The Consequences of Speaking Truth to Power
Full disclosure: speaking truth to power and standing up for what is right and just is not only absolutely the right thing to do, it is difficult. It is consequential… and not necessarily in a good way.
I loved my job. I was earning a salary nearly twice what I had ever earned throughout my previous career. I was truly making a difference. . . and it breaks my heart. I worked at a Blue Ribbon charter middle school in Mott Haven Bronx as a Social Worker/Teacher/Guidance Counselor where I served predominantly economically-disadvantaged and under-privileged Black and Brown kids.
This was a new career for me.
WHAT I DID
After twenty-five years, I left my career as a college professor. I loved teaching. I loved working with the students. I did not love the politics of the academy.
- I resented colleges and universities that wanted to spend tons of money to offer capital improvements like fancy gyms with climbing walls.
- I resented colleges and universities that wanted to bring in millions of dollars in grant money to launch fancy initiatives like business incubators.
- I resented colleges and universities that wanted to raise tuition and increase enrollment by thousands of students but who did not want to provide additional office space, which resulted in many faculty having to share office space.
- I resented colleges and universities that wanted to raise tuition and increase enrollment by thousands of students but who did not want to pay to create additional parking so the students and faculty actually had a place to park.
- I resented colleges and universities that wanted to raise tuition and increase enrollment by thousands of students but who did not want to hire additional faculty and so demanded that we teach larger and larger classes without increasing our salaries.
- I resented colleges and universities that wanted to raise tuition and increase enrollment by thousands of students but who did not want to pay faculty a livable salary.
- I resented colleges and universities filled with students who felt entitled to not actually do the work but then wanted to negotiate extra-credit at semester’s end to boost their grades.
- I resented colleges and universities that wanted tenure-track faculty to bring in grant money and do amazing research but left the teaching to lecturers and adjunct faculty to do the teaching while paying them significantly less than tenure-track faculty despite demanding a heavier workload.
- I resented colleges and universities filled with Ph.D.s whose egos were so out of control that they resented their colleagues if students liked them without acknowledging that students can like more than one faculty member and that it was never a competition.
- I resented colleges and universities filled with Ph.D.s who thought they were better than everybody else.
- I resented colleges and universities that enabled male faculty and male department chairs and program directors to bully their female faculty without retribution.
I was bullied.
I was harassed.
While teaching at a midwestern college during my first tenure-track position, my department chair decided that I must be a horrible person because students liked me and my classes always filled first. He began showing up at my house, uninvited, to berate me and belittle me and insult me in front of my then-seven-year-old son. I followed protocol. I filed a complaint. It went all the way to the college’s President. He continued to berate me and belittle me in the meeting we had with the Dean of Academic Affairs. And nothing happened.
I reached out to organizations like the American Association of University Women to seek legal help but was told that because I was new in my career, if I pursued legal action, I would be labeled a trouble-maker and would have difficulty obtaining other tenure-track positions. I was advised to resign. I did.
It took two more years of female faculty filing complaints against him and resigning, as well as the Human Resources Director resigning in protest about the college’s inaction before the college did anything. They encouraged him to take early retirement without penalty.
While teaching at a community college in New York City, my department chair physically threatened me in my office in front of students. I filed a complaint with campus police. My students filed statements with campus police. We submitted copies to the Provost and Dean of Academic Affairs. But the department chair and the new Human Resources Director were buddies, so nothing happened. No investigation was conducted. Neither I nor my students were ever contacted. I received a letter from the college’s President stating that my complaint was being dismissed for lack of evidence.
While teaching at a state university out west, a female colleague decided she was jealous that students liked me and began filing complaints about me claiming I was creating a hostile work environment despite the fact that our scheduled did not overlap, we were rarely on campus at the same time, and that I consistently received awards and recognition for my teaching and my work with students outside the classroom. Apparently, she picked a new target every couple of years. My department chair did everything in her power to protect me but the colleague cozied up to the Dean of Academic Affairs and convinced her that I was trouble. Because the Dean was new, she was unaware of this colleague’s history of making bogus claims about department faculty over the years. So I resigned.
My mother, who I had been caring for and for whom I had relocated out west to become her medical caretaker, was hospitalized. It was the beginning of the COVID pandemic. She was not tested for it and I’m sure she didn’t have it; given her pre-existing emphysema and COPD, had she contracted the virus, she would have died quickly. She was tested for Influenza A and B but tested negative. They were convinced it was just a bad exacerbation of her COPD. But she didn’t get better. She deteriorated rapidly.
My mother was released to home hospice and I cared for her twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A hospice nurse visited twice weekly to monitor her vital signs and her condition. A home health aide visited once weekly to give me a break, usually only for an hour. My mother always insisted that I stay with her but we tried to explain that I needed a break, I needed the opportunity to take a bath or a shower and to walk to the mailbox.
I couldn’t leave her unattended for fear something would happen. She could no longer stand and had difficulty feeding herself. Her mental capacity dwindled. Yet she would try to climb out of bed. One morning I found her on the floor of her bathroom covered in feces because she had tried to get out of bed to go to the toilet despite having a bedside commode. I had to call the hospice and then 9-1-1 to help me get her back into her bed and to check her out to make sure she didn’t have any injuries. Another morning, I found her on the floor next to her bed, her face bloody and her shoulder bloody and badly bruised. She had tried to climb out of bed again. I had to request the hospice nurse come help me examine her to make sure her injuries didn’t require hospitalization.
We ultimately had to get full bed rails and place an alarm pad under her so that if she tried to move off the bed an alarm would sound and I would be able to respond immediately. I finally started sleeping on the floor of her room. She died four months after being placed in hospice.
I had planned to return to New York, to my husband and step-daughter (we lived on opposite sides of the country while I cared for my mother), but COVID prevented that. Because I had resigned my position, I was unemployed for a year. And while it was financially difficult, it gave me time to rethink what I wanted to do with the remainder of my life. I knew I didn’t want to continue as a college professor. But I knew I wanted to serve others, to use my gifts as an educator, and to make a difference. I applied for hundreds of jobs during my year of unemployment. Toward the end, I even began applying at colleges and universities because I needed a paycheck. I was earning bits of money here and there offering tarot and oracle card readings, doing reiki chakra balancing and healing, and writing. I love writing. But I needed a real paycheck. I had a dream of becoming a spiritual entrepreneur and running an online business but I didn’t enough money to survive.
WHAT I DID
One day, I was scrolling through Craigslist and saw a post seeking a Social Worker/Teacher for a Blue Ribbon charter middle school in the South Bronx. I have always been an outspoken ally, advocate, and anti-racist. I have always championed society’s marginalized. So, despite the fact that I am not a state-certified K-12 teacher, I applied for the position. I was hired within two days and began working the day after my final interview.
And then I panicked. I am not a trained social worker nor have I spent much time working in Middle Schools, save for a brief stint as a long-term substitute teacher back in 2004. Imposter Syndrome hit me hard. But I love a challenge.
I spent much of my time in classrooms working with small groups of students who needed extra academic support, as well as students for whom English is not their first language and who needed guidance to acquire language proficiency. As someone who taught Communication for Non-Native Speakers for ten years in colleges and universities and who has a Diploma in TESOL, I loved working with these kids. I also spent much of my time working one-on-one with kids who needed other kinds of support.
I was always in the cafeteria in the mornings for school arrivals. The students often came through the door and ran up to me to give me hugs. They knew I actually cared about them and would always take the time to talk to them, to listen to them, and to honor them.
One day, a seventh-grader came up to me and she was so sad. The day prior, she had been in the eighth-grade room to escape the chaos of her seventh-grade class (the teacher stopped showing up the week prior and then showed up the next week only to quit as soon as she arrived). She spent much of the day doing eighth-grade math worksheets with the class, specifically working on scientific notation. Of the twenty-five worksheets she completed, she earned 95% on one and 100% on the other twenty-four. She was so proud.
Her mother wasn’t interested. Her mother, an elementary school teacher, had apparently obtained a second job as an Uber Eats driver and the student spent the evening in her mother’s car while her mother made deliveries. No opportunity to complete any homework. No interest from her mother about her accomplishments. She arrived at school the next morning absolutely dejected.
I asked the student to show me her worksheets. She showed me every single one. With each worksheet, her smile got bigger and bigger. I was so proud of her. When she finished, her smile dissipated. “I just wish my mom actually cared,” she said. I told her to look at me. She did. I said, “I’ll tell you what. I will celebrate you. I care. Whenever something happens, whether it’s good or bad, come talk to me. I will always be here for you. I will celebrate your successes and support you when things go wrong.” She gave me the biggest hug. Every day after that, the first thing she did when she got to school was run over to me and tell me about her day, night, and morning. She shared her joy and her frustrations. She knew she had someone who was there for her.
She was not an isolated case. One sixth-grader admitted to me that she had been drinking alcohol from her parent’s alcohol cabinet, that she was pretty sure she was non-binary but that her parents were constantly making fun of her about it, criticizing her, and demeaning her, and that she had been cutting. Another sixth-grader told me she was terrified to be at home because her parents were fighting all the time, her father was super-violent, and he was dealing cocaine out of the house, which meant strange people were showing up at all times of the night; she didn’t feel safe. Several female students felt unsafe at school because one of the boys was constantly making lewd comments to them, running his tongue over his lips and making kissing faces towards them, and touching them inappropriately. A seventh-grader was so desperate for any validation of his existence—he received absolutely nothing at home—he constantly acted out at school, disassembled his pen and pretended to smoke a blunt, talked crap to all the other students, and was physically-aggressive, claiming he was “about that life.” He wasn’t. He just wanted someone, anyone, to pay attention to him. One day, he did something in the gym and, at the end of the day, he was given a suspension. He was beside himself. As we all stood outside for dismissal, I saw him crying. I walked over to him and asked him if he was okay. He said, “no.” I hugged him and he sobbed into my shoulder, insisting he would never do what he was accused of doing. I gently explained to him that his previous behavior was the reason nobody believed him. I told him, all the while hugging him tightly, that he was going to be okay, he needed to breathe, and that when he returned to school we would talk. He didn’t want to stop hugging me. When he finally walked away, a couple of the teachers asked me what I said to him. I told them. They looked at me and said I had done the one thing he probably needed most in his life: I showed him that I actually cared about him.
WHEN I SPOKE TRUTH TO POWER
Things were going well… I thought. And yet, I was constantly criticized by the Principal and the school’s Founder, both of whom were rarely at the middle school; they spent most of their time at the elementary school. I continually received emails from the Principal telling me that I needed to create lesson plans and submit them to both her and the school’s lead teacher. The implication was that I was a classroom teacher. I was not.
When I was in classrooms, the teachers always asked me to work with small groups on whatever the entire class was learning, but to provide the one-on-one guidance and assistance the students needed to succeed academically, whether it was reading, writing, or mathematics. I simply followed the teachers’ lesson plans. I routinely covered the eighth-grade class for forty-five minutes so the teacher could get a lunch break. I always had lesson plans for that class. Whenever I had to cover another class, for whatever reason, I always had lesson plans. But my lesson plans were bibliotherapy. The majority of my position description focused on bibliotherapy, which is using reading and writing to help children and adolescents address and deal with social, emotional, and behavioral issues.
One set of lesson plans asked the students to read the poem “sometimes,” by Jacqueline Woodson. I actually read the poem to them—cadence mattered, as it is not a rhyming poem—and then discussed what the poem was about. In this poem from Woodson’s award-winning book brown girl dreaming, the narrator talks about being one of only two kids on her block without a father. The other kid’s father died. Her father? Mom left him in Ohio and moved back to Brooklyn to live with her grandparents. She dealt with the questions about her father by making up stories, but her older sister always said she was lying, making up stories, and that they no longer had a father, that their grandfather was their father now. “It be like that sometimes.”
We discussed how we all want to fit in so we often tell stories or hide the truth in order for others to like us. I then asked the students to write their own poem to describe someone, something, or some aspect of their lives to the reader. It didn’t have to be sad. One kid wrote about the first time he actually made a three-pointer while he was playing basketball. But the majority wrote really deep stuff. Across all the grades (I covered sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes that week), students excelled with this activity.
I got an email from the Principal:
I noticed that you submitted a few non-fiction articles and poems as part of your plans for the first part of the week. I am unsure where the Poems are from but please be sure that the poem itself does not take up a full 45-50 minute lesson. If they are part of a larger theme/unit/article, incorporate it within that lesson. Also, I do not see any fiction stories. These should be planned as well.
To begin, brown girl dreaming is required reading for the sixth-graders and we have shelves full of the book in our book room. How does she not know this? Second, I was not a classroom teacher. I was hired to work with specific students to help them succeed academically, as well as to work with larger groups to help them socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. And Common Core requires that students be able to interact with a variety of texts, including poetry and nonfiction.
This email cemented my suspicion that the job for which I was hired was very different from what Principal was expecting me to do. Except she never communicated that to me. Never once during my interviews was it suggested that I would be a regular classroom teacher.
Even more problematic for me was the fact that my position description made very clear that I was charged with working with IEP students. Individualized Educational Plans are created for those students who have special needs, students with learning or other disabilities, students who are English Language Learners, and students with mental or emotional challenges. One of the bullet points in the position description specifically indicates working with the IEP Coordinator to develop strategies and interventions to help the students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally. The problem was that there was no IEP Coordinator. The bigger problem was that neither I nor the classroom teachers had been provided with any IEPs.
Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability and requires school districts to provide “regular or special education and related aids and services designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students are met.” In order to accomplish this, each student is assessed and receives an IEP, which specifies the accommodations, strategies, enhancements, or interventions required to ensure the students receives the educational benefits of nondisabled students. The law demands that teachers are provided with their students’ IEPs within thirty days of its creation or at the beginning of the school year for continuing students.
We were not provided with IEPs. Apparently, the Principal had previously run afoul of the Department of Education because she did not want to accept IEP students. That form of discrimination is prohibited by federal law. And yet, it seemed as though the Principal was intentionally ignoring federal law by withholding IEPs from those of us charged with teaching and working with the students. Unacceptable.
I had a conversation with the Speech Therapist, one of the few people who had access to student IEPs simply because she was contracted through a different agency. She expressed concern about the fact that teachers were asking her for copies of IEPs. The problem was that she only had IEPs for those students who required speech therapy. Her list was not inclusive of all IEP students. She also said there were more students needing speech therapy than she could reasonably accommodate by herself but said the Principal had told her that if she couldn’t accommodate the students then she should just not provide services. When she questioned that and indicated that parents were being led to believe their children were receiving services and accommodations, the Principal suggested parents were okay with what was happening. Equally unacceptable. The Speech Therapist sent an email to the Principal outlining her concerns but said she had gotten no response.
As the result of that conversation and the email I had received from the Principal, I decided to draft my own. I wrote it over the weekend and I was very thoughtful, presenting it as simply seeking clarification on the expectations for my position. I addressed each bullet point in my position description and discussed what I was doing, what I was unable to do and the reasons for that, and I indicated that nowhere in the position description did it suggest I should be creating lesson plans like a classroom teacher nor that I should be teaching entire classes. I focused heavily on bibliotherapy and indicated that the poem I used was from a book that is required reading for all students and that the activity was aligned with specific Common Core Standards, which I linked in the email. I wrote it and edited it several times to ensure that it contained nothing inflammatory nor accusatory, that it was devoid of any and all emotion, and that it was simply seeking clarification.
I never received a response from the Principal. The person who usually responded immediately did not respond at all. That Monday at school was normal. The next day was a remote learning day because it was Election Day. Everything progressed as planned. Early Wednesday morning, as I was preparing to head out the door to the school, I received a termination email:
We thank you for your time at our school but unfortunately, we will not be continuing your employment with us. The role and experiences we hired you for and the initiative and follow through required for the job are not evident. Not having lesson plans for teaching children is unacceptable. Your last day of employment with us was Tuesday November 2nd, 2021. We wish you the best of luck.
I was terminated for not doing a job I was not hired to do. I did provide lesson plans. But that was not my job. The Principal never addressed my email nor the specifics of my position description. Instead, the email presented itself as retaliation for questioning the manner in which she and the school were adhering to (or not, as in this case) federal law.
WHAT I DID MATTERED
My focus throughout my time at the middle school was the students. In most cases, I was the only advocate they ever had. My job was to ensure they were receiving a quality education and receiving the services to which they were entitled. They were not. And I was helpless to do anything about it.
It’s worth noting that between the elementary and middle schools, three teachers have quit since the beginning of the academic year. In other words, within the first two months of the school year, three teachers quit because of the lack of support, the absence of communication, and the toxic, retaliatory nature of the environment created by the Principal.
I filed a whistleblower complaint with the State Attorney General’s office, as well as with the Special Investigator for the Department of Education. I included information about the retaliatory termination, but my focus was on the fact that this Blue Ribbon School is failing its students by not accommodating their learning needs and, as a result, is violating federal law. My own fourth-grade step-daughter has an IEP; she is on the Autism spectrum and requires very specific interventions and strategies. Were she to not receive them, we would file a lawsuit against the school, its leadership, and the public school system as a whole. She is brilliant, completely fluent in both English and Spanish (her family is Dominican), can write computer code, was reading middle school chapter books at the age of five, and currently wants to be a neurosurgeon when she grows up. But she can’t handle loud noises, she is emotionally-fragile, and she refuses to be touched by anybody but her father, her grandmother, her aunt, and me. She also beats herself up—literally—when she makes a mistake because she holds herself to excruciatingly high standards. Because she was born prematurely at 24 weeks of gestation, she has fine motor skill deficiencies and has difficulty writing. One of her accommodations is either a laptop or tablet on which she takes notes and completes her work. Another accommodation is individualized education, removed from the larger class, which is often overwhelming for her. She thrives in an individualized, one-on-one setting. She also thrived during the remote year that was the pandemic because she was in a quiet environment and was provided with individualized attention. She would not be thriving academically if she did not receive these accommodations.
Children deserve a quality education that meets their needs. Parents deserve to have their children receive the accommodations and interventions they require. To pretend that the children are receiving services they are not is criminal. Period.
I spoke truth to power and I lost my job as a result. All I wanted was what is best for the students. In an area notorious for its social problems—gangs, gun violence, marginalization, economic hardship—I was a champion for the students and I celebrated and encouraged their potential. Knowing I am no longer able to be there to prop these kids up and show them the love and validation they so desperately need breaks my heart.
What I did mattered.