Teacher upset district won’t let him take unpaid leave to pursue big opportunity 

Q: I’m in my second year as a high school history and government teacher in Colorado  which is to say, I’ve accrued very little leave. I also am up for tenure at the end of this year. Here’s why that matters. I’m a nationally ranked chess player, and I recently qualified to compete in a major national competition. This is a HUGE deal for me. I told my principal immediately because the tournament is held during the school year and I have to fill out a leave form well in advance. I’d miss a total of two days of school. My principal told me he personally believes I should go and that he recognizes it’s an unmissable opportunity. However, he wouldn’t sign the form because I’ve run out of leave days. Apparently, that would run afoul of district policy and get him in trouble. Confused, I asked, “Can’t it be unpaid leave?” He said he doubted it, but that I should try to convince HR to make an exception. He suggested I tell them that I use my chess skills in my role as adviser to the school’s chess club, though he wasn’t sure that would help. Sadly, he was right. The individual who makes these calls was completely inflexible. That person explained that if he made an exception for me, he’d have to make exceptions for countless others, and that he had good reasons for doubling down on this strict policy. When I asked him why, he said that teachers have been abusing it and that substitute teachers are too costly.  

For what it’s worth, my principal hinted that while he couldn’t sign my leave slip and that I might face repercussions from above him, he’d look the other way if I competed. In other words, he thinks it’s a ridiculous policy and won’t personally erect any roadblocks. He also said he knows I’m a terrific and reliable teacher and doesn’t want to lose me. I can’t do anything about the policy, but here are my questions. Should I go to the competition? Should I risk getting denied tenure or possibly even getting fired? The principal can only protect me so much. 

Scacchi fotografati su una scacchiera

A:  A part of me wishes you had written to me before you spoke to Human Resources. There are times when it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. In fact, I’m sure there are seasoned educators who’ve figured out how to circumvent this rule. Any district that enforces such a rigid policy needs to expect that people will find creative workarounds. Yes, it’s a problem that educators have abused their leave, but there should be room to make exceptions for reliable employees with compelling extenuating circumstances.  

 That said, I’m sure this central administrator has seen it all. He’s probably dealt with too many teachers taking leave they don’t have to sand their deck or see a Broadway show or play with their new puppy, and he sounds fed up. I can understand that abusing the leave policy is costly, frustrating and bad for students. However, your district may be missing the forest for the trees — and creating a bigger long-term problem. 

Let’s use your scenario as an example. If you decide to go to the competition, you probably won’t get fired, but you could get written up or have your tenure delayed. I’d first determine what’s at stake so you can make an informed decision. I’d also be honest about your plans since you’re already on the radar. You could say to your principal, “This is too important to me to miss, so I’m going to go, though I understand you can’t be complicit and that you’ve denied my request. I also know there could be consequences for me.” Clearly, this wouldn’t be the ideal outcome. You’d get to compete, but you’d probably feel anxious and resentful, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up seeking employment elsewhere. When districts fail to recognize that educators are professionals with unique needs, they create a culture problem. By cracking down on everyone, they’ll likely lose some of their strongest, most trustworthy educators. This isn’t a policy that engenders staff loyalty. Even if your district saves money on substitutes, they might end up paying more to recruit and train replacement teachers. In other words, it could be less costly and more efficient to assess each staff member’s request on an individual basis.  

Your other option, of course, is to skip the tournament. Only you can decide how much you’d regret that decision. Before you go that route, however, I’d call your union for advice. I’d also discuss your dilemma with more experienced teachers. A union representative or colleague might know about an appeals process or be able to offer some other insight. Whatever you choose to do, I’d thank your principal. He’s doing his best to be helpful and supportive, and this policy isn’t coming from him.  

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Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email contactphyllisfagell@gmail.comAll 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. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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