Issue #13: An Interview With a Teacher Who Got Knocked Out

When acting instinctually goes all wrong

The interviewee asked to remain anonymous this week. I will refer to her as Hannah. 

Hannah spent the first six years of her career in urban school districts, teaching mainly in charter schools between Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri. In 2013, Hannah applied to a suburban district that bordered the urban district she had previously been in. She described it as a “gritty suburban district with a large Title I population.” She loved the students immediately – a diverse group of kids who weren’t affluent but cared about their education. Overall, she felt the building was safe, save for a few fights.

During her first year in this building, she discovered that her head principal was a micromanager with an explosive temper. Her newspaper students had to get approval for every article from her head principal before they went to press. That was unheard of and it spoke to how much control he liked to hold over the building. She saw him veto many articles during the three years she was there. 

Additionally, on her last day of work of her first year, he called her into his office and laid into her about how badly the yearbook had turned out. He yelled at her, loudly, for an extended amount of time, belittling her. He even pulled out a dictionary to dramatically look up words that had been misspelled, asking her if she knew how to spell. 

She had never received a bad review on her work in the past. Unfortunately, she knew that they had created a bad yearbook that year. She had been asked to co-teach yearbook with another English teacher who did not hold the proper certification. It was a tumultuous relationship and she often felt like a teacher’s aide during the class, not a co-teacher. They butted heads and Hannah’s expertise was ignored. She eventually decided to take a back seat and be quiet. She knew next year the class would be hers and hers alone. So, she followed the proper chain of command and passed her complaints along to her department chair. The department chair informed her she was letting administration know about the souring relationship.

As she was being berated in his office that day it was clear her head principal had no clue. She tried to defend herself, explaining how their relationship had fallen apart. He said he didn’t care, that her name was on the kids’ schedule. To make matters worse, her co-teacher didn’t finish out the year. Hannah received his criticisms alone, even though they mostly belonged to her co-teacher.

She left for the summer, in tears. A few days later, the head principal called her and was singing her praises. Hannah doesn’t remember an apology, but it was a pattern of his, she would learn. He would go off on a staff member, then either he or an assistant principal would do clean up and insist, He’s just having an off day, he really thinks you are terrific!

How does your second year in that building begin?

When I get back to school in August, I discovered that I had a copy machine in my classroom. This was a big deal because we were not allowed to make copies in that building. We had to account for every single piece of paper we used.

My initial instinct was to be afraid because I thought it had been delivered to my room by accident and that I would be blamed for it, which is crazy to think. So, I called the school secretary and I was like, I'm so sorry, I have no idea what happened, but I have a copy machine in my room. She insists it’s for me to use; it’s supposed to be there. Okay, why?

Then I decided, this is like the roses after a fight, right? Okay, so I am learning. I was able to withstand the verbal lashing and now I have my own copy machine. But I don't even make copies. So, it was really just this bizarre, big, full-size copy machine in my space, basically for my friends to use.

Anyway, the year is chaotic. I was advising yearbook and I was advising newspaper. They needed a dual credit teacher and because of my master’s in English, I took that on. I had like 10 different preps. I also had a differentiated reading class because I've taken a great deal of coursework in literacy. Plus, I am coaching swimming. It’s so busy. I am there like 60-70 hours a week. Also, I am working on another master’s degree, this one is in curriculum and instruction.    

So, let’s get to the fight. Set the scene for me. How are you alerted there’s an issue?

First of all, the location of my room is a factor. I am far from the office and my hallway is pretty quiet, typically. There’s only one other teacher in my hallway with me full-time, all day, and the other teachers travel. Typically, I only saw debate, choir, band, and journalism kids in my area.

It started when I heard two girls yelling, so instinctively, I came out of my classroom to investigate. They were yelling at each other down the hall, very loudly, clearly amping up to fight each other.

I looked –the debate teacher had a substitute that day – and I looked at that substitute and said, Call administration, this is not going to be good! Then that substitute went into the classroom and locked the door. She did not call for help. 

So, I am six feet tall and I used to play basketball. I'm not afraid of getting physical. I was a tough kid, right? But, on this particular day, I am wearing a long, flowy skirt with UGG boots that have absolutely no traction. And I've walked outside with my coffee cup. Any of my students will tell you, I always have a coffee cup in my hand.

How big are these girls?

They were significantly shorter than me, but they were not little people. 

Most of the time, I think kids fight at school so there are adults around who can break up the fight. These girls fought at school because it was the first time they had seen each other since whatever had originated this argument. They were out for blood. 

There were old metal radiators in the hallways. That's how the hallways were heated, you know, those square radiators? So, a crowd has formed and I'm trying to get through the crowd. But before I can get there, one of the girls has taken the other girl by the hair and hit her head on the corner of the metal radiator. I may have dramatized this in my memory, but it split that girl's head wide open. And somehow, the girl who was gushing blood continued to fight. 

So, I worked my way between these two girls and I stood with my arms spread, trying to separate them. They're jumping over me to land punches on each other and mostly just hitting me.

How long are you standing there like that, taking punches?

It feels like it's forever. Remember, I'm in a skirt and UGG boots and I have a coffee cup in my hand. I look over and one of my students screams, Give me your coffee cup! And she grabs it from me. But I’m still sliding back and forth. These girls are just pummeling me and pummeling each other. 

Later, I remember them saying it took people three to four times longer to get there because they were not aware of the fight. All because it was happening in the back hallway of the building. Most fights are broken up in 10 to 15 seconds. I think this one lasted 45 seconds to a minute, which is forever in school fight time, especially when you're taking on punches.

How did the fight get separated?

It took two or three teachers to get them separated. They take girl A, who had bashed the other girl's head into the radiator. They get her into a classroom and they lock that room down. 

I look at girl B, who is bleeding profusely, and the crowd is just everywhere around us. I also have blood on me. I don't even touch her. I just hold my hands up in front of her and I'm like, Hey, take a deep breath, you're OK. I'm here. I'm not going to let anything happen to you. She looks right at me and before I can do anything about it, she swings on me and hits me right in the soft spot of my temple.

I remember thinking, Wait, but I'm trying to help you. I was stunned; I was absolutely shell-shocked. She goes to swing on me again and a kid actually grabs her by the arm, stopping her from landing another punch. Holding her hand he says to me, You need to get out of here. 

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Where did you go?

Somehow I got to the staff lounge. I sat down on the floor and started sobbing because of all of the adrenaline, not because of my getting hit in the head. I didn't even think about that. 

I'm so sensitive. I couldn’t make sense of why this happened. I’m wondering why are these kids fighting each other. I don't get any of it. I'm overwhelmed, I’m sobbing, and a para comes in there and sees me on the floor, covered in blood that's not my own. 

She takes me into the office and I sit down across from my head principal. He looks up completely unaware that a fight had even taken place in the building. But I don't think that's on him. There are so many things that happen in schools, right? He just looks at me and he goes, What happened? I remember sitting there and saying to him, You can't tell my grandma, you can't tell my grandma that this happened. My grandma cannot know that this happened

Why I was so concerned with that? Probably because I was not in good shape. I was making zero sense. I think because I was talking nonsense, they decided I needed to go to workman’s comp. 

What was that like? Who took you?

My vice principal took me. We sat in the lobby of the workman's comp area for about four and a half hours before they could see me. 

When they finally see me, I don’t think they did a CT scan. I don’t think they had the capacity. They had me follow things with my eyes. My pupils were super dilated and they told me I had a pretty intense concussion because of being hit directly to that soft spot on my temple. He said that I needed to stay home from work for two days.

What happens during those two days?

My students are sending me emails. Teachers are reaching out because this was not a normal thing for teachers to be hit at this school, at that time. Today, there's plenty of teachers who have probably been hit as a by-product of trying to break up a fight. 

My best friend said that she thought I needed to see a counselor. I remember being so offended that she thought I needed to talk to someone about it because I felt like I was fine. Now I look back and realize it made me question humanity. I don't understand why people would do that to one another. It wound up having a profound impact on my well-being.

Did you have any administrators check in on you those two days?

My vice principal who took me to workman's comp was a phenomenal person. She called and said, Your kids all really miss you and we hope you're coming back soon. And I remember thinking, Why wouldn't I? But then also being like, But why would I? You know, this . . . this is crazy. It was just crazy.

Do you remember anyone telling you that depression can follow a concussion?

Not at all. Definitely not the workman’s comp doctors, who were terrible. It really was my best friend being like, Hey, you might want to talk to someone. But then I got so mad at her for saying that. I didn't recover. I didn't bounce back from this. I lost my joy of teaching and I was a coach. Everything was really hard. 

But you only took the two days off?

I didn't have the time to not teach. Teachers don't get paid enough. I most certainly did not have days to just sit and mourn, so I went back to work.

I remember the next week, I was coaching, and we did not have a swimming pool in my school. We had to have our team bussed out to a location and back to the school for pickup.

I was waiting inside a hallway in a gym and a group of boys came into the area where we were waiting. They were not with a team. I was staying with my team to make sure everyone got picked up. These boys, they should not have been there. So, I said to them, Hey, guys, you need to leave and one of them cussed me out, threatening violence. I remember being afraid and thinking, Oh my gosh, is this happening to me again? I decided to move to a different side of the building to have kids pick up because I was so afraid of creating conflict.

What happened with the female student who hit you?

Well, I found out that she had just served a 180-day suspension for violence and it was her second day back in the building. She had an IEP and her mom had worked her way through the legal system to get her reinstated as a student in the district. So, whatever she did before, it had to be pretty egregious to be out for 180 days with an IEP.

After she hit me, she actually passed out and had a seizure. She had to be rushed to the hospital because of, you know, her cracked dome. She was in a coma as a result of this. 

I have never watched the videos, but you know, kids record fights. I could never watch it. It was ruthless. These girls were literally trying to kill one another.

What about that moment when you were trying to calm her down, after the fight? Do you think she knew what she was doing? Or was her adrenaline pumping so hard, she just swung, not knowing who she was hitting?

Looking back, I like to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I will tell you that she was again issued a 180-day suspension because you can't assault a teacher. 

I also feel like I was never given the opportunity to press charges. And I really wish that someone would have asked me if I wanted to, whether it was while I was at workman’s comp or home the next few days. Someone should have said to me, This is assault. You were assaulted. 

So, her mom, I guess in an effort to keep her from being suspended for 180 days, filed a formal complaint with the Department of Family Services (DFS) against me. Her complaint alleged that I had restrained her daughter during the fight because the other student was in my advisory class. She said that I restrained her daughter and allowed the girl to violently beat her, like I was in on the fight. 

Shortly after I returned to school, I was again called into my principal's office. When I walked in, there was a woman from DFS. I had no prior knowledge that this was going to happen. Had I been informed, I would have brought representation. My principal called me and explained that I was being questioned by DFS, then left me in that office for questioning.

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Why couldn’t your principal show them a video of what happened? 

The school didn’t have cameras in my hallway, unfortunately. I heard, though, that one of my students had been filming the fight and had footage of me getting hit. He ran down to the office and said here is the video, you need to see what happened to my teacher. Even though kids never confess to having filmed fights, since it’s against school policy.

So they have the footage of me probably looking like an idiot, trying to separate these two girls. I've got my coffee cup, I'm sliding all around, all six feet of me. In theory, I should have been able to just pick one of them up, but I'm not going to put my hands on a child. I would never do that. 

What is this investigation like?

They are asking me about my connection to the student, all of these things. I remember thinking, Seriously? I got a concussion and you are questioning me in a manner that leads me to believe you think this is my fault?

They told me they were going to finish their investigation and they would let me know what they determine. They also had to tell me that if this claim is substantiated, it will be on my permanent record. 

I left that office and again sobbed. It was worse than the fight. Being accused of having done something to mistreat a child, I would never do anything like that to a child. I was trying to help this child, who then assaulted me. And then I was being accused of having hindered her ability to defend herself.

What does your admin say to you after this? Are they supportive of you?

They had a sub cover my class and called one of my friends who was in the building. I went and sat in their car and sobbed for an hour, maybe two hours. My mental and emotional well-being were not okay. I wasn't getting help and no one would talk to me about how concussions can trigger depression, you know. It felt impossible. Everything felt impossible.

Then DFS came back and said the claim was not substantiated, obviously. Still, the whole thing was just incredibly traumatic.

So, you are back at work, it’s winter, you are coaching and putting in long hours. How are you coping?

Not great at all. I was terrified of doing hall duty. I will tell you, I still don't do hall duty. It bothers me deeply when there are fights, especially if I see them. It makes me question my safety and my place of employment. 

Plus, I was in a school where the kids can be tough. Where I taught, the teachers who love kids are beloved by kids. So, I had kids in my classroom all day, every day. I was feeding kids. I mean, I had a food cart and I spent my own money on it. I wasn't just showing up, putting in my time, and walking out at 2:30 when the bell rang.

I was also taking classes for my master’s degree. I missed my final in one of my classes, which I had never ever, ever done. So, I emailed the professor and explained my situation. Thankfully, I got an extension. It impacted every area of my life, it felt like.

Had your building ever officially told you what the policy is on breaking up fights?

What I learned from this experience is that districts intentionally do not offer any training. Their official stance was that teachers are not required to intervene in fights. They do this so that if a teacher chooses to intervene in a fight and is injured, they are not liable. 

And then I had to fight HR because I was docked the days I took off, per workman’s comp’s orders.

Really? What happened there?

So, I get my pay stub and check it like I always do because I have caught many errors. I realized that two of my days have been deducted. I can’t remember if they were sick days or personal days. But they were gone. 

So, you were on the job, you got injured on the job, had to take time off for this injury, and you are docked days?

Yes, so I sent an email to HR thinking, Oh this is a mistake. How silly that they did this! I write and explain my situation, I detail the assault, what workman’s comp said, and my follow-up appointments, all due to this concussion.

I also remember my head secretary saying If this ever happens again, we're just calling an ambulance. The level of care at workman’s comp was so bad, the waiting for nearly five hours to be seen, all of these things. 

Right, but who is paying for that ambulance? 

Exactly. It might be better for the building because it’s less time sitting in a waiting room, it’s better care for the employee who might get back to work quicker, but I am sure the employee would be handed that bill. 

What was the response to your email?

You know, no good deed that goes unpunished as a public school teacher. So, the secretary of HR responded and said: 

It is in your contract that the first 24 hours of workman's comp come out of your personal days. If your need to be absent exceeds 24 working hours, you will be reimbursed for those first 24 hours, at that time. However, you signed your contract, you should have been aware of what you were signing. 

Basically, you have to be absent longer than 24 hours to be reimbursed for your time off and you fell short?

Yes. Her response was basically that this is a policy and board contract. You signed your contract, sorry for you. 

At that point, I was pissed because not only have I been victimized by this student who then filed a claim against me. That investigation made me question, Do people really think I'm not taking care of these kids? Meanwhile, I'm spending hundreds of dollars of my own money to bring in food for students to eat. Like, do people really think that I don't have a heart for these kids? 

Then I lose those days, doing what I was told to do by workman’s comp, and the response to my inquiry is like, You're an idiot. You signed this contract. Why are you even bothering me, asking me these questions?

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What happened next?

Well, I have always had the potential to be a little bit feisty, especially when I perceive that there's an injustice. So, I email the superintendent of human resources. I forward the email that I received from his secretary and say, I realize that this is board policy. I also believe that you are human resources. I am not an employee who was standing on a chair, hanging things on a wall, and injured myself. This is because I was trying to protect students, one of whom was gravely injured in this fight. Your response is unacceptable. You should not treat employees like this. 

Well, I clearly said the right thing, because I get an immediate request for an in-person meeting with him. So, I go in and it’s a total PR move. That’s all it was, for PR. I did not get reimbursed for my time off. He was all, We are so sorry to hear that this has happened to you. Unfortunately, state law prevents us from being able to make an exception.

He wanted to sit down and let me know that he heard me, in that meeting. I told him, You need to train your people. This job is already hard, right? Teaching in this district, at this school, is already hard. At least understand that. I told him, the district is not taking care of its employees and it should be. 

And in the end, nothing came of it, but I felt vindicated. I was proud that I was brave enough and willing to stand up to a superintendent. 

Hannah worked one more year at her school. She continued to struggle with the head principal, who, at one point told her that there wasn’t room in her budget to transport her eight students to an elite journalism camp. It’s a 45-minute drive from their school and her kids had worked hard to win scholarships. She also knows there is room in the budget, as she had fundraised for it. She sees the writing on the wall – he doesn’t want the students going because he fears a free press. He doesn’t want the students to evolve and get more educated. 

Hannah left for a new school district. She doesn’t leave solely because of the concussion, but when she had another professional opportunity denied in her district, she knew it was time to go. 

In a full circle moment, Hannah works again with her former head principal, years later. He’s called in as a long-term substitute assistant principal, in her new building, which lacked structure and control. She can’t believe she’s relieved to see him again.

Okay, so now you are happy to see him?

I grew to have a greater appreciation for the level of control that he had to have to make that building a safe place. At the time I was working there, I didn't quite understand or appreciate it. I just felt like he was micromanaging. So now, through this new lens that I have — you know, almost 20 years into my career —I can see that there were a lot of things that he really did need to do and be involved in. He didn't need to mistreat people though, which he had a reputation for.

Did you guys ever discuss your concussion? The fight? 

So, I am catching up with him, and keep in mind, this is now 10 years after this fight. He says he remembered this fight well. He tells me that he felt the reason why I was so bothered that day was not because I had been hit, but because I didn't understand how anyone could be angry enough at another person to injure them. And wow, was I shocked. Because it's so true! I am such a tender person that what shook me to my core was not necessarily the injury. 

It was so wild for this person, who I didn’t feel like he had seen me at all, to be so perceptive. You know what I mean? And it was true, it was a thousand percent true. But also, where on earth did that come from? Because pretty much every interaction I had with him was him making me feel like I had failed some portion of my job expectations. Then, for him to see me in this profound way, and speak on it 10 years later. I sure could have used that guy earlier. But, it was a nice way to make peace. 

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