In Partnership with The 74

A view from inside LAUSD’s board: Teaching moments from George McKenna and his McKenna-isms

Mike Szymanski | March 28, 2016



GeorgeMcKennaSmiling387George McKenna is often considered one of the more curmudgeonly characters on the LA Unified school board (although he has some competition). As vice president of the board and the senior member of the seven elected members, McKenna is given a lot of leeway and respect when he has something to say at the board meetings.

And when he does, it often turns into a life story, a history lesson or a smart anecdote from his teaching days ranging back to when he started at LA Unified in 1962.

Here are a few choice McKenna-isms we’ve observed at the school board.

On successful teachers . . .

“I don’t feel sorry for you because you chose to do this. You are putting together something that you must sustain. You are like the land. We can devastate everything else, but the land remains. That’s how we plant the seed, and the fruit is our children.”

On bad teachers . . .

“A lousy teacher is a bad thing to have, it’s like having a lousy doctor: you’re not going to make it.”

On ethnic teachers . . .

“The ethnicity of a teacher has nothing to do with their ability to relate to children. It does not require a black teacher to teach a black child, it does not require a Hispanic teacher to teach a Hispanic child. Melanin does not protect you from racial prejudice. It only protects you from sunburn, that’s about all. I have never found anybody that protected a child against prejudice just because they are black.”

On celebrating successful schools . . .

“We don’t need to celebrate successful schools, that should be expected. It’s like when you take an airplane. You expect it to land; you don’t celebrate that, you expect it. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

On picking a superintendent . . .

“We can have Sleepy, Bashful, Dopey and all of them stand before us, but we are picking a Snow White.”

On the process of picking a superintendent . . .

“We can have all the forms and surveys and input in the world, but what’s going to tell it to me more than anything is when I look the person in the eye and ask them, ‘Why do you want to be superintendent of this district?’ And that’s how I will decide.”

GeorgeMcKennaMichelleKing11 (1)

George McKenna on a school visit with new Superintendent Michelle King.

On community input . . .

“You know, I’m all for community involvement and engagement and such, but the community is who picked us to represent them. No one invited me to sit on the board of their organization to give input. The community gave us this responsibility, let us do it.”

On fellow board member Monica Ratliff . . .

“Miss Ratliff is psychic as well as bright. … I appreciate everything she asks about, especially when it concerns the budgets. No one else is going to read through all these papers like she is.”

On unanimous decisions . . .

“That, we all agree, would be a flawed assumption, especially with the bizarreness of one or two of us.”

On a motion to close a charter school in his district . . .

“These are my children, I walk with them to school, they’ve been there since 1965. I’ve been there and know what they are doing. The objections are bureaucratic, not because of instructions. I will not vote for this.”

On teaching . . .

“One of the best ways teachers need to learn is to observe other teachers, and I hope we implement that. You watch someone; don’t interfere, just watch. It’s like reading about swimming. You can’t learn how to do it by reading, you need to jump in the water and swim.”

On educating girls and boys . . .

“Are females demonstrating their superiority [over] males, or are males not as competitive as they should be? Or maybe being smart is not machismo?”

On writing . . .

“Do girls still keep diaries? That may help them write, and writing is a most complex process. I do not know many boys that keep diaries.”

On public schools . . .

“Schools are tough, and public schools are the heart and soul of the country. They shape the minds and values of the country — not the military, not the government, not politics, but schools.”

On keeping kids in school . . .

“We can’t give up on your children. It’s about sacrifice. Children I don’t even know need us first. The thing we do in any district is take care of employees, I got that, but the children get what’s left. What are we going to do to keep the teachers being magnetic and keep the kids’ attention?”

On taking too much time . . .

“People say, ‘Wait, that takes time, George, and you’re kind of crazy anyway.’ Takes time? Time has run out. What if your Mama has cancer? You say you have to do something and go in there now and give it a try, you can’t wait. If you love the people you work with, the children — and they absolutely are innocent — you do it now.”

On fighting structure . . .

“The structure may say don’t have school in the summertime, you’re supposed to pick crops. Well, the affluent love the summer. They go to Europe. They recreate and educate and dominate. But what do we do? We vegetate, procreate and deteriorate! That’s what happens. You need to say no to those kind of structures.”

On calling an initiative bold . . .

“I know a lot of bold teenagers who make reckless decisions. Sometimes bold is reckless and they do things out of impulse.”

On teaching math . . .

“Math is one of the easiest things to learn and the hardest thing to teach. You have to wait for that ‘aha’ moment, and that’s when the student gets it.”

On voter apathy . . .

“I know not many people vote, look at how bad it was as far as people voting for the school board. I know it’s not that they don’t like me— a lot of people say they do— but there’s not much that compels them to go out to vote for me.”

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