The Missionary

Shawn Beightol's education crusade is seeking believers

The next day Beightol didn't make it to his classroom. As he pulled into Krop's parking lot, he noticed three school police cars parked out front. The assistant principal lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth as Beightol rolled past. Krop's principal approached the teacher and, with a trembling hand, held out several forms for him to sign on his truck's hood. Beightol was to leave the grounds immediately. His reassignment: office duty at a bus depot, where he spent the next few days in a ten-foot-by-ten-foot room reading and writing notes for his legal defense, should it come to that. His offer to work on bus engines or clean up had been rejected.

In Beightol's classroom, next to a white dry-erase board on which is scrawled "All light comes from relaxing/falling electrons," a relic of that time hangs on the wall: a large poster inscribed with "Please Bring Him Back," bearing the signatures of dozens of teachers and students. Posted by the door are three lined spiral notebook sheets, each emblazoned with a single word:


Miami Edison Senior High, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state
Jacqueline Carini
Miami Edison Senior High, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state
Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom
Jacqueline Carini
Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom

His critics were equally vocal. On a Yahoo listserv for Miami teachers, someone using the screen name "Urall scabs" chided Beightol's supporters: "As for those who say 'vote no' to a contract, what you really mean is vote no to any contract that SHAWN didn't negotiate. He is your hero, your messiah. Please, what a joke."

Paul Moore, a member of the UTD's executive board and a veteran social studies teacher at Miami Carol City Senior High School, went a step further. In a rambling October post on the listserv, Moore took a not-too-subtle swipe at Beightol. Urging unity, Moore decried "our misguided brothers and sisters [who] have chosen martyrdom over leadership." Weaving into the thread Rosa Parks, Hurricane Katrina, Detroit's economy, and President Bush's recent visit to a Washington-area school, Moore continued:

Some have chosen to form a divisive cult inside the United Teachers of Dade rather than fight for the unity of the whole public school workforce. Some have chosen to call people to reckless rather than effective disciplined actions. Men like David Koresh in Waco and Jim Jones in Guyana moved people in much the same way with pie-in-the-sky ravings. But to what end? Is the Kool-Aid to be our destiny?

Sounding more restrained on the phone recently, Moore described the contract as "the best option" for a union struggling to find its footing in the wake of "near-destruction" by Tornillo. "We have breathing room now," he said.

In mid-November, as a contract was beginning to look like a done deal, Beightol called for one last rally. On a clear, sunny Saturday morning, about 60 teachers marched from the school district headquarters downtown to Bayfront Park, where they gathered at the small amphitheater.

Sitting on the edge of the stage, Georges Lesperance, a French teacher at Krop and friend of Beightol's, spoke softly yet forcefully into the microphone. "What we're working for is a change in the way we're perceived," Lesperance said to a smattering of cheers. In Japan, teachers are referred to with an honorific title, Lesperance said. They are the highest-paid public employees in some countries. Here, Lesperance said, he makes do with outdated textbooks in a trailer classroom that lacks air conditioning.

"When a student walks into that situation, it isn't so much what it does to me," he continued. "That says to them that I'm not valued to society. It says to them that what I have to say must not be that important."

Marlen Valle, a special education teacher at William A. Chapman Elementary in Homestead, shook her head knowingly. Valle's predominantly black and Hispanic students have more than enough obstacles before they get to school. They struggle with the language and often show up to class unwashed and tired from lack of sleep, Valle said later.

At the rally, teacher after teacher spoke of working second and third jobs as tutors, chauffeurs, wedding videographers. They talked about having to live with parents and shop at dollar stores. Some mentioned moving plans: There were good teaching jobs and affordable houses to be had in Georgia and North Carolina.

Behind them, couples hand-in-hand strolled by, glancing at the handwritten signs stuck in the ground around the amphitheater — "Work to Contract," "More than Praise, We Need a Raise" — as they passed. In the distance, a towering cruise ship pushed off from its moorings.

A little more than a week after the Bayfront Park rally, Beightol sat on an aluminum picnic bench outside Krop and rubbed his red eyelids. He was still recovering from an all-nighter two days earlier — meetings followed by hours of get-out-the-vote e-mails. Union voting had just closed and it didn't look good, Beightol said. There was no will to restart negotiations after nine months of back-and-forth.

"I used to think all it would take is somebody to stand up," Beightol said slowly, his chin on his chest. His district e-mail account was still off-limits, and he had yet to be given permission to resume using the district's computerized grade system. His students didn't know what their grades were, and he wasn't sure where he stood in general. "I've been neutered a bit."

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