Prepare yourselves for a wild ride of workplace drama and petty disputes. This is a one-sided, completely biased account of my personal experiences in the wondrous world of teaching. I can't promise that everything I recount is 100% accurate, but what I can say for certain is that it affected me greatly, and now it's time to share the inside scoop on how schools really work.
Now lest you go and try to figure out who and what I am writing about, keep in mind that I’ve worked in five different schools. So before you go implicating yourself in this mess, consider that I might not be talking about you. Furthermore, if you see yourself reflected in this account, you might have some tough questions to ask yourself.
Over the course of this year, I, too, had some tough questions to ask myself. It was about the third or fourth time that I was called into the Rabbi’s office that I started wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Why was the Jewish Studies principal constantly popping into my classroom and calling me down to his office?
After some hard lessons learned, I figured it out. My colleagues hated me and we’re trying to throw me under the bus at every possible moment.
The year started out well enough. On my first day of work, I walked into a cavernous auditorium filled with my new colleagues. The president of the board of trustees stood at the front, looking like a young Republican politician straight out of central casting. He spewed something about teachers being the soul of the school, but what really caught my attention was when he announced that each of us would be receiving a $500 bonus.
Suddenly, the auditorium was filled with screams of excitement and tears of joy. It was like being on an episode of Oprah, but instead of a car, we got a meager bonus. I immediately texted my friend, bragging about my new "perks" of working at Einstein Jewish Day School.
It was a breath of fresh air to work at a place that valued its employees, or so I thought. Little did I know that this was just a temporary delusion, a fleeting hope that would soon be crushed under the weight of reality.
My previous job was a small, unaccredited school that treated its teachers like garbage. I put up with this for seven years before finally asking for a raise, and then I was promptly laughed out of the room. So, when I landed my new job at EJDS, I felt like I had hit the jackpot.
As I looked around the auditorium, I saw mostly well-dressed women, all close to my age. I made eye contact with a weathered, middle-aged man who gave me a warm hug.
"Talia! Brucha haba'a! Welcome to EJDS," he exclaimed. "So, you finally got out of the shit show," he said, grinning. He had spent 20-something years working at my previous school.
I was taken aback. No one had ever spoken ill of my previous school before, it was like a creepy cult. "Is it any better here?" I asked timidly.
"Leagues better," he replied. "Let me show you around."
As we wandered through the halls, I noticed that every hallway and room had a plaque with some rich family's name on it. The Berman Family Lounge, the Fried Hallway. It was all a bit too much, if you ask me.
We stopped in front of the Moss Greenhouse, and my friend swiped us in. I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of fresh plants. A school with a greenhouse, I thought to myself. This was the change of scenery I had been craving.
"What do I need to know about this place?" I asked my friend.
"Keep your head down. Get on mission. Get in good with your team. Don't piss anyone off. And don't complain to administration without first trying to solve it yourself."
Ah, yes. Words of wisdom from someone who has clearly been through it all before.
When I swiped into the building the next morning, a bearded man approached me. He looked about my age—maybe younger. Mid-thirties if I had to guess. I recognized him from the interviews—my supervisor: the Rabbi.
“Welcome, Talia!” He thrust his hand out, and gave mine a hearty shake. “We are so excited to have you on board. Are you ready to meet your team?”
Well, I thought to myself, this is it. I've finally made it. I'm a religious studies teacher in a Jewish school. What could possibly go wrong?
As we walked to the far corner of the building, the Rabbi explained, “Most of our Jewish studies teachers have been at the school for 20, 30 years.”
Great, I thought. Veteran teachers. I bet they know every single way to bore their students to tears. I can't wait to learn from them.
As we stopped at the glass door of the classroom, a black-haired woman with thick glasses and bangs covering half of her eyes looked over at us. She held up her finger, telling us to wait—she was on the phone.
“This is Aleeza. She teaches Hebrew and Jewish studies.” As the woman made her way over, I couldn't help but notice how old she looked. I mean, seriously, why was she still teaching at her age? Retirement is a thing, you know.
“Rabbi, I just have to take this call,” she said. Then, turning her gaze to me, she looked me over and said, “Nice to meet you.” Gee, thanks for that warm welcome.
The other two teachers were nowhere to be found. I guess they were busy doing important things, like sitting in their offices and staring at walls.
Now, keeping in mind that this is a completely unbiased and objective account of my time at the school, I'll tell you how I was absolutely faultless and tried my best to be a good teacher.
First, I popped into the language classes and offered my help to students who might need it. Of course, my real motive was to try and get a reas on my colleagues, but let's not dwell on that.
Unfortunately, my efforts were met with icy stares and snide comments. Tamar, a permanent scowl-wearing former engineer, told me one day, “You know you don’t have to be here.”
“Oh, I know,” I replied with a smile. “I just wanted to help out and get to know my students better.”
“That's okay,” she told me with a condescending tone. “I don't need your help.” She then proceeded to stare at me for an uncomfortable amount of time, as if daring me to challenge her.
Well, at least I tried. I guess some people just don't appreciate the help.
My three lovely teammates, whom I affectionately referred to as "the dinosaurs” due to their prehistoric teaching methods, had a real talent for icing me out of the team.
Lalit was a actually a sweetheart who spent her days giving out hugs and kisses to former and current students like she was their beloved savta (grandma). But when it came to teaching, she had no time for my suggestions. I once mentioned to her how the other teachers reinforced group norms and expectations, but her response was classic "brush off" material: "They have their way, we have ours." And for the rest of the week, she was on my back about everything I did.
And then there was Tamar, who was always eager to help but never seemed to have the time for it. Whenever I asked her to stick around during a lesson, she would say, "Sure, no problem, I just need to make this copy first," and then she'd disappear for the entire lesson. How's that for a co-teacher?
But the real winner was Aleeza. She had no formal training as a teacher, but that didn't stop her from yelling at students, "Lo medabrim!" (No talking!) And her idea of a lesson? A 45-minute diatribe that loosely blended her personal experiences with the topic at hand. Classic "sage on the stage" shenanigans.
The dinosaurs loved giving me unsolicited advice on how to do my job, but couldn't handle any feedback themselves. They even went so far as to criticize how I got students' attention and which stories I chose to teach.
The icing on the cake? The Rabbi asked me how co-teaching was going, as if it was actually happening. When I told him they had never once stuck around during my class or worked with me on a lesson, he was flabbergasted. Apparently, it was up to me to get them to co-teach with me. Yeah, right.
But you know what they say: rejection is just another form of therapy. And with teammates like mine, I was getting daily sessions.
Fortunately, my secular studies friends helped me alleviate the tension with my religious studies colleagues. They were a group of dedicated educators who showed me that I was not the only target of the dinosaurs' wrath. Stories emerged about the previous teacher who held my position for two years. The company line was that she left to pursue her passion in dancing, but Lindsey, the fourth-grade teacher, told me the truth: "They bullied her out. We told the administration what was going on, but they didn't do anything about it." This worried me. Would my supervisor protect me from the manipulation and bullying these women were capable of?
For several weeks, I was subjected to nasty comments about my teaching. Once I asked Aleeza what to do with some workbooks from another curriculum, and she sneered, "Use them." Eventually, I told my supervisor that I was uncomfortable with the amount of unhelpful feedback I was receiving from my colleagues. He assured me that he would deal with it, but the next thing I knew, the building substitute teacher pulled me aside.
"Why are you complaining about your colleagues to the Rabbi?" she asked, and I realized that my supervisor had spoken to them.
Then the art teacher approached me with the same question. Apparently, Aleeza had mentioned it. I started to worry about the Rabbi's method of "dealing" with my feedback.
Soon after, my colleague and team leader came up to me and said, "I heard you complained to the Rabbi about the Hebrew teachers." I explained that I had been harassed by them for several weeks about my teaching. "Think of it this way," she said, "if Aleeza has you in her sights, it's probably a sign you are doing something right."
The next day, I sought out Eitan's advice. "What do you think I should have done?" I asked.
"Honestly, you should not have said anything," he told me. "You know there's nothing good that will come out of it. They're just going to punish you."
Sadly, he was right. They shut me out of decisions, changed the location of meetings, and did not inform me. They met in places that I couldn't find and sent parent emails without including me. They changed their prayer and class times, seemingly to mess with me. Aleeza, the elderly ring leader, was the worst. She feigned the aura of a sweet old religious lady who didn't need the money but taught out of the kindness of her heart. In reality, she was a powerless hack who was shielded from being fired because her daughter served on the board of trustees. (Another one I learned from Lindsey.)
As I walked into the staff room, I overheard my Hebrew colleagues chatting in their native tongue. Little did they know, I had spent a few years living in Israel and was quite fluent in Hebrew. I stood there for a moment, listening to their conversation.
There’s no way I’ll go along with it. Tamar said. It’s enough to spend lunch duty with that cow, let alone the whole day. The others laughed.
I wracked my brain. What were they talking about? Suddenly it clicked: the administrators had discussed moving to co-teaching the following year. Tamar was disparaging her secular studies colleague and stating her intention to thwart the administrators’ directive.
Tal will put an end to it. Aleeza said, referring to her daughter on the Board. I wondered how the administrators would feel about their authority being actively undermined by this dinosaur.
Technically, she is their boss, she added.
I couldn't hold back my laughter any longer and let out a loud guffaw. The room fell silent as they all turned to face me, confused by my outburst.
The grin on my face revealed that I had been listening to their conversation the entire time. Their faces turned red with embarrassment as they realized the predicament they had gotten themselves into.
Over the next few weeks, the dinosaurs were especially nice to me. One day I needed coverage for recess duty, and to my shock Aleeza offered. They continue to exclude me from their meetings, of course, but every once in a while, they would include me in an email.
This carried on for several months, and I enjoyed the relative quiet. I kept my head low and didn’t mention them to my supervisor. As far as he knew, we were a well functioning team.
However, it all changed when I decided to work with the art teacher for a special collaboration to do with the parting of the Red Sea. I had prepared a lesson to go along with a one-point perspective drawing project. The students were going to draw sealife from the Red Sea.
“I had to stop the project.” The art teacher sent me in a text message “Aleeza and Lalit said it was not approved by administration.”
At that very moment, Lalit sauntered down the hall with her grandmotherly smile, giving hugs left, and right to students she walked by.
“What happened in art?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” she said with a sweet smile.
“The art teacher said that you told her to stop the project.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she responded with a smug smile. “Oh… she asked about it. I told her that I didn’t know if the Rabbi gave his approval.”
“Well he did and that really wasn’t your place,” I stared her down. She stared right back.
“I don’t like to get involved in these things.” She closed the door right after heading into her room. There was nothing more I could say to a woman who couldn’t even be truthful.
As I near the Rabbi’s office, I could hear the husky voice of Aleeza giving him a lecture. She was old enough to be his mother, possibly even his grandmother.
“Talia,” he jumped when he saw me. “Glad you’re here... Aleeza has some concerns about the art project. We’re going to put a pause on it.”
I stood there, motionless. Aleeza slowly turned around and appeared at me through her thick glasses, the same smug smile across her face as Lalit’s.
For the next couple weeks, the Rabbi popped into my classroom as frequently as he had in the beginning of the year. Most of the time the class was going reasonably well, and thankfully the students recognized that they needed to participate nicely whenever he was in the room. I would normally welcome having an administrator in my room, but it was clearly a result of my colleagues trying to undermine me.
Ultimately, their campaign to push me out worked. I consider myself a passionate educator. I completed two separate graduate degrees in education. I’ve attended countless conferences and completed numerous trainings. I’ve developed training for other teachers and written articles and developed curriculum to help move l education forward.
But one year with these bullies was too much. I got my first gray hairs and I found my face in tight contortions much of the time. As for the dinosaurs, they will carry on with their shenanigans. They will take two-week unapproved trips to Israel. They will not go along with the group plan. They will keep telling their students “lo medebrim” in a language class. They will keep their jobs as a result of their deep connections and the reality of the teacher shortage. And I’ll move out of education for the first time in 15 years.