Marginalized Students, Marginal Teachers, and the Principalship

Marginalized Students, Marginal Teachers, and the Principalship

Contractual strictures governing teacher tenure and dismissal procedures work to protect those teachers distinguished by their length of employment, rather than the quality of service to their students.  Theoharis, Freire, and others have highlighted the plight of marginalized students in their discussions of social justice and our culture’s most victimized populations.  Because of issues of privilege, power, and hegemony, students who require the best teachers are more likely to be served by the worst.

This tragic irony has been highlighted in the case of Vergara v. State of California, et al (2014).  A group of parents brought suit against the state, arguing that tenure laws ensured the retention of ineffective teachers, thus providing their children with an inferior education.  Ruling for the plaintiffs, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu noted, 

“The evidence (is) clear that the churning (aka ‘Dance of the Lemons’) of teachers caused by the lack of effective dismissal statutes . . . affect high-poverty and minority students disproportionately.  This is turn, greatly affects the stability of the learning process to the detriment of such students”  (Vergara v. California, et al, 2014, p. 15).

The alleged victims in this case were minority and impoverished students. This ruling was recently overturned by the California Second Circuit Court of Appeals (2016), which ruled the plaintiffs failed to prove that the tenure laws in themselves created teacher assignments.  A state Supreme Court majority recently declined to hear the case, allowing the Circuit Court ruling to stand  The point here is not to analyze, attack, or defend the California courts’ decisions, but to suggest the case as an exemplar of growing societal awareness of issues of oppression, vulnerability, and social justice affecting students who are most threatened and least served.

            Educational leaders are presented regularly with challenging and ethically ambiguous dilemmas. “Foster (1986) expressed the seriousness and importance of ethics in educational administration when he wrote, ‘Each administrative decision carries with it a restructuring of human life: that is why administration at its heart is the resolution of moral dilemmas’ (p. 33)” (cited in Shapiro & Stefkovich, 2011, p. 1).  “What does the principal do with a staff member whose poor performance or actions is badly affecting the education of students, and whose performance isn’t improving regardless of the interventions?  This presents a dilemma within the moral framework of their leadership” (Harris & Hadfield, 2001, p. 50), creating conflict between the principal’s espoused commitment of care to everyone in the learning community and his or her ethics of justice and the profession.

A turbulent ethical dilemma presented itself to me early in my principalship through the relationship of Tom and Rita, an evocative morass that stretched over my first two years as principal. Tom and Rita formed a two-person team, teaching the school’s severely emotionally disturbed (SED) students. Their students demonstrated severe emotional, academic, and discipline problems and were not mainstreamed with other students.  These students were troubled at school and troubled at home. Some had been sexually abused.  Most had been physically abused.  Few lived with both biological parents.  Many slept on a sofa or the floor or shared a bed with a sibling or two.  They lived in a world where sex was casual and substance abuse was commonplace. 

These were two teachers engaged in a romantic relationship while married to other people. My my interactions with Tom and Rita included encounters with their respective spouses, allegations of physical and emotional abuse, prescription drug addiction, and alcoholism.  The tumult they caused bled into the broader school community and threatened my credibility as principal.  While they were victims of each other and of their own addictions, the ultimate victims were their students, vulnerable and already oppressed, they had vowed to serve.

Tom and Rita were well protected under our state’s teacher professional service contract.  They were also members of the district’s teacher union, which assured them unlimited rounds of representation, each requiring volumes of documentation and several hours of time.  These stipulations are placed in order to protect the teachers from unjust harassment and termination. Such provisions consume such inordinate amounts of time and energy that they often create de facto protection for problem teachers. 

After more than two years of meetings and litigation, I issued formal reprimands to each for separate contract violations.  At the end of that year, both resigned, ironically victims of the ethic of justice, behind which they had hidden. 

Because of the unique student population that Tom and Rita served, they came under less scrutiny than if they had been teaching regular, mainstreamed students. They were also firmly protected by a morass of statutory procedures. Sadly, students who are at greatest risk of failure in school are often in that situation because their parents and others fail to advocate for them. Thus, as the ethic of critique charges, the students were the ultimate victims.  They were the ones the system was supposed to serve, and ironically, they were the ones the system failed to protect. The dilemma reflected elements of social justice, in that students most at risk are often those least served by our educational system. 

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