How the custodian lost (but won)…Part 3

Part 3

The discipline for the beloved janitor who lost his temper and banged a 15 year old skater’s head against a wrought iron gate was a 2 week suspension without pay. This was pretty severe for a permanent public employee. But school employees carry a special responsibility so it seemed to fit from my perspective. It was also a good idea to show the parents that they didn’t need to sue the district since it was taking a firm stand.

Support staff have pretty strong rights. Not as strong as tenure which is an actual property right to the job. But the process to impose a suspension without pay was just about the same as a dismissal. A ton of paperwork was involved that all had to be developed in compliance with policy and law, and delivered to Fritz on a strict timeline. The strategy recommended by the attorney for the district, Irving, was to go for a 2 week suspension because that would give the board the political leeway to reduce it to 1 week. This is exactly what happened. But this wasn’t the end of the story.

The janitor’s union provided a perfunctory kind of representation during the suspension process because they understood the seriousness of assault on a minor by one of their members. But the grievance came for an unexpected issue.

“Bill,” said Pete, the union president. “We think the district should pay for the cost of the defense attorney Fritz had to hire for his police case.”

“What?” I responded. “You have to be kidding. The guy gives a kid a lump on the forehead and you want the district to pay for his lawyer? No way.”

Pete said, “He wouldn’t even need a lawyer if he hadn’t come to work that day. But since he came to work, he got into a bad situation. The district should pay for his defense.”

“I don’t see that requirement in the contract,” responded. “You know, Pete, a grievance is basically a process to determine what the contract means.”

“I know that,” said Pete. Page 42 says, “The district shall offer all unit members appropriate training and support to become continuously more effective in the performance of their jobs per the job descriptions.”

“Well, that means ongoing job training, not hiring a lawyer if you smack a kid.”

“We think it does mean hiring a lawyer for support. The word support means just that. You have to support our members, just like his school feels you should.”

This meant that the entire grievance process had to move systematically forward. For each step of the 4 part process, I wrote a brief response of “Grievance denied.” This took the process from step one through step 4 and on to advisory arbitration and both union and district paying for an administrative law judge. The advisory part meant that the local school board only had to take the findings of the judge as ‘advice’, and could still make its own decision.

It was 4 months later when the hearing actually took place. These administrative law judges were busy with other cases all over the state. So we had to kind of get in line.

Our attorney helped prepare me and the other witnesses on our side for the hearing. There was not a great chance of losing this hearing but if we did, the findings would have far reaching consequences for every school district in the state. A loss here would establish the principle that the districts were responsible for providing a defense attorney for an employee criminal act when committed on the job. So Irving, out attorney made certain we knew this and would be on our toes.

Irving also uttered the words I have not forgotten during the preparation time. “These hearings are kind of like ‘trial by ambush.’ There is no requirement to follow the established procedures of a criminal or civil trial. So you have to be ready for anything.”

When Irving showed up early in the day, he spent time with me arranging the board room for the hearing. A table and chair for the law judge up front, a table and chair for the witnesses to testify, tables for district and union representation, and chairs for witnesses to wait their turns to testify.

The union representative was not Pete, but an experienced negotiator, professional witness and hearing litigator. He was smart and aggressive. For some reason the union got to call witnesses first. The principal came forward and testified to the wonderment of Fritz. Next other custodians and teachers were called to tell about all the great things Fritz did on a daily basis. I felt like the district case was getting harder and harder to win based on the kind of guy Fritz was, not based on the fact that he lost his temper and banged a kids head on the bars of a gate.

Finally, the union representative called Fritz himself to the witness table. Fritz was dressed in neat and clean work clothes. No fake suit or pretense at trial style change of identity. Answering the questions the representative posed for him, we all learned that he had been born poor in post war Germany and immigrated legally to the USA. His parents worked hard and he worked hard as the tried to integrate and finally achieved their life long dreams of becoming American citizens. If a marching band playing “Grand Old Flag” had entered the room, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

But then it happened. In the words of one of the secretaries whose husband sold cars for a living, Fritz’s team violated one of the oldest rules in the book: ‘Don’t sell past the close.’

But the representative and Fritz did sell past the close. He asked Fritz to tell why he felt the need to ‘restrain’ the high schooler? Fritz calmly stared at him and said, “I did it to protect the nursing mothers.”

Every face in the room looked up in surprise.

“Tell us more, sir,” said the union rep.

“Well,” said Fritz. “There were half a dozen young mothers sitting on the benches in front of the school nursing their babies, and I was concerned for their safety. This young hoodlum might have done something to endanger them.”

The gasp from the district folks was audible. And after a second or two, the gasp turned to a low chuckle rippling through the witnesses and representatives. Everyone knew there were no nursing mothers hanging around on the benches in front of the school.

“So you were not only protecting the school property,” said the union representative, “but you were also protecting the mothers who were present and their innocent nursing babies?”

“Yes,’ replied Fritz. “I thought it was the right thing to do.”

The administrative law judge looked surprised as well, and this was not a good thing for Fritz. My turn to testify came soon thereafter and Irving asked me to speak about what I knew. I shared that Fritz was an excellent janitor who made a mistake. He had received discipline from the district but now I understood he faced a criminal charge. While the DA had not decided to prosecute yet, Fritz had retained an attorney and needed to pay him. I shared that the district was not obligated to provide an attorney for employees who commit crimes at work and there was nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that required this. I also shared that the story about the nursing mothers was obviously ridiculous and that throughout the investigation of this incident, nothing similar to this information had come out. In fact no one in the room, I suspected, other than Fritz and his representative, had heard of it before.

Irving was able to exploit the breastfeeding story multiple ways throughout the hearing in ways that made the other team look like lying fools. And it seemed they were. This obviously fake story was meant to help their case by further proving what a great guy Fritz was. But it unfortunately for Fritz, it proved he was a liar and completely undid his case.

We didn’t learn the outcome of the hearing for 2 more months since there was always a backlog of cases and there were too few administrative law judges to hear them. In any case, I won that case handily. There was absolutely no requirement for the district to pay for the attorney for an employee who was accused of committing a crime while on the job. But once again, it felt like winning the battle became another instance at losing the war of staff and faculty opinion. Fritz was the hero to his school colleagues, no matter how much he lied. Disciplining Fritz put me at odds with a school in ways more serious than appearing to be a yearbook salesman. At around the same time, the DA decided he wouldn’t hear the case. Fritz and his entire school community were thrilled. Everyone who testified for Fritz was thanked and the school held a little party with coffee and Streusel to honor Fritz. A couple of board members also attended and let Fritz know they really admired him even though they voted to suspend him. They had to do this because of the child abuse laws, not because they really believed it for a nasty kid like that skater.

“That punk is probably going to end up in prison where he belongs,” concluded one of the board members. “We need to get those hoodlums out of here.”

It was around this period that I started to think, “Maybe this being a personnel guy isn’t such a great job.”

 

 

How the custodian lost (but won)…Part 2

Part 2

The call came in and the secretary at the front desk immediately routed it to the Personnel Secretary who immediately routed it to me when the principal said, “I’ve got a hot police issue.”

“What’s up Ned?” I asked when I picked up the receiver.

“Well, Fritz, our head janitor got himself into a bit of a pickle with a high school kid. The kid was hasseling him so he kind of bumped him against a gate. The thing was, the kid’s dad is a Sherriff’s Deputy and he is known for having a hot temper at some of our inter-school basketball games. The high school kid’s younger brother, plays on the 5th grade team. Also, turns out the kid’s dad, actually his stepdad, is a Hispanic guy and a Sherriff’s Deputy. So I thought since those guys are kind of hot tempered, that I’d better call you.”

I turned away from the phone and took a deep breath so I would be calm.

“Sounds like a good idea, Ned, “ I responded. “And since we’re on the phone now, it would be a good idea not to ever mention anything about the step dad’s ethnicity or any kind of personality qualities you think are associated with it.”

“OK, Bill,” said Ned. I was just trying to give you a heads up.”

“Right, but from now on, if anyone asks you about this situation, just say the four words I’ve been talking about at Administrative meetings, ‘It’s a personnel matter.’ Now, is Fritz there?”

Yes, Bill, he’s right here. You know I trust him with anything, Bill.”

“I’d like to talk with him and hear what he says happened.”

Fritz got on the phone and told me his story. The kid had trespassed, skated in his beautiful amphitheater, insulted him and wouldn’t go away. The nasty kid felt safe, to do or say anything he wanted as long as he was standing behind the bars of the gate, der junger Schwein. Finally, Fritz said he lost control of his temper, reached through the bars of the gate and grabbed the kid. Fritz said he didn’t really want to hurt the kid, just teach him a lesson. So it felt good to smack him against the bars of the gate and then just drop him on the ground.”

“Ok, Fritz,” I said hoping I sounded calm. “The first fact is, I trust you and expect you are telling me the truth. So the next step is that I am assigning you to home, to your own house, for the next week until we can get everything calmed down. I hate to tell you this, but this also sounds like you assaulted the high-school kid. This means I’m going to have to call the city police department and give them your contact information.”

“What!” yelled Fritz. “If you trust me so much, why can’t you support me now? Ned is supporting me!”

“Fritz,” I said calmly. Get off campus in the next 5 minutes before the stepfather shows up. He might not be so calm about the fact that you grabbed his stepson. He might take the law into his own hands. I’m directing you to leave now and go home and stay there, inside.”

Fritz got hold of himself and said, “Yes, sir. I’ll do as you say.”

I asked to speak with Ned again and told him to call Child Protective Services and report suspected child abuse since the skater was obviously a minor. Ned really didn’t want to do this to his old pal, but I reminded him that he was a mandated reporter and could lose his credential if he did not report.

“Oh,” he said. “I guess I knew that.” I let Ned know that I would take care of calling the police.

Not five minutes after Fritz left the school, Raymond’s step dad wheeled into the parking lot, emergency lights lit up. He had turned them on when Raymond’s mother called him sobbing that Raymond had been beat up by a school janitor. The Deputy turned off the lights, parked the car and stepped out. He didn’t just stomp into the office, however. He calmly looked around the outside of the school, scanning the situation. Then he walked deliberately across the parking lot, opened the office door and strode in.

“I’m Deputy Ramirez,” he said to the secretary. “Is the principal here?”

Old Ned had seen the Deputy arrive out his window and stepped from his office into the main reception area in time to greet him.

“Hello Deputy,” Ned said. “Please come in.”

Once inside Ned’s office, both men sat down. The Deputy began, “My wife called me pretty damned upset. She said one of your janitors beat up our son.”

Ned interjected, “ Well Deputy, I’d like to help you but I don’t have much information. The janitor talked to our Personnel Director and got sent home…for a week. All I can say is this is a personnel matter.”

“Who is this personnel director?” asked the Deputy.

“Oh, that’s Bill. He’s a good guy and I know he can help you with the information you are looking for. Do you want to talk to him?”

“I sure do,” said Deputy Ramirez.

“Let’s call him now,” said Ned.

When I picked up the call from Silver Stream Elementary, I expected it might be the Deputy. “This is Deputy Ramirez,” he said. My wife called me pretty damned upset. She said one of your janitors beat up our son.”

“Hello Deputy,” I said. “This is Bill, personnel director. I understand there was some kind of altercation between your son and a janitor after school today. Is your son ok?”

“I haven’t seen him yet,” said the Deputy, “but I wanted to stop by the school here and find out some facts. I’m on my way home to check on him.”

“Well,” I said. “I’m trying to piece the story together myself. At this point, I understand that Raymond was on the school grounds, he and the janitor exchanged words, and the janitor laid hands on him. So the action I’ve taken is to place the janitor on Administrative Leave until I can gather more facts. I also want you to know that I called the city police department since this incident falls within their jurisdiction. I was just about to call your home to find out how Raymond is doing when you called here. If you are on your way home, I sure would appreciate a call letting me know how he is feeling.”

“I’ll do that,” said Deputy Ramirez. “Thanks for the information.”

With that he hung up and I contacted the superintendent and let him know what was going on and the decisions I had already made. He agreed and asked me to continue managing the situation and keep him and the board informed. Following this conversation I sent an email to the school board members to let them know I was dealing with a potential employee discipline situation. I shared that I couldn’t fill them in on any of the facts because it was likely that they would eventually hear some part of the case or an appeal of the case. Next, I called the attorney for the school district to make certain I was following the correct procedures. Procedures count for everything in these kinds of situations because they make up the basis of ‘due process,’ a constitutional right. If you do something that violates any of the procedures including timelines for various notifications, then the case for the district is over. I also wanted to talk over the best strategy for this case.

Fritz sat at home for a week until Raymond and his parents had been contacted by the city PD and had calmed down a bit. Deputy Ramirez called me to assure me that Raymond would not show up at the elementary school again and I let him know how much I appreciated his measured response to the entire situation. We both knew that a lot more time would pass before the disciplinary results and any fallout would take place.

For his part, Ned was happy to share with all his staff what a great guy Fritz was and how the district was not really supporting him. Here was a great opportunity to build unity and staff loyalty to one another by sharing a common enemy: the district office. The teachers and support staff loved old Ned and Fritz and thought it was wrong to punish Fritz for defending their school against a little hoodlum. They were hoping that this would all just go away.

 

How the custodian lost (but won); and how the Personnel Director won (but lost): a three-part story.

Part 1

“Get out of here! ‘RRRRaus!” shouted Fritz, the custodian when he found the high-schooler skateboarding in his beloved, but still pristine little amphitheater attached to the newly constructed elementary school, his pride and joy.

“Fuck you, asshole!” the kid sneered as he jumped over the back of the amphitheater and into the courtyard on the other side of the ornate gate that served as the intended entrance.

“At least it’s after school so the kids can’t hear this little jerk,” thought Fritz to himself.

With the surly adolescent outside the gate to the amphitheater, Fritz looked to see if the edges of the beautiful curving amphitheater steps created especially for elementary age children had been damaged any further. It certainly could have been this skater “grinding” the edge of his board on the steps last week. The damage left unsightly gouges in the cement that Fritz knew he would have to repair with painstaking patience since there would be no more school bond money for this kind of capital outlay. And Fritz had already begun to collect materials to do the repair job.

This was far outside of his job description but that is the main reason why I backed him for this job and why the principal of Silver Stream Elementary, an experienced man had recruited him to apply for a transfer to this new school. He believed his role was crucial for the success of the children and teachers. Every day he enlisted kids from every grade in developing pride in the beauty of the school buildings and grounds. No litter stayed on the ground for more than 5 minutes at Silver Stream.

A select group of 5th and 6th graders were allowed to work with Fritz from time to time and learn about his systematic and orderly way of working to get every part of jobs completed. Seeing tools lined up and hanging in a rationally organized way in the tiny janitorial office was the first time many children had seen a shop of any kind. Kids who had been in trouble did not get to work with Fritz as part of their punishment. Who could imagine this? The man was a walking miracle for a principal.

Fritz saw the skater outside the gate and said firmly, “You shouldn’t do this. The taxpayers built this beautiful school for the younger kids and you should help take care of it.”

The kid, Raymond, glided on his board a few feet toward Fritz so he could see the janitor through the fancy gate to the amphitheater. “You can kiss my ass,” Raymond said emphatically.

Fritz had enough of treating this nasty kid like one of his elementary aged children. “Ok, buddy. Now I know what you look like. I’m going to call the police and give them a description of you.”

Raymond took advantage of this opportunity to hook Fritz even deeper into an argument. “You’re so stupid, you’re just a dumb janitor, asshole. You couldn’t remember what your own dick looks like.”

“You filthy delinquent!” shouted Fritz. “Get out of here.”

Enjoying the rush of seeing Fritz get so angry, Raymond, the tough young skater (at least he was trying to be a tough young skater) maneuvered his board just outside the ornate wrought iron gate. Fritz stopped what he was doing and turned around. Raymond joyfully continued taunting the older man. “Dumb fuck janitor, Crazy Kraut Asshole,” he shouted. Fritz stared at him but he continued hurling insults from his position of safety. “Dumbfuck, Dumbfuck, Dumb….”

Raymond didn’t get the last part of the last ‘Dumbfuck’ because Fritz, amazingly agile for a man his age, had rushed the gate, reached his powerful hand through the bars and grabbled the surly and extremely surprised Raymond by the shirt. With three quick jerks, Fritz yanked Raymond first up off the ground and then back towards the gate banging his head against the bars, Bam, bam, bam. He then dropped Raymond so he fell onto his butt.

“Now get out of here,” shouted Fritz.

Raymond picked himself up and screamed as if his voice hadn’t changed. In a high pitched kind of squeal he yelled, “My dad is a Sheriff’s Deputy and he’s going to blow your brains out, you old Dumbfuck!” He pulled a baseball from his jacket pocket and threw it at Fritz, hitting him in the chest. Then as fast as he could, Raymond ran, looking backwards toward Fritz to be sure he wasn’t chasing him. Fritz opened the gate and picked up the nasty kid’s skateboard. Then he walked into the office to tell the principal, his trusted friend, about what happened.

Old Ned, the school principal knew trouble when he heard it. “Ok Fritz,” he said.

“The first thing we have to do is call Bill at the district office.”

Bill moves up the ladder; and a 7th grader tells him which wall it leans on.

It was in the larger district where I served as principal that I made the leap to a district level administrative position in Human Resources. The first hurdle involved breaking the informal code of junior administrators by jumping ahead of senior principals who might want the job. This wasn’t such a big deal to me because I had already broken one of the chief codes by taking action against teachers I considered to be bad for students, and bad for the school since parents didn’t want their kids in the classes these teachers ran. My decisions in these situations were not strategic but visceral. With one particularly mean and unhappy teacher, I simply could not place another new student into her class. I resolved at that point to produce the kind of write up that would drive her or me out. Coached by the brilliant attorney retained by the district I honed a devastating weapon, a memo that told the truth about her teaching. After a few months of petitions from fellow teachers and threats from the union, she retired and moved off to be unhappy elsewhere.

Of course this action made enemies among union leadership but that fact seemed to work well for an up and coming administrator in the eyes of the superintendent and school board. More experienced principals did everything possible to not take this kind of action since making enemies was not a path to longevity and high status as a senior administrator. But rising fast was my goal, not longevity and status as a wise old principal.

I also took the superintendent up on an offer to attend a “personnel academy” sponsored by the state administrator association so I would be as prepared as possible for the job. When the board selected me, life changed, especially with all the principals, my former buddies. I was suddenly a “district” person and not a “school” person. I knew something like this might happen but it was still a real surprise when friends suddenly began treating me like someone they bargained with or even lied to on behalf of their schools. Of course I understood since I had also lied to central office types on behalf of any school where I had served as principal. For instance, in one the policy was that the district would fix any air conditioning or heating problem that cost over $1000.00. But all other less expensive air conditioning problems came from the school’s budget. I learned pretty quickly that my school would never have an air conditioning problem that cost less than $1000.00. When the HVAC repair guy would tell me he could fix the 20 year old classroom HVAC unit for $600.00, it was easy to ask the custodian to ‘repair’ it so it would break completely in a few months. In this way we could get a brand new unit for $1500.00 bought by the district.

Other inside manipulations of the system for the benefit of my school(s) included maneuvering around transfer policies to get the best teachers. I saw a superintendent allow a transfer of a very ineffective teacher to a school that was searching for a new principal after the current one had retired. Without the protection of a strong principal, a school was left to the devices (and needs) of the central office. The superintendent was tired of the ongoing problem of the ineffective teacher at school A. So when School B had no principal yet, the superintendent solved his problem by sticking the as yet not hired principal and school with the problem teacher.

There were other tricks of the trade I also had learned from senior principals. For instance, if a senior teacher was going to retire, I would be certain he or she held off submitting the letter of retirement until I could arrange for the right teacher from another school to apply for the coming opening. And furthermore, I would make certain the job posting would be narrow enough and specific enough to insure the right applicant was the only one who was qualified for the role.

But now I was going to be on the other end of the stick. Luckily I had experienced many of the games played between district and school administrators so I hoped I was not going to be too surprised.

I knew I was going to be separated and different from my principal friends since I had more power, at least they thought I had more power. And I knew I was prepared. I understood the politics, the curriculum, school management, budget management, how to develop good parent relationships and much more. However, I really didn’t understand the true perception of my new role from the perspective of school people.

I learned the true nature of my promotion during one of my school tours. My boss had suggested that I visit every school in the district several times in order to learn about them and also to help school staffs become more comfortable with me in this new role. I stopped by the teacher break rooms and assumed a mild mannered, and friendly identity that had nothing to do with power or representing the central office of any organization. I was just friendly old Bill, the harmless guy who was there to help out.

It was on just such a school visit at a junior high school that the truth of promotion up the ladder and out of schools hit me. I stopped by a science classroom and enjoyed both the direct teaching and the students working on lab style assignments. I approached one of the lab groups and asked what they were doing? The kids explained the question they were trying to find an answer to. They also described the experiment they were trying to conduct. Any question I asked, they looked up from their serious work, gazed at me through their safety goggles and spoke with confidence and expertise. Finally one kid asked me, “Who are you anyway?” Obviously I was not the teacher and not their principal or vice principal, and too dressed up (blue blazer, regimental tie, gunboat brogues) to be another teacher.

“Well,” I responded. “Who do you think I am?” The kid took off his safety goggles and turned towards me. He looked me up and down with a quizzical look on his face. Finally he ventured, “Yearbook salesman?”

I was a bit dumbfounded. Me, an experienced teacher and principal, now a district administrator, inquiring about both instruction and learning of this group of students, dressed in professional garb. And it turned out I looked like a yearbook salesman? What a distressing moment that was. Upon reflection, it was a very accurate observation. The kid had probably never heard of a Personnel Director, or an Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources. But he well knew who important school people were. They were teachers, office clerks, the secretary and the chief of them all, the principal. Anyone else was simply an outsider trying to sell them something.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later during one of many intense struggles over employee discipline that I understood what an outsider I had become. From the perception of the staff, a teacher who was a lemon was still their lemon. None of them wanted to tolerate incompetent teachers, but they knew the hearts of their incompetent teachers and judged them to be well meaning if not pure. As colleagues and union brothers and sisters, they knew whom to defend and whom to dislike. I understood just how disliked this work was making me when I discovered that my best friend was now the attorney who worked for the district. As for the staff, the support staff, the secretaries, they had no idea what I actually did. And thus, I could just as well have been a yearbook salesman as far as they were concerned.

 

How the teacher turned kids into Frog Jockies and made them love History

Kids with birthdays in December often celebrate half-birthdays in July. That way, they don’t have to compete with Christmas and other holidays for gifts, fun and party dates. And this is the way I felt about Rodeo Week and Pioneer Days, a celebration that took place each year in May. How did I come up with this idea? Well, Rodeo week, like Halloween, is also a kind of town wide costume festival. In that way it is kind of like Halloween but one in which the frontier days of the Gold Rush and Old West were celebrated. Kids dressed like cowboys and cowgirls, learned to square dance in P.E. class and read heroic stories of the pioneers in Northern California who overcame the hardships of wagon trains, wild savage Indians, cleared the land and finally settled as ranchers, farmers or townsfolk to become part of the proud history of the area. A colorful local judge also of pioneer stock whose family owned an old gold mine, visited annually to lecture in costume to the kids in language they could not decipher. (This was part of the fun). And fiddler groups competed for local awards too.

When I got to the town, I had never been to a rodeo. I was simply not interested in what seemed to be a kind of Will Rogers era pastime and involved lots of activity with various big and small animals I didn’t care much about. Actually, most of the kids in my school didn’t go to the rodeo anyway because the tickets cost too much and there was lots of beer drinking and general rowdiness. Kids who had horses often got to go but they were few and far between where I taught among impoverished children at the edge of town. So as a 7th and 8th grade teacher I just didn’t think much about the whole week. The school year was almost over anyway and there was certainly no requirement to dress up.

But I soon was promoted as teaching principal of a small rural school with 160 kids and 7 teachers and what went on in the curriculum was my responsibility. Some of the teachers were older and appeared to me to be suffering from a kind of continued need to whine and gripe about most things. Several others, however, were from my perspective absolutely brilliant. One of the brilliant ones was Rose, a woman in her late 40’s whom I have mentioned in another piece. I wrote that ‘Rose had a unique way of looking into each kid and somehow seeing what he or she could become. She looked past any misbehavior and learning difficulty to see each kid as someone who was becoming wonderful. Then she taught to that wonderful person. And usually, the wonderful person emerged sooner than later.’ To my great good fortune, Rose also had this perspective with young men who were teaching principals. If I was goofing up in some way I didn’t perceive, she would give me a call at home and share her thoughts. She was always right.

When Rodeo Week rolled around this time time, I saw a huge curriculum problem in the story behind the proud celebration of local history. Key facts, places and events were left out. There was no mention of places like “Bloody Island” in the middle of the Sacramento River where hundreds of Indians were murdered. Likewise, “Massacre Flat” where approximately 500 Indians were rounded up and shot to death, was missed in the legends of heroism and happiness. I was deeply disturbed that the annihilation and legal hunting down and murder of Indians was never taught. At the same time, it seemed almost too gruesome to teach to 4th and 5th graders.

So what should the curriculum be for such an event? Once again, Rose, the expert teacher, the daughter of local loggers and shopkeepers from pioneer stock emerged as a kind of seer for me. She never quoted Phil Schlechty to me but it was clear she agreed with his definition of good curriculum as fun stuff kids really want to do and learn about. Rose also knew much about the history of the local Indian genocide.

She avoided the most gruesome details but introduced her 5th graders to important authors who didn’t pull punches when writing about the topic. One such author was Mark Twain. Rose brought every student to him in the craziest and most fun way I had ever heard of.

First, every 5th grader had to read the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” This is a gold rush story of gold rush that like much of Twain’s work, seems funny but packs a real punch around issues such as gambling and cheating that no one could deny were strong themes in the era. In the story, gamblers hold a frog jumping contest and cheated by feeding one of the frogs buckshot to slow him down so he would lose. Then the fifth graders had to tell the story to all the younger students in the school by visiting their classrooms.

As a next step, Rose took the story into the real world of the kids. She held her own Jumping Frog contest on the school blacktop and every kid could compete. With her three sons and husband, Rose raided the ponds of local golf courses during the night with flashlights to find the frogs. Under her guidance, her sons would place the frogs in big picnic coolers to keep them fresh and alive for the races the following morning. In other words, no kid had to bring his or her own frog, although there was no ban against it.

At the appointed time in the morning, her bleary eyed sons would arrive with the coolers and start hosing down the blacktop before it got too hot for the frogs to compete. (One year, we suffered a heat wave and the races had to be called due to frogs frying during the races). The kids who wanted to race were assigned frog jockey numbers pinned onto their t-shirts and encouraged to name their own frog. Rose distributed fake money, coin like tokens so the kids could gamble like the old gold miners. The tokens could be redeemed for snow cones that were also available on the blacktop. Any kid could get a snow cone, but the gambling winners got to go first in line. Many parents always came to watch as well as other officials Rose had invited.

My first year as teaching principal was the year a near disaster occurred due to the frog curriculum. This was the year of the new Reading Text book adoption. And it was on the very day of the frog races that the compliance officer from the Northern California Region of 5 counties, Edna Boggs, showed up unexpectedly at my school.

I saw her coming around the building to see what was going on since the classrooms were empty and all the teachers, kids and many parents were collected on the blacktop betting and preparing for the races. Now none of this activity, not even the actual story by Mark Twain was in the new Reading textbook.

“Hello Edna,” I said cheerfully.

“Hello Bill,” she said. “What’s going on here?”

“Oh,” I responded. “We are celebrating Rodeo and Pioneer Days by focusing on Mark Twain’s fun story about the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

“Hmm.” Replied Edna. “You are aware, are you not, that Mark Twain’s stories are hardly appropriate for children, and not approved aside from our beloved Tom Sawyer?”

“Well, no,” I said. “I thought this story was fine.”

“it is not fine,” said Edna. “It contains gambling and cheating and God knows what else.” Her voice rose as she made her proclamation and several teachers moved closer to hear what was going on.

Edna was not aware that the second heat of the frog jumping contest had just begun and that she was standing in the path of one of the contestant frogs. The frog’s jockey, a scrawny yet bright 4th grader yelled out, “Interference! Interference!”

Rose leaped into action and gently grasped Edna by the arm saying, “Hello Edna, I’m glad you’re here but it’s time to step aside so these kids can jump their frogs.”

Rose knew that she needed to get ahead of Edna in this curriculum compliance game so she raced into the office to call the chairman of the school board first and the superintendent second to let them know how much fun the kids were having and how many parents (including a couple of board members) were at the school in costume helping and taking part. By the time Edna got back to her office and called the superintendent to complain about the non-compliant curriculum, it was far too late to have the impact she desired.

“Thanks for your opinion, Edna,” said the superintendent. “You are welcome to go back to the school and share any more concerns with the board members who are in the contest with some of the kids.” Edna hung up and dropped this particular compliance issue.

As soon as the jumping contest was over, Rose’s sons collected the frogs, put them back in the coolers and returned them in broad daylight to the golf courses from whence they came. I basked in the success and fun of the day. Rose showed me how to build curriculum and how to defend it all at the same time. Nothing happened about teaching about the Indians but that would come a few years later when the local tribe opened a casino and reaped their first round of revenge, gambling addiction, on the descendants of the brutal settlers who slaughtered their ancestors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Curriculum, Devotion and Kickball

I first met Rose, an older teacher of 4th and 5th graders when I was hired at the school district at the edge of town that served mainly kids in poverty. The new superintendent had called a meeting to discuss adoption of new textbooks. In California in those days a new textbook series was purchased every 7 years as part of curriculum updates and to replace worn out books. The superintendent asked Rose what she thought of the new reading books since she had spent an hour or two reviewing the choices. She said she couldn’t really know until she had taught the new series for a year.

Wow! I thought this lady was right on target with the reality of teaching. Only bureaucrats and textbook sales people assumed one could select the best curriculum just by reviewing the books. The more I saw Rose in action, the more I understood what a great teacher she was. Not only did she understand curriculum, more importantly she understood teaching and her students, especially the boys.

Rose had a unique way of looking into each kid and somehow seeing what he or she could become. She looked past any misbehavior and learning difficulty to see each kid as someone who was becoming wonderful. Then she taught to that wonderful person. And usually, the wonderful person emerged sooner than later.

Yet Rose had no false expectations of children. To illustrate what she considered reality of the teaching-student relationship she shared what began as a heartfelt story of her colleague, Teresa, a life long teacher who had dedicated herself religiously, spiritually, financially and physically to her elementary school children. Teresa, towards the end of he career developed breast cancer. She struggled through radiation and mastectomy returning after each siege of debilitating treatment to her classroom and children. She spoke of each child in ways that reflected not only her love but also her knowledge of their needs and abilities. She lost a dramatic amount of weight and needed new clothing for work. She accepted this challenge of living in a different body and bought an entirely new wardrobe so she looked as professional as she could in new, better fitting clothing. When her hair fell out, she bought several of the latest wigs to help her fit in and not shock the kids.

But the return of this kind of love and devotion was not part of the compact elementary kids have with their teachers. Teresa learned this during her last days at school. It was a wonderfully clear and crisp Fall day when she took her class out for kickball. Every kid loved kickball in those days and the girls weren’t old enough to have learned that they shouldn’t. It is played like baseball on a diamond of 4 bases. A pitcher stands at the pitchers mound and roles the ball to the kicker who waits behind home plate. The kicker runs towards the rolling ball from behind the plate and tries to time her kick so her foot meets the ball just as it crosses home plate. If the timing is right, the kicked ball flies faster and farther than it would have if the kicker just stood still and waited for the ball to cross the plate. In most schools in poverty areas, however, there is no actual pitcher’s mound, just a line on the blacktop. Playing on blacktop is actually a big step up from playing the game in the dirt.

Teresa stood next to first base feeling queasy but joyful at the fact that she was with her kids again after another debilitating treatment. As she gazed out over the playground Jimmy Jones was calculating the perfect timing for his run up to the plate to kick the ball. He arrived at the plate at the right moment but took his eye off the ball to look in the direction he hoped to kick the ball. This resulted in a strong shot, a bullet down the first base line. The ball looked like it would stay in bounds but at the last moment it swerved and smacked Teresa on the side of her unsuspecting and ethereal head. As she dropped, her wig flew off in the opposite direction of the ricocheting ball. She was so stunned that she didn’t put her hands out to stop her fall. As her body made contact with the black top, she cracked the back of her head. Barely conscious she heard the kids on the bench cry, “Interference!” This was Teresa’s last day at school.

 

 

Teaching Rugged Individualism and Patriotism at Thanksgiving

One of the most surprising events at the beginning of my administrative career in Education took place when a School Board member named Yancey in a small nearby mountain district proposed a vote against free breakfast and lunch for impoverished children whose family income made them eligible for this benefit. My friend, Chris was the teaching-principal-superintendent of this district. He felt truly distraught when this modern day Jeremiah Johnson board member stood up for rugged individualism and self-reliance for 5 year olds.

“With Thanksgiving on the horizon,” Yancey explained to the few people at the board meeting, “we need to forward the same spirit of independence that built our country. You never heard about free lunch for the Pilgrims, did you?”

A few days later, Chris and I went out for a beer to talk over the whole situation. After a healthy round of cussing, telling each other what an asshole, chicken-shit this guy was, we tried to analyze his psychology. We knew he was a small businessman- rancher who worked other jobs when he could, mainly construction or renting out heavy equipment to CDF (California Department of Forestry) during fire season. If he was lucky he could be called to truck his huge Caterpillar D-9 Bulldozer with that model’s legendary steel blade to an area near a forest fire and get paid $400.00 per hour to cut and construct instant roads through parts of the forest that had not yet burned. These Bulldozed roads served as life-saving fire breaks when the wind shifted and fire fighters were forced to beat a hasty retreat as the fire line quickly moved in unpredictable ways. The best outcome was to have the fire switch directions and head away from his equipment. This happened more than one would imagine. Yancey loved the idea of trucking his equipment across mountain passes to fight an elemental enemy such as fire, but felt no connection to the government that paid him.

But this didn’t explain why Yancey or anyone would want to take food away from hungry kids. Piecing together statements Yancey had made, and thinking about his attire, we slowly figured out a version of the kind of ideology that would lead to this proposal. Yancey brought up the free lunch issue in October after he voted in favor of it in August when the school year started. It was as if he experienced a radical change of heart. To outline the program, the federal government bought (and still buys) food commodities and distributes them to schools at low cost for the free breakfast and lunch program that is targeted to kids who qualify due to the economic circumstances of their families. Parents complete an application when they register at school and the kids eat daily for free, or for a reduced price. Furthermore, the federal government allotted each district a pot of money to buy the reduced price food and any other food that met nutritional guidelines.

When Yancey voted for the program in August, he voted to provide local funding if the federal money did not cover expenses. In small districts where economies of scale were hard to come by, every district took this stance and lobbied for more money at the same time. But this time, Yancey had not simply proposed to hold the spending to the federal allotment for the cost of the food served to the kids, as some tax payer associations advocated. He had gone further and proposed that the free breakfast and lunch program be cancelled completely. From the perspective of the tax payer associations, it was important to separate the Education dollar (teachers, books, busses) from the welfare dollar (food, nursing, clinics on campus). Everyone was surprised at Yancey’s new stance since so many children in this little district depended on the food for normal and healthy growth and development.

It started with a statement he often made that, “People needed to learn to take care of themselves and kids can’t learn that too early.” He was naturally always in favor of fund raisers in which children tried to sell various products to the community in order to raise money for school equipment of for a special field trip that cost too much for the local district to afford. He often said he didn’t want anyone to learn to be dependent on the state.

He also took pride in wearing clothes that seemed to fit somewhere between Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford as mountain man) and Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid (Robert Redford and Paul Newman as sympathetic outlaws). These 1970’s movies stirred a longing for a kind of idealized independence, now long gone in a multi-ethnic country of city dwellers. Through his clothing, cowboy hats and fringed buckskin jackets, we thought he associated himself with wild and courageous frontiersmen who lived on the edge of civilization through authentic, rugged individualism and self-reliance. You never saw Jeremiah Johnson line up for free lunch. He had to kill his food and kill Indians if they got in the way of his killing his food.

This board member, Yancey, was also rankled by the idea that he owed anything to anyone due to contemporary societal or historical injustices. He had never owned slaves so why did he have to pay taxes for welfare for black people? He had never killed an Indian, so why did he have to pay taxes for special programs for the local Native Americans? The language of America was his version of English so why did he have to pay taxes for special programs to teach foreign kids how to talk the way all Americans were expected to talk? The best thing for everyone was to simply let every kid struggle and the best ones would win. If some had an advantage, then that was just the luck of the draw. You had to learn to play the hand you were dealt and not whine about it. If the kid was hungry, it was up to the parent to find food for him or her. It was not up to the taxpayer to take care of the problem.

In order to forward his ideology of independence, this board member relied on time- tested methods to be applied in public meetings. Chris and I came up with a good list of adjectives to describe this guy that included bombastic, braggart, bully, baiting blowhard and boorish, just to name the ones that started with B. Going backwards, the list of A’s included argumentative and asshole. Jumping ahead, the foundation of the C words was chicken shit.

At that time in our careers, Chris and I were taking classes at the local state university in school administration, although not together. I was one course ahead of him in the program. In a fortuitous twist of fate the week after our beer, cursing and psychoanalysis of the asshole chicken shit board member session, I learned that the Federal government started this particular child nutrition program in 1946 after an investigation revealed that a huge number of draftees were rejected during WWII due to the effects of malnutrition in the Great Depression. In other words, if you let the kids starve, they are not fit to fight for their country. I called Chris and we met to plot some strategy over another beer.

The solution was immediately clear. We (actually Chris) could skewer this buffoon on the most fundamental idea in any rural community: Patriotism. While Yancey hoped for a symbolic vote to eliminate free breakfast and lunch in November, he got something he did not expect. Chris prepared a one page memo to the board and the school community that outlined the history of the free breakfast and lunch program and its relationship with malnutrition, the draft in WWII and the need for all patriotic Americans to stand up for the defense of our country and support healthy kids who could become strong defenders of our freedom, independence, self-reliance and rugged individualism. Fifty people, practically all the parents in the district, arrived at the board meeting to express support for Chris and his patriotic memo about free lunch.

The five-member board discussed the issue of cancelling the free lunch program but it never came to a vote. Yancey bristled in his buckskin and fringe under the shade of his cowboy hat (the lights were on in the board room) and glared at Chris. Yancey left in a huff but had only been gone for a minute when two other board members brought up the idea to vote to sanction him. They hoped this would help them to separate from Yancey politically. But an experienced board member shared his opinion that Yancey would only wear the sanction as a kind of badge of honor.

“Just think about this whole experience like it’s a warm pile of muffin shaped cow shit in your pasture. Best not to kick this meadow muffin anymore,” he wisely suggested. “Just let it crust over.”

With that, the meeting adjourned and Chris was a hero. Smiling and shaking hands, he also went home but much happier than Yancey.

Over forty years later, I read of another mountain school board member voting against the free lunch program that provided nutritious food to most of the impoverished children in his district. He was quoted as asking, “What next? Do we have to buy them all bikes too?”

 

 

Something from Max Weber to Think About as Americans Consider Trump and Clinton When they Vote

      Max Weber uses a great German noun Stimmvieh to describe unthinking voting behavior.  Literally translated into English, it means “voting cow,” or “voting livestock” which Weber wrote in 1918 or so.  At the time, he had this love-hate relationship with the United States, so two of his illustrative examples of “voting cows” both came from there.  He saw “voting cows” in both the United States Congress where voting members are herded into party line voting, and in the urban areas of the early twentieth century where ward bosses rounded up recent immigrants to cast votes based on pre-existing ethnic loyalties, rather than the issues involved. 

As the United States heads watches as the Republican and Democratic parties “select” Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to represent ithem in November’s presidential election, a reflection on Weber’s concept is particularly relevant.  At both conventions, delegates will be told to vote on matters big and small over which they in fact have little say–they are there only for the theater of the rituals.

I think the phenomenon is actually more general, rooted as it is in the need to conform to group dynamics, of which the Democratic and Republican conventions are only high profile examples. . In fact just yesterday I voted “aye” (or should I say “moo”) to approve meeting minutes that I had not read.  In fact now that I think of it, on most of the committees I sit, I tend to vote in such a fashion—ratifying the pre-arranged decisions that are presented to me.  I do it all the time on university committees. “How do you vote on X?”  Altogether now “Mooooo.”  Any opposed? (Silence).  The motion passes.  Now that I think of it, same thing happens on church councils, corporate boards of directors, and any number of other places people are told they have “great responsibility.”  In the end?  Mooooo!

Weber is of course writing about is the fact that people vote for things that they haven’t read all the time.  I could of course pick on the US Congress which recently passed a monster bill on health care which few if any of the members had ever read.  This is a well-known foible of the US Congress which happens time after time, no matter which party is in charge; after all Weber wrote about the phenomenon 100 years ago before there was a health care bill.  Congress seemingly has not changed.

But more to the point, I could point to the “stuff” I vote for on the local ballots every year or so (after all I am an obedient and important voter supportive of democracy!).  Thus, I am always thrilled to be ask my opinion on matters big and small, even if I don’t know anything about the subject, or for that interest have much interest in the things that appear on California’s election ballots.  After all, if paid member of Congress don’t read the bills, why should I read everything that goes together in Califronia’s version of direct democracy?  Still the fact that the Legislature and Governor asks me at the ballot box to decide big issues appeals to my vanity, and I dutifully weigh in with a considered opinion on election day.

Do I want to have the government buy bonds to do X, and Y to Z% interest rate? Oh, thank you for asking!  Moooooo!

Who do you want to vote for to assess property in your county?  Well, yes, thank you for again asking my expert opinion, and now that you mention it Moooooo!

Or do I have an opinion about the death penalty, property rights,  air pollution regulations, school policy, sales tax, or the other multitude of issues that clutter the California ballot.  Thanks for asking! Mooooo! Mooooo! And Mooooo!

So as a sociologist, I like the concept of Weber describes—but how to render Stimmvieh into English in a fashion that Weber might recognize?  “Voting cows” does not capture  the spirit of the German.  “Voting sheep” works a little better, since in the English language sheep in particular are known via metaphor for the mindless herding mentality that Weber is referring to.

Indeed in the right wing blogosphere, they have started to use the word “Sheeple” which Wikipedia defines as

a term that highlights the herd behavior of people by likening them to sheep, a herd animal…. used to describe those who voluntarily acquiesce to a suggestion without critical analysis or research.

In other words Stimmvieh.  That sounds like what I do before voting “Aye” on ratifying the minutes of meetings I have not read, voting for my county’s assessor, or weighing in on a bond issue which I really do not understand.  The problem is that the right wing in the US has somehow appropriated the word “sheeple” and it has come to be associated only with the mindless voting behavior of the Democrats, rather than voters in general like Weber intended.  But we need sheeple back, if for nothing else, because it is such a great idiomatic way to translate the equally idiomatic Stimmvieh.  After all,  Sheeplehood and Stimmvieh behavior is not only for Democrats, but all of us, including you, me, and the guy behind the tree.  It is for whomever has voted “Mooooo,” whether it was to just to go along, inattention, or boredom.

Reposted from Ethnography.com 2015 and July 2016

“What Makes Something Ethnographic?!” It’s a Good Question to be Asking!

This is a 2012 article about “What Makes Something Ethnographic?” by Carole McGranahan at SavageMinds.com. Somehow it popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. I read it, and recommend the thoughtful musing about the definition of ethnography. It reminds that as the editor of a website called ethnography.com I should be thinking and writing about this subject as well!

After Halloween

Getting to school after Halloween was not easy for some of the adults who worked the carnival and celebrated with adult friends afterwards. And this is what happened to Athena, one of the tough, older teachers who loved kids yet gave no quarter to administrators. This included her attitude towards me, a principal who was experienced and had served in two prior schools both as vice principal and principal.

Athena herself enjoyed a storied career as the president of AFT (American Federation of Teachers) when they tried to take over teacher representation in the district from CTA (California Teachers Association). California is a collective bargaining state for public schools. This means that teachers vote to decide which union will represent them about pay and working conditions with the school board. The election was bitter and AFT lost by only one vote. Likewise, Athena lost yet maintained respect from all sides. The superintendent at the time made one school available for the AFT diehards and this became the school where I was appointed as principal to overcome the union divide, bring parents back who disdained the politics and inspire a new generation of teachers.

Athena seemed to be aging and losing energy when I first met her.  She wore thick pancake makeup yet perspired profusely whether it was hot or cold out. This might have terrified children or become a cause for disrespectful mocking from older kids. But her Kindergarteners seemed to overlook the beads of sweat dripping from her nose and chin. Oddly from my perspective she focused on her fingernails as way to enhance her beauty. She regularly had them done with sparkles and little pictures drawn in colorful enamel and shared her thoughts with everyone about the way this made her more attractive.

Another claim to fame was her establishment of the right of Kindergarten teachers to be finished with duties at noon when their children went home while at the same time, getting paid as a full time teacher. The contract contained a clause about “professional day” which meant that teachers could determine how long to stay after school based on their needs or the needs of their students. Teachers were not required to be at school until some arbitrary time such as 4:00pm. Naturally, most teachers stayed later to finish up but many young mothers took off just after the kids left campus in order to pick up their own children and save money on daycare. They would then complete paperwork at home in the evening when their kids went to bed. The rub came when parents wanted to meet after school but most teachers were able to work this out by flexing their schedules.

The issue of leaving for the day at noon for Kindergarten teachers crystallized when Athena was spotted at 10minutes past twelve at a local Pizza parlor drinking a pitcher of beer and waiting for her lunch order to be served. She lost a good deal of personal authority with many teachers. None of her colleagues thought the “professional day” included the right to start drinking at noon. But Athena’s actions stood up when the Superintendent challenged the contract and tried to discipline her. She won her case and thereby firmly established the “professional day” in contract with this situation. She wouldn’t be shamed by anyone into admitting any kind of political blunder by drinking in public at noon when every other teacher in the district was at school working. It was her contractual right.

Her loss of authority showed months later when I asked teachers at a faculty meeting if they were opposed to me making a few changes in the yard duty schedule. Athena stood up in what seemed to me to be mock outrage and demanded the group oppose the administration and walk out with her. I suggested it was me, Bill, not some distant and evil administration who was talking to them. The teachers ignored her and she walked out by herself. It must have been a hard moment when she checked for the parade behind her and found that no one was there.

Back to the Monday following Halloween; it had rained and the air was clear and cool. I felt a special pride in my school after such successful community events, and decided to walk the classrooms to start my day. This was part of a “supervision” task but also just fun for me. The first room I came to was Athena’s Kindergarten class. I walked in quietly and saw her sitting on a stool instructing at the blackboard to a group of sleepy but attentive Kindergarteners sitting nicely in a semi circle. Athena saw me and I waved to her. She seemed to energize her instruction as she faced the sitting class and then turned quickly to write on the board again. As she did this, I noticed something that appeared to swing around from the center of her back. I moved closer and she upped her game even more, now standing and facing her little ones, then turning with a kind of spritely elan to elegantly write something on the board. It was then that I saw the thing hanging from her back. It was a brassier that was hooked to the long angora sweater Athena wore.

“Now what?” I thought as Athena continued to teach and turn in even more excited fashion. This, of course, made the bra swing out even farther. Finally, her lesson was finished and the kids were dismissed to play with various blocks and games at centers she had developed throughout the room. I took advantage of this transition to wave her over to me. When she approached I opened the classroom door and beckoned her to step outside with me. I left the door open so our joint supervision responsibilities were met and moved towards her so that I could tell her quietly about the bra that I could now see was hooked on the back of her sweater just below the neck. Unfortunately, Athena stepped back as if I was going to invade her personal space.

I said, “You have something on your back and if you turn around, I’ll take it off.”

She stepped back further and said, “What are you talking about?” And after a moment asked, “What are you up to?”

I tried to explain, “Well you have an article of clothing that seems to be stuck on your back and I think you would like it off of there.”

She twisted around and the bra swung out so she was able to grab it without turning her head far enough to see it, although it was a pretty big bra. Then she kind of shrieked, “Oh God,” and pulled hard to get it to come off. This panicked yanking of the bra only attached the hook more deeply into the angora strands and made the front of the sweater pull up closer to her chin. Sweat started flowing from her brow and in a matter of seconds drew rivulets through the thick pancake makeup and dripped from her nose and chin.

“Please let me get it,” I asked.

She turned and allowed me to unhook the bra and hand it to her quickly. She darted back into the classroom and stuffed the now crumpled up bra into her desk drawer. I turned and left as fast as I could to continue my school tour, wondering how this would all come out.

Unfortunately for Athena, another teacher, some parents and an aide had seen us in the hallway doing our angora-bra-tango. These were people who disliked Athena for her drinking and harsh if winning ways as a union leader. By the time lunch break came for teachers, the word was all over the school. Poor Athena never recovered her standing as a strong leader after this last nail in the coffin incident. It was a tough Monday after Halloween for her.