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Sandy Banks: A retired L.A. teacher ponders her rating

Faye Ireland knows that she was a good teacher. She doesn’t depend on test scores to tell her that. She has stacks of letters from former students, enduring relationships with their parents and a reputation for managing the most challenging kids on campus.

It didn’t bother her that Los Angeles school officials misspelled her name on her commendation when she retired three years ago. It went up on a living room wall plastered with awards, photos and framed letters from now-grown pupils.

But it bothered Ireland plenty when she was publicly branded “least effective” last month in The Times’ ratings of elementary school teachers. The ranking, in an online database with the “Grading the Teachers” project relies on students’ progress on standardized exams to measure teacher effectiveness.

“I know what I did; I know I enjoyed it; I know I did what was best for the kids,” said Ireland, who spent 45 years as a classroom teacher.

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“But 10 years from now, somebody will see my name with ‘least effective’ beside it and wonder ‘What was that person doing in the classroom?’ ”

Ireland e-mailed me Sunday, after she read my weekend column on teachers’ responses to the ranking process. I’d sympathized with the embarrassment felt by low-rated teachers, and hoped the spotlight would lead to improvement.

But Ireland’s public outing won’t help her become a better teacher. “I’m retired. What can I do about this rating?” she said. It’s simply an ugly coda to what she thought was a successful and satisfying career.

Ireland has no quarrel with The Times’ series or calculations. “I just wish the chart had said ‘least effective in raising test scores.’ That would be fair. I could live with that.”

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She knows that her fifth-graders’ scores in her final years at Los Feliz Elementary didn’t make their teacher look good.

“I remember those classes,” she said. “I had only five English-speaking students” one year. “I wanted to get [the others] into regular English classes before they went to middle school.”

Ireland knew that if they landed in ESL programs in middle school, they would have few chances to take challenging academic classes. “Their parents worked with me like crazy, and we got them through all the things they had to do.”

By the end of each year, “every one of my students was fluent in English,” she recalled. “That’s what I set out to do.”

Other teachers warned her that her test scores would take a hit, that her focus on prepping students for the English Language Development Test might come at the expense of the California Standards Test on which school and teacher ratings are based.

But she was looking beyond the test, beyond the classroom, even. “I wanted to transition those kids into English. I wanted them to know they could accomplish this, that nothing was off limits to them.”

Ireland is not so different from many teachers, who balance every day, every year, the tradeoffs required to meet the needs of schools and students.

Push the high achievers or lift up the stragglers? Teach to the test or from your heart? Make time for music or keep drilling in math?

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In her 45-year teaching career, Ireland taught every grade and special-education classes. She was such a perfectionist, she didn’t allow erasers in class. “You make a mistake, you start over.”

She had no patience for district edicts, like the order to replace spelling tests with “whole language” reading. “We had 27 languages at our school,” her former principal from Los Feliz recalled. “Faye knew those kids needed phonics.”

And Ireland knew they needed music. So when the budget forced cutbacks, she dug into her pocket to buy her students recorders. She taught them to read music — “that helps them in math, you know” — and they performed every spring at their culmination.

She was old-school, and proud of it. “Children shivered when they walked into my class,” she said. Parents lined up to get their kids out. But by years’ end, those same parents were trying to get their younger children in.

Ireland’s heartache over The Times’ verdict was clear when I visited her Silver Lake home. She had painstakingly assembled a repudiation of the public pronouncement — a dining room covered with evidence dating to 1962:

There was a red binder crammed with letters that former students sent over the years; a stack of printouts from her Facebook page, where students and parents are rallying to her defense; and a video of her retirement dinner, featuring a student from the fifth-grade class of 1976, now a college professor with a PhD, who came back from Indiana to thank her:

“I didn’t have any extraordinary talent,” Helen Neville told the crowd. “But she believed I could do extraordinary things if I applied myself. And she gave me the tools to do that.”

I leafed through the letters, struck by reminders of her stickler ways, like this line that followed a 40-something former student’s thanks: Before you whip out that red pen and correct the fact that the previous sentence is not actually grammatically correct, I will simply say, I am aware of that.

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Their letters paint a portrait that her rating can’t capture, of a teacher who saw possibilities in a child another might see as a test-score anchor.

Some, like this one that arrived last January, are from students she barely recalls:

“I don’t really know what you saw in me to inspire the type of kindnesses you bestowed upon me, but I want to thank you for them because I never forgot how they made me feel.”

Those kindnesses? Ireland appointed the girl to clean the faculty lounge, a “privilege” that went to one student each year and paid 10 cents every day. She let the girl help file classmates’ work in the cabinet next to the teacher’s desk. She gave the girl a ride to school some mornings, when she passed the girl walking alone.

“These may seem like small simple things, but as I write this letter to you, 30 years later, my eyes are filling up with tears. You must have known that I needed to feel special and you took the time and made the effort to help me in ways that have lasted for my lifetime.”

And I get the feeling, as Ireland reads the letter aloud in her teacher’s voice — slightly wavering now — that even a “most effective” rating couldn’t deliver a message that mattered more.

sandy.banks@latimes.com


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