Teacher with poor English fluency appeals firing

by Walter Olson on January 6, 2010

A dismissed teacher’s case against the school system in Lowell is now before Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court. Phanna Rem Robishaw, a native of Cambodia originally hired to teach bilingual programs, had received favorable evaluations for years but received an unsatisfactory rating in English fluency after the state began requiring that teachers be tested on that skill. An arbitrator reinstated her but a state court judge reversed the reinstatement, terming her performance on an interview test tape “utterly incomprehensible”. Robishaw’s lawyer says the arbitrator excluded the tape from evidence and that the judge should not have considered it, and that the judge failed to observe the presumption against overturning arbitration results. “In 2002, Massachusetts’ voters passed Question 2, requiring all school superintendents to attest to the English fluency and literacy of their teachers where ‘the teacher’s fluency is not apparent through classroom observation and assessment or interview assessment.'” [Lowell Sun]

Readers with long memories will recall the 1990s controversy over a hard-to-understand foreign-born teacher in Westfield, Mass. which led Massachusetts voters to adopt Question 2; I wrote about it for Reason here. By coincidence, presumably, Robishaw attended Westfield State College.

{ 13 comments }

1 Patrick 01.06.10 at 4:18 pm

On a related note concerning incompetent state employees, a highway patrol K-9 officer who was caught on video “training” his canine partner by hanging it from a stair rail and kicking the dog repeatedly has just been ordered reinstated to the patrol.

http://www.wral.com/news/local/story/6748627/

Sadly, this is my state.

2 Richard Nieporent 01.06.10 at 5:59 pm

The state agency fired Charles Jones in September 2007 after another trooper turned over two 15-second video clips of Jones suspending his dog, Ricoh, a Belgian Mallinois, from a railing and kicking him repeatedly to force him to release a chew toy. Jones maintained the treatment was a training technique.

Did he use Michael Vick as his expert witness?

3 Joe 01.07.10 at 2:00 am

Crazy, just crazy. Being comprehensible on tape is very different from being comprehensible in person when body language and facial expressions make up so much of what we understand when we talk to people.

4 Bumper 01.07.10 at 2:17 am

Unless you happen to be Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, etc., etc. In this case you are dealing with small children who have a limited vocabulary and are prone to misunderstanding physical cues. If comprehension can’t be made by an adult from the tape then the children have little chance to get the meaning. It is time we as a nation quit making excuses for people who don’t fit the job. If your job is teach children and they can’t understand what you are saying then either learn how to speak or find another job. Period.

Given the plaintiff’s advanced education I find it incredible that she couldn’t have spared a little time for learning how to speak English. It would have cost everyone a lot less than the court costs and attorney’s fees.

But that would have probably been too simple.

5 Educator 01.07.10 at 9:39 am

I am individual, who happens to have a speech impediment and have roles as a tutor and substitute teacher. Within the context of education, an individual that has a similar impediment, can deliver a superior lesson plan and ensures that the student comprehends it, via the aid of written communication and body language. The most important thing I can do is establish a relationship with each of my young charges. I consistently monitor their body language to make sure they understand the subject. If they don’t I consistently rely upon other tools of the trade, including white boards, other students, books/workbooks, computers, etc. However, this level of instruction is par for most educators, as provide a multi-strategy lesson to meet of their students. My students, whom I tutor through a mandate under NCBL, make an average gain of 13 points from pre-test to post-test (25 hours, 40 question test).

Frustratingly enough, I was removed from my education program due to my impediment. Whilst I was not able to complete the program, there were two other individuals that graduated with a degree in education. These two former teachers had inappropriate relationships with students; one them is serving 25 years after she was impregnated by a 15-year old. To me later has far damaging harmful effects, than my poor speech.

6 Richard Nieporent 01.07.10 at 10:49 am

Think of this as the Harrison Bergeron effect.

I consistently monitor their body language to make sure they understand the subject.

It is extremely selfish for you to inflict your disability on the children. No it is not their responsibility to have to understand you. It is your job to be able to speak so that they can understand you. There are so many other jobs you can take where your speech impediment would not be a problem.

These two former teachers had inappropriate relationships with students; one them is serving 25 years after she was impregnated by a 15-year old. To me later has far damaging harmful effects, than my poor speech.

So the choice is between a teacher with a speech impediment or a pervert? How about neither.

7 Bill Poser 01.07.10 at 2:55 pm

Two comments. First, one problem here is the failure to define a standard of comprehensibility and to use tests that measure it directly rather than relying on what appear to be rather ad hoc measures of conformance to some standard, which invites allegations of discrimination and elitism whether or not they are justified. Second, and contrary to one of the themes of this blog, this is an excellent example of the problems created by obligatory binding arbitration. Why on earth should it be impossible to overturn an arbitrator’s decision even when it is based on an incorrect interpretation of the law or gross factual error?

8 Bill Poser 01.07.10 at 3:07 pm

Given the plaintiff’s advanced education I find it incredible that she couldn’t have spared a little time for learning how to speak English. It would have cost everyone a lot less than the court costs and attorney’s fees.

It can be very difficult for adults to acquire the pronunciation of a foreign language. If Ms. Robishaw began learning English more-or-less from scratch as an adult, it is quite possible that even if she put considerable effort into learning English, she would fail to overcome the influence of her native language, Khmer, which has a sound system quite different from that of English. That isn’t to justify allowing her to teach if her speech is indeed too difficult to understand, but it isn’t safe to assume that she has made no effort to improve her pronunciation.

9 Jim Finkel 01.07.10 at 3:49 pm

Having earned a degree in engineering from Carnegie-Mellon, I am well acquainted with non-native speakers of English. It is possible for students to learn to understand the material despite the lack of teacher fluency. Bad grammar and accents can sometimes be a benefit. Having spent time in Israel, one Israeli prof used perfectly normal Hebrew grammar with English words. There is no present tense of to be which lead to class befuddlement over missing words. Because I was used to similarly mangled English I did very well in that class.

10 Educator 01.07.10 at 11:23 pm

One needs to realize that communication is an essential tool for all jobs. Whilst I could take a position on an assembly line, where I know that body language and verbal ques are essential, I decided to put my focus on education and entrepreneurship. Doing so, will provide long lived economic impact on the community. I have one business just established, and I am researching my second business – a multi-country, multi-million dollar potential, advanced manufacturing business.

11 Megumi 01.08.10 at 9:17 pm

Do they test the language skills of native speakers? The only teacher I had whose English fluency I would question was born in America and spoke just the one language, albeit atrociously.

12 Megumi 01.08.10 at 9:19 pm

I forgot to mention, the woman I am referring to was actually an English teacher.

13 CT_Yankee 01.09.10 at 6:59 pm

My Russian wife spoke no English at all in 2000, however she really put effort into becoming proficient. She was taught by the book in ESL classes, and was soon correcting my native English grammer. She was reasonably understandable in a couple years. She taught music (mostly piano) to Russian speaking children from the beginnning, then started teaching in English. Her accent is still unmistakable and her wording unusual, however it is always clear what she means. I told her from the begining that for a teacher, language is a critical tool. She often said it was difficult, however she put in the effort and mastered it. She easily passed the proficiency requirements of US Citizenship. Perhaps it would have been better if she just sued everybody for not being able to understand her. Then she could be a real American.

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