Friday, September 23, 2016

People Leave Managers, Not Companies

A few weeks ago, my brother shared this on Facebook. It rang so true with me, that I then shared it as well. (You can click on it to enlarge it).

It rang true because I had just quit my job (having been hired at what I now think may be the coolest place ever to work) and I had quit because of my boss. Not because I felt like I needed more money or more incentives or what have you.

Here’s the story.

During my first year of teaching at that school, I’d had a parent who was absolute hell to deal with. She talked about me behind my back to anyone who would listen. She blamed me for pretty much every issue her daughter had. She stirred up other parents, who perhaps would have just been upset about something, into irate parents. She gossiped and talked about me all year long. At the end of the year she came into my room and told me she felt sorry for every student that would ever pass through my classroom and she couldn’t figure out how I had ever been hired as a teacher. (This was the same year my boss told me I did a “phenomenal” job (I blogged about that here).
The second year was better. Some parents had been stirred up by the horrid woman the year prior, so I had issues with a few, but not more than a few. But what teacher doesn't? You can never please everyone. A friend who was a teacher for 30 years once told me that there was not one year that was complaint-free. It is the nature of the biz.

At the beginning of last year, when I met with my boss to come up with my personal and professional goals for the year, he gave me mine. Now, he had always given us our professional goals as a school, something he wanted us all to work on as a staff. This year he decided that my personal goal was also to be set by him. I guess he didn’t realize that would not exactly be a personal goal, then. Maybe he didn’t care.

He told me, in almost these exact words, “I want you to figure out why high-maintenance parents, when they have their child in your class, go ballistic.” I didn’t word it that way on my professional growth plan. I was more professional than that.  But maybe the clue that this isn’t a great goal is in the words “high-maintenance parents” in the first place.

Also, how exactly, is one supposed to go about figuring that out? Most of my colleagues agreed that this was a ridiculous “goal.” Nonetheless, I tried to do something about it. I tried to talk to a parent from the previous year. While she gave me a little to think about, she was not very forthcoming or specific, and I was left to guess at the particulars. I also called my former boss. Being quite a bit like myself, having worked with me before, and being a tell-it-like-it-is person, I knew I could count on her to give me some advice. Finally, I talked with a co-worker, who is a no-nonsense person like I am, but seemed to have great relationships with everyone.

I shared all this with my boss at my mid-year review, to which his response was an attitude of, “Good. You’re working on it. You’re aware.”

Now let’s skip to May of 2016. I walk into his office for my end of year review, and he makes small talk for a minute or two. Then he tells me that “my issue” (hang on, didn’t you instruct me to find out what the parents’ issue was?) still had not been taken care of. I.e. I was still having problems with parents. He made comments like, “We can’t still have you here in 8 years and still be having this problem” and “Is there anything else you’re certified in?” (i.e. where else can we stick you that you might not have such problems?) and “maybe you’d be better in a higher grade” (because 6th would be better than 5th?).

I was then told that he would not be handing out bonus pay that spring. “Just to me?” I asked, “or to everyone?” “Just to you,” he responded. “I want you to know I’m serious and you need to correct this problem.” Then, too, I was told I’d be getting a .5% cost-of-living increase. That’s almost more of a slap in the face than 0%.

I was so shocked that I just agreed, and walked out of the meeting. And cried all the way home. I’d been made to feel lucky to have a job.

I was upset all weekend. I talked to former-teacher friends.

They all thought my boss was an ass. The reality is, he's not. But he's a horrible manager of people. Only a novice manager would deal with people the way he dealt with me and then realize he'd made a mistake.

Realized he'd made a mistake?

That's right. I went back to work on Monday and asked to meet with him again. 

I told him he'd blindsided me Friday. I asked him why he hadn’t given me any indication through the year that this was coming. I asked why I hadn’t been told my bonus pay or cost of living increase was on the line. I wondered why there hadn’t been documentation or meetings throughout the year about any of this. I wondered why, if I hadn’t been given any indication, was I being docked pay. I asked why I was told at the beginning of the year to figure out why a couple parents "went ballistic" when now it was seeming that that wasn't really what he wanted me to focus on.

He agreed with everything I said, at one point saying, “I agree. I did not do a good job all along the way of saying ‘this is how serious’ I am…then all of a sudden it was, you’re in the gallows.”

Then I asked about what this “issue” with parents even was about. Of the 45 students I had over the course of the year, I had issues with four parents:

                *One parent went to meet with him because I wouldn’t let their daughter eat chocolate cupcakes for snack at 9:45 every morning.
                *One parent had her child relay something that had happened in class a bit incorrectly. Mom was livid. Mom met with my boss. My boss, when I saw him later and asked what the meeting was about (because I didn’t know at the time), joked, “Oh, you were just mean to her kid. Come see me sometime if you want to know about it.” He seemed so nonchalant to me thatI didn’t question him further. Mom kept insisting (to him) on a meeting with me, which my boss told her was being taken care of. He led her to believe that he’d spoken to me about it. When she finally contacted me, and I told her that was the first I was hearing of the issue, she went to the board about him. Incidentally, it took a ten-minute conversation between her and I for understanding to be restored and the incident resolved. 
                *I made a child cry in my class. I didn’t do it on purpose. Sometimes a teacher misreads how a student will react to something. Her parent, who had been quite friendly to me for two years prior, never spoke to me again, and she and her husband wrote a very rude letter to my boss about it. 
                *One parent told my boss that she felt I didn’t care about how her child did academically.

So I asked my boss if there were others I was unaware of. His exact quote is, “There is nothing that’s happened that you don’t know completely and know full well,” and then specified once again that there had only been three or four issues.

Then he told me it wasn’t the number of complaints, it was what they were complaining about – i.e. that I seemed to have this attitude of “I taught it, your kid didn’t learn it, too bad.”

Ok. So of the above four issues, that would only apply to the last one, maybe the last two, if we're being generous. I then went on and on talking about that last child/parent, and my boss kept asking for clarification on who they even were. So the one point he was concentrating on, he couldn’t even remember the parent or the kid.

I later found out that I actually wasn’t the only teacher he’d done this to. He’d blindsided two other teachers at the end of the year, and both of them also didn’t receive bonus pay or cost-of-living increases. Possibly there were more I was unaware of.

In the end, not only did he agree with pretty much every one of my counter-points, but he told me he’d go back to the board and talk with them about reconsidering the bonus and increase. However, I met with the board president after that, who told me the board really doesn’t have much power. They just go off his recommendations. No documentation, no proof of training or meetings with the teachers, nothing (I was told that would change).

I did end up getting some money, but it didn't really matter. That wasn't the point for me. The point was, I should never have been docked pay or blindsided like that. If there was an issue he was that greatly concerned about, it should have been made clear and there should have been constant communication and feedback throughout the year. True, had I not found another job, I would have stayed, but always with my “eyes on the back of my head” open, knowing that I was working for a loose cannon.

Here’s why I say that:

1) The professional growth plan is a two-page document. On it are a number of teacher requirements: assessments, knowledge of topics, lesson design and planning, classroom management, student performance, supplemental responsibilities, and commitment to the school. In fact, the only place where "issues with parents" might fall is under the heading "Professional, positive communication," which is one bullet point of the 33 listed. I never had a bad comment or review about any of the others. But I was docked that severely for that 1/33rd of the document.

2) Won’t a boss who knows the people under him need training or regular meetings to discuss progress on issues provide those things? A good one will. A bad one will just let things go and then present his seriousness and consequences without any prior notice. And then present that to the board.

3) He became condescending. He said to me in that follow-up conversation, “I don’t think a school functions well [when teachers work independently] and I don’t think generally teachers function well. I think you probably do, and I think you’re…I betcha if you had an IQ test you’re well above average in IQ…” I’m sorry, is you mentioning that I'm intelligent in this context meant to be a compliment?

4) One of the final things he said to me was, “It’s important to me to treat you fairly and to believe you were treated fairly.” That was obviously lip-service, something that became important after I called him on this stuff. It hadn’t been high on his priority list prior to that.

5) I began to realize it was feeling as if he was gunning for me. For instance, he said that both my co-teacher that year and the teacher I’d worked with the previous two years said they “had a hard time working with me.” I went and talked to both of them after he made that comment to me, and they both said those were not their words. Then the woman who had been my TA the first two years I’d been there told me that he’d pulled her out into the hallway one time and asked her if I was difficult to work with (she gave him a resounding no). He was planting that idea in others and telling me that was how others felt about me.

There are other things I could add here, but in order to keep this about me and not write things about other teachers who possibly wouldn't want their details out there, I won't.

All this said, up until that end-of-year meeting with him, I was completely happy at my job. Ariel had been encouraging me to quit after the first year, but I didn’t want to. I liked it there. I wasn’t itching for more money (something I would have had at a public rather than charter school) or perks of a public school or anything. I – until that meeting – had felt respected and valued.

In closing, I want to say that it was not that my principal didn’t have a couple good points. It’s not that I thought there was nothing in myself I couldn’t change. But I had been made to feel like my time there was limited, and I would rather leave on my own accord. I could no longer work for someone who'd handled one or two parent complaints like that. When does a teacher never have one or two parent complaints? Never.

So I took my expertise and amazing test scores and great relationships with the students elsewhere. And so did two other teachers. He lost three out of 16 elementary school teachers between May and August. I'd say those odds are a bit worse than 1 out of 33. But what do I know?