What should educators do when they are unfairly penalized for something they said? This is what has happened to Rafe Esquith, a nationally celebrated Los Angeles fifth-grade teacher. He is still banned from his classroom because he told a joke in class that few people would consider the least bit offensive.
Teachers are threatened with administrative punishments far more often than we know. They often react as we would if our bosses came after us. They are frightened, confused and ready to take the easiest way out.
What happens if they reject those instincts and instead get tough?
Linda Johnson, a retired California teacher who frequently contributes to the washingtonpost.com comments page for this column, told me what happened when she decided not to bow her head and take unfair criticism from her supervisors. Instead, she called the police, with surprising results.
“About 10 years ago, my student teacher and I were walking my first-graders to the computer lab,” she said. “One little boy started to yell and jump around, so I asked him to go back to the room with the student teacher. In a few minutes, the boy’s father came along to check his son out for a dental appointment. When he saw the boy crying, he went ballistic and came running after me. He cornered me at the entrance to the computer room and screamed at me in a menacing way in front of my students. He waved his arm at me in a threatening way.”
He warned her never to do it again. It looked like the man was going to hit her. “I was very frightened for my students and was careful not to provoke him further,” Johnson said.
Fifteen minutes later, after school was dismissed, she went to the principal’s office and found the father reporting her to the vice principal. She screamed at the man: “If you ever threaten me in front of my class again, I’ll go to the police.”
Assuming the student teacher’s university would advise her to stay out of it, Johnson had the young woman write down immediately what she had seen and date and sign it.
The next day, as Johnson expected, she was called into the principal’s office. The vice principal also was there. They told her that they were putting a letter in her file for screaming at the man.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I am the victim, and I will write the letter. I am also going to file a report with the police.” When the principal, not expecting this, tried to retract what he said, she walked out of the office and went straight to police headquarters. She signed a complaint against the father, accusing him of “disturbing school.”
She sent a letter of complaint about the way she was treated to the superintendent, the teachers union president, the principal, the vice principal and every member of the school board. She asked for letters of apology within 30 days. By the time the police case came up, she thought she might have been too hard on the father and told the court that she didn’t think he realized he was committing a misdemeanor.
“Don’t worry about that,” the court commissioner said. “He knows his felonies from his misdemeanors.” The father was indeed a felon. The student teacher did not appear, so the case was dismissed. The school district banned the father from the school and transferred his children to another campus.
“I was just another innocent teacher who was going to be victimized for being a victim, but I fought back, and I’m so glad I did,” Johnson said.
Teachers who have had such experiences will understand how good Johnson felt when the two administrators gave her their letters of apology. She got the same good vibe a year later when the vice principal and the principal both left the school.
This won’t work in all such cases, but it is good for teachers to know their options. Maybe going to the police won’t work, but it might help to let a news organization know when a teacher has been done wrong.