Tag Archives: Alan Bersin

The Teachers

15 May

By Thomas Ultican 5/15/2023

Alexandra Robbins’ new book is an authentic look into the life, working environment, emotional struggles and triumphs of America’s K-12 teachers. The book opens up many unnecessary issues that America’s professional educators face as they try to give their best in the classroom. It also reminded me of my own teaching journey with its unjust treatments and eventual success.

The Book can be Purchased Here

It is Not Burnout

Teaching is a much higher stress job than it needs to be because of factors outside of the classroom. Robbins reports on a special education teacher named Prisha being left by herself in classes of 28 to 35 special education students when her co-teacher had to take a two month medical leave. The school’s staff was almost all first or second year teachers like Prisha who didn’t know what to do. The principal’s solution was to call all the special ed teachers “fucking morons” and start monitoring Prisha’s grade book. No actual support for a new teacher in a no win situation. (Teachers 217)

Robbins cites a gallop pole claiming that teachers tied with nurses for the highest rate of daily stress on the job among all occupations. She shares a study asserting, “It is confirmed that teachers have the highest burnout levels as compared to other professionals in social services.” (Teachers 218)

It needs to be noted that teaching only became high stress after the 1983 Department of Education report “A Nation at Risk.” That fraudulent polemic misused SAT data to cook the books and claim American public schools were failing. Later, Anya Kamenetz reported for NPR, “A 1990 report produced by the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories broke down the flaws in the “A Nation at Risk” analysis but got little attention.”

“A Nation at Risk” was followed by a dramatic expansion of teacher responsibilities but no accompanying structural support. The report inspired a push for state-mandated testing. This led to a major demoralization of teachers when in 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) became federal law. Robbins writes,

“NCLB, which mandated rigorous standardized testing and penalized schools and teachers based on students’ scores, remains ‘the worst federal education legislation ever passed by Congress. It was punitive, harsh, stupid, ignorant about pedagogy and motivation, and ultimately a dismal failure,’ as New York University research professor of education Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and leading educational expert, has written.” (Teachers 224)

I remember in about 2007 a principal saying to me that school used to be fun; hopefully we’ll get back to that someday. Today, there is a large problem with teachers quitting the profession that is being attributed to burnout but it is more accurate to call it teacher frustration; a frustration with not being able to provide the kind of good pedagogy that their students and communities deserve.

Robbins points to a need for school leadership to step up to the plate. She writes,

“The responsibility for resolving teacher demoralization, or what the public calls burnout, should lie with districts and administrators. Telling teachers to relax doesn’t cut it. … Instead of halfheartedly attempting to mitigate the effects on teachers, school leaders should fix the underlying causes – their school climate, staffing numbers, and resources – not just to prevent employee demoralization, but because that’s how a proper workplace should operate.” (Teachers 228)

A Personal Experience with Education Reform

In Diane Ravich’s seminal book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she describes how my home town of San Diego, California was chosen as an education reform test site. Ravitch noted that it was an unusual choice for where to launch a reform movement because San Diego was viewed as having “one of the nation’s most successful urban school systems.” (Page 50) In 1998, the former US Attorney for the southern district of California, Alan Bersin, was hired to be the school district superintendent and lead the reform experiment. The local education community was against hiring an uncertified non-educator to lead the district but the San Diego business community which held sway over the school board wanted it.

I started education graduate school at the University of California San Diego in 2001 and found that a few of my instructors were consulting on the district’s education reforms. Some of the changes being introduced were quite good but the authoritarian implementation alienated most of the district’s teachers who had no input into what was happening.

One major change affected me. It was mandated that all ninth graders take the new conceptual physics class. That caused the district a severe shortage of certified physics teachers. I had just completed my masters in education with a physics certificate. It was not long before I got an offer to be a probationary teacher via a telephone interview.

Turned out the Bell Jr. High principal was not being totally up front with me. Going to the district office to sign my contract, I was told the probationary positions were filled and was offered a temp contract. I discovered that teachers in California normally needed more than two years to become full time with job protections. Temp contracts do not count as tenure track teaching time.

The principal at Bell literally had a hole in her head having recently gone through brain surgery to remove a tumor. Two retired administers were convinced by the district to come back and serve as assistant principals, provide support during the convalescence and take over if medical issues arose. One of them became my evaluator.

In my first written evaluation, the AP wrote that discipline was a problem and that I never checked for student understanding. In a written response, I wrote that during the lab period she observed every team coming to me multiple times to have their lab progress reviewed and checked off before moving on to the next phase. I questioned her observation of not checking for student understanding? While my class may be a little free, all 36-students successfully completed and submitted their lab reports so class discipline was not leading to dysfunction. I should have added that the classes were too large for safe lab science activities.

One time the evaluator came in while I had the class working on a poster project. A student that had not had much success in school rushed up to her and proudly showed off his poster. She later told me that I should have written him a referral right then for leaving his group without permission. I was thinking what is wrong with a child engaged in learning? Why punish his new pride?

At Bell we had 13 sections of regular physics plus I taught the only section of honors physics. My classes tested amazingly well. The regular physics classes ranked 1, 2, 4 and 6 in comparison to all 13 sections at Bell. The honors physics class was the number 2 scoring class in the entire district. I was stunned at the end of the year when my evaluator said she could not recommend me for rehire because of “not moving classes toward achieving standards” and the lack of classroom disciple. The quoted line meant that I could not even apply for a substitute teaching position in San Diego Unified School District.

I talked to several district administrators who commiserated with me and even admitted how strange this looked but none of them felt they could do anything. The Bersin administration had set up an arbitrary quota system for teachers being fired and the percentage of new hires retained. It turns out a determined administrator can fire tenured teachers. This was aimed at keeping everyone following orders and not complaining. At Bell, I was the 50 year old new hire who was sacrificed to protect the younger teachers.

It is remarkable that the evaluation from my next school in another district noted discipline as one of my classroom strengths.

The Teachers is a Great Read

Alexandra Robbins uses the experience of three teachers during the 2021/22 school year as the backbone for her book. In the August chapter, she introduces Rebecca, Penny and Miguel. Month by month, Robbins reveals the sometimes horrific and sometimes triumphant experiences of these three amazing teachers. Along the way she shares insights, research and some eye-popping experience from other teachers. It is the most revealing and authentic view of teaching I have ever read.

I will end with this quote from page 279 which shows in gory detail why teacher opinions should be sought out and adhered to.

“Florida teachers compiled a mountain of evidence that public school was not the place for one particular student who had numerous mental health issues, was obsessed with guns, and was suspended 18 times in one school year. But it took five months to get him transferred to a special middle school – and when he was determined to attend public high school, Florida’s disability law allowed him to. The student was Nikola Cruz, the school Marjory Stoneman Douglas. In 2018, Cruz massacred 14 students and three staff members in one of the deadliest school shootings in history.”

El Guapo’s Election Report Card

22 Jan

By Thomas Ultican 1/22/2023

Going into the recent general election, I prepared and published recommendations for forty-two K-12 school board seats on various voters’ ballots. Those positions were from the fifteen largest school districts out of San Diego County’s forty-two school districts. Twenty-nine of my recommendations won and thirteen were defeated.

Across that nation, school board races became targets of culture warriors speciously targeting schools to promote their ultra-right ideology often verging on fascism. Schools were unscrupulously accused of teaching critical race theory (CRT) and grooming students to become gay. It did not matter that CRT has never been taught in the K-12 environment or that turning a straight student gay is not any more possible than turning a gay student straight.  

There was some of that kind of dishonest campaigning in San Diego but it was largely unsuccessful.

Awaken Church is not Woke

In 2004, C3 founder Phil Pringle asked veterans of the evangelical megachurch tradition in Australia, Jurgen Matthesius and his wife Leanne Matthesius, to move to San Diego and found the church. They arrived in 2005 and began holding services in hotels, elementary schools and even at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). The year 2014 witnessed the establishment their first permanent site in Carlsbad and they have since grown to five campuses with about 10,000 parishioners. Originally established as the C3 church, in January 2020 they relaunched as Awaken Church.

Early in the pandemic Awaken Church defied government orders not to hold indoor services. Until the orders against indoor gatherings were lifted, Awaken continuously defied cease and desist orders from the county even in the face Covid-19 outbreaks linked directly to their services.  

In the recent school board elections, Awaken became extremely active calling for a change in school operations. Their RMNNT political action arm labels themselves as “warriors of liberty.” They self define as a remnant of people rising up violently, if need be, to fight tyranny. They are a dangerously misled and armed people with a doctrine that could hardly be more un-American. Following the national movement, school boards were targeted as the place for promoting their radical ideology of change.

Out on Coronado Island, Awaken found a fellow traveler in the MAGA right organization, We the Parents Coronado (WTPC). Like Awaken they have rudely railed against state and local mask mandates and vaccine requirements. WTPC’s web page links to anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ materials. The reality is WTPC is a small organization but very loud.

Coronado is an upscale city of 20,000 on a sort of island with San Diego Bay to the north and east plus the Pacific Ocean to the west. There is a narrow strip of land known as the Silver Strand extending south to Imperial Beach. Driving down the strand one sees the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, the Seal Team training facility and Silver Strand State Beach. It is a stunningly beautiful community filled with naval flag officers, doctors, lawyers and expensive real estate.

In the general election, there were 3 four-year school board terms and 1 two-year board term on the ballot for Coronado Unified School District. The Awaken candidates were Scott Youngblood, Lisa Meglioli and Geri Machin. Scot Youngblood is an orthopedic surgeon and retired Navy Captain who was endorsed by the Republican Party. On his campaign webpage this Navy doctor revealed himself to be anti-vax and anti-mask. RMNNT the political action group affiliated with Awaken offered candidate training. Lisa Meglioli is a member of Awaken who took the RMNNT training where Coronado’s Republican Mayor Richard Bailey served as an instructor. Awaken’s third candidate, Geri Machin, was a founder and former executive director of WTPC.

When the election results came in, three of my four recommended candidates won (Alexia Palacios-Peters, Malachy Denis Sandy and Renee Cavanaugh). However, it was disappointing to see the anti-masker who is supposedly a doctor win that fourth seat. There are five total seats on the Coronado school board.

In San Diego Unified, the Awaken style change candidate was Becca Williams. She is the anti-mask and anti-vaccine mandates candidate endorsed by the Republican Party. Becca has teaching experience in charter schools and along with her husband founded Valor Education a charter management organization whose classic education is a conservative response to progressive values. She lost to the candidate I endorsed environmentalist and UCSD lecturer Cody Peterson.

In Carlsbad, the Awaken style change candidate was Sharon Mckeeman locally infamous as the founder of the anti-mask and anti-vaccine mandates organization “Let them Breath”. She was endorsed by the Republican Party. I endorsed Michele Tsutagawa Ward a 20-year educator and a school principal in Poway. She won.

The Encinitas Elementary School District is relatively small, but I agreed to review it at the request of a few concerned parents. The Republican Party endorsed Andre Johnson for one of the three seats on the ballot in which voters selected three from a list of candidates. Johnson manages information technology and the database for Awaken Church. It is a reasonable conjecture that he aligns with writer Jakob McWhinney’s observation that Awaken candidates have a “hyperbolic worldview that casts them as righteous fighters against a diabolical liberal ruling class.”  

In Encinitas, my three endorsements all carried the day.

Looking at some Election Misses

My recommendations won almost 100% of the seats in the school districts within 30-miles of the Pacific Ocean. However, in an exception, San Diego Unified candidate Shana Hazan defeated Godwin Higa. Godwin has a decade’s long history as a teacher and principal. He is also a leading expert in trauma informed teaching. Hazan had two years of teaching experience and has worked more than the last decade at Jewish Family Services. Still, she raked in big campaign contributions and racked up an impressive list of endorsements including from the Democratic Party and the San Diego Union Tribune.

I was fairly certain that Hazan would win but recommended Higa. Besides his superior experience and training, I was also concerned by her campaign reports showing $1,500 from Alan Bersin, $1,500 from Scott Peters, $1,500 from Irwin Jacobs, $1,500 from Joan Jacobs, $1,500 from Allison Price, and $1,500 from Robert Price. This is support from two neo-liberal politicians and a group of billionaires. There are reasons to believe she is a gifted young woman who believes in public education and protecting the commons. She just might be one of those political leaders who starts on a school board and goes on to higher office.  Hopefully she is not a neoliberal.

In East County, the school boards are dominated by members who are recommended by the Republican Party. I am fine with Republicans, who believe in traditional Republican values like local control, public education and fiscal management. That is why I recommended all three of the Republicans running for the Escondido Union High School District and they all won.

I was quite disappointed to see that Zesty Harper won a seat on Escondido’s elementary school board. After winning a seat in 2014, she became a controversial figure proclaiming, “No longer will it be OK for this disservice we have called your education to continue.” She declared that creationism should be taught in classrooms alongside evolution. She also sent her own children to Heritage Charter School instead of an Escondido Union School District campus. Her campaign web page states, “Zesty strongly believes in school choice and has supported local charter schools to increase innovation, competition, and choice in Escondido public schools.”

The Grossmont Union High School District has been run by the same Republican cabal for more than a decade. It was time for a change, but my council was ignored. I find board member since 2008, Gary Woods, particularly troubling. He taught online graduate courses at Liberty University and serves as executive director of the Equip Biblical Institute. Woods was endorsed by the Republican Party. There is a strong whiff of Christian nationalism here. This is the board that turned venerable Helix High School into a charter school.

Why is it El Guapo’s Report Card?

When I first entered the classroom students often asked if they could call me Mr. U. Something about that just put me off so I decided to have some fun with it. The vast majority of my students were Mexicans. Which was not unexpected since you could clearly see the Las Playas bullring just a mile or so away. I told them, “You can call me El Guapo.”

Guapo is pronounced wăpō like the Washington Post’s (WAPO). Most of the kids knew El Guapo meant Mr. Handsome. More than any kids I have ever worked with, Mexican kids love to joke around and tease. They immediately latched on to my new name and shortened it a little. Pretty soon I was Guapo as in “hey Guapo when will we ever use this stuff?” Which I would answer with the ever so encouraging “YOU; probably never.”

We all had a lot of fun learning math and physics.

The relationship between teachers and students is unique. We aren’t really friends but often develop deep attachments. We are not parents but students come to us – adults in their life that they trust – with issues they might not be willing to discuss with their parents. We are the example in their life of how to live that is working to prepare them for the future. This relationship is so important it is why machines should never replace teachers. It is probably more important than the curriculum being delivered.

Some Final Thoughts

We are a society being buried in lies.

“The election was stolen; everybody knows I won in a landslide.” This lie is still believed by 60% of Republicans because they watch Fox News which blatantly lies.

School choice is based on Milton Friedman’s lie that Public Schools are government monopolies. There are about 19,000 school districts in the United States each with their own governing bodies the vast majority of which are elected. That is not a monopoly and in reality school choice is about not having to go to school with those peoples children. It’s a racist agenda.

Well financed propagandist Christopher Rufo has widely spread the lie that CRT is being taught in K-12 Schools. He claims it is making white children uncomfortable; another lie.

A lot of people believe the lie that public schools are grooming students to “turn them” gay. The result is censorship and a small minority of LGBTQ+ students being tormented for who they are. They are people and they deserve respect. Prejudice is a social disease.

These lies have been used to divide us and distract us from billionaires grabbing more and more for themselves. Economic inequality has reached heights never before witnessed in this country and putting up with lies is a root cause. If we lose our Democracy then there will be no choice but to put up with lies. Look at what is going on in Russia, China and Hungry.

The American public school system is a treasure and must be protected from liars and their paymasters. If someone tells you that voucher schools and charter schools are superior to public schools, they are lying.