It is rare that I have no idea how to start a story. That something is so wrong, so mangled that I can’t begin to make sense of it.
I guess the only place to begin is the beginning, so here goes.
I met a teacher named Gretchen in early October, 5 years ago, at East High School. It was Parent/Teacher Conference day, and I was wearing a dress and heels. I was 8 months pregnant and massively uncomfortable. I had trudged down to the main office, no small feat in our city’s largest urban high school.
As I was leaning on the counter, catching my breath, I overheard the woman next to me talking to the secretary. She was asking for my supervisor and explaining that she was an ESL teacher assigned to the building.
What?! It was October, our department wasn’t expecting a new teacher.
I turned to her and introduced myself and asked her how long she’d been waiting. Her answer made me gape, she’d been assigned to my building from the beginning of the year and had been showing up and calling for days, trying to find someone to tell her where to go. She told me she was assigned to East part time, and was teaching at the jail the second half of the day.
I told her to come with me, that I’d take her to our supervisor and straighten out where she was supposed to be.
We started down the hallway. “What’s the ESL population look like at the jail?” I asked.
“I don’t know, the kids aren’t there, so they have me teaching gym.”
I stopped and looked at her.
“There’s no gym teacher and I know some yoga.” she replied, laughing as she saw the face that I made at her.
We continued to walk and make small talk.
My internal monologue was off and running “The District has a shortage of ESL teachers because this is how they treat them when they hire them. What the hell is wrong with these people? She didn’t get her Masters Degree in yoga! This is ridiculous.” and so on.
We did finally get her schedule straightened out, although she continued to teach yoga at the jail. You see, that is just the type of person Gretchen is-energetic, gritty, enthusiastic, hardworking.
Honestly, she’s the only person I can see actually teaching yoga in a jail and not looking completely insane.
We worked together for the next year before I realized that she was hiding something.
It was little things at first. When my daughter was born she checked my car seat installation 5 or 6 times. She would talk about her children, but never in much detail. She started asking about taking Family Medical Leave and if I knew how to help her get the paperwork.
One day, right after Christmas, I finally just asked her. “Gretchen what is going on? Are you ok? Is your family ok?”. I even think she tried to blow me off.
Yes, I pried.
She finally opened up and told me the story of her family, of her son, Tristen.
They had been in a car accident when Tristen was one year old. His carseat failed and he was ejected from the car where he sustained a traumatic brain injury. Due to the accident, Tristen was severely physically and mentally disabled. His health wasn’t good and the doctors wanted to intubate him. He was getting infections and Gretchen wanted to be prepared in the event that she needed to leave quickly to go and take care of him.
As she described her situation in more detail I became more and more astonished with my friend. She showed up to work and gave 100% Every. Single. Day. She was at all of our student events. Her students, all 75 of them, came to her for everything. On top of all of it, she was damn good in the classroom.
After she was finished I bluntly asked her if she sued the carseat company and if so, why in the world would she work?
“I need a job with health insurance, and I really just love working with these kids. People don’t like working with the hard ones, but I do. So if I don’t do it who will?”
There was a settlement, but because health care in the United States is complicated and unfair, Gretchen had to fight for every dollar that Tristen got. Theoretically he had millions of dollars in a trust, but her son’s life came with mountains of paperwork and lawyers and bills. Every service he got had to be documented, and none of the money could be used for anything other than Tristen’s care.
To top it all off, her son’s health was failing.
I wanted to drag her down to our Principal, have her repeat the story. In my mind, there had to be some way to help her.
Gretchen refused. “I will never use my son like that. I don’t need people to feel bad for me or my family.”
In the end, she didn’t need to take Family Medical Leave. Tristen improved and she had enough sick days to cover the days that he was intubated. Although we disagreed, I kept quiet about her family business.
In June she was called to the Principal’s office where she was issued an official letter saying that she had taken too many “suspicious” sick days. Let me be clear, she had the time in her allotment of sick time that teachers get; the Rochester City School District just thought that she took too many days off that year.
This time I insisted. Along with our Vice Principal, we informed the Principal that Gretchen could provide documentation for all of the days she took off AND that they were for her child who was living with multiple disabilities.
He was sympathetic but offered no solution other than to promise that it wouldn’t affect his recommendation of tenure the next year. He told her that it didn’t really matter in the long run now that the building knew of her struggles.
And then the school was labeled failing by New York State.
It was granted an “Educational Partnership” with the University of Rochester. (Which really means U of R took over operations and staffing.)
The Principal was fired for sexual harassment accusations.
The ESL program was quietly reduced, as too many students who need too much help impacts the school’s “improvement numbers”.
Gretchen’s son fell ill and she took Family Medical Leave.
The next June she was called down the the Superintendent’s office. (Now that a university runs the school, they have their own Superintendent.) She was told that she wouldn’t be getting tenure because “The RCSD School Board would never approve her tenure with her absence record.” She was told that she’d get an extra year to prove herself and to sign a paper.
She was offered no union representation, given no written documentation of what the problem in her performance as a teacher was. In fact, every year she received excellent evaluations.
Many of her friends told her to leave the school. Start over somewhere else. But if you’ve realized one thing from this story so far, it’s that Gretchen is stubbornly optimistic. She was good at teaching and loved her students, things would be ok. She actually told us not to worry, that things would work out.
Her failing was to believe that in this politicized world, being a good, loving teacher is enough.
This year Tristen’s health spiraled into uncertainty, yet Gretchen remained at work, dedicated to both of her lives. She didn’t start teaching until 10am, as she was lucky enough to have planning periods in the beginning of the school day. She was open and honest with her administration, and if late because of doctors appointments, missed no class time due to her schedule.
In February Gretchen was called down to the Superintendent’s office, told that she was not being tenured, and that she was being fired. They pulled her entry times from the computer and gave her “absences and lateness” as the reason. Absences and lateness that I remind you, were documented medically or taken under the Family Medical Leave Act, and did not exceed her contractual sick days.
Two weeks later, Tristen died.
Realizing the morale nightmare they created, East offered Gretchen her job back. Well, they offered her a job subbing, or a job starting over as a first year teacher. So really, they were just trying to mitigate the fact that they fired a teacher for taking care of her disabled, dying son.
What the administration and people who “evaluate” teachers fail to understand is that no amount of politics will give Gretchen back her dignity.
The dignity she lost filing for unemployment, of being denied because there was “no reason for her to leave her job”, of her phone being shut off, of the fear that her house and her car would now be repossessed now that she had no job and the trust no longer had to “help pay” for Tristen.
The dignity she lost trying to be both a mother and a teacher.
At the beginning of this story I told you that Gretchen showed up to a school that didn’t even pick her up at the office, and a second that had a highly sought after specialist teaching yoga.
There is no dignity in teaching.
We are blamed for the ills of society. We are tasked to perform miracles every day. We are told “I pay your salary, you work for me.” by parents who don’t like their kids’ grades. We are called racist, lazy, discriminatory, and overpaid. We are told over and over again that we are failing our kids.
Administrators have forgotten that teachers (and the kids they work with) are in fact human beings and not numbers. Instead of standing up to government officials and defending their teachers, they uphold unfair—and frankly discriminatory— evaluation practices.
Fearing for their own jobs, they are willing to sacrifice good teachers in the hopes that they are seen as allies to the almighty State.
They investigate absences and arrival times, deny tenure and fire a teacher with a dying son.
Gretchen’s future is uncertain. She has no job, no health insurance, and other children to provide for. She may move to Florida, where she has family and where they are desperate for ESL teachers, but first she has to get there and then explain why she “resigned”.
To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., “The measure of a woman is not where she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where she stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I’m pleading with anyone who reads this to measure my friend by this standard.
To measure her by the sheer force of will it took to get up and give 100 percent to her students every day.
To measure the strength and grace it took not to “use her son as an excuse”.
To measure her not by the number of times she was “late” but by the number of students and colleagues that attended her son’s funeral.
I wrote this story at her request, because her story deserves to be told. The world should hear all of our stories, because if you think this is an isolated incident, you’re wrong. The world should know what we deal with.
The world should see us as humans.
Maybe her next employer will read this. Maybe a parent or a member of our Board of Education will. Maybe somehow this will make a difference.
But I doubt it.
No, there is no dignity in teaching.