How can I extricate myself from a tricky work situation?
February 10, 2011 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Help me stay out of trouble at work!

I am a first year teacher, teaching abroad, and have run into an issue at work.

Preface: My boss is sane, but very demanding and tends to focus a lot on the negative. She has left me alone most of the year, which I take to mean she trusted me up until now.

It's kind of a long story, but hopefully I can condense it. This girl a couple weeks ago who was failing my class by a lot complained that I had lost 6 of her homework assignments, which is next to impossible, and she went to my boss and it became this big thing that I had to meet with her, my boss, and the principal eventually had to make a decision and since there was no proof I had to let her redo them. So I let her redo them, and I think that my boss believes me and not her, but she is checking up on me big time now.

She went through all my planning the other day and was really upset with me. My 8th graders wrote an essay in class during 2nd term (it's 3rd term now) and I gave them a lot of time to do it, and reminded them again and again that if they hadn't turned it in it was a 0 and it would affect their grade a lot. Six of them didn't do it at all, so I gave them 0's. My boss found the 0's in my grading book and told me that the 0's are my fault because I was supposed to keep them after school until they did it if they didn't do it during class, which I had NO idea of. Usually if we give them classwork or a test and they refuse to do it, we just give them 0's, and I have never seen another teacher keep them after, and I don't remember my boss ever telling me to. I didn't know it was even an option if I had wanted to.

So, my boss found these 0's and told me they are my fault and that if any student complains I am "going down." She was basically talking to me like I am totally incompetent (which I know isn't personal, because she does that to everyone) and in an entire two hours didn't say one positive thing about me. As I see it, of course I am a new teacher and I am going to make mistakes and she should correct me, but I am not intentionally messing anything up and I am trying my best to do everything correctly and follow the policies, and the mistakes I do make are mostly mistakes I am going to make because I am new and no one trained me--not saying I am perfect by a long shot, but I am not terrible.

So, I don't know what to do because today I told my students that they needed to stay after class and do the work, and they all said, 'if we have 0's, why do we have to stay? that was last term.' So, I am worried now that they are going to complain to my boss and ask why they have to be doubly punished, and then my boss is going to say well really it's your teacher's fault and that's why. They know they have 0's right now and they don't care, they're not going to complain about that because it is completely logical that they should have 0's. I am super worried that I am going to get in big big trouble at school on the tails of this student who claims I lost her work, and in trouble with parents and lose all my credibility.

The only thing I can think of to do is go to my boss' boss and explain the situation and that I had no idea I was doing anything against policy. The policy that it's my fault they didn't work also doesn't make sense to me, but I don't want to fight my boss, I just want to get out of trouble. But I am worried that if I go to my boss' boss, she will just go along with my boss and tell me I didn't follow procedures and then I will be in even more trouble because she will know I screwed up too. If I had a way to logically explain to my kids why they have to do this without blaming myself in front of them I would, but I don't.

I have no idea what to do, I feel like this is unfair because I didn't really do anything wrong (at least, not intentionally) and I am on the verge of losing all of my credibility! This is my first professional job, so I don't know the best course of action. Advice? Is it worth talking to someone higher up or does that stand a higher chance of getting me deeper in trouble?
posted by queens86 to Work & Money (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
First, you told them up front--don't do the work = zeros.
Second, if the policy wasn't clear--not your fault.

I would have a meeting with the crazy boss and her higher boss. Get everyone on teh same page at the same time and get the story from you; not passing it from you to her. THis is your first job. She obviously will never be happy with anything you do (or anyone).

You don't have to explain Jack to a bunch of 8th graders who slack on their homework and won't do assignments. They should learn accountability now. They're not 2.

Document, document, document.
posted by stormpooper at 1:56 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

where are you teaching?
posted by KathrynT at 2:00 PM on February 10, 2011

Your story makes me sad for the state of education.

You are being labeled as incompetent because some of your students failed to do an assignment. Everyone gets a trophy too, right - even if they never went to practice and never put in any effort, they still get a trophy.

Whatever you do, do not compromise your morals. If the leaders at this school are unwilling to hold students accountable, then do you really want to teach at that school?
posted by Flood at 2:02 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 1. Dont whine about the unfairness
2. Set your mind to being proactive about the future. When you meet, ask if there are any other policies about unfinished work that you should know about, and consider asking about the organizational reasons for avoiding zeros.
3. In the future, when told to do something that sounds stupid--ask a clarifying question that forces your boss to repeat the stupid thing, and then do it exactly. "I just want to clarify---you'd like me to keep the students after school to do LAST SEMESTER'S work?"

Stop feeling like you're "in trouble" --- you're NOT A CHILD IN SCHOOL. Sounds like your boss got in trouble for not mentoring you carefully and is overcompensating. You might consider an attitude of relief that she is now on the ball, even if that's not how you feel. It supports the narrative that your mistakes resulted from her inattention--but gives you a way to be upbeat and looking forward to her mentoring in the future.

This is the hard part of teaching. Content is easy. Work relationships in compulsory education in an era of instrumentality and high stakes testing is what they could be teaching you in teacher college.
posted by vitabellosi at 2:22 PM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sorry---missed that you're working abroad.

Most of my advice still holds.
posted by vitabellosi at 2:23 PM on February 10, 2011

I'll second stormpooper. Document everything, you want to be wearing steel undies...
posted by deadwax at 2:31 PM on February 10, 2011

Response by poster: Vitabellosi, I actually agree with you, because I am sort of glad in a way that she is paying more attention to me now, because it does help. I think she left me on my own before I was completely ready. I definitely don't want to go in there and look like I am whining, which is what I am scared of if I talk to my boss' boss. I just want to get back on her good side.

I agree with everything you said, and that is how I try and approach work. Even if it sounds dumb, I do it, which I think is why she trusted me so much up until now. But still, I need to do something about this situation. Would it be better to just do what she's telling me to do, and risk losing credibility, than try and argue the issue?
posted by queens86 at 2:34 PM on February 10, 2011

Document everything you do and cc your boss with evidence that you are doing what you should be. Make keeping an eye on you an unproductive administrative nightmare. I mean this not as "annoy your boss" but "Make your boss see the pointlessness in the exercise".
posted by dougrayrankin at 2:36 PM on February 10, 2011

You are being labeled as incompetent because some of your students failed to do an assignment.

No, you're being labeled as incompetent because your role as a teacher is to move your students forward - all of them. If teaching was simply a matter of putting assignments on the table and saying 'take it or leave it' and issuing reminders about due dates, anybody could do it.

What sort of incentive structure do you think you've created for struggling students if you say 'do it or get a 0?' One that encourages them to say 'You know what? Fuck it. I'll take the 0.' Your approach burns the fields and salts the earth. "Some of you kids know you're probably going to be a zero, so I'm putting it right there in front of you, on the lowest branch, and there are no second chances, so you're probably going to stay a zero."

Your story makes me sad for the state of education.

There we agree. Set standards for your students, and help them - they're children, remember? - help them to meet them. Don't create a situtation where it's all or nothing, and it's all them and none you.

Everyone gets a trophy too, right

Bitter much? Everybody doesn't get a trophy. Everybody gets a fair chance. Setting up a system that lets a struggling kid settle for a zero isn't a fair chance.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:38 PM on February 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

In the absence of any more useful information I am going to assume that since you said you were teaching abroad that you mean that you are teaching English somewhere.

In most cases you are actually far more valuable to the school than they are to you (it is hard to find native English speakers), so I would just quit and find a new job and let them worry about replacing you.

If my assumptions are wrong please disregard.
posted by BobbyDigital at 2:40 PM on February 10, 2011

Response by poster: I am teaching English, and yes it is hard to find native teachers here, but I liked my job (up until 3 days ago..) and definitely don't want to quit this far in, after feeling like I have learned so much since the start.
posted by queens86 at 2:42 PM on February 10, 2011

I don't think there's a win here for revisiting your position. Sounds like everyone is taking heat on this and the blame runs down hill.

I often feel like whining and explaining myself at work. But it helps to remember that you won't be defined by thus one incident ---and it sounds like, even with increased scrutiny, she hasn't found much to critcize you for.

You might get a chance to restate your position, but look for an organic opportunity. "I remember that incident. It really hadn't occurred to me to keep kids after school to fix their zeros. I now see that its a school priority to enforce that with the students..."
posted by vitabellosi at 2:43 PM on February 10, 2011

From a parent's perspective, your job is to teach the child, not just fail them.
From your bosses' perspective, your job is to teach children, not just fail them.

No one at that school thinks your job is to fill out charts with numbers on them; they think your job is teaching children.
posted by nomisxid at 2:50 PM on February 10, 2011

A long time ago I taught high school literature and composition at a high school in the U.S. Sadly, this kind of crazy, tyrannical, arbitrary rule changing on the part of an administrator is pretty common. You had a policy, your policy was clear (and clearly communicated), and you were following this policy. And now you've caught hell for doing what you said you were going to do, by someone who had months to review your policies and make suggestions or corrections before it "mattered." This person failed to properly mentor and manage a first year teacher, and is now blaming you for their failure to keep better tabs on how you were running your classroom. It isn't fair, but it is a pretty common situation.

In my experience, these sort of incidents snowball from simple mistakes to Huge Issues when a parent discovers that their child is at risk of getting a poor grade, and the parent simply refuses to believe that their kid is at fault. I've found this to be especially true at private schools with parents who are very used to getting their way, and who often won't accept that their son or daughter simply didn't do their work. In these situations, the administration often won't have your back, and are happy to throw you and/or your dignity under a bus to keep the tuition paying parents happy. Going above Administrator A to reach Head of School B only makes enemies of both, and ultimately does you no good.

Sadly, there's probably not much you can do in this situation other than try to appease your immediate boss and toe their line. It sounds like you did nothing wrong and are still going to be called on the carpet and subject to a lot of additional scrutiny. Your boss is making an example of you, and is demonstrating that you have no real power in this relationship. This will happen a lot in your teaching career, and you are going to have to develop a much thicker skin about this sort of thing if you are going to last as a teacher. For whatever it's worth, I quit teaching in large part because I lost my stomach for these petty displays of power at my expense.
posted by mosk at 2:50 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a bit confusing, but it seems that the students get grades of 0 if they turn in zero, zilch and nil, rather than turn in something incomplete (and I trust you have been making efforts to get those students to do make some effort). If so, some students get tests/assignments and think, "ain't gonna do it," hard to see how they could get a grade other than zero.

That aside, drawing on your supervisor's wisdom and experience would seem to make sense. She may well have some good ideas, it shows respect for her and a desire to learn from her ...and it subtly puts it in her court to say something more than, "Do it."

Also, it's not unprecedented among some private schools that the focus is more on keeping parents happy than on education standards.
posted by ambient2 at 2:57 PM on February 10, 2011

I imagine that your boss is taking this stance because the parents would love to shift all responsibility to the educational institution for "failing" the children (both in failing to teach them and giving them a failing grade). So use the leverage you have with these kids - their parents. The parents can make the kids do the work.

I would tell the kids that this academic institution "doesn't allow" the students to get 0's, and so they must complete the work to change the grade. If they wish to keep the 0, they must have a letter written by their parents to (your boss) stating that it is (the parents') wish to not have their child do the work and let them keep the 0. If permission is not given, then they have to make arrangements with you for when this homework will be done... (and at this point your tactics would depend on the kid I guess).
posted by lizbunny at 3:00 PM on February 10, 2011

Grading is a very political thing.

You're supposed to focus on helping the students achieve success.

Adopting a hard line is just not the way to do it.

The best thing to do is to create a minimum amount of work students have to do to get a pass (say a range between 55% and 65%). Students have to do this work, and give them lots of time to do it - all term for missed assignments.

The way you reward other kids who try harder is to give them more work to do that helps them get a better mark.

You need to save face in this situation, and stop the confrontation.

Give the students a chance to correct the 0s.

Do not make them come in after class - it's just a waste of energy, and you're just shooting yourself in the foot.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:09 PM on February 10, 2011

Response by poster: I don't want to make them come in after class.. my boss wants me to though. I wish they could just make up the 0's, but they're in the last term, so they can't now.. my boss wants an extra grade for them in the third term, plus the 0 in the second term (which she and I both hope no one complains about... the problem is, no one was complaining until I told them they had to stay after school).

Sounds like I should just focus on getting back in my boss' good graces. Does anyone have any ideas on how to tell these six kids they need to stay extra time, without resulting in them getting upset and complaining? A logical reason?

Thanks everyone! It seems like the politics of schools is a hot topic.. (and yes, my school is private).
posted by queens86 at 3:17 PM on February 10, 2011

These are 8th graders (13 year olds)... They're not even close to being responsible for themselves. When I was in 8th grade, I was absolutely forced to stay during lunch and do homework, and sometimes to stay after and do homework, too. I guess some of it depends on where you are, but in the US the school is in loco parentis to the students... which definitely makes you responsible for making them do the assignments or escalating to a higher authority in extreme cases.

What I would do is try and make it right from here on out. Talk to your fellow teachers about what they do to keep their students on track. Split assignments up so that they can't just "not hand in" a big assignment (for an essay: outline, list of potential sources, rough draft, corrections on the draft, and final). If they miss one part, talk at them until they hand it in. If they miss two parts, escalate (ask your supervisor what to do and probably keep them after or during lunch, note home). Give them time during class to work on assignments (you have them for how many hours per week?).

Btw, I don't think that this is really a case of "everyone gets a trophy". It's more like "everyone should be able to learn this very basic stuff" unless they have some kind of medical reason, and the middle school teacher's job is to sit over them until they do it, because it makes more sense logistically to have one teacher for a classroom of kids as opposed to having every parent do it individually.

Tell them it's for extra help since they seem to be having trouble completing assignments.
posted by anaelith at 3:28 PM on February 10, 2011

Students who don't turn in work ARE struggling. But I doubt it is for lack of incentives. If they will take a zero grade, they have some other problem that gold stars won't solve. That is not the kind of problem that a teacher should be handling in the classroom. That is for the principal or counselor to figure out. And then work with the teacher to come up with a way for the student to make up the work.

I kind of suspect that at least some of these students are gaming the system, and know that if they give the teacher a hard time and claim that the *teacher* lost their homework, the school will side with them.
posted by gjc at 3:36 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

From a parent's perspective, your job is to teach the child, not just fail them.
From your bosses' perspective, your job is to teach children, not just fail them.

No one at that school thinks your job is to fill out charts with numbers on them; they think your job is teaching children.

Many schools have adopted a ZAP policy. ZAP stands for zeros aren't permitted. In other words, students are not given the option of not doing assignments. They stay after school or in detention, or whatever it takes until the assignment is done. They might get a lower grade for turning it in late, but the days of just letting students "choose" to fail are over. I assume that if you give a student an assignment you meant for them to learn something from it, and you as the teacher are accountable for that learning.

The accountability has shifted from the student (and the parents) to the teacher, which basically means you need to engage your students so that they have personal incentive to complete the assignments.
posted by tamitang at 3:45 PM on February 10, 2011

Best answer: Your story makes me sad for the state of education.

There we agree. Set standards for your students, and help them - they're children, remember? - help them to meet them. Don't create a situation where it's all or nothing, and it's all them and none you.

Everyone gets a trophy too, right

Bitter much? Everybody doesn't get a trophy. Everybody gets a fair chance. Setting up a system that lets a struggling kid settle for a zero isn't a fair chance.

I really wish that the above were true. I used to be totally optimistic about giving every child a wonderful scholastic experience...until I actually got a Master's degree and began working in schools.

I don't know how different it may be in the country that OP is working in, but I feel that a lot of accountability has been taken away from students and shoved onto teachers. There have been plenty of times when I have given one-on-one attention, remained positive and encouraging despite blatant disrespect towards me, allowed students to take breaks or do something fun for a little while before they refocus, and repeated the same information more than 20 times in one half-hour lesson. That does not stop some kids from completely ignoring what is going on, goofing off, and sometimes refusing to do anything. I cannot physically force them to write. There has to be some ownership in education. It is the job of the parents to prepare their child to listen and work hard in school to the best of their ability. Not all students with zeros are struggling. Some are just lazy, rude, and insubordinate. We teachers can hardly do anything about it, and it takes learning time away from other students when you are constantly interrupted. It becomes pretty painful and frustrating to say that "The 123 assignment is due tomorrow, let me know if you need help", only to have a kid raise their hand IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING and say "When is the 123 assignment due?" and not turn it in anyway.

OP - I would probably try to be as respectful as humanly possible to everyone involved in this situation. Put a poster up that reminds students when things are due and the consequences of not completing an assignment. Send out a letter home to parents detailing this and ask for permission to keep kids after school. You could also send home a homework checklist every two weeks or so that has to be signed. Even if the kids are in high school or something, they have not shown you that they can keep track of their own work and need their parents to hold their hand. Express to your boss a desire to do the very best that you possibly can and highlight your openness to change and advice. After all this, just relax. At a certain point you need to accept that you are teaching your hardest and giving all of the positive support that you can, but sometimes the kid just won't do it. Good luck.
posted by delicate_dahlias at 4:19 PM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I agree that contact with the parents of students who are getting 0's is a good idea.

Also, document everything that is going on! You don't want to be fired later on for doing things that your supervisor told you to do (like keeping kids after school) if the parents complain to the superintendent. Make sure you get all policies from your boss in writing, or if that isn't possible, send your boss an email each time repeating back the things you were told, and ask if you have a clear understanding of them. That way if you misunderstood something, there is an opportunity for clarification, and if you are later in trouble for something you are told to do, you can refer back to those emails if your boss mysteriously decides not to back you up (or to insist that they didn't tell you to do those things)
posted by markblasco at 4:44 PM on February 10, 2011

Sounds like I should just focus on getting back in my boss' good graces. Does anyone have any ideas on how to tell these six kids they need to stay extra time, without resulting in them getting upset and complaining? A logical reason?

Getting the kids to stay after school is just a lot of useless work. The kids resent it, it's a waste of your time, blah blah blah.

You need to get your supervisor to back you up (be physically present) when you tell the kids they have to stay after school. This will take some of the heat off of you.

If that's too much of a pain in the ass, consider giving the kids a choice: stay after school and write the essay, or do it a little bit of a time over a school week.

Another solution may be, if you resort to writing a note home to the parents instead, ask for the students' input when writing it. Show them what you are going to write. Give them a chance to adjust the message.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:00 PM on February 10, 2011

I think one way to get back into your supervisor's good graces is to just do what she says for the time being. Eventually this will fade into the background.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:06 PM on February 10, 2011

Who is paying the tuition? If the pupils (or their parents) are paying tuition, they're going to act entitled. Sorry.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:18 PM on February 10, 2011

« Older Building Communities As Alternative Lifestyles   |   XBOX 360 setup help followup Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.