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Tim Mains: 'I was the gay teacher'


Tim Mains was still new to teaching in the early 1970's when he walked into his class in the Greece school district one day to find the word "faggot" written on the blackboard. That and a series of other events led him to come out of the closet to his students and peers at a time when, as he put it, "gay and teacher didn't belong in the same sentence."

The experience was gut-wrenching, Mains said in a recent interview, due to the relentless name-calling — including gay slurs — flung at him almost daily for the better part of a school year. But it was also a turning point. Mains said he learned that although it isn't easy and doesn't happen quickly, being out and visible can be a catalyst for changing attitudes.

Within days, Mains leaves Rochester to start his new job as superintendent of the Jamestown school system. But he leaves behind a long history of public service in education and local politics. In 1985, Mains was the first openly gay man in New York State to be elected to public office. He served on City Council for 20 years.

Mains has been both a teacher and an administrator, working in the Greece school system and the Rochester City School District. He is the former principal of School 50, and eventually became director of internal school operations at the RCSD. He made an unsuccessful run for Rochester mayor, and he was considered as a possible successor to former superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard.

Between his work for City Council and his knowledge of city schools, Mains gained an unusual vantage point of both entities. In a recent interview, he said that many of the challenges facing city schools involve a breakdown and misalignment of organizational systems — everything from attendance record-keeping to instruction and assessment. Those problems are exacerbated by the mandatory implementation of the new, more rigorous Common Core curriculum, Mains said, and by the state's new teacher and principal evaluations.

But Mains said he firmly believes that the district is on the right track. And he said that the shift toward extended learning under the supervision of Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is critically important for city students.

In our interview, Mains also discussed being a role model for the LGBT community, how local zoning laws are at the root of both the city's and the school district's problems with poverty, the teachers union, and how charter schools are impacting the city school district.

The following is an edited version of that discussion.

CITY: How do you explain the city school district's low graduation rate and student underachievement? What is blocking improvement?

Mains: One of the huge problems is that systems are horribly aligned, if they're aligned at all. Instructional, delivery, assessment, and attendance systems — they're not in sync.

What happens in schools today needs to occur within a system. Gone is the day when teachers walk into their classroom, shut the door, and do whatever they want to do.

For example, if we both teach fourth grade, but we don't teach the same thing, then when the fifth-grade teacher gets our kids, the students are not going to be at the same place in math.

In the time that I've been with the city school district, we have aligned and realigned the instructional curriculum several times. We're doing it again now, trying to align with the Common Core curriculum. So what you have are people always running to catch up, but they never get ahead of the game.

My second year as a principal [at School 50], I got 90 percent of my fourth graders passing the math test. We were busting our butts. Back then, the only students who had to take the tests were in fourth grade and eighth grade. The very next year, the state instituted grades 3 to 8 testing, and when they did that, test scores across the state crumbled. And when the test scores crumbled, so did teacher morale.

It took me five years of steady gains to move the scores back up to the point of getting 68 percent to 69 percent passing the English language arts tests and 72 percent passing math.

And just at the point where we were getting to something acceptable, the state changed the scoring process again. Trying to motivate the instructional staff and help them believe that they really do make a difference was difficult.

I would say, "You're really doing what you need to be doing." And teachers would tell me, "But the test says I'm not."

Morale is a tremendously important thing. The research is clear about this: the single most important thing that makes an effective student is an effective teacher. But teachers, because of the current way that we rate them, sometimes don't feel effective even when they're having an impact.

The second problem: because we have all of these failed systems that are not in alignment with one another, what people have learned is to do what they want to do, and fight for what they think they deserve, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

One of the crazy things about the culture in the city school district is an attitude of "I'm going to do this anyway."

The third thing is not inherent to Rochester; it's a problem in districts across the country. In a standards based system, we can't be satisfied to say, "I taught them, but they just didn't learn it."

That's equivalent to a doctor saying, "I operated, but the patient died anyway." The standards for kids and what they are supposed to know is much higher, and so is the standard for teachers.

I can't evaluate a teacher on what he or she presented. I have to evaluate on how effective they were in getting their students to learn.

This problem is made more complicated by the first two things I talked about.

The fourth thing is the population of children who come into our schools. We have one of the highest child poverty rates, and we certainly have the highest in the state's Big Five school districts. We know that kids who come from deep poverty, their brains don't develop the same way as the brains of children who live in suburban environments.

Kids come to us with the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. They've been subjected to so many stressors in their lives that it literally slows development.

When I was running for mayor I used to talk to people about when I worked in the Greece school system. A child entering kindergarten class there had a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. The average child coming into my classroom at School 50 had a vocabulary of about 300 words.

An amazing number of kids who come into our system have one parent incarcerated. They've witnessed violence in their home. They've had an immediate family member murdered or killed, and they're aware of this loss even before they enter pre K. That's the bad news.

The good news is we can compensate for that, but we have to start early and we have to spend more time with them. What Superintendent Vargas is talking about right now in terms of extended time for learning is critical.

Are RCSD teachers well-supported by their principals, central office, and through professional development? Many say no one is listening to them even though they're the professionals working with children.

I certainly think they're supported through professional development. I tried to make sure that my staff had what they needed. I don't know that I was always able to meet all of their needs.

I can tell you that teachers right now feel beleaguered, attacked, and defensive. The morale is very low.

Teaching is part art and part science. Other professionals requiring higher degrees — doctors, lawyers, architects, dentists, accountants — see their clients one at a time. You don't go to your dentist's office and have him come out and say, "The next 37 people who need crowns come into my office."

Teachers work in a very complex environment with multiple clients simultaneously, and they're making a thousand split-second decisions about what they need to do to move kids forward.

Some critics of the RCSD say that the Rochester Teachers Association shares the blame for the district's poor performance because ineffective teachers are protected and misconduct is tolerated. Is that fair?

I don't blame the unions. The unions guarantee that due process is being followed.

I feel the responsibility for patrolling the system to make sure that only excellent people get in falls on administrators. And if a bad apple does get hired, it's their responsibility to correct their mistake and get them out.

It's not fun. It's not pleasant. And it's the hardest part of my job.

There are people who I thought were not effective and I talked to them about that. I've said, "You know, if it's just not clicking for you, maybe it's time to think about retiring."

You've got to throw the red flag when you see something that's out of whack. That's how the systems stay aligned. Someone has to pay attention to the boundaries of what's acceptable and what's not.

On the rare occasion when I have someone who is not doing their job or I think is doing harm to kids, it's my job to make sure that they're not available to do harm to kids.

When teachers weren't performing, how long did it normally take you to move them out?

Sometimes a year. Sometimes two.

I had someone several years ago who I had huge concerns about. I sat down and I gave him feedback, and every time I talked with him about formal observations that didn't meet standards, he would write an eight- to 10-page rebuttal.

In year two, I changed his assignment to a place where I could watch him even more carefully. And I documented every single month the things he was not doing, and it got tense. But at the end of that year, I fired him.

Do principals have the ability to move their most skilled teachers around? Are the most seasoned and experienced teachers aligned with the students who have the highest needs?

The RTA contract makes a distinction that says I can't move a teacher between primary and intermediate, between K-2 and 3-5. That's something that the district allowed to get into the contract that they shouldn't have, so it does create limitations.

But, no. In most school districts, the principal doesn't have too much leeway in moving people around, hiring, and recruiting. You have to work within the system that exists. No, you don't have carte blanche, but you can certainly try to make sure you get the best people into your classrooms.

The new performance evaluations are supposed to increase accountability and make it easier to terminate ineffective teachers and principals. Do you think they will?

Theoretically, I do believe measuring a teacher's effectiveness based on what students are learning is a valid concept. My personal bias is that the tests shouldn't be used at this particular time to evaluate teachers and schools because the testing keeps changing. The concept is defensible, but I don't think the metric is fair or reliable.

Would we have different student outcomes in a smaller RCSD?

That sounds logical, but in the South there are some enormous countywide school systems that are successful.

Size is not necessarily an impediment, but I will say that the point I made about people doing whatever the hell they want to do is made a little bit easier in a larger system. It's easier to do and easier to get away with it.

We often hear that parents don't feel welcome in the district. How did you increase parent involvement?

Parents often don't feel welcome. We had parent involvement at School 50 because I went out of my way to roll out the welcome mat and make people feel valued. One of my most important employees was my parent liaison. She was out there as soon as parents started dropping off their children, talking to them.

A lot of schools have their parent liaisons hidden away. Mine was in the front office right there when parents came in. I also had a bilingual liaison for a while because 30 percent of my parents are Spanish-speaking.

But budget cuts eliminated that position.

If the estimates are accurate, city schools could lose as much as 20 percent of their students over the next decade to charter schools. When parents came to you and said, "I'm sending my child to a charter school," what were their reasons?

I believe that the reason charter schools will continue to draw students away from us is because we're not successful enough. Rather than just accepting that and saying that's the reality, I think we need to fix and align the systems that will help improve student performance.

And it can be done. Despite the challenges we've talked about, I sincerely believe that Superintendent Vargas and Deputy Superintendent Anita Murphy understand the problems and are on the right path.

But what about the people, many of whom are in the business community, who say the district has been failing students for years — that it's time to recognize that the district is broken and to offer parents an alternative?

Isn't it interesting that they want to create charter schools which allow them to skim off and cherry pick kids whose parents are paying attention to education? They may not have the monetary resources, but they're concerned. They are most likely the most involved parents, so now you're taking kids out of the city schools whose parents value education — basically making the remaining system even worse.

If the district is that bad, and you know all of these schools around it are so much better, why not just disband the city school district? Just close the city school district. Then all the kids who live in the city would have to be absorbed by the surrounding suburbs. I don't hear anyone in the business community proposing that.

You were on City Council and working in the district. The economic transitions were already under way in the city — Kodak's decline, retail's exit from downtown. Did you see a correlation between what was happening to the city economically and the problems developing in city schools?

The things that drive decline in the school district have little to do with the economics of the city. The problem is not the economics of the city. It's the zoning laws in the communities around the city that led to this enormous concentration of poverty. The majority of low-income housing was confined to the city.

Your activism on behalf of Rochester's LGBT community is well-documented. You're a role model. Did you plan this, and did you have any role models?

No, it was nothing I planned. I grew up in an era and in a place [Indiana] where I thought I was the only person like this. There were no role models. When I finally came out in college, my dad said, "Those people usually get shot or they get arrested in bus stations." Is that what I wanted for my life?

When I left Indiana to come to Rochester to take a teaching job in 1971, I assumed that gay and teacher didn't belong in the same sentence. I came here with the mindset that my private life was going to remain private.

But in the second school year, we launched a program called "selective-elective." And I taught a class on the future: ecology, technology, and one on the sexual revolution. In that one, the students wanted to have speakers come and talk about women's lib and gay lib.

I called the Gay Liberation Front at the University of Rochester, and they had a speakers' bureau. And I told them that I wanted their speakers to come and talk to my class. They said they wouldn't come unless they received a letter from an administrator.

I went to my vice principal, and she was fine with it. The speakers came and within minutes wherever they went there was a string of kids following behind them gawking and staring. All the cafeteria ladies stopped serving and watched them. Word was out that queers were in the school, and everyone was curious.

There must have been 300 kids jammed into the stairwell trying to get into my class to hear my speakers. It took several of us to ferret out the kids in my class, since they were the only ones allowed to come in.

The next morning I was summarily called over the loud speaker. I walked into the office and the superintendent was there. He never questioned what I did. He questioned my [lesson] plans. At the end of the day, I was called back to the principal's office and handed an envelope with a letter of reprimand from the superintendent.

All of these accusations had been made. I found out every member of the board had received so many phone calls that they took their phones off the hook, but not before telling the superintendent, "You'll deal with this tomorrow."

The Greece Police Department also received calls, and dutifully recorded all the incoming calls. But [on examination] none of the parents of my students who were actually in the class and conversed with the speakers called to complain. And I realized then what incredible power that visibility has.

Weighing on me at the time were my own sharp memories of high school. At the end of that year, I made a decision that I would never be invisible to my kids the way my [LGBT] teachers had been invisible to me.

I also decided that I would become involved with this group that sent the speakers to me. And I'll tell you I was terrified. But gradually I got connected with the Gay Liberation Front, and then I helped found the Gay Alliance [of the Genesee Valley].

The Gay Alliance was protesting something that was shown on a television show, and I got a call from the Democrat and Chronicle. And I thought about it for a second, and I was interviewed and quoted as a board member of the GAGV. That was it. That was the crossover.

What was the response from students at the time? This is in the early '70's and you were new to teaching.

It was very difficult. Name-calling daily. Nasty stuff.

I was just a teacher with a label. I was the gay teacher. "Hey faggot." "Hey queer bait." Trying to get through a day, I would wonder to myself, "How long is this going to go on?"

Students came to me all the time to discuss their problems. Here I had gone to get my counseling degree and now nobody came to me. I had my tires slashed, nasty notes left under my windshield wiper, crank calls all the time.

But slowly the kids in my class got over it. By the time we got through their first marking period, I was their teacher. One day, though, I came in and someone had written "faggot" on the board. I erased it, and on that day, I turned around and I said, "I suppose you think that is going to offend me. I'm your teacher and I believe I deserve the same respect I give to you."

That was the beginning of my slowly deciding I was going to respond. Also, other teachers started helping me by confronting it, too. Then my kids started defending me: "Leave him alone. He's my teacher and he's a good teacher."

By the time you entered politics and ran for City Council, you really had no alternative except to run as an openly gay man, right?

I didn't run for office because I was gay. I ran for office because of actual issues.

Gay rights issues are not so much city issues as they are state and federal issues. I was concerned about the paucity of low-income housing, the crappy job we were doing of training police on sensitivity so they could relate to our different communities, and I thought we had a crappy economic development program. That's what I ran on in 1985. I wasn't doing it to break any ground.

But it was the only issue on the table over and over. There were protests, and I would have reporters put a microphone in front of me and say, "Is it true you're gay and you have a gay agenda?"

Is it true that you received death threats?

I never thought the death threats were real; they were just people spouting off. The counselor in me seemed to take over. I never personalized it. I knew it wasn't about me. Although when I showed up on the doorstep [while campaigning] and a guy opened the door and pointed a gun at me and said, "Get off my fucking porch now, faggot," that was a little unnerving.

I didn't feel afraid. I felt frustrated. I kept thinking, "When are we ever going to get past this?"

I raised more money than anyone had ever raised for a City Council race at that time. I had all the endorsements. I had the D&C, the Times Union, and City's endorsement. I had labor behind me. With those kinds of backings, I should have won handily.

But I remember getting the call that my margin of victory had shrunk. I was ahead, but only by 15 votes. The net result was I was ahead by 11 votes, and I won. I became the poster child for "every vote counts."