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Standing for Something

I’m admittedly conflict averse. So much so that I’m realizing only now why the cynics mocked Rodney King after the LA riots in 1991 for saying: “Can’t we all just get along?”

The real answer to his question, at least for optimistic and civilized thinkers, is that we can get along most of the time. Probably even 95% of it, if we’re committed to the cause of drama-free living. But sometimes, unfortunately, we need to channel a little less Rodney and a little more Malcom X, by following the wisdom attributed to him in the quote: “If you don’t stand for something, then you fall for anything.”

The cause that inspires me to rise up off my haunches, and risk being called a hypocrite for naming my website “Sunnyside Communications,” is teacher tenure.

The frustration started rising within me when I was a public school teacher myself in the 90s. It irked me that I was expected to join the teacher’s union when I saw that so much of its energy went to protecting 10% of the teachers—those who fought for the right to retain their jobs even though they were either unable or unwilling to do the work. 

All the rationalization that tenure was in place to protect groundbreaking, controversial research and lesson planning sounded perfectly logical for college professors, but I only saw it used as a shield to protect the lazy or unqualified at the high school level.

Even then, before having children of my own, I couldn’t understand why those teachers’ right to work was somehow held to a higher value than their 150 students’ right to a proper education.

When I left the profession to stay home and raise my own children, I got involved at their school as an active volunteer. And it didn’t take long for my irritation on the subject of tenure to expand into anger. My own children lucked out and were instructed by teachers who will go down in our family history book as heroes who were not only competent in the many subject matters, but also understood the social and emotional needs of the little ones and truly cared about their well being.

Some of my friends’ children weren’t as lucky, however, and I watched the anguish of not just the wasted hour per school day that I saw as a high school teacher, but a completely wasted day for 180 days of instruction. The utter wrongness of this angered me, but since it never touched my children directly, I figured it was someone else’s battle to fight.

The wrongness became personal once our girls hit middle school. While they have had some teachers who ought to receive medals of honor from the President himself for teaching not just math, language arts, theater and dance, but also curiosity, passion and compassion; my girls have also experienced the exact opposite.

Several of their teachers have utterly wasted their time. And given the cumulative nature of most areas of study, they have prevented our daughters and the rest of their students from progressing to more advanced levels of study due to the lack of preparation.

Does this anger me and every other parent involved in their children’s education? Heck yes. Can we do a single thing about it? Heck no. By the time our children get to this grade, we know to suck it up due to the sheer impossibility that anything will ever happen because of tenure.

The question is how do we cope with the powerlessness we feel over a subject as important to us as our children’s preparation for the future? I don’t know how others cope, but I know the way I prevent this from consuming me is to get involved at the school and make an impact in the ways I can. In my case, that is to work on subjects I feel passionate about like creating a caring school culture and training kids to be an Upstander to help combat the issue of bullying that’s so pervasive on middle school campuses.

The sunny side of me needs and likes to do this. It does good things for kids and it helps keep my 95% pleasant-to-others-ratio in place.

Last spring, however, I had to invoke the ugly 5% by standing up to a teacher who was doing so much worse than “just” not teaching my daughter—she was actively bullying her. I knew it would be as ugly as it turned out to be, but felt I had to draw a line.

Because I had already reported this teacher’s inappropriate behavior that I witnessed two years ago when she socked a student in the stomach, I was convinced that we weren’t dealing with an isolated incident of misjudgment. I also know this to be true because we parents talk— and there’s plenty to talk about when you feel like the system has failed you. So I knew other stories of this teacher using personal information about students to humiliate them in front of their peers.

I felt sick as I realized I’d be a big ol’ hypocrite to teach the merits of being an Upstander and not be one myself. So I asked for a meeting with the teacher and principal even though I knew the system would protect her. My goal was to present the stories that I’d experienced first hand, as well as those I’d heard from friends, to let her see her actions strung together and recognize herself as the bully she is and, ideally, make the choice to change her ways.

I eventually got to have that meeting, after a couple of attempts by administrators to prevent the spread of information that could force the district to take action. After I spoke my mind, it felt cathartic to know for sure that my message was being heard by the only person who could do something about it—the bully herself.

So, Rodney, I used to wish that we could all just get along, but now I know that sometimes keeping things pleasant doesn’t always get you far enough for the change you need to see. And I won’t fall for that.

5 Comment count
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Yeah, Shana!!!

So much to be learned from your blog. Reminds me of that expression that bad behavior triumphs when good people do nothing...thank God you have the will and voice to be heard.

I've missed  your blogs. Your talent and creativity are so appreciated and enjoyed.

Have a great day!

Mary Walsh 

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Thanks, Mary!

Thanks so much for your kind note! The aftermath of that confrontation and the publication of this column in our local newspaper took a huge toll on me, but I am still glad I had the courage to speak my mind.

I'm so happy to be back to in the Red Room mix- I have missed you, too!


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Did the teacher quit her bullying?   Can old teachers really change--or do we have to hope they die off quickly?  Glad you had the courage to face her.  Hope it helped.  The written account in the administration's files added to the others already  there might eventually lead to dismissal despite tenure--at least that is a possibility (tho unlikely) in Illinois. I can't imagine a teacher being allowed to sock a student in the stomach. When a student wastes a daily hour in the class of a bad teacher, I feel it is a criminal offense. A serious theft. 

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I agree, Sue

I completely agree with your thoughts of even one wasted hour. My daughters' experiences with ineffective teachers in middle school made my blood boil. This particular bully never stopped bullying, though I was successful in getting my daughter removed from the class. It still makes me sick, one year later, to hear my friends' new stories of their children's experience in her class. It is just plain wrong that the union protects her from being fired at the expense of the children's wellbeing. 

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Pcket Line

Maybe the parents should picket the school asking for her resignation. (Or at least to have their children removed from her class as you achieved.)  She might learn how it feels to be publicly humiliated.  Would she walk across a picket line???? Would the union be offended if she walked through a picket line?  I guess you can tell that my blood is boiling too.  Bullying is so disgraceful--especially in a teacher.