Friday, June 30, 2006

I'm Insubordinate, Part 1

Nothing scares ineffective administrators more than teachers who know how to write effective letters calling for educational change. It took about six months of teaching special ed in the South Bronx for me to get fed up and start writing such letters.

I was amazed when my first letter to the NY State Education Department actually got a decent response. I think it helped that I signed it “Miss Dennis, Teacher/Journalist.” Shortly after I wrote that letter, by coincidence, the NY Times published a piece about how badly the NYC Dept of Ed was screwing up special ed, and the reporter used my school as an example. I had nothing to do with the Times article, but my bosses assumed I did. Then the mother of one of my students started a lawsuit through Advocates for Children. A school social worker had recommended the mother to Advocates, but again, my bosses thought I’d done it. (Some of my co-workers were good at making complaints behind the scenes while kissing ass and stroking egos on the surface. This has never been one of my talents.)

All this finally led to my school getting placed under state investigation. At the beginning of my second year of teaching, I actually saw some improvements. We got two more special ed teachers and smaller classes. As usual, my bosses blamed me for the state investigation, but even if I really was to blame, I can’t say I felt terribly bad. Improvements were being made. Of course, the principal and assistant principal began to hate my guts, and they set out to make my work life hell. They were big enough to acknowledge the whole time that they thought I was a good teacher, but that didn’t stop them from trying to cover their asses by isolating me from the new special ed teachers and trying to get rid of me. I was a threat to their jobs. Never mind that my actions were in the best interest of my special ed students.

I was amazed by the sheer desperation of my bosses' tactics. We could have had a great school if they’d spent the same amount of energy on improving education as they did on devising tactics to save their jobs. Despite the basic changes they were forced to make because of the state investigation, they continued to mistreat special ed students. About half of the 95 special ed students at my school were still programmed in the wrong classes. One of my students had his class schedule changed 8 times in one semester. Another student sat all semester in a science class he had already passed. Most students were not getting their related services. Very few of my "emotionally disturbed" students got counseling. Parents received a letter about how the school couldn't offer speech therapy. The letter came with a list of outside speech therapists, but when one mother called every number on the list, she found that not one of them was accepting new cases. It had been two years since her son had received his legally mandated speech therapy.

As all this administrative bs was going on, I was still trying my best to do my actual job - teaching learning disabled and emotionally disturbed teenagers. I became pissed off and emotionally drained at work each day. I also began to develop a strange sense of humor about the ridiculousness of everything that was going on around me.

Someone over Chaos Theory described this blog as “painful and hilarious at once.” That’s inner city teaching for you – painful and hilarious. These letters from my ex-principal are painful for me to look at again, but they’re also kinda hilarious in retrospect. The principal has since been fired. I saved her letters of reprimand, knowing that one day they’d be great fodder for a book – or, as it turns out, a blog – just like Up the Down Staircase, only 40 years later.

The principal’s below letters are in response to this: Dear Principal, You Want Me to Do What? I’ve been meaning to post her response for months now, but I actually have a strong, negative physical reaction to even touching her letters. So it took a while. It helps if you know a little about special ed laws here, but those who don’t will still get the gist. First, read my letter.

So after giving that letter to my principal, word quickly spread in the mouse-infested teacher's lounge that I would be officially charged with “insubordination.” Somehow, I missed that I had signed up to work for the Politburo. The next week, I got this:

Dear Ms. Dennis:

Please report to my office on November 3 for a meeting to discuss your refusal to send the parent notification letters to conduct the annual review. You are advised to bring the UFT Chairperson to the meeting.


Principal Puffschmuck

There was no discussion at the "meeting." Principal Puffschmuck immediately told me she was writing me up for insubordination. I again tried to explain that what I was being asked to do was not in the best interest of my students and that it went against special ed laws. (You’d think the principal of a school currently under state investigation might be concerned about this.) As I was speaking, Principal Puffschmuck got a phone call and yelled, “This meeting is over!” The next day, I got this:

Dear Ms. Dennis:

On November 3, I met with you and your union representative to review your refusal to complete and prepare for mailing, parent notification letters to conduct an annual review
when directed to do so in a memo, dated October 29, that I personally handed to you and which memo you accepted.

Also, in a verbal exchange on that day, you told me that you would not create the draft of the goals and objectives for the special education students whose annual reviews had not been completed.

At our conference, I afforded you an opportunity to respond. You stated that you felt it was not in the best interests of the students to draft the goals and objectives that had been assigned to you because you did not service these students in any of your classes.

Based on the above, I conclude that you failed to comply with my directive in a memo dated October 29, requiring you to complete and mail parent notification letters for the purpose of conducting annual reviews for special education students. As such, you were insubordinate. While you may disagree with the reasoning behind the assignment, that does not give you the right to refuse to comply with an appropriate directive from your supervisor. I am always happy to discuss any concerns you have, however, I cannot accept your refusal to follow my directive when given.

This incident may result in disciplinary action, including an unsatisfactory rating and termination.

Yours Truly,

Principal Puffschmuck

Apparently, a "directive" asking me to do something against the laws of my profession is "an appropriate directive." Stay blogged for I’m Insubordinate, Part 2, in which Principal Puffschmuck writes me up for turning off the lights while showing a DVD program.


Anonymous Schoolgal said...


Welcome to my club. I got my first negative letter this year because I stood up and told my AP that her walkthroughts and suggestions were not in keeping with the UFT contract. Other teachers complained, but I was the only one to tell her that our contract stated that classroom organization can no longer be dictated.

Next thing I know, I'm called into the office, told what I wonderful teacher (one of the best in the school) and am getting a letter in my file for some trumped up charge.

This was my one and only negative letter in all my years teaching. All my observations and letters were glowing. My District Rep who knew of the situation was useless and never followed through--hence my distain for "Randi-elected" DRs.

After reading the following comment, I thought I'd fall off my chair:

(Some of my co-workers were good at making complaints behind the scenes while kissing ass and stroking egos on the surface. This has never been one of my talents.)

Welcome to my world!

This year a neighbor in my building who teaches at another school also got her first negative letter because she questioned why one of her students was not being serviced.

I hope you send this blog to NYC Educator to include in the Carnival. He is hosting the next one. I really feel teachers who stand up for either the contract or their students can relate.

Like you, it took me this long to look at the letter and laugh. At least your principal got fired.

10:23 AM  
Blogger Libby said...

Lordy, lordy, can I identify with this post! God bless ya girlfriend. I'm a "mouthy" teacher and am the first to point out flaws, etc. and have been called to the carpet more than once. Your principal beats mine though, mine is too chickenshit when it comes to the union to be so up front and threatening about "termination" and such. He usually bows (i.e., avoids the issue altogether and me in the hallways rather than doing anything, THE most passive agressive guy I've ever met!)

Don't you feel like Yossarian in Catch-22 sometimes? I sure do.......some days you just throw up your hands and go, "What the fu?" Thanks for sharing this, I think you should write a book! I'd sure as hell buy it :D :D :D
Fellow teacher in Pittsburgh, PA

3:07 PM  
Blogger Miss Dennis said...

Schoolgal, Thanks for referring me to NYC Educator. I did contact him and will be joining my first education carnival! The UFT also did very little for me, but I'll expand on that in Part 2.

Nee Nee, Sounds like your principal might be just a bit smarter than mine. Not that I condone passive aggressive administrators, but at least he seems to know that you are a force to be reckoned with. Catch 22 - yeah. If you speak up for your students, you risk getting fired. If you don't, you accept substandard services for your students, which makes you a bad teacher. But of course getting fired would leave them with NO teacher. Ahhhhh!

Miss Dennis

2:26 AM  
Anonymous jd2718 said...

In fact (you are going to love this) it sounds like you were insubordinate. Not that I am going to tell you you were wrong. The safe thing to do is to follow whatever instruction Puffschmuck gives, and follow through with letters, protests, grievances, etc.

On the other hand, if you are close to certain that you are right, and reasonably secure that he's not going to escalate, well, that seems to be where you were. And I suppose the eventual outcome was good.

Compliance issues are different than contract issues... (you already know all this, right? I'll stop.)

By the by, I had an encounter with an AP several years back that went like this:

AP: Mr. 2718, the lights in the classroom must be left on. [flips on lights].
2718: Then I guess you'll need to write me up. [flips 'em off, turns back to (engaged) class]


4:37 PM  
Blogger Mike in Texas said...

I too have been labeled as insubordinate. For me it was b/c I refused to vote for a dubious plan my principal had come up with to change the structure of the school. When teachers complained she offered us a "choice" which was her plan and two even worse plans. I refused to vote for any of them. I was also called un-Christian and un-professional.

10:19 AM  
Anonymous Schoolgal said...

The Carnival is in town, and you're one of the main attractions :)

(You may want to post a link.)

10:57 AM  
Blogger foley from the curb said...

wow all these entries are amazing! i love reading it im hooked :)

8:48 PM  
Blogger Benjamin Whelan said...

Wow! You have a lot of guts.
I don't have half the bravery you do, but I think I got on a principal's bad side for something similar. I'm a certified music teacher and she wanted me to start teaching a reading class once a day. I asked my union rep, who was apparently in cahoots with her, questions regarding whether the students would benefit from this and the legality of it and things like that. Union rep went and told the principal and principal came into my next class screaming at me in front of students.
I've since left that district and am happily teaching in a charter school sans incredible amounts of bureacratic BS.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Chaz said...

Miss Dennis:

I always straddle the line but my principal knows that if he charges me with being insubordinate over any wrongheaded actions, I will fight him tooth and nail and complain not only to the DR but to the LIS and the media. Therefore, he usually will try to work it out with me.

7:15 PM  

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