My employee's inflexibility put both our jobs at risk
Layla: How will I ever recover from your betrayal?
Mrs. Schreiber: Sometimes it’s more important to be flexible than to be principled.
Times have changed.
I’ve been teaching third grade for years now, got the curriculum down pat a while ago, but still, things change every year — because the students change. Things have simply evolved over time.
I sound like I’m in my sixties, but actually, I’ve only been in the field 12 years. Still, anyone who’s been in chinuch over the last decade — or anyone with open eyes and ears for that matter — would tell you the same. Everything’s changed.
I see it most with the parents.
Back when I started, most parents came to PTA with the attitude of we’re here to work together. They’d say things like how can we help my child, or they’d thank me for working on their child’s challenging behaviors. These days, many parents — not all, not even most, but a significant many — are just… defensive. They come in with a chip on their shoulder, like I, or the school, are out to get them. They’re ready to pounce on anything I say, ready to go to battle on behalf of their kid.
student Shira was the prime example of this kind of situation. She was the oldest child of very wealthy parents, a little spoiled and self-centered, but also a bright and attentive girl who enjoyed learning. Her parents, though, seemed to think she was way more fragile than any other child her age.
Shira participated actively in every class, had lots of stories and thoughts to share, and was one of the first to be awarded the weekly “best composition” award. So when her mother charged at me during PTA, I was surprised.
“Shira works so hard on her writing,” she said, barely acknowledging my greeting. “Can you please recognize that in the classroom and acknowledge her composition efforts? She says she’s better than everyone else and you still don’t give her the weekly award for best writing.”
I was taken aback. I knew I’d given Shira the award — she was probably the first or second girl to have received it. I checked my book to be sure, and pointed it out to Mrs. Isaacs.
“Shira is very talented, and you can be very proud of her — she has a great imagination, creative use of language, and she works hard on her composition each week,” I said. “And she did receive the award — in September. She was the second girl in the whole class to receive it.”
Mrs. Isaacs frowned deeply. “September? But it’s been a few months since then. She writes a composition every week. Why hasn’t she been recognized again?”
I blinked. Wasn’t that obvious? “Shira’s essays are excellent, always. But I do have to give other students a chance to receive the award for good writing. I can’t always give it to the same girl. It would be demoralizing.”
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Isaacs said, leaning forward. I blinked again; her diamond earrings dazzled my eyes. “Is this award merit-based or is it not? If Shira’s work is better than her classmates’, shouldn’t she get the award? If it’s just a case of taking turns to receive a prize, the award is meaningless.”
Whoa. I was flummoxed, momentarily, but stood my ground.
“Shira is an excellent writer for her age, and her compositions would be a candidate for an award every week, but I can’t simply choose the same girl each time,” I said, hoping my voice sounded warm but firm. The Isaacs family weren’t people to mess with, that much was obvious. “Instead, I look for another piece that also shines, in its own way. Every girl has talents, whether it’s in description, or a creative opening line, or even how hard she tries. I like to teach the girls to learn from everyone.”
I thought that would be the final word on the composition award issue, but Mrs. Isaacs didn’t relent. “Other girls can get recognized in math, in history, in sports. Shira puts her heart and soul into her essays, and I would like her to be awarded more often. She is crushed every week when her name is not called for the best writing.”
Then without waiting for a response, she got up to leave, not caring that I hadn’t had a chance to tell her anything else the entire evening. It seemed to me that she had simply come to impart a message. Or a command.
“I’m going to speaking to the principal about this,” Mrs. Isaacs said, pausing at the door. “This is my daughter’s self-esteem, her emotional well-being. I want to make sure it’s taken care of.”
left the school building that night shaken and upset — even though a few hours had passed, and most of the other parent meetings had passed uneventfully. I felt bullied… violated, even. She has issues, I told myself, but the voice of logic didn’t help the pit in my stomach, the nagging sense that this problem was just beginning.
Of course, the next day was Wednesday, when I announced the weekly composition award winner. I smiled at Tzivi Meyer as I called her name. She was a sweet girl who struggled with creative writing but loved this week’s assignment to write a poem about a natural object. Her piece wasn’t the best in the class, but it was her best, and there were some nice vivid descriptive lines that I highlighted to the class when I put it up on the wall.
I couldn’t help but carefully watch Shira’s face as we discussed Tzivi’s work. She clapped and smiled with everyone else. If she was crushed, she did a good job hiding it. When I passed her desk, I complimented her on the original subject of her poem — seashells — and her great work, and she beamed.
I decided to put her mother’s complaints out of my mind. My student was doing well, that was all that mattered.
But then the principal called me in for a meeting.
I got along well with Mrs. Schreiber, always have. She was a warm and encouraging mentor to the teachers, had helped me through my first rough patch in teaching, and always gave great feedback after observing my classes, along with some targeted critique that could improve my skills even more.
Now, though, she looked regretful as she outlined the reason for the meeting: Mrs. Isaacs’s complaint.
“I know that they’re not being reasonable,” she said bluntly. “I know that you need to recognize everyone for the award. But here’s the thing: Mr. Isaacs is on the board, and they’re major financial backers of the school, and also very influential in the community. We simply don’t have a choice but to keep them happy.”
She suggested that maybe I could give two awards each week, one to a girl who hadn’t yet received recognition, and the other to a girl whose writing was genuinely the best in the class, which would allow the strongest writers — a.k.a Shira — to have her name called more often.
“Really?” I asked. “I just — that’s not how I run my classroom. It feels… wrong.”
Mrs. Schreiber sighed. “It’s not how I like to run my school either. And it isn’t fair. But we’re in a difficult situation, and we have to make some concessions to keep the board happy. And to keep the school running smoothly.”
I wondered if she meant to keep the school open. Did Mr. Isaacs — or his wife — really have that much power?
I couldn’t bring myself to do the double award thing, so instead I decided to introduce a “midwinter award” day where every girl was recognized for something that she starred in. Shira, of course, received a cup with the words “top composition writer.”
It was very challenging to give every girl a genuine, meaningful compliment without hurting anyone else (no one wants the “nicest smile” award, even though after school is over, that matters a whole lot more than your grades) but I hoped it would to keep Shira — or rather, her parents — happy. Now that she’d been recognized for her budding writing talents, maybe they would calm down.
hey didn’t, of course. I should have realized; these people never do.
The next thing was the seating arrangements.
I’d recently shuffled the girls’ seats in the classroom, like I always do around February time. I’d moved Shira to the back corner; she had spent the first half of the year in prime real estate in the center of the room, and it’s not like she was even a girl who needed that. I could count on her to participate in class from the back, and I was confident that she would still understand the material.
Her mother apparently disagreed, though. With a barely concealed grimace, Mrs. Schreiber told me that Mrs. Isaacs wanted Shira back in her old seat. And this time, she hadn’t even bothered to ask me herself — she’d gone straight for the top. Which was ridiculous in itself. Who calls the principal to ask for a simple seat change?
“I’m not asking questions, I know you know what you’re doing with seating, and that it’s normal to shuffle the classroom around in the middle of the year,” Mrs. Schreiber told me. “But for the sake of keeping the peace in a sensitive situation, is there any way for you to give Shira back her old seat?”
I shook my head, mutely. I couldn’t. Gitty was sitting there now, Gitty with the recently diagnosed learning disability, who’d spent the last few months staring out the window, Gitty who really needed that prime location.
I could move Gitty one row forward, but that would be next to Shalva, and the two were not a good match — they’d giggle together and get silly all throughout class. If I moved Gitty one seat over and put Shira next to her, that would displace Yocheved, who was so quiet that I often forgot all about her — I’d moved her front and center so I’d be able to encourage her to participate more.
“Every seat is so thought out, one move would affect everyone,” I said to Mrs. Schreiber. “Besides, I told the girls that after a seating change there is no moving whatsoever for two weeks. It would undermine my authority and make everyone upset if I give in and move one girl now — especially one who doesn’t need it, and had that seat all along. Lots of girls want their old places back — it would cause an uproar in the classroom.” I sighed. “I just can’t do it.”
“I understand you 100 percent,” Mrs. Schreiber said. “But we do need to give in somewhere. Like I told you, the Isaacs family is a complicated situation, and it would be… unwise… to directly anger them.”
I thought it was kind of their problem to be getting angry over a perfectly normal classroom arrangement, but I was quickly learning that when it came to Mrs. Isaacs, her problem became my headache.
“Here’s what I think the best solution is,” Mrs. Schreiber said. “I’ll call them and tell them about the two-week trial, and that all the girls agreed to try out their seats until then. But I’ll tell them that after that, when you reshuffle some of the seats around, Shira will get her old seat back — or something similar enough. Would that be okay?”
Not really, I thought.
“I guess I’ll be making some small changes anyway,” I said, somewhat unwillingly.
I didn’t really blame Mrs. Schreiber, but I did wish she wouldn’t be so helpless in the face of the parents. Why couldn’t she and the school just back me up and insist that Shira take her assigned seat like everyone else? How was giving in to this kind of aggressive behavior good for Shira? It couldn’t be good for an eight-year-old to know she could get whatever she wanted from the school if only she said the word.
But we had to compromise somewhere, so I reluctantly agreed and Mrs. Schreiber made the call.
I was upset about it. And so was Mrs. Isaacs.
She called me up (directly — a dubious victory) to rail against how rigid I was, how her daughter was suffering in the back row seat (suffering! With her friends and her good grades and her participation in class).
I tried explaining that other girls were really suffering, that there were girls with learning disabilities and girls without friends and girls whose grades genuinely slipped if they weren’t close to the teacher, but she got even more upset.
“A good teacher should be able to engage everyone, even those at the back of the room,” she said. “And they should be able to see that the bright and talented children also have needs.”
This was all so blatantly unfair and one-sided that I didn’t even know what to say. Not that Mrs. Isaacs cared to hear my response.
“How many years are you teaching, anyway?” she wanted to know.
“Twelve,” I said quietly. “And with my experience—”
“Twelve. Really.” She gave a sniff. “Well, maybe things have changed since you started out. I’m going to speak to the principal again about these seats. It’s really urgent.”
moved Shira’s seat. Of course.
Not right away, but not after two weeks either. I did a few switches after ten days, telling the girls I’d thought it through and felt like some changes needed to be made right away. I didn’t give Shira back her actual old seat, but one two seats over. I figured it was central enough, and I wasn’t having her displace Gitty or Yocheved, who were finally making more progress than they had in months.
Aside from the bad taste the episode left in my mouth, I was left dealing with the results: more complaints, girls who wanted their original seats back, girls who’d been happy with the first switch but not the second, and many phone calls from disgruntled parents once the girls figured out how Shira had gotten her way once again….
I thought that was the worst it would get.
But it wasn’t.
Mrs. Eisner, the sixth-grade teacher, came over to me before class one day.
“Layla, I felt so bad to hear about those parents you’re dealing with,” she told me quietly. “Just stay strong. It’ll blow over.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, taken aback. Was she talking about Mrs. Isaacs? But how would she know?
“Oh — nothing,” she said quickly. “I mean, someone mentioned something, and I thought — but it’s probably nothing.”
I wasn’t so sure.
And then Mrs. Schreiber called me in again.
“I’m afraid I don’t have such good news for you,” she said. “I know you did you best with Shira Isaacs and the seating situation, but apparently, they still weren’t happy. And they’re very influential within our parent body….
“I’ve been hearing complaints from other parents they’re unhappy about certain things….” She sighed. “Nothing substantial, of course. You’re an excellent teacher, and I’ve told all of them that. But to salvage the situation, I think we need to put a few things in place. Just as damage control.”
It was humiliating and painful to review the parents’ complaints, even with Mrs. Schreiber’s support and insistence that she knew this wasn’t my fault. But I understood that giving the parents more transparency would show them that everything was going great in the classroom, so I agreed to have Mrs. Schreiber to sit in on classes more often. Hopefully she could tell any parents who complained what was really going on.
I was mortified. I didn’t care about being observed, but it was demeaning to be forced to defend myself and my abilities. And why couldn’t Mrs. Schreiber just stand up for me, tell the parents that I was a great teacher? Why was she getting involved in this whole “let’s do whatever it takes to make them happy”? What happened to her principles, her yashrus?
But Mrs. Schreiber, it seemed, was more concerned with keeping the parents happy than standing up for justice.
“Maybe you should start sending home a weekly newsletter with details of what was taught each day,” she suggested, at another emergency meeting. “You can use that as a chance to include various awards, and between you and me — just until this blows over — you should make sure that the daughters of these parents get recognized nice and early, maybe a few times each.”
That last part made me angry. Shira Isaacs, at least, was a good student. But some of the others were not. To fake awards just to placate unreasonable parents? Ugh, that was just so… unjust. And to have the principal herself suggest it? How could the school run like this?
“I’ll try my best,” I told her, noncommittal. But privately, I decided to allocate awards the way I had until now. The parents would have to understand that this was how a classroom worked.
ven with the newsletters and the lesson observations and whatnot, the parents weren’t happy.
It’s hard to believe there are parents like this, but I guess somehow they were fed the message that I was unfair, or unskilled as a teacher, and suddenly the onus was on me to prove myself. And once a someone gets a bad reputation….
I tried not to blame the parents. In my eyes, it was really all about the Isaacs family, or at least Mrs. Isaacs. But if I was honest with myself, the person who was really hurting me was Mrs. Schreiber. What had happened to 12 years of mutual trust and respect? How could she let one unstable person destroy my entire year?
And, as it turned out, to destroy my teaching career for good.
It was Mrs. Schreiber who broke the news, gently telling me that the parents had staged a protest. A few of them (including the Isaacs) had daughters in the second grade, and they were insisting on having a new teacher for the third grade next year.
We have no choice, Mrs. Schreiber had said. I’m so sorry, Layla. I promise to do whatever I can to help you find another job. But the damage done here is just irreparable by now, and it would be foolish for both of us to insist that you stay in this school. We’re risking — well, everything — if we’d do that.
I don’t remember what I answered. I just remember stumbling home in shock, realizing halfway through the 40-minute walk that I’d left my car parked outside the school.
I didn’t care.
All I could think about was how Mrs. Isaacs, her lashon hara, and her cronies had now destroyed not just my year, but my career, my parnassah. My reputation. My life.
And how Mrs. Schreiber, who knew I was innocent, who’d told me repeatedly that she was aware of the truth, hadn’t even backed me up. She’d gone along with them, said sadly that she had no choice, hadn’t spoken out against the parents and for me.
How would I recover?
And how, how, how could Mrs. Schreiber have betrayed me by joining the other side?
If I could tell Mrs. Schreiber one thing, it would be: You know the truth. How could you take the side of these parents and destroy my entire career?
Some people say that lesson observations are a waste of time. The students are on their best behavior, the teacher’s prepared and perfected her lesson plan, and she’s also nervous — I’ve had great teachers fumble and go tongue-tied when I’m watching them give a class.
But in my opinion, there’s still a lot a principal learns from sitting in on a class. Usually, the teacher and class both relax after a few minutes, and I get to see them interact more naturally. And seeing a teacher’s polished-and-perfected lesson plan gives me clues about her strengths, and also where she could do with some hand-holding or support. It also helps me get to know the students in a classroom setting — who is thriving in class, who tries to get by without being noticed — and I always want to know how individual students are doing.
Tuesdays are always set aside for lesson observations at my school. I do three classes per week, which means I cover the entire school over the course of a few weeks. Afterward, I set up meetings with the teachers I observed, giving them feedback and suggesting what they could focus on, whether it’s helping a particular student or utilizing a specific teaching aid.
Today, I watched Layla Tessler’s class. She’s a great teacher, been with us for more than ten years. I smiled as she launched into a story to begin the lesson; she was a great storyteller and the girls were enthralled.
I scribbled some notes as she finished the story, asked a few questions, and segued smoothly into the history topic they were covering this semester. The girls were eager to participate, then filled in their worksheets. After Layla gave them a few minutes to decorate their sheets and paste them in their notebooks, she came over to me with her own notebook and showed me what the class was doing.
“It looks excellent,” I complimented her.
It was excellent. The girls were engaged, they knew the material, and she managed to involve some of the quieter girls, too. I made a note to check how she was progressing through the curriculum, wondering if it was a little slow-paced, but overall, she was doing great.
And this wasn’t the easiest class, either. There were several girls with big personalities, and several who were extremely quiet. Not a typical mix. And yet Layla seemed to be handling it with competence, engaging the quieter girls while still giving the more enthusiastic ones their time, too.
At the end of the lesson, I nodded to Layla and slipped out. Thank goodness for teachers like her, easy to work with, easy to observe, where I only had to give small pointers to help them continue doing great work.
hen Mrs. Isaacs came to see me at PTA, I assumed it was to say thank you. Her Shira had great teachers — Morah Flamm in the morning, Mrs. Tessler in the afternoon — and seemed to be thriving in both classes.
But her mother didn’t look happy. She nodded cursorily at my compliments for her daughter, and launched into an agitated tirade… something about composition awards in Mrs. Tessler’s class.
Composition awards, seriously? It didn’t sound like something you take up with the principal, but this was Mrs. Isaacs. Her husband was one of the founding board members of the school, and was one of its main financial supporters.
I knew without being told that part of my job was to keep Mrs. Isaacs happy.
“I hear that, Mrs. Isaacs. And you say that you spoke to the teacher herself already?”
Mrs. Isaacs gave a delicate, disdainful sniff. “Yes. And she actually admitted outright that she chooses other girls for the award even when Shira’s work is better!”
That didn’t sound like Layla. Something was off.
“It sounds like some sort of miscommunication, Mrs. Isaacs. Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you.”
hen Layla explained the situation — that Shira had received the award months ago, and she was giving other girls a chance to be recognized — I sighed in relief. So there was a simple answer for Mrs. Isaacs, she’d simply misunderstood the situation.
But when I called Mrs. Isaacs to fill her in, she wasn’t impressed.
“I know she was awarded in September, but she definitely deserves it more often, and I don’t agree with this policy of giving everyone a turn. How does that teach them that achievement is recognized for its own worth? My Shira could sit back and do nothing now because she’s already received the award, and she knows she’s not getting it again. It doesn’t make any sense.”
She won’t do that unless she’s picking up the attitude from you at home, I thought. But I couldn’t say that to Mrs. Isaacs.
“I spoke to my husband about it, and he fully agrees with me,” she continued. “I was really hoping you would be able to sort it out, without him having to talk to the other board members. I mean, it’s a composition award, it shouldn’t be so complicated.”
“Hmm, I hear that,” I said, keeping my voice even. “Like you say, it is just a composition award.”
I waited, wondering if she’d pick up on the irony.
“But to my Shira, it means the world,” Mrs. Isaacs said quickly. “And she’s really suffering. I’d like to make sure we can resolve this.”
esolving this, apparently, meant going to all extremes to make sure it would happen the way Mrs. Isaacs wanted. Next thing I knew, the issue of Shira Isaacs and the composition award made it onto the schedule at my meeting with the chairman of the school board — nestled between building campaign and staffing crisis.
No one seemed to see the ridiculousness of the situation aside from me.
When I delicately pointed it out to Mr. Gluck, the chairman, he sat back in his chair and said, “Look, Mrs. Schreiber, I’ll give it to you straight. Mr. Isaacs is a very prominent, very influential, and very important member of the school board. He’s also — to put it bluntly — the primary financial backer that this school has. Like it or not, we simply have to keep him happy. It just isn’t a good idea to upset Mrs. Isaacs over a composition award — or anything.”
I took a deep breath. This didn’t smell right or feel right; how could we run a school when a third-grader’s whims and wishes could dictate policy like that?
“I understand that this is what the parents want, but as a principal, I need to back up the teacher’s authority,” I said quietly. “Unless, of course, there is a risk or danger to the students themselves, which is not the case here. In fact, Mrs. Tessler works very hard to treat every student with fairness, and give each one full attention.”
“This isn’t about proving the teacher right, Mrs. Schreiber,” Mr. Gluck said, his voice rising a little. “As a principal, the board needs to be able to trust you to act within the school’s best interests. Even if it means asking a teacher to accommodate a specific student.”
“Or her parents,” I said drily. Didn’t he see how ridiculous this was?
“Or her parents.” Mr. Gluck was unabashed. “Look, without Mr. Isaacs, we wouldn’t be able to keep the school open. It’s that simple. I know it’s not how you would generally work, but it is just a small request. If it’s that simple to keep them happy, why not?”
Well. If it was really as small a deal as he was insisting, maybe Mrs. Isaacs should let go of this ridiculous campaign to have her daughter awarded more often.
But there was nothing to say; my options — or lack of options — were very clear.
I spoke to Layla again, and we figured out a grudging solution, involving a double composition award each week. The weaker students would get a chance to shine while others — with consistently good work — could be recognized more often. It wasn’t ideal. But what choice did we have?
didn’t end there, though.
The next problem was the seating change. Shira’s seat had been switched from second row, in the center, to a back corner. Some girls like getting out of the teacher’s sight, but Shira was a very enthusiastic student and had said something to her mother about it being harder to concentrate in her new seat.
The problem was that Mrs. Tessler — rightfully — wanted to give other girls, maybe girls who needed it more, a chance to sit front and center. And Shira didn’t need the extra attention to shine. And there was a strict classroom policy of “no switching before two weeks” to give everyone a chance to try out their new seats and see if they could make it work.
But even if Shira could manage the two-week waiting period, her mother couldn’t.
I think I received calls from every member of the board, plus nine from Mrs. Isaacs herself, until the issue was finally resolved. I didn’t share all the details with Layla — how would it have helped?
And believe me, I stood up for her plenty on those calls — explaining and reexplaining how classroom dynamics could get complicated, how it’s in the students’ best interests to see that the teacher stands up for her word, that I wanted to support Mrs. Tessler’s decision.
But when the board actually called an emergency meeting over this, insisting that I do something to make sure the Isaacs family didn’t pull out of the school, I had to just tell her to make a change earlier than planned. We worked together, trying to see how we could accommodate Shira (or rather, her mother) without disadvantaging the girls who really needed it.
It wasn’t really possible, but eventually, we figured out a less-than-ideal solution, and Shira’s seat was changed.
I hoped that would be the end of the story.
Unsurprisingly, though, it wasn’t.
ne thing Mrs. Isaacs was right about: her husband had a lot of influence.
Apparently, they’d been unhappy about the “response time” to their requests. And they’d spoken, “discreetly,” to other parents. And lo and behold, they found out that many parents weren’t “so happy” with Mrs. Tessler.
One parent said that she gave extra recess too often.
Another felt that she gave too much homework.
A third wondered whether she was teaching reasoning skills, or just getting the girls to parrot answers.
Mrs. Isaacs laid this all out in front of me — typed up in a neat booklet — along with a list of names. She’d only spoken to six or seven parents, but of course, they were all part her influential circle. There was another board member, two extremely wealthy community members, and one who was a major askan behind a lot of the school’s fundraising.
The complaints weren’t big ones — not at all. They were small and disparate and had little evidence of any major pedagogical issue. But these kinds of situations didn’t work by logic. Once word got out that a teacher “had a bad name,” it was almost impossible to reverse that.
I took a deep breath. I was going to have to do a lot of damage control to protect Layla’s reputation.
“I appreciate you bringing this to me, Mrs. Isaacs,” I said. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’ll keep this booklet, and see what can be done.”
“I hope it’s not too late,” Mrs. Isaacs said. “I mean, half the year has gone already. If I were you, I’d look for a new third grade teacher.”
This woman was impossible, but I couldn’t afford to alienate her. Or her husband.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” I said, gently but firmly. “Mrs. Tessler is an excellent teacher, and I’m sure we can work out how to resolve the issues that bother you. They seem to be smaller things, and I have confidence that she’ll be able to implement the necessary changes so everyone is happy.”
Mrs. Isaacs raised an eyebrow. “You, Mrs. Schreiber? I thought, at least, that you would see things straight. Hmph.” She sniffed. “My husband will be bringing a copy of this booklet to the next board meeting. I think it will speak for itself.”
I winced. Hashem yeracheim, this woman had serious issues. And yet, her issues were fast leading to disaster for Layla — and a huge headache for me.
called Mr. Gluck, hoping to preempt the situation. I spoke privately to every member of the board — except, of course, for Mr. Isaacs. But to no avail.
“Mrs. Schreiber, with all due respect, you have to let this go,” Mr. Gluck told me. “The Isaacs family is influential, the other parents are in an uproar, and you’re fighting a losing battle trying to defend her.
“And you’re losing your own credibility,” he added soberly.
Another board member not-so-subtly hinted that my own job could be at stake if I didn’t make sure Mrs. Isaacs was satisfied with the way I handled her complaints.
The situation was beyond shocking. So I did the only thing I could do: switched tracks.
I held meetings with Layla, then made several phone calls to the disgruntled parents, trying to appease them and to figure out a plan that could work. Yes, it went against every principle I had to pander to these parents who were causing so much trouble for a genuinely good teacher, but I had to be pragmatic. Her job was on the line, and it sounded like mine was, too.
I scheduled extra lesson observations in Layla’s classroom, we began sending out a newsletter to demonstrate the girls’ progress each week, and I strongly suggested to Layla that she should give those students extra recognition until the storm blew over.
That didn’t go down so well.
“I can’t do that,” Layla told me resolutely. “I can’t cater to seven girls with wealthy parents at the expense of the rest of the class. I’ll give them awards just like everyone else.”
I admired her principles, but I also worried. Because I knew from personal experience that her doggedly standing up for her principles wouldn’t help.
My idealism had been tempered, and I knew that sometimes, for the long-term good, you just had to be practical. Give in, make it work, keep them happy.
Yes, it was unfortunate that a group of parents had blown up such non-issues, that Layla had somehow become the enemy. But the only way forward was to meet them, not halfway, but all the way. Keep them happy, get to the end of the year, move on.
But then there was the painting story. The final straw.
ayla had promised the class a special paint party as a prize for finishing some chart. It was scheduled a week in advance, and the girls were so excited.
The day before, Mrs. Schultz, one of the wealthy parents who’d been unhappy with Layla’s teaching, called me to say that her daughter had to leave school at lunch time the next day — she didn’t bother explaining why — and would be missing the paint party. Could I please ask Mrs. Tessler to move the party to another day instead?
I called Layla.
“I can’t do it,” she said immediately. “It’s the night before, the girls are bringing in special painting shirts, they’re all excited — I can’t push it off. And besides, another day someone else won’t be there.”
“Maybe you can just explain that since Sara isn’t in school, the class will do a special chesed and push off our party until she’s back?” I suggested. “That way, it could be a learning experience, too.”
“I can’t,” Layla said. “Two girls — Miri and Chani, they’re cousins — are going to Israel for a week for their uncle’s chasunah. So if I push it off a day, they’ll miss it. And why should they lose out because Sara can’t come tomorrow?”
Miri Weiss and Chani Shapiro were two of the quieter kids, their parents were eager and helpful and accommodating and wouldn’t dream of asking for the party to be changed to another date.
Layla was right, it wouldn’t be fair to make them miss out just because Sara Schultz’s parents were more difficult.
But I wasn’t sure that being right would help.
I called Mrs. Schultz with trepidation, explained that the date was fixed and that other girls wouldn’t be there over the next few days, and the party couldn’t be pushed off.
She was furious.
And the next thing I knew, there was a delegation in my office; third-grade parents with other, younger daughters, demanding change.
They wanted Mrs. Tessler out.
blanched. They wanted a perfectly capable, experienced teacher to lose her job, simply because she didn’t accede to their ridiculous demands.
It was ludicrous. It was unthinkable. And yet my hands were tied.
I spoke to a rav. I spoke to the chairman. I even spoke to the entire board, despite the fact that Mr. Isaacs and a couple of others on the board were the very ones complaining.
I tried to fight Layla’s case, but it was futile. And dangerous.
“Mrs. Schreiber, you’re very devoted to your teachers, but it looks like you’re not seeing the situation clearly,” Mr. Gluck said. Around the table, the other men nodded. “We have a teacher who won’t work with the parents when they ask her for things, we have a teacher with repeated complaints against her — and you’re making it sound like you’d rather keep her than keep the parent body happy.” His tone was sharp.
“We’ve always been able to see eye-to-eye on issues, Mrs. Schreiber. And that’s a very important quality the board looks for in a principal. Someone they can work with, who’s fully committed to what’s best for the school.”
I understood. It was Layla out, or me and Layla out.
And even if I stood my ground — risking my own reputation and job — and somehow the board caved in, it wouldn’t be any use. The parents would make her life miserable, and their daughters would doubtless pick up their negative attitudes. They’d complain and threaten and give her another year of being forced to tiptoe around their daughters and neglect the others.
And besides, they’d threatened to all pull their daughters out of the school if we didn’t acquiesce. I didn’t doubt they could do it; with money, they had enough influence to get into another school, or even open a new one. And without these parents, we’d be left with a decimated board, and a financial crisis.
I had no choice, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t cry the night before I had to tell Layla.
I also made personal phone calls to the principals of two other girls’ schools in the vicinity, explaining how highly I recommended her and asking them to consider her first for any teaching position they had available.
But then I had to do the dirty work: call her in and tell her that we couldn’t take her back next year.
“I — I can’t — I just don’t—” she stammered, shocked. “But — just because of Mrs. Isaacs? Because of a few difficult people? Can’t someone explain….”
“I’m so sorry,” I kept repeating, helpless. “I’m going to keep trying to find you another job,” I promised her, and told her about my phone calls on her behalf.
I knew that without my help, it would be difficult for her to apply to other schools — they’d all wonder why she’d left ours. But even if I did find her something else, it was only a small comfort. She knew this school, she was a part of it. She had her classroom, her curriculum, her style.
And now it was over.
Layla didn’t say much when she left my office. She looked angry; betrayed. I knew she thought I’d simply given in, taken the easy way out by selling her out to the parents.
But it wasn’t so simple. I felt terrible for the role I played in this disaster. But I was a victim, too: of a system that gave too much power to the parents who funded the school.
All I could do was apologize over and over again, and assure her that I would be there for her, to help her find a way forward from here.
If I could tell Layla one thing it would be: Sometimes it’s more important to be practical than to be principled. I tried to fight for you — but your inflexibility almost cost us both our jobs.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 966)
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