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How I Joined Teach for America -- and Got Sued for $20 Million By: Joshua Kaplowitz
City Journal | Tuesday, January 14, 2003


It was May 2000, and the guy at Al Gore’s polling firm seemed baffled. A Yale political-science major, I’d already walked away from a high-paying consulting job a few weeks earlier, and now I was walking away from a job working on a presidential campaign to do . . . what?

Well, when push came to shove, I didn’t want to devote my life to helping the rich get richer or crunching numbers to see what views were most popular for the vice president to adopt. This wasn’t what my 17 years of education were for.

My doctor parents had drummed into me that education was the key to every door, the one thing they couldn’t take away from my ancestors during pogroms and persecutions. They had also filled me with a strong sense of social justice. I couldn’t help feeling guilty dismay when I thought of the millions of kids who’d never even tasted the great teaching—not to mention the supportive family—I’d enjoyed for my entire life.

I told the Al Gore guy, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Weird as he might have thought it, I had decided to teach in an inner-city school.

Five weeks later, I found myself steering my parents’ old Volvo off R Street and into a one-block cul-de-sac. There it was: Emery Elementary School, a 1950s-ugly building tucked behind a dead-end street—an apt metaphor, I thought, for the lives of many of the children in this almost all-black neighborhood a mile north of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. I had seen signs of inner-city blight all over the neighborhood, from the grown men who skulked in the afternoon streets to the bulletproof glass that sealed off the cashier at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. This was the “other half” of Washington, the part of the city I had missed during my grade-school field trips to the Smithsonian and my two summers as a Capitol Hill intern.

I parked the car and bounded into the main office to say hi to Mr. Bledsoe, the interim principal who had hired me a few weeks before. As he showed me around the clean but bare halls, my head filled with visions of my students happily painting imaginative murals under my artistic direction. I peered through windows into classrooms, where students were bent over their desks, quietly filling out worksheets. I smiled to myself as I imagined the creative lessons I would give to these children, who had never had a dynamic young teacher to get them excited about scholarship the way I knew I could. Their minds were like kindling, I reflected; all they needed was a spark to ignite a love of learning that would lift them above the drugs, violence, and poverty. The spark, I hoped, would be me.

As the tour ended and I was about to leave, Mr. Bledsoe pulled me aside. “The one thing you need to do above all else is to have your children under control. Once you have done that, you’ll be fine.”

Fine. But as I learned to my great cost, that was easier said than done.

I was supposed to pick up that skill over the summer from Teach for America (TFA), an organization, affiliated with AmeriCorps, that places young people with no ed-school background, and usually just out of college, in disadvantaged school districts suffering from teacher shortages. Applicants request placement in one of over a dozen rural and urban school districts around the country that contract with TFA, and I got my first choice, in the city I hoped to live in for the rest of my life.

Teach for America conducts an intensive five-week training program for its inductees during the summer before they start teaching. My year, this “teacher boot camp” took place in Houston. It was there that I quickly figured out that enthusiasm and creativity alone wouldn’t suffice in an inner-city classroom. I was part of a tag team of four recruits teaching a summer-school class of low-income fourth-graders. Even in one- to two-hour blocks of teaching, I quickly realized that my best-planned, most imaginative lessons fell apart if I didn’t have control of my students.

In the seminars we attended when we weren’t teaching, I learned the basics of lesson planning and teaching theory. I also internalized the TFA philosophy of high expectations, the idea that if you set a rigorous academic course, all students will rise to meet the challenge.

But the training program skimped on actual teaching and classroom-management techniques, instead overwhelming us with sensitivity training. My group spent hours on an activity where everyone stood in a line and then took steps forward or backward based on whether we were the oppressor or the oppressed in the categories of race, income, and religion. The program had a college bull session, rather than professional, atmosphere. And it had a college-style party line: I heard of two or three trainees being threatened with expulsion for expressing in their discussion groups politically incorrect views about inner-city poverty—for example, that families and culture, not economics, may be the root cause of the achievement gap.

Nothing in the program simulated what I soon learned to be the life of a teacher. Though I didn’t know it, I was completely ill equipped when I stepped into my own fifth-grade classroom at Emery Elementary in September 2000.

The year before I taught, a popular veteran principal had been dismissed without explanation. Mr. Bledsoe finished out the rest of the year on an interim basis, hired me and four other Teach for America teachers, and then turned over the reins to a woman named V. Lisa Savoy. Ms. Savoy had been an assistant principal at the District’s infamous Anacostia High School, in Washington’s equivalent of the South Bronx. Before the start of school, she met with her four first-year TFA teachers to assure us that we would be well supported, and that if we needed anything we should just ask. Most of my veteran colleagues, 90 percent of them black, also seemed helpful, though a few showed flickers of disdain for us eager, young white teachers. By the time school opened, I was thrilled to start molding the brains of my children.

My optimism and naiveté evaporated within hours. I tried my best to be strict and set limits with my new students; but I wore my inexperience on my sleeve, and several of the kids jumped at the opportunity to misbehave. I could see clearly enough that the vast majority of my fifth-graders genuinely wanted to learn—but all it took to subvert the whole enterprise were a few cutups.

On a typical day, DeAngelo (a pseudonym, as are the other children’s names in this and the next paragraph) would throw a wad of paper in the middle of a lesson. Whether I disciplined him or ignored him, his actions would cause Kanisha to scream like an air-raid siren. In response, Lamond would get up, walk across the room, and try to slap Kanisha. Within one minute, the whole class was lost in a sea of noise and fists. I felt profoundly sorry for the majority of my students, whose education was being hijacked. Their plaintive cries punctuated the din: “Quiet everyone! Mr. Kaplowitz is trying to teach!”

Ayisha was my most gifted student. The daughter of Senegalese immigrants, she would tolerantly roll her eyes as Darnetta cut up for the ninth time in one hour, patiently waiting for the day when my class would settle down. Joseph was a brilliant writer who struggled mightily in math. When he needed help with a division problem, I tried to give him as much attention as I could, before three students wandering around the room inevitably distracted me. Eventually, I settled on tutoring him after school. Twenty more students’ educations were sabotaged, each kid with specific needs that I couldn’t attend to, because I was too busy putting out fires. Though I poured my heart into inventive lessons and activities throughout the entire year, they almost always fell apart in the face of my students’ disrespect and indifference.

To gain control, I tried imposing the kinds of consequences that the classroom-management handbooks recommend. None worked. My classroom was too small to give my students “time out.” I tried to take away their recess, but depriving them of their one sanctioned time to blow off steam just increased their penchant to use my classroom as a playground. When I called parents, they were often mistrustful and tended to question or even disbelieve outright what I told them about their children. It was sometimes worse when they believed me, though; the tenth time I heard a mother swear that her child was going to “get a beating for this one,” I almost decided not to call parents. By contrast, I saw immediate behavioral and academic improvement in students whose parents had come to trust me.

I quickly learned from such experiences how essential parental support is in determining whether a school succeeds in educating a child. And of course, parental support not just of the teachers but of the kids: as I came to know my students better, I saw that those who had seen violence, neglect, or drug abuse at home were usually the uncontrollable ones, while my best-behaved, hardest-working kids were typically those with the most nurturing home environments.

Being a white teacher in a mostly black school unquestionably hindered my ability to teach. Certain students hurled racial slurs with impunity; several of their parents intimated to my colleagues that they didn’t think a white teacher had any business teaching their children—and a number of my colleagues agreed. One parent who was also a teacher’s aide threatened to “kick my white ass” in front of my class and received no punishment from the principal, beyond being told to stay out of my classroom. The failure of the principal, parents, and teachers to react more decisively to racist disrespect emboldened students to behave worse. Such poisonous bigotry directed at a black teacher at a mostly white school would of course have created a federal case.

Still, other colleagues, friendly and supportive, helped me with my discipline problems. They let me send unruly students to their classrooms for brief periods of time to cool off, allowing me to teach the rest of my class effectively. But when I turned to my school administration for similar help, I was much less fortunate.

I had read that successful schools have chief executives who immerse themselves in the everyday operations of the institution, set clear expectations for the student body, recognize and support energetic and creative teachers, and foster constructive relationships with parents. Successful principals usually are mavericks, too, who skirt stupid bureaucracy to do what is best for the children. Emery’s Principal Savoy sure didn’t fit this model.

To start with, from all that I could see, she seemed mostly to stay in her office, instead of mingling with students and observing classes, most of which were up at least one flight of stairs, perhaps a disincentive for so heavy a woman. Furthermore, I saw from the first month that she generally gave delinquents no more than a stern talking-to, followed by a pat on the back, rather than suspensions, detentions, or any other meaningful punishment. The threat of sending a student to the office was thus rendered toothless.

Worse, Ms. Savoy effectively undermined my classroom-management efforts. She forbade me from sending students to other teachers—the one tactic that had any noticeable effect. Exiling my four worst students had produced a vast improvement in the conduct of the remainder of my class. But Ms. Savoy was adamant, insisting that the school district required me to teach all my children, all the time, in the “least restrictive” environment. This was just the first instance of Ms. Savoy blocking me with a litany of D.C. Public Schools regulations, as she regularly frustrated my colleagues on disciplinary issues.

Some of Ms. Savoy’s actions defied explanation. She more than once called me to her office in the middle of my lessons to lecture me on how bad a teacher I was—well before her single visit to observe me in my classroom. She filled my personnel file with lengthy memos articulating her criticisms. I eventually concluded that Ms. Savoy tended similarly to trouble any teacher, experienced or novice, who rocked the boat.

And in November I really rocked it. By then, despite mounting tension with Ms. Savoy, and despite the pandemonium that continued to ravage my teaching efforts, I had managed—painstakingly—to build a rapport with my fifth-graders. I felt I was turning a corner. I thought that my students (and their parents) would completely shape up once they saw their abysmal first report cards. D.C. Public Schools grade kids on a highly subjective 1 to 4 scale, 4 being the highest. Most of my students entered fifth grade with grave academic deficiencies, yet their cumulative records revealed fair to excellent grades, making clear that social promotion was standard practice at Emery. I wasn’t playing along. I had given regular tests and quizzes that first semester, and most of my students had earned straight 1s by any rational measure. True to the credo of high expectations, I would give them the grades they earned.

I submitted my report cards to Ms. Savoy, who insisted that my grades were “too low” and demanded that I raise them immediately. I offered to show her all of my students’ work portfolios; but she demurred, informing me that the law obliged me to pass a certain percentage of my students. I paid no attention, gave my students the grades they deserved, and patiently explained to every parent that their child’s grades would improve once he or she started behaving in class and doing the assigned lessons. For this, Ms. Savoy cited me for insubordination.

Just after the New Year, Ms. Savoy informed me that she was switching me from fifth grade to second grade; the veteran second-grade teacher would then take over my fifth-graders. Her justification was that I would be able to control younger students more effectively—though I assumed she thought that I could wreak less disruption with the younger kids, who were relatively flunk-proof.

From the start, I tried my best to combat understandable parental resentment that their experienced teacher was being yanked out and replaced by me, a first-year teacher with notoriously poor classroom-management skills. I wrote letters home describing my ambitious plans, called parents with enthusiastic words about their children, and walked my students home after school to increase my visibility in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to show that I was in control. Unbelievable as it sounds, my second-graders were even wilder than my fifth-graders. Just as before, a majority of kids genuinely wanted to learn, but the antics of a few spun my entire class into chaos. This time, though, my troublemakers were even more immature and disruptive, ranging from a boy who roamed around the room punching his classmates and threatening to kill himself to a borderline–mentally retarded student, who would throw crumpled wads of paper all day. I was so busy trying to quell anarchy that I never had the chance to get to know my new students, let alone teach them anything.

Ms. Savoy had abandoned all pretense of administrative support by this point. Nearly every student I sent to the office returned within minutes.

This lack of consequences encouraged a level of violence I never could have imagined among any students, let alone second-graders. Fights broke out daily—not just during recess or bathroom breaks but also in the middle of lessons. And this wasn’t just playful shoving: we’re talking fists flying, hair yanked, heads slammed against lockers.

When I asked other teachers to come help me stop a fight, they shook their heads and reminded me that D.C. Public Schools banned teachers from laying hands on students for any reason, even to protect other children. When a fight brewed, I was faced with a Catch-22. I could call the office and wait ten minutes for the security guard to arrive, by which point blood could have been shed and students injured. Or I could intervene physically, in violation of school policy.

Believe me, you have to be made of iron, or something other than flesh and blood, to stand by passively while some enraged child is trying to inflict real harm on another eight-year-old. I couldn’t do it. And each time I let normal human instinct get the best of me and broke up a fight, one of the combatants would go home and fabricate a story about how I had hurt him or her. The parent, already suspicious of me, would report this accusation to Ms. Savoy, who would in turn call in a private investigative firm employed by D.C. Public Schools. Investigators would come to Emery and interview me, as well as several students whom the security guard thought might tell the truth about the alleged incident of corporal punishment.

I had previously heard of three other teachers at Emery that year who were being investigated for corporal punishment. When I talked to them—they were all experienced male teachers—they heatedly protested their innocence and bitterly complained about Ms. Savoy’s handling of the situation. Now that I had joined the club, I began to understand their fears and frustrations.

To define as “corporal punishment” the mere physical separation of two combatants not only puts students at risk but also gives children unconscionable power over teachers who choose to intervene. False allegations against me and other teachers snowballed, as certain students realized that they had the perfect tool for getting their teacher in deep trouble. As I began to be investigated on almost a weekly basis, parents came to school to berate and threaten me—naturally, without reprisals from the administration. One day, a rather large father came up to me after school and told me he was going to “get me” if he heard that I put my hands on his daughter one more time. Forget the fact that I had pulled her off of a boy whom she was clobbering at the time.

With such a weak disciplinary tone set by the administration, by late February the whole school atmosphere had devolved into chaos. Gangs of students roamed the halls at will. You could hear screaming from every classroom—from students and teachers alike. Including me, four teachers (or 20 percent of the faculty) were under investigation on bogus corporal-punishment charges, including a fourth-grade instructor whose skills I greatly respected. The veteran teachers constantly lamented that things were better the previous year, when the principal ran a tight disciplinary ship, and the many good instructors were able to do their job.

It was nearly March, and the Stanford-9 standardized tests, the results of which determine a principal’s success in D.C. Public Schools, were imminent. Ms. Savoy unexpectedly instituted a policy allowing teachers to ship their two or three most disruptive students to the computer lab to be warehoused and supervised by teachers’ aides. My classroom’s behavior and attentiveness improved dramatically for two weeks. Unfortunately, Ms. Savoy abandoned this plan the instant the standardized tests had passed.
After that, my classroom became more of a gladiatorial venue than a place of learning. Fights erupted hourly; no student was immune. The last three months were a blur of violence, but several incidents particularly stand out. One week, two of my emotionally disturbed boys went on a binge of sexual harassment, making lewd gestures and grabbing girls’ buttocks—yes, seven- and eight-year-olds. On another occasion, three students piled on top of one of their peers and were punching him with their fists before I intervened. My students were not even afraid to try to hurt me: two boys spent a month throwing pencils at me in the middle of lessons; another child slugged me in the gut.

But for Ms. Savoy, apparently I was the problem. It seemed to me that she was readier to launch investigations when a student or parent made an accusation against me than to help me out when my students were acting up.

Faced with a series of corporal-punishment charges, no administrative support, and no hope of controlling my second-grade class in the foreseeable future, I should have packed up and left midyear. Surely there were other schools, even inner-city ones, where I could have developed and succeeded as a teacher.

Why did I stay on? Part of the answer lay in my own desperate desire not to fail. I felt that if I just worked harder, I could turn my children around and get them to learn. Another part of the answer was Teach for America’s having instilled in each corps member the idea that you have made a commitment to the children and that you must stick with them at all costs, no matter how much your school is falling apart. Because of this mentality, my TFA friends and I put up with nonsense from our schools and our students that few regular teachers would have tolerated.

The three-person TFA-D.C. staff was stretched too thin to support any of us. When I told them about the debacle at Emery, the D.C. program directors told me to keep my chin up and work harder. They wouldn’t transfer me to another TFA-affiliated elementary school, and pooh-poohed the idea that I had it worse than anyone else in the program. So I was stuck at Emery, unwilling to incur the disgrace that came with quitting.

Fate made the decision for me.

Four days before the end of my first year, I was still planning to return to Emery in the fall. The rumor was that Ms. Savoy would be replaced. With her gone, I thought, I could start fresh and use my hard-won battlefield experience to make a positive difference in underprivileged children’s lives.

The afternoon of June 13 started with the usual mixture of disorder and disrespect. This time, a boy named Raynard, a particularly difficult child, whom I had seen punch other students and throw things in the past, was repeating over and over, “I got to go to the bathroom. I need some water.” The rest of the class tittered as I told him in my sternest teacher voice that we would be having a class bathroom break once everyone was quiet and in his seat.

“I got to go to the bathroom. I need some water.”

Frustrated, I led him to the classroom door with my hand on the small of his back. I nudged him into the hall and closed the door. He would probably spend the remainder of the day roaming the halls with the rest of the troublemakers at Emery, but at least he would be out of sight, so I could get the rest of my class under control. I had given up on teaching for the rest of the day; my class was slated to watch a movie with Ms. Perkins’s first-graders across the hall.

Once Raynard left, I guided my students through a characteristically raucous bathroom break and filed them into Ms. Perkins’s room, where they lapsed into a rare TV-induced calm.

After 15 minutes, the school security guard appeared at the door and beckoned for me. My stomach hit the floor, as I guessed what this meant: yet another corporal-punishment charge. But this time was different. Chaos reigned in the main entranceway as police officers swarmed into the building. Raynard’s mother, I was told, had been in school for a meeting to place her son in a class for emotionally disturbed children. Raynard had told her that I had violently shoved him in the chest out the door of my classroom, injuring his head and back. His mother had dialed 911 and summoned the cops and the fire department. The police hustled me into the principal’s office, where I sat in bewilderment and desperately denied I had hurt Raynard in any way.

In the blink of an afternoon, my search for the perfect lesson plan gave way to my search for the perfect lawyer. I was lucky that my parents could afford Hank Asbill, a highly regarded Washington defense attorney.

Two months later, Raynard’s mother filed a $20 million lawsuit against the school district, Ms. Savoy, and myself—and the D.C. police charged me with a misdemeanor count of simple assault against my former student. Thus ended my first and last year as a public school teacher.

After I was charged, Hank Asbill chose a day in early September for me to turn myself in at the District 5 police station near Emery and receive a trial date. The whole ordeal was supposed to take about six hours—but five minutes after I was admitted into custody, the two planes hit the World Trade Center. After the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, the D.C. courts shut down. It was only after 33 hours in jail that I saw daylight again, on September 12.

My criminal trial spanned six days in early March of 2002. It was agonizing watching several former students testifying against me, not to mention facing the very real prospect of spending time in the D.C. jail. The children’s stories as to what happened on June 13 were wildly inconsistent—not surprising, considering that the layout of my classroom precluded them from witnessing anything Raynard had alleged. Hank Asbill countered with a string of character witnesses, friends who attested to my peaceful nature and law-abiding ways, as well as other teachers at Emery who reported on the brutal atmosphere of the school. Hank then brought me to the stand to explain what had actually happened, and he also brought to light Raynard’s medical records from June 13, which showed that the emergency-room doctors had found no evidence of any injury. Fortunately, we drew a rational, deliberative judge, unswayed by the case’s racially charged nature: a poor black kid against a rich white Ivy Leaguer. He found me not guilty, touching off an outpouring of relief from my friends and former colleagues and—not least—me.

My elation was short-lived. As I had surmised, this whole case finally came down to money. Even after my acquittal, even after the accuracy of Raynard’s story had been seriously undermined, his mother and her big-firm lawyers aggressively pursued multi-million-dollar damage claims on the civil side. Yet even as the lawsuit dragged on and the legal cloud over me caused me to lose a job opportunity I really wanted, I refused to entertain Raynard’s mother’s offers to settle the case by my paying her $200,000—a demand that ultimately diminished to $40,000. The school system had no such scruples; it settled the mother’s tort claim in October 2002 for $75,000 (plus $15,000 from the teachers’ union’s insurance company—chump change compared with the cost of defending the litigation). It wasn’t $20 million, but it was still more money than I imagine this woman had seen in her life—a pretty good payout and hardly deterrence to other parents in the neighborhood who felt entitled to shanghai the system.

I stayed in touch with several of my more supportive colleagues and parents, who have told me that Emery, although it has a new principal, is just as out of control two years after I taught there. Veteran teachers with nowhere else to go, they say, are giving up all pretense of teaching; their goal is to make it through the end of each year. Young teachers like my TFA colleagues are staying for a year or two and moving on to private, charter, or suburban schools, or to new careers.

In all the reading and talking I’ve done to try to make sense out of what happened to me, I’ve learned that Emery is hardly unique. Numerous new friends and acquaintances who have taught in D.C.’s inner-city schools—some from Teach for America, some not—report the same outrageous discipline problems that turned them from educators into U.N. peacekeepers.

I’ve learned that an epidemic of violence is raging in elementary schools nationwide, not just in D.C. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article details a familiar pattern—kindergartners punching pregnant teachers, third-graders hitting their instructors with rulers. Pennsylvania and New Jersey have reported nearly 30 percent increases in elementary school violence since 1999, and many school districts have established special disciplinary K–6 schools. In New York City, according to the New York Post, some 60 teachers recently demonstrated against out-of-control pupil mayhem, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho; violent students must go.” Kids who stab each other, use teachers as shields in fights, bang on doors to disrupt classes, and threaten to “kick out that baby” from a pregnant teacher have created a “climate of terror,” the Post reports.

Several of my new acquaintances in the Washington schools told me of facing completely fabricated corporal-punishment allegations, as I did. Some even faced criminal charges. Washington teachers’ union officials won’t give me hard numbers, but they intimate that each year they are flooded with corporal-punishment or related charges against teachers, most of which get settled without the media ever learning of this disturbing new trend. It is a state of affairs that Philip K. Howard vividly describes in his recent The Collapse of the Common Good: parents sue teachers and principals for suspending their children, for allegedly meting out corporal punishment, and for giving failing marks. As a result, educators are afraid to penalize misbehaving students or give students grades that reflect the work they do. The real victims are the majority of children whose education is being commandeered by their out-of-control classmates.

I’ve come to believe that the most unruly and violent children should go to alternative schools designed to handle students with chronic behavior problems. A school with a more military structure can do no worse for those children than a permissive mainstream school, and it spares the majority of kids the injustice of having their education fall victim to the chaos wreaked by a small minority.

I know for sure that inner-city schools don’t have to be hellholes like Emery and its District of Columbia brethren, with their poor administration and lack of parental support, their misguided focus on children’s rights, their anti-white racism, and their lawsuit-crazed culture. Some of my closest TFA friends, thrilled to be liberated from the D.C. system, went on to teach at D.C. charter schools, where they really can make a difference in underprivileged children’s lives. For example, at Paul Junior High School, which serves students with the same economic and cultural background as those at Emery, the principal’s tough approach to discipline fosters a serious atmosphere of scholarship, and parents are held accountable, because the principal can kick their children back to the public school system if they refuse to cooperate. A friend who works at the Hyde School, which emphasizes character education (and sits directly across a field from Emery), tells me that this charter school is quiet and orderly, the teachers are happy, and the children are achieving at a much higher level—so much higher that several of the best students at Emery who transferred to Hyde nearly flunked out of their new school.

It should come as no surprise that students are leaving Emery in droves, in hopes of enrolling in this and other alternative schools. Enrollment, 411 when I was there, now is about 350. If things don’t change, it will soon be—and should be—zero.




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