My year of (not) earning tenure
The pitfalls of teaching diversity and tolerance in a small-town high school
Last fall, during my second year as an English language arts and creative writing teacher at a public charter school for the arts in a nearby town, one of my students came by the classroom after school to get the assignment she had missed that morning.
As I was explaining it to her, a parent walked into my room and took a seat.
“Are you looking for someone?” I asked.
He seemed casual, bobbing his head back and forth, absorbing the student wall art depicting various renditions of the main character in the Native American novel we had just read. “I’m just checking up on my daughter’s grades … I can wait,” he said.
I couldn’t place him. “What grade is she in, sir?”
I was relieved: “Oh, I see. I teach ninth- and 11th-grade English. The seventh-grade teacher you’re looking for is in the middle of rehearsals for the fall play. You’ll need to sign into the office and walk to the theater—”
He stopped me mid-sentence. “Well, no. I don’t sign in.
“But I do have a question fer you,” he said, stepping uncomfortably close and speaking with a threatening tone. He motioned to a poster on the wall near my desk. It was for the documentary film The Times of Harvey Milk and featured a picture of the famous gay San Francisco politician.
“I wanna know … why you have that … pervert hanging on the wall.”
For once in my life I was not primed for a quick retort. “I’m not going to answer that question,” I stated flatly.
His head snapped back. “Well, why not?”
I began to gather fragments of courage. “Because the question is offensive, and so are you.”
He went into a tailspin. “I fought for this country, and don’t want no pervert on the wall …”
Seeing his agitation escalating, I asked him to leave my classroom.
He kept ranting while I interjected with more force: “You need to leave my class now!”
This continued for some time. I sent my student out to alert a more imposing authority figure.
Finally, the parent left my room, still ranting, his voice echoing in the corridor.
For the next few hours the man remained on campus, talking with the principal during much of that time. The security guard checked on me several times, and the principal managed to wiggle out of his office to see how I was doing as well.
In the meantime, I had to use the bathroom and didn’t feel safe going by myself. The school security guard walked me over. I thought about levels of safety and how gay students maneuver and tolerate much worse than what I had just experienced.
I decided to call the police and have the man written up for harassment. I felt I needed to document the incident.
The police came and took my report; the parent was questioned and told he must always sign in at the main office. I remained in my classroom, looking out my window, until 5:45 p.m.
Finally the police left, but by this time the parent had convened a posse of two or three other parents. They were standing by the far building directly facing my classroom. I alerted our security guard, and he kindly walked me to my car. I drove off and in my rearview mirror saw the group disperse and get into their cars. Now they know what kind of car I drive, I thought.
After teaching for 14 years in three different states, in 2002 I returned to Northern California. It was here that I encountered my biggest challenge as an educator: teaching diversity issues in the secondary classroom.
In several counties, I discovered that multicultural literature and teaching about diversity were relegated to specific days or months when different ethnic groups were to be celebrated.
Since returning to the North State, I had wanted to find a school culture where differences would be celebrated as a part of the daily curriculum. In 2006, I decided to pursue graduate studies in education with an emphasis on linguistically and culturally diverse learners.
Diversity was a popular concept in education and had even been added to accreditation standards. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education defines it as “differences among groups of people and individuals based on ethnicity, race, socioeconomic status, gender, exceptionalities, language, religion, sexual orientation and geographical area.”
Of those groups, the only one I had never seen discussed as part of a curriculum in any of the three states where I had taught was sexual orientation. The only time gay issues surfaced in my classes was in the context of accusations and insults.
In my experience, students who dared to come out of the closet were often targeted, and in many cases the bullying resulted in self-inflicted abuse or dropping out of school completely. To me, this was an underserved student community, and I wanted to focus my thesis project on discussing LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) issues in public education.
In 2008 I completed my master’s thesis and curriculum project, “Opening Doors for LGBTQ Students in Public Education,” only to realize that the hurdles overwhelm the topic.
My experience teaching to diversity and my thesis focus were specifically noted on my résumé. The principal of the charter, who was also its cofounder, considered them assets. In fact, it was he who got me started as an advocate for LGBTQ youth.
During the spring semester of my first year at the charter, he brought a woman to my classroom after school whom he introduced as the parent of a seventh-grade student. He explained that she was interested in starting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at the charter. He told her I was the perfect teacher to act as the club’s adviser.
The parent, who said she was a lesbian in a same-sex marriage and was no stranger to harassment in the community, explained that she wanted her daughter to have support at school. I looked at the principal; he nodded his approval, and I agreed to the request.
One of our very “out” students at the charter was elected president of the club, and we set a goal to write the GSA constitution over the summer and begin meetings in the fall.
My principal retired after that first year, however, and another man took his place. I see now what may have been an asset to one administrator who was well-respected and ready for retirement may have posed a threat to an inexperienced administrator serving his first year as a principal.
Unfortunately for me, this was the year when I was up for tenure.[page]
After the Harvey Milk debacle, I continued to teach my English and creative-writing classes, though I knew a red flag had been raised about my teaching status.
My classroom became known as the safe zone, and some formerly closeted students came out, a difficult and courageous step to take, even in a high school for the performing arts. I was beginning to acclimate to the mores of the larger community and understood why so many more gay students chose to remain silent.
Coming out as gay or lesbian in high school is guaranteed to result in harassment to some degree, depending on the school’s commitment to keeping all students safe. I witnessed an out same-sex couple on our campus display affection for each other in a manner that was no more obvious than what heterosexual couples often demonstrate. They were taunted, asked if they did porn, and at one point in the school year summoned to the principal’s office and questioned.
“Was there any hanky-panky going on in the bathroom?” the students say the principal asked them.
They insisted that when I was off campus, the harassment escalated.
A ripple effect had occurred: Promoting inclusion meant it was safe to come out, but coming out meant that parents would react and administrators would take the heat.
All teachers are legally required to sign a child-abuse agreement at the beginning of the contract year. A teacher could be prosecuted if he or she kept silent knowing a student suffered abuse at home or in school. Was advocating for gay students any different?
Even though it was the beginning of the fall semester, I felt a grinding pressure from within me, but I was a professional and decided to teach as I always had, by engaging students in literature and writing in addition to making relevant thematic connections.
In mid-October, my junior-year English class began reading Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible. I shared with the class that Miller was deeply influenced by the blacklisting of his left-wing friends and that the fanaticism in the play reflected the era of McCarthyism. The majority of my students had not learned about McCarthyism or the Hollywood blacklist. Once we completed the play, the students embarked on a culminating group project and individual research papers on fanaticism and modern-day witch-hunts.
I provided a list of possible topics, from McCarthyism to the Japanese internment during World War II. I labored over whether to add the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 ballot measure that would have prohibited openly gay and lesbian teachers from working in California’s public schools. It’s absent from U.S.-history textbooks, as is the famous Stonewall Riot in New York City, which was the impetus for the modern gay-rights movement, and the murder of Harvey Milk.
My goal was to open doors to the unknown and provide student choice, so I added the topics. I reviewed the list and made sure it was balanced. I knew that adding historical gay issues to the list was a risk, given the poster incident. But good teachers are willing to take risks, as has been documented in countless Hollywood movies like The Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds.
Of course, those films were about teachers who no longer taught and whose tenure wasn’t at stake, and I don’t believe any of the students in the films were depicted as gay, so I decided to check in with the new principal.
In fact, I requested that he come to my class during project presentations as a part of the formal evaluation process leading up to the decision of whether to grant me tenure. I wanted him to observe the nature of the class, and see it contained a cross-section of what I deemed to be a “real world” community.
On the day of presentations—and, coincidentally, the day of my formal evaluation—one group chose to focus their project on Proposition 8, the extremely controversial initiative that overturned gay couples’ right to marry. In addition to the principal, we had a visiting parent, the same woman who had requested that the charter start a GSA club.
The project presentation closed with a student-directed activity in which students stood in a line, wore blindfolds and were told to step forward to indicate their positions when questions related to gay rights were asked.
The purpose of the exercise was to expose personal bias regarding gay rights. In this class, as in the larger society, feelings ran high on the issue. I could feel some tension in the room.
The final question in the activity prompted, “Please step forward if you or someone you know agree with the definition of Proposition 8, namely ‘Marriage in California is between a man and a woman.’ ” Some students stood firmly in place, emphasizing their disagreement with the proposition, and a number of students moved forward.
We three adults in the room could clearly see how this activity illustrated the division of our students and the community.
When the blindfolds were removed and the students returned to their assigned seats, one of them blurted out, “I’m sorry, but marriage is a biblical word.”
To which another student responded confrontationally, “Are all words in the Bible biblical in origin?”
At this point yet another student, who happened to be seated close to the principal, covertly told one of the two to shut up, which led the other to yell, “I will not shut up!”
There were just two minutes left before the bell would sound.
These two students had engaged in heated interactions before and would continue to do so throughout the year, as their political and religious beliefs were polar opposites. They weren’t very nice to each other, but by the end of the year they had become friends on Facebook.
I addressed the interaction in a sharp, clear manner, setting parameters for respect. The bell rang and most of the class dispersed. The principal was checking in with the student who said “shut up” to see how he was doing.
Later that day, during my evaluation, this incident was referenced when I was told I needed to work on “creating a safe climate for all students.” I was not reprimanded directly for this incident, nor was I told that the topic was inappropriate, only that I must be responsible for creating a safe learning environment for all students—which of course had been the intention of the lesson.
Clearly another red flag had been raised. This was underlined for me later, when I was approached by a student upset by the debate over the origin of the word “marriage.” I explained that she needed facts to back up her claims, as the student who opposed her was an advanced-Latin student and may have had prior knowledge about the origin of the word.
Before the end of the day, the student had called her mother, stating that I told her that her beliefs were wrong. The new principal later informed me that the parent had threatened to call the sheriff. We both shook our heads in disbelief.
Rumors started to circulate that “Ms. A was in big trouble,” and two students told me that the parent wanted to have me fired.
At the time I thought it was ridiculous. In teaching, there will always be subjects or books that create controversy in the classroom and danger for the teacher, whether for exposing the expletives in The Catcher in the Rye or revealing that Walt Whitman was gay and that his “Calamus” poems were testaments of same-sex attraction. That’s why tenure marks “home base” for any teacher who wants to feel safe.
Is it important that students know that playwright Oscar Wilde, famous for his wit and crisp dialogue, was imprisoned for homosexuality and died penniless? When we exclude specific information from textbooks that could promote inclusion for all students, we are not creating a safe learning environment.
As a straight, white teacher I knew I had privilege, a fact not discussed in faculty meetings but nevertheless one that remains ever-present. Teachers of color who passionately educate students about racial oppression run the risk of coming under scrutiny as militants who need to move on. It is much the same scenario for “out” teachers.
The Briggs Initiative may have failed in 1978, but the paranoia still reigns in 2010. I knew that if I were an out lesbian teacher, I would be pegged as recruiting students to become gay.
A mentor once told me that this was where the test of advocacy would show up time and again for educators who had privilege, but then again I was a woman who was taking a risk during my tenure year in a district where the majority of the administrators were men.
Still, I was white and straight. And by sharing the list of topics with students, I moved into activism, which is romanticized in Hollywood and shunned in the real world of public education. But I live in the real world, where gay students drop out and hurt themselves and in many cases become statistics.[page]
I’m not sure that there is any way to be a part-time advocate for LGBTQ students. How do you ignore an e-mail written at 1 a.m. by a distraught student regarding a parent’s threat to remove her from a school that is too “gay accepting”? Do you disregard the scarred wrists clutching a Bible and the confidences of a Christian gay student struggling with his sexuality?
When the former principal escorted that lesbian parent into my class, I believed at the time I would be supported. But when I was alerted by a reliable source that my tenure was in jeopardy, I scoured my evaluations over the course of the two years, and what bounced off the page was the comment, “creating a safe learning environment for all students.”
Colleagues told me there were “concerns” that might become bigger issues in the future, and advised me to make an appointment to discuss them with the new principal.
I did my best to make an appointment—sent e-mails, left messages and eventually approached him directly on campus with my concerns about my evaluations and tenure status. He told me that I was a worrier, too much like him, and offered to buy me coffee.
Finally, we did meet in his office after a faculty meeting. Later that day I would be attending opening night of the one-acts I had produced with the creative-writing class.
Unable to meet my gaze and clearly anguished, the principal informed me that I had been denied tenure. Even though red flags had gone up, warning me of the possibility, I was shocked.
He held out his quivering hand and told me that the assistant superintendent of human resources would talk to me because, for legal reasons, he could not discuss the decision.
Confused, I asked him whether I had broken a law. He looked at me with an equal amount of shock and said no.
During the final week of February and up until the first week in March, when the school board was scheduled to approve the denial of tenure, students, parents and fellow teachers circulated a petition and wrote numerous letters on my behalf.
There is an invisible line that administrators will never cross, and this was one of them. Despite the glowing references, the decision to deny tenure would stand. I was told that although the district legally did not need to divulge the reasons for my denial, sitting down with the assistant superintendent for human resources would be helpful as I “transitioned” to a new place of employment.
So there I sat in the district office, with my union rep by my side, as the assistant superintendent considered the petition containing 250 signatures (in a school with just 300 students) and the numerous letters written on my behalf.
“You certainly have a lot of supporters,” he said.
Then he told me I had a choice—that I could resign instead of being terminated, a step that would work to my benefit when applying for other teaching positions. I thought about all the pink slips that had been issued throughout the state of California and my stomach churned.
I asked if I would be eligible for unemployment benefits if I resigned. “Absolutely,” he replied. “I’ve dealt with the EDD regarding this kind of situation and you should be fine.”
The remainder of the semester was incredibly difficult. I had grown very close to a number of my students, and there was a looming sadness that was palpable, but I continued to teach, and we even scheduled a final GSA meeting to celebrate Harvey Milk Day.
Harvey was still on my wall—the last poster hanging. I decided to dress him up for his special day with a shimmery silver scarf. Assembly Bill 2567, which authorized Harvey Milk Day to be celebrated on May 22, had passed in 2008. The bill “encourages public schools and educational institutions to conduct suitable commemorative exercises on that date.”
I kept a copy of the bill in my school bag just in case I was questioned. But, as one of my students quipped, “What’s it matter? You’re leaving anyway.”
This year the 22nd fell on a Saturday, so the GSA club had a Friday lunch soiree. It was quite a gathering, the biggest turnout of the year. We put up a “Got Milk?” sign at the door.
Several students read excerpts about Harvey Milk, and he remained on the wall as we ate rainbow-sprinkled cupcakes. I wore a tiara because our GSA president had deemed the occasion “dressy casual.” Even students who chose not to come to the party hovered outside the classroom. It was a terrific way to end the year and my tenure in this district—listening to The Weather Girls singing “It’s Raining Men” and celebrating with a variety of students, some out, some straight, all of them safe.