When I got to school the other morning, I was forced to have a conversation with my principal because I’d missed a scheduled one-on-one meeting. I’d stayed home with a migraine since it was an in-service day where students weren’t at school because we were doing “professional development.”
As he often manages to do, he almost immediately pissed me off. He spent the whole meeting treating me as if I’m someone who is so wildly incapable of doing my job. He tried to make me feel bad about making decisions for myself on how to handle situations that the school forced me to deal with because they have constantly refused to even consider putting in any structure that would create a semblance of a healthy environment.
Because doing that costs money, and the school is a business. And if we can force someone to fill that gap, it’s better than wasting money on yet another person.
From the very beginning of our conversation, he decided to put the school’s (not very stellar) reputation above the needs of everyone in it. Parents have shown concern that he has side-stepped their concerns and suggestions, ignoring potential solutions that would’ve created a healthier environment. Specific students have outlined all the ways in which they feel frustrated with his decisions, making it beyond clear that they recognise how much he hates them. Other teachers have indicated that they no longer trust him and feel betrayed by his behaviour and the fact it feels like he’s keeping secrets.
Yet, instead of trying to understand me and my needs (something he has never even made an attempt to do at any point) and instead of trying to understand the situation that the company has put everyone in, he thought it would be a good idea to waste my time by blaming me for having created an environment where “negative behaviours flourish.”
These supposed negative behaviours? Using “inappropriate” language, students openly ignoring dress code, and students questioning the usefulness of different tasks. As he talked to me in our meeting, it became obvious that he thought everything would be better off without me, that there wouldn’t be any problems to address if only I didn’t exist.
Granted, it helped that he specifically stared me down in a staff meeting the week before as he vaguely commented on how we need to be better at controlling all of these negative behaviours and demanding that the students obediently follow every rule. He made it clear to my colleagues that I am the problem and that it’s largely my fault, even if he didn’t openly say it.
This isn’t surprising. I have increasingly been recognising that he believes it’d be easier to control everyone if not for me providing a space to question the structures found in a traditional school. It would be better, so I’ve been told, if I kept reminding our students that school is important, necessary, and useful. It would make everyone’s job easier if I’d stop letting them share opinions.
It would all be so simple: Shut their questions down. Don’t let them question the system, our strategies, and how things are organised. Create obstacles to keep them from engaging in meaningful thought about the world and their place in it. Think critically, but don’t think about that.
But it’s also clear that he, along with the owners, want to control my narrative. They want to do damage control because I’m leaving and have been marked as a “problem.” They want to ensure that things work out in the most profitable manner. This was made clear when he told me that he wished I hadn’t told the students I was leaving, when he told me I should’ve “hid the truth” from them.
And that conversation really solidified my desire to stay out of traditional schools, especially those operated as companies.
“There’s a rumour going around the students that you’re leaving,” he opened with after I’d finished going over the design of our yearbook. It was a strange way to start a conversation, particularly considering it’s less of a rumour and more of a true statement. I made it clear to him in the middle of the second term that I had no desire to return, that I had no desire to work for owners who saw children as nothing more than ways to pad their piggy banks, that I never wanted to work for people who were so openly corrupt and willing to lie.
I made it quite clear that I thought our school, which had been purchased by the owners of another, was doomed from the moment the deal closed. No matter how often we were told that “it will not fundamentally change,” I genuinely believed that it would become something entirely different. I never hid that from anyone; I openly let them know that I thought, rather than keep two schools, they would merge them into one and keep the second in name only. I made it very clear that I thought the owners of the school were buying the students, as if they could simply buy human beings.
And yet I’ve been proven right on all counts.
But ever since it was announced that we were moving and the school was being purchased by new owners, I have also thought that the school would become an unhappy, unhealthy, and overwhelmingly harmful environment because that’s what it has already proved to be. The people running it will betray the trust of those who attend, providing as few answers as possible and neglecting all concerns or suggestions. It will just get worse than it already has been, and that’s a huge part of why I’m leaving.
So when my students asked me about which classes I’d be teaching next year, I told them that I wouldn’t be there. It would be incredibly irresponsible of me to lie to them, especially when they’re trying to make decisions about next year’s classes. I don’t want them to make decisions based entirely on me only to find out that I won’t be there; I want them to make decisions knowing as much information as I can give them, even if that information is upsetting or frustrating to them. It’s the least I can do.
“I wish you hadn’t told them. You should’ve said that you don’t know yet, even though you’re fairly certain,” he told me after I’d given him that exact explanation.
But how could I do that? How could I respond to someone asking me which classes I’m teaching next year with “I don’t know yet” when I have no intentions to return? That would be ludicrous, and it would be purely nonsensical since they know what subjects I’d most likely be teaching. So, as I have with my previous schools, I told them.
And never before has that been a problem nor has it ever been discouraged. In fact, it was largely the common practice because it helped students to prepare for later. They had some knowledge of what to expect in the next year instead of being left to guess or made to feel disrespected.
“But it has caused more problems in their behaviour,” he boldly claimed.
I wish I had asked him to name them. What problems were cropping up because I’d made a decision to respond with honesty to questions I was receiving about the next school year? I can’t think of any that have any impact beyond my classes.
Unless he’s now having to deal with questions about why I’m leaving or having to cover up all the reasons I’ve made this decision. It leaves me wondering: Is he afraid that he’ll have to deal with parents contacting him? Is he trying to create a web of lies and half-truths to hide behind, as he does with everything else?
Is he trying to decide what the best way is to say that, with regards to my departure, he is part of the problem? Or is he trying to develop a narrative that uses me as a scapegoat?
But since he pushed the issue about how inappropriate it was of me to tell my students that I wouldn’t be returning, I decided to explain how I have built my relationship with them all and that it requires me to be my authentic self. They all know that I have tried my best to stay true to who I am while making room for consideration of who they are and their needs, and they know that I have done as much as I could to build a relationship based on mutual respect and honesty.
Even when I couldn’t find it in myself to respect one of my students, especially one who continually regurgitated anti-trans and bio essentialist rhetoric at me, I still tried my best to treat them with what politeness I could muster while also being firm in my positions.
“Sometimes it seems that your relationship with them is more important than any others,” he spat.
And it’s true. I can’t deny that. I spend more than half of my time with my students. My relationships with them are of the utmost importance, and that is particularly true of those with whom I’ve developed strong bonds. Of course my relationships with my students are most important to me, and anyone who knows why I started teaching would immediately recognise that simple truth.
I started teaching because I wanted to create a healthy environment for kids. I wanted them to feel safe to explore their interests, and I wanted them to have a space where they felt comfortable asking questions (including uncomfortable ones) and being able to discuss anything (even difficult topics). I started teaching so I could work with them to create the environment that I know so many kids needed when I was their age, one that was far more open to curiosity and much less coercive.
Honestly, why else would someone bother to go into a caring profession if they only intend to be dismissive of the people they’re working with?
The only answer I can think of is one that fills me with rage: They want to feel powerful by controlling those who are made vulnerable to their whims.
It actually makes sense to me that this would be the reason he’d even want to work in a school. I genuinely do not see him as caring about the people with whom he works, and this is doubly true for anyone he perceives as being feminine or who questions his authority in the slightest. He’s the kind of person who thinks that he should have full control over everyone he sees as being “beneath” him.
And it’s clear when you check out the way he talks to people, the way he views the rules and our roles in enforcing them.
It’s so obvious in so many interactions with him. Like when he suddenly shifted from previous claims that we’re a “really good team” to “we won’t agree on anything,”, following it up by telling us that he is “paid to enforce the rules.” That’s really only one door down from the Nuremberg defense of “just following orders,” of being someone who enforces unfair and harmful rules on everyone without even attempting to be critical of them and consider their impact.
At no point did he even entertain any of the obvious questions: Who makes the rules? Who can be part of that process? Why do some rules exist? Who is most frequently targeted by the rules? Are the rules we have harmful and for whom? Why do so many rules have no specific definitions for what are clearly subjective values (inappropriate, vulgar, sexually provocative, etc)?
Are these rules relevant to the world we’re living in?
Nor did he ever address the fact that many of the rules give him the final say, refusing to consider any other teacher’s concerns. Unless he directly includes us because he wants our opinion, he has the ability to suspend students on his own terms. He’s able to punish them in order to silence them, ensuring that he does not have to deal with the consequences of his own bigotry.
If he wanted to, he could decide not to enforce any of them and recognise many of them as needlessly pointless. Instead, he both sets and enforces the rules as he desires because he likes the power it gives him. He interprets them however he desires, refusing to recognise the interpretations of anyone who questions them.
And he expects the same of us. He expects that we, too, “just follow orders.” This is something that he has openly stated during staff meetings, making sure we know that we are to enforce the rules as they are written in the handbook “as long as we work under him.” We shouldn’t bother ourselves with thinking about them critically.
We should precisely enforce them. Question nothing.
Infuriatingly, he’s not alone. This isn’t the first time I’ve run into someone like him, and it’s almost certainly unlikely to be the last.
Should I go back to working in schools, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever find administrators who actually care about the children they work with (outside of using them as political pawns). It’s highly doubtful that I’ll ever find someone who cares enough about anyone in the building to ensure that their needs are met, regardless of whether they have the correct paperwork or not. And it wouldn’t be surprising to find more people who simply want to abuse their power to control people, particularly those who are most vulnerable in the systems we create.
Because the overwhelming majority of people in those positions don’t want to question anything. They don’t want to change anything.
They want us to keep our questions to ourselves.