I’ve been meaning to write this article for years, and it’s only the addition of Prop G to the June ballot for a new parcel tax for San Francisco’s government teachers that prompted me to think about my experience with teachers when my son was growing up in The City. I must add, first of all, that my experience with teachers in both government schools and religious schools was very positive. Almost without exception, I found all the teachers I had contact with were dedicated, loved the kids, and worked long and hard to make sure the kids actually learned something in school. They weren’t just overpaid babysitters watching the kids so both parents could work, as often happens these days.
But what do you do about the occasional bad apple? How a government school and a religious school handled the problem illustrates the essential difference between government and voluntary schools.
I was one of the lucky ones who got my first choice on the school assignment lottery system used in San Francisco. The Japanese Bilingual Program at Clarendon was my first choice, and through some stroke of luck, I got it. I remember well attending a tour of the school a year before my son entered kindergarten, and there was so much tension in the air that the principal noted that you could cut it with a knife. With close to 1,000 families vying for, at most, 100 slots between the two programs at Clarendon, and the cost of $20,000/year in tuition per child (at that time) at stake if the lottery system didn’t pan out, you can understand the anxiety of the parents.
The teachers at Clarendon were excellent, not the least of the reasons being that parental involvement was required, not requested. However, my son’s second grade teacher was not well-liked, and already there were grumblings about her teaching from the parents that year. She was old-style teaching, and that didn’t fit in well with today’s modern, progressive San Francisco parenting. I thought she was OK—perhaps not the best or the warmest, but I wasn’t particularly concerned.
By the time my son was in the fourth grade, the situation definitely deteriorated to the point that many parents were complaining to the administration about her. Of course, the union was involved and defended her vigorously in the numerous meetings about the teacher. According to one parent I spoke to, he said that the parents were so up in arms that they organized a strict timetable schedule amongst themselves to ensure that at least one parent was in the classroom at all times every day during school hours. That’s how unhappy the parents were with this teacher. By the end of the school year, amazingly the teacher was flat out of luck and options, and even the union could no longer defend her with all the parents’ complaints. She was advised by the administration to retire gracefully or risk losing all her retirement benefits. She retired—and the parents celebrated.
Now here’s how a similar situation ended differently when my son moved on to a religious school for middle school. I met his homeroom teacher at “Back to School” night, and she seemed OK to me—nothing out of the ordinary that would have evoked the brief storm that quickly followed “Back to School” night. Sometime in the fall (either in October or early November—certainly well before Thanksgiving) on the way home from school one day, my son told me that his homeroom teacher had been replaced with another teacher. Not a substitute—completely replaced. What happened? Apparently, the teacher was also of the old-style method of teaching and had taken to calling the kids “losers” and other non-positive names if their work did not measure up. Her style was probably more suited for physical education and sports than academics and outraged the parents who heard about it (I hadn’t). Needless to say, progressive San Francisco parents paying good money directly out of their own pockets raised a big stink with the administration—and she was out. Just like that.
In the government school, the parents fought long and hard for two years to get rid of a teacher they were unhappy with. In the voluntary school, a similar situation was handled in about two months. The parents raised Cain and fearing a loss of their “customers”—and the dollars they bring—the reaction of the administration was immediate. That’s why you never hear about “rubber rooms” for teachers when parents pay for their children’s education directly themselves.