A.J. Duffy, still-feisty former teachers union chief, retires

The lineup of must-see videos for the high school class on public speaking was notable: Hitler, Martin Luther King Jr., Mussolini, President Obama — and A.J. Duffy, the former president of the L.A. teachers union and also the instructor.

The former, highly visible union leader returned to the classroom in fall 2011 almost as a last resort — landing in almost invisible Phoenix High School adjacent to Venice High in Mar Vista.

There, Duffy, 69, retired Friday, after two years of working with students who needed a second chance.

But his personality has hardly become retiring.

For example, he calls current union President Warren Fletcher "hugely ineffective," unable to rally the troops to create political pressure.

"He does not know how to delegate and his door is usually closed," Duffy said.

(Fletcher had been a Duffy critic back in the day.)

Duffy also vehemently objects to any linking of teacher evaluations to student test scores — a provision teachers voted to accept this year under pressure from a court order.

As president, Duffy had been an omnipresent, polarizing figure: a vain, cartoonish union boss to critics; a passionate defender and loyal friend to supporters.

His prime directive had been to push for teachers and parents to have real authority at schools, and he made progress to that end. But those gains, he said, are under threat from the district's middle-management bureaucracy, which, he said, is prepared to outlast current L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.

After term limits ended Duffy's six-year run as union president in 2011, he'd hoped for a top management job leading reform efforts under Deasy, but the superintendent had others in mind.

Then, Duffy was set to be chief executive of a unionized charter school, to demonstrate that charters and unions could collaborate. But the school fell short of enrollment targets and its board folded the CEO duties into those of the chief academic officer.

So Duffy returned to the classroom for his first extended stint since the mid-1990s, in part because he had bills to pay and because he wasn't ready to walk off the stage, even if that stage was an out-of-control classroom on the second floor of an out-of-the-way campus.

"Everyone was doing what they wanted to do," student Jesse Chavez said of the first day Duffy walked in. "I was sitting in the back laughing."

All were struck by Duffy's trademark look: suit and tie, two-tone tan and brown dress shoes.

"He was suited and booted," said Jesse.

"He looked like the Penguin from Batman," Manny Mora offered.

"Don Corleone," thought resource teacher Kate Mitchell, looking at her new colleague. Mitchell, an award-winning teacher, later had to tell Duffy off sometimes for interrupting her work or ordering her around.

"What have I gotten myself into?" Duffy wondered.

Most of his job involved supervising independent work for social studies subjects. Students attend Phoenix because they fell behind in credits, don't fit in elsewhere or got into trouble.