Teacher Stories Episode 5 - Learning to Lead with Noelle Tabor


Hello, welcome to the teacher stories podcast. My name is Denis Lantsman and I'm your host. I have a really great episode for you this week. It touches on a lot of different things. Wacky administrators and the utter chaos that teachers have to work in sometimes. How people advocate for themselves and the conditions of their school.
I think most importantly today's story is about being put into uncomfortable situations and the things that make us rise up to the occasion and be there for our friends and our community. So without further ado here is Noelle.
Denis: [00:01:00] So, Hey Noelle, welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for being with us today. How are you doing?
Noelle: [00:01:03] I'm good. Thank you for reaching out. This is, you know, a crazy time right now with, you know, COVID, but I'm doing ok.
Denis: [00:01:11] So to get us started, can you tell us a little bit about your background in teaching?
Noelle: [00:01:15] Yeah. So, I've wanted to be a teacher since I was a child. I had no backup plan. If teaching didn't work out, I... I don't know what I would do. I was always involved in teaching programs. And then I went to college for four years, to teach and specifically to teach in high needs areas.
Denis: [00:01:37] What drew you to that? Like, what was your motivation in choosing this path?
Noelle: [00:01:41] This was in high school. One summer I went to do a tutoring session, with younger students. There were just so many more issues that they had to deal with that other students, that's not even on their minds.
We had students who had to take care of the younger siblings, and these were like middle school students or like older elementary school students having to help their little siblings.
And the students were so far behind educationally, but they wanted to learn and they cared so much and they were so honest.
They were the most blunt children I had met and I loved that about them. And from then on, I was like, you know what, like, this is what I want. I want to be in this environment. Where  the students will be completely honest with me, even if I don't like it. And just where, like they do need a little bit of extra love and help, as well as the education.
Denis: [00:02:42] Could you share something about yourself that doesn't have anything to do with teaching or education or anything like that?
Noelle: [00:02:50] Let's see. I grew up as a pastor's child, in a Southern Baptist church.
Being a pastor's kid, you always have everyone's eyes on you and everyone is constantly judging you. So you always have to be on your A-game. And that was really hard as a child, but it also helps me to not be worried as much about what other people think of me or what other people say of me, because I've probably heard worse.
And yeah, I just had to be perfect.
Denis: [00:03:21] So just feel free to go ahead and if we need to I can ask some clarifying questions about the setup and things like that.
Noelle: [00:03:28] We had heard a lot of rumors that our school was going to expand. We had heard that we were going to start a new school in Newark. We weren't really sure if it was happening. It was all over the place. The state had closed a lot of schools in Newark that year, a lot of charter schools.
And so everything happened really fast. All of a sudden we were going to have two school buildings. We weren't really sure what was happening. Everything was chaos. But the state told us like, you're opening this. We were only gonna  open for 9th and 10th graders, I believe. And the state said, nope, you're having 9th through 12th.
So all the teachers at the Jersey City campus, we were like, we're not prepared for this. This is not going to be okay. And we're expressing our concerns, but the decision was made and that was that.
Denis: [00:04:25] What was that process like?
Noelle: [00:04:27] Over the summer to open up this new campus, the Jersey City campus got ignored.
All of our janitorial staff was over there. They, they brought two teachers from the Jersey City campus to the Newark campus and one vice principal who became the principal over there.
But all the attention was on the Newark campus and, so the Jersey City campus, we, we weren't prepared. We didn't have a schedule until I think the master schedule wasn't even created until like the week before school. So that meant we didn't actually have classes for at least the full first week.
We didn't know who we were teaching or what we were teaching. And then even during the first month the schedule changed so many times because all the attention was on the Newark campus.
I am a math teacher, but I was teaching seven different courses. So seven distinct curriculums and I had eight different classes of students. Mmm. And I forgot how many students I had, but I believe it was over 200 students that I had. I didn't have the support that I needed. There was one period of the day where I was supposed to teach 20 students Algebra 2 at the same time that I was supposed to teach 10 students who had already passed Algebra 2, but couldn't go on to college courses. I was supposed to teach them a pre college class. So in the same classroom, 30 kids, 20 one class, 10 another.
I would do it and I had a good rapport with my students. However, as soon as I started working with the seniors, the juniors had questions and the juniors needed my help and they felt like they couldn't go on without it.
And so then I would finish with the seniors now, go back over to the Algebra 2 students, and then the seniors are distracting the Algebra 2 students. And they're saying, why do we have to be here? We've already passed Algebra 2. So they were upset at the entire system. And so it was a constant pull from both sides and it just, it felt impossible to be able to succeed at anything management or the education portion.
So I. I was frustrated with having to be put in this terrible situation. And I just felt like there was no way that I could do even a mediocre job.
Denis: [00:07:08] I think some people in that situation would say, well, I'm set up to fail. So I'll just coast through this class period, you know, no, the kids aren't really going to learn, I'm going to have management trouble and like, whatever, I'm not going to be successful here. You seem, like not the kind of person who was able to let that go.
Noelle: [00:07:28] I find the best teachers are the ones that are hardest on themselves and it does not matter what situation I'm put into. I feel like if I can't succeed, it is partially me too.
It may not be entirely my fault, but I could be doing something better. And that killed me, that I felt like I could not find something to be able to succeed and to do better.
Denis: [00:07:59] You would say this was just a part of your personality, or would you say this is common for, for teachers in general to feel this way?
Noelle: [00:08:06] I mean, it is definitely part of my personality. but I also feel that teaching is a part of my personality and I find that it is pretty common for teachers. A lot of us are perfectionists in our trade and it does not matter what situation we're put into. I feel like a lot of teachers, just feel like they need to succeed no matter what position they're put in.
There was one day where I was just trying to get the students to do just a warmup. And there was this 10 students over here who were doing their own thing. And my 20 students who were distracted by the 10 students. And my 20 students, they were already students who struggled with math. So they're already struggling with math on top of being distracted.
And I turned around, I faced the board and I was almost in tears. Like tears were just welling up in my eyes. I went to my principal at the time and I said, I cannot do this. I tried. And I can't. and I, I said, I, I can't come back to work until this is fixed. Because I will just break down.
Denis: [00:09:20] What was the reaction to that?
Noelle: [00:09:21] Well, this wasn't the first time I had spoken to them. And before they were like, Oh, you can do it. You're a great teacher. You can do it. And so this is when I just got to my wit's end and I said, I'm not coming back to school until this is fixed. And by Monday it was fixed.
Denis: [00:09:43] How did they end up resolving that?
Noelle: [00:09:45] They took those 10 students and put them into somebody else's class.
Denis: [00:09:51] So how did things evolve from there?
Noelle: [00:09:55] So, the teachers who especially had been there for four years, some for more, got together and we said, this is awful. We all want to quit, but we can't do that to the kids. So let's try to come up with some plans.
We created TAC, which was the teacher advisory council and we said, alright, let's come up with some short term changes that can be implemented tomorrow. And some longterm changes that can be implemented in a couple months, that we can give these to the board of trustees and the administration and say, this is how you can help us so that we all don't quit.
Denis: [00:10:39] What was the process like of forming TAC?
Noelle: [00:10:42] So I actually hadn't formed tack that was Ryan who, we started the same year.
He was an English teacher. So he was the organizer because he would speak up during faculty meetings and he would say like this isn't okay, the treatment, and we demand answers and we demand change. So they really, the teachers really saw him as this figure to look up to.
I think one major, which seems like a silly step, but, the administration, seeing that morale was down was like, alright, let's do a teacher of the month.
So it started a teacher of the month in which the teachers got to vote for who they wanted to be teacher of the month. And they always gave us, like this teacher of the month is going to be "hard work". Like that's going to be the theme and they would give us like a page to read. And we're like, we're not reading this.
So first teacher of the month was Ryan and, and it was all anonymous. And so we were like, you know what? We all supported him enough to like become teacher of the month. So like, I think we have enough people to actually make a difference right now.
So when he said let's organize this, teacher advisory council, they said, yes, let's do this.
We had to do this, all of private emails and all, so that, the administration wouldn't hear because as a, not unionized school, you have no protections.
So they could just say like, I don't like what you're doing and fire us. So we had to do a lot of this in secret. So for the people who signed that letter, it was a big deal. Cause they could have retaliated against us.
So I did a survey of the teachers. How are you feeling? How supported do you feel? If you were offered a job in January, would you take it? How likely are you to stay at the school at the end of the school year?
Denis: [00:12:47] What were your findings?
Noelle: [00:12:49] My findings were depressing. I had found that the teachers who had been there for four or more years, felt the worst, felt the least supported and had a higher rate to leave, but across the board, we only had a handful of teachers who said that they would stay back for the next year and more than 50% of the teachers. Actually I think it was more than 75% of the teachers said that they would leave in January if given another job.
Denis: [00:13:27] Oh. If they had a, if they had a competing offer?
Noelle: [00:13:30] Yeah.
Denis: [00:13:31] Okay, this letter, you said outlined some things that needed to change immediately and some like more longterm things. Can you, can you tell us a little bit more about what was in there?
Noelle: [00:13:39] Yeah. So the immediate changes was, for example, we wanted to get rid of the test prep classes. There, there wasn't evidence that they were helping and they were adding to our workload. Three of my courses were test prep classes, and the kids didn't care about them, which makes it even more difficult to teach. So, one of the major things that was on our list was to either get rid of these test prep classes or allow us to make them more of a study hall. So that we are helping the kids in learning the subject matter in which we are the teacher, but we don't have to focus on a test and just teaching to the test.
Denis: [00:14:25] Okay. And then as far as like the more longterm changes.
Noelle: [00:14:31] Longterm changes was like to change the schedule to only, to only have us teach four different courses, at a certain time. And if they were forcing us to teach more courses, to pay us for those extra courses.
Denis: [00:14:45] So  the school board and the administration, at least as far as you know, didn't really know about TAC, while you were drafting this letter. How did you present the letter and, what was the reaction like?
Noelle: [00:14:58] So there's monthly board meetings. So Ryan and I, and a couple other teachers went to the board meeting and there's always public comment.
So Ryan read the letter, as well as one of the other teachers finished out the letter. And I gave the statistics. I made charts and graphs and I made it pretty and easy for them to read. And they were very like, like stone face and just like nodding.
Denis: [00:15:27] What was the mood, on your side, as you were planning for this like grand reveal?
Noelle: [00:15:32] We were so nervous. We were like shaking. We're worried. Like, are they going to fire us over this? There were some people that are like, I'll sign the letter, but like, I can't be there. And like maybe my signature is like not legible. They were just scared. Like, are they going to go through the list and say like you're fired, you're fired.
So we were very nervous.
Denis: [00:15:57] Paint the scene for us of going to the meeting.
Noelle: [00:16:02] We all walked in together. The board sat in a U shape behind tables. Earlier in that year, one of the board members, cause we spoke a couple of times to the board, like as individuals, one of the board members yelled at a teacher who was crying, as she's speaking in public comment and one of the board members yelled at her and said, "stop being so testy. You're being emotional" so people were scared that that's what they were going to do again. So we sat down all together. We're texting each other the entire time. Like you'll do great. It's okay.
So we spoke. as like Ryan was reading the letter, we're all like looking at our papers. So that's probably why I don't remember their reactions too much. Cause we're all like reading the paper, like just following where he is.
Like we were just so scared. And I got up and, you know, passed out my papers. I'm shaking as I'm passing out my papers. And, I remember one thing that I had said, I said, you know, like I had told you already I'm teaching seven different courses. And one of the board members said, can I ask a clarifying question?
Yes. She said, what are you certified in? I said math. She said, okay. And her tone and her body language and everything just felt like she was trying to say, if you're certified in math, why is this a problem? You're teaching math.
Denis: [00:17:43] So what do you think about that allegation?
Noelle: [00:17:47] Yes, I should be able to teach all of math. I am technically certified to teach all of math from kindergarten to calculus.
But that doesn't mean that I don't need prep time, but it doesn't mean that I can just teach off the fly and not have to plan and prepare. And that also doesn't mean that I'm going to be good at teaching every single math topic. Especially when I'm teaching seven different ones.
Denis: [00:18:17] Okay. So it sounds like the reaction was somewhere on the range of like restrained hostility to ambivalence the day of.
Noelle: [00:18:26] So, they, they gave the letter and the statistics to the acting superintendent. And they said, alright, you can deal with this, we're just going to pass it off to you. You deal with this. But our issue was that they weren't dealing with it and that's why we had brought it to the school board.
Denis: [00:18:48] I see. So, what was the, what was the aftermath like immediately following the meeting?
Noelle: [00:18:53] Weird silence for awhile? We didn't hear much at all. And, we overheard from one of the secretaries that a couple of weeks later they picked up our papers and they were laughing about it. Like these demands that they want.
So they came to us with "solutions" to like two of our problems, which actually made it more difficult. They said the PARCC prep classes, you still have to teach them, but we'll make them pass/fail. Which could seem like to somebody on the outside alright, that's easier. Like all you have to do, like you don't really have to grade anything. You just make everything pass or fail. Did they do it? Did they not? However pass fail, the kids don't have to care as much. It's not affecting their GPA. If they pass it with like a C minus and did no work and pushed back on the teacher the entire time they still pass.
We still had to teach the content. We still had to plan for the content. The only difference was we put a P or an F on it.
Denis: [00:20:07] Okay. So that was really a non solution.
Noelle: [00:20:09] Yeah, there was almost a month that had passed, and nothing had changed. So, at this point, we felt we had exhausted everything that we could do on our own, so, Ryan had reached out to NJEA and said, we want to unionize.
Denis: [00:20:27] What is the difference in terms of leverage between what you had done so far with the TAC and what NJEA would allow you to do?
Noelle: [00:20:37] A big thing is resources. All we had was the teachers, we didn't have any experts on any issues. We just had a bunch of teachers who were in the situation. NJEA has a lot of resources. They have lawyers to help support us. Before unionizing, we had no say in what went in our contracts and in how much money we get paid.
We just had to say, yes, I want the job or no, I don't want the job. But with unionizing and with NJEA they help you create a contract, they help you create a salary guide. It gives you legal backing. So if the administration or the board goes against something that you've agreed upon, there's actually legal repercussions. With TAC, it was just a gentleman's agreement. If they had actually agreed to it, and it's just us threatening, like we'll quit, but if we unionize, it's not, we'll quit, it's, we'll get this changed and you will face the consequences.
Denis: [00:21:44] And what was the reaction from the, from the rest of you? Like, did this seem like a good idea? Were you on board?
Noelle: [00:21:52] Yeah, people, people were like, okay. But they were scared still. They were scared that the administration and the board would still retaliate. And like, what happens if we do unionize can't they just fire us all?
So people were still really scared. but then meeting with NJEA, we got more details and like why we shouldn't have to be scared anymore.
Denis: [00:22:16] Hmm. And what was that guidance?
Noelle: [00:22:18] So in New Jersey, it's actually illegal to retaliate, if employees unionize, and then once there's a union, we have lawyers that support us and that back us up.
So if they did try to fire us, we would have a lawyer on hand, to fight our case and to make sure that we weren't fired unjustly. And yeah, and the administration, in this inbetween time, wouldn't find out who signed up and who didn't until we officially had those protections.
Also at this point, we went from just being teachers to being all inclusive. So instead of just fighting for the teacher issues, we also then included the secretaries, the janitors, the hall monitors, the security guards.
So we became all inclusive instead of just working for teachers.
Denis: [00:23:12] So was the administration aware of your efforts during this time, or were you able to do this all kind of under the table?
Noelle: [00:23:19] On December 12th, we had different floors that we were all going to, and we did this all before school. So they couldn't say we were taking school time to do it. And we just went classroom to classroom, to every single person and asked them if they would like to sign it.
I think after the first day they did know what was going on, but they weren't organized the administrators weren't organized even within themselves to be able to do anything or even know what they could do.
So they didn't fight us. And then finally, one day there was a board meeting and Ryan went. I was unfortunately not able to go to that board meeting. He went, he stayed till the end.
And, the board secretary said, oh, by the way, the teachers and staff created a union. We need to vote on them to recognize them. And they were like, wait, what do you mean? So she explained a little bit more. And so somebody goes, so it's like a union? And she says, no, it is a union. And they said, Oh, well, can we really do anything about it?
Like, can we stop it? And she said, no, they said, okay, well, I guess we'll vote to recognize them. It voted to recognize us. And then we were official.
Denis: [00:24:45] That's a very anti-climactic resolution. Okay. What happened then, after that, once you were actually a union?
Noelle: [00:24:53] We started going to all these different professional developments. Ryan and I went to a lot of professional developments together and understanding what a union is. We went to our first one together. So they were going table by table and they were introducing themselves all the different public charter school unions.
And they're saying, oh, I'm president, I'm vice president, blah, blah, blah, Ryan and I turned to each other and it's like, Who's president who is vice, what, what is this? And he said, well, do you want to be co-presidents? And I said, no, I don't want to be president. You can be president. I will work as a co-president but I don't want that. I do not want that title. And he said, okay, I'll be president. You'll be vice president, but we'll work together. So that was that.
And so we were just learning about, advocating and we were learning about how a union can support us. And I went to a session about grievances and how you can file a grievance against the administration and what that process is. Then Ryan and I started working with a consultant with NJEA to start our contract that we wanted.
So we took sample contracts. We took contracts from other public charter schools, and we created this document that was 26 pages long of what we wanted in a contract, what rights we wanted, what protections we wanted, what grievance process we wanted. Like everything on our wishlist that we wanted to present to the board.
And that was going to be our next, really big step, to create this contract and then start contract negotiations. And then he got a letter saying that he was not going to be renewed for the next school year. He wasn't getting a contract next year.
Denis: [00:26:44] I think charters aren't required to give a justification for why they're not renewing some of these contracts. Is that right?
Noelle: [00:26:51] So in New Jersey, they don't have to give you an explanation upfront. All the rules are the same for public charters and traditional publics in New Jersey. So we did ask for the letter of reasoning, that was our next step.
And it took a while to get that letter, which seemed weird. Cause if you're gonna, you know, not hire someone back, you should have the reasons ready.
So we got the list of reasons and it was all fabricated. Disrupting and not allowing professional development to continue. Oh, the wording was derailing faculty meetings.
Denis: [00:27:28] Oh. And this was probably referring to the fact that he would speak out, to represent the faculty and outlined the problems that they were having.
Noelle: [00:27:36] Yes. Okay. There was another weird one saying that he refused to administer a practice PARCC test, which was blatantly wrong. He administered it with another teacher in the room, so we didn't really know where that came from.
Denis: [00:27:59] So it sounds like they just kind of, from your point of view at least, they kind of scraped together some justification after the fact.
But was it pretty clear to you that this was retaliation for his organizing efforts?
Noelle: [00:28:15] Yeah, it was definitely retaliation.
Denis: [00:28:17] I see. So, what was, what was Ryan's reaction or what was your reaction to this?
Noelle: [00:28:23] Yeah, I was in denial. I, I said, Nope, Nope, we're going to win. You're going to stay. We're going to continue. This is not going to happen. justice is going to prevail and he, he believed he could win. But he also pulled me aside and said, we might lose. And if we lose, I know you can take over and I know you'll be a great president and I, I told him, thank you, but I'm not going to have to be, so I'm not gonna think about it.
We went through what's called a Donaldson hearing, which means we can present our case and, our case of why he deserves to stay. We got letters. There was letters from students, teachers, community members. One of the former students actually came and spoke on Ryan's behalf.
And so we, we fought it, but unfortunately there was some infighting within the board of trustees. And we didn't have enough proof to say that it was just his organizing efforts.
He walked out of the room as soon as the vote happened. I actually had to stay in there because they push public comments to the end. And I had written a speech about how the union wanted to work with the administration and work with the board.
And so I had to stand there and tell them that I was serious about working with them and having a good working relationship on the verge of tears. That was the hardest, one of the hardest speeches I've ever had to make.
Denis: [00:30:05] Yeah. Wow. That must've been very difficult. Yeah.
Noelle: [00:30:09] Yeah. As soon as I left the room, I broke down.
Denis: [00:30:14] Mmm. Yeah, that's rough. So what was the process like for, handing off the presidency, and the operations of the union at the school?
Noelle: [00:30:24] Yeah, it was, yeah, the hardest part was going from being the supportive vice president to having to be the face.
And being composed. Cause that was always his role. He was the go getter. He was the fighter. He would do anything, and very publicly and I was always on the back end just supporting. So it was really hard to all of a sudden be the face and have to present myself, as the president.
I instantly felt the weight of that position. And even in how I was dressing. Like I dressed like a normal teacher, like a little bit relaxed, more casual, but I felt like I even had to present myself visually different, especially in front of the board, but also in front of my peers to make sure that they believe in me. So I felt like I had to like prove myself in front of everybody.
I daily felt that I couldn't do it by myself. I, I would go to a mentor and shut the door and I would say, I can't do this. I. I don't believe I have the tools to do this, but if not me who, so there was the, it felt it was daily. It was a constant internal struggle.
Denis: [00:31:59] Do you remember kind of the first few things that you had to do as president?
Noelle: [00:32:06] Yes. It was a big one.
We were ending the school year. They had told us that they were freezing our pay, that we were not going to be getting raises for the next school year. And that we didn't have a contract. So I tried working with the new superintendent because also during the same time period the acting superintendent left and we actually hired an actual superintendent, who was actually a vice principal at the school. So I started working with him on a memorandum of agreement. We couldn't do an entire negotiated contract, but I wanted to make sure that a couple of things were set in place.
So I worked with him, I gave him a list of things that we would like. Including a regular school day and payment for extra classes and making sure that people have enough prep periods, and they don't have seven different courses they have to teach.
And after I presented it to him, I, we sat down for over two hours and went through line by line. Yes, we can do that. No, we can't do that. We can change this to a four instead of a three. So that was the first big thing that I had to do as president.
Denis: [00:33:28] And how did that go? You were feeling at the time that like you weren't cut out for this, did that feeling remain while you were doing the negotiation or did you kind of step into the role once you were actually doing things.
Noelle: [00:33:40] Yeah. Once, once I had to do that, I really felt like, I was actually president and I, I felt presidential and I felt confident. Being an equal to the superintendent, which is a huge change going from being someone's employee to be an equal with them.
Unfortunately, after we went through the list and agreed on things, then he turned around and said, oh yeah, by the way, I'm going to be sending, you know, the contracts for next year. And I said, okay. So the things that we discussed and he said, no, I wrote a new one.
Denis: [00:34:20] Oh. So he completely discarded things that you had talked about.
Noelle: [00:34:24] Yes. So I asked him like, can I see it before you roll it out? So that we can roll it out together and we can work together showing the unity between the admins and the union. He said, yeah, no problem. A week went by. He said, Oh, it's not ready yet. And then it was the last week of school, we haven't signed a contract yet to make sure we have a job for the following year.
It came to the last day of school. And that morning, I said, you need to show me beforehand and you need to give people time to read it and sign it. He showed it to me. It was nothing of what we had agreed to. It was longer work hours, longer than we had had in two years. With, again, no extra pay we're being frozen.
There was nothing about how many class periods we could teach, so it stripped away a lot of our rights. And I was very upset. He had hid it from me for weeks. He had gone against everything we had talked about. And now he was trying to tell people that, he was gonna let us see the contract that day and we had to sign it before we left.
Denis: [00:35:42] So it was really a pressure tactic.
Noelle: [00:35:47] And on top of this, the board hadn't approved it. The board has to approve something to be a legal contract because our contract is with the board. So he was trying to have one piece of paper saying was our contract, how much money we're getting and what position we had.
And then four pieces of paper saying, this is an addendum to the contract, but the addendum had not been approved by the board. So it wasn't legally binding, but he was still trying to make us sign it.
Denis: [00:36:17] Do you have a sense of like where this was coming from? Like, why do this why sit you down and go through this process and then, do a complete 180 and do this high time pressure tactic?
So can you talk a little bit about your impression of why were they acting this way?
Noelle: [00:36:36] We had no idea. We were all stunned. We didn't know where this was coming from. He was pretty well liked. And now all of a sudden he's being manipulative and trying to force us to sign things.
Denis: [00:36:50] So what happened with the contract?
Noelle: [00:36:53] So since it was two separate documents, I encouraged everyone. Please sign the contract. It is signed by the board and as a legally binding document, it says you're accepting the position and how much money. Sign that.
You don't have to sign the other piece, the board hasn't signed it. The board has not seen it has not approved it. It's not legally binding, so don't sign it. Or if you feel compelled that you have to sign, then write "signed, but not agreed to", or "signed under duress". So there was over 30 teachers, who ended up not signing that second piece.
So, about a week after school let out, at four o'clock, that we got an email from the superintendent and it was sent to only 10 of us.
And it said "you did not sign the addendum to the contract. If you do not sign it by 8:00 AM tomorrow, you have officially quit as of two weeks ago."
Denis: [00:38:02] Okay. So to you reading this as the president, what was your reaction?
Noelle: [00:38:09] First of all, it's illegal and he can't do this. One to only give us from after close of day, one day to the beginning of the day, the next day.
And to make us sign something that the board hasn't approved to say that we quit as of two weeks prior, you're doing this illegally. And why? And why did you pick those 10 people? I knew there was over 30 people who had not signed that document, but he only sent that to 10 people.
Denis: [00:38:43] Okay. So that's pretty strange. What was your response?
Noelle: [00:38:47] So at first I tried to text him, I tried calling him. He used to be very responsive. He would answer my calls and answer my texts. I tried texting and tried to call him that I was very angry with him saying like, you can't do this. It's illegal. And he wasn't responding. I messaged our Uniserv rep, but with NJEA and he said, yeah, he can't do this. What's going on?
But then, so he got in contact with, some people hadn't NJEA and they said, no, you can't do this so you can have people sign it and just sign it under duress. Again, the, the superintendent told us this on like four o'clock on a Monday and said by 8:00 AM tomorrow. He didn't answer any of my calls, texts, or emails that day.
We did not have access to this document. I didn't have a copy and it was never sent to us electronically, which is another thing I had asked three weeks prior. So, some people who did have the document with them still, signed it, signed it under duress and sent it in, but a majority of those people did not have the document. So we all emailed him asking him, all right. If you're going to make us do this, you need to send it to us electronically so we can print it out and sign it.
And we were all really scared. We had one person who was over in Asia in the complete opposite time zone. Dealing with a death in the family and he didn't have access to a printer, didn't have access to the document.
He waited at a Kinko for four hours waiting for the email, waiting for that document.
So we're all emailing him, texting him, calling him, he's not responding. And he said, by 8AM the next day. So there was a couple of people who actually went to the school. I didn't have that opportunity to go to the school cause I had a summer job. So he doesn't arrive to the school until nine o'clock. The couple people who were there, he gave the paper to allow them to sign it. And then the people who had emailed him, he sent them an electronic copy.
He sent it to everybody, except for me. I had emailed him multiple times, called him, texted him and he did not send it to me. So I had to reach out to one of my members who I know got the electronic copy. She then forwards it to me, but this is 11 o'clock at this time. And now I'm at my summer job. As soon as I get home, which was in the early afternoon. I printed it out. I signed it. I sent it in.
I don't hear anything. No one else hears anything. The next day. So now Wednesday, I get an email at 11 o'clock in the morning saying since you were the only one who did not sign this on time by 8:00 AM, you officially have quit as of two weeks ago and you will get a followup email to see if you want to pay extra for your health insurance over the summer.
Denis: [00:42:09] Wow. This was from the superintendent? Yeah. Okay. So it's pretty clear that he's up to shenanigans at this point.
Noelle: [00:42:18] Yes. I know no one had turned it in on time, so I wasn't the only one everybody had turned it in late. Cause we didn't get it until late.
As soon as I read the email, I broke down crying. Like, how could this happen? This is illegal. How could he do this? It's a blatant lie. My husband at the time was in California, for the whole summer. So I'm trying to reach out to him calling him I'm I have a no job. I'm not employed. What am I going to do? Our health insurance is through me, like. I was scared that I wasn't going to have health insurance or a job.
And it's already July. Trying to find a job when it's already July is really difficult. I reached out to the NJEA, a Uniserv rep and, he doesn't know what's going on. So he reaches out to the, the NJEA lawyers, making sure that we do have a legal case and then reached out to the board lawyer to try and be like, what's going on, like, this is illegal. Why is this happening?
And I know there was a lot of back and forth. And, what had ended up happening was it, it took a few days. They knew they had no legal case. And they ended up letting me have my job back. But from what they had told me, it was a personality thing. They were upset that I had disrespected them and gone against them and encouraged people to not sign this document. So I needed to suck it up and I needed to sign it. So I did, I had already signed it and they said, well, send it again. So I sent it again, and I had signed it under duress because that is the definition of duress. They said, we're not accepting this. If you're saying this is under duress, we're not accepting it.
So resign it. And if you don't resign it, you don't have a job. They had no legal case, but, I was instructed to print it out again, sign it again with just my name on it. Because they were hurt by my actions.
Denis: [00:44:29] That is, that is so crazy. How did they tell you that it was about hurt feelings?
Noelle: [00:44:36] Just something the lawyer had told my rep.
Denis: [00:44:40] Okay. So let's like, it wasn't even directly to you. It was just a, yeah. And so they were hurt by the fact that you called them on their illegal shenanigans.
Noelle: [00:44:52] Yeah.
Denis: [00:44:53] Okay. Oh yeah. That is next level. I mean, that is just absolutely mind blowing that, you know, these are grown people like professionals.
I mean, supposedly they have, you know, at least the board members have jobs, and like are responsible adults. And to have to have them act this way, like it's just, like a petulant child.
Noelle: [00:45:18] And within 24 hours of getting the letter saying that I didn't have a job anymore, they blocked me out of my email. They blocked all of my stuff. I had no access to my online materials. And I had friends who had quit the school four years ago and still had access to their email. Yeah.
Denis: [00:45:36] I see. So once you sucked it up and signed the, the contract, supposedly not under duress, what was the, what happened after that?
Noelle: [00:45:46] So I kept pushing saying like, well, I need, you know, verification that I do have a job and health insurance and get back into my email. And they said, well, you're going to have to wait a week. They would not send me an email or let me into my email or show me that I had health insurance for a week.
Denis: [00:46:08] Well that's fun
Noelle: [00:46:09] They said, you need to have patience.
Denis: [00:46:11] Yeah, that's nasty.
Noelle: [00:46:14] Yeah. so I finally did, after a week, get an email that said, you have a job, but you're disrespectful, and don't ever do that again.
Denis: [00:46:26] Don't ever be disrespectful again. Okay. Yeah. That's interesting.
Noelle: [00:46:30] And, that went in my official file.
Denis: [00:46:33] I see. Wow. Okay. So how, what was your, you know, what was going through your mind at the time? Like, how were you feeling at this point?
Noelle: [00:46:45] I was feeling angry, but also justified. Like I know I did the right thing and they vilified me for it. So I'm going to take this energy and I'm going to just use it.
I'm going to be the best president. I'm going to be strong because I know I can. I. I proved to myself that I can stand up during this time. Cause at the same time, I was also helping out my other members to get, the paperwork and make sure that they weren't freaking out. And also, there was a couple issues going on at school, more, more squabbles at the school, over the summer.
And I was still able to help them through those situations. So I felt stronger. And I believed in myself a lot more after the situation.
Denis: [00:47:40] How many years have you been president? Since then?
Noelle: [00:47:43] I have been president for almost two years now. Okay, so this is about a year and a half ago.
Denis: [00:47:50] So how have things evolved in your role as president and particularly in this tension with being disrespectful?
Noelle: [00:47:57] Yeah, so I always made sure I was above board and I always made sure I documented everything. You know, I always watched my back, I used the situation to bring in the new school year. I made an awesome speech about how they tried to bring us down, but we are stronger than them because NJEA is supporting us. And like, we're amazing. So like let's make this school year amazing. Despite anything we have to deal with.
And it felt nice just like it was a nice start of the year. The superintendent was still in charge, but we beat him once and we can do it again.
Then he kept doing the same things. Kept being two-faced to teachers, but then he started doing it to the administration, and he made an enemy out of one of the administrators and they brought this to a board meeting and they unloaded. They told, they told the board everything that he had backstabbed them for, every comment that was inappropriate, sexual in nature, derogatory in nature, racial in nature, that he had made to anybody, and went on for over 30 minutes with this laundry list of things he had done.
And he ended up quitting, he said he couldn't handle the personal attacks that he had had to endure that school year. So he quit.
I see. Rather than be let go for cause. Okay. You have any idea of where he moved on to after that?
I heard he's somewhere in New York.
Denis: [00:49:44] Also being a superintendent?
Noelle: [00:49:46] I don't know about being a superintendent. I heard he might be like a vice principal again.
Denis: [00:49:50] Okay. I see. So continuing his career in education either way. I see. All right, well, that's quite the adventure. How did it feel for you to, to be present for this reckoning?
Noelle: [00:50:03] It felt amazing going from board meetings where one of my best friends is let go to a board meeting that like. We won. We, we helped push out this guy, who was just so derogatory towards us. And so two-faced towards us, like it felt like we were invincible.
Denis: [00:50:25] Wasn't it. I don't know if I was in your situation. I think I would be also very happy, but. There would be a little bit of, a sour note in the fact that, you know, he did all of this blatantly illegal stuff towards teachers. And then it took him kind of stepping on the toes of another administrator to actually like, have anything happen in terms of consequences. Was there a feeling like that for you?
Noelle: [00:50:51] Not really. It came out with the same outcome. So it didn't really bother me. As long as he was gone, because we knew that things would be better without him.
Denis: [00:51:06] So, did things change after he was gone?
Noelle: [00:51:10] Yes. The guy who took over the superintendent position as acting superintendent, was the principal of my building. He had come in, he was new. We didn't really trust him at first.
However, he did come to me and say, I want to have monthly meetings with the union and all of your representatives. I want to talk about issues. I want you guys to bring suggestions and issues to me, and I'm going to bring anything I need to you all. At first I didn't believe him because I didn't trust anybody at that point.
But when he became superintendent, he reminded me, "Hey, remember, I want those monthly meetings. Can we start those?" So we did. And the first one was I think about two hours long with just him and the executive committee. So president vice president, secretary, and treasurer, and we just brought all of our issues and unloaded and he sat there.
He listened. He took notes and he said, yes, these things need to change. So let's work together and change them. And the only thing he brought to the meeting was thank you for your support and thank you for the teachers for doing such a great job.
Denis: [00:52:33] Oh wow. That's a, that's a great start to our relationship.
Noelle: [00:52:39] Also in that school year, the administrator who had a really good relationship with the union is the one who appointed me to become teacher of the year. So that was. It felt great.
Denis: [00:52:53] So you went from being almost fired for disrespect to a teacher of the year in the same year?
Noelle: [00:53:00] Yes. It felt very gratifying.
Denis: [00:53:04] What were some of the positive changes that you've been able to make?
Noelle: [00:53:08] So, yes. So, unfortunately, while my campus was having a really good school year with the admins and the superintendent was the same administrator, the other school building had a very adverse adversary relationship with their administrator. And that administrator then tried to fire a couple of teachers and a couple, essential support personnel.
And it was stressful, but we knew what we had to do. We knew the process in which, you know, since we went through it , we understood the process and we were prepared. We went into the board meeting even before they were officially non-renewed and we said, they do not deserve this. They deserve to keep their job.
We brought, we packed a classroom with teachers and ESPs, which is the essential support personnel and just story after story about why these people deserved to keep their jobs and the board ended up going against that administrator. And keeping those people on board.
Denis: [00:54:21] How were you able to kind of be more preemptive in this situation?
Noelle: [00:54:26] One, because the administrator showed her cards, she told them that she was going to be suggesting that they were not renewed.
So as soon as we heard that we started acting, We also, we also kept an eye on that administrator more because they did have a very, bad relationship with the teachers and the staff. So we were keeping an extra eye out, making sure that she wasn't going to pinpoint anyone. And when we did find out that she was pinpointing people, then we acted as soon as we could, instead of waiting for the process that is legally given to us, we took it into our own hands and, just brought it to the board's attention before they were told the other side of the story.
Denis: [00:55:11] Yeah. So it sounds like there's, there's a lot of value to be proactive in, in situations like this.  Can you talk a bit about cooperating with the new superintendent?
Noelle: [00:55:21] Yeah. We shortened work hours, we were able to get paid for covering other people's classes. So in the past if we were asked to cover somebody's class during our lunch or during our prep period, we had to do it and we weren't getting paid for it.
But when working with the administrator, we were able to get paid for it. And we were able to say, no, if we didn't want to, or if we couldn't that day.
Oh, we were also able to make sure that people are actually working their hours and actually getting paid for the hours that they work. We had some essential support personnel who were being forced to work more than 40 hours a week. And weren't getting overtime for those extra hours. They were just getting paid salary.
I guess it's really hard to think of the things that I was able to do, with our good relationship, because we talked so often and we were able to fix issues before they came up, because anytime he wanted to do something new. He checked it with me and said like, is this okay? Is there a better way to do this?
We were able to get two weeks off for winter break, which was amazing. We still had to do our 190 days of school, but we had two weeks off for winter break instead of just having one, which makes a huge difference.
So we are finishing up negotiating our contract now. And, we're finally going to be getting the raises that we've been waiting for for the past two years.
Denis: [00:57:05] Yeah, this is the, this is the trope. I think that, that often comes out whenever unions are brought up, it's just like, Oh, unions are just people being greedy, they just want more money. So you've mentioned that you went on a salary freeze. This was a year ago or two years ago?
Noelle: [00:57:25] Two school, years ago.
Denis: [00:57:26] Two school years ago. So you haven't had a raise in that time. And what was the negotiation that you got this year?
Noelle: [00:57:32] It's going to be between a 2 and 3% raise, which is more than some charter schools get.
And then on an aside, we're closing down. So that's the reason why we were going to get about a 3%, but, because our school is being shut down, we weren't able to get as much as we wanted to cause we have to pay for the closing of the school.
Denis: [00:57:59] What does it mean for the school to be shut down?
Noelle: [00:58:03] So in New Jersey charters last for five years and every five years your charter has to be reapproved or renewed. So they have to do well on tests. The culture has to be positive. They have to be financially stable. Things like that. There's an entire like hundred page packet or whatever it is on, the different things that a school needs. And our school, it was very publicized, and some of the newspapers are correct in what they say, but they're missing a lot of pieces.
Yeah, the main reason why we're being shut down is because of our past. The things that I've told you about with the bad administrators and the aggressive board and the changes in the administrators we've gone through, I think four superintendents in the past three years, and our scores dipped as soon as we opened up the other campus, it's a whole new city.
And this is a brand new school. The Newark school has only been open, this is the third year. So when we were judged, it had only been open for two years. And Newark is a really difficult place to teach. And so to start a new school, it's going to be rough. So they didn't even have five years to get up and running because the Jersey City campus, it was our five years was coming up. To be renewed. So we were mostly judged based on our past and the reasons why we unionized. There was a line in the non-renewal letter that said there's been a lot of progress. However, it hasn't been enough.
Denis: [00:59:54] Huh. I know you mentioned that your original superintendent wanted to expand, but it sounded like you were pressured to expand even more aggressively than you initially planned, which seems to be a message of like, Hey, you're doing a great job. So to go from that, to, to closing the school is, seems odd.
Noelle: [01:00:13] When we expanded, we were under a different governor and a different administration. So now we're under a completely different governor, completely different administration with different goals. We actually did try to close down  the Newark campus in the first year. Yeah. But the state said, no, you can't do that. That's against the law. So they tried to close the school and it was against the law. But now the state comes in and closes both campuses.
Denis: [01:00:41] Yeah, it's just so mind boggling to expect people to do a good job when everything above them, you know, your principals, your vice-principals, your superintendents, and even the state administration is shifting out at such a rapid rate that there's very little continuity of expectations and even basic things like whether or not you're doing the right thing or not. Yeah. That's a, that's really sad to hear.
So you mentioned you're still negotiating a contract. So what does that mean? What is the contract for?
Noelle: [01:01:17] Well, I would really still like to sign all the language that we agreed upon. We did agree upon over 20 pages of language. So even if it's more of a symbol, I would like to still be able to sign that, just to show all the hard work that we had put into it.
We had put over 200 hours, outside of school of work into that, also approving, our increases, our back pay, for increases from the first year, the second year and the second year to this year. And since we are being closed down, one of the things we're signing is making sure that the 12 month employees have insurance over the summer.
The 10 month employees, they have insurance, they are safe, but we're just making sure that the 12 month employees also have insurance over the summer. And also ensuring that we're getting paid out for our vacation days. Because that would be something that's negotiated and that contract, which we didn't have yet.
So making sure that we get paid out for those vacation days.
Denis: [01:02:17] I'm curious, whatever happened to Ryan after, after he left your school?
Noelle: [01:02:24] So Ryan did continue in education. Thank goodness. He is now a teacher in New York. he teaches English. He's enjoying it. I know his students love him. The students at our school still really miss him. but yeah, he's doing well.
Denis: [01:02:40] So you have, a few, a few months left in this school year. What are your plans for what's next?
Noelle: [01:02:48] Well, unfortunately COVID had to happen right now, so I'm trying to find a new school.
I'm trying to, you know, teach math still. And I really want to teach in, a diverse school. And I want to eventually get involved with another union after I'm tenured. I don't want to have to go through that again.
And also I'm trying to make sure that I'm supporting my members with our two months left. Making sure that they have everything they need to find new jobs. I have over 75 members right now. So, you know, we had a workshop on, unemployment and how to sign up for that. And understanding pension and how that works. So trying to support my members mentally as well, because we may never see our kids ever again. So that's really hard for all of us. So supporting them emotionally and also in finding new jobs and being okay after June.
Denis: [01:03:52] Yeah. Yeah. That's a, that's really, it's really hard. I'm really sorry to hear that. One thing I like to ask, do you have any, any advice for people who might find themselves in a similar situation as you, in terms of what you would recommend that they do?
So let's say someone's having a hard time with their administration or maybe they, their administration is up to, you know, shenanigans and, and kind of doing things that they feel like they either know or feel are illegal. What should, what should people do in that context?
Noelle: [01:04:25] Well, first, if a school is not unionized, do it. Unionize as soon as you can. Don't wait. The longer you wait on any issue, the longer it's going to take and the more destruction can happen. And that also works for if you are unionized, if there's an issue, act as soon as possible, the longer you wait, the harder it is to fix that negative culture.
Denis: [01:04:55] Is there anything else that you'd like to say?
Noelle: [01:04:57] Just to never give up no matter what happens, the kids are important, the kids are worth it. And to support each other. Unionization is so important, the solidarity, the resources, because I'm a part of this union. I reached out to some other members and other districts and they're also helping me find a job , which is more than what I can ask for.
Denis: [01:05:28] All right, welcome back. That's the end of this episode and what an amazing story. The part of the story that I liked the most is that, Noelle was really feeling like she wasn't cut out for being a leader, being in the public eye. Being the center of attention and the thing that made her able to do all of those things was the fact that she got the opportunity to take care of people. A lot of the time focusing on what we can do to help other people in our communities can really give us that motivation and that push to become the person that we never thought we would be able to be. So once more, thank you for listening.
You can find a transcript of this podcast at Please, sign up. You can sign up through your favorite podcast app or, on substack, and then you will get episodes in your email and as always, if you are a teacher and you have an interesting story to share, please, please, please reach out to me. I would love to record it.
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