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Out, Not Down

July 12, 2007 By:
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Patsy Tollin was the kind of teacher who encouraged "creative play" rather than assigning scads of homework. She told her "over-programmed" second-graders to "go build a snowman, go look at the stars."

"When students wanted to tend to their Webkins in class, Tollin said no, suggesting they'd learn more interacting with each other.

" 'If your playmate is a computer, it doesn't argue with you,' she says, 'it doesn't have to wait a turn.' "

So when the wealthy parents of one of her students began making allegations about her teaching methods, Tollin assumed that the reputation she'd built over 22 years would mean something at the Baldwin School, the private all-girls institution on the Main Line.

So began Monica Yant Kinney's column in the June 13 Philadelphia Inquirer, titled "Money Speaks, a School Obeys." As the columnist demonstrated, despite Tollin's high spirits, she spent the weekend before the Inquirer piece appeared saying goodbye to her students. The school was making her retire after she filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County.

According to the columnist, this saga begins "with a mother upset about children calling her daughter fat and ends with the woman cursing at Tollin in front of terrified students -- including one so scared she hid in her locker.

"The story has both comic cliches (Mom can't make parent-teacher conference because she's recovering from cosmetic surgery?) and a villain (Dad declares 'I am done being Mr. Nice Guy' in a threatening e-mail sent to school leaders who dared to disobey him.)"

The gist of the tale?

That the head of school at Baldwin fired Tollin "to appease this wealthy couple rather than risk losing their multi-million donation," wrote Yant Kinney. And this was the same couple that had requested their daughter be put in Tollin's class after the teacher had taught an older sibling.

In fact, said Tollin, they actually demanded the child be put in her class. "The distinction matters," noted Yant Kinney, "since the case stems from a power struggle." There used to be a time when teachers were in charge of their classrooms and principals ruled their schools. "But," asked Yant Kinney, "who calls the shots when parents are rich and the endowment needs every penny it can get?"

The drama is complex and multi-layered, and Tollin admitted to the columnist that she may have made mistakes. But she said she's also definitely seen changes in parents and children over the years: "More adults wanting to be 'friends' with their children; more parents hovering over their kids' super-scheduled lives; more wealth being faked or flaunted."

Tollin told Yant Kinney that she's taught 11 of this year's 42 graduating seniors, and that they dedicated a yearbook page to her and pleaded her case to the head of school.

"That took a tremendous amount of courage," noted the 67-year-old widow.

"Baldwin did its job," wrote Yant Kinney, "even if Tollin lost hers."


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