What’s a Bad Teacher Like?

My son is having a nervous breakdown,” Azucena Gonzales tells me, fighting tears.  “He said I don’t want to live.”  A warm, friendly woman with wavy dark hair, she’s sitting with me on the sunny patio at a Starbucks near her son’s middle school in Watts. Her son is home all week, afraid to go back because he’s been bullied so much, both verbally and physically. “People tell me, maybe you should teach your son to fight.  I don’t want him to learn how to fight.  I want him to learn.

Azucena’s son is in 7th grade.  Because of ADHD, he has what’s called an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, which is edu-speak for being in Special Ed.  In other words, growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood, he fits the profile of a large number of at-risk kids who are stuck in neighborhood schools that can’t always meet their needs.  I wanted to hear Azucena’s story because, though this blog is focused on great teachers, I want to understand what people mean when they talk about bad schools and bad teachers–and also why it can be so hard for parents to get their kids out of them no matter how badly they want to.

Azucena is not a complainer by nature.  Until her son hit middle school, by and large she felt his needs were addressed in school.  She has nothing but praise for two of her son’s elementary school teachers.  “Honestly, they were angels,” she tells me.  With his fifth grade teacher, she sat down and worked through a system for keeping him on track.  “We’d talk every day.  We were on the same page,” she says.

 But once he graduated to middle school, the problems began.  She sat down with the IEP administrator, who told Azucena her system was too time-consuming.  “Then just call me,” said Azucena.  “I’ll be there to help any time.”  But no one called.  Instead, he was continually thrown out of class; when she talked to teachers, they were surprised to learn that he had an IEP.  No one had told them.

 Still, Azucena had faith in the system.  The school, after all, had been taken over by Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for L.A. Schools in 2008; though test scores remained low, the school was clean and, according to press releases, now focused on “improving student achievement and developing strong relationships with faculty, parents and community partners.”  Azucena met with the new principal, who assured her that things would improve.

 Nothing changed.  Her son continued to be thrown out of class by teachers and bullied by students.  He spent more time in the front office than in class.  After being punched one day, he begged to stay home.  She tried to transfer him to a charter, but most local charters did not have enough services for his IEP.  She found one nearby that did,  a school not affiliated with one of the large charter management organizations, but when she visited, she found a level of pandemonium even worse than what her son was currently experiencing.  “Every time I was there police were there.  You’d see kids throwing books at teachers, balls at teachers.”  Meanwhile, the district told her that if she transferred him to a charter, he’d lose his IEP, which meant losing any additional services.

So she kept him at the local school, deciding to use her energy to make a difference for others.  She knows four other parents there whose children have ended up in mental health care over bullying.  “They talked to the teachers.  They talked to the principal.  Nobody did anything.”  In a community that is 67% Latino/a and 32% African-American, she blames racial tensions for adding to the problems and is upset because she feels the staff is not addressing these tensions.  “It’s becoming so bad that kids are giving up.  Parents are giving up.  Teachers are giving up.  There’s no structure,” she says.  “I’ve seen good teachers say, you can’t beat ‘em, you’ve gotta join ‘em.  Then they stop coming to school.  We have substitutes there who’ve been there longer than some of the teachers.”

Though concerned that her advocacy further jeopardizes her son’s standing at school, she feels she needs to take action.  She herself dropped out of school in 11th grade and she’s determined that her children will have the education she did not get.  Looking back, she suspects that she also had undiagnosed ADHD.  “I don’t want my kids to stumble on the same stone I did,” she says.

 Last year, when Mayor Villaraigosa visited the school, she was determined to talk to him.  “They sent him to the cleanest classroom, the one with the best-behaved kids.  The rest of the kids were on lockdown.  I went to the mayor and said, please, just give us five minutes.”

 Villaraigosa agreed to the meeting and sat down with a small group of parents.  “He said, ‘but the school is really clean,’” Azucena recalls.  “We said, ‘well, what do you do when you have company at your house?  You clean up.’  I invited him to come uninvited one day and walk into a classroom where they didn’t expect him.”

 He thanked them for their input but did not return to the school.  Nothing changed.  “It’s like I’m trapped in a nightmare,” she tells me, eyes filling.  “I see parents who give up and I don’t want to be that parent.  That’s how kids end up in the system.”  She doesn’t blame the bullies, either; she blames the school’s lack of structure.  “We have kids there who are in foster care, kids with emotional problems, if the school doesn’t give them a structure, what do they learn?  Then by the time those kids get to high school they’re unstoppable.”

 By the time her son hits high school, she’s already planning to get him into a local charter with resources for kids with IEP’s.  Her older son, a 10th grader, attends nearby Animo Watts, a Green Dot charter that she feels is a huge step up.  Though their test scores still aren’t strong, she’s grateful for the structure and caring.  “If they feel your son needs help, they offer the resources to help him out.  I’ve had teachers come to the house.  How great is that?”  She has particular praise for her older son’s 10th grade teacher, Mr. Green.  “He’s a very incredible teacher.  Anything that happens at school, he calls me.  It’s amazing to see the difference between a good teacher and a bad one.”

Her message to teachers is not to give up—to keep fighting for each kid.  “Don’t fall between the cracks.  Don’t follow what other teachers are doing to survive.  Show kids that there’s a different way.”  She has a similar plea for parents.  “There is help.  There is hope.  Don’t give up on yourself.  If you give up on yourself, you’ve given up on your child.”

For all of her struggles, she remains optimistic.  “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” she tells me as she envelops me in a good-bye hug.  “I’m learning, and I’m not gonna let this defeat me.  I’m gonna teach other people how to stay strong for their kids.”

Her words are inspiring to me–but they challenge me to think of all the times I decided not to fight that extra fight, make that phone call, have that difficult conversation, for a struggling or challenging kid because I was just too exhausted.  Is this the essence of what makes a bad teacher?  Giving up?

And what happens when a whole system gives up?

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