Goodbye, Mr. Smith

A 41-year-old man says he just wanted to teach, but age and gender worked against him

Based on what he heard and saw at Owens, Smith was aware his chances of being hired there were slim, but he believed he could get his certificate and be hired at one of Cy-Fair's other 29 elementary schools.

"At the time I didn't know the history of discrimination there, it was just the neighborhood school." he says. "The first time I walked in there to student teach was the first time I had been in there."

Only when his supervisors suggested he might try being a substitute teacher for the school district did Smith believe his efforts to become a full-time teacher might be in jeopardy. Substitute teaching required certification, but paid less and employment was likely to be erratic. He told his supervisors he had no interest in substituting. "The point of going to the University of Houston and spending two years of my life and thousands of dollars," he says, "was to become a full-time teacher."

What Smith began to surmise was that since the district had no intention of employing him full-time, it would hire him as a substitute as a temporary compromise. Placement as a student teacher at a school often is a prelude to being hired at the school or somewhere in that district. Smith thinks those in charge were concerned about what he might do if he weren't hired. "I have a stinking suspicion they were afraid I'd file a sex discrimination lawsuit for not hiring me," he says. "Therefore, if I didn't get a certificate, I couldn't even apply. They decided I didn't fit their employment profile and they didn't want me around to file a sex discrimination suit for not hiring me because I was a man, so they took care of the problem."

In fact, once the possibility of his becoming a substitute teacher was raised, Smith did tell his supervisors he would consider legal action if he wasn't awarded his certificate. When he was pulled from his placement at Owens, Smith says, Phyllis Miller, the head of UH's teacher education program, advised him to go into secondary education because he would be hard to place elsewhere due to his age.

Smith contends there's no mystery why he was dumped. "When there's 15 elementary student teachers at Cypress Fairbanks and 14 are women, and you're the only man, and you're the only one that gets pulled out," he says, "it's more than just a coincidence."

The number of male teachers at Owens is below average, but the scarcity of men at elementary schools is common. Statewide, 5,691 men taught in elementary schools during the 1992-93 school year, compared to 79,850 women. Since many of those male teachers were physical education instructors, the actual number of men teaching classroom subjects was even smaller. Only 12 percent of the state's 47,426 male teachers are employed at elementary schools.

The need for positive male role models for students is one of the motives cited by educators for recruiting more men to teach at elementary schools. But, says Joey Lozano of the Texas Education Agency, while "there's a feeling we need to attract more males to the profession ... it hasn't been an issue where there's been a lot of rallying around or that it's been identified as a critical issue. The more critical issue has been trying to improve salaries and compensation for teachers."

Smith still wants to teach. His two attempts to obtain court injunctions to reinstate him to the teaching program have failed, and he faces spending more of his savings from his buy-out if he goes to trial. If his legal options disappear, Smith hopes to acquire his certification from another school.

He's not optimistic about going to trial. "What we're basically doing is suing the state of Texas," he says, and as he has discovered, that's usually futile and always costly. He's already spent more on attorney fees and court costs than he spent on tuition, fees and books at UH. Even if he wins, appeals by the state could take years and cost him thousands.

Smith says he's bitter -- not so much about being unable to teach at Owens, but about the prospect that he won't be able to teach anywhere. "If they weren't going to hire me, fine," he says. "But they cheated me out of a certificate.

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