Voices of Concerned Educators: Who Will Take A Stand? [Monise Seward]

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Jaime Escalante

A few weeks ago @billcelis, one of my Twitter friends (still trying to adjust to ‘follower’) posted an article about notable educator Jaime Escalante, the main character in ‘Stand and Deliver.’ I am sure that every educator has seen the movie at least once; I think my count is closer to ten. Anyway, here is a link to the article. Mr. Escalante is very ill; he has been battling cancer for some time now. I was saddened by his story for a number of reasons. First, it appears that he is really suffering and may be near the end of his life. His family is also having a difficult time covering his medical expenses. But I was truly saddened for selfish reasons.

When he is gone, who will take his place?

I don’t mean who will be the next Jaime Escalante, per se, but really, who will be the next educator, parent, politician, etc. to take that type of stand for our kids? After all, he fought to teach his students the higher-level math (Remember when Lou Diamond Phillips’ character asked: “Who is Cal-culus?”) Everyone in the school thought he was crazy, but he was determined to prove that kids from the barrio (that’s neighborhood for the rest of you) could learn too.

Well, I kinda giggled too because I remember when my Yankee-ass decided to follow the district’s plan to teach Algebra to all 8th grade students. Keep in mind, I was a Special Education teacher. Most of my students had been “diagnosed” with a Learning Disability, Emotional Behavior Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, or a combination of the preceding. Basically, I taught kids who had been written-off by the system. On top of that, I was working at an alternative school at the time. Our students were sent to us after being expelled from their assigned schools. So here I was, sitting at a department meeting, eager as a beaver about teaching Algebra (an actual math class, with actual objectives and standards) during the upcoming year.

I remember that day as if it were yesterday. One of my colleagues said: “If they can learn Algebra, then they don’t need to be in a Special Education classroom. They should be in Regular Ed. You will be wasting your time, don’t even worry about it.”

Well damn. Talk about raining on someone’s parade.

It’s a good thing I don’t put much stock in other people’s negativity. I maintained my excitement and proceeded to comb local video stores for ‘Stand and Deliver.’ I thought, what better way to start the class then to show my students that they could (and would) learn Algebra, regardless of what others expected?

Fast forward to the start of the next school year. I found the video online, watched it at home to jog my memory, and prepared discussion questions to go along with our viewing. I opened the class with an explanation of the district’s new policy requiring all 8th grade students to take algebra. Of course, they moaned and groaned because they believed they were not smart enough to learn algebra (only after hearing it and being fed a watered-down curriculum for so long.) I explained that we were going to watch a movie, one that I thought would provide them with some motivation; they needed to be able to relate to someone in a similar situation, e.g., being labeled and assigned to a lifetime of remedial education.

In goes the movie.

Day One viewing, discussion, and writing went well. The kids were excited and said they were looking forward to watching the next day. (Little did they know that part of the motivation for watching the movie was keeping peace in the classroom!) Calling Day Two a ‘teachable moment’ would be an understatement. For some reason or other, the principal decided to pop into my room. I know it was not due to a disciplinary issue because the kids were really into the movie; one or two of them even had the nerve to shush the principal when he interrupted (more internal giggles from me).

The students were intently watching the movie when the principal asked, holding the (VHS) video case: “What’s this movie about?”

One of my students replied: “Man, if you read the box, you would know what the movie is about.” Not in a comical, joking sorta way. He was dead serious.

Outwardly, I wore my teacher-face and told the student that his response was inappropriate and that I would handle the situation. Internally, I was high-fiving him because, well, he was right. The movie synopsis was on the back of the video box, plain as day. But I knew that I needed to correct the student before the principal did because many of those young men neither liked nor respected him. Furthermore, had the principal said anything to him, it would have turned into a pissing match (you know how you males do) and all of the students would have inserted themselves into the situation. That is what I wanted to avoid because my students were already outcasts, both within that school and at their traditional schools. Despite my efforts, the students were still upset. Besides, that would have definitely ruined the lesson for that day and we all would have been in unpleasant moods.

Myself included.

For some reason or another, I was called into the principal’s office a week or two later; my department chair was also present. (Side Note: I spent more time in the principal’s office in my 5 years as a teacher than I did all my years as a student.) I had no idea why I was called in, but I knew I was in trouble for something! This man had the unmitigated gall (I really like saying that) to say that the movie was inappropriate for showing during the instructional day and it was not tied to the curriculum. (My mind was turning, thinking “This dumb S.O.B. hasn’t the first clue about curriculum.”) But I kept my cool.

I asked: “Why is it inappropriate?”
His response:
“Well, when I walked in, I saw the guy smoking a cigarette.”
Long pause (trying to calm the screams in my head):
“Are you sure he was smoking a cigarette? I don’t remember that.”
Him: “Yes.”

I reviewed the movie in my head because I honestly did not remember anyone smoking a cigarette. However, more importantly, someone smoking a cigarette was (in my humble opinion) a non-issue because many of the kids at the school had been expelled for either smoking or selling marijuana. Some had done both.

I said: “Well, the movie is tied to the algebra curriculum. Besides, it’s on the approved video list. I checked before I bought it.” Hmph.


I decided right then and there that I would not return to that school. For some reason, I have a problem working for obviously ignorant and incompetent people. Sadly, it appears that those are the most important qualifications for (some) aspiring leaders (building principals). I won’t paint everyone with the same broad stroke, but that has been my experience since moving here 8 years ago.

It’s really sad when you think about it: I worked at an alternative school, as a Special Education teacher, with all males, and it didn’t bother me. I actually loved it but I couldn’t deal with the administration. I couldn’t deal with the manner in which they dealt with the students. I especially couldn’t deal with the blatant disrespect of teachers. There were incidents more severe and offensive than the one I described. Those are some of the reasons that I believe teachers don’t just become ‘ineffective.’ They are driven to ineffectiveness. The leadership sets the tone for the building. Period.

I took a stand for the sake of my kids. Some may argue that I should have stayed, but I was still fairly young at the time and there were just some things I would not tolerate then. I have definitely grown since then, but there are still some things I will not tolerate. Who am I kidding? I’d probably do the same thing today! But the important thing is that my students knew I went to bat for them because so many other had not and would not.

Ask yourself, after Jaime and Marva are gone: Who will take a stand?

Monise Seward


Comments 7

  1. This reminds me of my 1st two years of teaching. I had an incompetent/dictator principal that damn near drove me away from the profession in my 1st 3 months. After openly battling with him and losing, (of course I was gonna lose.He held all the cards and I was a rookie teacher) i decided to bite my tongue (after i knew teaching/education was my calling). When the opportunity presented itself, I found my golden ticket (my opportunity) and got the hell outta there. He loved me so much before I left (i put on the silly show he wanted, when he was present, once I knew his M.O., I think he shed a single tear when I told him I was transferring. POW! to you for standing up to an incompetent administrator and fighting for your students. POW! Loved this post!

    1. Thank you sir!

      You know what really bothered me: The fact that my students knew the line of questioning bordered on harrassment. The student who made the comment later (on another occasion) asked the same adminstrator why he was always bothering me. How do you (as the adult) remain silent when kids are noticing things like that? After having some time to reflect I realized the real problem: They (male admins) resented me because those young men respected me and would listen to me. That is more than I can say for some of the male authority figures in that building. I am a firm believer in showing kids respect and treating them as human beings. I tried to listen to my kids and get them to think about why they did what they did and how they could have handled things differently. most importantly, I wanted them to know that I did not judge them for their actions-I really didn’t care about the act itself, but instead about the motivation. I wanted to focus on making better choices and preparing them to return to their assigned school. That’s all, nothing else.

  2. Thank you for your post, Monise. I not only appreciate your having shared your own personal story re: challenging the system and taking a stand on behalf of students, but also the question you pose.

    “Stand and Deliver” is one of my personal favorites, and I try to show it to my students when we complete the “school unit” in the Spanish textbook. I, too, was saddened to learn re: Jaime Escalante’s illness, and the fact he may not be with us much longer.

    I guess for me, as I’ve gotten older, that it’s not so much who will assume the proverbial reigns, but, what is it that I stand for and will stand for? I think that sometimes we place a tremendous burden on a handful of people, and, when they are no longer around, we’re left to wonder who will step up. I think that each of us is a Jaime or a Marva, but in our own way. We have to decide individually what we will represent, how we will challenge the system, and how we will make a difference on behalf of kids.

    1. Marcy,

      You are right: Being able to identify what you will stand for is what’s important now. Teachers are in such a unique situation right now; the blame is coming from everywhere. How do you focus on your students, while at the same time worrying about whether your job is safe? More importantly, how do you maintain your place/role as the educational leader within your classroom when (more than likely) the students are aware of the discussions that take place regarding education and teachers?

      It’s rough and I am hoping and praying that someone will come to their senses and realize that everyone has a role in fixing the problem and every voice matters.

  3. I love this post…it is some timely for me. I’m at a new school where many of my students do not believe that they can learn higher level mathematics and I am searching for the steam and motivation to show them that they can.

    Kudos to you for taking a stand and working to make the lives of the young people you serve better.

    1. Jovan,

      All I can is keep pushng them..even if they get mad/frustrated, they need it because no one has done it thus far. They will eventually ‘get’ why you are doing it. When I showed that movie and we talked, the boys ‘got’ it…they knew what people thought of them, but more importantly, the knew that those opinions didn’t matter. They had the ability to rise above those opinions. That’s why I worked so hard with them on thinking about what they say and caring about how they carried themselves around certain people. Don’t give up!

      BTW: Do you have that movie? If not, you should get it for them.

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