As the midway point of summer break approaches, school administrators are working with staff to decide who will teach what subject in the upcoming school year — and it’s not always a simple decision.
California law permits principals to change the subjects that teachers will instruct this year, said Dave Caldwell, William S. Hart Union High School District spokesman. The rule allows administrators the flexibility to properly staff classes that might have a larger student demand than in years prior, or to prevent teacher layoffs in case cuts to classes occur.
While teachers agree that the rule is largely beneficial in keeping jobs during lean financial years, Gary Schulman, a 27-year teacher at La Mesa Junior High School, said during the public comment portion of Hart’s July 18 meeting the rule may have unintended consequences — namely, asking teachers to instruct on subjects on which they might not necessarily feel qualified.
Every credential has a list of subjects that teachers are allowed to teach in accordance with California Law, Caldwell said, and some instructors have multiple credentials, offering principals broad discretion when deciding the subjects their educators will cover.
It’s not a rare situation for teachers to move subjects, Caldwell added. “We are not going to have a math teacher try to teach Shakespeare, because that’s not the credential they have.”
However, the district could have a resource specialist teacher move to teach English if their credential permitted, “which happened to me personally,” said Gail Quinn, a recently retired Hart district instructor.
Similar to Schulman this year, Quinn expressed opposition to a teaching assignment designated to her last year.
“I would say there seems to be a significant trend (of) this happening,” Quinn said, citing two teachers at Valencia High School who are going through a similar experience. “I truly believe that it is not in the best interests of the students.”
As a resource specialist in the district for more than 30 years, Quinn worked with mild to moderate and moderate to severe-needs children in special education. She was responsible for teaching a class called learning strategies for two periods and performed consultations, classroom visitations and the annual testing for Individualized Education Programs, the plans that outline the special education instruction, support and services children need in order to achieve academic success and personal growth in school.
A few months before she was set to retire, Quinn said the district moved her into a classroom teaching basic English for ninth-graders and an introductory U.S. history course.
The incoming resource specialist had a special education credential, so it was within the law to have him teach special education, but he had no experience in the district, Quinn said. “Obviously, there’s no way he could’ve had more experience than me,” which is why she truly believes that it was not in the best interests of the students for whom she was responsible.
“You study remediation for special education, but in order to teach a subject, you have to have a background in order to do it properly,” Quinn said, echoing sentiments made by Schulman during Hart’s board meeting.
While receiving a teaching credential from Occidental College, Schulman majored in physical education, but his passion for U.S. history can be traced back to his childhood, when he’d read books and watched movies and documentaries on everything related to his country.
“I’ve always wanted to teach U.S. History,” specifically to junior high students, Schulman said. “I had not majored or minored in social studies during college, (so) the only way to accomplish this goal was to pass the National Teacher Examination in social studies, which I did in 1990.”
As a result of his hard work and dedication, Schulman has taught U.S. history and government in the Hart district every year since 1991, but next year, the district wants Schulman to teach three U.S. history and two world history classes, a subject that he feels ill prepared to teach.
Shulman said that he devoted his career to teaching U.S. history, and that he spent several summers attending conferences, creating and improving lesson plans, researching primary sources and learning about Common Core teaching strategies, all to improve his teaching of U.S. History. “From discussions with colleagues, I am certain that no other social studies teacher I have worked with has spent close to the time I have in developing curriculum for U.S. history.
“My concern is when you get a credential you get to teach many, many subjects without having any knowledge of them,” said Schulman, as he listed the myriad of classes that he can teach because of his social studies credential. “It is correct that (my) credential authorizes me to teach such varied subjects as anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, sociology, ethnic studies and humanities” — but that doesn’t mean he should, he added.
“The district allowing teachers with no knowledge of a subject to teach our students when other, better, options exist should simply not occur,” Schulman said, reiterating the fact that world history was not a major or minor subject of study for him in college when he attended nearly 40 years ago.
The veteran teacher said he fears he will be “poorly equipped to teach (the world history) classes,” and, perhaps, know less than the students who may have learned about the subject on their own.
Quinn also believed that she was not equipped to teach English and history, but one of the three credentials — specifically the multiple subject credential — that she received in college, allowed her to teach the subjects, according to California law, meaning Hart district officials were following the rules of the state of California and its credential guidelines.
However, Schulman said the district needs his consent and cited section 37.1 of his contract before repeating his belief that his complaint is about what’s best for the student, not about the law or about him working less.
Caldwell and Hart district leaders were unable to comment on the specifics on Schulman’s complaint with the district because it’s a personnel matter, but the district spokesman said: “As a public school district, we have to follow the state of California and their credential guidelines.”
Section 37.1 of the Hart District Teachers Association contract with the district states, “The district shall make a reasonable effort to assign or reassign unit members to teach classes consistent with their credentials and major/minor subjects of study,” said Schulman, adding that he has the credential but didn’t major or minor in world history.
“The district is going to say the major and minor section does not refer to collegiate study,” Schulman said. “They’ll say it refers to the subject of credential” — and that’s where the two sides differ.
“I understand I might be wrong, but how would forcing a teacher to teach a subject without any knowledge of the subject, without motivation to learn about the subject and without (their) consent to do so, be best for kids?” Schulman said. “The rule is intended to make sure that teachers are not forced to teach subjects they are not comfortable with, and in my case, have minimal, if any, expertise and experience with teaching.”
Similar to the ongoing situation at La Mesa, Quinn said there were more qualified teachers who showed a willingness to take over her classes so she could remain in special education and continue being an asset to the many children she taught.
After four meetings with principals, Quinn said she had several more meetings with her California Teacher Association adviser. After retiring at the beginning of the summer on June 1, she thought she’d put the situation behind her, but Schulman doesn’t have that option.
Failure to resolve this grievance soon will result in discussions with board members and the commencement of the arbitration process, Schulman said, adding that he would like to lobby for changes in legislation that would prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.
“Resolving this issue after the school year begins would not be what is best for La Mesa students,” he added. “Arbitration isn’t about winning. It’s about changing the rules so the students benefit.”