Goodbye, Mr. Smith

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

Richard Smith was at a crossroads two years ago when something he heard on the radio led him down an unconventional path. A speaker at a Washington D.C. education conference reported that the number of men teaching in elementary schools had hit a 35-year low, and there was a critical need for more male teachers for young students.

"That was the sales pitch," says the 41-year-old Smith, who at that time had just accepted a buy-out of his job as a brakeman for the Union Pacific railroad. "It sounded as if once you were certified to teach, you would be hired. It sounded good to me."

For Smith, as it turned out, it was too good to be true. After finishing the necessary 39 hours of course work with a 3.76 grade point average, and completing eight of the required 14 weeks of student teaching, Smith was dismissed from the College of Education at the University of Houston. Irritated and incredulous, he sued the university, claiming gender and age discrimination.

Education majors at UH normally apply for a student teaching job at the school where they want to eventually be employed as a teacher. While completing their 14 weeks at the school, student teachers are evaluated jointly by a UH supervisor and an on-site teacher. It is up to the university's College of Education to decide whether they will be certified to teach.

Smith picked Owens Elementary in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District for no better reason than because it is close to where he lives. But he says now that he sensed he wasn't welcome from the beginning of his student teaching stint there. On his first day at Owens, principal Melissa Ehrhardt greeted Smith and said how great it was to have a male teaching at the school.

"She made such a big deal about how wonderful it was to have a man out at the school. What went through my mind is, 'If it's so wonderful, why is it so unusual?'"

As Smith found out, among the school's more than 30 teachers, only one, a bilingual kindergarten teacher from Peru, was a man. He found the evidence as obvious as the group photos of teachers on the wall, where Smith later counted two male teachers in photos over the previous 11 years. "She just runs a closed shop," Smith says of Ehrhardt.

Second-grade teacher Polly Finkenbiner was his immediate supervisor during his student teaching and, according to Smith, she made it clear early on that male teachers were seldom hired at Owens. Smith claims the prevailing theory at Owens was that more learning took place with a virtually all-female staff, since men would flirt with female teachers and disrupt the "educational process."

Finkenbiner denies she told Smith that the school had a history of not hiring men. "That's totally false. We never had that conversation. Ever since I've been in the district there's been a male teacher in the building, at least one," Finkenbiner says.

The questions about Smith's marital status and dating history asked by Finkenbiner and others had an ulterior agenda, he believes.

"[As] it started off, it wasn't really a hostile thing, it was 'You're not married, why aren't you married? Are you dating anybody?"' Smith says. "It started off real nice but I kind of felt beneath the surface it was, 'Am I a homosexual?' -- that's what she was asking. She couldn't have given a damn who I was dating or whether I was dating. What she was really asking was 'Why are you 41 years old and not married? There's something wrong with you.'"

Again, Finkenbiner denies at least Smith's interpretation of her remarks. "I would never ask why you were not married. In social conversation I may have asked are you married, but never why. I think there's been a lot of misinterpretation to focus on the issue he wants to focus on; it's clearly not valid." She suggests that Smith was twisting what she said to help support his lawsuit, in which he contends he was dismissed from UH about five weeks short of completing his student teaching assignment because he was a 41-year-old man and didn't fit in. Finkenbiner declined further comment.

The university's attorneys deny the charge, saying that Smith was dismissed as a result of "behavioral and performance" issues. Smith fears as long as the university's defense of his dismissal is sufficiently vague and based on an assessment of "teaching ability," the courts will not overturn the school's decision. Smith simply says his dismissal was not warranted and he had no idea it was coming until just before the action was taken.

Progress reports on Smith's student teaching, filled out by Finkenbiner and his UH supervisor, Renee Boudloche, reflect few signs of deficiency in his performance. For his midterm report, he was ranked adequate in four categories and exceptional or strong in the remaining 33 categories. One week before he was dismissed, his weekly evaluation showed 24 ratings of adequate, 33 ratings of exceptional or strong and one rating of marginal. There were no unsatisfactory ratings in either report. The marginal rating was for legible handwriting. Finkenbiner's midterm report suggested "if Richard is going to teach at the elementary level, I would encourage him to improve his handwriting."

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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