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Reactions vary to Pasco high school teacher who is skilled but harsh

By Jeffrey S. Solochek

As part of a lesson on creating a coherent argument, Michael Maynard showed his advanced language arts class a 13-minute video on epigenetics — the science of how chemical reactions can alter gene behavior.

He used the video, featuring renowned scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, to get his River Ridge High juniors thinking in new ways. It showed how a small change could affect whether mice are born fat or thin, and the class discussion veered toward whether personal decisions could affect physical appearances.

Some students got into the academic challenge. Others got offended that their teacher seemed to be suggesting that they were fat and were destined to have overweight children.

That complaint became one of many that students filed in December against Maynard, a high performer who recently took a leave of absence after being faced with an involuntary job transfer and three-day unpaid suspension for what district officials deemed a pattern of inappropriate comments.

"A number of kids thought it was very, very bad what he was doing. Others didn't think it was bad at all," superintendent Kurt Browning said of Maynard's often brash classroom demeanor. "I told him what he is doing sounds like something you can get away with in a university setting. But this is a public school system."

What to do with a teacher who generates both love and hate, strong academic outcomes but also shaky emotional ones?

In the current atmosphere of increasing standards and expectations, teachers who can get their students to think more critically and logically have high value. But experts suggest the end cannot justify the means.

"I don't think being challenging means being derisive," said Pamela Grossman, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. "I don't think those two things have to go together."

Grossman used the term "warm demander" to describe the style that top teachers employ. They push students out of their comfort zone to accomplish high expectations, she explained, but they also get to know their students as people in order to know how best to pressure them.

"What's challenging is, sometimes when you have the demanding side without the manner, that makes kids feel disrespected," she said. "You can be challenging and push people in a way that doesn't challenge their beliefs, credibility or self-respect."

Maynard, 62, acknowledged he says things that many teachers don't say.

"I'll call you out. No one has ever called them out before. No teacher. How dare they?" Maynard said. "You might have worked hard on it, but I'm looking for good work. It's not about get 'er done. It's about get 'er done right."

That approach gets its share of complaints, as he's the first to admit. But Maynard attributes the grumbling to frustration with the difficult material, as well as teens simply being teens, sometimes taking comments out of context.

"The kids aren't getting abused. They're just whining," he said. "That's what they do."

Students' personal issues aren't his primary concern, he said. He views his job as imparting knowledge, and students' role as learners. He's the boss, and they're to follow his instructions.

The outcome is what matters, Maynard suggested. And he prides himself on his students' strong scores on their SAT, Advanced Placement and other high-stakes tests that help determine their college choices.

They're among the best in Pasco County. And the Florida Department of Education this year recognized Maynard as a "high impact" teacher based on consistently positive test results over three years. Of Pasco's nearly 5,000 teachers, he was one of only 240 to receive the recognition.

"I'm kind of an acquired taste," Maynard said. "Not everybody likes me right out of the gate. But I always care about my kids."

Some come to appreciate his effort. Others never do.

In a series of written incident forms, several students acknowledged that Maynard was a tough taskmaster who wanted to elicit their best results. They also contended he went too far for some, ending up with the opposite reaction.

Some complained that he made unfitting comments about their religion, race and sexual orientation. They said he criticized their clothing, yelled at students and called them names, and made some cry.

"Mr. Maynard is a very good teacher, one of the best I've had," one student wrote. "But he isn't concerned about others' feelings, which is fine as an individual but not as a teacher."

This dichotomy cuts to the core of a tough teaching issue, said Stephanie Hyatt, a member of the Council of Chief State School Officers' National Educator Panel.

"If the teacher is encouraging students to explore diverse viewpoints, then he is doing his job," said Hyatt, a high school English and debate teacher in Huntsville, Ala. "If he is insulting students, that's a very different discussion."

Teachers hold the power in a classroom, she said. They can make students feel bullied rather than challenged, depending on their approach.

"It is so easy for something someone says to be misconstrued," Hyatt observed.

If something personal needs to be said, she added, it's best not to do it in front of the class. "There's a level of gentleness that needs to be employed."

Maynard said he has had difficult conversations with students in the middle of the classroom. More often than not, though, he said, the students initiated the conversations, and he attempted to defuse them.

He could see how someone might take what he said one way versus another, but stressed he never intended to attack anyone.

"I'm just trying to make them think for the first time," Maynard said.

Word spread quickly of his suspension and transfer last month. The reaction was split among those who loathed his insensitivity and those who praised his excellence.

Some of his former students and their parents said it was about time that he was called to account for his mean-spirited attacks, which they said had gone on too long. Others argued that his detractors simply didn't understand the greater good that Maynard sought — that of harder working, more thoughtful and insightful students.

District employee relations director Betsy Kuhn said she had to act on the complaints, which came from several fronts and appeared independent of one another. But she contended that Maynard's punishment is relatively minor, noting he does not appear malicious and he has a positive academic record.

Some changes in his demeanor could make all the difference, she said.

"He may be a great teacher. When he comes back he can show us he is," Kuhn said. "But our teachers have to serve all of our students, not just the ones they like or the ones they don't offend. This is a public school system. We need to be sure what we're doing every day is appropriate."

Maynard is contemplating his next steps. He's writing a book about his experiences, and looking into marketing his lesson plans.

He said he still has much to offer in the classroom, too, getting kids to stretch their minds and find success. He's hopeful that his high-profile dustup with the district won't hurt his chances of a return.

"Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than taking that average kid and making him a rock star," he said. "They have choices now. Why else would I be a teacher?"

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.