Our second winner is one of the most powerful stories, out of far too many like it I’ve seen and been told about during interviews, about intimidation and bullying of teachers by school principals and administrators. Few people outside the classroom understand why teacher voices are so rarely heard about the real problems in education. This passage will help many understand why too many great teachers leave the profession, and why there are so many who remain are silent and are burned out.
Shannon Hernandez was a public school teacher for 15 years. She is now a college professor, consultant, and author of an outstanding book about teaching – Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher. Shannon blogs passionately about student-centered public education reform at her website and at The Huffington Post, and calls herself (a title I love and plan to steal!) an “education activist.” You are strongly encouraged to visit her website at http://myfinal40days.com/
What makes Shannon’s piece so special is that she does a far better job than anyone I’ve seen at letting you see how crushing and hurtful such bullying can be. Books like mine just show summary examples, and how widespread bullying and intimidation by administrators is in our schools. But, Shannon’s book lets you get inside a teacher and hurt along with her and thousands of teachers like her. Consider, when you read this story, that for two weeks Shannon only knew she was being investigated by the state of New York for doing some unspecified thing labeled “inappropriate” more than a year earlier, and even the principal refused to speak of the matter with Shannon, saying that we wasn’t allowed to discuss it. She didn’t know the charge, nor what “parent” had made it. If the charge is upheld, her teaching career is over – instead of being on the attendance list, her name will appear on the CORI reports.
Having gone through the same thing myself, and watching (and hearing about) so many others undergo the same pain, uncertainty, and fear, I deeply respect that she can share this for others. Many teachers around the nation will feel a bit better, after reading this, because they will realize that they are not alone.
Many non-teachers will understandably think this must be a rare occurrence or exaggeration. It is far from that. It is a common practice in a school bureaucracy where the principal has little or no accountability under the current system. By having this charge on file, a principal effectively “owns” the person from that day forward, especially if the target is an outspoken “troublemaker.” (If you have not had the chance, please take a look at a post from a few weeks ago to see the scope of this reprehensible behavior: Intimidating our teachers – The silence of the lambs.)
In an NEA survey two years ago, 81% of teachers expected abuse of their position by principals and administrators. In my own three years of research I found 60% of teachers believe administrative decisions are based strongly on cronyism for the benefit of the principal’s close circle of friends, and just 30% of teachers get strong support, when needed, from their principals. Only 34% of teachers believe their principals have the training or experience to be qualified to run as complex an organization as today’s schools. My biggest regret in researching Lifting the Curtain was that I did not think to have a question about bullying and intimidation on the 760 surveys I received. But the topic dominated the hundreds of one-on-one interviews at the schools.
Here is Shannon’s outstanding post. It is almost as good as the full version I read by downloading the Kindle version of her book from Amazon! I enjoyed it so much that, after the madness of this “call for submissions” ends next week, I plan to do a review of Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher.
For the past two weeks, I have been sick to my stomach over the misconduct investigation, which I learned of 14 days ago from my principal. He informed me that I was under investigation for something a parent had reported last school year, but he could not tell me what had been said. I can’t eat. Last night I didn’t sleep. Today is the day I travel into downtown Brooklyn for my misconduct hearing.
I arrive at 10:45 a.m. and meet Linda, my union representative. She welcomes me with a smile and I burst into tears. She sits next to me in the waiting room, completely sympathetic, and hands me a tissue. We spend a few minutes trying to pull me together before we are called back into the cold cubicle with the bare walls and icy white paint.
The investigator strides into the tiny room and takes a seat, looking pleasant enough. She has long red hair and a kind smile. She sits across from us at the round table, opens the folder, and begins.
“Ms. Hernandez, you are here because of a report we received from your principal last year,” she states. “Your principal witnessed you inappropriately touching a group of girls. He states that he walked into the classroom where several of you were in a circle, embracing in a hug.” The investigator looks up and her gaze meets mine.
I remember like it was yesterday—that day a year ago was a special day. I had finished administering a high-stakes state exam to my wonderful group of special education students. They finished the test, so proud they hadn’t run out of time and completely ecstatic because they were well-prepared to write the essay. They were so proud of the work they had just completed and had struggled with all year long. And at the end of the test and after all the materials had been collected, one of my students said, “Can we have a group hug? We did awesome!”
And so we embraced—there were about seven of us in the huddle. I gave them a pep talk about hard work and we circled up, much like a sports team does when strategizing. And in that moment—I remember it clearly—the principal walked through the door. He smiled, did what he had come to do, and left.
“Why has it taken you so long to investigate this case?” I ask. I assume there are thousands of other bogus cases clogging this screwed-up system, but I want to hear her answer.
She tells me that for the last year, she has been chasing my former students—to obtain their statements. She has visited their houses and their cousins’ houses. And with the next piece of information she shares with me, I know that everything I have ever stood for, as a human being and a public school teacher, matters.
“And Ms. Hernandez, not one student or their family would speak against you. Time and again, each one said, “‘Leave her alone. She’s the best teacher I ever had.’”
I weep tears of relief, gratitude, and joy. My anxiety is gone and the shame has dissolved.
The investigator tells me the case will be closed because the allegation was unfounded. Linda and I are dismissed and we take a seat in the lobby. I am still sobbing tears of relief. And while I know this could be the end of the saga, I decide I’m not going to let it be. You see, I also discovered in this meeting that it wasn’t a parent who had reported me at all, but it was the principal.
This is adult bullying at its best and I won’t stand for it: My principal will know exactly how I feel about him within the week. I plan on standing up to my boss—the silent bully.