Friday, August 25, 2017

A reminder: don't tell your boss to go pound sand

Via random clickings, the story of a New Jersey high school chemistry teacher (with a Ph.D. in chemistry?) who got himself in a spot of trouble:
A Hunterdon Central Regional High School AP chemistry teacher can be fired for threatening to lower a student's grade after a parent complaint, an arbitrator with the state Department of Education has ruled. 
Tenure charges were brought against Richard Allen after he wrote in an email on May 6, 2016, that he would lower a student's grade to an F in retaliation for her mother's questions about his lesson plans, the 48-page report on the tenure charges showed. 
Allen also wrote "[expletive deleted]" in an email to his supervisor, Karen Batista, and shared confidential information about his students with his wife in a series of emails, many containing disparaging remarks about them, according to the 13 charges brought against him.
Here is the arbitrator's judgment, with an excerpt of the offending e-mail:
...Karen, I am deeply disappointed in your handling of this matter. "Understand that you are under contract?"???!!! Frankly, [expletive deleted]. I work my [expletives deleted] off to be a great teacher and I expect the common courtesy of at least checking in more tactfully (or in person!) when receiving second hand (and erroneous) information you received from the parent. But a threat right off the get go? No thanks. 
I'm not going to pretend that I've read the whole file in detail, but it sounds like there was plenty of items for Dr. Allen to be irritated at. Suffice it to say that I understand what it is like to be really angry at one's supervisor and want to write a long, irritated e-mail defending oneself and including choice expletives. Still, it's unwise and not a recommened course of action (and it seems that he knew it right away). A reminder for us all of how it can backfire.

(UPDATE: For the record, I feel that Dr. Allen earned any censure he may receive; threatening to arbitrarily change grades because a parent questioned him demonstrates his already demonstrated poor judgment.) 

12 comments:

  1. 1) Don't tell your boss to go pound sand in an email. Also, don't threaten to do illegal things in an email. These things should not require a PhD to figure out.

    2) As a teacher, people count on your judgement of your students' knowledge; if you are willing to be dishonest with that judgement (because you're annoyed at someone's parents, say), then people can't trust your judgement anymore and you are no longer useful. It's like falsifying data in a paper. Your word is all you have, and if you lie, then you don't have that anymore.

    3) You also have to deal with people you don't like (one of the many reasons I am not a teacher). If you can't do that, then maybe being a teacher is not a good idea. Also, dealing with school bureaucracies is part of the job - it is not fun (and often unfair) but there isn't a way around it.

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    1. I don't know if there would have been an effective way for him to have gotten his concerns taken seriously within his bureaucracy - bureaucracies are hard to deal with because people in them have so many competing incentives, and some are less fair than others. His frustration might make sense, but this seems like a bad way to communicate it to others.

      If the key contention is in an email to the parents, then if the quoted statement is referring to that contention, he was (provably) lying to his boss, which isn't a good idea either. This incident just seems like a multidimensional fail on his part.

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  2. Ironically, a girl who attended grad school with me also received her PhD and went directly into teaching high school chemistry in NJ. I wonder what they have to offer that seems attractive; she was not from the area and we did not attend grad school in NJ.

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    1. Particularly in the northern half of the state, there are some insanely well-funded schools with multi-decade histories of strong math/science programs and students. I judge a science fair in NJ, and pretty much every year, I find students who impress me more than some of the grad students and postdocs I've seen. If you have an interest in teaching in those fields, getting a position at some of those schools must look like nabbing the brass ring.

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  3. It is best to adopt a style of letter writing that is not based on D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" or the dialog of "Goodfellas".

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  4. It should be noted that the e-mail excerpt you posted is what he sent AFTER he "cooled down." 2 hrs prior the e-mails were "What the fuck is that? Maybe ask me first before accusing me of violating my fucking contract." It should also be noted that the recipients of the "Frankly, fuck you" e-mail were not only his direct supervisor, but a disgruntled parent and two guidance counselors at the school. He followed that up by forwarding the exchange to a fellow teacher with "See you in court, friend."

    This shows remarkably bad judgment, even in the heat of the moment (which it technically wasn't since it was 2 hrs after the 1st exchange). Hap is correct that putting it into e-mail form makes it permanent and indisputable, which makes him look even more stupid. While I generally am happy to point the finger at underperforming students and helicopter parents, you really can't do that in this situation. They might well be the root of the problem, but a teacher showing such poor judgment will (rightfully) shoulder a lot of blame.

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  5. So it seems that there is going to be a job opening soon...

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  6. An over-qualified high school chemistry teacher who feels undermined and underappreciated. Faced with seemingly insurmountable circumstances beyond his control, he lets his bitterness and ego get the better of him. They call him Heisenberg.

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  7. Typical PhD behavior, probably used to work in pharma

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  8. It sounds like this guy is an ill-mannered, profane asshole and I wouldn't want to work with him. And gossiping about the students to outsiders is a major no-no. What goes down in the school, stays in the school, that's actually the law. And if he thinks the super is pushing too many kids through AP, he should talk to his department head, go up the chain, not complain to a bunch of random parents. What goes down in the school, stays down. But his attitude alone is enough to fire him. Tenure isn't magic.

    The grading thing: as a teacher, I know the context. This isn't college, so there isn't one enormous end-of-year final. Most of the grade is daily work and weekly lab reports and unit-based tests, so it's pretty homogeneous by quarter/trimester. So it's easily mathematically possible for a student to end up in a situation where they still have classtime to go, but have no hope of getting a passing grade. Students hate this. So do parents. So do administrators. Regardless of the actual numbers, most teachers are unofficially expected to provide a way for any student to redeem themselves at the 11th hour. If this possibility does not exist, it's very destructive to morale and discipline.

    So 'Dr. Allen planned no work after the AP exam' isn't necessarily literal truth. It means that this struggling student was failing, and there weren't enough points left to earn in the year to give him/her a chance at a D. His message about giving the student an 'F', in context, means that he had been pissed off enough that he wasn't going to conjure up some makeup points for the kid to get the 'D'. But by the rules of the course, the kid had probably already gotten an 'F'. Honestly I don't have a lot of respect for his behavior. I do tend to agree that a kid should be able to do something to earn that D. Maybe write a term paper? Or maybe turn that kid into an after-school lab aide for the rest of the year, or have them assist in trying new lab activities for use in a later year. Dr. A was being an asshole in this situation - the expectation is entirely unwritten and unofficial, but it is nonetheless there. In K-12, you have to leave a kid an out.

    The saying is that the 2 hardest grades to earn are an A and an F. To get an A, of course you have to do everything right. But to get an F, you have to blow off multiple chances at redemption.

    And it's never, ever about you. It's about the kid. Dr. A isn't much of a teacher if he makes things about himself. It's so not about you, when you're a teacher.

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    1. That's a whole lot different than I thought - I assumed he was being dishonest rather than merciless. There are lots of people who are not nice or good doing science - but misrepresenting your results is one of the seven deadly sins for science, and if he didn't do that, then everything else (his behavioral issues) goes from being the icing to being the cake. I don't know what is just to do about that.

      Sending out stupid things in email is still not a good idea.

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  9. I agree...the emails were profane and unprofessional. Stupid at best. But I disagree with @OldLabRat about leaving a kid an out. I don't care if it is 'understood'. You don't have to do that as a teacher -- students should earn their grades. That being said? Dr. A was stupid and cruel to threaten a child with an F grade just because he was upset. This whole situation was a mess.

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