Personnel File 3: The Case of Carl

This case study is offered as a discussion starter. The incident happened. The names are changed, but the facts are straight from the principal’s mouth. How did it end? I’m holding that, for now. How should it end? What reasons would you offer for that decision? Discuss this case with colleagues in leadership.

Carl—an art teacher who at one time had been named the state’s Teacher of the Year—had been “troubled” for more than five years. The principal knew she had to do something; this problem wouldn’t go away.

To some students and to their parents, there was no problem. They claimed, with notes and phone calls, that Carl was a “superb teacher.” They cited his award from his subject area peers, his spending time with the kids on the weekends, his displaying the kids’ art work in the halls and malls, and his “off the wall” humor that many kids appreciated. Some of these students had gone on to colleges and art schools and had done very well. Carl’s defenders blamed the principal for a “personality conflict between you and Carl; get off his back and let him do what he does best.” The principal knew that those comments came straight from Carl, because the parents related that their kids had said Carl mentioned during classes that “he was on the carpet with the principal” and that “some people are just out to get me and can’t stand that I go way beyond the school day.”

There had been conflicts between her and Carl. He had defied the school’s no-smoking rule by going down in the boiler room; she had learned about it not from custodians, but from kids who joked about “Oh, you know him; he just needs his smokes.” Another student’s parents had objected to Carl’s smoking on the van that took them off campus to set up their art displays. The principal had confronted Carl about it; he made no promises and had persistently kept smoking.

In recent years, there had been a steady decline in the number of students choosing to take art. When she had discussed that with him, he had brushed aside concerns about his moodiness, his complaining about the school, his insistence that students paint only subjects he had chosen, and his increasing absences as either the community’s “total lack of concern for quality” or “I have a bad problem with depression. I’m seeing a doctor. Why are you always on my back?”

She had observed his classes at least twice a year for the past five; he was a performer! He would pause when she came in unexpectedly, introduce her elaborately, and put on a show of humor and explanation that was both clever and clear. In evaluations, she had written her criticism of his defiance of rules, the complaints, and her suggestions for change, but he would always append an elaborate explanation of his own to the filed evaluation, including mention of awards and his extra dedication and comments about “the principal’s constant harping about picayune little rules; she has no feeling for what I am teaching in art.” Persistently he mentioned his depression and the smoking that helped him.

Now the principal was reading the psychological evaluation and recommendation of Dr. Abner, the psychiatrist that Carl had been seeing occasionally over the past few years. She had met with the doctor at Carl’s request, feeling as if she was on trial. The doctor told her that she had been too insistent with Carl on the smoking issue and that she was holding Carl to standards that weren’t “natural for him.” The doctor had promised a follow-up letter, and it used the right language to try to persuade her to give Carl “more space” because his paranoia, his headaches, his absences, and his inappropriate remarks in class were simply “mental constructs” that are “like a man who has a bad back or a person who has a crippling disease.” The doctor had posed this question: “If one of your teachers were physically handicapped, you wouldn’t ask him to change; you would help him cope. Do the same thing with Carl, whose handicap is the mental equivalent.” She read the letter again, thought about the complaints and the lack of students and the comments from a couple of board members that “We cannot keep going with this teacher,” and weighed what to do.

If you were the principal in this real event, what would you do? Reply to this blog to expand the discussion among your colleagues who read the case. In my next blog, I will write what the principal did.

The Case of Keith: Here’s what happened when Keith gave his recommendation (see my previous blog “The Case of Keith”):

Keith knew the board was split on whether to hire the younger and more expert teacher or the local woman who had given hours of support as a volunteer to the school before acquiring her teaching certification. He hesitantly listed the reasons for hiring each candidate and then recommended that the board hire the younger and expert teacher. Citing especially her education and strong recommendations from everyone, particularly her supervising teachers in her student teaching experience, he thought she was the teacher the school needed. The board listened, commented, and argued, finally choosing in a close vote the local applicant for her “years of service to our school” and because “we all trust her.”

– Dan Vander Ark

1 Comment

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One Response to Personnel File 3: The Case of Carl

  1. Alex Gerard van Donkersgoed

    Please continue to post these case studies. They are a great read!

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