Some young teachers are more mature than others. One of my young teachers who liked being "one of the guys" didn't always think before he spoke. When he made disparaging comments about a group of our bused-in students, word of his remarks quickly spread.
We have a young teacher who tries to be "one of the guys." He doesn't always give a lot of thought to some of the things he says and does. One example: One day during his planning period he walked into another teacher's classroom full of students and said, "I am so fed up with that group of students that gets bused here. They never try in my class." He went on to talk about how he had tried everything to help, but "they just don't care" and "why should I bother with them."
The classroom was full of seventh-graders who heard every word of the young teacher's frustration concerning a group of minority kids who happen to be bused to our school. Word of the teacher's unfortunate remarks soon spread among students, teachers, and parents. Parents -- especially parents of the students about whom he spoke -- were rightfully upset by the insensitive statements. The remarks were soon brought to my attention by a couple of concerned parents.
In the case of the remarks above, the first thing I did was to verify that the incident went down the way I heard it. I wanted to confirm what was said, where were the remarks were made, who was present, in what context the comments were made In order to do that, I talked with and took a statement from the teacher in whose class the comments were made. I got statements from the parents who lodged complaints.
Clearly, the teacher's comments were totally out of line. But what to do? Would a simple discussion of the situation suffice? I had to consider the teacher involved. I am aware that this young teacher likes his students to consider him "one of the guys." I know of other times when he did not use the best judgment or choose the best words when talking with students. I also know he is a good teacher. I didn't want to lose him, but his immaturity had caused a rift between himself and some students, parents, and other staff members. I felt I needed to seize an opportunity to make a larger point.
When I felt I had a grasp of the situation, I called in the teacher to get his response to the incident. He admitted that I had the story straight; in true frustration, he had made those remarks in that class. I let him know, in no uncertain terms, how I felt about his comments. I told him that I had shared the file about the incident with our area superintendent. Since no previous complaints about racial matters had been made about the teacher, the superintendent and I agreed that he should be placed on probation. We put in place a "success plan" so that we could monitor his behavior -- his ability to keep his emotions in check -- in the months ahead. We also required that he attend a session with a sensitivity counselor. I also spoke about his role and responsibilities as a teacher, and about my concerns with his "one of the guys" approach.
I suppose I could have brushed this incident under the rug. I could have simply talked with the teacher about it and let it go at that, but I felt the approach we took was more appropriate and would be, in the longer term, more effective.
So far, so good. This incident happened six months ago, and there have been no events since then. Taking an assertive -- some might even say aggressive -- approach here seems to have had just the effect we hoped.
Even though we cannot tell students, parents, and teachers of the outcome of personnel matters, they know that there was an investigation and that an action was taken. Most everyone seemed satisfied to know that we took the concerns seriously and had taken some decisive action.
As a principal, this incident was a reminder that I need to work closely with my inexperienced teachers. I need to stress to them the need to keep their emotions in check and that "being one of the guys" is not the best way to gain students' attention and respect. I need to let them know that our district support staff and I are available to support them as they search for approaches that will help them control their students and their emotions.
About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. How I Handled team members are anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.