As a Berkeley teacher and former principal in the district (with a B.S. in Journalism), I was outraged to read your sensationalized Dec. 18 article headlined, “District removes Washington teacher.” I have no idea how your newspaper can, in good conscience, publicize an ordeal that helps to destroy the reputation of a tenured teacher who has worked in BUSD for several years. In addition to the insulting summarization of this teacher’s alleged flaws, you violated the teacher’s right to privacy by specifying the instructor’s school, grade level, as well as names of parents in the classroom. From this information, it would be easy for your readers to ascertain who this teacher is.
I am not here to defend the teacher’s competence; nor am I in a position to question the district’s decision. I strongly believe that Berkeley’s students deserve high quality, well-trained teachers who maintain a safe, respectful, positive, productive learning environment. Teachers who do not meet these standards should be dismissed, after they receive an unsatisfactory performance review, an improvement plan, peer support, and career counseling. However, I question the competence and the motives of a newspaper that, in the name of truth, prints a story that presents an incomplete view of an administrative decision in a matter that has already been resolved. This is irresponsible journalism and public humiliation of a member of our school community. Why is it front page news, or news at all?
Jan M. Goodman
The editor responds:
Running the story on the Washington School teacher was not a knee-jerk response to a call from a parent.
Months of soul searching went into the decision to go ahead with the story. As part of the process, I met personally with three of the 14 parents who signed the complaint. Education reporter David Scharfenberg, who would write the story, was there too.
I am aware that the article may have hurt the teacher involved and we did not move forward without that thought in mind. We decided, however, that this was an important story for our community, a story of how a group of strong, persistent parents was able to assert their children’s rights in the face of an administration that would have allowed an otherwise untenable, even dangerous situation, to continue for the youngsters.
The parents in question first brought the case of this teacher to the Daily Planet in October. They were frustrated with what they perceived as an administration unresponsive to complaints as serious as that of a teacher who was oblivious enough of what was going on to ignore the fact a first grader had left the classroom and walked home.
The head of the teacher’s union called me in October and pleaded the teacher’s case, asking us not to run the story and arguing that the district was moving forward in its evaluation of her.
After much thought, we decided not to run the story at that time. We would wait to see if the parents received satisfaction – more than 3/4 of the class’ parents had signed the petition asking for the teacher’s removal.
In November, the Daily Planet was still receiving calls from parents, expressing dissatisfaction with the district which they said was not responding to them. In desperation, they’d planned a very public boycott of the classroom for Dec. 17. We decided that it was time to cover the story.
By meeting with parents Dec. 13, I took a more “hands-on” approach to a reporter’s story than I usually do. I needed to be convinced that the parents were sincere in their complaints and that they were not carrying a personal grudge against the teacher. I wanted to be sure there was no other agenda in play.
I listened, read the thorough documentation they gave me and was convinced.
The day after our meeting with the parents, while attempting to set up interviews with administrators for the day of the proposed boycott – they would not share the process, by the way – our reporter was told that the teacher was to be permanently removed from the classroom starting Dec. 17. Parents were informed the same day, Dec. 14, and called off the boycott.
Why did we then decide to report the story? It’s because there had been a serious problem – a problem teacher that parents in other years had also tried to remove – and it took this group of very active parents to push the district to resolve the issue in favor of the children and in a timely way.
Why should the case not be made public? When our police are accused of acting improperly, they go before a very public Police Review Commission. Should poor teachers be shielded from public scrutiny?
I don’t think so.
Schools often give only lip service to parents – I know, having been a parent, a teacher and a volunteer in Berkeley schools – inviting parents to join committees where they are expected to behave as rubber stamps for an administration, which, otherwise, ignores their complaints.
In the end, if citizens want to affect responsible change, we must become actors in our schools, our communities, our world.
Similarly, we at the Daily Planet owe it to our community to report the actions of citizen-whistle blowers – not to cast blind blame at teachers or others, but to highlight the personal responsibility involved in making change as these parents did.