This has been a rough year at school, but my one saving grace has been my upper level classes. These kids have been great kids to work with. Problems have been very minimal. The only major problem I’ve had has been attendance, which is at a historic low over the past two months. As we go hurtling through change which does not always come with a lot of good reasoning behind it, and you see a lot of changes that are hurting kids, you start to feel bad. I am pretty sure that after many years, my depression has returned.
Then last Friday arrived. After that, I knew my depression was back.
As part of SOP, when students are not quick about making up tests (and I have had a lot of kids not making things up quickly because of long term illnesses, long weekends out of state, practice, etc, the last two months have seen an abnormally long time for me to return tests. There isn’t much I can do about it. In the past, you gave kids “Zeroes”. This isn’t allowed anymore. I would have put in zeroes, but a lot of kids would have been in inordinate trouble as colleges asked for four week grade reports. I waited, and some kids started getting anxious about their tests coming back. I tried to explain to them the problem.
On Friday, I was called in to my boss’ office. She had been visited by 8 students the day before. One complaint was the tests. The other was that I had created a sexist environment in the class in which boys were favored, and that young ladies were put down and made to feel stupid.
I started feeling faint. I started sweating badly, and was at a complete loss for words. This had been one of my best classes ever, and this accusation hit me like a ton of bricks from nowhere. I was numb. Over the weekend, I went as far as looking for job alternatives. I didn’t feel angry … I was just not feeling anything. I got next to no sleep.
My boss told me that she couldn’t believe this. That was nice to hear, but at a moment when you feel that vulnerable you start to get very paranoid, and I could only hope that she was being honest with me. I tried going back to think what I could have done or said. Nothing. I can be a bit sarcastic at times, but I cannot ever remember directing this toward a student. I am very sensitive about this because in the past, I remember very keenly saying things that accidentally upset students and changing my tact accordingly.
I had a meeting with our assistant principal. He also was very reassuring that he was not capable of believing this … even said that if his kids were in high school he would want them in my class … again, it was half -reassuring. We all decided that I needed information, so I composed a brief survey.I had the kids type up the answers and print them out without any identifying marks. I wasn’t in the room … I had my department chair sit in the class.
I read over the surveys. About half of them were just puzzles … kids who didn’t understand what was going on. Some included side compliments for running a great class.
The others were surreal and virulent. Accusations of favoring the boys by answering their questions, but refusing to ever give a girl a straight answer … giving dirty looks at girls for having their cell phones out, but saying nothing to guys … telling one girl that her answer was absolutely wrong, but then praising her male lab partner for the same answer. Some young ladies said that they refused to ask questions because I always “called them out” and made them feel stupid. One student said she would be advising future students to never take my class because I was so abusive to students.
Most of my colleagues have told me flat out that these girls are lying. Quite a few teachers used some rather derogatory comments toward my students. Even the principal told me that he thinks that there is something not right from the student side of this story. The only one who hasn’t accused them of lying has been me.
One accusation said that I was sarcastic, and that sometimes she couldn’t tell if I was joking or not. That’s a serious piece of critique that I need to follow up on. The rest was so virulent that I must accept that these students are genuinely angry, and not simply making it up. Yet, I know I have not done these things. I feel completely over a barrel. I can’t proclaim innocence, I can’t say they are wrong, and my career is kind of hanging in the balance … and I’m still not sure why.
I have heard stories of teachers who were falsely accused of things in the classroom, and who walked away. Some because they didn’t have an administration to support them, and some because they had lost a lot of faith in humanity. I’m lucky that I have the former, and I am frightened to death that the latter is coming more and more into focus. One colleague told me that this sounded exactly like the many stories of thin-skinned college protesters and their so-called “micro-aggressions” being magnified in scope and used as weapons. I just couldn’t buy it.
This class had been one of the best classes I had ever had … genuinely nice kids who worked hard (The class average is over 84%, so that isn’t an issue). I can’t in any way convey how much of a blindside this has been. At no point did I ever pick up on anyone hinting that there was a problem. I surveyed my other classes, and there was nothing there. Yet, here is the problem.
My first duty is to try and offer a fix to this somehow, but I am still searching for the right approach … one that isn’t accusatory or condescending or that comes across as passive-aggressive. In 22 years of teaching, this is almost as bad as when I had to deal with some colleagues trying to get a superior fired. I just haven’t found a way to a solution. Somehow I will find a way through this … but I am very afraid that the damage is going to be very difficult to undue.