Your Association attorneys can help you if you avoid these gaffes.
by NEA Office of General Counsel
We, the state attorneys who represent members of the National Education Association (NEA), love a good courtroom fight. In fact, we have an impressive win record in board hearings, trials, and appeals. So when clients have been sexually harassed, wrongfully terminated or denied wages, we take careful notes and fight the good fight on their behalf.
Sometimes, however, clients bring us stories that aren’t going to end well—where there is no argument to be made and our client isn’t on the side of truth and justice. In those cases, the most we can do is point out the error of their ways and hand them a Kleenex.
Public school educators are tops in my book. But in hopes of avoiding even one sad story, I’ve listed out the “seven deadly sins” of school employees that leave us in a spot where we really can’t help. All are completely avoidable, completely within the employee’s control, and just should not ever happen—but, unfortunately, they sometimes do.
Sin: Walking off the job.
Grieve (after complying)—don’t leave. The only exception is fleeing from an immediate physical threat. Otherwise, stay on the job and call us afterward about the concern. If you walk off the job, it is the same as quitting.
Sin: Quitting before you talk to us.
This is similar to walking off the job. Using the “I’m going to hold my breath ’til my face turns blue” approach never works. Too many employees say “I quit” expecting their employer to recognize how indispensable they are. While the employee usually ends up apologizing and begging their supervisor for permission to stay, the employee instead hears in blunt terms: “Resignation accepted.” If you quit, you will lose any right to sue, any right to a board hearing, and any chance at unemployment compensation except in extreme cases involving ongoing harassment or discrimination.
Sin: Going to work with liquor on your breath.
Saying you just drank a bunch of cough syrup won’t fly, (Cherry Nyquil smells a whole lot different than vodka; your boss isn’t that naive). Don’t ever, ever, ever drink on the way to work, while at work, or during a break—you will get caught, you will get a termination notice, and we will not be able to help. (As a side note, coming to your attorney’s office with liquor on your breath when facing termination for drinking on the job is also a bit of a no-no—I will take your keys). If you have a drug or alcohol problem, get treatment. If you request it, your Association can likely get the district to work with you to get appropriate leave time and even help get you enrolled in a program. Denial will get you fired.
Sin: Looking at porn while at school.
Please do not use school computers for personal use. Your district knows everything you’ve looked at, down to the nanosecond, and they have the computer records to prove it. You will get fired.
Sin: Leaving students unsupervised.
Indefensible. When you walk away, something bad will happen, (little Billie will somehow blind Sally with a paperclip), and it will be entirely your fault. I understand the “need to use the bathroom” defense. Sadly, that won’t help. Someone must be supervising students during even a quick bathroom break (secretary, paraprofessional, even a custodian). Having someone “watch” from the next room isn’t enough. The number one job of a teacher is to supervise students, no exceptions.
Sin: Texting/emailing suggestive jokes to students.
Do not communicate with students in any way other than a professional manner. When the communication involves anything suggestive, your employer has to presume the worst (i.e., you are sexually involved) and will terminate you. If an allegation of inappropriate contact is made, no matter how false, but the evidence shows sexually oriented jokes were exchanged via text or email, it can result in both termination and criminal charges. Stick to contacting them about assignments, school notices, or general academic encouragement.
Sin: Calling in sick then posting pictures of yourself at the lake, mall, or Disneyland on Facebook.
Ah, my favorite. The employee musters up their raspiest voice, throws in some hacking coughs for good measure, and then leaves a pained message on the school’s answering machine about how they are too sick to come in. All spoken via cell while in a swimming suit floating on the lake, beer in hand. How do we know? Because the employee had their buddy take a picture with his iPhone and post it to Facebook, commenting: “great sick day at the lake!” Once again, here’s your Kleenex and best of luck in your next career…
The bottom line? Think before you act. Or, at the very least, call your regional advocacy specialist before you act so we can help.