Sometimes I get it horribly wrong.

I took some missteps in hiring this year, brought teachers on board who shouldn’t have been allowed near my precious students. Most of those sorted themselves out quickly enough. And then there was Nina, who was a serious mistake, my most glaring error. Nina had excellent credentials, a great resume and beautiful lesson plans. Our interview went on and on because we talked about so much — teaching philosophies, language acquisition, adult ed research. She was great. Of course I offered her a position.

The initial attrition didn’t worry me, wasn’t a red flag. Adult ed classes always have some attrition. And she was in an off-site location, which can be difficult for students. That initial attrition just seemed like par for the course.

Then a student came in to ask if I could move her sister from Nina’s class to … anywhere. No reason. That wasn’t a red flag, however. Not really. Just a little bit of a question mark.

Then the attrition went crazy. In a couple of weeks we went from a class of twenty to a class of five. Yeah. Red flag. Alarms going off all over the place.

But everything with Nina was fine. We continued to have great talks. She didn’t once mention the fall-off in attendance. I only found out because I was checking her roll book for a funding report. I talked to her about the loss of students, and she had a reason for each person’s departure. All logical, all feasible. But when was she going to tell me she needed students? Oh, but she was new. Maybe she hadn’t understood how our enrollment worked. Something.

Then I ran into Isobel, the student who had asked if her sister could transfer to a new class. And she told me the real reason her sister had wanted out. She said Nina was rude with them, that she said mean things about different groups: Mexicans eat dogs, Arabs don’t believe in God …

!!!

Why hadn’t Isobel said any of that sooner? Her sister had asked her not to, had said she didn’t want to “bother” me. Bother me? Uh, this is my job!

Then Hanan came to see me. Hanan is a lovely Yemeni woman with a gorgeous smile. She was determined to get into class, had waited for months and months, calling me regularly to see where she was on the waiting list. She was so happy when she finally got called for registration. She started class in September … then disappeared. I called to check on her and she told me she’d had the flu and then family business. Then she came back to class, stayed in for a week and then came to see me. She told me the real reason she’d left class had been Nina, that she’d left with the hope that I’d figure out what was happening and fix it. But she came back and saw no change. Why hadn’t she talked to me in the first place? She hadn’t wanted to bother me. She said that was also the reason none of her classmates had come to see me.

What is up with that? They don’t want to bother me? I’ll say it again: having time to talk with them and listen to their concerns is my job! Forget about the fact that I like them and enjoying talking with them. This is my job. Making sure the program is giving them what they need is. my. job. How could talking to them about their class bother me? Ok, maybe they were nervous about coming to see me. I’m THE DIRECTOR, after all. But really. I have a tattoo on my forehead that says ‘PUSH OVER’ (… it glows in the dark).

So Hanan told me other things Nina had done in class, including calling the students stupid. Stupid.

I wrote a few weeks ago about my mother and her lioness behavior. Well, I’ve got that gene, even if I don’t have children. In my case, the claws come out if you harm my students in any way. Called them stupid? Said she considered working with them like babysitting? Said she didn’t care if they came to class or learned English because she was going to get paid anyway? Oh no she didn’t.

Um, yeah, Nina was out. It didn’t happen in a second or anything, but the end of the story is that I fired her. (I’ve only fired two people in my life. The first time, both of us started to cry and we comforted each other and hugged as she left. Really. This time, I managed to keep from crying until Nina was gone. I’m really not good at this.)

So Nina was gone and was replaced with Háng, a serious-but-funny woman we worked with a couple of years ago (read: a known quantity). Háng took on the really-not-at-all-fun job of rebuilding the class: bringing old students back, folding new students in, soothing the hurt left by Nina. Not fun, not easy, but she kept at it and pulled it off.

When I walked into the Wednesday morning year-end party, one of the first people I saw was Hanan. She was at a table with the rest of her class. She saw me and gave me her full-power smile, stood and gave me a hug and the customary two-cheek kiss. When we stepped apart, she kept hold of my hands.

“Thank you, Stacie. For your listening. For believing me when I say wat his wrong in the class.” The other students nodded.

I’m glad they’re happy now, glad Háng has worked out as wonderfully as she has, but the Nina story still rankles. The fact that students chose to thwart their own aspirations rather than ‘bother’ me with their concerns upsets me more deeply than I can articulate.

I have some work to do. Yes, there are some students who know my door is open for them, know they can come tell me anything. But obviously the ease with which those students approach me has let me get a little lazy, let me believe everyone has the same perception of me. I’m glad Hanan knew she could come talk to me … but I wish she’d realized that sooner. And I want all of the students to know they can come talk to me any time. I can’t bear the thought of another Nina.

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7 thoughts on “Sometimes I get it horribly wrong.

  1. No kidding! I guess my mama bear would come out too. As a parent, you don’t insult my kids. As a teacher, you don’t insult my students. Thank you for taking such good care of your students. And, I hope Nina learned something from all this. Shame on her. (And, I don’t say that shame thing lightly.)

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  2. Sorry you had to go through that. Firing someone is never fun. Firing someone whom you hired is the worst.

    I used to be a teacher. I loved my classes and the kiddos and for the most part, loved being up in front of a class, doing my best to make things interesting and helpful. When ever I hear about someone like Nina, it makes my flesh crawl.

    I had one of those teachers. Her Name was Mrs. Sousie and she was horrible. In third grade, she told me I was stupid and that I wasn’t going to amount to anything. It took years for me to get over that. In part, I became a teacher to be the anti-Mrs. Sousie and to some degree, I think I did.

    I’m glad that you solved your problem. It must have been awful to deal with.

    Turkish Prawn

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  3. I’m still so surprised by the whole Nina fiasco. Yes, surprised by Nina, but also surprised by the students. I really spend a lot of time on relationship-building with students. It’s important to the program, but I also just enjoy getting to know the people who come to the program … and I’ll admit that I’m more than a little vainly proud of the fact that I know so many of our close to 500 students by name.

    I think part of the problem is that, in the last year or so, my other job responsibilities have meant that I don’t get to spend as much time stopping into classes as I used to, and that has created some distance between me and the students. Definitely something to change moving forward.

    Turkish Prawn– unfortunately, I think so many of us have had teachers like your Mrs. Sousie. How awful that you had to have that experience. Kindergarten and the first months of 1st grade and 11th grade English, the poetry workshop I took freshman year in college … all were bad-teacher experiences for me. I think that, like you, those experiences are definitely connected to my decision to teach.

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  4. inmate1972

    I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Although, not in a school setting, I’ve had that experience of hiring someone who went nutso-crazy on my employees and have had to give them the boot. It’s never easy. It’s always personal. And I am always floored by employees who will let abuse go on rather than tell me the problem. Oddly enough, I’ve found over the years that the better the relationship I have with my employees, the less likely they are to bring a bad hire (which is a way of pointing out my mistake) to light. They do it to protect me, which doesn’t make it any less hard to swallow.

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  5. First, I think you need to cut yourself some slack. Yes, maybe you missed some red flags, but (and maybe I’m misreading the situation and will be putting my foot in my mouth here):
    A: You are dealing with an immigrant population that may be afraid to speak up out of fear
    B: The students may think this is normal
    C: Are you taking into account cultural differences?
    There are some gray areas in my head that I’m thinking is because I don’t have a frame of reference. I haven’t read all of your archives so I’m not 100% sure what your job description/program is all about.

    It sounds like you need chocolate!

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  6. Oh, ladybug, you are so right: I need chocolate! Copius amounts of chocolate! I need to move into Jacques Torres’ shop for a week!

    You’re also right about some of the things that could have led to students not speaking up. That’s what I try to counter act by being the zen-calm, sweet-faced, smiling director (dig my photo on the ‘Hey’ page!) … who could be fearful of talking to me?

    Yeah, ok, lots of folks.

    And Inmate, I hadn’t thought about the possibility that being well-liked might keep people from speaking up. I’ll really have to mull that one over.

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