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Q: I just had a startling conversation with a colleague, Naomi, who’s a high school department chair. She told me she was feeling guilty because she had maneuvered to cut a teacher’s job. This teacher, Sandra, recently had her fourth baby. “I feel bad,” Naomi said, “but honestly, I think she should be home with her kids while they’re so little.” I was shocked. I’d expect that kind of talk in the 1950s “Mad Men” era but not today. For what it’s worth, I’m a male teacher, and Naomi also supervises me. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I can’t stop thinking about the conversation. This feels discriminatory and wrong, and Sandra needs the paycheck. Should I say something to Naomi? To Sandra? Report her statement to someone above her? Do nothing? What are your thoughts?

 

A: Don’t talk to Naomi yet. You know what she said, but you don’t know for certain what factors drove her decision to cut Sandra’s job. She may have targeted her because she thinks she should be home with her kids, or she may have wanted someone with different expertise. She could be rationalizing a difficult decision. You (and others) might find her reasoning offensive, but you’re unlikely to change how she thinks.

So let’s look at this from a different perspective. Leaving aside fairness and ethics, it’s not a smart position to take. As a leader, Naomi should know better. She’s exposing her school to a potential lawsuit. This could be gender bias.

As a teacher, it’s not your job to figure out exactly what happened. You are, however, in a position to bring this to someone’s attention. You have a few options. You could consult human resources or go to your principal/head of school or superintendent (or a combination if you worry anyone else may be complicit). Whom you approach may depend on school policy and how your leadership is structured. Once you’ve shared your concerns, they can take it from there. These situations are rarely clear-cut, so let them do their investigating.

But this doesn’t address your initial discomfort, both with her comment and your lack of response. People often get tongue-tied in the moment. That doesn’t mean you can’t circle back later and ask someone to explain something they said. It doesn’t have to be accusatory. You can use “I wonder statements,” such as “I’ve been wondering what you meant when you mentioned that you cut Sandra’s position so she could be with her children.” You also can use “I” statements, focusing on how her reasoning made you uncomfortable. “I’ve felt really uneasy about what you said about Sandra and working.” You also can simply ask her to clarify her statement, giving her a chance to correct any miscommunication.

However, since you’re concerned that the behavior has crossed a legal line and created exposure for your school, I wouldn’t engage in discussion with her now. I also would let the school communicate with Sandra. I understand the impulse to alert her, but it may not be helpful. What would you say to her? “I’m worried that you might have been fired because your boss thinks you should be home with your kids?” You’ll create extra distress for her at an upsetting time, and your information might be inaccurate.

Hopefully, someone will take your concerns seriously and remedy the situation if there’s been wrongdoing. Someone also needs to talk to Naomi about her implicit bias and how it’s playing out in the school setting. It’s possible Sandra isn’t the only person who’s been affected by her views and behavior. At minimum, she’s making colleagues uncomfortable.

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