He was the worst classroom troublemaker that veteran substitute teacher Alice Gess says she had ever dealt with. She was herding the third-graders into lines for lunch, when the boy began acting up again. Moving behind him, Gess says, she put her hand on the boy’s shoulder.
This simple act ended her 40-year teaching career and set off a five-year battle with the Seattle School District, as Gess has struggled to clear her record of the student’s allegation that she shoved him. A licensed teacher in five states, Gess hasn’t worked since the incident, filling her time by taking education classes and collecting children’s books. “It’s been a very hard five years,” she says.
Disciplinary actions like those taken against Gess resound with other substitutes, says Jennifer Hall, president of Substitutes of Seattle, the substitutes’ organization within the local teachers’ union. “It’s deemed OK in school cultures to scapegoat substitutes.” Even in cases where charges against a teacher are not proven, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for a substitute to remove a damning accusation from her employment records.
In the Gess case, a number of factors exacerbated the original incident. When she reached for the boy, he moved away from her, striking a wall. He then ran out of the classroom to the principal’s office, claiming Gess had pushed him into the wall. Gess gave her side of the story to the principal, and continued to work as a substitute teacher for another two months.
Then Gess was summoned to meet with Ava Greene Davenport, a human resources administrator. Because of the delay in processing the case, teachers’ union officials were confident it would result in no more than a verbal reprimand. But, according to Gess, Davenport was rude and hostile from the start.
“Her first words were ‘Whom did you touch today?'” Gess recalls. “I found that very offensive, so I answered her back, and she didn’t like that.”
While Seattle School District policy prevents administrators from directly discussing personnel matters, district documents obtained by Gess show Davenport had an equally unflattering impression of the substitute teacher. “Ms. Davenport said that Ms. Gess was neither apologetic nor contrite,” states one district memorandum. Similar comments were contained in the letter of termination Gess received from the School District on May 27, 1994, a little more than three months after the original incident.
“All employees are entitled to and receive due process,” says district spokesperson Lynn Steinberg. “In every case there’s a thorough investigation.” In the Gess case, however, district documents confirm that the teacher herself was never interviewed by the district investigator. Instead, five students and the school principal were contacted. What’s more, the investigator admitted that she took no notes during those interviews.
However, Gess and her attorney missed the deadline to file a grievance with the district, ending the official process there and sending the matter to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. While the case was in the state’s hands, Gess and her husband, Jerry, were energetically pursuing other legal options. Energetically enough so that the School District backed down—or so they thought. On June 14, 1996, Gess signed a settlement agreement, in which she agreed to retire as a senior substitute teacher and the district agreed to expunge the incident from district files if she was “absolved of wrongdoing” by the state. A month later, the state dismissed the case against Gess, saying that the original charges, even if true, “appear to warrant only a reprimand.”
“We thought we had won and we didn’t,” says Jerry Gess. When he asked to inspect his wife’s personnel file to make sure the district had lived up to its side of the bargain, he discovered a letter had been added, referring all requests for an employment reference to the director of human resources. In the couple’s opinion, this was a technique to “flag” Gess’ file, indicating to other districts that she was a problem teacher. “When you see that in the front of the file, you know there’s something wrong,” says Gess.
Bill Ewing, a former Substitutes of Seattle president, agrees that the district has a record of manipulating the personnel files of substitute teachers in a punitive manner. “They even do it sometimes when there’s a grievance and you’re exonerated—they leave a reference to it in your file,” he notes. “In her case, it was kind of an innocent letter, but it had an innuendo that there was something amiss.”
The district argued that they were not prohibited from flagging Gess’ file, as the charges against her had simply been dropped, and she had not been “absolved,” as required in the settlement agreement.
“It’s Franz Kafka updated,” says Gess’ husband, Jerry.
Only a handful of Seattle substitutes are dismissed annually, says district spokesperson Steinberg, who estimates the number at perhaps three per year. The district has 514 certified teachers in its substitute pool, filling the gaps in a system that employs some 3,000 full-time teachers.
Seattle substitutes have seen conditions improve somewhat in the past few decades. The pay has been raised to $107 per day (about average as compared to surrounding districts), and a senior substitute designation has been created for subs who have spent more than five years in the district. However, only those substitutes under contract receive health benefits; per diem subs don’t.
Substitutes are also an important source of permanent teachers. About a third of the district’s new full-time teachers have served time in the substitute pool and many other Seattle substitutes leave to take positions in other school systems.
Substitutes of Seattle president Hall thinks circumstances favor a new attitude toward substitute teachers. Temporary workers in other businesses, most notably the software industry, have rebelled against their second-class status. Local school districts already have to scramble to get enough substitutes on a daily basis, and a teacher shortage is looming as salaries on the K-12 level remain low.
In some other districts, treatment of substitutes has improved, says Hall, who formerly worked in the Highline Public Schools. She specifically likes a Boston program that assigns substitutes annually to a cluster of three schools, so they become at least a semi-regular presence and can form relationships with students and fellow teachers. The district’s Jones says this proposal and a similar one assigning substitutes to specific schools are being studied.
But the issue of disciplinary action remains a headache for Hall. She cites a recent case where a teacher’s complaint about a substitute got lost in a pile of papers on a principal’s desk. Even though the complaint was a minor one, and several months had passed, the principal still forwarded the complaint to district administration. What irks her, she notes, “is the fact that people feel justified in doing that to people, when they know it can ruin their chances for a career in education.”
She says principals generally don’t bother completing evaluations for substitutes who do a good job, thereby robbing them of positive documentation when seeking full-time teaching jobs. “The only time people do the evaluations is when they want to see a sub sacked,” she says.