Monday, March 23, 2015

The Timothy Hirsh Conflict at Mira Costa

With the past two weeks eaten up with national politics, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's rise, and US Senator Ted Cruz' stellar announcement for the Presidency, I did not have the time to comment on a disturbing development in local education:

Timothy Hirsh

The sudden dismissal of French Teacher Timothy Hirsh at Mira Costa High School.

The details of his termination include widespread outrage from students, parents, and fellow teachers:

Stunned students and parents are rallying around the beloved French teacher, outraged over his dismissal by the school board last week and demanding answers. Students are even considering a sit-in outside the administration building on campus if his job is not restored.

“The fact that he’s being dismissed is a travesty. It upsets me,” student Jacob Hands said. “Because I promise you, you’re not going to find many more teachers who care about their students as much as that man does.”

A little background is crucial to understand what is taking place. New teachers serve under probation for the first two years, and they can be terminated for the  most arbitrary of reasons. Because of the nature of most contracts, the school boards are well within their rights to terminate a teacher for any reason, and there is little that the teacher can do about it.

Mira Costa High School Logo
Most people are not aware of this arbitrary, and in fact unjust aspect of teacher tenure laws. Bad teachers who pass the second year and get tenure are nearly impossible to fire, while the best teachers with only a year or close to two years can be taken out without any recourse.

Yet, during his first year on the job, Hirsh did very well, according to the principal who has now recommended his dismissal:

Hirsh, 30, came to the high school midsemester in January 2013 when the French program was in tatters. What he did for the program was nothing short of outstanding, many said.

“Timothy came into a volatile classroom situation midyear and, through his hard work, talent and the power of his personality he de-escalated an otherwise wasted year for the students,” wrote Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale in a spring 2013 evaluation. “The students in those classes were able to recover what they had lost and all of them signed up for another year of French. Truly an amazing job.”

French programs are facing a lot of pressure and competition, particularly from Asian languages and Spanish. Most French teachers are the only show in town, so to speak, so they have to navigate provided a tough yet interesting program in which students want to come and learn.

Apparently, Hirsch accomplished all of the above, with strong approval from his peers, pupils, as well as the parents. Without betraying an unfair bias, let us keep in mind that the standards are quite high in schools like Mira Costa, where the higher socioeconomic status, the rising academic expectations, and stringent reporting from the local press can overwhelm teachers and educational stakeholders.

What ultimately aroused the ire of Mira Costa principal Ben Dale, enough to recommend his termination to the Manhattan Beach Unified School Board?

However, less than a year later, Dale called for Hirsh’s dismissal at the end of the school year.
In his final evaluation, he called the teacher “intemperate,” stating that he did not demonstrate proper respect when he gave a speech at a welcome event for eighth-grade students.

At one speech, Hirsh did not behave with A+ preparedness and respect? What does "intemperate" mean, anyway? If anyone has seen what high school coaches shout at their young charges, if anyone considers the necessary vehemence some teachers engage in with their unruly students, one would overlook any impertinence from a foreign language teacher at a welcoming event.

“Mr. Hirsh rambled in an unfocused and defensive manner about why students should learn French. ... (He) appeared to be unrehearsed and indifferent,” he wrote.

And? The comments from the principal better fit this description.

Dale also called Hirsh out for “lack of preparation in providing appropriate lesson plans” for a substitute teacher last November.

“As a result, the students lost valuable instructional time,” Dale wrote, adding that when Hirsh was counseled about the matter, he showed a lack of maturity.

The students lost one day of instruction because of no lesson plans, and yet the year prior Hirsh had revived, even resurrected the French program. Hmm.

These critiques are arbitrary and heedless, completely indifferent, and not worth the paper they are written on.

Despite emotional pleas and powerful testimony from students, teachers and parents, the Manhattan Beach school board Wednesday night stood behind its decision to fire a beloved French teacher, fueling claims of retaliation and petty politicking.

Mira Costa High School students and parents flooded the board room, one by one detailing the indelible impact Timothy Hirsh has left on their scholastic and personal lives. Many have said he is the best teacher in the history of the school, one of the highest performing in the state. But it was all to no avail.

School Boards need to stop following the lead of one principal instead of taking into account the numerous stories from parents and students.

To review, why did the principal not renew Hirsh's contract?

He gave a weird speech, he did not have lesson plans ready for one day, and the principal felt offended about Hirsh's response.

These are insulting and trivial issues.

Some of the comments from the articles cited above deserve attention:

Students are young and na├»ve. They haven't learned how government works. School boards and principals are in cahoots and they back each other up. 

Nobody in government cares what a bunch of high school kids think. They only care where there is money and favors to be had.

You scratch my back and scratch yours.

Is it possible for these dynamics to change? Are school boards really so short-sighted and insidious?

This is utterly absurd.We have been more than fair to the board but this crosses the line. Now the scumbag nature of this "School Board" is finally brought to public light. We are no where near done and we will not stop until Mr. Hirsh can keep his job or at the very least, the board members and Dr.Dale are at the publics mercy. Dr.Dale is supposed to be an educator but is currently acting like a petty, greedy politician.

Ben Dale, Principal at Mira Costa High School

Dr. Dale enjoys a diverse reputation, to put it mildly:

The firing of a beloved teacher at Mira Costa High School has stoked long-simmering hostility among some teachers and parents toward district administrators, who they claim continue to mistreat, dismiss and retaliate against them.


Meanwhile, Mira Costa teachers have soured even further about their principal, Chen said.
In an annual School Climate Survey distributed to faculty members by the union in 2013-14, Dale scored 46 on a scale of 20-100.

Normally, these scorings about union members in and of themselves are more like power plays than statements of fact. Unions resort to "no confidence" resolutions against leaders or administrators to extort more concessions during collective bargaining, or to gain support from the community.

In the Hirsh case, however, with such minor complaints leading to the French teacher's ouster, these collective complaints command more attention.

Other comments from within the article included the following

“Ben Dale has eroded teacher power, trust and communication on campus. I personally have no trust in him and consider him to be little more than a politician who speaks out of both sides of his mouth, uses manipulation to bolster his own agenda and cares more about image than about bettering our school,” one teacher wrote in the comment section.

And “Communication with the administration is the worst I have EVER seen. After years of low rankings and pleading for increased communication from the administration, it has somehow managed to get even worse this year,” another said.

With all the politicking among teachers, between teachers and administrators, and then the sudden dismissal of a well-respected teacher for "light and transient" causes, plus a school board unresponsive to the concerns and facts from the community, this Timothy Hirsch issue actually touches on a number of problems in school districts, and the unfair practices which many teachers face because of political plays left out of the hands of directly impacted community stakeholders.


  1. It has been stated a couple of times in various ways, and repeated (even echoed here) that the Principal's motives (and some others) have been to bolster political agendas. To the casual reader no explaination is given as to what agenda appears to be benefiting. What is this "political agenda" that has been asserted?

    1. Simply this: an administrator is right, and teachers are wrong. Because of teacher tenure, a principal or administrators recognize that independent-minded teachers will pose a threat which they cannot get rid of. Better to eliminate them early, even if for the most trumped up of reasons.

      Petty power plays, perhaps, but they are still there.

  2. Also, I believe to weaken new teacher participation in the union. If teachers are scared to participate then the district will have a weaker union to contend with. The district already has a PERB ruling against them for unfair labor practices, so they are clearly hostile to the union in dealing with them fairly and legally.

  3. Many years ago, as a first year teacher, I was forced to resign from Mira Costa because I said "damn it" in the classroom because students were found to have damaged, vandalized or stolen my and the school's property once again. I quit teaching all together.