When Carol Minton came home from work she brought in the mail. Just like any other day, she quickly scanned through it as she walked into the front room. Mostly junk. Advertisements for long term care plans, car repair, home improvement. And a letter from her school district office.
The last one intrigued her, as she was not expecting such a letter. There was nothing going on at work that she knew of. No personnel changes. No building construction. No illnesses of an administrator. So she dropped the letter on the kitchen counter and figured she’d read it later on.
Carol got busy with dinner preparations. She pulled out pots and pans, oil, a package of chicken breasts, veggies and a fruit salad she had made the night before. While she worked, she listened to the news. Another shooting. Gang violence. Another young man’s life taken before he accomplished much of anything.
Flooding in the south and blizzards in the Midwest. Politicians spouting nonsense. Another victory for the basketball team and a loss for the hockey team. The same old stuff.
Carol’s kids came home, loaded with stories of things that were going on at school. Her husband rushed in, changed clothes and poured himself a drink. They ate dinner and then dishes were cleared. Although everything was the same, Carol smiled with pleasure and pride. She loved the comfort of her home, her life, her family.
Her husband sorted through the mail. “You got a letter from the district.”
“I know. I’m sure it’s nothing important.”
“You should open it just in case. Maybe that administrator you don’t like is quitting.”
Carol opened the letter to satisfy her husband. She expected a form letter addressed to everyone in the district, so was a bit shocked when it was to her, personally. As she read, her heart began to pound furiously and breathing became laborious.
The Director of Human Resources was demanding her attendance at a meeting to be held on Tuesday night. Carol was puzzled. This was her twenty-eighth year in the district. She was recognized as the Teacher of the Year just four years ago. She had never been disciplined or called into the principal’s office for a talk. She had never had an altercation with another employee. As far as she knew, only people up for termination or being placed on administrative leave were called before the school board.
Carol did not sleep that night. Although she was exhausted, she went to work, just like any other day. Fortunately her students were calm and cooperative. Her lessons went well. During her prep period she walked over to the office, hoping to catch her supervisor. He was busy talking to a student. Carol hung around for several minutes, but when the student did not come out, she went back to her classroom.
At the end of the day, Carol went home and fixed dinner, just like always. Her teenagers cleaned up, thankfully, when she asked. She told her husband she was going to attend the school board meeting, and left without any further explanation.
When Carol arrived in the Board Room thirty minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, she all seats were empty. She paced about, looking at without really seeing the student work on display. When the board members entered the room ten minutes later, she sat.
There was much shuffling of papers and quiet whispers. Lowered eyes and quick glances. Carol fidgeted, unable to pick up any vibes about why she had been summoned.
After five minutes or so, the president, John Winnters, asked Carol to approach the speaker’s podium. “Please state your full name and the school at which you work.”
Carol did so.
He coughed, clearing his throat. “Do you know why you are here?”
“A formal complaint has been filed regarding your teaching practices. Your curriculum. Are you aware of this?”
“No.” Carol looked at her principal who was seated to the left of Winters, but his eyes remained downcast.
“A group of parents filled a letter of complaint stating that your personal teaching philosophy interferes with their students’ ability to learn. They contend that no direct instruction takes place in your classroom. That students are assigned seat work which they are to complete independently after reading explanations in the text.” He shuffled papers in front of him, then looked up at Carol. “What do you say about these charges?”
Carol’s hands were trembling. How did she go from being the honored teacher to having her teaching practices challenged in less than four years? She had not gotten lazy or complacent. She had not forsaken tedious lesson planning. She had not resorted to free grades for little or no work done. But here she stood, being treated like she was incompetent. Like some of the older teachers at her school whose classrooms were supposedly nothing but party places.
“These accusations are false,” Carol said. “Direct instruction is an integral part of the curriculum.”
“Are you saying that students never work independently?”
“Of course there is independent work, but only after instruction and guided practice. Once I feel that students have the knowledge to work independently, then, and only then, is seatwork assigned.”
Carol heard noises behind her and turned sideways to try to identify the sources. Almost every seat was occupied. Carol recognized some faces. Parents she had seen and spoken to on Back to School Night. Others she met on Report Card Night. There were teachers from her school. In the back row she saw her union officials.
Now she didn’t know what to do. She was pretty sure that her rights were being violated. That her teaching practices were not to be challenged before an audience.
“Can I ask the purpose of my attendance here this evening?” she asked.
Winters glanced at her principal, nodded, then sat silently.
The principal spoke. “Carol, because you have tenure, you have not been evaluated the past three years. This is common practice and not a failure of your direct supervisor. Please note that such proceedings are not unusual when a teacher’s daily practices are being questioned in a letter of complaint. This constitutes a serious problem, which is why the board has convened and you have been asked to be in attendance.”
Carol looked down at the podium. She saw that she was gripping it tightly with both hands and willed herself to relax. “You are disciplining me in a public forum.”
“Not disciplining, no,” the principal stated, “but investigating. We are giving you a chance to answer the complaints before acting.”
“What action are you contemplating?”
“In such circumstances, the teacher is placed on administrative leave while an investigation commences.”
“You are placing me on administrative leave?”
“Yes.” The principal leaned over toward Winters and nodded. Winters nodded back.
Carol was speechless. She stood there, looking from the face of one board member to the next, hoping to see denial or shock or both. Instead she saw embarrassed glances, flushed cheeks, and nervous clasping of hands. She looked behind her and caught the eyes of her union president. He nodded encouragingly.
“I demand union representation.”
“You have that right,” Winters said. “This meeting will be adjourned for fifteen minutes, giving you time to meet with your council.” The gavel was pounded and the board filed out.
Carol walked numbly to the back of the room. Her union president held her right arm and escorted her outside. “What’s going on?” Carol asked. “I’ve never been disciplined. I’ve never been in trouble.” Carol stumbled along like a little child. She was taken to a car and put into the passenger seat.
Two union officers got into the back. “First of all, we will not let this public charade continue. Do you understand?”
“There is nothing we can do about the administrative leave for now, but we will challenge that. We will attempt to arrange private meetings from now on. You are not to speak with anyone about this. Not a friend or colleague. Not an administrator or parent.”
“But does this mean that I can no longer teach?”
“Yes. Until this issue has been resolved.”
“Could I lose my job?”
“In a worst-case scenario, yes, but we won’t let that happen.”
“I’m so close to retirement. Would they really do this to me?”
The union president sighed. “Yes. It’s a way to force you out without full retirement. Believe me, we will fight this. There are procedures that should have been followed. Your case is a clear violation of your contract.”
“But how do I explain this to my husband? To my children? What will my students be told?”
“Your students will only know that you are out on leave.”
Carol snickered. “That’s not true. Parents brought these complaints against me, so their children know. You can’t keep this a secret. There are no secrets at school.”
“Trust us. We will see that the right thing is done.” He looked at his watch. “Time is up. When we go back inside, I will stand with you. Do not speak, even if questioned. Do not interact with any of the board members or any of the parents.”
Carol hated to return to the board room, but had no choice. She was humiliated. To be chastised, questioned, in public was a nightmare.
The next minutes went by in a buzz of talk that Carol would later try to process. On her way home, she planned what to say to her husband. She thought about the words she could use to soften the accusations.
It did not go easy. Her husband took the side of the parents. He said there must be some truth to their accusations or the board would not have acted in such a manner. That maybe she had gotten lazy.
Over the next several weeks Carol went through her days as if walking in a fog. She got up in the morning as if she were going to work. She researched activities on the Internet to support her lessons. She did laundry and read books. Sort of. It’s hard to hang onto plot when your mind is elsewhere.
She met with union representatives and discussed strategy. Fortunately they had been given access to her classroom and had picked up her lesson plan book. Detailed notes were taken. Charts created.
It seemed like a never-ending process. Finally the day came when Carol returned to the district offices and stood once again before the board. She was glad that she was not alone.
“After much consideration,” Winters said, “the board has decided to end your administrative leave and allow you to return to the classroom. You may return to duty on Monday.”
“We demand a public apology,” the union president said. “You have embarrassed our client and subjected her to unwarranted criticism. You have humiliated her in front of parents and colleagues. Her reputation as a respected teacher has been damaged.”
Winters blushed. “What do you expect us to do? A complaint was filed.”
“Not only do we demand a written apology, but one that is sent to all district employees and families before Carol returns to work on Monday. If this is not done, the union will file a formal complaint with the state offices.”
Carol watched in amazement as the board members shifted uncomfortably in their seats. She felt that each of them knew they had acted without warrant and that they had damaged her reputation within the community. She stood taller, with shoulders straighter. In a position of power.
“The board will consider your requests and contact you late this evening.”
A gavel was pounded and the meeting temporarily adjourned.
Carol fell into the nearest seat. She felt like a popped balloon. Empty of air, but ready to be filled again.
Thirty minutes later the board returned. The union president stood alone at the podium.
“The board has agreed to your terms. A notice will go out to all employees and school families with a statement clearing Carol of all charges.”
When Carol drove home, she wanted to cheer, but couldn’t. A letter would never completely undo the damage. From now on until she retired, her practices would be challenged. She would be evaluated every year and her actions scrutinized. Future parents would challenge every assignment and grade. As a professional, her career was over in all but time only.