I never tried to be difficult or argumentative, it just came out that way. Teaching, like much in life, always seems to be a balancing act between either standing your ground for what you believe is right, or going along to get along. In standing my ground, I’d always ask questions. These Socratic style inquiries always seemed to me to be obvious or logical: ‘How is this training going to help me or my students when, I assure you, it doesn’t fit them or me?’ or ‘Where are the parents and students in this ‘Let’s hold all stakeholders accountable’ reform?’ I could go on, but you get the picture – I hope.
My questions brought me nothing but enmity from the powers that be downtown. Ms. Curtis told me that I got mentioned (in absentia) at a district sponsored training she attended. They started the training by going around the room and having each teacher tell their name, subject they taught and what school they worked at. When Ms. Curtis told them that she worked at West Hollywood, the administrator gave a ‘knowing nod of the head’ and said, “Oh! You’re friends with DeVuono!” Curtis told me later, with no small amount of alarm in her voice, “I was damned just for knowing you!”
So I wasn’t surprised when one day, out of the blue, led by my principal, four downtown administrators burst into my room as part of their general rounds, ‘to see how things were going at our school’. Yeah right! My boss told me later that they specifically asked to see my room first and once they had my room number they dashed out so quickly (to keep me from being warned) that my boss had to run to keep up with them!
Like Zorro, I crushed the dreams of the oppressors. But my victory was bitter sweet.
I was working on earning my National Board (the National Board For Professional Teaching Standards, NBPTS) Certification in Early Adolescence Mathematics at the time. I was angry. I was angry because I was being judged by standards which did not take into account the widely differing skill levels and personal problems of my CDS students. I was required to teach Algebra to kids who didn’t even know what a checkbook was, let alone, how to balance a checkbook – but balancing a checkbook is not in the curriculum. Some kids were ready for Algebra but most were not. That’s why we taught individually structured and paced lessons. I taught Algebra and Geometry to those who were ready and I taught basic math to those who needed it and my kids appreciated that. NBPTS and LAUSD did not.
So I went along to get along and I’m not proud of it. To get certified, I was required to teach a whole class Algebra lesson (even though that’s not what we were set up to do – even though my experience taught me it was the wrong thing to do) and then I was required to write a commentary on the outcome of the lesson. [Author’s note: It is not necessary to understand the following Algebraic vocabulary to appreciate this story.] I chose to teach a whole class lesson on the slope intercept form of a linear equation, y = mx + b where m is the slope of the solution set of the graph of the linear equation and b is the y-intercept when x=0. Or to look at it another way: I was teaching how to determine that -3y + 6x = -12 is equivalent to y = 2x + 4 (they have the same solution set). Whew!
I had been working with this particular batch of students long enough that I got respectful quiet behavior even though I could tell from some of the slack-jawed, glassy-eyed faces that (dynamic public speaker that I am) there wasn’t much interest or learning going on. Sure, there were some kids who were ready for such a lesson and they got it. The rest of them valiantly endured and, despite crushing boredom, were well behaved.
Then, in the midst of the lesson, while explaining how to simplify the equation by multiplying each of the terms of the equation by the reciprocal of the coefficient of the y variable, we heard a key in the door and in marched my boss and four suits (administrators) from downtown. I ignored them. My kids ignored them. I continued with the lesson. The only other sound (did I really hear it?) was the gnashing of teeth by administrators foiled by catching me doing everything right – according to their misguided standards. The administrators never asked me what I was doing or my evaluation of the lesson.
My boss later told me that he believed the suits were more bothered by catching me doing what they perceived as the right thing than by catching me napping.
What bothered me the most was it was another case of evaluating a teacher by ‘thin slicing’ gone wrong (see Don’t Blink! The Truth…). The lesson was age appropriate and part of the Algebra curriculum but it was also a disaster because it was too advanced for students who, for years, had been passed along by social promotion. Maybe 25% of the room got anything at all from that hour. It was, in my opinion, a waste of time.
I dodged a bullet. I beat the suits at their own game. But I’m not proud of it – just lucky!