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Battle-scarred 'sub' in L.A. barrios speaks out

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 11/16/2007 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Hi, my name is Migdia Chinea and I’m a recovering LAUSD “substitute.”

Oh, I’m also UCLA-educated with honors, refined, empathetic, college-level Spanish fluent and a Googleable professional screenwriter.

To make ends meet during hard economic times, I became a “substitute teacher” for the Los Angeles Unified School District, or LAUSD – or to put it more kindly, a “guest teacher.” As a guest LAUSD teacher I thought I would be an asset, but the system has never appreciated nor taken advantage of my educational or professional hard-earned accomplishments.

There’s no teaching going on at LAUSD – only confinement of the sort one may find in a penal colony, complete with walkie-talkie-carrying wardens and bullhorns. And I have “confined” at many different schools within central Los Angeles in the last six months. Many students scream “suuuuuuuub” when they see someone like me – a “guest teacher” – in their classroom and trample anyone and/or anything as they push and shove their way inside.

Recently, I was privy to a narrative by a teacher in which he complained that after a one-day absence, his classroom was in shreds and wall posters were torn down. His VHS player and flash drive with all lesson plans were stolen as was his computer. Lab equipment was broken and tagged with gang symbols in permanent marker and completely nonfunctional. He was subsequently informed that his substitute teacher had walked out of the classroom numerous times throughout the day and had left the students to themselves. He wondered how the substitute could be so irresponsible and how he would break the news to his seventh-graders about their tagged notebooks with profane language and two-weeks worth of work in the garbage. Oh, woe!

I have covered the school at which that individual teaches. It is surrounded by criminal street gangs and is widely considered one of the most dangerous campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The South Side Village Boys, South Side Watts Varrio Grape, Grape Street Crips, East Side Village Bloods, Hacienda Bloods, Circle City Piru and Bounty Hunters street gangs all claim turf in that area, and frequent flare-ups of gang violence are common. I have found most classes in this school to be in a complete state of disaster, absolutely filthy, with no computers available. There are no simple supplies, such as pencils, pens or paper, nothing to be found anywhere. Was this teacher’s class an exception? Did he not know that some of his students are probably gang members themselves?


I have observed that many students at this school (and other LAUSD schools) are violent and unpredictable. I was present, in fact, during a violent melee involving hundreds of students that brought in several police squad cars and helicopters flying overhead. I have also endured several school “lock downs.” Here’s how a “lock down” works: As in a prison, the inmates and their jailers are not allowed to leave for any reason, nor let anyone out.

I then wondered if this teacher had ever asked his students why they behaved the way they did. Are there still people out there who believe that students are ALWAYS right and eager to learn and downtrodden and good. Why are these LAUSD schools so dilapidated – is it the “suuuuuuubs”? I have actually been advised to take pictures of these areas of confinement, er, pardon me, “schools,” just in case someone makes an accusation after I’m long gone and I have no way to defend myself. And I always try to leave one classroom door open because I am often afraid for my life – my life.

I’ve been injured more than once. On Oct. 5, 2007, at another notorious middle school, I was deliberately body-slammed on the head by two to three large young men in a P.E. class of 53 students, while another teacher (someone I had never met before) was decent enough to give a formal declaration to school and police authorities of what he had witnessed. I sustained a concussion and sciatica nerve damage as a result of this personal attack intended to “terrorize [me].” I have memory lapses and continued head and leg pain. I’m told by the local police that this sort of physical abuse on teachers occurs with disturbing regularity. The LAUSD case nurse assigned to my case labeled my attack “boys will be boys.”

I’ve been burglarized (on June 11, 2007), by a stalker with key access to my locked classroom (likely by another teacher or custodian). This theft occurred during lunch break while I was on a five-minute bathroom errand and included a $2,600 2-week-old Sony Vaio notebook, my RX glasses, credit cards, etc. The incident was also reported to the jurisdictional police. But I will have to take LAUSD to Small Claims Court, because district officials will accept NO responsibility.

I’ve been insulted repeatedly, e.g., “hey, you bitch!,” among many vile expletives, by students at various schools.

I’ve been vandalized. My Mini S Cooper has been broken into twice. I’m usually so tired after a full day of “teaching” that I once never even noticed the damage until I opened the car’s hatchback several days later.

I’ve been harassed and pelted with the same Halloween candy I bought as a treat for the students on Oct. 31, 2007. In the pandemonium that usually ensues at these “underprivileged schools,” the bungalow class door handles that I reported as missing came off upon touching, fell off, and the students began using these door handles as weapons – their behavior and the school’s fire code violation were reported to the LAUSD Board of Directors and the fire department. What a laugh.

My class was rampaged at a barrio middle school on May 23, 2007 – witnessed by two other substitute teachers who were sent in to “help me.” One happened to be a lactating mother. These two individuals were also pelted with various objects. This incident was reported to the dean and to school security. No response from the dean for two whole class periods. This was also reported to LAUSD Superintendent David Brewer – no response at all.

I’ve been maltreated and threatened at all of these schools. But you’re not supposed to complain about maltreatment. You’re supposed to contain these students and stay quiet with your head down. Is anyone aware of that? Is anyone aware that “substitutes” cannot complain about anything? Is anyone aware that with an obesity and diabetes epidemic in our youth, regular teachers sell junk food for profit to students at many schools? I have reported that fact to the State Department of Education and Social Services. But you have to do so on a school by school basis because state bureaucrats believe it’s a singular problem.

I have reported every single incident listed here and many, many more not listed here. However, the LAUSD has only aggravated the situation by doing nothing and ignoring everything.

In my view, the LAUSD is completely corrupt, inept and broken, with many students having serious behavioral problems and disinterested in learning, whereas the teachers remain underpaid and exhausted – some of them just marking time until their retirement and giving out charity passing grades to high school students who can barely write or do math at a third-grade level.

I believe that the students who commit acts of dishonesty (like cheating), violence and outright destruction of property should be suspended. When the recidivist students are suspended, their parents or guardians should pay a fine, which may grow incrementally according to the student’s offense – and I believe that when such offenses are perpetrated against a substitute, the fine should be doubled (like driving violations in construction zones). I believe that when these citations are enforced a few times, we will all see a marked improvement in student conduct. If there are no consequences to students for unruly behavior, and all they get is a nice little talk at the dean’s office, unruly behavior is reinforced. These bad students know how to lie and abuse a system that appears to be afraid of them. They know there are no consequences. They’re not learning much now, and the teachers cannot be teaching much in a chaotic environment – so it’s a self-perpetuating situation.

As for me, I am exhausted. I feel exploited and I’m also injured, to boot. It’s almost impossible for anyone in my position – in a few short days – to instill in these students any sense of decency, good manners and respect because they should be learning these civilities at home. Please know that I get paid very little with no health insurance coverage in sight. And while those incompetents in high-level administrative positions collect their big, fat paychecks for their lack of humanity, there seem to be no end to the problems.

This is a difficult economy, especially for educated single mothers. And women must do what they can do to support themselves and their families. But the press covers this aspect of survival from the teacher’s perspective very little, concentrating instead (and almost exclusively) on the students’ persistent test failures. I am aware that some teachers, and some “substitutes,” may be incompetent and don’t care about performing well on their jobs, nor do they care about their students. However, since I’m not one of those people, I believe that the media has an obligation to acknowledge the problems and report truthfully on what is going on. The schools are a mess, filthy, dilapidated and without supplies. The students are dangerous, disrespectful and out-of-control.

The country should take notice that teaching has become a very dangerous job and that my life as a teacher is very, very, cheap.



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Migdia Chinea is a Cuban-American screenwriter and actress. She was a writer for the TV series “The Incredible Hulk” and “Superboy,” and has contributed episodes to other series. Since 1971 she has appeared in several TV and movie roles.


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