By Michael E. Miller
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Patrick Williams doesn't look like a decorated high school teacher who speaks seven languages, has taken his students abroad, and has earned prodigious praise from school board brass. He wears a gray-and-white camouflage wife-beater, yellow-and-blue surf shorts, and white sneakers with no socks. His teeth are capped in gold, and he sports long dreadlocks tucked into a brown headwrap.
But when he talks, you understand why many of his students and their parents love him. "When I see my students succeed, and know I was a genuine part of that success, it gives me great joy," he says. "And it's more than that. I feel I have a vested interest in seeing them grow up."
On October 19, after a debate with his boss, William H. Turner Technical High School Principal Valmarie Rhoden, Williams was removed from his teaching position.
The teacher's banishment to administrative duty is an example of how some school administrators quash dissent, says Shawn Beightol, a chemistry teacher and union steward who went through a similar ordeal. "There is a culture of coercion and fear to quell teachers from speaking up. Patrick is an amazing teacher. How are you going to pull him out of a classroom when you can't get someone else with half his qualifications? What the principal is doing to him looks pretty vindictive."
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Williams moved to Miami in 1982 when he was 16 years old. Two years later he graduated from South Dade Senior High in Homestead, where he overcame childhood dyslexia and won an honorable mention for the Miami Herald Silver Knight Award in foreign language, as well as a partial scholarship to attend Florida International University. In 1998 he earned a master's degree in education from Florida Atlantic University.
He has worked at some of the area's most difficult schools, regularly earning praise from his bosses. In 1990 Williams landed his first assignment, teaching Spanish and French at Westview Elementary School and Westview Middle School in Opa-locka.
On December 11, 1991, Westview Middle School Principal Darrel Berteux wrote Williams a thank-you note: "Please allow me to express my appreciation for your participation in last evening's PTA meeting musical presentation. The time and effort you exhibited are truly indicative of your continued support."
After five years, Williams transferred to Miami Central Senior High, where he taught Spanish until taking a sabbatical in 2003 to work on his Ph.D. at the University of Miami. He has also held adjunct professorships at Florida Atlantic University, Florida Memorial College, and the University of Miami. "Mr. Williams encourages his students to work to their full potential. His enthusiasm and dedication have been keys to their success," wrote Central's principal, Charles Bethel, in a recommendation letter.
When the teacher returned from sabbatical in 2005, the school district placed him at Ammons Middle School in Quail Heights. A month later Williams, who earns $56,000 a year, transferred to Turner because the district added Spanish to the curriculum and the school was closer to his house.
Turner is a Title 1 school with 1800 students, primarily black and Hispanic teenagers from lower-income families. In addition to regular classes, Turner also provides training in several technical fields. The school even includes a working farm with chickens, goats, and peacocks.
Rhoden, a 34-year school system veteran who wears crisp business suits and her curly auburn hair shoulder-length, took over as principal there in 1993. Prior to that, she was Turner's vice principal for adult education. Rhoden, who earns an annual $103,446, declined to comment for this story.
About a year after his arrival, Williams and Rhoden began knocking heads over his physical appearance. On April 22, 2005, she ordered him to go home after he showed up for teacher planning day wearing a tank top, according to a memo he wrote her a month later.
He responded in a letter to the principal dated May 19, 2005, claiming Rhoden had never admonished female employees who wear tank tops to work. "Your action towards me has been discriminatory," Williams wrote. "If the attire I wear is inappropriate, then it is inappropriate for everyone, both men and women."
Williams didn't let the disagreement with Rhoden get in the way of his work. He was assigned to teach a regular Spanish class, but won approval from district officials and his 18 students to teach an advanced-placement-level curriculum. "I wanted to give them a challenge," Williams explains.
And when there weren't textbooks for the course, he purchased his own teaching materials, including six books, at $15 to $20 each. "I found activities online by Googling 'Spanish AP,'" he says. "I would write assignments and lessons on the blackboard."
On September 22, 2006, Miami-Dade Public Schools Administrative Director Verdell King sent Williams a letter commending him on a job well done. It noted that 16 of his 18 students had passed their advanced placement exams the preceding spring. Williams says the number was unique because, of the 187 Turner students who took AP exams in different subjects, only 22 passed. "It is an achievement sought by many but achieved by few," King wrote. "Hats off to you!"
In spring 2006, all 18 students passed the exam, again without the aid of textbooks.
And it seemed his relationship with Rhoden had improved. On February 23, she sent Williams a handwritten note thanking him for inviting her to his classroom to see the kids perform an FCAT rap song. "I love you," she wrote.