That “Wizardry” Teacher Firing – There’s More to the Story

May 15, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Recently, a lot of people linked to this story:

A substitute teacher in Pasco County has lost his job after being accused of wizardry. Teacher Jim Piculas does a magic trick where a toothpick disappears and then reappears. Piculas recently did the 30-second trick in front of a classroom at Rushe Middle School in Land ‘O Lakes. Piculas said he then got a call from the supervisor of teachers, saying he’d been accused of wizardry. “I get a call the middle of the day from head of supervisor of substitute teachers. He says, ‘Jim, we have a huge issue, you can’t take any more assignments you need to come in right away,'” he said. Piculas said he did not know of any other accusations that would have led to the action. The teacher said he is concerned that the incident may prevent him from getting future jobs.

Quite a few bloggers and (especially) their commenters used this as an opportunity to bash their favorite targets: Parents are stupid, conservatives are stupid, Christians are stupid, stupid people are stupid, etc. A handful of people even managed to ask whether maybe the school officials bear just a tiny fraction of the responsibility.

Unfortunately, when describing the story, most bloggers and even most media outlets failed to include this information:

Local education officials, however, deny that Piculas was sacked for wizardry, citing a number of other complaints made against the teacher, such as not sticking to lesson plans and allowing students to use school computers.

Oops.

His dismissal form and the formal letter informing him that he would not be hired again also state that he used inappropriate language in class and put a student in charge of the class. And that reference to letting students “use school computers” turns out to mean that he allegedly let kids wander away from class and use the computers when they were supposed to be at their desks working.

Always click through those links before posting!

Nor did many people mention that the same school district that allegedly fired a substitute teacher for performing one magic trick has been hiring a professional magician to come in and perform for the kids for years, and after this story broke, they’ve reassured him that they still want him to come do his show. That tends to discredit the storyline some are peddling that Pasco County has been taken over by crazy right-wing extremists.

It’s not even clear whether any parental complaint about wizardry was actually filed. Most media reports I’ve seen have reported as fact that a parent complained to the school about wizardry, but the only evidence for this “fact” seems to be the claims of the fired substitute himself.

Tampa Channel 10 initially reported that the district claimed that the reason for the firing wasn’t “just” wizardry. That’s better than most media outlets, which didn’t report the district’s side of the story at all. But the claim that the problem wasn’t “just” wizardry didn’t come from a quote; the reporter put that word into the district’s mouth. As noted above, other outlets reported simply that that district denied wizardry was an issue. All the direct quotes and documents from the district seem to back that interpretation rather than the characterization in the initial Channel 10 report. And when Channel 10 did a follow-up report, the district said performing magic tricks is not against school policy, and the teacher’s magic trick was “insignificant.”

It is, of course, theoretically possible that there really was a parental complaint about wizardry, and that a dim-witted local school official decided to fire a substitute based on one parent’s crazy complaint, and that the district made up a bunch of accusations against the substitute after the fact in order to cover up what had happened (all of which is alleged by the fired substitute).

If so, I can only say that the schools in Pasco County are amazingly responsive to their parents. Do you suppose they have a big phone bank to call every parent at home every night and get approval for the next day’s lesson plan and lunch menu?

Kudos to Tampa Channel 10, which seems to have done the most follow-up work on this story, and to the few other media outlets doing their jobs.