Confronting a teacher with disturbing behavior   

Q: I’m a principal, and one of the teachers in my school is in a bad state. He doesn’t practice proper hygiene and often takes off “ill” in the middle of the day. He’s forgetful, irresponsible, and seems to have an altered view of reality. Conversations indicate that his perception of events is off, whether he’s relating a conversation with me or with a parent. He’s also not patient, does not connect with children, and appears to be in a constant fog. The classroom itself is a pigsty, and I don’t know how he’s tracking assignments. 

He has told other staff members — but has said nothing to me — that he has been hospitalized for depression. I suspect his behavior might also be related to a drinking problem. I’m sympathetic to his health situation, but he can’t be in the classroom with kids anymore. How would you proceed?  

A: I commend you for wanting to treat your employee with compassion. Part of keeping your community safe includes taking care of your teachers. That said, you’re not a family. If he’s unable to perform his job, he can’t teach children. From your letter, it sounds like this is an ongoing problem. Ideally, you’d have met with him at the first sign of trouble. You’d have let him know that you were concerned and provided resources, such as free and confidential counseling through an employee assistance program. He wouldn’t have needed to give you specifics, but the meeting would have showed that you cared and provided an opening for him to request help. You could have used the opportunity to state your expectations and the consequences of not meeting those expectations.  

To be clear, he was never under any obligation to disclose his mental health issues. It sounds like he shared some information about his past with colleagues but didn’t reveal much about how he’s doing now. You can’t fire someone for depression, but, in this case, you don’t actually know whether he’s depressed. You’ve made observations, but it’s only speculation. You’re not a doctor, and there’s no documentation. It’s possible, of course, that he hid a condition. Some people might worry that they’ll be stigmatized if they disclose a mental health issue. If this teacher did that, however, he may have done so at his own expense. If he’d been forthcoming, he might have had more legal protection. He also might have been able to secure appropriate accommodations. For example, you could have assigned him a mentor, given him time off for therapy, reduced his teaching load, or provided sensitivity training for his coworkers. Along those lines, you might want to consider offering an in-service to all staff on stress management. This teacher might represent an extreme, but all staff benefit from learning how to cope with stress or anxiety.  

You don’t say whether you’re at a public or an independent school. That could make a difference in how you’re able to respond. If you’re in a public school, contact the human resources director who has the expertise to know how to handle a situation like this. That person will know both the legal ramifications and the union requirements and should be your guide through this situation. If you’re in an independent school, you have a little more leeway. You probably wouldn’t have to answer to a union, but you still need to familiarize yourself with school policies and laws. I’d also meet with your human resources specialist and school lawyer to get the lay of the land. Use those conversations to guide your next steps. You might be advised to fire for cause now to avoid needing to make that decision once he’s in a protected category. Regardless of whether you’re a private or public school, document every observation or meeting throughout the process. Keep any discipline information organized and ready to go. If something unexpected happens, you might not have a lot of time to gather documents.    

In terms of your ethics, the compassionate course of action may, in fact, be removing him from his job. He’s clearly not in a fully functional place and may not be feeling good about his performance. You might even be able to “counsel him out” if he agrees there’s a problem. He needs to take care of his mental health and tend to his well-being, and your first responsibility is to the children in your school.   

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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