Monday, January 12, 2009
Excellent Teacher Becomes a "Potential Killer"
The following story was told to Betsy Combier over more than 4 hours, with every step documented; the teacher wants to remain anonymous.
"I was a talented educator with a stellar reputation on the East Side of Manhattan for 8 years, in a new magnet school that I had helped to put on the map because of the reading scores and writing skills, of my seventh grade students whom I taught Communication Arts. I was adored by most of my students and their parents, because my adolescent students thrived and were accepted to the top high schools. My successful teacher-practice was observed by the University of Pittsburgh's LRDC (Learning and Research Development Center), the educators who "know what learning looks like," and thus, they were chosen to go into the classrooms of the hundreds of schools in the 12 districts- across the nation- that were chosen to participate in Harvard's research on teacher-practice, which became known as The New Standards.
In 1998, based on the assessment by the LRDC, I was awarded the NYSEC (New York State English Council) "Educator of Excellence of Award," a much coveted and PRESTIGIOUS award. The comments and compliments of administrators (including the very ones who would, months later, put out charges of incompetence), colleagues, parents, & students were submitted to NYSEC. It did not matter to the people who went after me. They knew about me. They rose to national prominence on the standards project, which I had helped attract to our district.
It is interesting to note the words of the principal who eventually documented me as "incompetent," after my return from the ‘rubber room'. Regarding my successful program, she had at one time stated: "I showed your work at the standards workshops and they went crazy over it!" However, upon my return, she stuck me in a new program that was deliberately doomed to failure so she could find me "incompetent." She knew the quality of my work because she was the point man for the Standards project in our district as Director of Curriculum, and head of staff development. She had begun, at my school, as a district’s staff developer, and loved to visit my classroom, bringing prestigious visitors (educators, publishers and administrators) to see my innovative work. Thus, she had to devise a failing program in order to prove I was an incompetent teacher.
The only purpose for doing so, when the evidence of not only competence, but of excellence is so overwhelmingly documented, is to harass a teacher into retirement. My case proves it all! To my face, and in front of the union rep, and the Director of Secondary Education at the time, the superintendent of district 2, said to me, “You are 58, why don't you retire?" This from a woman, who 8 years earlier had asked me if I wanted to teach in her school, when she was a mere principal.
The superintendent charged me with “corporal punishment” based on an alleged verbal assault, which even if it had been true, did not rise to corporal punishment under the Education Law. The rubber room was my first stop in the road to persecution.
Heinous charges were made against me, among some others (all of which are criminal in nature), all of which were outrageous and false, and designed to remove me and all teachers, similarly situated, immediately and without access to the union grievance procedure.
This is such a simple thing to grasp. You see, if allegations and complaints are put through the investigations and grievance procedures AT THE SITE, they will be resolved in the teacher’s favor, since the petty and grievous nature of these allegations will be revealed. It has to be a complaint that rises to the level of “criminal” in order to rip a teacher out of her classroom and doom her to the fate that the administration desires.
I never returned to that wonderful learning environment, with the 1000 books, AND FABULOUS ART MATERIALS that I had purchased with my own money, or to the outstanding curriculum that I alone had created at my middle school, and which included not only literature, media studies, reading and writing, but a full NYS seventh grade art curriculum. I was thrust into a windowless storeroom - the ‘rubber room’ and incarcerated there for six months with no information as to the reason.
In an act that stands alone in its arrogance and contempt for the law, THE SUPERINTENDENT OF THE DISTRICT in collaboration with a person at the DOE's Special Office of Investigation, took it upon herself to publish a letter that I had been found guilty of Corporal Punishment. I had no hearing and no opportunity to meet my accuser, or to defend myself when I was summoned to the meeting room in the District Office where this letter was read - despite the fact that the investigatory procedure that is carefully spelled out in the teacher contract had NOT taken place. They accused me and sabotaged my career based on a calculated interview of six 12 year-old children, where only two girl friends of the accuser, out of thirty children present at the time of the alleged event, backed her tale. The students were listed as “student B and student E, from an alphabet soup of students A through F. Can you imagine such a witness to a crime in a court of this land, which I thought was America.
My attorney, hired at a cost to me of over $25,000, filed a lawsuit and he made it clear that the charges must be dropped.
It said: "Discipline her, or send her back," and they did send me back but not to my proven curriculum. I was now a “pull-out” teacher, handed a list of kids, and a time schedule, by this woman whom I had known for years, as she gave me her back, and took me to a filthy storeroom, which was to be my new "classroom.” I was given no materials and one day to get it ready. This made it easy for this ex-director of curriculum, now principal to "document my incompetence.” But it backfired, because I did a good job, and students annoyed her with requests to be assigned to my program.
Ignoring my attorney's command to expunge the false guilty charges, or face a 40 million dollar lawsuit, the letter stating my guilt had been published to my school, before I arrived, and despite dire warnings in the lawsuit papers that no supervisor, or employee should use the letter or any reference to the heinous allegations, this principal used the allegations in that egregious letter of "guilt" to humiliate me in front of parents, students, office staff and colleagues - many of whom I had mentored.
On my first day back, this woman whom I had known for years, entered the dirty storeroom on the fourth floor, which I was endeavoring to turn into a learning environment. I had covered the glass window on the door, because so many of my former students were wandering from their fifth floor classes, to wave hello.
The principal entered and tore the construction paper from the glass. I tried to explain, but she screamed in my face. “ Shut-up. You just shut-up, or I will be forced to tell everyone you were found guilty of corporal punishment!”
Despite there being direct evidence of abuse presented by my attorney, and the lawsuit, nothing detered the administration from slandering me.
This woman holds a PhD, would go on from this ‘interim’ job, to the superintendent of a Brooklyn school district, yet knew how to bully a fine teacher. This was the beginning of six months of humiliation designed to send me packing. I had been taping my log when she entered, and so, for all eternity, her words are there for me to remember.
When I went looking for some of the 1000 books she had redistributed to classroom libraries, she entered the room where I was looking through a bookcase, and humiliated me in front of the young teacher and the kids, screaming and ordering me into the hall as if I was a delinquent child.
Eventually re-assigned by her, as a “push-in,” I had no classroom of my own, and was assigned to the all-purpose room, another filthy room on the fourth floor, which contained a table, a few computers, and stacks of cartons and litter. Occasionally, a teacher might take a break here, working on some lesson plans.
I was given a student desk and chair in a corner by an unlocked closet. Before and after photos show that I removed the litter, put out a variety of periodicals and books on the now clean windowsill, and used the little unused bulletin board by the closet, to put up a photo of my family.I added some attractive literacy posters to the closet door, and flowers to my “desk.”
For my efforts she placed a letter in my file claiming insubordination. She claimed that I was infringing on the rights of the other teachers who used that room. The truth was, that my colleagues could not face me, and even when I made a small luncheon, inviting them to this now cheerful room, not one of them came. I ate alone.
The ‘push-in’ program she created made me an unwelcome intrusion into the rooms of the very colleagues whom I had mentored when they first came to our school as novice teachers. With no instructions, it was easy for her to find fault with what I did. One egregious moment stands out, because she entered with the Supervisor of Principals, a director at the district level. I was actually addressing the class, with an additional piece of information about the ongoing discussion on Greek history. Not only did this occasion an outburst of monumental proportions, she placed a letter in my file, charging insubordination, claiming that I had no right to speak to the class, and that my job was to assist students. MY sixty-thousand dollar salary, and several college degrees, my training in the standards notwithstanding, I was expected to do the work of a para. The visitor, months later, would meet me in the halls of the district office and apologize for witnessing that abuse. “I know your work,” she said sadly.
The videos of my former CA classroom, made for the LRDC capture a vibrant classroom and a dedicated talented teacher. Yet, her assessment of me in this degrading assignment was the ‘documentation’ that administration would try to use to destroy me, having failed to harass me into a rubber room, with the corporal punishment charges.
I became a pariah, and my reputation on Manhattan's East Side, and elsewhere, as a premier educator was shattered. I lost a book deal, too. Robbing me of my career was not enough to seal my fate. To remove me once again, a charge was put out that I allegedly had “threatened to kill the principal.” Putting out such charges are just a ruse, to push a teacher into a rubber room, but this one pushed me to the edge of nervous collapse. My blood pressure, when I stopped at a doctor’s office on the way home with a banging headache, had skyrocketed.
Thus, in the course of a little more than a year, I had fallen from a celebrated educator to an abuser of children and a potential killer. And this was not enough, either. With my return to the rubber room on that insane, new charge of threatening the principal, charges of incompetence were "put-out" for the very years that I had been observed and filmed by the LRDC.
Even after I was allowed a medical leave, thanks, finally, to the intervention of Randi Weingarten, the superintendent (before she left NYC for a job in California where her abusive methods to staff were also condemned) mailed the charges, week after week, in packages containing all the bogus charges and "documentation” in the form of those "observations" and scores of file letters, made during the bogus ‘pull-out’ and ‘push-in’ assignments. When I began returning these POISON PACKAGES unopened, the superintendent sent to my door, a young law clerk from the DOE, holding red-balloons to trick me into opening my door, so he could give them to me.
How could this happen? At the site level, my union rep - assigned to teach physical education, not what she had transferred to the school to teach - did not help me. I have e-mails that I received, at that time, from former students, asking why this woman was saying that I “had ruined the lives of two girls.”
The superintendent entered the fateful meeting on the day that the ‘’guilty verdict” was read, and kissed this union leader, hello, so as to ‘show me’ her power. This illegal and shameful ‘verdict’ was read, not by her, but by the Director of Secondary Education -- with eyes lowered. He knew me, too, having witnessed my talent and expertise many times.
Through all the grievances, NYSUT, the state umbrella union was not much better; it simply encouraged me to settle. I eventually went to state arbitration, and knowing what would happen if I returned, I resigned, taking what little sanity and self-esteem remained, and returning to a wonderful family, with a new grandson, to recover.
During my experience in the rubber room I learned:
• that Habeas Corpus does not exist for teachers; that lies and harassment are the rule and that perjury is justified if it is done by administration.
• that criminals often run the schools and that with no accountability, their crimes have gone beyond petty and egregious to criminal.
• that the DOE is not interested in educating children, but only with maintaining its own power.
• that the children of NYC mean nothing to them, and teachers have absolutely no human or civil rights, AND THAT THE AMERICA WE KNOW DOES NOT EXIST IN THE RUBBER ROOMS.
ADMINISTRATORS who abuse power and ignore the law for decades, come to believe that they are above the law, and finally that they ARE the law. The time has come to show administrators that the schools are failing, even as governments do when the rule of law disappears and the business of the people, in this case --the nation's children-- become second to their need to remain in power as tyrants with absolute power to rule the domain... and destroy the lives of teachers, even as they destroy the hope of a great education for children."