Laura Bigham: A ‘teacher jail’ assignment
I was hired by the Grass Valley School District in August 1988 and was employed for 30 years, mostly teaching eighth-grade U.S. History. By 2017, I was ranked No. 1 on the seniority list and had undergone seven formal evaluations.
All seven documents were exemplary, showing that evaluators marked “meets or exceeds” in every category, which is the highest possible score.
In January 2018 I received a phone call in my classroom from the school secretary asking me to meet with the principal after student dismissal. When I arrived, the first thing he said was “Laura, are you aware that there is not one person on this campus who likes you?” (Isn’t that bullying?) He said that a parent complaint had been received via email regarding comments I made about cutting, which is a mental health issue.
I was placed on paid administrative leave and admonished not to have any communication with staff, students, or parents.
My colleagues were never given an explanation regarding my disappearance. Aside from concerned inquiries from staff, I received email messages from students and parents. For example, from students: “come back why are u gone” (sic) and “I miss you please come to our graduation.” And from a parent “I wanted to let you know that (name omitted) has expressed that she misses you. She felt like some kids in class were being disrespectful. We both hope you’ll be back to Lyman Gilmore soon.” I also heard that students were circulating a “Bring Back Bigham” petition.
All teachers in the district are required to pay dues to the California Teacher Association (CTA) or equivalent amount to charity. Legal representation is free, and the first question from my attorney was “Were criminal charges filed and contact made with law enforcement?” No, I had been told a paraphrased version of the alleged complaint, which I was never allowed to see or have read to me. Meetings took place and documents went back and forth between the two legal teams.
After five weeks at home, I was re-assigned to the district office and told I would never return to the classroom. When I asked about my new job duties, the superintendent replied “You better have some good books to read.” The only task I was ever given was stuffing envelopes for the Measure D campaign, which took 10 hours to complete.
When I reported my permanent removal from the classroom to the attorney, he said “They are sending you to teacher jail.” He explained to me that this is a harassment tactic typically used in larger districts to silence veteran teachers or encourage their departure.
By mid-March my attorney asked me to decide whether he should file a lawsuit on my behalf. CTA members are entitled to a $1 million defense. Around the same time, GVSD offered a retirement incentive financial package to teachers who met age and longevity criteria. I applied for the incentive and retired in June 2018.
My commentary is intended to expose one instance of time and money being wasted on workplace personnel politics. In order to sequester me in teacher jail, funding was needed for my salary and benefits, substitute pay, and legal fees. Every teacher receives complaints, and we have protocol for addressing parent concerns that involves bringing interested parties together for discussion.
Staff in-service monies were spent on “Restorative Justice” and Covey’s “Seven Habits,” both of which were touted as conflict resolution programs. Why did administration not seek a “win-win” solution or “restore wrongdoer to community” as we were taught in our trainings?
I hope that the new GVSD administrators will consider problem solving with less aggression to ensure dignity toward my former colleagues who are still working on the front lines of public education.
Laura has been a resident of Nevada City since 1978. She is currently employed by an online jewelry retailer.
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