Sunday, August 12, 2007

(New) Teacher Watch: What BTSA Won't Tell You (A Fiction)

Call it a rude awakening.

You have a student in class who's constantly disruptive, let's say personally hostile from the get-go--something about you sets him off. He's physically intimidating. He's given you the finger. He's cursed you across the classroom. You've found notes in the margin of his homework about how much he hates you, maybe a stick drawing of you hanging from a noose, maybe you having sex with a co-worker or an animal. You've tried "understanding," humor, and ignoring it; you've tried firmness, negotiation, a behavior contract. You've tried moving his seat. Other students perceive in a general way how much attention this person seems to be stealing from them. Even they resent you a little for it. God knows you have to hide the details from them.

Not exactly the perfect scenario for teaching quadratic equations or Shakespeare. But you don't want to be paranoid. That's you--the good sport with a stiff upper lip.

Along the way, you've phoned the kid's mom and dad at work and at home, and on the cellphone at the mall. You've held conferences on campus during your off-time, documented details with administration, even pulled in a counselor--every step along the expected Pyramid of Interventions. Each time, the boy shrugs and apologizes, but returns to the behavior again. Accelerates. It's been months now.

He really wants to be in the class, says mom. Maybe you should try more creative teaching strategies, says the dean of discipline. You're making the valiant effort to deny how bad this is, how impossible even breathing seems during the drive to school, you don't like leaving your classroom during the day, how can you fix this? how can you make him stop? But the more you try to be valiant, the less you feel safe in the place where you work. This job everyone says you have to love. It must be me, it must be me. Finally, someone--your union rep? your spouse? a friend looking over her own shoulder?--says you've got to stop letting this go. To hell with zen and the art of classroom management. It's not you. You're not a bad person to say "no."

He's dropped from your class. This, you think, will end it. But he approaches you on campus, says he plans to "get even." He says his parents hate you. You find your car windshield smashed in a few days later. You have no proof who did it. You feel no safer. His friends stand in line in front of your classroom door, stare in at you. There are calls to your house. Someone is circulating written rumors in a newsletter--you were a porn star, you wear diapers, you must've performed sexual favors to get this teaching job. Other teachers are targeted too, in the same vein. Somebody makes a video and leaves you a copy--an effigy of you is decapitated and burned. One of your colleagues actually tells you to have a sense of humor--not like anyone has physically attacked you yet.

Maybe you are going crazy. Some part of you feels this is your own fault--if you had been a better teacher, a better person, a smarter person...When you talk to your principal, he says there's nothing he can do, must suck to be you, maybe you're a little oversensitive these days?

You decide you might have a legal claim here. What is this, the Land of the Lotus Eaters? Why should you feel unsafe and bullied in your workplace--and at these wages? You know a judge, Judge Kenneth R. Freeman, who has made rulings in at least one teacher workplace case. He'll have some words of comfort, surely, a wise balance between the letter and spirit of the law. You don't want to sue anyone, you don't want anyone hurt, you just want to know how to feel right driving to school again. You want to be able to leave your classroom to take a bathroom break in peace. You want a clue how the system works. Judge Freeman should know--he was married to a teacher in Los Angeles Unified. There's hope.

Judge Freeman goes to the file cabinet where he keeps copies of documents from previous cases. He pulls out the order granting a new trial for a teacher who had been in a similar situation to yours--a ruling from June of 2002, Case No. BC 235667.

For a new trial? you wonder, Hmmmm... But then you think: What a coincidence! This is great! and you cut yourself an extra piece of cake.

Well, says the judge, I'll skip right to the good parts: (ahem) Hostile acts may be committed by children. Schools are fundamentally unlike an adult workplace in many ways, including that children may regularly interact with each other and others in a manner that would be unacceptable among adults....

Yeah, you say. That's how we got here. And?

Okay, says the judge, yadah yadah yadah...here we are: A teacher voluntarily elects to teach in the challenging high school environment, to some extent trading protection against offensive conduct for the professional challenge and stimulation of that unique marketplace of ideas...

Suddenly, cake looks unappetizing. You put down your plate. Wait, you say. Wait a minute. Trading protection for the professional challenge? Professional challenge? A unique marketplace of ideas? What about me--as a worker, as a professional person, a human being? what about my migraines?

The judge doesn't hesitate. You? he says. My point exactly.

Moral: Ask your district, ask your union. Make sure to wait until an answer comes very clearly: Do teachers trade safety for the privilege of working in public school?

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