Fifteen years ago, I was pushed into having my first series of courageous conversations with an employee. I was a unit leader at Camp Whispering Oaks, a Girl Scouts resident camp in Julian. After just the first week of camp, our administrative team identified that one of the new counselors was significantly struggling to fulfil her duties and transition from the role of camper to staff. They placed her in my unit and asked me to give her specific daily goals, observe her performance, and then meet with her to debrief the day. I also had to report to the camp director daily to share her progress. In our nightly meetings, I sincerely tried to help her understand her specific successes and areas of improvement. I also helped prepare her for the following day. The counselor made small improvements, but she was still unable to function at the same level as the rest of my unit. The director decided to terminate her position at the end of the week. As a result of this experience, I learned that courageous conversations can support both the growth and dismissal of an employee.
As a teacher, I have been pushed to have courageous conversations about the dismissal of employees. However, my motivation for these conversations often originates out of concern for the well-being of my students, my coworkers, and myself instead of from the guidance of a direct supervisor.
My first courageous conversation as an educator occurred a few years ago when I nervously walked into our executive director’s office holding a list of evidence in my shaky hands. I explained that I was there to ask for her help because I did not know what else to do. Aside from simply being unorganized, ineffective, and abrasive, my current principal demonstrated immoral and harassing behavior. I shared examples of his inappropriate behavior in front of students, staff and partners. He laughed as he referred a female student’s crotch as a “cockpit” in the middle of a staff meeting. He eagerly told campus visitors a story about catching two students leaving a dumpster area and candidly shared his thoughts about teenagers having sex in the trash. He disciplined students with a Bible on his desk. After repeatedly pushing away his hugs and telling him to not hug me, he began coming into my classroom to hug me in front of my students. He repeatedly called me into his office to discuss topics such as his pretty teacher theory: he believed students were more eager to learn and demonstrated more acceptable behaviors in the classrooms of pretty teachers as opposed to regular teachers. He considered me one of the pretty teachers. The morning after I received a scholarship on the field at Petco Park, he called me into his office to tell me that he had received multiple complaints from partners that I was preaching homosexuality in my classroom, which I later discovered was a blatant lie. But, after driving to work beaming with pride that morning, I walked out of his office to start my class in tears. Eventually, I followed the encouragement of my colleagues and told the executive these and many, many other examples of his inappropriate conduct. I reminded her that my campus is filled with victims of verbal and sexual abuse and explained how was exploiting this by leading through intimidation. She listened. After each member of our staff individually spoke with her and then a lawyer, the principal was removed from our school. But, he was not fired. Instead, he was placed in a stand-alone, coed, independent study classroom in another part of the district.
As I read about the dismissal procedures for permanent teachers and administrators in California School Law: Third Edition by Frank Kermer and Peter Sansom, memories of this experience stirred in my mind. According to Kermer and Sansom, permanent or probationary teachers can be dismissed for immoral or unprofessional conduct and evident unfitness for service (2013). But, this man was not a teacher. As an administrator, he did “not have the right to a due process hearing prior to dismissal, release, or reassignment to a nonadministrative position. However, [he} ... retain[ed] permanent status to a previously held certificated or classified position” (Kermer & Sansom, 2013). Unfortunately, he was a home-grown principal and had taught in our school district for many years prior to becoming an principal. I do not understand how someone who had demonstrated such immoral conduct and evident unfitness, as validated by corroborating examples provided by almost the entire certificated and classified staff of my site, was not fired. If he was a teacher, his behavior would have been grounds for dismissal. Instead, he was simply handed a new set of students and coworkers.
Looking back, I was able to have this courageous conversation because I knew the risk was necessary to protect my students, my colleagues, and myself. I know that even when they are spoken with a shaky voice, courageous conversations are necessary.
Kemerer, F., & Sansom, P. (2013). Employment. In California School Law Third Edition. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.