I went to a retirement party for a former teaching colleague of mine this week. There were lots of other teacher colleagues there to wish him well. He’s had a long, successful career: a gifted English teacher, especially inspiring to students as a teacher of creative writing, a published poet, an award winning translator, a Guggenheim Fellow. Not to mention his special brand of humor, his integrity, his sweetness and a warm heart. As the school year wound down, he was justly celebrated with an invitation to speak at the Cum Laude Society’s induction ceremony, with a standing ovation from students and faculty at a closing day assembly, with another standing ovation from faculty at a closing luncheon, and, of course, myriad private best wishes. And yet I grieve. There was an air of defiance in the celebration.
I grieve because this man was forced out of his job. With the party over, he will have to contend with the loneliness of being on the outside. Jealousy, vindictive backstabbing, insecure leadership, ageism, institutional callousness, mendacity; all played a part in his undoing. Not the first time petty politics at a private school have brought someone down. To be sure, there were those who acted in his defense, often bravely. But ultimately the institution prevailed. An institution with no long term memory or respect for the gifts a teacher bestowed upon it over the course of many years. An institution blind to how it might make the best of what this man has to offer. Teachers, not only, but especially at this school, are treated with the dignity of light bulbs, hallway carpet, or office furniture. Replaced if they are deemed to be too worn, burnt out, or out of fashion.
Which brings me back to the farewell party. There was lots of talk about what a shame it was my friend was leaving, how unfair, how wrong. The gathered flock was unnerved. And yet, at the same party, I discovered (unfortunately not to my surprise) that there is difficulty filling an open position as a faculty representative. Faculty representatives are elected by peers to negotiate with the administration, in part to develop and secure the practices and procedures that ought to have helped protect my friend. Unless, of course, administrators feel entitled to circumvent said practices and procedures, even though they are set forth in a faculty manual. By far, the most important role of the faculty reps is to serve as an ongoing reminder of the respect good teaching and good teachers demand.
The position pays nothing, requires time and energy, and above all means speaking truth to power. And yet, such representation is the only means to help brake administrative fiat. The representatives are the institutional means by which the faculty communicates with the Board of Trustees. The torch needs to be carried. Even when carried by a brave few, it does not ensure that people such as my good friend will not be abused. If someone does not step up to help defend what is right, this year’s partygoers can surely count on one thing. There will be another party next year and more in the years to follow, each with a new guest of honor. Sometime, teachers will stop pretending these parties are celebrations of a job well done and understand them for what they are, a wake for professional dignity.