Professional Boundaries

Professional courtesy and conflict

Majority Rule, Minority Rights

I read the email from Principal Myers that asked me to stop by his office after school. I gulped, afraid that he wanted to talk about the complaints that Ms. Putram made against Ms. Rochier, a teacher I worked with. Ms. Rochier and I had become close. I was a long-term substitute at the time – as a support person in her class. For weeks, I helped her manage the classroom. As I instructed students at a table in the back of the room, Ms. Rochier’s professionalism always shone through.

“You should be aware of this,” Ms. Rochier said, pulling me to the computer monitor on her desk. On the screen, I read through an email from Eric Putram’s mother; Eric was a quiet dark-haired boy in Ms. Rochier’s Period 3 class. I had worked with Eric that morning on his project. In class, he seemed to be improving his reading and writing skills.

In the email, Mrs. Putram accused Ms. Rochier of neglecting to implement Eric’s IEP. Mrs. Putram described the essay grade that I gave him as “ridiculous”. I took a breath. She went on to characterize Ms. Rochier’s assignments and assessments as “unusual” and “unfair”. I felt my face burn when I saw that Mrs. Putram disregarded the chain of command and sent the email to Cindy Fordham, Eric’s Guidance Counselor, to the Principal, and to the Superintendent and had only cc’d the letter to Ms. Rochier.

Step Back

“Mrs. Putram’s attacking us,” I complained, feeling my heart pound in my chest.

“You know that anyone can say anything about anyone; saying something doesn’t make it true. ”

“But there’s nothing of substance here: no details, no evidence. Just insults, really.”

“In time, the truth often finds its way to the surface.”

“You’re not going to reply?”

“I doubt that Mrs. Putram would be very communicative on the phone. A meeting that includes Eric’s guidance counselor might help to enforce some professional boundaries. I’ll arrange that, and in the meantime, perhaps you could send me a copy of Eric’s essay, if possible?” she asked, pulling out a binder of her instruction materials.

Set the Record Straight

Under buzzing fluorescent lights, Mr. and Mrs. Putram sat at one side of the table, and Ms. Rochier and I – at the other. As we waited for Mrs. Fordham to arrive, Ms. Putram shifted her gaze from the ceiling to a wall. Ms. Rochier tapped her fingers on the folders of papers in her lap. Anxious about possibly getting insulted by Mrs. Putram, I wiggled my toes in my shoes under the seat.

Everyone’s eyes fell on Mrs. Fordham when she entered and sat at the head of the table. “Thank you for coming today. We read your email, Mrs. Putram. I understand that you’d like Ms. Rochier to explain Eric’s essay grade and the context surrounding her assignments and assessments.”

“This packet contains state-sponsored writing samples and a rubric,” Ms. Rochier began. After explaining Eric’s grade, she demonstrated her adherence to the school’s expectations and justified the parameters of her assignments and assessments. “We follow the notion of Majority Rule, Minority Rights within the classroom to ensure that instruction benefits everyone.”

Speak the Truth

Mrs. Putram shook her head. After Ms. Rochier offered to meet with Mrs. Putram again, Ms. Rochier offered to meet with Mrs. Putram again next Marking Period, to update her on Eric’s progress, and she also suggested Mrs. Putram visit the classroom if she’d like. As a result of Mr. Rochier’s accomodations, Mrs. Putram had very little to say. At the end of the meeting, Ms. Rochier chose to express her authentic voice, and with professional courtesy, relayed her displeasure with Mrs. Putram’s email.

“The characterizations of me and my assistant in your letter made me very uncomfortable. I hope that you will refrain from disparaging others like that in the future.”

“I apologize, Ms. Rochier. Thank you for meeting with us today.” Mrs. Putram replied, dropping her gaze as Ms. Rochier and I departed.

A few weeks later, I received Principal Myers’ note, asking me to see him n his office. Worried that Mrs. Putram had again found fault with something in class, I calmed my nerves and took a breath. I had applied for the full-time position at the school that week and was concerned that her crazy email had adversely affected my chances of getting the job.

“So, I understand that you and Ms. Rochier had some trouble with Mrs. Putrum this last marking period.” Principal Myers commented.

In an instance, I chose to follow Ms. Rochier’s example and express my true feelings on the matter when enforcing professional boundaries. “Really, there was no need for Mrs. Putram to frighten everyone with those outrageous claims and no emergency that justified her sidestepping the hierarchy of our institution.”

“In this case, a fifteen-minute-long meeting resolved everything. Ms. Rochier’s presentation attested to the quality of her instruction and to the soundness of her grading systems, assignments, and assessments.”

Principal Myers offered me a position at the school as a full-time support teacher the following week. I accepted. For that, I’d like to give credit to Ms. Rochier for demonstrating how to enforce professional boundaries and to myself for having the courage to apply them in my meeting with Principal Myers. Stepping back and setting the record straight helped me gain Principal Myers’ confidence and secure the position.

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