Goodbye, Mr. Smith

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."

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D.J. Wilson