I don't know what's up with school these days, but things keep coming up that I feel the need to express strong opinions about. Speaking up gives a little welcome spice to life, but doing so too frequently and about too many different things wears a body down. (I could probably keep the metaphor going -- too many spices can make something taste muddy? -- but I'll move on.)
Much of what I've been speaking up about are school policies. For example, another teacher and I have a meeting tomorrow with the head of the high school to talk about our comments-writing system at school, in which we write directly to the students about their work for the term ... but then never actually give the students a copy but instead send them to parents and advisors. In other words, it's adults talking about students while pretending to talk to them. I find this disingenuous, and I think there's something seriously wrong that we don't actually give the students the direct feedback. I'm hoping that the meeting goes well, but I'm a little nervous because I'm already stretched a little thin emotionally from the other strong opinions I've been expressing this week.
Here's the thing I felt the need to speak out about this morning, and have felt rather emotionally shaken alld ay since then: This morning, FGS employees had our first sexual harassment prevention training in who knows how long? Certainly it's the first time in my years there. (But of course they called it "sexual harassment training" -- do they not hear what they're saying?) A lawyer came and lectured about all of the basics of sexual harassment for 45 minutes, and we had to sign a form saying that we'd attended and received a copy of the employment handbook. Clearly the whole thing was a CYA, undoubtedly because this summer a rumor started, fueled by social media, about a student having a sexual relationship with a teacher. The story was properly turned over to the appropriate government agency and was investigated, and nothing credible was found; apparently, the whole thing seemed more like a fantasy than a real situation. So that was a relief, and school followed up by giving us this training. Okay, all good and well.
But then the lawyer asked if there were any questions. No one else raised a hand ... and so I did. I thanked him for the information but said that I thought we needed to have some serious conversations as FGS teachers about the school's expectations for us and the ways in which they did or didn't conform to these sexual harassment prevention rules. His reply was "That's actually a statement rather than a question. But, yes, this is something you all should discuss."
The "good" teachers at FGS do things like spend time with students alone, sometimes behind closed doors, and hug students. So we're encouraged to do things that actually fly in the face of what best practices tell us to do. I was horrified in my second year at FGS, going on a class retreat, when I realized that I'd be the sole adult sleeping in a cabin of eight girls; that evening at the bonfire, I asked the academic dean about this arrangement because it didn't follow standard protocols for preventing sexual harrassment. Her reply? "Things like that don't happen at FGS." Um, okay. After that, I cried every year on the morning of the overnight retreats, and I kept bringing up the issue with teachers and administrators; many teachers agreed with me, and the administrators would shoot me down. Fortunately, a couple of years ago we went to a single-day rather than overnight retreat, and last year they finally changed our weekend duty policy to say that we needed at least two students on a trip. As a colleague would declare every year, "Two students is an outing; one student is a date. I don't date students." But he also got grief for this sentiment -- including from some teachers -- and was clearly considered "not a team player."
Right after the assembly this morning, I went back to my room and sat there with shaking hands; somehow speaking up had brought up all of these feelings from these earlier situations. A fellow teacher came in to thank me for my statement, and then the COO of the school (whom I totally respect and like) stopped in to say a quick thanks for my comment ... at which point I burst into tears. He looked alarmed and came in to see what was up, at which point I started telling him the stories from the paragraph above. My fellow teacher chimed in to talk about some of his experiences as a male teacher in a girls' school. And the two big points I wanted to make to the COO was that we were encouraged to break the rules we'd just been given and that administrators shut down any expressions of concern from teachers.
He was clearly really listening, and he said that he was on his way right then to a meeting of the administration team and that we would bring these concerns to the table, not mentioning our names. I trust him to have done so, and by the end of the day we'd gotten an email from another administrator saying that there would be a follow-up faculty meeting in February in which we would discuss (rather than be lectured at) about specific FGS situations. So that's good, and things are actually happening. The head of Human Resources also stopped me after lunch to thank me, and she said that it was important for teachers to speak up because "they" (the administration, apparently) really didn't understand the implications of what faculty were sometimes asked to do.
One thing that does really bug me about how we talk about these things at FGS, though, is that people talk about male teachers' and lesbian teachers' needing to take special precautions with our female students, assuming that straight women don't need to worry about crossing a line with students. This makes me crazy! That fact that a teacher is a straight woman doesn't mean that a student is, or that an anxious or angry student won't make an accusation. I keep pointing out to folks -- including the COO and HR person just today -- that we need to stop focusing on teachers' gender and sexual orientation and instead make policies about teachers and students. I guess this is something I'll have to keep speaking up about.
I feel good about teaching at at school where I feel free to voice strong opinions, and I appreciate that those opinions are often eventually heard, even if it takes a few years. I also feel like I'm taking on the role of outspoken faculty member, the person who can be counted on to say what needs to be said. There used to be another teacher who always spoke up, but a couple of years ago, when she turned 60, she clearly decided that she was going to stop this and start taking life a little bit easier in her last years of teaching. She remains unstinting in her work with students, but for institutional issues, she's handing over the speaker's scepter, and I'm one of the folks who's picked it up. I vividly remember our last faculty meeting of the year last spring, when an issue came up that another teacher and I were both het up about; I asked him if he'd speak up about it, since I always seemed to be the one complaining, and he said, "No, but I'll clap when you say something about it." Ah, now my role is becoming clear to me.
Speaking up about things I care about is important to me, but it also stretches my nerves until they get all jangly, and I tend to have an anxious reaction and feel overwrought afterward. So all in all, it's been quite a week -- maybe a productive one in terms of effecting positive change, but definitely wearying.