When fists fly, it's too late to control class

The Baltimore Sun

My first reaction to that cell-phone video of Jolita Berry being pummeled by one of her students was this: Any one of the teachers of my youth could have taken that girl, easy. But then, I didn't go to Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore; I went to Catholic school in suburban Chicago where the nuns - however wizened and, at least in my earliest grades, weighed down by their veils, robes and swinging ropes of rosaries - were quite fearsome.

They could drag kids of any size by the ear and slam them into the supply closet, which I guess would be the pre-historic, pre-litigious version of today's time-out. If you talked out of turn too much or kept a particularly messy work space - don't ask how I know this - they might tape your mouth shut or upend your desk, scattering its contents for you to clean up.

But far more impressive than the occasional show of force was how rarely they had to wield it. Their authority was implicit.

There was a lot of disturbing and sometimes contradictory testimony in the trial of the student - The Baltimore Sun isn't naming her because she is a juvenile - who on Tuesday was acquitted of assault in the beating of the art teacher, although she was found to have engaged in disorderly conduct.

But one thing seems clear: If Berry ever had any authority over that classroom, it was long gone by the time of the April 4 incident.

This is not to blame the victim. Let's be clear about this: The part of the brawl captured on video shows Berry pinned to the floor and getting punched, which most people might think is pretty good evidence of a crime being committed. (Of course, a certain Rodney King might tell you that no tape, however clearly it shows a beating, is invincible in a courtroom.)

But what happened before the cell-phone photographer got rolling is perhaps the more disturbing part of this case - former colleagues and students testified for the defense that not only had Berry thrown the first punch in the brawl, she had a history of engaging in verbal fisticuffs with students and failing to maintain control of her classroom.

There was testimony that she taunted students as "ghetto" and regularly played a radio during class. And, before this particular fight, witnesses said, she cursed at her combatant, bragged about her martial arts skills, tied her hair back and wrapped a lanyard and keys around her fist - what, she left the brass knuckles at home? - in preparation for battle.

This is not a picture of a calm, professional teacher - although to give Berry her due, she offered a different version of events, denying that she started the fight or that she cursed or demeaned her students. In any event, I don't doubt that some Baltimore public school teachers have to deal with such threatening students that they should qualify for hazardous duty pay - more than 100 students were expelled last academic year for physically attacking school staff members. The war stories some of them have shared with The Sun since this story broke, the amount of verbal and physical abuse and outright disrespect that they put up with, is truly Blackboard Jungle-level appalling.

But that is all the more reason to wonder about the kind of training, assistance and support that Berry - and all teachers - get to cope with this particular reality of their jobs.

This whole nasty incident made me give a second look to the D grade that Maryland recently received from a group that advocates for more effective teachers. Maryland was criticized for giving tenure to its teachers after just two years - without requiring a meaningful evaluation before granting it - and failing to track how a teacher's students do on standardized tests over a number of years.

These statewide "grades" always have to be taken with a grain of salt. You're talking about a large and diverse universe, and it's questionable how meaningful that is when you get down to the level of an individual school district, let alone an individual teacher.

And yet that grade, from the National Council on Teacher Quality, came on the heels of another report that, even as it ranked Maryland schools first in the nation overall, scored the state quite low for teacher training.

That report, by Education Week, criticized the state for failing to support beginning teachers - it doesn't, for example, fund mentoring programs or those designed to reduce the workload of first-year teachers.

I don't know how long Berry, 31, has taught in Baltimore - the school district says it does not publicly discuss personnel issues - but she had been at Reginald Lewis for only several months at the time of the fight, having transferred from another school in the district. It also came up in court that she was working under an "improvement plan" designed to help with her classroom skills.

There was an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker in December about how with certain jobs - quarterbacks and teachers were the ones he cited - it's almost impossible to predict how candidates will do in their positions until after they've been hired and are working.

He pointed to research showing that the Wonderlic test that all drafted quarterbacks take tends to be an unreliable predictor of NFL success. (Uh-oh, in his class, Joe Flacco scored near the top; but then, Matt Ryan, the rookie of the year, came in first).

There's no Wonderlic for teachers so, as Gladwell argues, it becomes even more important not just to look at their credentials before hiring them, but to closely monitor them after they're hired.

In Berry's case, let's hope that's happening. All the school district would tell me is that she's still in its employ, apparently at another school.

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