A Question of Competence

State Comptroller John Sharp has suggested that HISD needs to fire more incompetent teachers. But as the case of Beverly Goodie shows, it's not that simple. Just how do you tell who's incompetent? And what happens when you try?

He might even have seemed that way to Beverly Goodie. Or, like some other older teachers who left when Amstutz arrived, she might have seen him as someone who hadn't yet learned the lessons that two decades of classroom work had already taught her. Since her firing is still being litigated, some details are hard to come by. But what's clear is that Goodie and Amstutz soon came to have different answers to the question of whether she was a good teacher.

One of those details that's still unclear is why, if Amstutz didn't like Goodie's approach to teaching, he simply didn't "counsel" her out of his school. Counseling teachers out is not unusual; as Amstutz notes, "There are 255 schools in the district with many different philosophies and attitudes about how to educate children. I think it's an honorable thing to say: 'You're a good person, and I'm a good person. We have some philosophical disagreements about how to accomplish our work. Transfer. Transfer to a school that is more in line with that philosophy and that approach.' There's certainly no shame in that. Everybody wins in that scenario."

But that scenario was apparently never an option with Goodie. To this day, she says she wonders why Amstutz didn't simply say to her, "Look, you're not Cage material anymore, and I'll help you transfer out." If he'd done so, she says, she would have agreed to leave.

But then again, if Amstutz truly felt she was a bad teacher, could he have in good conscience simply passed her off to become someone else's problem? Because her case is on appeal, Amstutz declines to talk specifically about Goodie. Instead, he says that "in any personnel matter you use your best judgment and you make the best decision you can for the education of children. And that doesn't always make sense to folks. And they don't always know the rationale or the rest of the reason or the background behind it. Sometimes you just can't tell them."

Beverly Goodie was four years away from retirement when she was fired. Her evaluations had always been high, so high that in the 1993-94 school year she was exempted from outside evaluation as an "experienced teacher." State rules allowed her to instead assess herself. She gave herself outstanding scores in every category. It was perhaps not a very politic thing to do, but it also wasn't much of a change from her ratings by previous principals. When questioned at her termination hearing, Goodie admitted that she did feel she had room for improvement, but she was not ashamed of saying that she was a good teacher.

Beatrice Saenz, a first-grade teacher who worked across the hall from Goodie, testified at that hearing that she knew Goodie was a good teacher because all three of her children had passed through Goodie's kindergarten classes. And Clothild Allen, a former first-grade teacher at Cage, says she loved getting students from Goodie's class. "I would get six weeks behind with the children from other teachers," Allen says. "I would have loved to have taken her whole class."

While Amstutz questioned Goodie's instructional competence, her tardiness and her obedience to his directives, at the heart of her firing were allegations that she physically abused students. Such disputes often boil down to whether a principal believes a student or a teacher, and in Goodie's case, Amstutz sided with the students.

Goodie's first trouble came in September 1993, nine months after Amstutz had become principal. A nine-year-old boy who was not Goodie's student accused her of grabbing him in the lunchroom and threatening to break his arm. Amstutz found that while Goodie had not committed an assault, she had violated district policies against corporal punishment by "touching the child while in the process of reprimanding him." Amstutz wrote in a memo that went into Goodie's file that Goodie contradicted herself in conversations with him about whether she "touched" the boy or "grabbed" him. In the memo, he also chastised her for threatening to break the boy's arm, and told her never to touch a child while reprimanding him.

Goodie says she insisted to Amstutz that she told the child, " 'Boy, if you don't get up off of that floor flapping around like a chicken, you're going to break an arm.' But I did not tell him I was going to break his arm." At the termination hearing, the boy's mother testified that her son never told her that Goodie had threatened to break his arm. The mother, a public school teacher with 23 years experience, also testified that she couldn't understand how a teacher could maintain any discipline if she were never allowed to touch a child while reprimanding him.

The rest of the school year passed with no further student discipline problems, but in the autumn of 1994, Amstutz wrote up Goodie again, this time for hitting children on the hands with a ruler. After interviewing six students, Amstutz and his assistant principal concluded that Goodie had struck the hands of two students. Goodie insisted that she used a ruler only to tap students to signal it was their turn to speak. Amstutz reminded her to avoid the appearance of wrongdoing by discontinuing her use of any kind of pointer to tap or touch students. Goodie signed the memo outlining the alleged infraction, but again disagreed with Amstutz's characterization of her behavior.

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