Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Year in Review and 10 Things To Do in Tough Work Situations

By now, most of us are enjoying our Summer breaks. It seems those of us in the South go back to school earlier and thus, end the year earlier, than those of you in the North East. As such, I'm about three weeks into my summer vacation. I've blogged a few times about how tumultuous my school year was, but I've never quite gone into specifics. Mainly that is because this is a blog about teaching -not complaining- and my emotions were still swirled up in the ever-constant-unfolding-drama that was this year.

Yet, I find myself wanting to share with you what happened this year for cathartic reasons. . .And also, to know if this is common, and (maybe) to give you a bit of perspective should you even find yourself in a similar circumstance (I pray not).

Here is the bare-bones of my experience this year.

In December I was due to finish my Master's degree. In early November, I had an interview literally "fall" in my lap and was offered an art teaching position at a nearby school. Since my income was 20% less than the state average for a first year teacher and I did not have benefits, I considered the position seriously. Upon encouragement from my professors and mentors, I approached my principal and asked her to if she would be willing to release me from my contract in light of the fact the position I was offered was a $14,000 pay raise.

She flat-out refused (which is her right) citing that since the position was not considered a "promotion" it would be in violation of my contract to release me, and that she could get in trouble with the school's board of directors (which I later found out she lied about as my school didn't have a board of directors). I was, to say the least, quite upset because since the position paid so much more, it indeed felt like a promotion to me. I countered this, and was met with a lot of excuses. This basically upset me to my core, and was to become symbolic of how all of my interactions went down with my principal.

At the end of this meeting my principal full-stop asked me if I would be returning for the next school year. I replied that I had to consider my livelihood and told her that I could only consider returning if my pay was returned to the state average for someone of my experience. She ended the meeting by stating she would pray for me.

My principal had signed on as my "collaborating teacher" for my Master's degree. In fact, she insisted on filling this role and refused to delegate it to anyone else on staff. This role depended on her coming and observing me in my classroom. In four years I was never formally observed in my classroom by my principal and she made up the information on the documents. In December she was slow to turn in the final documents needed for my degree. I kept reminding her about the deadline, and she kept saying that they would be ready soon. On the day the items were due, I still did not have them. I went by her office to check and see if she had them and she said this: "I'll get those documents for you, but it may not be on the time line you want, or in time for your professors."

Honestly, I felt like I was being punished for considering another position. And, I couldn't graduate without those documents, which she knew. I instantly called my lead professor and explained the situation to her. Since I had consistently turned in my paperwork on time, and because my professor had had issues with my principal concerning my Master's degree paperwork previously, my Master's program was able to work something out for me wherein I was not on my Principal's leash. My principal never completed the paperwork.

I graduated and received my Master's degree.

In March, my principal gathered everyone for a faculty meeting in a room we never previously had met in. The room was circumspect because it is the furthest room from anyone or anything else in the school. This meant that parents, who were frequent visitors to our school, could not witness the meeting. At this meeting the founder of the school stood up and made a 45 minute speech about how bad the economy had hurt the school and ended it by saying that he was excited to announce that a buyer for the school building had been found. Once the school building was sold, the school would no longer have any debt.

We, the teachers, were speechless. All of this was news to us, and it was especially surprising since we had just finished building a huge gym and performing arts center the previous school year. The school founder went on to state that a new facility would be found for the school, and that obviously there would most likely be a reduced staff. He finished by stating that we were to stay upbeat for families and students because we were a family.

The next day it was announced in the local paper that our school was in foreclosure and that the "buyer" for the school was the bank. The school founder countered -in his only public statement- that it was "technical foreclosure" and meant good things for the school. I, quite meanly, thought: "As in we have no money."

That day, all hell broke loose. Parents, many of whom had sent their children to my school since pre-kindergarten were outraged. In December, they had been offered a special incentive to re-enrolling their child for the 2011-2012 school year. If they prepaid the 2011-2012 school year tuition in advance, they would receive a discount that -to my understanding- saved them approximately $5,000. Upon the notice of foreclosure all of the prepaid tuition money was "locked" into an account and could not be released until June 10th. Many parents had $10,000 or more locked up in the pre-paid tuition account, and they couldn't get a solid assurance that they would ever see that money again. Additionally, in December, the parents had fund-raised and put in new tile in the school foyer. The parents felt, quite rightly, that the school administration had known they were facing foreclosure and failed to state this to the parents prior to the parents improving the school facility. The school administration continued to ask for money from parents knowing that the school environment for 2011-2012 would not be the same; the parents felt deceived, and they were ANGRY.

It became unclear if the school would have enough committed students and families to financially continue for the 2011-2012 school year. The students, parents, and teachers went from March to June not knowing if the school would continue for the next year.

The parents started an online chatboard wherein they could share news, ideas, and vent about the foreclosure. During this time, it came out that the mortgage for the school building had not been paid in over 2 years. And, as the school was a 501-c3 all of the information about salaries for administrators and boards SHOULD have been public. The salary information is public as that is posted through government websites, but since founder of the school owned several LLCs under various interpretations of the school name, it was hard to figure out this salary information. It did come out that there was no official board of directors other than one person, who -based on vapid gossip- had little to do with the school.

I found the chatboard to be a consistent source of both amusement and stress.

The chatboard was a place of vicious gossip and accusations. There were two camps of parents on the chatboard: those who supported the school continuing, and those were wary and felt deceived. Those who felt deceived and/or desired to question the school used false names and those who supported the school used actual names. Eventually the chatboard became a place wherein one group called the other group "cowards." Finally, as the whole thing made our school look like a bad episode of "Family Feud" it was taken down.

During this time, teachers were scared to death. Most faculty members strongly felt that the likelihood of the school continuing to be very small. In that same vein, we all faced the loss of our jobs in a very tough market. Parents wanted to vent with us, and we were afraid to say anything other than the official school line. . .Yet, the administration demonstrated no loyalties to us either.

Letters were released from various people in leadership positions at this time discouraging teachers and parents alike from contacting lawyers as doing this would cause the loss of monies needed to refund pre-paid tuition and to pay teacher salaries. Lawsuits, quite understandably, were filed anyway.

Once teacher salaries were mentioned all of the faculty began to panic. We asked the administration confirm that we would still receive our summer paychecks. There was a lot of concern that once we had finished the last day of school, that the administration would have no incentive to pay us any longer and would stop. Rather than confirm our pay was safe, the administration used our salaries as a wedge to get parents to continue making their tuition payments. A letter was sent to parents stating that as long as they continued to fulfill their contractual obligations that teachers would be paid.

During one of these meetings, after one teacher voiced some concerns, the principal asked: "Did you get your paycheck today [it was payday]? The teacher affirmed that she had and the principal look relieved and said: "Oh, good."

Yeah, so the faculty was at an all-time high stress level. You can imagine the gossip and lies that spread quickly during this time. The administrators began to expect more and more work out of us in the hopes of keeping parents devoted to the school by demonstrating how involved the teachers were. I had several incredibly tense meetings with administrators in group settings during this time. Honestly, the air was ripe with dissent and it really began to feel like us against them.

Several parents filed lawsuits and I talked to a lawyer myself about protecting my pay. But, I was told -quite rightly- that it was best to "wait and see."

In the midst of this, I very aggressively went after jobs for the following school year. I committed to my path that I would not return. . .And, eventually, altered it that to "under any circumstances." I was offered three positions on the contingency that they could speak to my principal on the phone and confirm my employment. They did not need a reference, they just wanted confirmation. I lost all three of these jobs because my principal kept the following work schedule during this time: She would arrive around 10 a.m. and then leave around 2 p.m. She simply wasn't around.

As you know, I eventually landed a job. As of the last day of school I was one of only two faculty members at my school to have a job lined up for next year. And, we were still unsure if we would be paid for the summer.

The day before the last day of school, the administration formally announced that it planned to continue for the 2011-2012 school year, families would be receiving pre-paid tuition back and that teachers would be paid summer salaries.

Unfortunately, the damage was done. I also went through the school rosters -available through my teacher grade-book as I taught everyone in the school- to see who all was enrolled for the next year. As of the time I looked, 20 students were committed (out of over 300) for the 2011-2012 school year.

I left after post-planning with a sense of distinct relief that I wouldn't have to go back to the school ever again. The doors were formally closed to my school forever on June 15th. The lawsuits, which include punitive damages, are still pending.

Last week, I received a letter in the mail from the presidents of our Parent's Club. The Parent's Club had been disgusted with the school administration from the announcement of the foreclosure. They planned to officially disband at the end of the school year. But, since they were an entity devoted to raising funds for school use, they would have return all money in their account at the end of the year to the school administrators. They did not wish to do this. Enclosed in the incredibly kind letter was a cheque for $100.

And now, it is over.

Here is what I learned from this experience:

1. Do your best in a high-stress situation to avoid gossip. It is SOO tempting, but mostly it made the work environment really toxic.

2. Remember why you are there. I was there because I like teaching. When I focused on the students, no matter how insane the day was, it always improved.

3. Band together. Instead of looking on your least favorite co-workers with disdain, find a way to work together. You, ideally, should be doing this anyway. But, it makes a huge difference to feel like you are "in it together."

4. Never underestimate parents. I had parents come out of the woodwork to help me pack my room, offer support, and help out. They really did try to understand what the teachers were going through and wanted to help.

5. Don't complain about work on Facebook (at least in an obvious manner). That, my friend, is a dangerous thing to do!

6. If there is a chatboard. . .Don't read it; be above it. I wish I had never read some of the hurtful comments on that thing. It raised my blood pressure and made me think less of many people I genuinely had previously respected.

7. Be polite but distant from your administration. Do what your told, and keep your head down -when you can.

8. Be active with the students; volunteer. The parents will appreciate that you are still a professional in a tough situation. I've recently found out about several former coworkers who are working for businesses student families own. The parents were impressed with them.

9. Do not be afraid to stand up for yourself. There is asshole, and then there is assertive. I was really surprised at how my many of my coworkers were afraid to ask my administration questions. You many not like the answers, and should be prepared to be polite about that, but you still have the right to politely ask. I'm all for keeping distant -see above- but when you have a question -ASK. Asking is SO much better than speculative gossip. I never once had a "bad" meeting with my administration because I asked a question.

10. Attitude is EVERYTHING. You have to be positive or it will really be miserable.

And, as for #10, I have many of you to thank for that! Your kind comments and thoughts really shored me up. Simply knowing that there is a community of art educators out there makes me feel good.

Thanks Y'all!

5 comments:

  1. WOW. Incredible story - I'm so happy for you and hope your new job turns out to be as terrific as your new room appears to be!

    As crazy as things can seem sometimes in my school (I would love to post about my administration but will not) at least there is the public school structure and also the state regulations that make certain things a "given".

    Thanks for sharing the story, and good luck to you, Amy.

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  2. Wow! I always thought you taught in a city public school. Maybe I didn't read close enough . . . just some things you wrote and I assumed. A private school? Wow that is a crazy story. Glad you didn't miss a beat. You are on to your next chapter.

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  3. Is your school a charter school? This is what we are fighting in Wisconsin right now (among other things). It's been a stressful year here too. You are amazingly strong. I'm so glad you were able to find another job! You sound like not just an incredible teacher, but an amazing person. Because the climate is tense right now in Wisconsin, I shared this with teachers in my union in Madison, WI. Your story will inspire other teachers to stay strong through difficult times. I found myself reading this with my mouth open in shock!

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  4. Ms Walsh - My school was a private school. Interestingly enough the bank
    was going to rent the building to a new charter school but today the charter
    was denied by a vote yesterday!

    I have really been worried about y'all in Wisconsin. I can only sympathize
    (to some small level).

    As for my 10 thoughts. . . I'm glad they resonate positively. I'm definitely
    guilty of breaking some of them! But, in hindsight when I was able to, I strived
    to do all of that.

    I hope y'all in Wisconsin have some positive resolution soon!

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  5. Your story is so over the top that I can hardly believe you survived the stress. I wish you the best of luck this year as you put the drama behind you and start your career afresh.
    barb

    ReplyDelete