The Curtain Rises
“If there is no fight, there is no change.”
Every staff member received a shirt with this quote printed on the back at J. Austen High School one year before the circus rolled into town. This quote eerily reflects my disturbing tale. The nerve-racking episodes I experienced set the stage for a real change and a fight forthcoming. Not the change I expected, but one that burned the brand of ‘disability’ on me. I need to be upfront and officially state that this story you will read literally happened, but, because of legal repercussions, I’ve had to alter every name and location of this story... but these events happened.
One can find the Jane Austen High School in Puzzle City, Michigan, home of the Knights! Just the sheer name of the school after the author, Jane Austen, is so ironic since she wrote magnificent works, and yet I would experience the very thing she tried to educate people about. If you weren’t aware, she was the famous author of books such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Sadly, many of the so-called leaders of our school hadn’t assimilated the whole message behind the classic literature.
I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Technically the condition is viewed as highly functional autism. The actual usage of the name is gradually being dropped and shoved under the full autism umbrella, but we’re different from a person who is ‘low functioning autistic’. A person with Asperger’s has underdeveloped social skills and communication abilities. Some of us may have touch issues, disorganized thought processes or visual-spatial organizations, meaning we have trouble visually putting things into place. Because of our lack of communication skills, we’ll be loners or be unwilling to take part in social functions. These are the obstacles I have every single day, whether I’m at work or home, it’s a constant battle for control of me being able to function like any other normal human being.
I had to remind myself that I am blessed. Those words are a simple reminder that God is in control. I’m writing this book for two reasons: awareness and forgiveness. As our disorder of Asperger’s Syndrome is gaining momentum in the public eye. One very glaring underlying issue with the Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD which spreads throughout the workplace is what I call the Silent Discrimination. We’ve turned into a society where we yearn for equality and equitability with all races, sexual orientation, and gender in the job force. Yet, I’ve been a witness to a growing number of us who have this disorder and are having serious conflicts with employers. There is a huge divide between those of us with ASD just trying to do our jobs and the bosses who belittle those employees’ efforts.
Just as anyone else, we want to live life, enjoy our time on this planet, work hard for our share, and make an impact. We truly commit ourselves to the job they gave us, but our ‘awkwardness’ draws negative attention. Thus, we display our tasks like we’re not able to complete our duties in the eyes of our managers. Stuck in these uncomfortable conditions can make our workplaces appear as though it were a three-ring circus with us as the main event. The only way to break the Silent Discrimination of people with ASD requires education, understanding, and acceptance.
Since we have exposed a new revelation of the district’s misconduct, I can now tell everyone the whole story of what happened to me and the Puzzle City Schools. We originally had an agreement where I withheld the harsh discriminatory information to myself in privacy. The school district pays me a specific sum of money and produces a neutral reference to any future employers who contact them referring to my preceding work experience. I discovered they fractured that agreement, so here’s my story of how daunting it can be as an educator with Asperger’s and the severe abuse I took from that district.
My wonderful wife and I were employed by The Puzzle City School District to which we served for several years. We were both proud to educate the students in the inner-city school system. Gaby embraced the initial excitement of teaching within the urban core. Sadly, Gaby had her own misfortune because of an injury and thus settled on a release from the district. I recognize this created a mixed sentiment in reflecting on her dream job and the tragedy that fell on her.
Allow me to start with the proper setting for the beginning of the greatest show on earth. I began teaching for the Puzzle City Schools in August 1996. Since that time, I moved around to a few of the different schools before I ended up at Jane Austen High School (or JAHS) in 2005. During that year, the school moved through absolute chaos because the district had decided to close Green High School and combine their students with those of J. Austen.
That infamous decision led to the changing of principals three times in one school year, a huge increase in security, and lots of false alarm calls that cost the district thousands of dollars. I taught middle school social studies because superintendent Dr. J. Dollar put 7th- and 8th-grade students in with high school students. When I entered the building for the first time, I recognized there were two things I needed urgently: to rejoin the union — AFT (American Federation of Teachers), and to put into place by the American Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations.
As for the workplace ADA accommodations, the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome became official back in the summer of 1999, so my wife told me I needed to go into Human Resources and fill out a job-accommodation questionnaire. After Gaby and I filled out the form and gave it back, HR reviewed the information, approved it, placed it in my file, and then informed the school administration of my needs so I could do my job properly and without bias. Sadly, the person in charge of my accommodations never got it past the review part of the refining. My accommodations remained a secret from Human Resources until it was far too late.
These were my agreed-upon accommodations:
• Remove or reduce distractions from my classroom.
• Supply proper working equipment and office supplies.
• Give specific feedback to help employee (myself) target areas of improvement. (This is possible with my disability.)
• Prepare written instructions or general information. This includes a written transcription of meeting notes or use a recording device.
• Prompt me with verbal cues.
• Allow increasing training time for new tasks. (if I consider it’s needed)
• Pinpoint areas of improvement for the employee in a fair and consistent manner.
• Give adequate notice of any changes in the regular workday or any meetings. (This included any person wanting to enter the classroom for any reason because this ties into the first accommodation.)
My first year in J. Austen High was one I wanted to forget because that was the year of the great Green/JAHS high school merging that turned our school into a huge flea circus. That was one of the craziest school years I had ever experienced. When I first started, they placed me with high school students and I was pretty excited because this was the first time I would get to teach a new subject to students. To my irritation, they moved me to middle school because I lacked a high school license to teach social studies, and I tried to plead my case that we were already halfway through the school year. Suddenly, I got stuck teaching 7th and 8th graders and I hated it. The behavior got so bad that I got some disturbing news on April 11th of 2007. The third and last principal that year sent me an email with a warning:
The librarian shared with me that students reported you as a target of the teacher “jump day.” As a result, I have asked the officer to come to speak with you personally.
He will share the following with you: If you have been threatened and/or uncomfortable, I am happy to relieve you of your duties today and you can work in the main office. Please give me notice if this course of action is your wish.
In the meantime, I have then alerted the PCPD and the Central Office Administration. I have likewise directed the security team to be in your vicinity during passing periods. We then have an increasing hallway presence on every floor.
I need you to alert me if there is anything more I can do.
(Principal from 2006 to 2007 school year)
Yes, I took the principal up on his offer. I was already becoming a nervous wreck, and this plight did not help. After the threat, I suspect that was when my doctor permanently pulled me from the classroom for the rest of the year because I was seriously being overtaxed on my mental state. The stress was so rough, my left Trapezius muscle would tighten up, and I had to have physical therapy to loosen the muscle. This didn’t happen just once... it happened at the end of my last year as well — yes, the condition was that stressful! This was the point where I became angry with the AFT because I received no help or advice that the school year from my union.
During the second year, there were several changes where the district removed many of the students from the building, and we now had a strong core of teachers and a brand-new set of administrators. The new principal was Dr. E. Strongman, and I still have the greatest respect for his vision and leadership. Thus, the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years were major turnarounds for J. Austen High. I can say this about the Puzzle School District: when something is going absolutely well, upper leadership will ultimately tear it apart.
Tearing down concepts that help any school always seems to be a pattern they follow to the letter. I will illustrate the entire series of deliberate mismanagement of the district and why I ultimately became a target just by questioning their motives. To give you a good idea of what I’m referring to, a great example would be a time when the school had a special program set up between the University of Michigan-Puzzle City (UMPC) and the W. William’s foundation, where students took classes with state colleges or had teachers within the high school teaching courses for college credit.
One day, out of the blue, the Puzzle City school district decided the program was a waste of money, stopped the funding and abruptly ceased the whole program before the end of the school year. The sad part was that I was one of those teachers who got chosen to take college classes to teach college courses for UMPC. I was a volunteer college professor where I didn’t receive a salary from the university, but I was still a representative. My title was to be an adjunct professor. (I still receive ROBO calls from the university on different emergency alerts on campus... weird.) This was a moment that started making me question our leadership for the district, the inquiry that finally got me sunk. Since they destroyed the program, a few administrators left because of the debacle.
We were on the verge of rolling into my final year with Puzzle City Public Schools, 2009-2010. Call this an omen, but an accident that was about to happen to me. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it’s true. Before school started, they usually gave teachers preparation time to get their classrooms ready. On the first Monday back, I was an idiot and stood on top of a student desk to fix a blind. I stuck out a coat hanger to adjust the blind when suddenly the desk started to wobble. I sensed the desk give away, and I lost my balance. As the desk tipped over, I fell on the back of a nearby chair and broke two of my ribs. If you’ve never had the experience of breaking your ribs, then let me just say, one: never let it happen to you, and two: it will hurt to breathe — a lot.
Once school started, I still had trouble breathing because of my injury, and to make things worse, I received news that wasn’t very pleasant. The students tested horrible last year on the End Of Course exams. Their scores were so atrocious that our school placed last on the American Government part of the state test compared to the other Puzzle City schools. In complete fairness, the year before was the first time I’d ever taught American Government, and I never got the training to help these students be successful for the test.
With this last place showing, I had the pleasure of getting bombarded from literally every single administrator and my Social Studies coordinator in the first week of class! I’m sure the first question here would be ‘Did they just violate one of my accommodations?’ and the answer is yes. The visits weren’t rough, however; my leaders wanted to make sure we got off to a better start than we did last year. This leads to the question of ‘where were you last year?!’ After the ‘visits’, I was still not getting the help I needed from the AFT union, so on August 31 of that year, I changed unions. I needed a union that was not afraid of the PC school district and would annoy any administrator who chose not to treat me properly.
The National Education Association (NEA) was not the negotiating union with the school district, but I still had a right to have them as my representation. It was a good thing I made the change, because after my visit from the administrators, on September 4th, Vice-Principal Ms. S. Puppet wanted to put me on a Professional Growth Plan (PGP). For those of you who are not privy to what a PGP is, it’s basically the beginning stages of trying to get you fired. The proper statement is that they use a PGP to help aid a teacher in developing proper guidance to help them educate students. Now mind you, we’re not speaking of a self-designed program; it’s more to the effect of a Professional Gotcha’ Plan. If you don’t believe me, let me quote how the district describes what is to happen with a PGP:
“The performance improvement process should begin before they implement a PGP through informal observations, conferences, individual development strategies, and coaching conversations. A professional growth plan should not come as a surprise to the educators involved.”
The irony is that they used this program to help struggling new teachers, and this was my 18th year of teaching. Yes, it did “come as a surprise.” The PGP just added to the stress level and didn’t focus on the real problem: a lack of parental involvement when student state scores were low. I signed the plan off on September 20th, 2009, just over a month after school started that year. I absolutely didn’t want to sign the PGP, but my union told me I didn’t have a choice. So, in the preceding days of September 30th, October 1st and October 9th, I received observations in my classes with no ‘adequate notice’. This PGP was doing a good job of frustrating me because I needed to focus on the students. Instead, I was constantly looking out for Ms. Puppet.
At the end of the first quarter, my union rep and I sat down with my principal Dr. Strongman and the VP Ms. Puppet. During the meeting, the administrators thought I was doing well. They left me wondering who gave the order to put me on this PGP if my principal figured I was doing my job. My union rep met with my principal privately to inform him about the possibility of my moving to a different school if it came to it, but Dr. Strongman sounded as though that shouldn’t be necessary. I had a PGP review on October 29th and my vice-principal stated, “Since they put the initial PGP into place, I have been into Mr. Bell’s room again and again with the last visit being October 21, 2009.”
I was so exhausted from the mountain of observations I didn’t even record the Oct. 21 visit in my personal journal. Even though my review progressed well, the vice-principal stated something toward the end of the review that undoubtedly made me mad. Here is what she said, “Overall there has been marked improvement with Mr. Bell’s classroom observations. I see continual monitoring through the end of the school year will make sure these improvements continue...” I still remember “through the end of the school year” just burning into my skull! I suffered like a rotten dog looped up on a choke leash and a cone wrapped around my neck… are you kidding me?!!!
The month of November was quiet. I received a visit on November 16th from the principal, a vice-principal, handful representatives from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the head of Secondary Education for the district Mr. K. Tamer. I learned they were in the building that day, but I didn’t realize that they were coming to my room. Mr. Tamer and his team took a moment to look around the room and thanked me when they left. I literally had to stop because no teaching happened with the unwanted commotion. The visit unnerved the students. I realized these visits were taking their toll. The best way to describe how I comprehended things when I had a visitor was like this: You’re watching your favorite show live and suddenly someone calls for you in the next room and you end up missing the most important part of the show.
One would consider December to be a month full of good tidings and great joy. Sadly, this didn’t happen. I learned that a fellow teacher friend of both my wife and I was forced to leave at the end of the semester. I had a feeling the administration would finally get to my friend. He had been teaching for a great extent of time and he earned a doctorate in his field of teaching, but that didn’t save him.
My vice-principal did one last observation for the year on Dec. 18th. They labeled the official visit as ‘formal’, but just like with several before this, this was informal and unannounced. I mean surely why change it up now? The comments on the visit were lukewarm. The vice-principal had checked most of the areas of my instruction as ‘developing’. The only section I received a ‘needs improvement’ was for classroom management. The vice principal’s idea of “management” was “integrating rigorous instruction and engaging activities” so the problem was two-fold. I restrained from locking my door and the hall outside my door was constantly being disrupted by several students in the hallway! And remember, any teacher’s union will tell you ‘never touch a student or block the door’; I understand the safety behind the warnings, but this made the ‘management’ even more difficult.
To put the cherry on top, in the same month, Dr. Strongman had pulled me aside on the last day before Christmas break to tell me that none of my Government students who took the End Of Course exams just before the end of the semester, scored in the Proficient section and roughly half of them were Basic or Below Basic which to say the news was considerably frustrating didn’t say it enough. If you thought the first half of this school year was interesting and infuriating, just wait until you read what happens in the second half. I recognize you’ll wonder how the hell did I ever even keep my sanity together. Merry Christmas!
We ushered in 2010 and we had a hard time getting school started because of snow days. The circus tent was rising up and the show was about to begin. They left me relatively alone for the first couple of weeks in January, but the real fun was just about to begin.
The infamous week started on January 18th when we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I remember the incredible irony that here we were remembering what Martin Luther King did for the equal rights of every race of people, and here I was on the threshold of having to defend myself from the prejudices of my own Autistic condition. I began to understand how difficult it must have been for Dr. King to cry out for equality when most people were not willing to listen.
On Tuesday the 19th, I met with my Social Study Coordinator, Ms. A. Juggler to help rewrite the mock EOC test. I will further explain what I mean. The district wanted to get an idea of how students might do on the actual EOC test. As a gauge, they gave a mock state test in every school subject. When I gave the test, every student in my class failed and I recognized why. When I looked at the test, I noticed several issues with missing answers to questions, answers that didn’t fit the question, and answers with no question. Since my coordinator used to teach in the same building and we had a mutual understanding of one another, she wanted me to report to the education center and help rewrite the test so we might get a more authentic score. Sadly, this information did not get back to the top brass before my big meeting the next day.
The date that changed everything was Wednesday, January 20th. Here was the email I received dated January 19th:
Just a reminder, you will meet with me to discuss your data tomorrow morning. We will be joined in the Conference Room next to my office, by (Instructional Coach), Dr. S. Ringmaster, and 3 others from the BOE (Board of Education). Be prepared to speak to your data and discuss your plan to drive student achievement. You need to take along any data to help discuss our plan for success.
If you are unsure, the Puzzle City District-Wide Strategies are: Increasing Student Engagement, Increasing the Effectiveness of Data Teams, and Implementing a Literacy Plan (consider your use of close reading strategies, note-taking & summarizing, inference and drawing conclusions as they pertain to your subject- and remember, WE ARE ALL READING TEACHERS.)
Don’t be nervous. If you are, just try to focus on having a conversation with me. During the data consults last week, everyone seemed to have a plan to move forward — we just need to move forward with the plan.
Dr. E. Strongman
I perceived this meeting would take place. I didn’t get a lot of details, but I learned that the superintendent was sending groups around different schools. Their job was to find out why the district was having a hard time getting better scores in order to meet one requirement from the State Board of Education for accreditation. For a short time, the Puzzle City School District had their school accreditation removed by the State of Michigan because of several issues the district had, including test scores.
I realized that my Social Studies coordinator, Ms. Juggler was one person chosen to lead one group. The reason I say this about Ms. Juggler is to show that they made up her group with different people from the central office. I recognized that Dr. Ringmaster and his band of circus performers preferred not to have been in her group. So, I promise you, I honestly wished her group had come to my school because I had no doubt my whole incident would have had a completely different result.
I had received the email earlier that morning, with the tagline “Data Meeting”, and they scheduled it for 10:00 that morning. I was teaching a class when I got the call to make the long walk to the office, so I had a substitute come to relieve me. As I made the journey, I tried to remember helpful ideas I wanted to say to the team and what Dr. Strongman had instructed me to say. He instructed me to have him present most of the discussion and just answer any of the team’s questions. The data team would want to hear how we were using reading in our classes and anything ‘Marzano’.
Before I continue, I must explain ‘Marzano’. Robert Marzano is an education researcher and developer of the method of teaching that several school districts have adopted. Marzano has a few good tips for teachers but, for complete intents and purposes, he just took old teaching method terms and renamed them to make it his own ‘educational philosophy’ and program.
As I arrived at the conference room, I prayed a small prayer, not knowing what to expect on the other side. I mean, since I never received my pre-set questions or at least an agenda for the meeting, I found myself at a severe disadvantage.
The spotlights got completely set, and the show was ready to begin. I entered the conference arena and faced the whole cast of characters sitting there trying to look important. Dr. E. Strongman showed me to my seat and the main event began. Each person introduced themselves. I presumed they started to my left with Dr. Strongman. After him was Mr. T. Tightrope, who was in charge of technology for the whole district, then it was Mr. K. Tamer who was head of secondary education. Dr. S. Ringmaster sat straight across from me, which virtually appeared as one of those wild west showdowns.
Then continuing was Dr. E. Fire-Eater who was the head of elementary and secondary education, followed by Ms. T. Audience who was the director of student support and neighborhood service. Finally, there was Ms. V. Acrobat who was the district’s chief academic and accountability officer. Dr. Strongman opens the discussion by explaining how I was using reading within my class to help improve test scores. He said that since this was only my second year teaching upper-level students, I was still trying to figure out what method was the right tool to use to help students succeed. The committee acknowledged that my test scores had improved, but the discussion traveled south in a hurry.
Mr. Tamer mentioned several times that my American government students were testing 93% below basic. I tried to advise the committee that the tests had several flaws and were not a proper measure of our student’s knowledge. Dr. Fire-Eater had a twist in her perspective regarding my classes, and she said, with a high cackling sound, “What you have, Mr. Bell, is a five-alarm fire in your room!”
Her ‘educational observation’ threw me back. I tried to remind them that my Social Studies coordinator and I had been trying to fix the defective mock EOC test. If the almighty central office members had mentioned the poor American government test scores, I honestly don’t recall. I was fed up with their nonsense. They weren’t listening to a single word Dr. Strongman or I had to say.
I then remembered two things I needed to say to them. When the moment finally came, I asked Dr. Ringmaster about the laptop program, which was that every student would receive a laptop computer, but the mentioned of the failed program drew a very sharp look directly at the head of technology. I instantly could tell that I had just stepped on a raw nerve. The tech guy, Mr. Tightrope, told me that there was a slight delay, but they hoped to have something in place soon. I called this the best correct response you might give because Dr. Ringmaster had been hoping for the last couple of years that every student would have those said laptops.
My last comment was for Dr. Ringmaster alone. I had been so frustrated by all my government classes because my students were not using the tools I gave them. I gave them note cards to help them understand what the question on the EOC was asking of them. I recognized that if they can understand the terms used on the test, then they should have a much higher chance of selecting the correct answer. My frustration was when students had their note cards to review, they elected not to review them. I remember calling the parents of all my students and begging them to please remind their child to look at the note cards. Still no improvement. I asked them every single day I saw them. Nothing. This was the result I kept getting — nothing.
So, with that little backstory in mind, I looked at Dr. Ringmaster square in the face and told him: “The biggest issue we as teachers are having is that school isn’t going home.”
Dr. Ringmaster nodded, responded with a very simple thank you, and that was the end of the meeting. To say they upset me was light-years from the truth; it made me furious. Whether my showdown with the superintendent was brave or foolhardy, I will leave to the court of public opinion. I’m a teacher, I relate with my students, so to sit in that joke of a discussion and have them being ridiculed for playing around, not being focused or prepared, wasn’t fair. In my mind, I never considered I might have just jeopardized my educational career in that meeting; I saw that I finally got the chance to articulate my opinions to people that could make a real change if they wanted to see improvements. I’ll consider it safe to say improvements is one thing that leadership didn’t care much about, because rumors had been swirling that the state of Michigan was seriously considering taking over the school district, so ‘higher-up’ jobs might have been on the line. Whatever the reason, the leadership didn’t seem to care about anything about the staff or the students.
The last part of January and the entire month of February sounded relatively quiet. As a parent, if there is one thing I’ve learned with kids, it’s that if your house suddenly goes quiet it means that, whatever the children got into never ends well. The same applied to my workplace. When all was quiet, it meant that trouble was brewing. The Puzzle City School District, as I learned later, was prepping for a true downright nasty plot, planning out my future demise with them, but I was not privy of their plan. The only thing that happened between the end of January and the beginning of March was that I received a peculiar visit from an odd fellow. I was progressing through my business by introducing the lesson to the students. The students were ready for the World War I lesson since their knowledge on this topic was limited. I was just as excited because this was a war that was losing its importance in our American History.
The environment outside was crisp since we were talking wintertime in Michigan; at least the rooms were still warm. But that morning, my classroom door flew open, introducing the breeze of cooler air from the hallway. I was on the receiving end of a visit from a very unusual gentleman who had pranced in. I gazed at him with a look of complete bewilderment on my face. The man was bald with thick black square-rimmed glasses, sporting a suit, and a heavy black suit coat. The eccentric man had a scent of expensive cologne, but I suddenly had a sickening sensation in my stomach that he wasn’t here for myself or the students’ gain. He hovered around the room, looking like an apparition.
Right behind the floating entity was his handler in the form of my Instructional Coach, but the weird part was I had no knowledge I’d be receiving a visit, and in what undoubtedly showed to be considerably unprofessional, the coach didn’t even introduce me to the mysterious man! As he loomed around my class, my students and me, he created a series of perplexing looks. I quickly scanned the room to see how my kids were handling this disruption of their learning time, and my students’ looks were the same as mine: irritation, disrespect, and a complete buzzkill. When the man finally floated out like Mary Poppins, a genuinely aggravated student piped up a question I had earlier formed in my head. “Hey, Mr. Bell. Who the hell was that?” I just shrugged my shoulders and responded with, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Later, I learned that the person was Mr. A. Big-Top who was the Chief Financial Officer. Mr. Big-Top was the Number Two person in the district. I’m not entirely sure why he was compelled to visit or why my coach neglected to even introduce the man to me but, I suspected that the first shot was just fired.