Teacher Joseph Thomas' decision a good lesson for students

Okay, fine, maybe this doesn't quite rank up there with Sir Thomas More confronting Henry VIII, or Martin Luther taking on the authority of the Vatican, or Patrick Henry really narrowing his options when he demanded of the British liberty or death.

Still, tampering with the forces of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could have cost veteran Newsome High School social studies teacher Joseph Thomas his paycheck, his job, his career — all on a matter of principle.

So, sure you could say Thomas was engaging in some serious forsoothiness here.

Ever since the Gates Foundation awarded the Hillsborough public school system a $100 million grant to be spent on improving teacher development, it's been all: "Why yes, Mr. Gates. Whatever your want, Mr. Gates. And Mrs. Gates, why that's a brilliant idea, whatever it was."

There's no question the Gates money is simply swell, and if it will enhance teacher quality, so much the better.

But Thomas balked at a provision of the Gates largess in which teachers are measured on a complex matrix involving principal and peer evaluations and test score data.

When he learned he was going to be evaluated by Justin Youmans, Thomas said no thanks and refused to participate. And while Youmans, 29, may well be a very fine and splendid chap, Thomas argued it made no sense for someone who teaches grade school and only has been in the classroom for six years to be passing judgment on a 43-year-old educator with 18 years of high school social studies experience.

And he was absolutely right. This was a bit like Chuck Yeager having his flying skills questioned by someone who just got their pilot's license.

It is a risky thing to challenge and, more importantly, openly defy entrenched bureaucracies, especially large politicized government organizations backed by a gazillionaire.

Because he refused to cooperate with Youmans, Thomas was suspended from the classroom with pay while school district officials mulled over firing him from his job.

This wasn't as if Thomas had committed a crime, or shown up drunk in class, or had received horrible job performance reviews. In fact, he was regarded as a fine educator. So it certainly seems Thomas' civics students got an up-close and personal lesson in civil disobedience.

For Joe Thomas was willing to get thrown out of his job because of something he believed in.

Amazingly it took the school district days to figure out a solution that was in front of them all along. The problem was school officials had to buy into Thomas' perfectly common-sense suggestion to have an evaluator with somewhat similar background and experience. Eventually a compromise was reached: Youmans would still evaluate Thomas but with an additional evaluator closer to Thomas' experience level.

The chill in the room ought to rival a meat locker.

At the same time Thomas pulled back the curtain on Oz just a tad when he claimed teachers who know they are being evaluated by an observer tend to put on "dog and pony" shows to impress their judge.

No doubt down at the school district offices, the insubordinate Thomas might well be thought of as a royal pain in the keister. One can only hope so.

For his students, Thomas was able to deliver a real hands-on lesson in local government, the politics of a school district, the power of money and what can happen when one person stands up to established authority and says: "No."

All things considered, Joe Thomas more than passed the test for what defines an effective teacher.

Teacher Joseph Thomas' decision a good lesson for students 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:30am]

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