Rocking The Boat Sinks Drama Teacher

LAHS Drama Teacher David Daniel on stage at the Popejoy Awards where he accepted the award for Best Direction. Courtesy photo
 
By BONNIE J. GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post
 

When Los Alamos High School drama teacher David Daniel returned to Los Alamos Sunday, May 8, he was on top of the world.

The LAHS Olions had just won major accolades of their production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at the Popejoy Awards for High School Drama in New Mexico.

Not only was “Spamalot” chosen as one of five finalists, three of Daniel’s students were chosen to compete for “best actor” and Devon McCleskey won, winning him a trip to New York City to compete in the “Jimmy Awards” for best high school actor in the nation.

Daniel himself brought home an award for “best direction.” Participation in drama had increased at LAHS by more than one-third under his supervision.

On Monday, he was informed his contract with Los Alamos High School would not be renewed.

This disappointing news came on the heels of another major success. The Los Alamos Odyssey School proposal, of which he was one of the major architects, advanced to the finals in a competition sponsored by the Jobs Foundation called XQ, which will provide $2 million to redesign selected high school programs to better serve today’s students.

The Los Alamos Daily Post began receiving communications from parents and students who were disappointed that the popular teacher would not be returning in the fall, shortly after the news was made public.

The parents and students indicated they had sent letters to LAPS Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus and to the Los Alamos School Board in support of Daniel. Students also submitted a petition of some 200 signatures in support of Daniels, a student told the Post.

The Post contacted Daniel about his dismissal. The Post also contacted Steinhaus and Los Alamos High School Principal Brad Parker who declined to comment because the matter is a personnel issue.  

“When I was hired, Brad Parker told me that I’d be the perfect teacher for those kids who just don’t fit,” Daniel said. “They wanted me to be someone that the kids could go to, to be heard. Where I think I got in trouble was when I wanted to help the students make changes.”

The lesson for me and the students is that if you don’t fit, the system won’t change to accommodate you. We took our concerns to the appropriate channels first. They aren’t interested in justice, only in appearances. Students felt responsible for me being fired, which upsets me. It sends a message that it’s unsafe to speak out.”

The first time Daniel ran afoul of some teachers and administrators was when he organized an assembly of students to gather ideas for the Odyssey project.

Some teachers felt no change was needed. Others felt that raising student hopes, which would only be dashed, was a mistake. Still others felt they were not consulted enough before the assembly, Daniel said.

“Once students felt like someone would listen, they began coming to me about ways they were treated disrespectfully in the classroom,” he said. One of the policies students objected to was the use by some teachers of “relief coupons.” Some teachers had a policy of issuing two coupons per semester to use the restroom during class. If coupons went unused, points were added to the students’ final grade.

The controversy began when two students went to Principal Parker about the long-time policy. A substitute teacher had not allowed a student to go to the restroom, in spite of urgent need, because the teacher was following the policy. Parker told the staff that they could no longer give extra credit, but could continue to use the coupons.

“My friend and I got scapegoated,” one of the two students told the Daily Post. “But it was worth it because some of the teachers quit using the coupons. It was great that we were able to cause a change.” [Student’s names are not included for their protection, but are known to the Daily Post.]

The two students were newly outraged when two teachers formulated a graded assignment in which students were required to write letters to Principal Parker advocating for the return of the extra credit points associated with the coupons. Here is the text of the assignment:

[TEXT FROM PHOTO, NAMES REMOVED ]

Our principal, has decided that I may not give you extra credit for your relief coupons if you have not used them during the semester. He does not believe that these coupons, or their use, relate to the teaching and learning of Humanities. He is, in this belief, uniformed.

It is up to you to educate him.

You will write one paragraph explaining how the Relief coupons relate to Humanities. The paragraph will be 5 to 7 sentences in length. It will be properly constructed and properly punctuated. There will be an introductory sentence, as well as a conclusion. All words will be spelled correctly, and it will be typed. A third grade writing level will not be tolerated.

Your paragraph will explain one or two different ways that Relief Coupons relate to, demonstrate, or use concepts from Humanities. You are encouraged to use creative, but sound reasoning and explanations.

Your explanation could include any ideas that we have read about and/or discussed in class, such as the study of philosophy, people such as Locke and Descartes, and any of the units we have gone over so far such as: semantics, childhood philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and religion.

Consider, also, the pedagogy of Humanities, and how important consistent engagement in the learning process in part answers the question, “What does it meant to be human?”

 Your involvement is crucial to the process, so your voice and contributions are necessary to a community of learners. The more creative and original your ideas are, the more convinced administrator will be to modify his decision, and the better your lives will remain.

I will deliver all of your paragraphs on Wednesday. If you the Economics classes are successful as a body, administrator will reverse his decision and allow us to continue use of the Relief Coupons.

If you are unsuccessful as a group, the coupons will still be required to go to the restroom, but they will be worth nothing if not used. I strongly suggest you put some effort into this.

Upset that students were being required to write letters in support of a policy they might not agree with, some students approached Daniel.

In what he now says was a mistake, Daniel posted the assignment and some commentary about the issue on Facebook. He inadvertently identified two teachers in the Facebook post, being unaware they were the only teachers who taught the mentioned classes.

Here is the controversial post:

Please share this.
So below you will find a photo of an assignment that was given to students at my school. It was given after administration found out that some teachers were only giving students TWO BATHROOM PASSES (relief coupons) a semester, and then awarding extra credit for those that didn’t use them.

Essentially this assignment asks students, under threat to their quality of life, to use the Humanities to argue FOR why “relief coupons” are a critical part of learning.
The part that breaks my heart? I had one of my students come to me and ask, “How would you use Descartes to argue for relief coupons, Mr. Daniel?”

This one hit HOME for me. Humanities is MY thing. The critical thinking, and self possession it produces are directly opposed to the idea of a punitive academic system that takes away a person’s right to manage their own body, and devalues those who have different biological needs than others.

I could go on and on, but here is what I decided. I’m going to respond to this prompt, as if it were assigned to me, and use Humanities to show this teacher, and these students, what philosophy, etc, can be used for; the freedom it engenders.

Will you do the same? I know so many of you on my friendslist are fantastic minds, scholars of the liberal arts, and just general clever thinkers. I want to give these kids the only gift I can: what absolutely owning this assignment looks like. Because if this teacher has been responsible for their critical reasoning thus far, I know they could use some positive examples of what real liberal arts students can use their knowledge for.

Will you help? Write a reply to the assignment, and post it to the comments, or email it to me at theprismhero@gmail.com. Share it with YOUR friends. Let’s show those who would use the liberal arts to chain people down, that those same arts are truly the key to unlocking the world!

The post was removed at the request of Principal Parker and Daniel was reprimanded. His teacher mentor, Mary Grace, urged Daniel to refrain from posting in social media about school matters after this incident, advice he said he has taken.

Daniel requested a letter outlining the reasons his contract was not renewed. He shared the contents with the Post. The reasons were:

1. His communications caused teachers to feel unsafe at work and at home.
2. He caused a disruption to the learning environment.
3. He did not respond positively to attempts to mentor him.

The first seems to be about the Facebook controversy. The other two baffle Daniel. He said he has received high evaluations for his classroom teaching and has not entered any other teacher’s classroom to cause “disruption” or do anything else for that matter.

He described his relationship with his teacher mentor as “great” and said he followed all of her recommendations, including the one about social media.

Though Daniel regrets the non-renewal of his contract, he does not regret standing up for students.

“I’m grieved that fighting for students caused me to be let go,” he said. “I’m committed to doing what’s right for students and if we as teachers cannot, it violates our integrity.”

When asked why he thought Daniel was let go, one student said, “he stands up for students and that made some teachers freak out. It’s stupid. They have no reason.”

“I think it was really unfair that he was let go,” another said. “He was a good teacher and a good mentor. He was trying to do something to change the school, maybe too fast. A lot of long-time teachers, ones who are well-respected, dislike that he stands up for students. Mr. Daniel is the only one who stood up for students as people,” she said.

“I think posting on Facebook was a mistake, but I’ve seen teachers scream at students and throw chairs around the classroom. All he did was post on Facebook,” she said.

One student raised the question of whether Daniel was fired because he is gay. “I think that’s part of it,” the student said. “The school is full of homophobes.”

Daniels himself says he doesn’t know if this played a role, but he has seen examples of intolerance at the school.

For example, he said, Principal Parker required the Gay Straight Alliance to remove the word “transgendered” from its posters and substitute “pronoun day” during Diversity Week.

“We have trans students at the high school who are well integrated in the student body,” Daniel said. “They deserve support in dealing with one of the most difficult situations one can imagine.”

Daniels doesn’t regret his commitment to change. “There is a caste system at the high school,” he said. “The only measure of success is whether you are an honor student. This is reinforced 100 times a day.”

As part of the School Board’s Mental Health Design Team Initiative, one recommendation was that honor students not be placed several feet in front of the others in a roped off area at graduation.

Neither this, nor any of the other recommendations have been implemented at the high school, though progress has been made at other schools, Daniel said.

“The current culture at the high school is something students have to survive,” Daniel said. “This is a fight for the lives of our children.”

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