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In Jefferson High teachers' lounge, students' questions make 'Wall of Shame'

Desiree Villarroel  In the Jefferson High School teachers lounge, teachers had been keeping a “Wall of Shame” where they mocked students. The white board contains anonymous quotes and questions from students.
Desiree Villarroel In the Jefferson High School teachers lounge, teachers had been keeping a “Wall of Shame” where they mocked students. The white board contains anonymous quotes and questions from students.
Published Feb. 16, 2013

TAMPA — There's a common refrain among teachers, that there are no stupid questions. They tell that to students to calm the embarrassment that might keep them from speaking up in class.

But in one of the teachers' lounges at Jefferson High School, that refrain stops at the door.

Inside, on a white board, Jefferson teachers have been keeping a list they named the "Wall of Shame." They've used dry-erase markers to record some of the things their students have said in class:

"Hawaii is a state?"

"Didn't Japan invade in N.Y.?"

"Who is our king?"

These questions, in a variety of handwritings, were decorating the white board when a St. Petersburg College professor who teaches a night class at Jefferson walked into the social studies teachers' lounge a few weeks ago.

In shock, she asked the question that others who have seen the board, or pictures of it, have asked: Why are teachers mocking students on school grounds?

Hillsborough County Public Schools says this is a healthy way for teachers to blow off steam. Because individual students' names don't appear, Jefferson principal Van Ayres is not considering disciplinary action. He defended teachers' rights to say and do what they want in the confines of their break room, though he acknowledged that Wall of Shame was an unfortunate name.

• • •

Through a partnership between St. Petersburg College and Hillsborough County Public Schools, Desiree Villarroel teaches college courses to Hillsborough teaching assistants who want to become classroom teachers.

On Jan. 23 at Jefferson, she focused her lesson on the dangers of forming stereotypes about students. When the class wrapped up at 8:30 p.m., one of her students helped Villarroel return a computer and a projector to the lounge.

"Look at that, Professor V," said her student, pointing to a white board hanging on the beige wall. "It's exactly the opposite of what you talked about today in class."

Villarroel says she was horrified. "It was shocking that that was proliferating in the teacher's lounge, an environment where teachers rest and relax, yet the only thing on the wall, the only thing posted, was something mocking, bullying students."

Villarroel erased everything but the words at the top of the board: "Wall of Shame."

Then she wrote, "Shame on you teachers for having a board like this!"

She left her business card.

No teachers called Villarroel. But on Jan. 29, one of her students called to let her know that Jefferson teachers were angry.

In an email to Villarroel, another St. Petersburg College professor who uses Jefferson classrooms says she found a note on Villarroel's computer: "Mind your own business. And clean up my room after you use it!"

The fellow professor agreed the Wall was wrong, but said Villarroel should not have shamed the Jefferson staff.

When Villarroel returned to Jefferson this Wednesday, she saw that the Wall of Shame had returned. New questions were written on the board:

"Was Bush the president during the Great Depression?"

"Where are the Irish from, Ireland?"

• • •

Hillsborough school policy 3210, titled "Standards of Ethical Conduct," says instructional staff must "not intentionally expose a student to unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement."

The school system says none of that happened here.

"The idea that teachers might be amused by the things students say is quite common," said Stephen Hegarty, a spokesman for the district.

Ayres, the principal, said he was unaware of the Wall of Shame until the Tampa Bay Times called the school system. He stood by the list, explaining: "It's not meant to make fun of kids, there aren't names on there."

School Board Chairwoman April Griffin said she had no problem with the Wall of Shame and was disappointed to learn the Times would be writing about it.

"Now students at Jefferson could read that teachers are writing things about them, and that could be bad," she said.

Daniel Erickson, a sophomore at Jefferson, said some students know the list exists and don't mind.

But that probably wouldn't be a common feeling for students who learned their questions have been shared and laughed at by teachers, said Christie Gold, a peer evaluator in Hillsborough and a member of the state's Education Practices Commission.

"We have to remember that teachers are held to a higher standard," Gold said. "Is it in poor taste? Probably. I mean, we've all had moments where we laugh about something a student said. But that's better off done wherever you meet after work. Teachers need to be careful about what they put in print. We don't want any student to feel humiliated."

• • •

On Friday, the Wall of Shame came down.

Ayres didn't make the teachers erase the board — just its title. The teachers decided to erase the rest themselves.

They erased where they had written, "Where was the only successful slave revolt in history?" and then a student's answer: "In America — Martin Luther King, Jr. led it."

They erased where, under the question about the Irish being from Ireland, a teacher had commented, "That's a straight question."

Said Hegarty: "Frankly they're heartsick that someone could misconstrue it as them making fun of their students."

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

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