I remember each of my elementary teachers by name. In retrospect, I have also concluded that at least four out of six of them were true, master teachers. They were not the kinds of master teachers in name only, a popular term given to those politically correct educators of today who know how to help their schools achieve a higher API score. They were caring professionals at the height and breadth of their professions—formidable authorities on a variety of curricula, creative artists in their ability to communicate those curricula, and incredible people managers whose motivation for teaching was incorporated into the very spirit of their beings.
How could I have been so naïve? When I accepted the position as 5th grade teacher of Challenger School in Palo Alto for the 2001/2002 school year, I had little idea that the redundancy with which they used their namesake in my official,offer letter would translate into a kind of a cult-like atmosphere--Savonarola-like philosophy from the dark ages in which repeated effort was made by the Challenger Corporate Administration to brainwash its teachers into thinking that no matter what they did or how diligently they worked, nothing was ever good enough. The list of subject areas that elementary teachers were responsible for implementing on a weekly basis included art, physical education, logic, mathematics, vocabulary, grammar, expository writing, creative writing, memorization, current events, geography, and science. The only class taught by an outside authority, which the staff was constantly reminded had only been initiated that year, was computer technology. So 2001/2002 (I was repeatedly told by my administration) was the first year that teachers were given any prep periods (2 prep periods/week) for the seemingly infinite amount of work that had to be completed outside of the direct teaching, yard duty, staff meetings, year-end recital, spring musical, science fair, “meet the teacher night”, parent/teacher conferencing, and “valet parking” time. Not that an adjusted schedule or payment compensation was given to teachers for any of the above events, it’s just that grading papers, writing monthly parent newsletters, preparing lesson plans, producing monthly progress reports and quarterly report cards, editing Challenger’s own syllabi—not by any means a complete list of the “extra duties” performed by teachers at Challenger School--had to be done outside of the 8:10 a.m.—3:20p.m. teaching/supervising/valet parking day. Although elementary teachers were paid an hourly wage in the guise of a “salary”, which paid each teacher until 4:00 pm Monday through Friday, it was not unusual for the janitor, who had other accounts in the area and who might stop by to pick up his equipment that was stored in a room in my classroom, to find me working late into the night on a Friday, as we scared each other half to death from the shock of seeing each other at work at that hour.
How could I have been so codependent? All of that would have been totally acceptable to me as a dedicated professional. But the fact that we were not allowed a break to use the bathroom facilities except at lunch and at two prep periods/week, made me see red as my bladder and kidneys took the abuse. One of my colleagues who had left her 3rd grade teaching position around October threatened to sneak in after hours and deliver Depends diapers in every teacher’s in-box. Once I had devised a clever scheme to use the facilities in-between the end of the direct teaching day and valet parking duty (timed myself at 90 seconds exactly), only to have a scathing memo issued by the school principal, admonishing such an inventive strategy for keeping my kidneys and bladder functioning.
How could I have been so stubborn? Always hopeful that things would improve, I doggedly stayed for the duration of the school year, while streamlining my work hours to less than 90/week, and sneaking to the toilet when necessary. But at the end of the year, at the final staff meeting, the school principal decided to clarify why the administration had so wisely chosen to dock my pay on one recent occasion because of a three-car-collision on highway 101 at the end of May. Well, that did it. I finally spoke up. I stated that I wasn't sure, and I hadn’t done the research yet. I made the statement that I didn’t think it was legal in this state and maybe even in this nation to label someone a “salaried worker”, and then treat that same person like a “wage worker”. In other words, where was all my overtime pay for the mountain of required work I was obligated to do and the mountain of hours put in outside of the regular workday? Why were twelve minutes such an issue to the Challenger Corporation while at least three or four others had been late on the same day for the same reason, especially since Challenger had been getting hours-upon-hours of extra work from me free of charge? I was told by the administrators at that very meeting that Challenger was conducting business legally, and that I should research California Labor Code.
How could those in charge have been so naïve? Research: OK Challenger, I accept the challenge, and please pardon the pun. For the first time in a long history of employment, I was pissed-off enough to do it. So I did. In that process, I found out that the Challenger Corporation had committed more than a few offenses against both California and National Labor Law, including falsifying timesheets, which I hated doing and which always made me feel suspicious—like they were trying to get away with something—which they were (duh). After all, this was 2002 and not 1802, right?
After much research and documentation, I had a formal confrontation with those I challenged at a hearing of the California Labor Board. The Labor Board in the state of California is much overworked and understaffed. As I told the hearing officer, I felt like Al Pacino in “Godfather III”, because every time I had been willing to let go and to let bygones be bygones, those uninformed and hubristic individuals pulled me right back in with more lies and deceit, the likes of which extend way beyond the limited space here.
Did justice prevail? In the end, and in this case, it did and did not. I won my case without hiring an attorney, not that I could afford one. Since that time, the president of the corporation has resigned his position so that his mother (who one of my friends and colleagues swears is a former victim of domestic abuse who has passed on that abuse to her employees) has resumed her former position. Also, the principal no longer works there; the same goes for the former, regional director. And so far as I’ve been informed, all of the scheduling regarding elementary teachers that had changed directly following my hearing with the Labor Board have again changed back, because no one has challenged that administration since that time. The separate art, music, and PE teachers hired after my Labor Board judgment are also no longer working there. Prep periods previously installed as a result of hiring the adjunct teachers are also gone. To my knowledge, the only change that remains in place are two, ten-minute bathroom breaks in the morning and afternoon (and in compliance with California Labor Code), respectively. However, teachers are openly paid a wage vs. a wage in the guise of a salary, and are no longer paid during holidays and school breaks, although they never were. (After doing the arithmetic I realized that a portion of the hourly wage was excluded from each teacher’s paycheck, and then reimbursed during school holidays so that it appeared as if teachers were paid for holidays, but it was actually the pay they had already earned that was being reimbursed to them!) I can’t say whether things are any better or worse there, with the exception that teachers can now use the toilet without fear of administrative reprisal.