Unethical Schools: Why People Who Read Management Books Shouldn’t Be In Charge Of Teaching Children

Uncommonly Unethical

My wife has a story that needs to be told. She can’t tell it, so I’m going to. It’s the story of a sensitive, creative person who lives to nurture and support others, and doesn’t have a conniving or political bone in her body. It’s also the story of the monstrous world that uses all that against her at every turn, squeezing out all she has to offer and leaving her in the gutter when she is no longer necessary.

My wife is a teacher. She’s a good teacher. She’s the kind of teacher who more than once has gotten letters from the parents of children she didn’t even have in her own class about how much she helped their child. She’s the teacher your kids should have, but rarely will. Apparently, this makes her unemployable!

She’s been working as a substitute, a teacher’s assistant, and a long term substitute for over a decade, all the while desperately trying to get a job as an actual English teacher. One district screwed her out of a tenured TA position because she took a long term sub position that, it was promised, would put her on the short list for the next opening. The opening was simply eliminated without even the offer of an interview, and she had no job to go back to, because the HR department gave her the wrong information about procedures and then wouldn’t admit it. Another time, she finally scrambled her way into another long term sub position that was “almost guaranteed” to turn into a real job, until she had the audacity to have a baby, after which both the long term sub position and the actual job magically evaporated.

More recently, she was promised that if she came and worked as a TA in a new district 45 minutes from home, they would put her first in line for new English positions that opened. She busted her ass for four years, taking on extra duties, working full time while being a mom to two children and spending an hour and a half a day commuting, and generally being exceptional. Then, the year that two English positions finally opened up, the superintendent was replaced, and the promise was reneged upon. One position went to the assistant principal who had sold her so hard on the deal in the first place, and another to an older teacher from another school in the district who just wanted a change of pace…

You need to understand all that to grasp how spectacularly evil her latest saga is. After a decade plus of the aforementioned slogging, my wife got a golden opportunity. A charter school right here in town was hiring an English teacher for the 2019-2020 school year, and we had a friend who had a friend who might be able to increase the chance of an interview being granted, so she went for it.

Of course, she aced the interviews, and was told she’d be getting the English position next year within a few days of her final interview. They even told her they had cancelled all the interviews after hers. We were ecstatic! A few days later, before she could respond, they called again, and asked her if she would also leave her current, tenured position three months early, so she could take over for someone going out on maternity leave, and start “right now”.

Leaving a tenured position (especially mid-year) was a big risk, but even if all she was guaranteed was thee months of one term and the following year, it was a real teaching job with a reasonable commute at the school we were hoping to send our son to. We talked it over, and decided that the chance to do what she had desperately yearned to do since college was worth the risk of not having a job in 18 months. My wife accepted, gave two weeks notice, and the wheels were set in motion.

Fast forward to four weeks later, and the wheels had already begun to come off our plan. I initially got an inkling something was wrong with this place when on her first day, my wife came home and it came up that she had no lunchtime. I asked if they were combining her lunch into her “prep-time”, and when that was scheduled. She told me that she only got a prep time on some days, and that she’d been told that the rest of the time, she should simply eat while she was teaching. I pointed out that as someone who had employees for many years, I was quite certain that while they might not have to pay her for the time, it was literally illegal for them to make her work in excess of 8 hours without a break for food. She didn’t want to rock the boat, so I let it go…

This place was a bit insane. Her work started fifteen minutes before the normal school district, and ended two hours after. This was sprung on her, as she had been told during interviews that school ran until one time, but had already signed on and given notice at her old job when she was told she was required to be physically in school for an hour later than originally stated. She had to get special permission to leave school at the originally advertised time, because she had to pick up our children in the afternoon. In order to get this permission, she was officially docked about 9% of her previously agreed upon salary.

As the days passed, things began to go downhill, and it quickly became obvious that that working at this charter school was like working in Soviet Russia. Within days of starting, my wife told me a story of how she asked a fellow English teacher from a grade below her for advice on some minor issue, and within an hour was being grilled by her team leader to explain exactly what she thought she was doing. It would seem that the teachers for each grade are expected to communicate only with each other on work matters, and execute all outside contacts through their leader.

It should also be noted that this school uses a rather unique teaching technique. The teachers don’t make lesson plans, instead teaching directly from pre-supplied materials, reading, and activities. The teacher’s job is to focus on “classroom control”, where students are constantly either talked to or working on these pre-planned materials, and required to remain silent and in one of a set of poses designed to focus attention at all times. This requires the execution of a massive number of detailed procedures on the teacher’s part, and new teachers are given weeks of training and preparation to do so. My wife, on the other hand, was given a couple of hours of instruction and told to shadow a teacher for a week or so, and that she would get the real training next August, before school started.

A few days into actually teaching, my wife began having observations by her new principal, and getting dressed-down right in front of her students almost daily. Loaded atop the already massive upheaval of our whole family’s lives, trying to settle into the new schedule and decrease of Mamma-home-time, this constant harassment quickly became a majorly stressful issue, resulting in an emotional breakdown where my wife needed to leave the classroom for a few minutes to compose herself.

My wife met with her principal. She told her that she understood that her lack of having been trained meant that she was making a lot of mistakes, and that she welcomed constructive criticism. When she also pointed out that it would be much less stressful to receive that criticism without being humiliated directly in front of her students on an almost daily basis, she was told two things. First, that these public dressings-down were a part of the school’s policy on “in the moment feedback” (apparently a teacher-management technique that involves being publicly and at full volume talked down to like you are a child in front of your students for not executing some aspect of the martinet-like classroom process that the school uses, which she was not due to be trained in until August), and second, that she needed to start responding better to feedback, or it might affect her status in the Fall.

This, of course, caused a panic in our house. This risk had been taken with the understanding that she would be employed through the end of the 2020 school year, not for three months. The fact that this was even a possibility would have been a deal-breaker in the first place! My wife scheduled another meeting with her principal to clarify. She explained that she only took this job on the understanding that it would include the 2019-2020 school year, and that the principal’s previous comment was rather world-shaking. Could she, in fact, count on that position in the Fall? “Absolutely” was the answer given.

That answer was given verbally and in private, where no witnesses could be called upon. It would only later become clear how important that was…

My wife committed to her principal that she would redouble her efforts. I helped her practice at home, and she began working nightly on the procedures book she’d been given, in addition to the hours of homework the school already required of her. She immediately stopped being berated daily, began to get an occasional “glow” (which is apparently their corporate-speak for an “attaboy”), and was occasionally spoken to with respect and seeming appreciation. All seemed well.

Even so, it just kept getting weirder. Along the way, my wife came home with stories about a number of colleagues coming back from meetings with the principal in tears and refusing to talk about what was wrong. There were instances of apparent two-facedness from team leaders as well, and an environment seemingly full of tension and short tempers.

A couple of weeks later, in discussing the classes my wife would be teaching to a group of students who had been deemed unworthy to attend a school trip, the principal blind-sided my wife with roughly twice the weekly workload she had been previously scheduled to complete (for any given class, the teacher must complete all class materials and assignments before teaching it, and submit this work to a computerized system). This was on a Wednesday, and the principal informed her that the new work should be submitted by the following evening. My wife responded that she had no time in her schedule for the extra workload that day, and that she was preparing for a weekend trip that had been scheduled since before being offered the job, but that she would do her best to get it completed while she was away, so that it was submitted well before actually teaching those classes.

On that Friday evening, while my wife was on a plane, the principal sent her an email scolding her for not submitting the extra work the previous day, and telling her that they needed to have a meeting about her time-management skills. Needless to say, my wife was nonplussed. She responded with a fairly benign “per our previous conversation” email, committing to having it submitted before the classes were due to be taught, and got the work done as promised. The resulting meeting was not “constructive”. The principal sandbagged my wife with a litany of her supposed shortcomings, and again made vague threats about her status in the coming school year. This was the gift my wife’s employer gave to my family for the Memorial day weekend.

At this point, I was frankly of the opinion that my wife’s boss was literally a psychopath. She just seemed to enjoy torturing her for the fun of it, and no amount of improvement or professional engagement was even a factor in it. It seemed a lot like what I’ve read of the way people with borderline personality disorder treat their children…

Now, it was previously known that this principal was leaving her position at the end of the year, and moving to a higher one, and that there would be a new principal in the Fall. This was mentioned only in passing to my wife and she was specifically told it had nothing to do with her status. My wife was scheduled to meet with the new principal the day after Memorial Day. In this meeting, the new principal told my wife that there “were a lot of applicants” for the position she had been promised in the Fall, and that while she was welcome to apply, her “record of problems” on the job made it unlikely she would be accepted!

And then came the clincher. She told my wife that the school was focusing on hiring younger teachers, because they would dedicate more of their time to the job…

Immediately after that meeting, my wife was called by her principal to a “debriefing”. Unbeknownst to her, the old and new principals were preparing a double-teaming session. Out of the blue, she was accused of being “emotionally inconsistent”, and any attempts at self-advocacy were labeled as “poor response to feedback”. These “crimes” being in addition to her “time management issues”, she was told, she “should have expected this”. The old principal then flat-out lied about her commitment to a Fall position right to my wife’s face, with a flouncy, pearl-clutching “I have no idea where you would ever have gotten that idea from”. The meeting ended with an admonition not to discuss this issue with any co-workers, but that they would be “happy” to give her a good recommendation for future employment, assuming she finished out the year “without further problems”.

That night, the new principal doubled down on that veiled threat with an email. It reasserted that, “The contract that you signed was for a three month position.” It continued that “based upon trends in feedback”, they were “unable to offer a contract for next fall”, and that they “would need to see a dramatic change in all areas” for that to change.

A dramatic change. In the eleven days of work left in the year. Sure, that’s a serious sentence!

The email continued by codifying the “keep your mouth shut or we’ll torpedo your career” extortion in two further sentences: “We trust you will not share details with other staff or students.”, and “Provided that you uphold these professional expectations, we will support you as you pursue your next position by providing references.”

Now, I still don’t know exactly what’s going on here, but I have some hypotheses:

  1. As I first thought, my wife’s principal is simply a psychopath, who has hurt her for the simple joy of the torture.
  2. An unethical principal just needed to cover a teacher for three months, lied through her teeth about the next term job to my wife to get her to abandon her tenured position to work as a band-aid, and then tried as hard as she could to make her miserable so she would leave, torpedoing her record when that didn’t work.
  3. This principal hired my wife more or less in good faith, but was subsequently told by an unethical organization that they wanted to eliminate anyone over thirty, so she had to find a way to make the firing look like NOT age-discrimination, so she tried as hard as she could to make her miserable so she would leave, torpedoing her record when that didn’t work.

Whatever the reason, this school has acted in a number of sleazy, borderline illegal ways, and I’m utterly disgusted with them. They made sure that their lies were undocumented and unwitnessed and blind-sided her with unreasonable requirements, ignoring reasonable self-advocacy and blaming her for problems they caused. They’ve shown no remorse while utterly upending my wife’s career and our family’s life!

To anyone who is thinking, “well, she should have known better when it wasn’t in writing”, I say this: Fuck you and your implicit support of someone who tricked a gentle, genuine woman who just fucking wants to teach your fucking children to think and learn! You’re an asshole, and YOU fucking try to explain to my five-year-old how Mommy’s crying because a bad person took away her job and potentially torpedoed her entire career, and then threatened her to keep her quiet about it!

Anyway, my wife is going to uphold those “professional expectations”, because these unethical, lying bastards now hold her career in their hands. I, on the other hand, don’t know anyone that works there, and can relate the whole sordid tragedy at will. This abusive place is the very definition of the word “toxic”. In the future, I will go to great lengths trying to make sure no one I do know ever subjects themselves to this fucking hellhole, especially my SON, who was scheduled to attend there in the Fall, but will now not be allowed anywhere near those maniacs!

You can read about that ordeal in my next post…

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4 Comments

  1. Kevin
    Posted May 31, 2019 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    This sounds way worse than just reading management books. It feels like there’s a whole management indoctrination process, almost like a cult (and there are some charter schools run by cult businesses). Not that it’s too far from the modern approach to HR: humans are a costly resource that must be managed. It feels crazy that they can use threats and intimidating to get away with what are definitely multiple illegal methods.

  2. Cutemanlybutt
    Posted June 4, 2019 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    First off, mega sympathy from someone who worked in a cult like environment similar for a year and was let go for daring to be a male middle school teacher. Personalities like that suck and locations like those charters are the worst. It takes time to recover from idiots like that before most are willing to return to the field. Hit me up if you need anyone to talk to about it.

    Second, unions are a teacher’s best defense against jerks like those and if a charter school won’t recognize or accept union teacher’s, that’s a darned good sign to avoid like the plague. Also if a charter school does anything like precanned lessons that’s another note to avoid; pre-planning is important for the work of teaching but if it’s not you doing it and you’re focused on focus techniques rather than increasing internal discipline through class culture it’s gonna be a bad time.

    As an educator I’m still nervous about even typing this out having been through a similar experience, so I’m using a burner mail to post and fake name. It’s a crap deal a lot of the time even if teaching is very fulfilling. Good luck to your wife and again talk if needed, <3

    • Blaise
      Posted June 4, 2019 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I have to disagree about the utility of unions. They are the primary reason she hasn’t been able to get a job at a public school. They supported the elimination of jobs so that teachers’ pay could remain high, filed grievances she didn’t ask for on her behalf that poisoned the well for her at a district, and demanded internal hire of teachers who should have been long retired because they were senior members of the Union, ensuring that she was shut out of jobs. But they’ve always been happy to compel her to pay dues whether she liked it or not!

  3. Nicole
    Posted June 5, 2019 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    My son was caught in the Uncommon School’s web in Troy, NY. He was hired for a physical education/health teacher position in July for the 2018-2019 school year. He was indoctrinated for a few weeks during the summer of 2018. He would come home and tell me about his training. He was excited about the job, but I had my doubts. I have a Ph.D. in Curriculum, Instruction, Evaluation, and Supervision, and I taught middle and high school for 25 years before becoming an administrator. Teaching is a creative art form with interaction with students; you don’t talk at them, you engage them and arouse their innate curiosity and help them find a spark for a love of learning. The “Principal” was designated as his “coach,” but she didn’t encourage and give constructive feedback. Instead she tore apart his confidence on a daily basis. She berated him for missing 10 minutes of a class which was a scheduling issue because he was still with one class while the other class he was supposed to be in was scheduled at the same time. I took his schedule and found the overlap and had him bring it to her the next day so that she could actually see the overlap! He was told he was not trying hard enough – I don’t know how he could have tried any harder. His lesson plans had to reflect a script that he had to go by exactly. He was told that he could leave the school in November and that he would be paid through two weeks in December and that his health benefits would last through the end of December. He was also told that he was not to tell anyone of his plans to leave – not students or faculty. He didn’t, but they had his replacement come to school to shadow other teachers for three days before my son’s departure; he never even spoke to my son. The replacement was invited to a faculty meeting to be introduced to the other teachers, but my son was disinvited to that meeting. Word got out to the students- my son said nothing to anyone for fear of not getting the pay and health benefits that were promised, but he was accused of “leaking” word of his departure. Students signed a petition to keep him, which further angered the administration. On his last day, the superintendent, principal, and dean escorted him out to his car and stayed in the parking lot watching him drive away like he was a criminal. By the way, his replacement left the job after a few weeks; I understand that the Dean took over the gym classes. The principal was no longer in her position and there were many mid year teaching positions open.
    My son had a wonderful gym teacher and sports coach who inspired him to become a physical education/health teacher. My son wanted to emulate him and encourage and inspire students to pursue a healthy lifestyle. My son was also threatened with bad references if he didn’t keep to his vow of silence. The Uncommon Schools that are throughout our state in urban low-economic neighborhoods should be Unlawful Schools. The students in Troy were not allowed to speak during hall passing, had to be silent and reading through their lunchtime, and had to be silent during gym class! Can you imagine playing interactive games during gym and keeping middle school students quiet? My son asked if he could close the doors while the games were being played, and the principal refused to allow that.
    My son had all the students in the school- 5th,6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th grades. There were 33 students in a class and there were 2 classes per grade in grades 5 through 8. They sat in straight rows and had to have their feet flat on the floor and be at attention the whole class. They were issued demerits if they strayed from what was considered proper classroom behavior, and teachers were scolded if they didn’t issue enough demerits. Teachers had to walk with their hands clasped behind their back and had to learn specific voice commands and hand signals to use as if training an animal; all teachers had to be on the same page with commands and signals so as to be consistent. How awful- consistency with rules is good, but how a teacher approaches discipline should be up to that teacher and should allow for their individuality. There were only about 40 students in grades 9 and 10 which means that there is a huge drop out rate from their school when students can leave to go to their regular public school. I looked online for their NYS exam scores, but could only find scores for the elementary grades, not 8th grade or Regents exams. Strangely, my son heard the administration tell parents that they had 100% college admission for their students- how could they since they just added their 10th grade? They add one grade a year to their school in Troy, NY.
    I was a principal in NYC in a SURR middle school in gang territory with 1,100 students who passed through metal detectors in the morning. I had 9 security guards, 56 cameras installed in a building that was crumbling around us. In the time that I was there our scores and morale improved though respect and caring for one another. The changes were made because of a philosophical difference in the administrators- when we observed our teachers, we were on a treasure hunt, not a witch hunt. Working with the teachers, inspiring them, and giving them the materials they needed to do their job made all the difference in the world. Getting leaders at the helm instead of “administrators” makes the difference in education. My school gave free lunch to all my students. We were a high needs school in every respect, but knowing the problems and confronting them with caring and compassion and a determination to see students succeed, makes all the difference. Teachers, parents, and administrators learned to work together to affect change.
    I was thrilled when my son left that school, and as an educator, I believe that the Uncommon schools’ philosophy goes against the grain of every aspect of education. They kill curiosity and subjugate their students. As a parent, I am appalled that the Uncommon Schools exist. As a parent of a son who wanted to be an inspiration to students and who was belittled and harassed on a daily basis, I am angry. As an administrator who has led schools in urban high poverty areas, I am outraged.

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