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Union stands between a gifted teacher and her students

Susan Requa has a gift for teaching and one year of experience at James Monroe High in Los Angeles. She also was handed a pink slip.

August 02, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

It's on my calendar for Tuesday:

Lunch with A.J. Duffy, head of United Teachers Los Angeles.

Before we meet, my assignment for Mr. Duffy is simple:

Read this column, take notes and we'll discuss.

The subject is Susan Requa, 24, who packed up her Toyota Corolla exactly one year ago in Chicago and headed west to begin her teaching career. Her father, a school district superintendent in Illinois, was along for the ride. So was Spunky, Requa's cat.

Requa had been hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District while living in Chicago. She then came to Los Angeles to attend a job fair where six schools vied for her services. She settled on James Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley, in part because she clicked with a supervising teacher named Ron Harris, who runs one of Monroe's several small learning communities.

From Day One, it was a perfect fit.

"I loved it," said Requa, who taught three English classes and two drama classes.

In her letter of application, Requa had said she wanted a big challenge in a tough urban school district. She said she saw teaching as "an issue of social justice" and she wanted to "make the curriculum relevant and exciting for students."

By all accounts, she did pretty well.

Travis Aranaga, a third-year teacher, told me he could never hope to be as good a teacher as Requa was in her first year.

Harris, the lead teacher in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Academy, was grateful to have Requa on his team.

"I didn't have to explain to her what interdisciplinary curriculum was; she knew it coming in," said Harris, who's been teaching for 15 years.

Interdisciplinary curriculum? If you're teaching a historical novel, Requa explained, English and history are linked, and students learn in greater context.

Requa was so creative and nimble, Harris said, she became his collaborator in designing curriculum even though he had many veteran teachers among the 23 working under him. For the first time in three years, Harris said, the program was coming together and students were catching on, in part because of her work.

"They had a lot of love in them," Requa said of the students.

So we can expect even greater things from Requa in her second year, right? Maybe not.

"Around the time of the mid-year layoff, it became apparent that things weren't going to be very stable," she told me recently. "But even then, we were told over and over by our union reps, administrators and peers, 'Oh, this always happens. Don't worry about it.' "

Then, this past spring, Requa, along with thousands of teachers across California who had little or no seniority, was notified of an impending layoff. Requa focused on her students and tried not to get discouraged.

Her pink slip arrived in May. She'd be out of work when the school year ended in June. Her excellent performance was never a consideration. All that mattered was her lack of seniority.

"I definitely went through the stages of grief," Requa said. "Monroe was such a good fit. I got involved with committees and took leadership positions. It's hard to go into a classroom of kids knowing you're not going to be coming back into their lives, ever."

Harris was almost as distraught as Requa, and he was angry too.

"It's absurd," he said, that there's job security for burnouts but none for teachers like Requa.

"I've got a Holocaust denier," he said of one of the 23 teachers under his wing. He's got others who, by his description, are notoriously ineffective and set in their ways.

It needs to be said that at Monroe and every other school, some of the best teachers are the veterans. Youthful energy doesn't necessarily make for great teaching, and inexperience can be a handicap.

But Requa and Harris wonder, understandably, why we can't keep and reward the best teachers, regardless of years of service.

When I shared with Harris that Duffy has told me there's no proven system for fairly evaluating teachers and that the tenure system protects good teachers who might get pushed around by bad principals, he scoffed.

"What I'd love to say to Duffy is that there has to be a way to judge good teaching, and we as a union should get out in front of that instead of pretending that it can never happen," Harris said.

These are fighting words -- words you don't often hear in L.A. Unified.

It's about time.

Harris said districts in other parts of the country are moving forward on assessment, and he believes it's possible to evaluate teachers through observation by other teachers and administrators. It wouldn't be fair to judge them by student performance alone, he said, because then all teachers would try to transfer to schools with higher achieving students.

But how, he asked, can anyone claim it's not possible to identify the inept teachers at a given school?

"Everyone knows who they are," he insisted, including teachers, administrators and students.

To Harris, UTLA has an agenda that has little to do with serving students.

"A lot of us look around and say the primary purpose of the union is to protect bad teachers."

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