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  • Issue #12: An Interview With a Teacher Who Got Fired

Issue #12: An Interview With a Teacher Who Got Fired

She spoke up, she became unemployed

Amy Harris, M. Ed.

Amy, excited to have her own classroom. Cred.: Amy Harris

Do you want me to remove any names, keep it confidential? 

I don't care. I didn't sign anything. They can read this, it doesn’t bother me. It’s the same way I feel when I walk into a room with people that have shit on me. I'm not going to act weird because I didn't do anything wrong.

I like Amy for a lot of reasons. She will tell you she has ADHD and autism within the first few minutes of meeting her. She stated as much to me a few years ago, when she showed up in my classroom to discuss transition skills with my high school special needs students. She was out of the classroom by then, fired, although I didn’t know it. She was working for an agency that sends people into schools to discuss advocacy, getting a job, and how to live independently.

Often, her presentations were peppered with anecdotes from her real life. I remember thinking as I watched her, Who is this little (she’s 4’9.5) ball of fire talking to my students so openly and honestly about living with a disability?

Whether it’s the autism that keeps her honest or it’s just the way she’s wired, whatever it is, she leads with transparency. Unfortunately, her school district had a problem with it.

So, to name those names, the place Amy worked was William Chrisman High School, located in Independence, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City. She started as a para in the district in 2015, began her teaching degree, and got her own classroom in 2018, at the age of 42, teaching special education.

Prior to teaching, Amy worked at T-Mobile for 10 years, in middle management. They started to close call centers and offered her a buyout. She was in the middle of separating from her husband who had moved away, leaving her to care for their two young children alone. She was overworked at T-Mobile and happy to take the buyout. She decided to get a college degree, even though she had always been told she was “just too dumb” due to her disabilities.

What was it like, finally getting your own classroom?

I loved it. Like, I loved every single day I went to work. I got to write my own curriculum, which was nice. Because in our world, our curriculum is a lot different than regular curriculum. I was able to start changing things, too. We had a coffee shop, but it was only for, like, the top three performers. So, I gutted that whole program and made it for all of the life skills and functional skills students. And I loved it. Like, I absolutely loved it. I loved my families, too. I never had problems with them or my kids.

How were your evaluations?

Perfect. Glowing.

Amy’s evaluation. Cred: Amy Harris

So, from where you are standing, everything is going great. When did you feel like you got on your admin’s radar in a bad way?

So, that would have been my second year. We are in the spring, right before COVID hit. I had one situation that got the attention of the superintendent, but I didn't get in trouble.

We had this thing called the Bear Cave. It was basically a baseball coach in this big room. Instead of hiring subs, if a teacher was gone, students would go to the Bear Cave for the day. It’d be one adult and 4-5 full regular education classrooms.

I had a big problem with this, picturing my students, sitting down in a basement all day, not receiving their services. If we've decided as a multidisciplinary team that these kids cannot be educated with their non-disabled peers for more than, what, 10% of the day, can we legally send them into a room with 50 or more kids and expect them to be okay? I didn’t like it.

Could you arrange for your own sub to come in? Did your kids have to go to the Bear Cave?

Right, I tried to get one to come in. I told my building, more than a week in advance that I have to go to court for a custody hearing for my kids. Here are three names of subs who can come in. I was told that it was handled and they would have my class covered.

Then, the day before my hearing, I was told that they just couldn’t find someone to cover my class. I had a feeling they were lying, so I checked with the names I had given my building. Not one of them was called.

And you couldn’t schedule the sub yourself? It had to go through your building?

Correct.

So, what did you do? This must have been stressful, all while dealing with the custody issue.

It was terrible. So, what happened was, I had run this issue past my special education law professor, earlier in the year. And she was like, absolutely not. It's not safe. It's not legal.

So, I emailed my process coordinator, my head principal, and the special services director. I told them what my professor had said and told them that it was not legal.

The next thing I know, I am getting pulled off a school bus while on a field trip in the middle of a parking lot. My assistant principal had shown up to tell me that my email had gone all the way to the top. I'm like, Okay, so then do I have a sub? That’s all I cared about. Later I learned that I had rubbed them the wrong way, at my hearing.

So, there was no formal discussion after, no note in your file?

No. It was so bizarre, it was just this conversation on the school bus. My AP said my message made it to Herl (the superintendent). She told me I needed to keep my communication in-house. I wasn’t the one who sent it to the superintendent, so I am not sure why she felt the need to leave her building, drive her car all of the way to my field trip, only to tell me not to do something I didn’t do.

How did the school year wind down after that?

Fine. I mean, it was COVID. But I left on good terms with a positive evaluation. I wound up having issues that summer, teaching summer school in another building. I was teaching P.E., they were cramming a bunch of classes in one gym together. It was not safe. I would see our superintendent in the halls, not wearing a mask. This is peak COVID, mind you. We had just been allowed to come back in person for the first time. I also had a friend in central office who would tell me, Amy, no one in that office was wearing a mask, it’s awful.

I have lupus, I am so stressed about getting COVID. I made a comment on one of the secretary’s Facebook pages about our CO not masking. It was stupid, I knew she was friends with Herl, but I was so frustrated. I am sure he saw it.

So, it sounds like you were carrying a lot of stress, going into your third year.

I absolutely was. Looking back, I was in a really bad mental state. My custody agreement was finalized that summer and I was granted full custody. But it was really painful, really difficult. And expensive. My divorce took seven years and cost me $100,000.

Then, I am in this work environment and I couldn't control anything. I just felt so scared for everybody. And I was so frustrated about everything that I was seeing . . . the lackadaisicalness of it all.

I just knew, when I started that year, I shouldn't have come back. But I didn't know what else to do at that point.

I also had a student die that summer. I had twins in my classroom and one passed away in August, right before school started. The district wouldn’t even send a grief counselor in to talk to my class. The twin, her sister, is still in my class. And, they wouldn't even bring in grief counselors. They just wanted us to not acknowledge it because they were life skills kids. I'm like, These kids are verbal. They're going to know their friend is gone. And so, I had to sit with that too.

It was a lot, all of it, coming to a head for me that year.

So, you are back in the fall of 2020 for your third year. What happens?

Well, I think I had been labeled as a difficult personality, so I should have just kept my head down. But, we have a PD day and I am asked by my AP to attend a session on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion).

Why are you asked to attend?

She thought it would be a good idea to put me in the DEI room with the head principal, who had a reputation for being racist. She thought it would be good if he heard my voice to understand and answer questions that others would avoid. She knew I would speak my mind. She was right, of course.

So we're talking about, well, obviously, diversity, equity, and inclusion. I knew that we had one of the highest long-term suspension rates amongst minorities in the state. But we only had, like, 7% black people in the school. So, super overwhelming and overrepresented. When I shared this fact, out in the open, he just glared at me. He didn’t say a word. I knew I had stepped in it. But, I was also asked to attend and speak up by my immediate boss, who I trusted.

Was that why you were fired? 

No. The reason they gave, the reason I got was because I said a cuss word on Facebook at 7:08. And my contract time started at 7.

Now, I had like, 40 other examples of teachers that had posted on socials that day, during contract time, while they had kids in their room. But of course, they didn’t care about that.

The post that got Amy fired. Cred: Amy Harris

What did you post at 7:08? 

I was so stressed because two local districts had started playing football again, in crowded stadiums. It wasn’t even my school. But I went off because it triggered me. I knew if these other districts were going to start playing, then that meant my district would, too. And they did.

I was mad. And honestly, I posted like that to get seen. I felt so invalidated, so out of control.

What happened next?

I was put on leave while they investigated. My AP texted me and said, Sorry, I can't save you from this one. So I waited for the call.

It came and I went to central office with my union rep. Because I pay dues. And this guy shows up and he . . . Anyway, he was like what you would expect. He was not in the mood to hear that I did not want to take their plea.

What was the plea?

I could sign a piece of paper saying I left on my own. We’re talking, it’s September. I had just finished my Master’s degree the month prior. I have $100,000 in school loans.

It's crap. That was a crap reason to get fired and I knew it. I was nominated for teacher of the year every single year by my peers. I'm not trying to be like, Ooh, look at me. But I had good relationships throughout the whole building. It was such a crappy reason to get fired.

So, you don’t take the plea.

Right. I felt like it was important to go to the board because I didn't want my own kids to see me fall down and not fight back. I didn't want my students to think that I didn't fight for them, either.

My union lawyer said, But don’t you understand Dr. Herl’s going to be mad? I don’t care. He's like, He's going to yell. I said, Is he going to hold me hostage at gunpoint? And he just looked at me. I was like, Well, I lived through that. So we'll be okay.

He sat there and said nothing else the rest of the time. Herl’s pressuring me to sign the plea and I look at him and say, What does it look like if I go to another school district with a letter that says I successfully resigned with your permission in September and school started in August?

He said, It looks like you're re-hireable. I said, No, it looks like I got fired, that's what it looks like. And I wasn’t going to take it. He forced my hand. And he got mad and he yelled and that's fine. And I didn't yell back because I have autism. So I just sat there with the same stone-cold face, which annoys everyone.

He said, If you do this, you understand that the board backs me with everything. And I said, That's fine. I just want them to know what's going on. I want them to know that you can fire the best teacher that you have because of a Facebook post or because you don't like something they said. I just want them to know that.

Do you think the real reason you were fired was because you were raising red flags with special services, you were speaking out on racist expulsion trends — you were a problem in that you wanted them to do better? 

Yes. But that Facebook post was the only thing they had. I don’t miss work. I'm a total dork. I told Herl, I’m not taking this. And he said, You know that if you go to this hearing, you will never teach again. I told him, I don't think I want to.

And that crushed me. I put everything I had into those kids, everything I have into that job. It crushed me that somebody could come and take it all away, in one instant. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to them. While we were grieving Janae. It must have been so horrible for them, to have me one day and then not know where I went. I got walked out. The kids must have thought I abandoned them.

It's one thing to get fired from a job where you're with other adults. You can text them and be like, dude, this happened. But, you can't contact those kids. And they were already in such bad shape. So, that part was really hard.

Amy in her element. Cred: Amy Harris

What consequence do you think you deserved for the Facebook post?

A conversation. A write-up. That’s it.

Looking back, I definitely would not go that route again. I should not have posted that. Now I know, that not everybody needs my opinion on Facebook, for real.

What was the hearing like? 

Well, I had my lawyer from the union again. Honestly, I could have just represented myself. The school board was there.

They had Dr. Herl come up and he acknowledged that he had never met me, that he didn't know me. He’d never been in my classroom. He said he had gotten feedback that I wasn’t good at talking to other adults and that I was a know-it-all. He didn't talk to anybody who had been in my classroom at all. It really bothered me, this wasn’t about my performance as a teacher. No one had said I was a bad educator.

From Amy’s binder she took to the hearing. Cred.: Amy Harris

So, I got to defend myself. I made a presentation about all that I have accomplished, all of my awards, and glowing reviews. Plus, they made Herl read every one of those reviews about how kind I was and how I treated people and all of those things.

But what they told me was that that wasn't what I was getting fired for. I was getting fired for breaking the policy of cussing at 7:08 on Facebook and it didn't matter what other people were doing because it was only me that broke the policy. I was the only person that they needed to be worried about. And that was that.

What happened next?

I kept reading the board memos and I saw they held a secret session. They created a new policy that teachers can't be fired without the board's recommendation. So that did change. And that made me feel good that at least, hopefully, it won’t happen to somebody else.

But, I've had a lot of teachers from Independence come up to me saying that they had been fired during COVID for speaking out. Unfortunately, they took the plea deal, so they couldn’t sue. They couldn’t continue to speak out.

How many is a lot?

At least three. For speaking up in their buildings, not even online. Just having issues with how the district handled COVID.

How were you coping during this time, at home?

Like, I lived on my couch. I don't even cry usually and I cried so much. I felt so hurt. It was awful. It was like nothing I can explain. I was not prepared. I didn't even think I could get emotionally low like that. Because I'm a really optimistic person. But this took me out. I didn't see it coming. I had done everything right. And I had done everything by the rules. And I had done everything that I was supposed to.

At the time, I was trying to get licensed as a medical foster home so I could adopt a child I knew and loved. So, I was worried, as his group home was shutting down, that he wasn’t going to have a place to go. And with having just gained full custody of my own kids, I was like what now? Am I going to lose everyone? Everything?

How were you able to get off of the couch and parent?  

I don't think I really was. My kids were a little bit older. And they were sad, too. Like, I remember coming home and my daughter going, How could they fire you? You're too nice. For a teenage girl to say that about her own mother . . .

It must have been so upsetting for your kids to see you on this journey of going back to school, defying the odds, and achieving these degrees.

It was. It became a life lesson for them as well. Bad things happen to good people. Everything I did to show my kids, as a single mother, with a disability, you can still go out and achieve. And to fight and fight and fight with this devastating result. It was nearly impossible for me to sort through and explain to them.

I wound up being honest. I used myself as an example. What I posted was bad, right? Most people wouldn’t be fired for what I posted, but if you give the wrong people a reason to fire you, social media can be one of those reasons.

Did you file for unemployment?

The district fought it, so I didn’t get it. It can depend on what you get terminated for.

How long were you out of work?

Not long, thankfully. I was onto my new job by November. Fired in September. I took a position with The Whole Person (the agency Amy was at when I met her). But even then, I was just so stressed about being fired for no reason. I didn’t talk to anyone at my new job for like my first eight months. I was on eggshells.

Did you think about suing the district?

My dad offered to pay for an attorney and I just didn’t have it in me. I was so broken at this point. I could’ve gone to the media and I opted not to. I had parents ready to protest at central office. I just told everyone no. I couldn’t fight it anymore. It was all too much, with just coming off of my divorce and custody battle.

Now, if I was able to go back in time with the headspace I am in now, knowing what I know now, I would’ve hands down gone to court. I also would’ve taken it to the media to really draw attention to all of the things that were going on there.

How have you healed from this?

I don’t think I have, honestly. But I know in my soul I’m where I’m supposed to be. I love the path I am on now, so I don’t regret how things turned out. I’ve had so much fun building this new life, so I can’t hang onto the anger anymore. I just chalk it up to the fact that sometimes the most important changes are the most painful ones. But I don’t know that the disappointment or sadness surrounding that time will ever fully go away.

What advice do you have for someone who has been fired from teaching?

I guess it depends on what you've been fired for. I will say, if you got fired for something that wasn't teaching-related and you still love it, I wouldn't let that hold you back. Guess what — you can actually get another teaching job, even if Dale Herl says you can’t.

You know, it probably wasn't a good fit for me because I'm going to rub somebody wrong in admin every time. Or maybe not? I don't know because I never taught anywhere else. But it definitely led me to some other good paths. So, it's not the end of the world. At the time, I thought it was the end of my life. And, I didn't know what else I was going to do. But there's a lot of stuff out there. Believe me, there are so many people who used to teach that don't anymore.

Alex with his sisters, Amiyah and JeRae. Cred.: Amy Harris

Amy has found a company that appreciates her transparency. She started DiversAbilities, a non-profit for adults with disabilities. DiversAbilities provides essential skills training and job opportunities via pop-up coffee carts. They are now open for bookings. She also was able to get licensed to become a medical foster parent. Her son, Alex, was officially adopted in April of 2023.

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