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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

District's Runaround Pushes Teacher to Limit

October 16, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Sure it seems odd to be eating spicy chicken wings and discussing Aristotle with a young Muslim who thinks she's on the U.S. government's terrorist watch list, especially while hanging out with a bunch of high school teachers at Hooters. But then everything about Simone Shah's almost yearlong effort to return to teaching in Los Angeles has had a "Through the Looking Glass" quality.

I began talking to Shah in March. By then she'd already spent weeks calling and pounding out e-mails, pleading with L.A. Unified officials to let her get back in front of classes at Locke High School, near Watts.

That Shah was willing to tell me her story may have something to do with why there is a story. Schools, after all, can be as insular as a SWAT team, and Shah has a journalist's aversion to keeping things quiet.

But Shah isn't a journalist. Not really, despite a couple of detours into that trade. What she seems to be is a born teacher.

Not that Shah paints herself as the Exalted Perfect Goddess of Educational Awesomeness. When we first talked at the big, beat-up Pico-Union-area Victorian she's restoring, she thought back to her first semester and grimaced. Fresh out of college, she had strutted into her history and art classes with only an emergency credential and the naive enthusiasm of a liberal do-gooder.

Shah's students at Locke hadn't had a permanent teacher or classroom in months. They were, she said, accustomed to throwing things and brawling in the hallways. "I felt horrible. Every day after my class the room was, like, destroyed.... I couldn't even keep them in line to take attendance."

Lots of teachers bail after their first year. Others learn to live with being lousy. Many, like Shah, begin to see students as "the enemy."

But Shah couldn't reconcile that feeling with the love she'd felt for the poor, tough, East Palo Alto kids she'd tutored a year earlier as an undergraduate at Stanford. So she cajoled veteran teachers she admired into critiquing her in the classroom and began to adapt her methods.

"I learned," she said, "that you have to start with a lot of structure."

She got good, other teachers say. Students voted her one of their favorite Locke teachers.

Meanwhile, Shah's parents, natives of India, were embarrassed by their daughter's passion for teaching. They nagged her to do something they considered more prestigious -- doctoring, lawyering, running a 7-Eleven.

She resisted. But they'd worn her down enough that after Sept. 11, 2001, she thought she glimpsed a higher calling. She would become a broadcast journalist and teach millions of Americans about history and Islam.

Shah thrived in the entry-level television jobs that followed a master's in journalism from Columbia University (in their evaluations of her, bosses and professors gush). But Shah couldn't stop thinking about Locke. The calls from parents grateful to have someone pushing their kids. Treats they'd send to class because they thought Ms. Shah was too skinny. The students who still called to thank her for her enthusiasm and for taking extra time with them.

"Ever since I left," she said, "it's been a gnawing feeling that I'm not doing what I was meant to do."

Shah recognizes that she had annoyed some teachers and administrators by speaking up about problems on campus and with her off-campus activism in support of equal funding for low-income schools and against what she saw as an obsession with testing.

But Shah heard that Locke's energetic new principal had no patience for the culture of mediocrity that can infiltrate any institution. She started pushing through the paperwork to get the credential she'd earned at UCLA and applied to the district in November, naming Locke as her preferred assignment.

Maybe this request befuddled a bureaucracy accustomed to teachers who beg to teach anywhere but the inner city. Or maybe, Shah suspects, Locke's internal politics had percolated up through the web of quid-pro-quo relationships that infect any sprawling institution. In any case, when they finally responded to her pleas, the district's hiring and placement people told her she could teach anywhere but Locke, Shah says.

District administrators said they couldn't discuss Shah's case even though she gave them permission to do so. Frank Wells, that energetic new principal, said he asked around and found teachers who offered high praise for Shah. Others told him, "Bad news." He said it doesn't bother him that Shah rubbed a few colleagues wrong. "I was convinced of her heart and soul."

This was on St. Patrick's Day. He told me he hoped to have Shah teaching at Locke within a couple of weeks. By the end of the semester, Shah had given up and was working her way back into journalism with some freelance work, and Wells stopped returning my calls.

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