‘Forced-out’ BKW teacher thinks school handled parent’s complaints poorly

Yira Matiz

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel
Yira Matiz addresses the board of education.

BERNE — An ousted teacher, Yira Matiz, told the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School Board on Jan. 6 that complaints against her by a parent were mishandled by the school’s administration. Her husband and son spoke to the board next, echoing her thoughts, followed by Lisa Joslin who accused Matiz of bullying her daughter during the fall semester.

Matiz was hired in August to teach seventh- and eighth-grade Spanish and started teaching at BKW in September. In mid-November, the superintendent evaluated aspects of her teaching as either “effective” or “developing.” A month later, he told her he was recommending her termination to the school board and advised her to resign.

Matiz resigned, but has told The Enterprise that she’s now exploring the ethics and legality of the school’s actions.

She says that, on Dec. 19, she was surprised and confused when told of her termination and that she did not have a chance to ask questions.

“This is what the principal said to me: ‘I had received many emails and phone calls, this is enough, tomorrow is your last day, and I do not want you here after the Christmas break,’” Matiz wrote in an email to The Enterprise.

When she arrived at school the next day, she was told to clean her things out of her classroom while her students were sent to the library, Matiz reported.
 

A parent’s complaints

According to emails given to The Enterprise by Matiz, Joslin reached out to the secondary school principal, Mark Pitterson, on Nov. 5 to “address significant concerns” she had with the “overall structure of [Matiz’s] classroom.”

Pitterson did not respond to questions from The Enterprise.

The issues raised with Martiz in Joslin’s emails were: 

— Inconsistencies in the school’s online grading portal that suggested Matiz was listing grades in such a way that they were invisible to parents; 

— The lack of timely updates in the grading portal that would inform students and parents of their progress; 

— The way notes were given out in class; 

— The way homework was assigned to the class; 

— Matiz’s lack of preparation for classes, which Joslin said resulted in students needing to take photos of assignment sheets and writing the answers down in notebooks or on paper; and

— Matiz’s expectations that low-level Spanish students could finish a worksheet that was written in Spanish with no English translations.

At the Jan. 6 meeting, Joslin alleged that Matiz had retaliated against her daughter because of the complaints that Joslin made against Matiz. 

“Every single day, I would get text messages [from my daughter] at lunch time,” Joslin said. “Finally, my last text message from my daughter was she was no longer going to attend Spanish class. And what could I do about that? Because she was so upset about what was happening in the classroom.

“She witnessed students being called names,” Joslin continued. “She herself was called a name by this teacher … [My daughter] was called to the front of the class to teach as she knew so much. So again, I commend BKW school district for dealing with this. As much as a good teacher can inspire a student with an everlasting positive impact, so can a bad teacher have an everlasting negative impact.”

“She’s lying,” Matiz said as Joslin returned to her seat.

 

“Don’t get rid of the person that’s trying to do right”

Matiz’s husband, Gary Buanno, and her son, Matthew Buanno, who each spoke before Joslin, offered their perspectives of the former teacher and alternative accounts of the classroom she taught in.

“I had to hear the complaints of kids in class misbehaving, clicking their pens, because the mother told the kid that it’s OK to click their pen because it relieves his stress and anxiety,” Gary Buanno said, “so it’s OK to disrupt the rest of the class … The kid tips the desk upside down — what’s the protocol? How do you handle th — how would anybody handle a kid tipping a desk, smashing it and throwing papers, throwing water bottles?

“And then the little girl that sits next to this boy,” he continued, “she goes home and tells her mother, then the mother calls the school, has to rearrange the classroom because the little girl doesn’t feel safe sitting next to this boy. This is what we have going on in our classrooms today? It’s embarrassing to say our public schools are great. They’re not great … You don’t get rid of the person that’s trying to do right.”

The teacher’s son, Matthew Buanno, who attends high school in a different district, said, “I would just like to mention to our educators who are trying to change this and address these situations: Don’t give up. You’re supported. As a student of the National Honor Society, I can tell you that I grew up with values taught to me by my parents. They supported me.

“They gave me strength in times when I was feeling low, and I would expect that this school and the administrators support our generations that are coming up. Because this isn’t just an individual problem, it’s a collective problem, and it needs to be addressed. Otherwise, this country is just going to get worse and worse as we proceed into the future.”

Matiz, whose first language is Spanish, told The Enterprise in an email that “absolutely what Mrs. Joslin did … during the BKW Board of Education meeting was a slander, false allegation.”

Matiz wrote that she received Christmas gifts and a card from some of her students. 

Matiz also said that, for the BKW community, she was “an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, an immigrant.”

“I am not part of their community,” she continued. “And I believe that mom was putting lots of pressure on the administration, begging them to get rid of me.” 

She was born in Colombia and educated in Russia, at a linguistics university, she said, and received her master’s degree in teaching Spanish as a second language.

Matiz has lived in Fonda (Montgomery County) with her family for 20 years, and has 12 years of teaching experience, she said, with stints at Schenectady County Community College and Fulton-Montgomery Community College, as well as at the Hamilton Montgomery Fulton BOCES. 

Matiz, who said her salary at BKW was $46,000, told The Enterprise that losing the job had a “big impact.”

“We belong as many of us to the middle, working class,” she wrote in a text. “We are 5 in my family, my husband, 3 teens, one is graduating this year, and me.”

 

Superintendent’s role

According to a Dec. 23 letter written to Matiz by BKW Superintendent Timothy Mundell, the two met on Dec. 20, 2019, to discuss his intent to recommend that the school board terminate her probationary appointment as a foreign-language teacher at the district.

Because Matiz was probationary, not tenured, the district did not have to follow the strict protocols requiring a hearing that New York State has put in place for tenured teachers.

Under law, Matiz had the right to request the reasons her contract was to be terminated. Mundell’s Dec. 23 letter states that, on Dec. 20, Matiz had submitted a written request for the reasons and he listed them as follows:

— Poor classroom management skills, leading to student behavior in your classroom that disrupted learning in neighboring classrooms;

— Lack of ability to establish positive rapport with students, causing their lack of clear understanding of  expectations for learning and outcomes; and

— Inability to develop a positive and rigorous learning culture in the classroom, resulting in minimum levels of student engagement in learning activities.

“Over the past three months, there have been efforts by your building administrators to support you in the areas noted above,” Mundell wrote. “In addition, the District provided you with a mentor to assist you with questions and/or concerns.”

He concluded, “We wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

Matiz’s mentor was BKW Spanish teacher Jane Tedesco. Matiz said Tedesco met with herself and Pitterson following Joslin’s complaint and suggested that they hold a parent-teacher conference.

According to Matiz, though, Pitterson rejected the idea. “[Pitterson] acknowledged that Mrs. Joslin was a difficult and problematic person, he mentioned that this complaint/email was not the first time Mrs Joslin had called the office to complain,” Matiz wrote in an email to The Enterprise.

Mundell declined to comment to The Enterprise, and Joslin said that she did not want to speak on the record beyond the comments she gave at the Jan. 6 school board meeting. Tedesco did not respond to the Enterprise’s requests.

Matiz said she spoke with Joslin on the phone after reading over the critical email Joslin had sent to Pitterson and alleged that, at the end of the conversation, Joslin told her she “did not know what she was doing” and would bring her concerns to the board of education if changes were not made.

Matiz shared her scored evaluation with The Enterprise, which she said contradicts the concerns Mundell stated in his letter to her. 

The evaluation, Matiz said, was performed on Nov. 12 by Mundell, who graded her on a 1-4 scale in several categories. A score of 1 means ineffective; 2 means developing; 3 means effective; and 4 means highly effective.

Matiz scored all 3s and 2s. She was rated “effective” in managing student behavior, communicating with students, designing coherent instruction, and managing classroom procedures, among others.

Matiz was rated as “developing” in using questioning prompts and discussion, using assessment in instruction, demonstrating knowledge of content and pedagogy, among others. 

The overall average of her evaluation was 2.79.

“These reasons [for termination] contradict what is checked as effective in my evaluation,” Matiz wrote to The Enterprise. “As I mentioned before, the first reason was the numerous e-mails and phone calls the principals received, which he refused to share with the teacher.

“We are talking about effective communication as it is stated in the school website. Parents had concerns and questions, but never emailed the teacher to let her know, instead of this, they called and emailed the principal.”

Matiz wrote that it was “outrageous” that there was no reaction from the administration, school board members, or the community.

“There is not interest to investigate what I am being accused of,” Matiz wrote. "Why?”

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