Friday, May 27, 2011

Come back Khazani!

“If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.” – Bill Gates

There is near universal consensus that the single most important factor to student performance is having great teachers, so why can’t the United States hold onto its good teachers? New facilities, modern computers, small classes, and great administrators don’t make up for mediocre teachers; it isn’t quantum physics, you want good students, get good teachers.

A great reporter at this point would recite studies and statistics using documented evidence to prove how vital good teachers are, but taking a cue from Fox News I’ll settle for anecdotal evidence and tell a story about a great teacher who didn’t stay.

Sahar Khazani.

A stunning Persian girl of Jewish descent, Khazani could be Kim Kardashian's younger sister. A native to Southern California, Khazani’s family was forced to flee the Iranian revolution of ’79, and not wanting to be grouped in with turban scimitar wielding maniacs badly in need of a facial makeover, renamed themselves “Persians”.

But in my book they already get a pass for being Jewish.

A volunteer who had signed up to teach through Teach for America (TFA), Khazani was one of those rare individuals that proves there is still hope for humanity. The TFA organization recruits the best and the brightest college graduates, the typical TFA applicant has a 4.0 grade point average and comes from an Ivy League school; they're the public do-gooders, college graduates who want to dedicate two years of their life to help the underprivileged and downtrodden. So what if they've chugged entire gallons of left wing "kool-aid" and are socially educated to believe that they can build a rapport with inner city kids? It only takes a few weeks before most of them realize that being kind in the ‘hood’ is often equated as weakness, and that if you don't want to get chewed up into chum by the inner city piranha, you'd better have a soul of steel.

Most TFA'ers start gung-ho, but by the end of their second year, they're done. I mean, if you were an overachieving graduate that came from an Ivy League school, why would you stay in an inner city public school? They've given their service, and now that they can place TFA on their resume they are guaranteed admittance into almost any graduate program of their choice. Even so, I'm always amazed by the vigor and zeal of these short time teachers, they truly are among the best and the brightest, and Khazani was no exception.

Khazani's parents treated her decision to go into teaching with a mixture of apprehension and mild bemusement - a sideshow before she started her real career, preferably in law. (Among Jewish parents there is an old proverb: "You can be a lawyer, a doctor, or a failure!") Khazani not only volunteered to go work in the inner city for peanuts, but she decided to go into Special Education because she wanted to make a difference.

Although TFA only requires a two-year commitment, Khazani stayed for three, partly out of indecision but mostly to ensure that a number of students she had grown attached to graduated. Day after day Khazani would remain in her room after school, tutoring her students, teaching them not only English and math but basic study skills like note taking and how to remain organized. At Thanksgiving she brought them turkey, at graduation she treated her seniors to dinner. The kids insisted she take them somewhere really expensive: the first year it was Olive Garden the second year Islands.

By year three, however, Khazani was starting to fade, the day-to-day idiocracy of LAUSD was wearing thin. "This school is so retarded!" she'd complain. "I can't believe this place runs at all."

Being older and more experienced I'd just shrug and tell her not to let it get to her, but it's hard to explain that to someone in their twenties, they haven't developed the scar tissue that enables them to filter out the bullshit. By the end of the third year Khazani, like most TFA'ers, had decided to move on, she's opted for film school at USC to get into TV and film development.

But we have remained in touch. “Do the kids miss me? Sometimes I wish I was back in the classroom, teaching.”

“Yeah, they miss you. We all miss you.” Whenever a good teacher leaves a small black hole remains behind, a void of darkness that rushes in to fill the light and joy that disappears with their absence. There is a dearth of qualified people in any profession, but when a teacher like Khazani leaves the school dims and becomes less vibrant as it loses a touch of color. The kids adored Sahar, but most of the time our work relationship revolved around her chewing me out for all the times I said something that made her mad.

Leiken! Leiken! Leiken! Come to think of it, now that both she and Garcia are gone (another TFA do-gooder) my life has been a lot more peaceful. Boring, but peaceful.


I look up, startled. Parrish levels an iron stare that would give the giants of Jodenheim pause and freeze a semi-truck. "What is that smell?” she asks. "It smells like Ben Gay in here."

I sniff, it does smell like someone has rubbed medical ointment over the desks, as if we were standing underneath a pungent eucalyptus tree or beside a group of men smoking menthol's. I glance around the room; everyone is staring at me, as if I were somehow responsible for the menthol stench. I may not have to deal with Garcia or Khazani, but I do share an office with five women, and if something goes wrong, I'm the first to get blamed.

Kontofelas comes over to my desk and takes a long sniff. "Is that a new cologne?"

"No, it's not, I swear that smell wasn't here this morning."

"You were the first one here!" Parrish exclaims, leveling a finger at me like a district attorney fingering an accused murder. "Where did that smell come from?"

I shrug and turn back to the blog, I can ignore almost anything while I'm writing, but the ladies of C102 are bloodhounds. A minute later they track the odor to the room next door; our neighbor has decided to use an environmentally friendly bug spray to get rid of some ants. Unfortunately for his classroom and our office, the stench of the spray has poisoned the air with the unique aroma of medical ointment. A few minutes later the plant manager arrives, wanting to know who sprayed the room, an AP is notified, and we're told to evacuate.

"I'm sorry, you'll all have to leave the room until we can get rid of the smell," she apologizes. "I'm afraid this room and the one next door are quarantined."

Quarantined? What is this, Outbreak? I want to tell her it's just potent but environmentally friendly bug spray, but I know it's a waste of time. "I guess no one liked my new cologne." I crack. It's a clunker of a joke, but fortunately I have a forgiving audience - everyone laughs.

But now we have to leave our office. Even though we're on the ground floor, the windows are sealed shut, and we have no way to ventilate the room. The AP ends up contacting the district and has called for a HAZMAT team to investigate and test for poison. Screw radiation from Japan, this bug spray could be a bio-weapon! LAUSD has a strict policy that states we are only allowed to use 409 as a chemical disinfectant, whatever your problem is you better hope that 409 takes care of it because that’s all you are going to get.

Too bad no one told the ants.

Signs are posted stating that our office is off limits until further notice - and suddenly six teachers are made homeless.

Somewhere in some USC film class as Sahar sits back to watch Bergman’s the 7th Seal, I know she’s laughing. I can hear her signature voice now, a touch of California with just the slightest hint of exasperation: “This school is sooo retarded!” She claims she misses the school, that she wants to come back, but she doesn’t know if she can handle the daily dose of dumb that masquerades as intellect. Reason, logic, rationality – not in this district!

It’s no wonder we can’t hold on to good teachers, even if they were willing to accept ungracious teenage larvae and the low pay, they’d then have to contend with the bureaucratic inanity of the adults before finally being reamed in the press for doing a terrible job. Even in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression we’re still suffering a shortage of qualified teachers, you would think with all of our benefits, sick days, and time off people would be diving into the educational system head first.

What Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman neglected to tell you is that half of those that enter the profession quit within five years, and the lifespan of an inner city teacher is typically less than three. Even when a school is lucky enough to get a passionate and dedicated teacher like Khazani, it’s nearly impossible to hold onto them. Why should someone like her stay when with her talent and gifts when she’ll be better treated and more appreciated someplace else?

Even if you do decide to make a career out of teaching, you are ultimately forced to conclude that the public school system is a massive typhoon, a lightning storm of political ideology, lawsuits, poverty, and victimhood; there is no “winning” only navigating each day with grace and skill. I’d like to tell Sahar to come back, come and make a difference, but I know she would just get frustrated and ultimately annoyed by the “intellectual disability” of the school system.

But I’ll still be here, cracking my bad jokes, chuckling to myself, helping the new teachers as best I can.

Come back, Khazani! Come back and teach. Then run for president.

You want to fix the schools, then you need to hold onto the Khazani’s. It’s more than just the pay, you have to respect them too – and not making them evacuate a room because of bug spray is a good start. Teachers like Khazani give hope and inspiration to those who need it most, every student they manage to reach is one more future citizen who will in turn continue to spread their light and warmth. Great teachers cannot be quantified because great teaching is like art, like cooks they can all share basic skills but ultimately their end product will always be subtlety different.

Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more. ~Bob Talbert

Nearly every student on Khazani's caseload graduated and passed the CA high school exit exam. When students had problems at home, they came to her for advice, when they were being bullied or having trouble with another teacher, Khazani reached in to protect them. When their behavior was inappropriate, Khazani never let them get away with it. Are they all going to be successful, who knows? But at least the teacher's like Khazani give them a chance to succeed.

None of this will ever be reflected on a test score, compared to the average student across California, Khazani's special education students would still score far below the standard. She'll receive no accolades, no bonuses, no special awards, no fountain, no statue. In a few more years at South East High School, after I and the other teachers eventually leave, she'll be completely forgotten.

But she'll never be forgotten by those she helped, Khazani will live on through those she aided and through them her kindness and her knowledge which will be passed down into future generations. If a parent helps a handful of children, then great teachers benefit thousands, a teacher's impact on the future is incalculable, no one will ever know where their influence will end.

So if you want to hold onto great teachers, pay them what their worth, give them a modicum of respect, and stay the hell out of their way. But even if you don't, it doesn't really matter...

....because great teachers are never poor.