Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Chris Port Blog #307. Marty Gull - Fictional Management Training Problem #1

© Chris Port, 2010

Problem: You want to get rid of an idealistic teacher so that you can set up a pipeline of cheap chorus girls into a seafront ‘entertainment’ business. How do you get rid of him?

Solution: Intimidation, isolation, exhaustion, constant contrived investigation (mud sticks), illegal bugging and outright lying. If he tops himself, result. Those artistic types always were a bit unstable. Time for some hard-headed business on the seafront. Who needs ‘proper’ training and a ‘proper’ agent?

Example 1:

Date:    Monday 11th May 2009

Re:       Disciplinary Investigatory Meeting 19/05/09

Dear Miss ******

I acknowledge receipt of Mr ****’s letter dated 7th May (on 8th May) and your own letter dated 7th May (on 9th May).

I would like to request a postponement of the disciplinary investigation meeting on health grounds, probably until the summer break.

As you know, I have been struggling through a very stressful year to prepare my students for their examinations in demanding, specialist areas while suffering from exhaustion and depression caused by a variety of work-related factors. This has been very, very difficult for me as I have been putting the needs of my students above my own health. I do not wish to go into the work-related factors here as this would require a separate and rigorous exposition. However, I have left a fairly lengthy and detailed audit trail in various communications over rooming, timetabling and resources over the last year.

Unfortunately, just as we seemed to be approaching a period of calm, the allegation of professional misconduct has worsened my depression to the point where I am now trying to cope with suicidal urges. I am scheduled for a psychiatric counseling session today (11th May) and suspect that a period of rest and recuperation may be required. Since the only health and safety at risk is mine, I would ask that the school consider its duty of care towards its staff as well as to the students.

I would like to ask who has made the allegation, whether the student in question has actually registered a complaint, or has been asked if they wish to make a complaint and, if so, by whom, under what circumstances and by what line of questioning.

This is a complex case with many factors to be taken into consideration. I do not believe that I am in a fit state of mind at the moment to offer a full response. However, being mindful of our duty of care towards the students, I would like to take this opportunity to offer a partial response to allegations of professional misconduct to the effect that, if any of my words or actions have caused concern, it was the result of errors of judgment while ill rather than sinister intent. I did return to work after being signed off for stress and depression at the suggestion of the Headmaster because I felt guilty that my students were not being adequately prepared for their examinations in my absence. In retrospect, perhaps I returned to work too early and I would appreciate a little understanding here.

Regarding my professional relationship with *****, I believe that this may have slipped into a paternalistic one (on my part) as my illness worsened and no-one told me of any problems. I have always held her in the highest regard for her raw acting talent, versatility and unpretentious commitment, and was delighted when she mentioned the possibility of going to drama school. She mentioned an interest in going to the ******* ******* ** ****** *** ***** (my alma mater) which delighted me even further. ******* is one of the best drama schools in the country and, with appropriate direction and guidance, I believe that ***** would have a strong chance of getting in when she has a bit more life experience under her belt.

It upset me last year when ***** became excited about the prospect of going to a summer drama school funded by ***, only for this to fall through for reasons that I am unclear about. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that ***** had put a lot into *** and that the school had missed an opportunity to do the best for one of our more gifted and talented students.

It also concerned me when ***** became recruited into high profile school musicals in the run-up to her A-Level examinations. This is, of course, entirely a matter for her but when she spoke to me about her doubts and uncertainties over whether to become an actress or a performer, I felt that she was losing focus and picking up 'coarse' acting habits which could count against her if she wanted to go to *******. She has mentioned her doubts and uncertainties on which route to take several times to me. I have always made the point that my voice is just one of many but I do know what I am talking about when it comes to good Drama schools (and the harsh, often corrupt, realities of casting in professional musical theatre which, I think, can do great harm to the naive ingénue).

Musicals then became a source of tension between us.

First her involvement in ******* and absence from a crucial lesson which I had asked her to attend during her exam preparation caused me to become upset. I did go down to the hall to find her and did speak quite sharply to her (which I regret) and she seemed quiet, withdrawn and upset. I later apologized to her, explaining that my upset was because I thought highly of her and I was worried that, with all her musical commitments, she was losing focus on widening and deepening her academic studies (particularly film where she does not have a broad range of viewing experience).

Second, her research project (on *** ********, romantic tragedy and musicals) became quite challenging. Despite *****'s keen intelligence and excellent (if distracted by musicals) work ethic, I needed to push her quite hard on developing her critical faculties, often playing devil's advocate. She often seemed to feel that I was just attacking her interests because I didn't like them - while I kept pushing aesthetics. Ultimately, her research project became excellent because of the difficulties involved,and sets her up well for her Critical Studies unit on genre and authorship. However, since musicals are not traditional 'heavyweight' academic material, and are not my field of expertise, it was more difficult for me to mindmap the direction, themes and case studies for her final paper than for the boys who were engaging with more familiar territories of war, science fiction, horror and realism. This may be why ***** (or others less in the know) may feel that she has been 'singled out' for attention - it is because her focus on musicals is not my area of expertise (although romantic tragedy is) so I needed to pay more attention to her interests and do the thinking ahead. The others I can 'do in my sleep' as I am already well-versed in their areas of interest. I had planned to start linking them all together with seminars on aesthetics, genre and different approaches to romanticism and tragedy - but with my suspension this has obviously now gone out of the window and their grades will probably suffer accordingly. It's a shame - we had just started to make the breakthrough where they were doing the synoptic thinking required for their Critical Studies paper.

The upshot of all of this is that I needed to find out more about *****'s interests in musicals, romance and tragedy and link this to academic perspectives. This is one of the reasons why I started popping in to Art - to see what her interests were there and look for links to Film.

Aware that I was reaching a point where I might need to be signed off to rest and recover, and also aware of a 'tension' in the air (although I didn't know what the source was - and nobody else seemed to be willing to talk about it - not good for depression where pleasant communication is vital to avoid slipping into an isolated state) I started trying to set up the idea of school email tutorials to be sent via *** or ***** (*****, unfortunately, is not keen on drafting by word-processor and tends to turn up with volumes of handwritten notes).

In retrospect, the more I picked up on a 'tension' in the air, the more I thought it was because I might have upset her in some way - and the more I wanted to talk to her to find out what the problem was. I made a point of always trying to talk to her in public places which, ironically, seems now to be portrayed in your investigation as 'stalking'. Bearing in mind that I have just been trying to do the best for my students while probably needing to be signed off for recovery, I do wish someone (staff or other students) had just said something if my behaviour was causing distress. When you are suffering from depression, you need other people to keep you connected. When you look at what has happened to our Faculty over the last year - *****'s depression, ***'s heart attack, my depression, the circumstances of *** ******'s leaving - we have clearly been through a lot.

Regarding the book and handwritten personal message (which I gave to ***** in the presence of other students) this was originally intended to be an inspirational graduation gift with references to her research project and a morale boost. However, on the spur of the moment, I decided to give it to her early as I thought it might clear the air and, if I was to be signed off, I wouldn't get the chance to give it to her later. I now understand that this is seen as an 'improper communication' and, with the benefit of hindsight, I would think better of it. Again, all I can say is that I was doing the best I could while suffering from exhaustion and depression. It was an error of judgement with no sinister intent and, if causing unintentional distress, I just wish someone had said something to me.

Regarding the memory stick on a lanyard, again it was a spur of the moment thing. One of the knock-on effects of trying to keep all the Drama, Media and Film A-level classes on schedule while *** was off after his heart attack, with various rooming, timetable and resource difficulties, was that my own synoptic preparation work fell behind. Again, mindful of the fact that I may need to be signed off, I wanted to give the students some precise and detailed exam revision resources which were difficult and time-consuming to compile given filtering restrictions on the school network. I was so delighted when I finally managed to get them completed that I went to the computer room to give them out there and then. ***** was there, with other students, but my other film students weren't. I went to make a mock medal ceremony of it but saw that ***** didn't get the joke and so just handed it to her instead. Obviously, I didn't want to make the same mistake with the other students so I just made a joke of chucking them out casually instead.

Regarding the handwritten notice, this actually read 'Am I allowed to say you look nice today without getting a murderous ***** frown?' The background to this is fairly lengthy but the gist of it is, a few months ago, I walked into lesson carrying a leather jacket one of my tutor group had left behind in assembly (****** *****, who is of diminutive stature). I laughed because it seemed very small and made a remark something like 'It looks like a 5 year old's jacket'. ***** reacted quite coldly, saying 'Oh, thanks'. I then noticed she was wearing a similar brand of jacket. It surprised me that she had reacted so coldly so I made a mental note to pay her a compliment when I got the chance. One day, in ***'s drama class, she turned up looking quite smart in a skirt (as opposed to her usual dance fatigues) so I said something to *** along the lines of 'Don't you think ***** looks lovely and smart in a skirt?' Again, this got a cold reaction so I figured it best not to make any comments about appearance. This did crop up in a chat with ***** a few months later when she seemed a lot more humorous and relaxed about it, so the note was actually a joke to keep the atmosphere light. It was not held up through the window. I was passing by an art lesson, popped in, asked if I could speak briefly to *****, glanced at her work, held up the note, she smiled, I smiled, I walked out. It was meant an act of social pleasantry while looking at her work in other areas. Again, the irony is that these are all incidences of public banter (everyday currency in school life) now being taken out of context as if they have sinister intent. Again, if they were perceived as inappropriate or distressing then I wish someone (staff or students) had said something to me at the time rather than stockpiling them for a disciplinary case.

Several things now worry me.

First, *****. I hope it is now understood that it was never my intention to cause her distress. I do wonder whether the distress may have been caused or aggravated by other people getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and questioning her about it - a case of ***** being 'got at'. Also, while you have a duty of care to investigate any cause for concern regarding student welfare, constantly taking her out of my lesson when she seems focused and engaged on her learning does seem to be upsetting all in itself. I understand that she left the school in tears after being taken out of my lesson to see the Headmaster while she seemed quite happy and content in the lesson. I just wonder whether there might have been a less heavy handed way of dealing with any concerns - like talking to me.

Second, the students and their exam preparation. There are still several specialized seminars which need to be held on the nature of shocking cinema, regulation and censorship and (ironically) moral panics, and authorship and genre. These are highly specialized areas. Obviously, if I am suspended, I cannot run them. I had planned to begin email tutorials (through *** or *****) where students could begin to discuss their ideas and get feedbacks on essay drafts. Again, this is quite a specialized area. I would like to offer whatever help I can to my students (via email, via *** or *****), but current developments seem to preclude this. This makes me despair.

One final point. It has been a very difficult year. Clearly, my mental balance has been disturbed by stresses and strains beyond those normally expected in teaching, and I think I probably need a period of rest to recover. The Headmaster did say to me a few months ago that, if I was thinking of leaving, he would like my resignation by May. Given the circumstances, I did find this very hurtful and stressful but I did not make any complaint. Obviously, I am not currently in a fit state of health to go for job interviews and would appreciate some time to recover before discussing my future.

I will send copies of all correspondence to my union (***) and update you on the results of my counseling session. I would be grateful if you could let me know whether you are prepared to postpone the meeting until I am fit or whether you are asking me to turn up in a depressed and possibly suicidal state which does not seem to be in the best interests of anyone concerned. I would specifically ask that there is no meeting held in absentia as I believe that there are many more issues to be raised concerning the welfare of staff.

Yours sincerely

Marty Gull

See also:

Marty Gull Song #11. You've Got To Kick A Teacher Or Two

#213. The Biometrics of How Schools Work

#214. Staffing Costs Less With Death By Stress

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