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An L.A. teacher reviews her review

For the first time this year, LAUSD has prepared reports for teachers that rate their effectiveness. When I received an email saying I could now view my own personal “Average Growth over Time” report, I opened it with a combination of trepidation, resignation and indignation.

First, the indignation. It is, I think, the key factor that has kept me teaching past the five-year mark, when most new teachers quit the profession. I am in my sixth year of teaching after a nearly 20-year career as a professional writer. I know that I am smart, hardworking and competent, and despite the many frustrations of teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I have refused to throw in the towel — as so many do.

Indignation is also what fueled my reaction when I saw the rating the school district sent. It showed me to be on the low side of average for high school English teachers in the district.

I teach 10th-grade English and journalism. My “10th grade” English classes are actually made up of ninth-, 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders. The 11th- and 12th-graders are repeating the class because they failed it the first time. The ninth-graders are students who didn’t pass enough classes the first time they went through ninth grade to be promoted to 10th.

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With my scores, the district also sent a notice that, for reasons not explained, the 10th-grade scores were not considered reliable at this time, and so my overall score had been derived solely from the ninth-graders who happen to be in my 10th-grade English class. Because these happen to be my least motivated students, I was therefore judged not on my best students but on my worst.

With that realization came trepidation because the scores may very well be used to determine my salary one day, and they may also be published for all the world to see in this newspaper, which is suing to have teachers’ scores made public.

It’s hard for those who finished high school 20 or 30 years ago, as I did, to fathom the conditions in a typical L.A. Unified high school classroom these days. Classes are huge. Students face overwhelming family and social issues. Drugs are rampant. Students are incredibly disrespectful, testing authority constantly at the beginning of the year. Teachers must be able to get a strong grip on their classes all by themselves because consequences for bad behavior in class are often nonexistent outside it.

My school has two full-time police officers, a full-time probation officer and several full-time security personnel to handle about 3,800 students. Yet we still have a hard time keeping kids from smoking pot on a regular basis in our restrooms.

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Today’s teacher must be highly skilled in her subject matter just to make it into the classroom, more so than at any other time in the history of education. She also must play the role of parent, custodian, psychologist, drug and alcohol interventionist and parole officer, to name a few.

On a recent Wednesday, my second-period class was interrupted by a student who overdosed on alcohol and Ecstasy and nearly died. Earlier in the year, one of our students was shot in the face and hospitalized. Last year, a student was shot in the neck and paralyzed for life; one of my students was standing next to him when it happened. The year before that, one of my students was inside her house when her sister, sitting in a car outside, was shot and blinded in one eye in a gang drive-by. The baby she was holding was struck by a bullet and killed.

There are days, or perhaps just moments, when I feel like giving up. I have had to resign myself to the incomprehensible idea that society has decided to blame many of its failings on teachers. But I know we don’t deserve the rap. I work with an incredibly intelligent, caring, talented group of people. I also work with many brave, sweet, bright, extraordinary teens.

It’s not that test scores aren’t useful to me. I can look at my numbers dispassionately and say that I didn’t challenge my honors class enough last year, or that I could have spent more time teaching the concepts that are likely to be on the standardized test. But test scores alone tell so little of the story as to be practically useless in evaluating teacher performance. The best educators know that.

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What students need most is to be encouraged and shown that they can succeed. And then they must be held accountable for rising to the challenge and learning from their mistakes. Students need to meet high standards, but they also need guidance that comes with respect, understanding and love.

And that goes for us teachers too.

Coleen Bondy teaches at Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda.


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