It wasn’t like any other day, with snow falling so thick you couldn’t make out the individual snowflakes. A “snow day” for sure, with no buses running. But that didn’t stop our intrepid principal. He had a bone to pick with his staff, us teachers. One by one we were being called to the office. I called down on my phone to the school secretary.
“Just wanted to let you know I’m here,” I said in my most helpful voice.
“What’s this about?” called out the grade eight teacher from way down the hall.
“The heck I know!” I called back. A grade seven teacher heard his name. Off he went. Made me think about that time when I worked for a different school board, that time when all the board’s superintendents descended upon the school I worked at. The principal had been intimately involved with a parent right in his office. The superintendents went through everyone’s day plans, and their long-range plans, and examined all the marking we were doing. Replaced everyone on staff with supply teachers for a whole day so they could extensively interview everyone. And none of this showed up in the daily newspaper!
My turn. I ask the grade six teacher next to my class to cover and headed down. What will it be this time? A stink bomb in the cafeteria? Was someone accused of something? A reprimand? Who knew? It was always something new. I quickly ducked into the mailbox area to grab the sheaf of papers that always lived in my mailbox. All sorts of different colors, each one screaming for my attention. It didn’t seem to matter how often I cleared my box; it was never clear of paper. I was just thinking about how you could always tell a failing school from one that is thriving by the sheer amount of stuff in everyone’s mailbox when he ambushed me when my back was turned.
“Come to my office!” Mr. Fishburne shut the door. “Have a seat.” Ah, the closed-door-have-a-seat terror tactic. It was wearing thin.
I don’t want to see anyone goofing off just because this is a snow day! You keep your kids, no collapsing classes, nothing like that. I will be coming around. I want to see your lesson objectives on your projector screen, and I will be asking the children about what they are learning. If they cannot tell me what your lesson objectives are, you can bet that you and I will meet to discuss this further. Understood?
Mr. Fishburne was my first just-coming-back-to-work after a nervous breakdown principal. Another principal of mine would be off work for mental health issues, two years later. All the scrutiny of teachers and schools exacted a price and we were paying for it. Mr. Fishburne had been off for about a year, demoted from the thousand-student-plus school that he had been at, superintendent-bound stuff he was until his name was in the paper for some trivial thing that got the general public upset. Now he was in our sorry neck of the woods, not really recovered. Our underperforming, full of transient students, poor students, immigrant students, high ESL population, several hundred student school was just the place for him to do what? Quit? Have another nervous breakdown? Set records on our standardized testing? Who knew? Several teachers had already transferred out. One was on long-term sick leave. I later discovered that one other teacher would quit teaching at the end of the school year. The only thing I knew for sure is that human resources knew about the reign of terror, and they would do nothing about it. Our union could do nothing about it. And trying to make him see reason would be tantamount to committing career suicide.
I took the stairs two at a time and was back to say hello to my very few partying grade sevens. They were throwing their snow boots around in the hallway, yelling something about how it was supposed to be movies and fun all day. I didn’t have the heart to tell them differently. I had to cover for a grade six teacher, she was called down. I turned on my computer, switched it over to the LCD projector, and lowered my projection screen. What was I going to teach? I couldn’t teach my regular program; half my students weren’t present. Yet somehow there needed to be work that didn’t look like “busy work.” I couldn’t just hand out worksheets.
My savior, Charlene, the grade six teacher was back. I didn’t have to speak; she was on top of everything. “Jim, I've got it right here. Individual portfolios from last year, all geared to their personal learning styles and tested areas of need. Still current, or if not, it should hold up if Fishburne doesn’t look too closely. Maybe he won’t come here first. I guess he’ll hit the first floor, before climbing the stairs with those sore knees of his. We still have time!”
“Right! Thanks a million. You’re a lifesaver! Uh, Charlene? Could you cover while I use the second-floor photocopier? Could I have your master portfolio sheets?
I had to get work photocopied and make new portfolios for the three students who weren’t in Charlene’s class last year. And as the day wore on, more children would probably come to school, likely those who were driving their parents crazy at home. I might need to have copies for them too.
When Mr. Fishburne showed up, around eleven o’clock everything was calm, ten students working diligently in their portfolios, INDIVIDUALIZED INSTRUCTION, the banner on my overhead, with detailed overall learning objectives carefully itemized. The fact that Fishburne didn’t have anything to say was a victory in itself.
I was exhausted and the day was only half over. Charlene and I usually sat together at lunch. She was such a wiz at paperwork. I went into teaching because I loved being around kids. But I noticed that as the years went by, because of all the pressure being placed on us, the younger teachers were a different breed. Completely curriculum-focused and masters at making things look good, turning out paperwork that would make business leaders and corporate executives proud. That’s not to say they weren’t good teachers, but they knew that their careers rose or fell by a completely different metric than the one that made me proud to be a teacher.
“Do you think Mr. Fishburne will make it to the end of the day today?” I asked, feeling instantly guilty for being the one to start gossiping.
Charlene smiled into her coffee, putting it carefully down on the table. Then she lowered her head. “I wouldn’t be surprised," she half whispered. "The secretary smelled alcohol on his breath when he came back after school to pick up something last week.”
“That’s not all. Do you remember when he was off for three days two weeks ago? Samantha said that he was in a fight with one of his sons and got a black eye!”
“Well, I have had two IPRC meetings for two of my students and he didn’t even show up! Imagine what the psychologist and the consultants thought about that! We just carried on like it didn’t matter.”
“I told you this before," Charlene said, lowering her voice even more. “I was in the office when that ISIS terrorist hit the parliament building and was shot dead by the sergeant-at-arms. He had his computer tuned to CBC News Live and was as happy as a lark, talking about what was happening in Ottawa constantly. Weirdest thing I have ever seen!”
”Will we survive the year you think?” I asked.
“I will! You can too.”
It came out of the blue one day. Totally unexpected. I was doing everything everyone else was doing. My class was well-behaved. They would come running up to talk to me and I would have to shoo them away when I was on yard duty. On my birthday, they even had a surprise birthday party for me! It was the sweetest thing any of my students ever did for me. I had absolutely no idea it was coming. They did it all themselves. I could tell Charlene was not too happy about it. These same students did not do something like that for her the previous year.
I don’t know if it was the surprise party that upset Mr. Fishburne, or something else. But he had me in his office.
“I’m going to have to red circle you, Jim. Your performance is substandard. I want you to submit all your lesson plans for my approval, in writing and standard ministry format for all of your subjects. Then next year I will do an out-of-cycle performance appraisal if you don't improve. Do you have any questions?”
I don’t know what came over me. I did not say a word. I got up and left his office.
The union wouldn’t support me. My wife was afraid that I would lose my job. I knew that learning was going on in my classroom and I was having one of the best years of my teaching career. But there was no recourse. A principal could demand written lesson plans from any teacher at any time. To refuse to provide said plans was tantamount to giving grounds for dismissal.
I no longer had any free time at all. Not evenings, not weekends. I had to individualize everything, write down all resources that I was using, and explain how my methods corresponded with Ministry of Education learning goals and curriculum objectives. Everything had to be explained. If I was using the LCD projector, I had to say how I was using it and why. Then I had to write this exact boilerplate text into every single lesson plan. I got very good at using Microsoft Word and Dragon Naturally Speaking 13, an old speech recognition program.
My lesson plans were quite amazing. I even followed them too. But it wasn’t making me a better teacher. Quite the reverse. I was endlessly, constantly exhausted. When Mr. Fishburne got my lesson plans in his box, he never even looked at them! I could tell. In they would go in the morning, and back in my box they would be by afternoon. Unread. The little bits of fluff I put between the pages did not lie!
It was a no-brainer. By the time March came around, I put in for a transfer. Then that very day I stopped making lesson plans for Mr. Fishburne. I never even told him I was stopping. Charlene told me years later that Mr. Fishburne was under the mistaken impression that I had been at the school my entire career. He wanted me out, that was all. Something about getting young teachers in that would follow his lead and do everything exactly the way he wanted things done.
Curious about how some people behave when the boss is a bully. Good people go on being what they are. Others show their true colors. The custodian of the school took a dislike to me, over things that were small. Like every other class, my students didn’t always put their shoes up out of the way so she could sweep the floor. So, she was the one who was planting stink bombs and putting tacks through the drawstring to my LCD screen! Finally, things reached a head on the last week of school when she started putting my student’s shoes in the garbage. I blasted her and then I went to the office and did the same with Mr. Fishburne.
“These children are poor!” I yelled. “Tell that custodian to stop putting my student’s shoes in the garbage!” He was so stunned; he never said a word. Then I left that school. I don't even remember what I was given as a going away present. All I remember was closing the door as I left with a firm shove. On the last day of the school year, I was gone and I never looked back.