"Those who can, teach;
Those who can't, administrate."

--Punjab Hillstein, Occultist With a Mission

"Never insult a writer:
He might make you immortal."

--Evelyn Waugh (?)

An Open Letter to Torrance Unified

Dr. Cyma Burgner, Personnel Coordinator
Dr. Frank Tyrrell
Mr. Mike Bartelt
Torrance Unified School District
2335 Plaza Del Amo
Torrance, California 90509

24 October 1997

Dear Dr. Terrell, Dr. Burgner, and Mr. Bartelt:

Thank you for sharing the results of my "interview" with me and giving me the opportunity to respond.

The notes on my interview of 9/27/97 are so far out of line with reality that I wonder if perhaps someone else's notes were put into my file by mistake. After reviewing all of the comments and comparing them with the actual content of the interview, I find huge discrepancies between not only the interpretations of what I did or did not say but between what I repeatedly stressed to the interviewers --that I have been teaching remedial reading, filling in gaps in the first to third-grade level--for the last three years--and what they wrote--that my knowledge of Language Arts is "limited."

Here is a detailed analysis of the discrepancies and inappropriateness of the comments now in my file having little if anything to do with me or my abilities:

I was criticized as giving vague answers. Perhaps my answer to the question: "What do you do with a class that has students of differing abilities?" confused the interviewers. I answered that it depends on the students; I deal with students on a case-by-case basis; I was going to another county to help a teacher friend with a class that has disparate language and reading abilities (a fifth grade class that ranges from not knowing the entire alphabet and its sounds on up, with most of them below third grade level). What does this tell us? Simply that I am not a master of quodlibetic discourse. I am a person of considered action. As promised, I did a week of voluntary service as a literacy tutor for "a class of inequal abilities," in which I used my time tutoring all students and evaluating those who needed help and what kind. My informal evaluation and temporary study plan for one of her students in desperate need of help is attached as an example of an informal assessment observation/log for an at-risk student.

Give me a problem and I will solve it, give me students and I will teach them, using any of the many means at my disposal. My ability to teach art in no way distracts from my ability to teach other subjects--it supplements, enriches, and enhances it--nor does my experience in teaching ESL impede my ability to teach language arts (in which now is included phonics and I again refer you, as I did Dr. Terrell at the interview, to Bill Honig's book, Teaching Our Children to Read: The Role of Skills in a Comprehensive Program--review I wrote attached); my experience teaching Remedial Reading, which is a phonics, context, root word, cursive, literature-based course that deals with reading skills from grade 1 to grade 3 is highly relevant and served as my training ground: not just quodlibetics, not just theory, but a real working awareness of the pitfalls of reading development. I repeatedly stressed to the interviewers that this is the level that I have been working with for the last three and a half years. Somehow they got out of that that I am "unfamilar with newer methodologies."

When Dr. Terrell asked me "What is your feeling about Whole Language," I stared at him wide-eyed--how is one to answer such a global question as that in the context of one portion of a 15-minute interview? He rephrased it, "What is your impression of Whole Language?" I was again nonplussed, but managed to mention to him Bill Honig's book and the sad misapplication of what had been a well-intentioned supplement to the kinds of langage arts instruction that were working and were in place at that time but those, unfortunately, were the baby tossed out with the bath water. I repeatedly stressed that the students I teach are those who suffered under whole language and I teach the skills they never developed as a result. Those skills are phonics and decoding skills, followed by beginning to interpret what is read, and to read for enjoyment. This is exactly the third grade level. These things I did "articulate" and articulate clearly to the two interviewers.

Perhaps I should not have spoken about the damages I have seen (and have been repairing for the last three years) as a result of Whole Language or the ridiculousness of a wholly Whole Language teaching of reading class to which I was subjected in the pursuit of my multiple-subject credential. I recounted to the interviewers how I fought for a balanced approach in that class, citing the ineffectiveness of expecting students to guess at all words with no phonemic awareness formally taught, and how important it was to learn the basic mechanical skills of reading before attempting wild guesses, and how the instructor, a Whole Language maven, was horrified at my suggesting that technique be taught--that guessing by context is a higher-level reading skill that comes after phonemic awareness and that Whole Language is a wonderful approach to reading for very visual, non-linear learners, but since they are not the majority of the population, we could best spend time on techniques that serve the majority of the population and supplement those with alternative strategies. I thought that that very clearly demonstrated that my focus is on the balanced approach, beginning with phonics instruction; I was not aware, however, that Torrance Unified still views Whole Language as a newer methodology as, under the California Reading initiative and Goals 2000, a systematic phonics program is mandated. I refer you also to AB 3482, a recent assembly bill approprating funds to school districts for the implementation of a phonics-based reading program. Knowing this, many of us have brought our basic sight word vocabulary, spelling lists, and phonics manipulatives out of the dark recesses of drawers and closets to which they have been relegated these last fifteen years and have just recently begun to speak openly of the "ph-" word. Apparently the "ph-" word is still a dirty word in Torrance and I cut my throat by mentioning it, even in the context of a balanced approach to reading instruction: phonics and decoding skills combined with contextual and "visual decoding" skills (I myself generally use the term "decoding" to refer to the phonemic deciphering of words).

I'm not sure what Dr. Tyrrell thought was new methodology: phonics has been around since the Phoenicians, and Whole Language bombed. Ooops, group work was the wrong word too, collaborative learning, cooperative learning, student-centered classrooms: I should have said, "If you walk into my classroom, you will see all my ducks in a row, all students facing the front of the room and the back of the head of the student in front of them, and they'll all be doing the same thing and I'll be standing in the front of the room with my chalk in my hand," rather than my truthful answer of, "You will see the students involved in group work, unless I am presenting something initially, and you will see me moving around the room, sitting with different groups. I don't sit at my desk." Other than that, how can anyone predict what someone might see when coming into a classroom to see what's going on--children are delightful in their variety. I told them that I respond to students as individuals and work best that way because I adjust myself to each individual I interact with. I make a plan for each individual, based on his or her needs. I arrange my classrooms around my students. Without the room and without the students, I can't answer that question.

The assertion that my elementary experience is limited is also a preposterous one. Two years as the regular Art teacher for grades k-8 (individual classes) at Bethany American School; five years as the regular art teacher at Glenmartin Elementary (grades 1-6 combined, including Down's and deaf students); five years of intensive substitute teaching at Taipei American School; one summer class of grade 3-5 ESL at Taipei American School. Substituting in Yucaipa and Big Bear; studio teacher for children working on location in the entertainment industry. Before all that, recreational art classes at Long Beach Recreation Department and also at TYPA in Taipei. Also, I am the lead teacher for Korean students who come to a Language Camp here in Beaumont, ages 8-17, doing curriculum design and teacher training, and liason between management and teachers. I have tons of experience at the elementary level, and it's all on the résumé the interviewers had before them.

Moreover, the comment that my elementary experience is "only substituting," is demeaning of the contributions substitute teachers make to education and reflects the attitude that caused me to stop substitute teaching: I was tired of being treated as a paraprofessional by people with less education and experience than I. A provision of the California Department of Education Model School Accountability Report Card is the use of "qualified substitute teachers;" when qualified substitutes (and believe me, I loved the job until it became demoralizing through the patronizing attitude towards substitute teachers which trickled down even to the students) are referred to as only substitutes, they don't stay around. When substitute lists are filled with emergency-certified people, it perpetuates this attitude; this attitude drives away more qualified people, perpetuating the need for less-qualified people. How could any self-respecting person work in Torrance as a substitute, knowing that he or she is referred to as only a substitute? Everyone should try it for a year. Substitute teachers are remarkable people, people who know the material at all grade levels and can be woken up between 6:00 and 7:00 A.M. with a phone call: "I have a [take your pick] grade class at [take your pick] school today. Oh, and I think they might have an assembly or something today. Can you do it?" What's the answer? Always yes. Then they walk into the class and try to find everything, read the substitute file, read the notes the teachers (bless their hearts) left, check through the stack of books, plans, handouts, special times and schedules for certain students, special yard duties, students' duties, seating ch...ooops, here they come and, "Good morning. My name is Ms. McMahon. Ms. Who couldn't be here today, so I came in in her place. She left me all these wonderful instructions here so that we will have a good day...." Think about it. Think about this too: how many teachers have the opportunity to work in a variety of classrooms with a variety of strategies, tones, methods, materials, all other people's? None but substitutes. We are fantastically well-prepared to face any situation and have enormous bags of tricks gleaned from our vast experience in classrooms. Only a substitute, you say?

On behalf of all substitutes I would request that you do some serious thinking about this denigrating attitude. Were you to change your attitude, it would trickle down to the students and substitutes' jobs would be easier. Children would know that it is quite a demanding job and substitutes are deserving of respect for it; as it is, in many districts that treat their substitutes as paraprofessionals, students feel it a moral duty to "torture the sub." This is an action that you can take that would improve morale, behavior, and the teaching profession.

With a person with as much multi-level and multi-subject experience as I have, it's sometimes difficult to point out the more mundane aspects of training and experience--those are taken as a given at this point in my career--and I come to a job interview not as a supplicant but as a colleague and expect the same professionalism in return. At this particular interview I was asked vague, global questions and given no feedback; in other words, there was no entre in this entrevista. On Mr. Bartelt‘s behalf, I must note that he did ask me if I would like to leave one of the folios I'd brought. I had no idea of what more they needed to know. I thought it was clear that I'm a Language Arts ace. I left, then, a folio of enrichment activities tied to social studies. Had he asked if I had any Language Arts materials in my "stuff," I could have given him a folio of lesson plans, California Challenge Standards, California Reading Initiative materials, book lists....

I made the same mistake that Bill Honig made. When he approved Whole Language strategies, he meant them as a supplement to the tried and true phonics instruction, not as a substitute for them. The tunnel vision of district administrators--is it their tunnel vision, an inability to think logically, or just plain provincialism--caused them to be unable to supplement what Bill Honig took as a given: that reading involves phonemic awareness and phonemic awareness is taught. Here, I offered all my additional skills as enrichment for core activities, taking for a given that administrators would respect the state's mandates and certification, knowing that someone with a recent Clear Multiple Subject credential would certainly be familiar with methodology and content; that someone with a lifetime credential in Art and English would certainly be able to handle traditional reading instruction; that someone with 100 % in the Communication Skills section of the NTE (not required by CA; required by states with higher Language Arts scores on standardized tests-- Huh? 100%. Yup, none wrong--that's the top 1% of the top 1 percentile) would have a high degree of metacognition in regard to the development of reading skills from all approaches; that someone with a Language Development Specialist certificate is certainly familiar with "new methodologies." How many of your teachers have been able to pass this rigorous exam--no, I don't mean the bonehead classes that were put together so that each of the three sections of the three/four-hour exam has an entire semester of preparation (and college credits) so that those "teachers in training" whose time had run out could have yet another crack at the test. No, I'm not one of those kind of teachers who memorizes all the words for things I'm supposed to know how to do; I value content over form. I don't care what you call it, if it works, it works.

Administrators themselves should get some training in the "new methodologies," (and I met a wonderful principal in Inglewood who was taking the LDS training to get the certificate himself--now there's a man who's earning his money--and you should see the fine neighborhood school he runs in Inglewood. Inglewood certainly does not have the cachet that Torrance does, in all senses of the word; it does, however, value content) and then actually use them on a class of students. For dares for dares! Administrators actually doing the tasks that they administrate in name only???--you know, "hands-on, experiential learning that provides ownership of the concepts," in other words understanding the content of what they know the newest buzzwords for. They might be surprised to find out that they have been buying old wine in new bottles for many years now. This is something we try to teach upper elementary children after their basic reading skills have developed: how to interpret the words you now read, how not to be sold on things with flashy packaging but to look at the contents label, to evaluate statements like, "xxx paper towels are stronger when wet." (Stronger than what? Than they were in the past, than they are when they're dry, than toilet paper, than all other brands).

To my credit, when I was asked what I would use to evaluate progress, I did not shriek, "Ommmigad! $40,000/year/teacher package, $800/year/student, times 30 teachers and you don't have a standardized test in place? You don't have a standardized test from the past to which can be compared the reaqding scores at mid-year and at the end of the year?" and just thought to myself, "Well, with the month of planning and training we'll have, we can come up with a district grade-level test, maybe a checklist to distribute to all teachers, but to what do we compare it?" With those thoughts racing through my head, I answered that I like to use portfolios of student work (which include writing, drawing, math, tests at different intervals, reading logs, oh so many things to create the whole picture) and that I found them especially valuable with LEP students. I took for granted the textbook tests, the California state tests, my own tests, informal observation, visual interpretations of written material.... I'm a teacher. That's what we do. Again, I answered far above the level of the question, assuming a mutual professional respect that did not exist in that room.

I didn't take it for granted that the two interviewers would know that I teach phonics in Remedial Reading, so I told them. I also told them that the level of Remedial Reading I teach is grade 1 to grade 4 and that I get everyone reading at above the third grade level, or raise them an average of two+ grade levels in one semester (90 hours of instruction, 54 in class and 36 in lab)--including students who come in reading below the first grade level. I did, however, take it for granted that consonants, vc combinations, digraphs, blends, consonant clusters, vowel combinations, syllabification, root words, spelling, root words and spelling conjoined with cursive--aye, all of the components of AB 1086--were included in "the basic mechanics of reading," which shouldn't have to be spelled out to a colleague. I was asked, "What kind of reading training classes did your district provide for you?" Since the job posting had stipulated that no one under contract to another district would be considered for the position, the question made me wonder how to answer. "Why is he asking about my district if I'm not supposed to be under contract to one? Is it a trick question?" Naturally, I had extensive mentoring while learning the ropes of teaching reading in a clinical setting. Colleges don't provide "classes" for "teachers in training;" they don't need to resort to the euphemistic suberfuge that creates loopholes in the educational code, but since it was neither a "class" and not "a district" in the k-12 sense of the word, I couldn't fit that round peg into the triangular hole provided me as a question. However, SBVC does provide many professional development opportunities for its professors, both adjunct and full-time, which are not used to suggest compliance with credentialling issues, so, as far as "classes" went, I was able to tell the interviewers I participated in a special Title III seminar for shared teaching communities and portfolio innovations this summer and had taken a class in Multi-Media presentation for classroom use with multi-media carts last Spring and had spent the Spring semester testing out classroom uses of the cart in an ESL class. Oooooh, and it looks like I scared Dr. Terrell when I mentioned I learned how to build web pages this summer when I had a few weeks off. "Title III? Whaaa? Technology in education? We're still trying to teach our students to read." (and have you noticed the inordinate number of after-school cram schools in the Torrance area for Enlgish and Math there?) Es mi falta que olvidé mencionar que I attended a weekend seminar on county education in May 1996 that had a wonderful presentation by Colton or Fontana USD on their new report cards, which specifically list and rate grade-level skills as per district and state guidelines, and on writing portfolio assessment in the lower grades. Nobody provided that for me. Nobody paid me to go. I went because I wanted to. I didn't think of it at the time because it didn't fit in that triangular hole either; however, I did say that I take advantage of all sorts of seminars because I enjoy learning new things and improving myself.

I didn't mention that I've been pursuing leads on grants for educational technology and need to be in a school district to get the funds. I thought for sure I had presented myself so well. Well, I'm still pursuing those grants and looking for a district.

We spoke also of volunteer literacy tutors (condition #9 of AB 1086). "Where would you find them?" Mr. Bartelt asked incredulously. Intervention is a BIG part of the Reading Initiative and Class Size Reduction.

"Where? All over. There's a big push on now to recruit literacy tutors. It's going to be big. I could find out more sources on the internet." I did, along with an article about President Clinton's "America Reads Challenge," to which I was referring. Hey--educate yo' sorry seff! (It's on the Net--I'll let you have the joy of finding it yourself. The reward is that there are FUND$ available for this too--I'll be taking this source with me to my new district.) F.Y.I. the sources for tutors are endless: off-track teachers, retired teachers, senior citizens, parent volunteers, AmeriCorps volunteers, college students, college students getting work credit toward the reading certificate now required by AB 1924 and AB 1568.

I lived and worked in Taiwan for ten years, not under the wing of an American institution, isolated by government housing and private drivers, but as a member of society there. As a result, I am bicultural. I am comfortable with Asian culture and Asian people are comfortable with me: American culture is at times as odd to me as to them. With the huge Asian community of Torrance/Rolling Hills/Gardena, this was not an asset as well?

The inability or unwillingness on the part of the interviewing administrators to recognize content unless it is wrapped in the currently educational buzz words that administrators are trained to salivate over in Pavlovian response assures me of a job in Remedial Reading for well into the next century. With visionaries with such sadly atrophied critical thinking skills of their own, it is no wonder that California's schools rank in the bottom 10% nationally and many of its children can neither read nor think on graduation from California's public schools.

As a remedial reading teacher, however, I am concerned about the teaching of reading in elementary schools and by applying at the third grade level am attempting to prevent graduating students from public schools who are in need of remediation of skills that should have been taught at the elementary level. Moreover, as one of many fully-certified and highly qualified teachers who are victims of California's manufactured "teacher shortage," I am concerned about the illusions of compliance that districts offer the state in order to hire cheap labor in lieu of teachers whose educational achievements surpass the minimal requirements of the paper shufflers and bean counters who are so destructive to the soul and spirit of education.

As educators, it is all of our job to try to make the world a better place for all. Having a highly-qualified person in for an interview to give the illusion of compliance with state regulations and then sending a curt letter stating that the person was "not selected to be considered further for a [sic] elementary teaching position" by people who clearly did not or chose not to understand the content of what was communicated is unconscionable; beyond the effect on me as an individual, it fosters also a trickle-down negativity that is one of the sources of the decay of educational achievement, destroying the self-esteem of all who come into contact with its spiritual poison.* The notes reflect no reality save that of the "observations" of the interviewers which appear to have been colored perhaps by the tint of my hair and union salary requirements. The comments are so far removed from reality that the dual questions of age and salary discrimination fairly shout at me.

It should now be clear that the interview notes range from absurd to preposterous. At best, they are inappropriate and perhaps belong to another candidate's file.

Nonetheless, thank you for the interview. It made me realize how little some administrators actually know about the classroom and how many very basic things must be spelled out for them. This I can do now, and your loss is someone else's gain; there are field-sensitive administrators out there.


Alison McMahon Johnson

Language Development Specialist

Copies to: Delaine Easton, State Superintendent of Education
Pete Wilson, Governor, State of California
Richard Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education
Goals 2000
California Reading Initiative
Bill Clinton, President
California Department of Labor, employment commission
Lynne Picolli, CDE, Educational Finance Division
Bill Honig

* and when I called the office to ask why I had not been selected for a school-site interview, insult was added to injury: I was called inarticuate by Ms. Brugner. That has fired me up to articulate this to all educational and news agencies who have an interest in the improvement of California's schools. I will articulate until you are reticulated and matriculated.

1. Write yourself a note:
"I let one of our strongest candidates slip through my hands because I wasn't equal to the Challenge." (or "because I wouldn't recognize a thoroughbred even if it kicked me in the side of the head." [see cover article on education in 27 October Time magazine re: thoroughbreds])
2. Put tape on it.
3. Pick it up.
4. With the same hand, pat yourself on the back.
"Hasta los perritos abren los ojos en quince dias;
los pendejos, nunca."

--Un refrán méxicano de José Burciaga

The world was a more stimulating place for their creative contributions to our intellectual lives; thankfully their prior work was not destroyed (though much was somehow locked into closets). That many of these people were broken and robbed of their creative force is a Great American Tragedy. That I am able to post this letter without fear of recrimination (however, obviously I can't possibly work in Torrance Unified after this--I'd be badgered at every turn out of an administrative desire to prove themselves right. In the district, they've got the power. Outside, I've got the pen) is a great source of pride to all of us as Americans (and one of the reasons we have so many people fleeing their countries for ours, necessitating the need for English Language Development in our schools). The people listed above lost their right to freedom of speech; that it happened has left all of us with a fear of speaking out against "those in power," allowing them to become firmly entrenched long after their arteries have hardened and their synapses collapsed and their skills fallen into decay. It would be a great disservice to the people on the list above, along with many others, to not speak out against those who seek to crush, to weed out, to silence, to shut the beige doors of bureaucracy upon the creative spirits in our society.

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