Flowery praise of teachers is a standard part of speeches by superintendents, school board members and principals. But they never mention a sad truth. If our most energetic and effective educators make others look bad, someone is eventually going to punish them for that.
I have collected small examples of this over the years. Now here is a big one.
On Oct. 13, behind closed doors, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to fire Rafe Esquith, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times. Esquith is probably the nation’s best classroom teacher. He has been dismissed for murky reasons that appear to be part of a witch hunt against hundreds of other L.A. educators.
Obviously I’m biased. I don’t think Esquith could ever be guilty of any of the fuzzy accusations in an August statement from the district, including inappropriate touching of minors, inappropriate photos and videos on his computer, ethical and policy violations in the nonprofit group that funds his fifth-grade class’s annual Shakespeare plays. He has denied any wrongdoing. The district’s legal team has suspended hundreds of teachers on similar unexamined charges, the result of L.A. school leaders losing touch with reality after being traumatized by a molestation scandal a few years ago.
The dishonest nature of the Esquith investigation is clear from the fact it did not begin until a state commission ruled against the district on a silly complaint that he had somehow offended students and others with a mild joke involving a reference to nudity. I think the district investigators decided they were not going to let this celebrity teacher — countless awards, four intriguing books and movie star supporters — show them up.
In their one interview with Esquith, 61, they asked the names of women he dated in college and people at his school who disliked him. Given enough time, staff and money, cynical attack dogs can make any of us look bad, even if we’re not. That goes double for teachers who spend so much time with kids, and triple for teachers who creatively interpret musty regulations that impede student learning.
I have been in Esquith’s classroom many times, seen his joyful multi-media plays, interviewed him for hours and talked to his wife, many of his students and educators he has mentored. I have never detected a trace of improper behavior. The district’s one concrete fact is an allegation that he abused a nine-year-old boy at a summer camp when he was 19, but neither the school board nor the L.A. police did anything with that when the accuser informed them in 2006.
Esquith has been teaching for more than 30 years. Educators have extolled the combination of challenge and fun in his classes full of children of low-income Hispanic and Korean families. He helps former students find the right high schools and colleges. He has usually worked 12-hour days and helped kids in his class on holidays and weekends. Their test scores are high and their life achievements impressive.
That’s the kind of stuff that insecure supervisors hate. When Mary Catherine Swanson, the founder of the nation’s largest college readiness program, AVID, was first having success with her ideas, the jealous director of her district’s gifted student program said “I will see to it that your career is ruined in the San Diego city schools.” Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP charter school network, was elected teacher of the year by the faculty of the first Houston elementary school he worked in, but when he defied an order to excuse some of his lower-achieving students from a state standardized test, his principal fired him.
The L.A. school district has taken that kind of spite to a new level. It will pay for that, but not right away.
The lawsuit that Esquith already has filed for attempting to smear him — and a class-action suit his lawyers filed Thursday on behalf of many teachers similarly mistreated — will take years to resolve. I am happy Esquith will have time to help more teachers and students elsewhere, and write more books. Howard Blume of the L.A. Times told me Esquith will still get his pension, but the class-action lawsuit suggests that is not true for all teachers swept up in the L.A. schools dragnet.
This is a classic witch hunt. In those frightful incidents in colonial New England, children died or crops failed for mysterious reasons, and no one wanted to defend the people accused of wrongdoing for fear of being labeled friends of the devil. The L.A. school board seems to me similarly unwilling to stand up for a great teacher because even an unconfirmed whisper of touching kids makes otherwise sensible people go silent.
Esquith will continue to do good work. But it will take the L.A. school leadership many years to right the wrongs they have done, out of panic, to him and many others.