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Welcome to the Turf War

March 13, 2018

As I have documented in earlier posts, I don’t always see eye to eye with my administrators.  I was union president for two years, and that tends to put one in the cross hairs of school leadership.  Since stepping down,  I have done my best to stay out of school politics and focus on my teaching, writing and putting energy into managing Parkinson’s.  Every once in a while, though, I get pulled back in.

This time, it wasn’t because I objected to what I thought was a terrible decision, or because I chose to have a shouting match with my principal in the hallway.  It was decided that I was to be taken to the woodshed because I chose to help a student.  If that strikes you as odd, your perspective is not misplaced.

When the student I referred to in a recent post decided to seek me out,  I communicated with the support staff (social worker, counselor, school psychologist) to let them know what was going on.  The social worker conveyed to me she was pleased that the student had bonded with me, and encouraged my continued support.  I was glad to be part of a team that could help this student.  Or so I thought.

One afternoon, my student decided she wanted to tell me about what happened the day of her sexual assault.  She hadn’t been able to tell anyone, and felt she needed to.   I did my due diligence, and encouraged her to speak to the social worker or the psychologist, but she didn’t feel comfortable enough to share with them.  I told the student that was fine, but I needed to let the support staff know what was happening.

I fired off an email and with that done, she began to tell her story of that awful day.  When you hear the words “rape” or “sexual assault” you of course intellectually understand the horror of such an event.  But when you hear someone tell their story, you realize how inept your rational perspective is.  It becomes clear that the terror and trauma is deeper than you can truly comprehend.   So I sat and listened, hoping my presence would reassure her in some small way.

After she was done. she sat before me, trembling, sobbing, wiping her face with the sleeve of her hoodie.  The bell rang and she was supposed to head off to her English class.  It was clear, however, she was in no shape to do so and the last thing I was going to do was send her away at that moment.  I sent an email to her English teacher–I detest being interrupted in class by a phone call so I try to avoid doing that to my colleagues–and let my student continue to process her grief.  When she seemed able to do return to class, I would write her a pass to class.

12916641 - unrolling sod for a new lawn

A short while later, the school psychologist shows up and says she wants to take my student back to class.  At that point, my student felt ready to return, so I thought it was excellent timing.  I was pleased that my student was starting the process of healing.  I knew it would be a long, hard road, but I was glad that my colleagues and I were all on the same page.

Except, it turns out, we weren’t.

At the end of the day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. He wanted to speak to me about the student.  To my surprise, I was informed that I was behaving irresponsibly, because my student should have been in class.

I responded that in my professional opinion she was in no shape to be in class.  I countered that I have had a number of students over the years miss a number of classes to speak to support staff, including one who misses at least one class per week.  Why, I asked, didn’t they need to be in class?

The response from my principal was that the support staff were professionals that were qualified to make that call–the implication being that I was not.  I asked my principal to specify what it was that disqualified me:  my 22 years in the classroom, or my degree in counseling from the U.S. naval academy?

Unable to answer that question, he finally admitted the rub: that the support staff was upset my student was speaking to me, and not them.  I informed the principal that the student, for whatever reason, has decided she trusts me, and not them.  Furthermore, if he thinks I’m the kind of educator who turns away a troubled student looking for support, he clearly has no idea who I am.

After the meeting, I spotted an email from the school social worker: “If [my student] is more than five minutes late, the office should be called immediately.  And is she arrives late to class with a pass, it can only be from a member of the support staff, and not any of her classroom teachers (emphasis added).”  I wonder who she meant.

What I was hoping for was that the support staff  would respond by saying “We’d prefer she speaks to us, but since she’s bonded with you, let’s find a way to use this to our advantage and help her.”  Instead, they complained to the principal about me.  Instead of prioritizing what was best for this student, they decided protecting their turf was much more important.

So, they can have it.  They can fight over the turf all they want to.  Me?  I’m just going to support my student any way that I can.

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