Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Guest commentary by a suspended Camden teacher

The following is a guest commentary. It explains itself. I neither agree nor disagree, but think that it is important for this site to give a voice to issues and concerns facing our the youth of the city.

My name is Jack Bier and for the last two years I taught health and physical education at Cramer and Sumner Schools in Camden, NJ. On Thursday, May 29 I was suspended for the rest of the year by the district. This move is clearly and sadly a desperate act of retribution. The BOE is retaliating against me for speaking out at the board meeting on Tuesday, where I talked about my intention to leave the district after this school year, and my reasons for doing so.

My comments to the board concerned the profound lack of respect the administration shows for both teachers and students. As you know, this authoritarian shit rolls from the top down the hill. I realize these complaints are old news to many of you, but when I decided to resign at the end of the end of the year, I felt free to stand up for the kids, and for myself. Suddenly more aware, I had to grow up quick. Every day I went to work expecting to be harassed. I have been questioned, challenged and disrespected this year in ways I could never have imagined, both arbitrary and serious. I do not wish to suggest that this discrimination has anything to do with race or gender bias in urban elementary schools. Last year at Cramer I never rocked the boat. My evaluations were exemplary. I was the model teacher. My bosses seemed to like and at times even respect me. I did as I was told, mostly.

This year, however, as I began to get more involved with the kids, things changed. My vice principal at Sumner, Theresa Brown implied behind closed doors that I was a racist after I interceded on behalf of students being over-disciplined by lunch aides on two separate occasions. “It appears that you have a problem with people of color, Mr. Bier.” Ignorance comes in every color, shape and size. My principal and vice-principal at Cramer warned me repeatedly to be careful about being seen talking with girls in the halls because 'people are talking.' I was the girls track coach, I’m pretty popular and I have no aberrant interest in fifth grade girls. Never once did anyone tell me they stood up for me. Suddenly, I had no friends. It felt like a silent conspiracy, but that’s just paranoia, right?

The new acting principal at Sumner, Janis Kauffman communicated her contempt for me from her first day on the job. I still haven't figured that one out. Did she see me quoted in the Courier condemning her predecessor? Was it because I gave my students an active role in making educational decisions? Maybe I reminded her of someone she hated in second grade. I don’t understand the mentality, but as the kids have taught me, haters just don’t know any better. My feeling is that those in power often fear those who are not afraid of them. Having a second career, I only came to work because it was fun for me. I refuse to live scared. After Kauffman and I fought publicly, I began calling out sick from Sumner and looking for a therapist who specialized in stress management – so, yeah, I have a doctor’s note for that.

In the past 2 months, Cramer principal Linda Baily called me out publicly on four separate occasions in front of staff, students and parents. Vice-principal Zora Dees-Brown warned other staff members to avoid being seen with me, as it became apparent I might not make it to the end of the year. I kept our supervisor, Jeanette Hawkins informed on all these issues throughout the year, supplying her with both sides of the story on each and every occasion. She never responded to anything I sent her, but when she came to evaluate me she did agree with Ms. Brown's assertion that it was inappropriate for me to be drinking water while teaching. I was written up for that infraction. Brown called in insubordination. When I asked her to show me where in the rule book this directive originated, she cited her own power as an administrator as reason enough. I respectfully disagree.

Catching up to the present, Hawk did try to informally suspend me Wednesday at the boys track and field competition by telling me I was not permitted to coach, only to observe. Mr. McIntosh from CEA came to the field and called assistant superintendent Kerwin, who informed him that Hawkins was incorrect. According to McIntosh, Kerwin said I was permitted to coach the Cramer boys Wednesday, and after signing in at Sumner where I work on Thu/Fri, to coach the Cramer girls at the competition Thursday. Yes, the set-up is obvious in hindsight, but I worked with the girls all year to prepare for T&F. It was the only thing I still cared about when I got out of bed on Thursday morning.

A woman claiming to be an investigator from the BOE met me in the parking lot at Camden High, gave me a letter to sign for and told me to go back to Sumner. Not having ever seen her before, I declined on all counts, citing Kerwin's conversation with Mr. McIntosh as reason enough for me to stay. The woman became angry. We argued, and I asked if I was permitted to stay as a spectator, as Hawkins had suggested the previous day. The woman agreed, and I promised to stay off the field and remain in the stands. Thirty or forty minutes passed. I went to the bathroom, and there was a cop waiting for me on the far side of the building. The woman from the board sat on the front of his car. I assumed they knew each other.

Officer Nobles firmly stated the obvious: if I refused to leave, he would arrest me for trespassing.

For a long moment I considered it. To be handcuffed in front of my colleagues would be an honor, after all this, but I feared it would distract my girls and hurt our chances of winning. I told Nobles I'd leave, but my things were with the girls on the bleachers. He agreed to walk with me, retrieve my stuff and see me to my car.

I got hugs from the girls, left them my cooler full of snacks and forced a
Camden police officer to walk me all the way to the parking lot in front of whoever might be watching. I wanted everyone to see this happening. I hope you noticed.

When I pulled away, I called the union and learned I'd been suspended indefinitely for "conduct unbecoming an employee." No further explanation was forthcoming. My girls finished fifth, higher than anyone could have expected - except them, and me. If I traded my career for their victory, it was worth it.

I’m still waiting to hear about the grievances I filed and the rebuttals I wrote to the many disciplinary actions taken against me throughout the course of the year. I wonder if the union knew this was going to happen. Did theyhelp the board set me up? They don’t seem all that interested in helping me now that I’m done for the year, never to return. I really liked my job, too, and I loved my kids. I’ll miss them, and despite my righteous indignation, that still hurts.

I don't expect a response to this, nor do I want your sympathy. I no longer give a damn what anyone thinks. I'm writing because I want you to know what really happened, from my perspective. My truth is this: The Camden Board of Education is a national joke. The rest of the country compares their school systems favorably to ours, as well they should. Certain board members try to scapegoat the state for the district’s many problems, but they refuse to change their ways and take responsibility for the mess this district has become over the past 5-10 years. Embezzled funds, test-score fixing and allegations of administrative abuse and incompetence all point to something. Something is wrong. I hope saying this over and over will encourage some to act differently than they otherwise would. These kids need and deserve our attention, and our respect. It is our job to be on their side. If you don't value them higher than you value yourself, maybe you don't belong in education. Yeah. Seriously. For those of you who continue to fight the good fight, I'm cheering for ya from my couch, hoping this is a paid suspension.


Jack Bier
Cramer School, 2006-2008
Sumner School, 2007-2008

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