Being right isn’t enough

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

“A superintendent walks into an honors composition classroom, and sees students copying the school rules into their notebooks.  He turns to the teacher and says…”

The punchline took place last fall, but I only read about it today in the LA Times.  Apparently what the superintendent says in this particular joke is something along the lines of:

That’s why Deasy blew his top last fall when he encountered students in a 12th-grade English class copying a list of classroom rules into their composition books.

Busywork, he called it. An insult to their potential. A disrespectful waste of time in an Honors Composition course.

He told the students as much, then asked their teacher, Patrena Shankling, what they were supposed to be learning from this.

Let me just say that from the limited amount of information I have, he’s absolutely, 100% right.  It is busywork.  It’s a disrespectful insult to almost any high school class.  And, frankly, it’s probably (rank speculation alert!) the sort of thing that happens all the time in high schools.  (The mindless, stupid copying, that is, not the superintendent walking in.)

But as right as he might be, as righteous as his indignation may properly burn, he’s also a bit of an ass for going after the teacher in front of her students.  That’s not good management.  It’s not good leadership.  It’s not good manners.  If you really want, you can lean on the teacher, force an apology to the students later.  But going after someone in public is just going to end badly.  It’s the sort of thing you only do if you absolutely have to.

So in light of this criticism, it turns out that the teacher was also right when she objected…

Shankling was a substitute. It was the second day of the fall semester, and she was following the teacher’s lesson plan. She didn’t appreciate being scolded by Deasy in front of the students in her class.

But of course, as we know from seeing the superintendent in action, being right isn’t enough.  You also have to avoid acting stupidly, which seems to have been remarkably difficult in that classroom that day for several parties…

They wound up in a shouting match. She ordered Deasy to leave, he threatened to have her removed, she said.

One day later, Shankling, substitute No. 970595, was banned from teaching in L.A. Unified.

Let me say it again: being right isn’t enough.  You should also  be decent, and wise.  And being right is definitely not enough if you’re in a giant bureaucracy like the LAUSD.

On the other hand, when it comes to LAUSD superintendents, given the district’s track record, I might be perfectly happy with someone who’s just right.


  1. And, frankly, it’s probably (rank speculation alert!) the sort of thing that happens all the time in high schools. (The mindless, stupid copying, that is, not the superintendent walking in.)

    Not just rank, but ignorant. No, it doesn’t. It may, possibly, happen frequently in low performing high schools, although none that I’ve ever seen.

    And his behavior was profoundly inappropriate, particularly considering that she’s a sub.

    What I found the most amusing, though, was the reporter’s surprise that the “honors” kids had such terrible skills. Um, yeah. What is it you think “low scoring” means, and why the drama? It’s not the teachers or the parents or the students, but the expectations.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:


      I said, honestly, that it’s rank speculation because I only have my own 4 years of high school experience, and maybe 200 hours of observations since then on which to base my guess. But what I have seen supports my speculation. (Otherwise I’d be a very poor guesser.)

      If that makes my speculation “ignorant”, well, fine. I suppose it is. Most speculation is, because you don’t really have to speculate when you know.

      It must be nice, though, knowing exactly what happens in every classroom in the nation. Some day you’ll have to tell me how you do it.

  2. When I started teaching in NYC, in the fall of 2005, I was surprised to see my colleagues spend the first two weeks of the year on classroom routines. That seemed a bit much; most of the routines were self-explanatory, I thought. I was wrong. Classroom procedures are a little mor complicated than they seem. If you don’t establish them up front, you run into trouble later.

    I still think two weeks for procedure is a bit much. But it doesn’t surprise me at all that the second day of class would be devoted to classroom rules. In that light, it makes limited sense to have students copy them down. We tend to shudder at the thought of having students copy. But once in a while, copying can be useful and efficient.

    It’s possible that the teacher wanted all students to have a copy of the rules on hand. It’s even possible that she had made photocopies but, being absent, had not been able to distribute them. Wanting to get on with the semester and not spend an additional day on rules, she may have asked the sub to have students copy them down.

    It isn’t an ideal way to spend day 2, but it doesn’t seem egregious or representative of the school year. In any case, one would need more context in order to judge the situation. A wise superintendent would ask the regular teacher (who wrote the lesson plan) for the rationale.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I completely agree with both you and your colleague!

      The beginning of any class is, as Irulan said, a delicate time. When you’re on a compulsory, institutional semester system the way we are, getting a hold of the class in that first few weeks sets the tone for the rest of the year.

    • I think two weeks is way too much, and I keep my rules very loose. Don’t talk when I’m teaching, don’t get up for any reason, don’t set objects airborne, don’t eat, drink, or groom.

      They’ll ignore them anyway, but the rules mean they stop when I tell them to, and gripe only mildly when I dump their food or send them outside.

      But the whole “rules” thing, in general, is absurd. If you’re the type of teacher who cares about rules a *lot*, you’ll be able to train your kids if they’re the type of kids who will follow the rules. Otherwise, you’re doomed unless the administration backs you, and they won’t.

      So my advice is always keep rules simple, expect them to be broken, and decide how much you care about that.

  3. @Diana You’re overlooking how grandstanding has become an essential management and communications tool in education. If something’s worth stating, it’s worth overstating and with broad gestures.

    Several years ago I auditioned (and in retrospect that’s the correct word) for New Leaders for New Schools. After several rounds of interviews, the final step was a day long role play where you are the principal of a struggling inner city school, and you interact with various “characters” in made up settings. The angry parent, the hostile superintendent, the cynical teacher, etc. New Leaders has some number of core beliefs to which you must swear fealty (I believe that every single child is capable of learning at the highest possible level, etc). The roleplay seems to be designed to test the degree to which you embody those core beliefs. Thus when the cynical teacher character, for example, starts prattling on about how “those kids” can’t learn and how the material is too hard for them, you’re presumably expected to deliver a stern talking to about low expectations.

    Not caring much for grandstanding, I found myself taking a less confrontational route. Engaging the “character” in a dialogue about her beliefs, looking for consensus, etc. This clearly wasn’t going over well. When I stopped to explain my approach–why I don’t think you change behavior by yelling at it–the judges invariably said, “Mr. Pondiscio, please stay in character.”

    On it went. Hours of this nonsense.

    I did finally end up getting upset and grandstanding. Not at the characters, but at New Leaders for their interest in hiring actors instead of administrators, and for wasting my time with their silly and pointless audition.

  4. Call me Antediluvian, but my experience suggests that students require 5 or 6 repeated exposures to a fact or idea before it sinks in. Instructor Shankling was doing a pretty good job of getting 3 exposures to the rules (lecture, read the board, write it down) into one short classroom hour.

    And since when is copying something important “mindless, stupid copying?” How many times does a musician mindlessly, stupidly play his scales?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I’m with you. Life is filled with mindless, repetitive activites we all do just to get them done. Anyone fill out a census form or file taxes?

      Asking kids to spend a few minutes copying the classroom rules seems like a decent use of time. They need to internalize these rules for success during the school year. Isn’t it easier to hold them accountable if they’ve reviewed, discussed and written the rules down? Lower performing schools, whether or not the kids are in the honors class, have behavior issues. Why not reinforce a little self-discipline up front?

      The Principal is a jackass. It’s little wonder the schools do so poorly when the principal lacks the self-discipline to express his concern at an appropriate time and in a respectful manner. What a horrible role model for these kids.

  5. Supersub says:

    Mike L. –
    I have to disagree with your stance that copying the rules is pointless and disrespectful. It was the second day of school and at the beginning of any school year the teacher’s first duty is to exert control over the classroom, because if they don’t, the year will be a long one. Even AP classes can be challenging, especially in an urban setting where the general culture leans towards being disruptive.

    Copying has been, and always will be, an effective way to introduce individuals to information or to reinforce it. Especially in HS, students have a tendency (willfully or not) to forget the rules that have been in place since Kindergarten. Ensuring that students are exposed to the rules, adopted by the school board and Superintendent, is a wise choice by the teacher. It’s a lot more valuable than all the icebreakers and teamwork fluff that so many teachers use nowadays.

    Not only that, but the students’ reactions to such an assignment will provide insight as to how they will perform and behave through the year. Students often don’t see the true value in assignments they are given, and if they don’t complete this one fully then it is a good predictor that they will need extra attention through the year on assignments that they might view as boring despite their usefulness.

    So, in the end, this isn’t an issue of “being right isn’t enough,” but instead an issue of “What’s worse than being wrong? Being a jerk about it”…(I mean the Superintendent)

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Let me clear up me reasoning about “mindless copying”, since many people seem to disagree with me about this.

    The problem I have with this exercise is the same problem I have with making a student write a sentence 200 times as punishment. As far as punishment goes, any sentence will do — even just copying the dictionary will do — because the real punishment is the physical task of writing coupled with the tedium. When you’re writing punishment sentences, the writing is approached as a purely mechanical task. The meaning drains out of the words.

    In fact, it’s my preferred mode of thinking during transcription tasks, so that I can think about something more pleasant and/or important. Obviously if it really matters to me — if I’m transcribing a deposition transcript into a brief, or copying out a passage for my students — I’ll pay attention. But that’s only if I care about the material in the task ex ante.

    Telling students to copy down the classroom rules is asking them to perform a mechanical — not a cognitive — task. It does nothing to help them “internalize” the rules, or appreciate the rules, or learn the rules, or anything else having to do with the rules. It would be different if you asked them to paraphrase the rules, or change the rules to suggestions , or write the opposite of the rules. But from the limited information we’re given, I see none of these things happening. I just see verbatim transcription. (And I was very up front about the limited information available to us in my original post.)

    So in the first place, I simply deny SuperSub’s assertion that “Copying has been, and always will be, an effective way to introduce individuals to information or to reinforce it.”

    But in the second place, let’s say for the sake of argument that it works and that this sort of transcription can really help students learn what the rules are and remember them. So what?

    Students don’t, as a rule, follow classroom rules at all. They obey teacher mandates. There’s a huge difference between these two sorts of intentional activities. They don’t care if the rule is “No gum in the classroom.” They care whether the teacher is going to react a certain way if they chew gum in the classroom. (Yes, some students will follow the rules just because they are the rules. But they’re not the ones who need to copy this stuff down in the first place, are they?)

    And students are less inclined to respect a teacher who wastes their time having them copy down classroom rules verbatim.

    But let’s go ahead and grant even that; let us assume, also arguendo, that copying down the rules really can make students follow the rules.

    If that’s the case, it’s downright creepy — a sort of mental conditioning “trick” that I’d be hesitant to use on anyone, much less someone towards whom I had a responsibility to see ended up developing their intellect and academic prowess.

    Because if it really works (a questionable assumption at the very best) then what this exercise is doing isn’t learning, but straightforward, no-nonsense indoctrination, in the worst sense of the word.

    • john thompson says:

      There is tons of difference between the mechanical AND cognitive act of copying rules during Orientation and punishment such as repeatedly copying sentences.

      • You’d think he’d know that, but apparently not.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Y’all seriously don’t turn off your brains (or think about something else) when you’re transcribing?

        I sort of assumed everyone does (unless, like I said, you’ve got some important reason not to.) It’s how I’ve worked since… well, at least since 4th grade. Maybe earlier — it’s hard to remember.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          I don’t, but that’s why I’m really slow. I also don’t turn my brain off when shredding documents, which was problematic during my summer as a candy striper……

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      They don’t care if the rule is “No gum in the classroom.” They care whether the teacher is going to react a certain way if they chew gum in the classroom.

      If a teacher sends a student out for chewing gum, the student may well protest, “What was I doing wrong?” The vice-principal or dean or whoever handles discipline may well ask the teacher later, “Did you make your behavioral expectations clear?”

      In each case, the teacher can point to the copied rules. Never underestimate the power of CYA.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Wow. You’re working overtime here to justifiy your assertion that copywork is meaningless. We simply don’t know what all the goals were in assigning students this task. We don’t know what type of discussion happened before, during, or after the copying. We don’t know if the teacher was using it to assess the basic writing skills of the students. This is a low performing school. the teacher might want a visual of how well students are able to copy from the board – form letters, words, sentences. My guess is that she (not the sub but the regular teacher) wanted the students to have a written reminder as an accountability tool.

      I grant that it may or may not be a good use of student time; without further context, I simply cannot tell. Your assumption (via the title to this post) is a bit silly, imo.

  7. There is most always a good reason behind what a teacher chooses to do. My daughter went through a reading/writing course where they had to copy the requirements for a big project off the board into their notebooks. When I was chatting with the teacher after school I asked if the copy machine was broken. She told me no, if they copy it themselves they cannot say “I never saw it before” when grading time comes and the project isn’t done or something is missing. Also, she explained that when she had copied the requirements and grading information for the project in previous years, many packets were found discarded on the floor, in the hallways, and other places and she felt it was a waste of resources. I have noticed that myself. After a spelling exam I gave each of my students a copied list of the words they had missed and needed to study. Half of them have come to me saying “I lost my list, can I have another?” I let them take the original to their desk and they can copy it on a sheet of notebook paper.

    So perhaps the teacher had a purpose in mind that we don’t know. It’s always easier to be an expert looking in at someone else’s job, isn’t it?

  8. From another perspective, my husband and I have both taught college students. He had such problems with cheating and students subsequently saying that they didn’t know that doing X qualified as cheating or that the penalty would by Y (it was in the syllabus) that he started having them sign something saying that they had read and understood the rules/consequences. I’ve seen other college syllabi require a signature on the last page, to be turned in. Perhaps the teacher was having them copy the rules so that they couldn’t say that they had never heard them. Funnily enough, prior to reading this post I had just had a similar problem with my own kid – after claiming that he didn’t know the rules, I had him get out paper to write out the specific rule in question ‘so that we didn’t have this misunderstanding again’.

  9. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I don’t really have rules (other than the school rules), but I do have very specific expectations about classroom routines. It generally takes about 2 weeks to norm my classes to them. We’re doing lessons, etc., but they take longer as I give a lot of explicit instruction about what I expect.

    Copying is mindless for people who don’t have to pay attention to what they are writing. It is much different for struggling learners. If there’s one thing I have to keep teaching myself, it is that my students are not mini-me’s. A few might learn/process info like I do, but most don’t. Nothing sends up red flags for me faster than when one of my teachers says, “I do x with my students because that’s the way I learned and it worked.” Not professional.

  10. The story of Substitute Shankling and Superintendent Deasy has a life of its own – and grows by urban legendary proportions. Some of it may be rumor and much of it certainly hearsay. Some of us may want it to be true to prove points about the boorishness and/or hubris of the individuals …or the hopelessness of the culture.

    Before the story broke reporters were nosing around: “What do you know about the Substitute and the Superintendent at Washington Prep?”

    The lid is on and here is a Rashomon quality that almost precludes digging deeper because people are afraid for their jobs.

    But in rereading the original LA Times account and columnist Sandy Banks expansion of it a couple of things seem clear. Seem.

    The superintendent entered the classroom and was unknown to the teacher and the students …kind of like “Undercover Boss” without the disguise and the phony mustache.

    He then interrupted the class and apparently still didn’t make it clear who he was. He challenged the teacher and the lesson plan.

    Ms. Shankling was a substitute; it wasn’t her lesson plan. She was following the regular teacher’s lesson plan – that’s what substitute teachers are expected to do. And apparently Ms. Shankling was a very well regarded substitute at that school.

    Following the narrative provided by Ms. Banks the adults had an honest disagreement about the value of the lesson and the level of instruction in front of the students. Voices were raised and the modeling of good behavior was tossed out the window.

    (At some point someone has to question if-and-when this behavior reached the level of bullying. I hate to wrap myself in the cloak of moral rectitude because it’s not a garment I wear well – but someone’s got to do it if only for the sake of the hypothesis.)

    The story as it is told around the watercooler and around the LAUSD board room doesn’t end with the scene in the classroom. Life is like that; it isn’t “cut!” and the actors go to their dressing rooms while the stagehands dress the next set for Scene 2.

    It is said in the hearsay that that the superintendent was seen fuming in the hallway and perhaps even raising his voice and becoming angry and demonstrative in the school office – in front of other students, staff and parents. There is a “You’ll never work in this town again” Hollywood level of drama in this tale.

    Not Bette Davis Hollywood; Reality TV Hollywood.

    And the moral is that no good deed goes unpunished.

    When logic and proportion
    Have fallen sloppy dead
    And the White Knight is talking backwards
    And the Red Queen’s “off with her head!”
    Remember what the dormouse said…..