This is a guest blog post by an SMSU alumna who has asked to remain anonymous. She was a student of Wendy’s and is now Wendy’s dear friend. This guest blogger is a dynamic educator and has visited Wendy’s classes, sharing her innovative and creative teaching ideas for Early Childhood Education. Wendy was supposed to meet this person for lunch on that fateful day the police showed up at her apartment and arrested her. This is a story of an educator’s fight against viciousness, and her hope is that her message will help all of us.
It’s an understatement to say that teachers don’t get paid enough for the work they do. We do the most important work in the world. Things that are THAT important are usually not easy. Like other high stress jobs, educators need to vent and find healthy ways to channel their stresses. Rather than lecture college students about the proper and safe ways to vent, I’ve been asked to share my story with you. My story is not about safe venting or healthy ways to channel stress. It’s about how I messed up, and how I was never offered a college course on avoiding felony charges and jail time when I got my education degree. I had to figure all of that out on my own.
I graduated from SMSU with an education degree, tons of passion, major drive, and new confidence. When people asked me what I wanted to do with my degree, my typical response was “change the world!” I got a job in early childhood education and quickly started climbing the ladder to management and beyond. I was never content staying put for too long and was always seeking ways to grow and be a part of more change.
I worked for the same company for five years, and after trying out a management role, I decided it was time for the next step. I began grad school, and to balance my workload I left my management job and took a part time position at a new location within the same company. Change doesn’t always go smoothly, and this was one of those occasions. Even though I’d been with the company for five years, I struggled to get along with my new boss. This was to be expected. Coming from a full-time management position and taking on the part-time employee role again was difficult. I quickly encountered many things about her management style that just rubbed me the wrong way. I had been trained by the best, and then sent to work for someone who felt mediocre was good enough. You can imagine that my “PASSION” wasn’t always appreciated when it contradicted the boss and her leadership.
We worked together with minor tension for over a year. After a more serious issue occurred, I spoke up to someone at the corporate office. My boss felt challenged and belittled. I knew I was doing the right thing, but she was very upset with me. I decided to transfer to another center until I finished my grad school classes. I really thought that diffusing the situation was best.
Leaving was the right choice, but not the end of the conflict. My old boss started talking about me within the company and saying things that were untrue. I felt like my new position was being sabotaged by someone for whom I no longer worked and thought I had escaped. I loved my new position, and my new boss was amazing. I was having a blast with a group of school agers that inspired me daily! I was so frustrated to still be dealing with the past when my drive for the future was at its peak. In less than a year I was set to graduate with my Masters degree, and then I would be off to CHANGE THE WORLD! Why did she feel the need to hurt me?
Sparing you the details (Someday I’ll write the whole story down!) I tried hard to focus on the positive. This included what I thought was healthy venting with trusted friends. My co-teacher was great at assuring me that I was a wonderful educator with fabulous vision. She was great at telling me that what was happening to me was unfair and immature. She invited me over to her place one night to talk more. My frustration faded after some healthy venting around a campfire. I felt better and we began laughing and joking. I sent a text message to a former coworker, expressing how frustrating the whole situation was. I made a bad joke, meant to make her laugh and respond with some friendly wisdom. But it was late and she didn’t respond that night. I thought that was it.
I can now safely tell you that venting in written form is NOT a good idea. You see, that simple joke somehow got back to my old boss. Understandably, she was upset. I guess she also felt vengeful. I had pushed her buttons the wrong way, and now I had given her all the material she needed to hurt me.
Two days later I was fired from the company that I had given my all to for almost seven years. Fired for sending a text message that sounded threatening. Fired for venting to someone I thought shared my frustrations. I felt like I was being fired for speaking up about things that I didn’t feel were ok. I felt like my passion and my big mouth had turned against me. I was devastated and felt broken and betrayed. Sadly, this was just the beginning.
The next morning, I was trying to regroup and focus on the next step. I was updating my resume when there was a knock on my door. I was quickly arrested and taken to jail. I was charged with a felony offense of “terroristic threats.” If you google that specific charge, you can start to see how one joking comment in writing can be twisted into a threat if you use any triggering words or if the person on the other side simply says that they feel threatened.
For the next seven months I was in and out of court rooms as the police searched my car, my apartment, my laptop, my phone, and my whole life for evidence that I was a violent criminal, threatening the life of my former boss. I had to defend my character, my motivations, and my passions to people who didn’t know me. I was told that a simple “LOL” or laughing face at the end of my text would have identified it as a joke, but without it could be construed as a threat. I was arrested for not using the correct emoji to convey my intent.
Completely unsuccessful in their search to defame me, the charges were eventually dropped, and the arrest was taken off my record. It was essentially as if nothing had ever happened. Except that it all DID happen, and I still live with that truth. I thought my life was ruined and feared I would never work with kids again. I felt as if my hard work and drive to change the world had been wasted. My spirit was crushed and my passion seemed to be gone. It took me a long time to rebuild any confidence.
Telling this story is tricky. As you can imagine, I’m constantly dealing with fears of saying too much, saying the wrong thing, or speaking up at the right times. I tell my story not to scare anyone, but to inspire real discussion about how stressful things can be. As educators, our advocacy on behalf of the children SHOULD be something we take seriously and speak about with passion. As teachers, you WILL encounter frustrating people and sometimes maddening issues. These issues deserve your focus and attention because the work we do is so very important. We should be talking more about how to deal with that stress in constructive and safe ways. There isn’t a college course to keep you out of jail, but maybe there should be more of a focus on how to tactfully address important issues. How do we stand up for kids when it means standing up to huge risks or positions of power?
In many careers, but especially in education, teamwork and communication are key. Being able to process important issues and emotions is imperative, and there are certainly times when venting to coworkers is the best way to get real, applicable feedback. However, when our emotions are overloaded and we need to process on a more personal level, it’s important to find support networks that are disconnected from the direct conflict. There is great value in the perspective of a third party that cannot be reached through teacher’s lounge venting or jokes between coworkers. Sometimes blowing off a bit of steam helps a lot. Other times, more professional action should be taken. In my case, I wasn’t being treated well, and I chose to vent when I should have voiced my valid concerns with the appropriate people. And I regret that. Every day.
I can’t tell anyone what sorts of discussions to have after reading this, but I’d be more than open to hearing feedback to some of the questions I’ve asked myself. What are some constructive ways to vent when you’re frustrated? How can we support each other in a field that calls for passion and strong advocates? How can we overcome obstacles big and small in our careers? What sort of protections do we need to take to keep doing passionate work? How can sharing our struggles help others?
My story has a happy ending, because I refused to accept that chapter of my life would be the defining one. Years later I’m still changing the world every day with and for children. I’m more motivated than ever before to make change in education. So, this isn’t a lecture on safe venting. This is a simple message to current and future educators. Use your passion. Support each other. Speak up as an advocate for children. Never stop learning. While you’re doing all that, be careful with your words, actions, and influence. You are doing the most important work in the world.
Please give our guest blogger some feedback to her questions in the comments below. She’d be grateful.