Lifting Principals, Spilling Guts

More adventures in HISD's wacky world of staff training

When they agreed to attend a weekend in-service program two months ago, a group of F.M. Black Middle School teachers had no reason to expect anything beyond the usual seminar on classroom instruction techniques. After all, training sessions are a routine way of filling the annual quota of professional development hours for Houston Independent School District instructors.

Certainly the teachers, mostly in their forties and fifties, had no idea they would be repeatedly yelled at by a facilitator and forced to shout at their fellow trainees. Or that they would be denied timely bathroom breaks or be asked to group-lift their principal with their fingers and break stone tablets with their feet.

These zany experiences are part of the fare offered by Project Discovery U2, Inc., a private training group run by Michael W. Jones. He is also involved in the Soul Patrol, a nonprofit youth motivational program sponsored by the Houston Police Department. The teachers quickly found that Jones's weekend training program at a Southwest Freeway hotel bore more resemblance to the oft-lampooned Erhard Sensitivity Training [EST] so in fashion in the '70s. Entitled "WAYFO -- What Are You Focusing On?" the training cost $200 a head, paid for by Black principal David Baxter out of school funds.

Training ran five hours on Friday and all day on Saturday. One participant says WAYFO amounted to verbal and physical abuse for the trainees, as well as an intrusion into their private lives. Participants were warned not to come back on Saturday unless they remained "alcohol and tobacco free" for the rest of Friday night.

The training was not for the soft-spoken. According to Jones, all speaking by anyone had to be as loud as possible. "And if you were not loud enough, you stood and yelled over and over until Jones and another trainer gave their approval," recalls a participant. An African-American instructor in her sixties had to stand for an extended period and repeatedly yell the same oral presentation because she was not "projecting" loudly enough to suit Jones.

Facilitators screamed at teachers who arrived late. Only one restroom break was allowed at the Friday session and two for the all-day Saturday classes. Participants were told if they left the room at any other time they were not to return at all. Bathroom deprivation is one of the most commented on features of EST sessions.

The highest point of absurdity came when four teachers were told to lift the rather bulky Baxter by their fingertips. A participant says with a laugh, "We moved him, but just a little." Following that, the teachers were exhorted to break thin concrete slabs with their feet. Facilitators deemed the exercise sufficiently hazardous to have participants sign legal releases exempting them from liability in case of injury.

Jones then asked the teachers to write a private letter "to someone who has caused barriers or hurt to them in their childhood or teenage years." Later he told them to crumple up the personal essays and throw them in a trash can.

That afternoon, Jones retrieved the letters from the trash and read them to the group.

"Can you imagine the shitstorm that could have ensued?" says one of the class members. "We all knew who wrote which letter, and the contents were private and sensitive. There were only five participants in the workshop. Can you imagine the embarrassment I felt when my principal heard my family troubles read out loud? What if someone had talked about sexual situations or coming out as a gay person?"

Baxter is a former Aldine ISD principal and receives $72,000 annually, making him one of the highest-paid new hires in the HISD principal ranks. He traded calls with the Insider but was ultimately unavailable for comment. Michael Jones did not respond to repeated inquiries.

While the session described above was voluntary, a participant says Jones wants to make the WAYFO training an integral part of compulsory in-service program for the entire district. "Please help prevent this from happening to HISD teachers," pleads a survivor of the session. "This workshop ranks right up there with Model-Netics and the Desk Manual Program," he says, referring to two controversial management training programs pushed by HISD Superintendent Rod Paige ["Children, Prepare Your Desk Manuals," by Tim Fleck, April 22.]

Houston Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon has her own advice for union members confronted with demands to lift principals with their fingers or break rocks or divulge personal details of their lives during a training session. "At that point," comments Fallon wryly, "I would say it's about time to get up and go home."

Send your news tips -- especially if you are "Dan Jones' Nightmare" -- to the Insider at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@ houstonpress.com.

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