The subject of teacher training, much discussed lately in reaction to the state’s recent rush to hire thousands of untrained teachers, has always been tricky. Some say teacher training is invaluable, while others say it’s largely fluff with real teaching learned on the job. I’d like to make my contribution to this debate by describing one current example of teacher training which I have just completed: a course known as SB 1969 (after the Senate bill that mandated it), which purports to train teachers how to teach students whose native language is not English. Two characteristics make SB 1969 notable: every teacher in California, whether veteran or brand new, is required to take it, or its equivalent, and the text is co-authored by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the union representing teachers in Los Angeles Unified.

The course costs $100 (cashiers’ check only) and runs 48 hours over six weekends.
At the first session, we were given a thick notebook, and introduced to our instructor,
whom I’ll call Rita. Rita told us that we were going to learn not just about our students, but about ourselves. We would begin to see ourselves, she said, in the light of our race and class, and see how these factors impacted our students. To get us into this mode, she talked about herself. She told us she is a Central American. She is proud of being a citizen of her country, she said, and will never become a U.S.
citizen. She has a keen sense of her ethnicity: she eats only her country’s food, and listens only to her country’s music. She is the bilingual coordinator at her school,
and likes to speak Spanish as much as possible. If anyone asks her to speak English,
she “shuts them up” them by asking “Why?”. Rita said she is resisting the “dominant culture”, a common attitude among immigrants. She said we would be learning
“sensitivities” to such attitudes in our class.

Rita directed us to an article in our notebook, influenced by “anarchist” Paulo Freire: “Power and Pedagogy in the Education of Cultural-Diverse Students” by Jim Cummins of USC. This article called on teachers to “challenge coercive relations of power” emanating from “curriculum that reflects only the experience and values of white middle-class English-speaking students”. To bring the point home, we did an exercise called “Food for Thought”, in which Henry read 21 statements aloud. If a statement applied to one of us, we had to stand, sitting down only when a statement did not apply to us. All the “culturally diverse” people in the class stood up for noble statements about pain and oppression (e.g. Crayola Co. “flesh” color did not look like my skin),
while I and the other middle-class whites stood up for statements that exposed us as the “dominant class”(e.g. “Toy stores sold dolls that looked like me.”)

The next week-end, mercifully, we turned from white guilt to linguistic theory. Our readings purported to offer “empirical proof” of the need to educate non-native English speakers in their native languages for several years before teaching them English, as is the practice in LAUSD for Spanish speaking students. On that and the following four week-ends, Rita took us through many hundreds of pages of “proofs” of the tenets of bilingual education. These tenets may be summarized as follows:

1. White European immigrants of the last century had a strong educational background and could begin learning English when they got here.

2. Ditto for Asians.

3. Latino immigrants often come here without a strong educational background, and therefore they should not study English because it will only mix them up.

It is not my intent here to debate bilingual education, but at least one could say that it is controversial. We do have a 70% Hispanic drop-out rate, and mastery of English has fallen dramatically since bilingual education was initiated. Perhaps SB 1969 could have given us a more rounded view, beyond calling critics of bilingual education “cultural hegemonists” and “intellectual xenophobes” (Cummins).

Still, I didn’t want to fail the course and lose my job, so I held my tongue. Now I can continue to teach in Los Angeles. But I still wondered who the real ” cultural hegemonists” were and who was going to make sure that teacher training actually had something to do with real teaching, so I asked Day Higuchi, the new head of UTLA, about SB 1969 when he visited my school.

He said the union accepted the course because “the federal office of civil rights”
forced it to, but he wouldn’t discuss why or how the union came to coauthor it.
Higuchi told me privately that he didn’t want to publicly debate the merits of bilingual education. It was too divisive, he said. Thus endeth the lesson.

Douglas Lasken is UTLA Chapter Chair, Ramona Elementary School in Hollywood

published by Los Angeles Magazine, December 1996 and reprinted in the May/June 1997 American Enterprise magazine

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