On March 13th, 2020 I walked out of my classroom at The Woodstock Academy wondering when I would be back. How many books should I take with me? When would I see my students in person again? Everything was being shut down so rapidly because of COVID and no one knew how long it would take for things to go back to normal. I could not have imagined that the answer would be never. Never would I ever teach Latin again in that room, in that space.
My late husband established the structure, curriculum and tone of the Latin program at The Woodstock Academy when he began his teaching career there in 2000. When he left The Academy in 2008 I took over and continued the program that he set up so it had been a personal labor of joy and pride for our family for the past 20+ years. On May 4th I was removed not only from the Latin program, but also from my position as World Language Chair, via a “courtesy” phone call from my union representative and a letter in an email from administration. If I wanted to return to The Academy, I was informed, then I would have to accept a position as a social studies teacher. No more department chair. No more Latin program. Like so many other things this year, gone in an instant.
I had been on leave from teaching at the time because of my husband’s tragic death so to receive news of yet another loss for our family in this way felt shocking, disheartening and disrespectful. A phone conversation from anyone in administration–an administration that claims to cherish and value its faculty–would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.
The official reason that was given for my removal from the Latin program (no reason for my demotion from chair was ever given) was the fact that the position in the Language Department, as I was aware, was not full-time. The union contract required them to restore me as a full-time faculty member and they chose social studies. But this reasoning of part-time vs. full-time doesn’t quite give a complete and accurate picture of what my position was during my time at The Academy. I agreed, over a decade ago now, to consolidate my six Latin classes into four—which meant teaching classes with over 30 students on some occasions, as well as having students at different levels combined into the same classes—in order to accept the position of World Language Department Chair which was offered to me.
As Latin teacher I grew the program and added three UConn courses; my classes were oftentimes used as marketing tools for the school and the most common feedback I received from administration, staff and the community was how positive my rapport was with my students and their parents and that my program felt like a “supportive family” for them. Therefore, reassigning me to social studies and removing my leadership position would have drastically changed my role at The Academy. I saw no attempt whatsoever, as the contract also required, to restore me to my position prior to my leave.
I am wholly convinced that administration—and quite frankly anyone who has ever interacted with me on a professional or personal level at all— knew full well that I would not have considered coming back for anything less than full-time Latin and the World Language Department Chair position. It is abundantly clear that they had already moved on from me when they half-heartedly offered me a Social Studies position. I’m not naive or ignorant— I’ve been in education for far too long not to understand that budgets need to be balanced, staffing decisions need to be made and contracts need to be followed. Everyone is easily replaceable. And hiring younger, less experienced faculty members saves money and makes it much easier to balance budgets. But the poor and transparent excuses for my removal from the Latin program feel punitive for taking a leave in the midst of a devastating personal tragedy. It’s a shame that a teacher with a proven record of long-standing dedication, service and leadership couldn’t have been treated on a personal level with more respect or dignity. And so I officially declined the offer to teach social studies and resigned my position as faculty member at The Woodstock Academy.
Unfortunately this gap between faculty and administration is not unique to my former place of employment. Alan and I talked about this nearly every day before he died. All school administrators say what a noble profession teaching is and that their teachers and staff are the best and most dedicated. But the public praise and lip service appear hypocritical because at the same time these teachers are stressed out, sick, and overworked.; the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the rift that has always existed between leadership and faculty. It makes me sad to see the haggard looks on my former colleagues’ and other friends’ faces who teach elsewhere when I’ve spoken to them about going to work under such difficult conditions. It’s pretty clear that surveys and data which are routinely collected are never taken seriously or turned into real change for the better as far as morale and working conditions are concerned.
And so what now, for me? What now? I’ve learned in the past year that tragedy, loss, and change, can be catalysts for something bigger and better. I keep thinking about my dear friend Naveen’s beautiful words which he composed about “ruins in motion:”
Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.
As I read Naveen’s provocation I kept thinking about Vergil’s Aeneid (once a Latin teacher, always a Latin teacher) the theme of which is that something bigger and better has the chance to emerge from ruins and tragedy. Vergil’s message not only applies to the ruins from which the grandeur of Rome came about, but also to the circumstances under which human life and fate operate. Something bigger and grander and stronger has the potential to emerge out of the devastating tragedies that befall us in life. We can’t control awful experiences that happen to us, but we can control how we deal with the aftermath., with the ruins. A “creative ruination.”
Stay tuned for bigger and better things from me….