Category Archives: ethics

A Year Ago Today

It was a year ago today, and at the literal last possible moment, that I was told that I would not be coming back to Charter High School for the next year. I had absolutely no warning or indication that it was coming and, in fact, had been explicitly and repeatedly told that it wasn’t by people I foolishly trusted; I have copies of emails and instant messages to prove it.

A lot has changed in that year, but what really hits me is what hasn’t changed. I still, to this day, have not any reliable explanation; no one has bothered to give me the decency of telling me exactly what happened to me or why it happened. I’ve heard different stories from different people, each told to me in almost embarrassed tones, like the speaker didn’t really believe what they were saying. None of the principle players involved in this little drama has ever reached out to me, either to explain or to apologize.

For a year now, I’ve held doors open; I’ve been available and accessible in the hopes that someone would grow a conscience and send me a message, to offer me some kind of explanation, to tell me the truth. No more of that, though; I’m done. I’m not accepting the apology I never got, but I’m not going to leave myself open anymore, either. I’m too hurt – and too angry – to keep hoping that they’re going to suddenly become decent or ethical. I need to move on, and in order to do that, I need to lay this baggage down.

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Unhappy Anniversary

It was a year ago today that events set into motion the crash of my professional life.

I didn’t think that today was going to be a big deal, really; it’s just another day, nothing has happened that changes my thinking or feelings about the whole mess, and, if anything, I’m more and more glad that I’m out of that deeply broken culture every time I talk to those who are still struggling to stay sane and ethical in it.

I’m finding, though, that I’m wrestling to put down the last of my bitter feelings toward the people who, for whatever reasons, let things happen the way they did.  I’m trying to come to some sort of peace with the fact that people looked me in the eye and outright lied to me.  I’m trying to find ways to forgive people for their callous disregard for the obvious needs of the students and the staff.  I’m trying to let go of the rage against the perfect storm of incompetence and utter failure of ethics that nearly led to the loss of a precious life.  I’m working on releasing the anger and disappointment I feel for someone who participated in all of it despite the fact that I just know he wanted no part of it, but did it, anyway.  I’m practicing detachment from some people who said that they cared about me – loved me, even – but whose actions were anything but caring and loving.

I am cautiously hopeful that my professional plane is about to taxi down a new runway and this crash was not fatal.  Once I’m proverbially ‘wheels-up,’ I think I’ll finally be able to put this experience well and truly behind me.  In the meantime, I’m working on focusing on the good that came out of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad experience; my chosen daughter is healthy and whole and has done nothing to harm herself since that day, and I’m as adamant today as I was a year ago that, even had I known the hell that was to follow, I wouldn’t do a single thing any differently.

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Where Does Work End and Life Begin?

I got an email from Punk’s high school this morning.  In it was an attachment of a letter to parents from the principal, letting us know that there was an “incident” involving a substitute teacher.  Here’s the pertinent part of the letter (the emphasis at the end of the note is mine):
Today we were informed that a recent substitute teacher at Local High School was involved in an incident in the community last night that resulted in criminal charges.
We have met with Local PD and have been assured that the event was not related to LHS, and we have no reason to expect any issues here.
The district has taken appropriate action in response to this information.
While this incident did not involve our students we wanted to be sure you had the information in a timely manner.

 

Here’s what I want to know; if the incident had nothing to do with the students, then why, exactly, does the administration feel it necessary to inform us about it?

I have long advocated for a clear and bright distinction between one’s personal life and one’s professional life; as long as your behavior off the clock does not impact your job, then it’s no one’s fucking business what you do in your free time.

Several years ago, the principal of my town’s middle school was fired for having been busted for DUI, and I remember being deeply troubled by that; the fact that he acted with less than stellar judgement during his free time had nothing to do with the fact that he was (as best I could tell) a reasonably effective administrator in the school (though, of course, the DUI could have been the excuse the school district needed to get rid of him; I’ll admit to not knowing all the facts in that case).

My point is that, at least according to this letter, this substitute teacher at no point put kids at any kind of risk.  Why, then, did I get this letter?  What purpose could this possibly serve but to stir up angst, curiosity, or even outright panic?

Someone help me out here, because I really don’t get it.

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What Ever Happened to Professional Courtesy?

A few months ago, I applied to be a long-term sub at a local school.  I didn’t get the gig (it went to the intern working under the teacher who was leaving, which makes perfect sense to me), but after I got word that I’d been passed over, I sent a polite, professional email to the department head asking for feedback about my interview.  When I didn’t hear anything back from her (which seemed incongruous, given the impression she gave me when we met), I re-sent the email (with a preface saying I wasn’t sure it sent correctly the first time, to let her save face).  I have yet to hear a peep back.

Then, a few weeks ago, I caught wind of a job opening at a different nearby school district.  I put together a packet of all the things the posting asked for, crafted a solid cover letter, put everything in a professional folder, put that in a nice envelope, put on some nice clothes, and drove the packet to the district office.  That afternoon, I followed up on the delivery with a short, polite note to the principal of the school in question, introducing myself, directing him to my website, and making myself available at his convenience to meet or talk on the phone.

Here’s what I want to know; just how fucking hard is it to hit “reply” and send back a quick “thank you for your interest in our school; I look forward to reading your resume” note?  Not that hard, one would think, but I’ve gotten precisely bupkis from this guy.  Nothing.  Are you old enough to remember getting post card confirmations that your resume had been received by personnel offices?  Yeah; that doesn’t happen anymore, either.

Flapping in the breeze is a very uncomfortable feeling.  I get that the market is flooded, and I get that employers can afford to be dismissive and impolite to job seekers, but that doesn’t make it right.  At the very least, let us know that our resumes got to someone’s desk and please, if someone sends you a personal email, do them the basic courtesy of a brief reply.  So many of us are putting our hearts out on the block for impossibly long stretches of time; don’t further demoralize us by ignoring our communications and pretending we don’t exist.

 

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Improving My Argument

*A continuation of the Counting My Chickens series*

I’m soliciting advice on how to present a particular argument.  Your input would be most appreciated.

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I am prepping to give a writing workshop at CPS on Friday, and I was going through the folder of information Dr. Wong gave me a few weeks ago when I first visited the school.  In it are fliers about the grading system, the dress code, tuition, things like that.  Included in the packet is the school’s handbook, and in that handbook is a whole section about “Respectful Language.”

Oh, boy; here we go….

I’ve written about how I feel about “colorful language” a number of times (notably here. There are other posts, too, I’m sure, but I don’t have the patience to look them up right now).  I feel – and have always felt – as though it’s my job as a teacher to give kids a strong command of their language – ALL of their language – and to teach them when it’s appropriate to use which rhetorical strategies.  Sometimes, and particularly when we’re engaging in creative endeavors, a particular of class of words is required to get across the true tenor of one’s meaning.  Those words exist for a reason, and part of my job is to make sure my students understand both when they need to employ them and when the rhetorical situation allows for it.

Like a fucking lady

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The upshot of the section in the handbook is that if you have a strong enough vocabulary, you don’t need to utter imprecations.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that, and I’m trying to figure out a way to present that case in a way that is clear, logical, and defensible.  If I’m going to be asked to join this staff, I cannot have a limitation placed on what I can and cannot accept from students in terms of their own self-expression (and, not for nothing, “blasphemy” is listed as a no-no, as well.  Insert derisive snort here).
I have success with my students because I work hard to build an environment where they know they’re safe to explore what they really think and feel, not just what they think they’re expected to think and feel.  I work hard to create a truly judgment-neutral zone in the classroom so that kids can dismiss their inner critics and stroll out on limbs of thinking they’re not certain will support their weight.  I want them to dig under their proverbial beds, to open their proverbial closet doors, and to peek at their proverbial boogeymen, and to trust that I’m going to be there to help them find a way to get those ideas out of their heads in satisfying ways;  the only way I can do that is if I let them know that – at least in this class – they’re free to express themselves as authentically and as openly as they’re able to.  Sometimes (often, in fact), that expression is raw and painful and ugly, and that HAS TO BE OKAY.  Sometimes, the only way into a really great idea or a profound self-discovery is through the fucking wars, and that HAS TO BE OKAY.

If I’m going to be asked to teach anything beyond the basics of grammar and business writing etiquette (I can NEVER spell that word right the first time!), I’m going to require that there be nothing off limits for my students to write or say within the walls of our classroom.  I will make certain that they have a very clear and firm understanding of social contracts, and I will continue to reinforce the concept of rhetorical situations and the importance of tailoring one’s message to one’s audience, but I can’t function if I’m to treat an entire mode of expression as taboo.

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The Facebook Generation

Alternately titled, “Airing Grievances.”

Someone I know was unceremoniously (and possibly wrongfully; I don’t know) fired from her job a little while ago.

She’s not taking it well.

This has been difficult for me because it’s brought back all of the feelings I had been working so hard to compartmentalize over the last seven months.  Hearing about what happened to her brought them all rushing in again – the anger, the disappointment, the pain and frustration.  She’s coping with all of those feelings, too, and it’s been hard watching her go through that while I work on repackaging all the yuck that her dismissal brought back up for me.

The difference between her and me, though, is that I’ve been dealing with my ugly feelings in a mostly quiet, mostly private way.  She’s decided to take her anger public, though, and has launched a pretty forthright campaign on facebook, where she’s still “friends” with a lot of people at her old job.

I’m still trying to work out how I feel about that.

On the one hand, I admire her.  She is fighting against an injustice and making public those policies and behaviors that create an untenable environment.  She’s trying to spur the people who are left to action; she wants them to see what she sees, not just the nice, polite, politically correct face that gets put on for outside observers.

On the other hand, I’m made really uncomfortable by the raw and bitter that she’s willing to air in public.  I’ve been so engrained to be polite – to deal with things “through the proper channels” – that this kind of in-your-face campaign is foreign to me.

Some of the people still at her old workplace have logged in to comment – and to reprimand her – about some of the things she’s posted, and I’m betting that there’s an even larger conversation going on offline.  One person exhorted her to be a “grown-up” and “move on,” and it’s all I can do to not chime in to say, “Hold on a second; since when is it “grown up” to just shrug off bad behavior?  Isn’t the whole point of adulthood to stand up against what you think is wrong and NOT leave it for the next person to have to suffer?” but I’m not sure I’m willing to wade into the conversation at all.

I can’t decide how I feel about this tactic of hers.  Part of me  – and I’m going to admit here that it’s a pretty big part of me – applauds her for doing this.  I keep going back to the idea that Dr. King highlighted in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he asked about how we are best to address our grievances when the authorities whose job it is to adjudicate those grievances are the offending parties.  I keep going back to the idea that silence always benefits the oppressor, and that evil triumphs when good men do nothing.  I keep thinking that she’s right to stand up and scream, loudly and persistently, about the wrong that she sees, and that she’s right to expect people who are still in the system to take a long, hard, critical look at what she’s yelling about and then maybe do something about it.  At the same time, though, I can’t help cringing at the bluntness, the bitterness, and the pointy bits.

In this age of social media, IS there a middle ground anymore?

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Wordy Wednesday: A Shot of Hope

For a long time now, I’ve been worried that I was never going to be back in the classroom.  After all that happened to me at CHS, I was feeling pretty burned; for all that the place was pretty laid-back and permissive, I still managed to get into trouble, so it stands to reason that it’s highly unlikely I’m going to find someplace where my enthusiasm, passion, and ethics won’t be a liability.

I met Jay for coffee this afternoon.  He’s a teacher at a different charter school (and a hell of a photographer; hit that link and go on over and click around.  Leave some feedback; he’s looking for some interaction), and the parent of one of my former students.  We’d been tangentially in touch since before I was dismissed from CHS; he and I clicked when we first met, he was very supportive of my efforts to kick his recalcitrant daughter in the ass, and we share a very similar perspective on politics, spirituality, and the underlying purpose (and ethics) of education.  Anyway, I left a comment on his blog about a particularly stunning portrait he’d posted of Sweet Pea, and a few emails later, we’d set up a coffee date.

I left that hour feeling much better about where I am professionally.  He told me a lot of things I really needed to hear (though, let’s be clear, I don’t think for a second that he said them because they were what I needed to hear; he’s not like that at all).  He confirmed for me a couple of things that I deeply suspected but really didn’t want to admit (I’m over that now, by the way; I’m done telling myself stories to try to make it hurt less).  He told me that not only should I go back to teaching, but that I very likely had to; we share a proclivity of spirit that compels us to work with young people, and he recognizes in me the same drive that moves him to do the work that he does.  He essentially told me that I wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else – that I could do other work, certainly, but that I would never be as fulfilled as I will be teaching.  I don’t think he’s wrong.

Jay also offered me a glimmer of hope that there may well be a place for me in a classroom.  I’m going to chase down a couple of contacts tomorrow (and send out a couple of resumes, as well) and see what becomes of it.  While I’m not going to force myself into a situation where I have to change who I am to fit in with the culture so much that I don’t recognize myself anymore, neither am I going to give up entirely on the idea of being a teacher.  The truth is that I miss the kids too much to abandon the work, and I love who I am while I’m doing it.

Onward.

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I am SO Confused

Help me suss this out, You Guys.

A month or so ago – I forget when, exactly – a former student contacted me about the possibility of my being her advisor for an independent study in English.  She was interested in a class I taught the last year I was at CHS, and asked if I would be willing to offer her that class as an IS.

I can never say no to a student who wants to learn, but my response to this baby was something along the lines of, “I’ll absolutely do it, but there’s no way in hell you’re getting it past administrative approval.”

She sent me a text message today saying that she’s all set to go; she just needs to fill out the paperwork.

To say that I’m stunned is an understatement.

I have no idea what this arrangement entails.  I’m making the assumption that I’ll just be a mentor for her as she works the program herself (though I will give her the course I designed for another student who took the class as an independent study last year, and I’m sure I’ll be providing her with most of the films and reading materials, as well).  I can pretty much guarantee you that I won’t be paid for the work that I’ll do, but I don’t care about that; a kid asked me for my help and it’s within my power to give it to her, so she gets it whether I get paid or not.

Here are my questions to you; given that I was shown the door (though I have still yet to be told precisely why I was so unacceptable as to be dismissed), is there anything ethical about the school’s decision to okay my being a mentor for this student?  Should I be confused about being fired in June, then being approved as a mentor in January?  How should I approach this?

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Wordy Wednesday: The Conversation We Should be Having

Go get yourself comfortable; this could take a while.

By now, 5 days after the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, we’re pretty well steeped in the hysterical rhetoric coming from both “sides” of the political spectrum; the “left” is screaming for rational gun control legislation and humane mental health services while the “right” is advocating arming teachers and eliminating “gun-free zones.”  The fighting is as predictable as it is pointless; background checks wouldn’t have prevented this tragedy, the guns used in the shooting were obtained legally, guns are not the problem, you can’t plan for the crazy people, there’s evil in the world and there’s nothing you can do about it, The Second Amendment….

Blah, blah, blah.

This is not the conversation we should be having.  We don’t have a gun problem; we have a humanity problem.

Are there reasonable things that we should be doing as concerns guns and weaponry that we’re not doing?  Of course there are.  I’m not going to go into them now, though; I’m betting you’re sick of hearing about them (I am) and anyone who knows me, even if they only know me here, knows that I have both feet firmly planted in the pro-gun control camp.

I don’t want to talk about guns or lobbies or the NRA.  I want to talk about culture.

A few months ago, my grandfather observed how difficult raising kids is “nowadays.”  I kind of called him on that; I said that raising kids is just as hard now as it was when he had kids, or when he was a kid himself, and that it might in fact be easier given all the modern conveniences and health care and safety equipment.  He shut me down, though, and this is how he did it; “When I was a kid, we didn’t have a telephone, but my mother would know that I’d done something wrong before I even made it home.  The whole neighborhood watched out for everyone else’s kids.  If I did something I wasn’t supposed to, my friends’ mother would take it out of me at the scene, then my mother would take it out of me when I got home.  When my kids were little, it was still like that.  No one looks out for anyone else anymore; they’re all too worried about lawsuits.”

While I’m not sure it’s the lawsuits that people are worried about, Grampa’s point has merit; we don’t look out for each other anymore.  We have drawn very clear and very rugged lines around our lives, such that it is the rare person who will step up to correct another person’s child, or even to offer to help someone else.

Case in point; the other day, I was in a department store.  Little kids love to hide in the clothes racks (I did, and I bet you did, too), and, look at that!   I found a small person in a clothes rack.  I looked up and didn’t see an accompanying adult, so I asked the kid where her grown up was and stayed with her until said grown-up appeared (which, I might add, was not immediately, and when the grown-up did arrive, she was not in the state of panic I would have expected of a parent of a small child in a department store around Christmastime, but I digress).  She scolded the child and ignored me completely, which left me feeling as though the help I offered by staying with the kid (or, not for nothing, discovering her whereabouts in the first place) was both unnecessary and unwelcome.

I have been “spoken to” many times in the course of my professional life for “caring too much” about my students; for being interested in them as human beings, for listening to them when they spoke about their lives or their frustrations or their goals, for offering advice and support and, yes, love.  It wasn’t my “job” to nurture them as people, it was my job to stuff “knowledge” into their heads, to provide opportunities for them to spit that knowledge back out, and to assess their competence in doing so.  I was told that it was the counselor’s job to take care of the kids’ emotional needs, but then listened as that same counselor said, out loud and in public, that he didn’t “do” crying kids.  A facebook friend observed that “Hell, I remember when everything shifted. Prior to my junior year in HS (that was 83-84?) the counselors went from just that, someone you could go to get help or just talk, into someone who helped with ONLY curriculum and college placement. Now they see a kid with a problem they call the idiots at CPS and all hope is lost for the poor child!

I don’t think he’s wrong.

We don’t take care of each other, plain and simple.  We aren’t allowed to check in to make sure that things are okay at home; pediatricians were asking, not too long ago, for legal permission to inquire about guns in the home.  They were told ‘no.’  When a teacher sees something in a kid’s behavior that raises red flags, we’re told that we have to wait until there’s a clear and obvious crisis situation before we’re allowed to call someone else, who may or may not intervene.  We mind our own business and keep our heads down.

The message that sends is that there’s no one to go to if you need help.  If you’re in trouble, if you’re confused or frightened, if you’re bullied or harassed, if you’re feeling hopeless, there’s nowhere for you to go unless you’re threatening yourself or others; the situation needs to be escalated to crisis mode before there are any systems in place to help you, and by then it may be too late.  There’s nothing that can be done; you just have to suck it up and deal with it because you know what?  Life is hard.

I’m calling bullshit.

The problem we have isn’t with guns, though guns are certainly an exacerbating factor.  The problem we have is that we don’t know how to manage a basic level of common human decency.  We don’t know how to care about one another, and we don’t know how to accept that care without its being perceived as some sort of judgment about our fitness.  We’re so wrapped up in ourselves – our rights, our privileges, our perceived greatness -that we fail to recognize that our lives are inextricably wrapped up in others’ lives, too.  We listen to our politicians use violent rhetoric and watch them work tirelessly to further disadvantage those who are already behind.  Our entertainment glorifies violence and the loner; the rugged individual who keeps to himself and does whatever he has to do – up to and including hurting others – to ‘get the job done.’  We have, as a culture, completely swallowed the myth of isolation; that we are alone in the world, that the only things we get are the things we get for ourselves, and that everyone else should, at best, be viewed with suspicion.

I reject that mentality wholesale.  We can totally fix this gun problem and this mental health problem by just being decent to each other.  Let teachers care for their students.  Ask for help when you need it (and accept it when it’s offered).  Be willing to think and look critically at the habits and traditions you follow, the ways you solve problems, and the ways you talk to and treat other people.  Think cooperation before competition, and abandon the idea that someone else’s success means that there’s less for you.  Hold a door open, yield the right of way, look people in the eye and really listen.

Let’s try being decent and see what happens.

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Thoughtful Thursday

I’m at a kind of low place energetically right now.  I’m sure a lot of that has to do with my grandmother’s passing and her upcoming memorial (there’s a whole MESS of stress I’m carrying about that, but that may be the topic for another (possibly private) post some other time), but I’ve spent the better part of today on the edge of full-blown panic about my professional future.

Here’s the thing; I know what I’m meant to do, at least in the abstract.  I’m a teacher.  I’ve always been a teacher, ever since I was a kid.  I love it, I’m good at it, and it’s exactly what I want to do.

What has me freaking out right about now, though, is the idea that a) I may not find a job in a classroom next year and b) I may not want a job in a classroom next year.

I’m coming to the hard realization that, for all its faults, CHS was a pretty damned permissive environment.  Even there, though, I ran into a lot of problems, and I have gotten more and more frustrated the more I think about the fact that we say we want to raise careful, energetic thinkers, but we really don’t do the things that are required to produce them because we’re too afraid of “crossing lines” or “pushing boundaries.”  As soon as someone gets a bug up his or her ass about something – as soon as someone is the least bit uncomfortable or challenged – administrators panic, all hell breaks loose, the teachers get blamed, and we’re right back to tiptoeing around only the safest playgrounds.

I’m calling bullshit on that.  The problem is, though, that this attitude is not likely to make me a particularly attractive candidate for employment at a school district.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of trying to land a gig as an outreach coordinator or a workshop facilitator for an outfit that aligns with my ethics, but I don’t have the first inkling about what I’d be qualified to do or how I would go about finding a place to do it.  I thought about perhaps trying to find a position with an activist group or a liberal politician – maybe even of becoming a lobbyist – but, again, no frickin’ idea how to go about getting something like that moving.  There are a couple of teen-centered programs in my area, and the thought has occurred to me to look into what they’re doing to see if they have a need that I can fill, but my concern is that I don’t have the counseling or social work credentials that would be needed to work in places like that.

I hate this feeling of being directionless.  I feel off my mooring, adrift, and not a little scared.

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