An Unexpected Narrative, a Limbic Dialogue and a Note from Ellen

Editor’s Note:  This is Chapter 18 in a soon-to-be-ended series called “Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder” by Barry Garelick, a second-career math teacher in California.  He has written articles on math education that have appeared in The AtlanticEducation NextEducation News and AMS Notices.  He is also the author of three books on math education.  Says Mr. Garelick: “At its completion, this series will be published in book form by John Catt Educational, Ltd. I appreciate your devotion to the series and hope you will not regret the time spent doing so.”  The previous chapters can be found here: Chapter 1 , Chapter 2 , Chapter 3 Chapter 4 , Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10,  Chapter 11Chapter 12, Chapter 13, Chapter 14, Chapter 15, Chapter 16 and Chapter 17.

Ch 18  An Unexpected Narrative, a Limbic Dialogue and a Note from Ellen

Having worked for forty years in both the private and public sectors prior to my retirement, I can say that the axiom I formulated in Chapter 14 applies to both the teaching and non-teaching worlds. Restated: You never know for sure what’s really going on, but general suspicions suffice to fit the narrative at hand until nuances prove otherwise.

I had kept my notice of termination at the Cypress School under wraps, having told only Diane, and one teacher who I trusted. I didn’t want the students to know. I heard stories from other teachers about receiving lay-off notices every year and getting hired back. Even the Superintendent had said that it could be rescinded.

This bolstered a vague belief that the same would happen to me. I was therefore surprised when on a Monday in May, the teacher who I had told said “I’m sorry to hear you were let go.”

Clinging to the narrative I had been given to understand, I said “That can be rescinded.”

She looked at me, and speaking rapidly, informed me of a new narrative. “Sandra has been told she will be replacing you.”

This development had occurred the previous Friday; the whole school knew but me.  Sandra who taught third grade was told that she would be teaching my math classes the next year. In fact, she had taught middle school math with James a few years ago. They would be hiring a third grade teacher to replace her.

My first thought before going into limbic mode was that at least I wasn’t being replaced by Sandra’s student teacher who had observed my algebra class the previous year. “Was anyone planning on telling me?”

“The principal is in her office,” she said in very kind tones.

I took the hint and stormed into the principal’s office. By way of greeting I said “Well, I just heard that despite declining student enrollment, there’s still going to be two math teachers and I’m not one of them. What the hell does this mean?”

“Yes, sometimes people are shuffled to make things come out right.”

“Meaning what, exactly?” I asked. 

The principal was a very nice woman who genuinely liked me but was not one to go against the Superintendent.  “Why don’t we talk to the Superintendent about this?” she suggested.  

I was in full limbic mode when we entered his office. I broke the ice.

“I have been more than professional about all of this and I am not happy that I am finding out from another teacher about Sandra taking over my job,” I said. “Why wasn’t I informed about this decision?”

“Do you think I have to share information about staff decisions?”

“Given that this affects me, I think that would be safe to say,” I said.

“Look, as I told you before, this had nothing to do with performance. I can’t go against the law though and I had to let someone go. Since you were the least senior, it was you.”

This reference to the law was interesting. I was thinking:  he lets me go, moves the more expensive Sandra into my spot, gives her other assignments so she retains full time status (I was part-time), and then hires a teacher to replace her. Seems like there are just as many teachers as before and more money expended. I felt like saying “You do realize I teach math, don’t you?” 

“It’s like in baseball,” he said.  “They let players go with trades all the time. It’s the same here.” I said nothing. “Look, you know I think highly of you. You taught a tough class of seventh graders who love you. I was even going to make you permanent.”

This was true; he had told me that. But something happened to make him change his mind. I knew I’d never know what it was.  As he went on talking, I realized it was over for me and nothing was going to change.

My limbic mode having subsided I became professional once more, like a baseball player being traded. I told him I appreciated the opportunity to vent, because it would have festered had we not had the discussion. I didn’t apologize for my initial outburst

Later as I was sitting in my classroom during lunch there was a knock on the door. It was Sandra. I had the door closed, since this was one day I didn’t want the usual group of my algebra students congregating, as much as I enjoyed them.

“I just want you to know that I had no idea you hadn’t been told what happened. I feel terrible about it,” she said.  “And believe me, I really don’t want to teach math. I want to stay teaching third grade. I was told that this is what I’m going to do.”

“So you and James will be the math teachers?”

“Yes.  We taught together before. I’ll be teaching algebra. We’ll both be teaching sixth grade because it’s a big class.”  I could tell she felt bad about the situation. She said she was going to tell the principal she didn’t want to teach math and to be kept in her position teaching third grade. I knew that nothing would change and it didn’t. 

I kept my silence about events; my students didn’t know what happened. Over the next week, with the exception of James, teachers expressed their regrets. I notified Diane and Ellen. Diane said she would be happy to be a reference. And Ellen wrote me the following note:

“I am so sorry that you have had to endure this undeserved trauma.  I have worked with new teachers for 20 years and have witnessed this process over and over again. Most of my teachers have gone on and taught at other schools and never looked back.”

I would shortly be hired by St. Stevens, but in the meantime I found it oddly comforting to know that despite conflicting narratives about education, some things never change.  And with that, I began the narrative of preparing my final exams.

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