Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Ironing Board Test

I am sixty-one. I teach thirteen-year-olds. That’s a forty-eight year difference. I could be their grandmother. Some people would say that’s just too much of an age difference. How can you possibly relate to your students? Step aside and let younger people take over.

But they’re wrong. I have vivid memories of what it was like to be thirteen. I remember looking at myself in the mirror in the morning and discovering with horror the HUGE pimple that had appeared on my nose during the night. I remember taking at least half an hour to sculpt my hair into the highest bouffant possible and then converting it into a rigid helmet with massive amounts of hair spray. I remember struggling over math homework, passing notes to my friends, wanting desperately to be noticed by a cute boy, trying to take a test in spite of extremely painful menstrual cramps, etc. etc. If I were to forget any of this, my students would remind me every day.

However, there was much more going on than hormones, hair and math. When I was thirteen, Adolf Eichmann was apprehended, taken to Israel, and tried. During that year there were pictures all over the media of piles of corpses with skin tightly stretched over their skeletons. The movie, “Judgement at Nuremberg” came out when I was fourteen.

How could anyone be responsible for such an atrocity? The answer that was given was “I was just following orders.” To my thirteen-year-old mind, that sounded completely insane. All he had to do was JUST SAY NO. “No, I’m not going to run a death camp.” How easy is that?

I gradually came to an understanding that if everyone around you thinks something is right, you might fall into that line of thinking and do things that you would never do on your own. That idea was even scarier than the pile of corpses.

I took my doubts to an ironing-board conference. My mother did a lot of ironing, and I often sat on the floor in front of her as she worked. She would tell stories, and sometimes I would ask questions. “How do you know when you’re doing the right thing—no matter what other people are doing?”, I asked, after we had talked at length about Eichmann. “Well,” she said, “ One test is if you must do it in secret. People have a right to their privacy of course, but if you have to sneak around because you’re ashamed, then you might not be doing the right thing. Imagine if you had a camera on you, like Eichmann did, and you had to explain and justify what you did to people who weren’t in on the secret. Would you feel ashamed or proud? What if you knew I was watching you on TV as you tried to explain yourself?”

I’ll never forget that image.

In the years that have followed, I have sometimes done things that I would not have liked to justify on nationwide TV (with my mother watching), but I was rarely in doubt about whether or not it was the right thing to do.

The point of this story is that thirteen-year-olds are asking themselves some of the great existential questions of human kind, and the answers they receive will affect them for the rest of their lives.

On March 20, 2008, I had to sign a document that read as follows:

“Privacy Acknowledgment of Student Witness Statements"

"This is to acknowledge that upon my request, I have been provided with a copy of 10 student statements.

I understand that the statements have been provided for me for the limited purposes of responding to an allegation that was made against me. Although I am permitted to share the statements with my Union Representative, and/or counsel, I am prohibited from disclosing the identify of the writer and the substance of the statement to anyone else.

I further acknowledge that retaliation against the authors of the statements, or any discussion of the content of the statements with the authors of the statements, is strictly prohibited and may result in disciplinary action including termination of employment.”

Now, obviously, I can’t discuss what the statements said. However, I do know that the statements were taken without the knowledge of the students’ parents. I know because I asked. The document I signed said I couldn’t discuss the CONTENT of the statements—not their existence. I simply asked a couple of the girls if their parents had any idea that the statements existed. I got a letter in my file for asking that question.

In other words, once the secret statements have been written, no one can know or talk about them except the administration, the teacher, and the UFT. The parents have no idea that their children have written a statement that could involve them in a 3020a hearing.

I would have no problem discussing each statement on nationwide TV.

The administration has a big problem discussing the statements with the parents.
So do the students. They have failed the ironing-board test of secrecy.

Ever since the condom incident, I have been the target of a series of verbal abuse allegations. Each time I have had to sign a Privacy Agreement—making it impossible for me to write about them on this blog. The need for secrecy is not mine.

Most people would think that if ten students all wrote consistent statements about something a teacher said, there would be little doubt that they were telling the truth. Let me give you an example of how a whole class can generate false statements.

I caught my homeroom class engaging in negative gossip and mean practical jokes. We had already studied DNA, mutations, and evolution. They knew that most scientists agree that the human genome is the result of billions of generations of evolution starting with single-celled organisms. I told them that the good feeling they got when they joined together to gossip about or play a joke on another person probably came from the same DNA that gave wolves their ability to join together to hunt a deer. It feels good to engage in pack animal behavior, because at some point it helped your ancestors to survive. But beware. Pack animal behavior can lead to racism, lynchings, the holocaust. Of course, it can also lead to rescue teams, football teams, and lots of other positive cooperative behavior. They had to be careful which way they would take that pack-animal behavior---and for that they had to bring into play the big, huge frontal lobe of their human brains that made them different from all other animals. We’re the only animals that can actually reflect on our actions.

Well, they didn’t like that message. I have been told by several sources that they went to other teachers and complained that I called them pack animals. They actually wrote all about it in Language Arts. I am expecting to get a letter any day advising me that there is another allegation of verbal abuse against me. However, now I’ve already discussed the contents of the statements before I am forced to sign away my right to do so.

Why do I predict this will happen? Because it already has. The kids take something I said out of context and are encouraged to write statements against me. Then I have to write a big, long explanation of what I really said.

Didn’t something like this happen with the Hitler Youth?


Anonymous said...

First, I would like to say that I have read your blogging about your fight with interest and firmly believe that you are being railroaded by a hostile administration intent on finding grounds to remove you from the classroom. And I have no doubt that you are a highly qualified and dedicated science teacher. But, I am not surprised that a group of young teens misheard or misinterpreted your statements. They are very sensitive to perceived insults, as you should also remember about your 13 year old self. Whenever I engage in that type of language with my class, I always allow time to have them air out their feeelings and to clarify exactly what I did and did not say. I am surprised however, that the ELA teacher indulged them and allowed them to committ their misinterpretations to paper thus re-enforcing them. When I have students come to me about another teacher, I always have the teacher's back (even when I believe it likely that the student is telling the truth). I remind them of the severity of their accusations and encourage them to speak directly to the teacher outside the classroom. And I remind them that we often mishear each other. Basically, I make them think long and hard before doing things like making written statements or even spreading gossip. And if the teacher has been named to me, I always give him or her a heads up without naming the particular student who is making the accusation. From reading your blog for sometime, I believe that if you are in a siutation where the students are against you, you should think about transferring schools. Once you are considered by them to be racist or biased, the label sticks, no matter what the truth might be. Unless you have an equally vocal and influencial group of students backing you up, you are in trouble. And with colleagues like the ELA teacher, you are in more trouble. And this may be why the administration is clearly trying to find grounds to justify your dismissal. Negative feedback from students and/or parents will give them continual rationale to get you out. I have known others in similar situations who have successfully found other positions, and had threatened U ratings reversed to allow it. They are now very content in their new school where they came in with a clean slate and have made a success for themselves. Why not consider going somewhere that you will be valued by everyone in the school? I admire your desire to fight and see justice done. But the deck is stacked against the individual teacher like you. And then there is the old adage about there being no true victors in a war.

Moriah Untamed said...

Thanks for your comments and advice. Unfortunately transferring to another school is not an option because I am at top salary and because I already have a U-rating.

Retirement might be the only other option.

Chaz said...


Don't let them defeat you. So what they send you to the "rubber room"? You will have at least a full year of no lesson plans, student stress, and administrative nonsense, at full pay.

Even if they file 3020-a charges, the arbitrators know what's going on and it is highly unlikely you will be terminated. Maybe a fine or a suspension for the second year. Nothing worse then if you took a sabbatical at 70% pay.

The DOE wants you to retire, don't do it. Fight them all the way through the process.

Moriah Untamed said...


Thanks. I've been seriously considering retirement. I could finally write anything I want any time I want. I wouldn't be so tired all the time.

Lots of teachers have opted to get out of a system that has become abusive to them. Who can blame them?

But there are a lot of people who are hanging in, and doing as you say, fighting all the way through the process. They are gumming up the works, slowing things down, and proving that this is not the corporate world. It's almost like one big huge sit-in. Passive resistence.

For now, I 'm going to try to stick it out.