Tales from the Schoolhouse, Part 1: “It’s the Jeans but Not the Jeans.”

A lot of people often ask me how I arrived at the position of ‘school abolition’ while still being a teacher, and I often point directly at the institutions that have employed me. The abuses that I have suffered as a teacher, combined with those I already experienced as a student, have led me to question the purpose of schools and to research their histories. As a queer and disabled anarchist, my experiences and research have constantly shown me that school isn’t the answer.

But I don’t often write about those experiences because they’re frustrating to think about. Yet, every time I have to interview for a new school and am asked to explain what I found most difficult about my previous positions, these memories are dredged back up. Of course, the people interviewing me never get the full answer (because the chances I’d get a job if I explained all of the things I hated would be close to nil). 

Instead, I have to give them the fluffy versions of all the problems I ever had, making it seem more like a “difference of opinion” and less of an “abusive environment that would rather everyone suffers.”

It’s frustrating to have to hide that and keep it bottled up.

Separator.

The last international school I worked in was, from the first day, a nightmare. It started off with a lot of frustration and confusion. As soon as all the new teachers (including myself) arrived, we were surrounded with the coldness of the few remaining teachers from prior years and loads of rumours about how the school community was falling apart. 

Out of a full-time teaching staff of twenty-four people, fifteen of us were new; this was the first time I’d ever seen this in an “established” school. Teachers from prior years didn’t want to get too close to those of us who had just arrived because they feared we would leave, either of our own volition or because the school would force us to. They were friendly but understandably distant; I couldn’t entirely blame them.

One week before the school year started, our first day began outside of a building that was covered in dust and tarps, and we weren’t really allowed inside because of all the construction going on. It was confusing because the school’s owners and director had made a last-minute decision for us to change campuses. This frustrated a lot of parents, so many families took their students elsewhere before the school year started and hoped to find something more stable. According to every returning teacher, we’d lost almost half the student population for this single decision.

That first week was a combined ‘orientation’ and ‘planning’ week, but we had no idea what to plan. Student records for the previous year were minimal, none of the previous teachers left any indication of anything they’d done at any point, and student reports were nothing more than numbers that meant very little to anyone because they related to nothing tangible. How could we really plan for anything when we didn’t know anything about what had happened before and knew nothing about the students? I decided to wait on planning anything and instead develop everything with my students, only creating lists of books and topics to discuss with my students.

We were expected to put the classrooms together, moving everything from storage and into the school. The only part of the school that was repaired were classrooms that would be used by primary students. Our secondary students were forced into broken down classrooms that smelled of mold and mildew. Some of the classrooms had broken windows that didn’t close, and others were ice cold during winter because the radiators didn’t work (and when they did turn on, they burst and flooded the classrooms beneath them).

The only support we received from our so-called “director” was to “figure it out for ourselves,” even though he frequently reminded us that he was “there for us.”

Fewer than 150 students attended our school across all grade levels (K-12), and all of them could fit into the canteen. When I saw all of the students gathered on the first day of school, I was in awe because there were so few people. After being open for six years, there were fewer kids at that school than I’d seen in brand new establishments.

And students were still making plans to leave during the year. One student, who had been pointed out in the school opening ceremony as being one of the “most helpful” and “most involved” students in the school, left in the first couple of weeks. Not only did he change schools, he was required to repeat a grade at his new school in order to attend because he tested so poorly in maths and sciences.

Prior to COVID, we often rode the same bus home because his new school was nearby. Frequently, I sat and talked with him, chatting about the day or talking about events that were going to happen. One day, he finally broke down and asked me if I knew why he had left.

“No,” I told him. But I could guess: He was a trans student who’d been continually misgendered and deadnamed by teachers who refused to acknowledge his gender and name, going as far as to correct him to his face and to yell at any teachers who corrected them. The school was empty, and there were few students his own age; he was tired of feeling alone and wanted, for once, to feel like he actually had classmates to work with. He felt ill-prepared for the examinations that he knew he’d have to take at the end of the year and wanted to ensure he could do better, as he wanted to go to university.

Sadly, I wasn’t wrong. It honestly broke my heart when he told me that he left because he felt unsafe and unprepared for his future, that he didn’t want to stay because he couldn’t afford to screw up his life.

That student was my red flag, even before they told me why they’d left. I knew things were only going to get worse, but I just didn’t know how.

There were a lot of problems that year, and just listing them out makes me feel like I lived in an alternate universe. Almost every problem that happened at that school was directly related to the actions of the school director:

  • His classroom’s radiator burst, flooding two rooms beneath it. Instead of contacting the teachers whose rooms flooded (to let them know), he told the singular repairman to move everything into the hallway and then waited until we all came back from spring break to tell them. One of the teachers lost a lot of personal belongings that she used to teach (because private schools still refuse to buy things teachers need), and he refused to cover the cost of replacing them.
  • There were two carts of laptops in the entire school. One of the carts was almost entirely broken and shared between five grades of primary and all of secondary; he kept the cart of working laptops in his classroom and refused to share them out.
  • He frequently got angry that we “weren’t teaching enough tech skills” and berated us for it, but he seemed to ignore that we couldn’t do that without working technology.
  • He regularly sabotaged events that weren’t planned by him, including those planned by students. After he sabotaged them, he would try to hold similar events with his name and face plastered all over them.
  • If he couldn’t successfully sabotage events, he either tried to insert himself into them and take credit for them or he would try to make the people around him as miserable as possible.
  • At the beginning of the school year, three teachers worked together to create a proposal in order to create a functioning library. He said it “wasn’t necessary.” Three months later, he handed out a bunch of proposals for “what we need in a school.” Inside was his proposal for a library, but it left out all the necessities to operate one; it only included shelves and desks.
  • He (and the owners) refused to get the correct visas for non-citizens. Every non-citizen teacher who worked in that school officially worked as a programmer. This is despite the fact that, in the recent past, one of the teachers got deported for having the wrong visa.
  • Because of him, a teacher quit in January because they couldn’t stand it any more. In February, the teacher who replaced him quit because of how absurd everything was (including the fact they were writing reports for kids they literally just met). Then the school director replaced them with a former teacher; this new teacher believed large dinosaurs couldn’t exist because of gravity. They were teaching social sciences.

There were so many other issues that happened there, and this list could go on forever. I’m still receiving communication from the few teachers who remain, and it appears that things aren’t getting better.

But, for me, the best one was when he decided to revoke my contract renewal a month after offering to let me keep my position. I had already signed my new contract and planned to stay another year, hoping that either the school owners would realise how horrible that man was as a director and replace him or that I’d find another job in the process. Also, I just didn’t want to move during COVID because it would be incredibly stressful.

Then in late April, the school director decided that we needed to have a phone call because I “refused to schedule a meeting with him” to discuss my future plans with the school. For the record, I didn’t refuse; he cancelled the meeting I had originally scheduled with him, I told him that I’d like to meet with him later to discuss things but planned to stay, and then he refused to find a time slot that wasn’t when I was supposed to teach. He literally made it impossible for me to talk to him. This wasn’t my fault.

That phone call was a long and uncomfortable conversation, which included a lot of arguing back and forth. He continually kept trying to gaslight me about how irresponsible I was and how I wasn’t doing my job correctly. He complained that, in the staff room, I had told someone to “fuck off” and that it wasn’t appropriate (except I hadn’t, but I knew who did because they had done it just before walking out of a staff meeting and in front of everyone). He told me that he was upset with me for “not participating in a staff development meeting” in January, even though multiple people had told him that I was sick and in the bathroom (in reality, I was crying because I was so frustrated with everything happening). He complained that the “talent show was a mess,” even though we had to cancel all of our plans last minute because of sudden closures due to COVID. It’s not like I could control a global pandemic, but he told me that I had “ruined his reputation” by cancelling it.

And worst of all, he claimed, was that I wore jeans. This meant that I was “too rebellious” and that students “wouldn’t respect” me if I didn’t dress professionally. (He had never mentioned this as an immediate problem at any point during the year.)

With all of that, he decided that I “should find something more suitable” because I “was not a fit for the school.”

I tried to fight back and started speaking out in our staff Zoom meetings, telling them everything that happened. I texted and called the people who I most trusted, and they sent emails to everyone. During one of the calls, people asked me to send them a collective email so that we could all write a letter to the owners to express our concerns. Though it was too late, people were finally starting to fight back.

My colleagues rallied around me and tried to help. As a result of our letter, we had a staff meeting with the owners and the director (who wasn’t even supposed to be there, yet they allowed him to stay and talk down to us). My colleagues tried to get the owners to realise the mistakes that the director had made, including his decision to revoke my contract but also combining it with all the other problems. They told the owners that I had made vast improvements in just one year, helping everyone to get organised in terms of curriculum and raising the spirits of both staff and secondary students. Some teachers highlighted that they felt re-invigorated after years of feeling demotivated because of people like me, trying to build connections between everyone.

It was heart-warming to see them all try to get the owners to overturn this decision, but they continued listening to the director. Of course they did; that’s how owners and the management work. 

The only response he would give anyone was “But [they] wear jeans.” (Except he constantly misgendered me.) When people would question that, he’d say it “wasn’t the only thing.” They’d press him more and try to get him to say what it was that I had done to make him decide that getting rid of me was the best choice, and he’d inevitably end up back at the jeans. I wore jeans, but it wasn’t the jeans! But I wore jeans.

Clearly, I hadn’t done anything. He just didn’t want anyone who would challenge him, directly or indirectly; he didn’t want people to ask questions or push for a better environment for students, teachers, and families. He wanted full control; he wanted a school that he could take credit for, even if he had done none of the work.

At one point, after I couldn’t take his circular nonsense any more and left, he had promised the staff that he would cut his pay and rehire me, but he “didn’t know what he’d do with me.” He said that he’d call me again (he didn’t); he told everyone that he’d talked to me and that I’d declined his offer (I hadn’t).

Everyone knew this, though. They asked me every day for two weeks if he even tried talking to me, and I always had the same answer: “He never will.” I knew that he never intended to. I told them that the only reason he promised to do it was because he wanted to placate them; he wanted to make them give up asking for a better school by promising that he’d “do better” when he never had before.

And it worked. That small bit of hope silenced the few who stayed almost immediately. A few others, seeing what happened to me, put in their resignation because they didn’t want to be in a place that would throw them out without a second thought for the most trivial of reasons. (In fact, one staff member put in their resignation after having worked there for four years and was told how easily they could be replaced and that it didn’t matter if they were leaving because no one would miss them.)

Separator.

I try not to think of that school when I can help it. Sometimes I hear about it because I still know people who work there, and my first response is: “When will it close?” I don’t like being vindictive, but I also hate abusive environments that continue to profit off of other people’s misery.

Genuinely, for the health of a community, I hope that school fails miserably and is forced to close. I hope the students are able to find healthier learning communities, and I hope the staff finds kinder placements. I hope everyone can find spaces that accept them without harm, allowing them to build the communities they need.

But I sincerely hope the school ceases to exist so no one else has to endure what I went through, what I know so many before me went through.

And I hope the owners and directors lose everything for the harm they’ve created, enabled, and supported. They do not deserve to benefit from the misery and frustration they are responsible for creating.

No one does.