Grace Under Fire

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"Why?" she asked.

"Well, the last time we spoke, you suggested that I speak with the administrators and then come back to see you. So, I wondered whether we could meet to talk again. Each of them was supportive of the project. Each has different concerns."

"I'm surprised that the principal gave you the impression that he was supportive," Angela said.

"He was," I told her. "He told me the political reality of the situation, that I would probably not have a room, that there was no guarantee of what kind of schedule I would have, that the other teachers might be very cool to me—all year. But he liked the idea of what I would do with the kids."

"You are not going to change the teachers here," Angela said.

"I don't mean to. I mean to do the best job that I can with students."

"You are not going to change the teachers here," the department head replied when she heard the reform ideas.

"These kids are different from those at the high school where we used to teach. Maybe you should come in for a year and feel your way around and then do some project, if you want. Or maybe you ought to take your show and go elsewhere." She hesitated. "Just go to the job fair," she said. "We can't do anything about it for now, anyway."

When I'd met with the principal, he asked whether the local teachers' union might stop me from entering the job fair with my seniority intact. He had heard that I might have to start as a beginning teacher.

"No," I had said then. "I haven't heard that." Later, though, I decided to check out the rumor. The district's director of human resources assured me that no one could interfere with my seniority. As I left, she said, "See you at the job fair, Grace."

In June, our district holds a job fair at which available positions are posted. On that day, teachers seeking transfers or new placements pick up cards with their date of hire printed in large black letters and report to a school gymnasium. Then the director of human resources announces various job categories. For example, she might say, "All those seeking science positions, please come forward and be seated now." The available science positions are posted on a board. The director points to a job, and those who want that position stand, holding their cards in front of them. The person with the earliest hire date—the most seniority—gets the job.

I was appalled by this system—it seemed so unprofessional—yet I was eager to submit to the process, however dehumanizing, to get the post I wanted. My administrative leave guaranteed me a job. My seniority almost certainly guaranteed me the job of my choice. That's the way the system works. And that's why I had confidently designed a high school project and arranged the partnerships with Jane and Brown University.

But two days before the job fair, the director of human resources called me. "Grace," she said, "your seniority has been adjusted. It is now September 3, 1996."

Struck dumb by the news, I held the phone to my ear and said nothing. The date—September 3, 1996—reverberated in my mind. It meant I had no seniority. None! I would be lower on the scale than a first-year teacher. The director offered no explanation. I had received nothing in writing; in fact, I still had the letter that noted my seniority date as September 3, 1969.

"You have the right to file a union grievance," she said.

"Surely, this can't happen," I said to myself. "That means I will get the job that no one else in the system wants."

At the fair, five positions were posted for secondary English—three in high school and two in junior high. As each was announced, I stood with my card. Others stood, too. As the rules required, the person holding the card with the earliest hire date always got the job. I took the fifth job, the one that nobody else wanted—a junior high post.

The junior high school where I was to teach was a familiar place. More than 25 years ago, when the school was brand-new, I had taught there as part of a four-person interdisciplinary team. Later, before leaving for my stint at the Coalition of Essential Schools, I had served two years as head of the school's extraordinary 10-teacher English department. What's more, my husband still taught physical education at the school, so it would be convenient for our commute. I liked the school a lot, but my project was designed for a high school, not a junior high.

Reentry into the classroom was smooth, painless, and fun. My student teacher, a Brown University student named Haley, and I quickly bonded with students in the five classes assigned to me. After a few days of adjustment to our "new" way of teaching—seminars, group projects, performances—the students began to enjoy learning with their peers, expressing ideas, and leading classroom sessions. For Haley and me, however, there was a gnawing disappointment about the aborted project.

Every day, I choked back tears. I was no stranger to hostile students. In my experience, however, they were a small minority.

Beyond the problems my junior high placement posed for the Logs and Letters partnerships, I felt betrayed. My professional rights, and by extension the rights of my colleagues, had been violated. For the first time in my life, I filed a lawsuit. The school administration had wiped out my seniority without cause, I charged in the suit, and the union had failed to protect my rights. I could have filed a grievance with my union and assigned all the blame to district officials, but the procedure would have taken the better part of a year. A lawsuit would apply immediate pressure.

Though it felt great to be back in the classroom with these kids, I was fighting to leave them. Serendipitously, a high school position opened at the high school where Jane was teaching. An English teacher had moved into an administrative slot, leaving her post vacant.

Ordinarily, positions that become available after the job fair go to outsiders for a year; they aren't posted within the district until the following June. But my lawsuit gave me leverage. I told my lawyer I would drop the suit if the job were posted. It was the only chance I had to teach in a high school and do my project as designed.

During the third week of the school year, the job was posted for five interminable days. Because I lacked seniority, I had to hope that no one else applied. And that's what happened.

On a Friday at the end of September, I taught my last classes at the junior high. Kids hugged me and scribbled "Good luck" and "We'll miss you" on the blackboard. The transition was an emotional one. I sobbed as I left the classroom at the end of the day.

On Monday, Haley and I slid to the other end of the emotional seesaw. With the anticipation of explorers entering a new land, we strode through a maze of dusty hallways in the sprawling high school to our new classroom. Though I had never been in this 1,200-student school, many of the 100 teachers—some old friends, others whom I did not know—welcomed me as if I were coming home. They dropped into my room, shook hands, and offered help. Jane showed me her room, just 10 steps across the hall. She was already three weeks into the Logs and Letters project with two of her classes.

I felt jubilant, as if I'd crossed a deep chasm on a tiny footbridge and made it to the other side.

I came crashing back to reality as soon as the first students entered the room. They were not happy to see me. I didn't understand their animosity, but the overwhelming rejection quivered palpably in the classroom. And they didn't warm up as time passed.

In those first weeks, I would go home and look at myself in the mirror. Had something so drastic happened to me during my four-year leave? What was so different? Gray hair? Rosy cheeks? Smile? Sandals? Why were these kids so hostile? Had high school students changed in the years that I had been out of the classroom?

"Before you know it, they'll be hugging you," my husband told me.

"No, they hate me," I said. "When I walk near them, they bristle. When I lean over to talk with them about their writing, they say something like, 'What do you care? I've said what I'm going to say. I'm not writing anything else.' Their words wound me."

Every day, I choked back tears. I was no stranger to hostile students. In my experience, however, they were a small minority. Typically, I reached them through compassion and genuine interest in their work. But I had always begun the school year with them. Was it my delayed start that made it so difficult? Was it the fact that they had been exposed to two conflicting teaching styles in the first month of school?

To find out, I tried to talk with them. Day after day, however, all I heard was: "Why are our chairs in a circle?" "Why aren't we doing what the other classes are doing?" "Are we going to use our English book?" "I hate working in groups" "I'm not getting into a group with her." Calmly, I listened and explained the goals and rationale for our work, which they agreed were reasonable.

Our students had never worked in groups, so we did some team-building activities to help them see how individual differences could be strengths when working together. The "compass activity" was designed to help them identify their working styles. Some students said that they needed time and space to think and be creative. They identified themselves as "Easts." Others said that plodding thinkers with bright ideas annoyed them; their style was to forge ahead and get the job done. These students identified themselves as "Norths." Although they understood that no one is a pure East or a pure North, they recognized that both working styles were OK and necessary. The trick in a group, they would have to learn, was to identify each others' natural tendencies and to use those efficiently.

During these difficult times, I depended upon my two colleagues—Haley and Jane—and on my own reserves to stay afloat. Although I was her mentor, Haley and I worked as partners, observing and critiquing each other's work. Jane, too, provided friendship and collegiality. Her students were resistant to this new work, too, but because she had an established reputation at the school, she did not experience hostility of the sort directed at me. To remain strong and cool, I walked for an hour every day after school and practiced meditation at night. In good health and studied calm, I entered the classroom fresh and hopeful every day. Day after day. Slowly, I began to notice some changes in my students.

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