


There are ways to evaluate administrators and teachers.   However, such a practical system of observing certain behaviors requires a high level of training and can be time-consuming.  Numbers are easy—people-free, in fact.   Cold statistics may work when doing one’s taxes, but when teaching young people, the numbers just don’t add up.