There is your badge sitting on the desk. Your smiling face and the PGCPS logo are looking straight up at the ceiling. That piece of plastic that stayed so close to you every day at work was being taken away from you. Maybe for a few days. Maybe forever. The words still ring in your ears: “I’m placing you on administrative leave.”
You’ve had a stellar record through all of your career. You’re respected by your colleagues. You’ve never had a whiff of trouble. And now, you can’t do the thing that’s been at the core of your being for almost your entire adult life.
Your mind turns to the alleged victim. You are a teacher because you have a sincere desire to make the world a better place. You want the best for your students, your colleagues, and your community. Yet somehow, somebody believes you have been harmful to them or that you have done something to put others at risk. Whoever is putting forth the allegations is not your enemy, but you are suddenly placed in an antagonistic position with someone you have tried to support.
As the principal walks you to the parking lot and you drive away, you contemplate how you will explain this to your family. You know they will be hurt and confused, but you still have to be the one to deliver the news. Before it even happens, you can hear what will come: the bewildered silence and the anger in their voices.
You turn your attention to what it will take to defend yourself. So many things happen in a teacher’s day. This is a profession that is exhausting based on the sheer number of decisions you have to make as you plan and manage a classroom full of young personalities and try to impart the curriculum. You don’t have time to take detailed notes of everything that happens, yet right now you wish that you had a record of every interaction you’ve had. You do the best with what you’ve got.
It soon becomes clear what is one of the most insidious aspects of being on administrative leave. The feeling of isolation is horrible. You have been instructed not to be in contact with any colleagues, students, or parents. You know they are wondering about you. Where is my teacher? Will they ever come back? What happened to our colleague? I hope everything is OK. You receive phone calls, text messages, and emails, but you know you can’t respond and tell the truth of what you’re going through.
When the school year ends, you will learn from news reports that there were 848 PGCPS staff members placed on administrative leave this year. In that sense, you are not alone. Sure, you had heard through the grapevine what had happened to a friend of a friend. It was unfortunate, but it was distant. Now it is all too close. You wish you could reach out to the others. You need a support group, but you don’t know who they are or where they are.
This helps your mind realize that there is a systemic problem. However, in your heart you feel an emotional trauma. You have been deemed not worthy of being with your colleagues and your students. The allegation supersedes your value in the classroom.
Each morning you wake up to the alarm. Each morning your first thought is the same: You’re not allowed to go to school today. The rest of the family goes about their usual routine, and you face a day knowing you’re not allowed to be where you’re supposed to be. Mornings are filled with emptiness and despair.
Neighbors have noticed that you’re not at school. When they ask, you give the brief explanation. Often, they try to stay positive and tell you to look at it as a paid vacation. Even though they have good intentions, the idea falls flat. You can’t be on vacation when your future is uncertain and you’re checking your email every thirty minutes to see if you’ve been called for a hearing or just to catch what little you can about the goings on at your school.
You try to stay busy. You try to stay focused on other projects. You try to use the time to do things you never could because you had to be at work, but not an hour goes by without your mind racing back to your school and the case and what you would have done differently if you could turn back time. You go out of your way to help and support others as a way of using the giving spirit that used to work so well at school, yet you find emotional pitfalls everywhere.
For example, when you go to community social events, you feel a sense of shame. What would the other parents think if they knew that you were not allowed to work with your students? Would they be nervous to have you around their children?
Then you think of the children in your class. You think of the children from homes broken by divorce, incarceration, drug and alcohol addiction, and other factors. You think of the child who has been bounced in and out of foster care. For these children in whose world precious little is certain, you were always there. You could be depended on to be a daily constant in their lives. But now, it’s different. You’re not there anymore. You, too, are another example to these children of how the world is full of broken promises. Your innocence in the matter you were accused of has no bearing. You simply aren’t there. You may not be guilty of creating the situation, but you feel the tremendous weight of guilt of letting them down.
Speaking of guilt, you dream of the day when you can leave this purgatory. The isolation has made you feel guilty already, even if the facts prove you innocent. You do not know how long your banishment will last, although it’s showing up on television and in newspapers that other teachers are having to wait months to just get a hearing. You’ve been told to just stay at home and wait for the next steps, but wait for how long?
You share your story with people you know well, friends and family outside PGCPS. They are shocked that you’re going through this. One word keeps coming up to describe the district you work for: toxic. Get out of there as soon as you can, they say. You’re a loyal person, and in spite of the troubles, you’ve spent enough time in PGCPS to instantly feel defensive. While it feels like they’re just piling it on, the evidence says that they are probably right. How many others are hearing the same advice and looking for a better place? It already feels as if the district won’t miss you, so you might as well go when you get a chance. You thought you were valuable to them, but maybe not. Will anybody miss you?
You start to believe the twisted logic that maybe you had done something awful and didn’t realize it. Maybe you did deserve the feelings of guilt and shame. Maybe you were delusional in thinking you were a good teacher. Maybe you’re not at school because you don’t belong at school. After all, some of those 848 cases resulted in firings. Is that your fate? Thankfully, you have friends and family members who can talk you off of that train of thought, but the recurring down-and-out feeling never goes away completely.
And just when you are about to drown in self-pity, you find the will to fight. You’re willing to admit mistakes and take responsibility for anything you did wrong, but you know everything you did was with the best of intentions. You deserve due process. You deserve the right to be heard, and your perspective is valuable. Anybody in your position deserves these rights. You have a responsibility not only to yourself, but also to all of your colleagues who may someday be in a similar position. For moral and ethical sake, you must represent yourself and your profession with the same energy and passion vigor you would bring to your classroom.
But there’s nothing you can do except wait and wonder. You are at the mercy of a clogged system where you feel more like Employee Identification Number ##### than the professional educator and human being that you are. Someday there will be a conclusion. Someday you will get to share your story, but as you check your email for the seventeenth time, you know that day will not be today.