The mistake heard round the world

The In Between.

They say the truth lies somewhere in between two versions of a story.  I suppose I agree with that. I’m kind of a stubborn girl so it’s hard for me to not think that “my version” is the not the truth. I guess, one would have to decide what “truth” means. I’ll leave that up to you. All I can tell you is the story in my own words. What you choose to believe after that, is your truth.

What happened?

Ok, so I am going to go over the events of four years ago rather quickly. Not because those events aren’t important, but they happened a while ago and it’s the “after” that matters more.

My colleagues and I were attending a professional development training. To be honest, I can’t even tell you the company that was hosting. All I can say is the training was one of many we were in to make our district more “data driven”. Anyway, students were off this day and we attended a half day training on software that can be used to assess students. At some point during the training, the trainer showed us a feature of the software that allowed you to easily group kids by ability. I think it’s important that you understand how much I loathe this concept. I don’t group kids and leave them in a group. My groups are fluid. A child might meet with me one day in a group to get extra help in adding fractions and the next day might not be in that group because they have grasped the concept and moved on. Anyway, the sidebar was necessary because it induced an eye roll or two from my colleagues and I and it was what prompted us to go online and chat with each other. Immature and stupid? Sure. Malicious and evil? Again, I’ll leave that opinion to you.

Then, the trainer said the words that would be the catalyst of my downfall. “This software will not only allow you to group your students, but you can even label your groups and your students will never be able to see the names you give them.”  I specifically remember saying out loud to my friend next to me, “what name would you possibly give a group of students that you wouldn’t want them to see?”  This notion seemed absurd. Comical even. Well, I guess that’s what we were trying to do. We proceeded to list group names that would be ridiculous and archaic. Names that, of course you wouldn’t want kids to see, but to us we were poking fun at the notion that anyone would name a group anything that would be questionable if a child were to view it.  And those were the labels that destroyed me   Offensive labels and words used to mock students were all of a sudden tied to me because I typed them down. Words and phrases I would never in a million years seriously use, but nonetheless, were associated with me.

Four years ago, I remember wanting to call the paper and say “wait, that’s not what I meant!  That’s not the way I was using those terms!!” But of course, I was told not to comment.  And so I didn’t.  I would later explain what I meant to an arbitrator who plainly asked, “Even if you didn’t mean them that way, don’t you understand how someone could take them that way?”  Yes.  I did.  I understood it fully because my life fell apart because of it. I was being completely sarcastic. Not one ounce of that chat was meant to be a serious conversation. My friends knew that. My friends knew me. But that didn’t matter. I was sorry. I am sorry.

For a moment here I want you to think about any embarrassing moment you have ever had in your life. Think about any mistake or dumb joke you’ve ever told. Now imagine that is published in a newspaper and it was what defined you for the rest of your life. I made a mistake. I did. And I take full responsibility for that. But it was a mistake and I believe with all my heart in second chances. I can only hope you feel the same.

The After

When the initial article came out over four years ago, I crawled into my bed and laid in a fetal position, sobbing.  It wasn’t about the article itself or even being suspended, it was because those words were attached to me and it made others think I was a monster.  I was a woman who dedicated my life to special education.  I got my masters in education with a specific focus on special education.  I worked in inclusive classrooms filled with kids who needed my help. I integrated our multiply disabled classes into mine so that all students could benefit. I am the mother of a daughter with Tourette’s syndrome and sensory processing issues.  My world was dedicated to helping  kids and when that article went to print, my world stopped.

I was suspended for 4 months without pay. I lost a pay increase. My own children read the articles about their mom and asked me about them. My marriage began to crumble. Every ounce of the reputation I worked for seemed gone. In its place, was left the reputation of a “bad” teacher, an “embarrassment”.

At some point, I had to move forward. If I wanted to do what was best for myself, my family, and what I believed was best for kids, I had to go back to teaching. And so, I did.

I was welcomed back with open arms from my colleagues, parents, and most importantly, my students.  I continued to teach for three years after that event.  I taught passionately and ensured that every day I did what was best for my students. I was the same teacher I had always been.  A teacher that loved her students immensely. A teacher that answered emails at midnight from worried kids. A teacher who believed all students can be successful, we just need to find the right ways to engage them. You know, a teacher. And then I decided it was time to move on.  I was ready to make a bigger impact on education.

My state job

I loved the part of the article that insinuated I deceived someone with a different name. It was like the scene in “Breaking Bad” where Walter has to finally go into protection so he calls Saul and the guy sets Walter up with an alias and a couple cans of soup in a cabin in the woods.

When I moved on from teaching, I knew I would use my maiden name. Partly because it was something I decided when my husband and I were separated and partly because it seemed like a fresh start. That’s it. I submitted name change paperwork through the courts. I informed my employer. I followed the rules.

Everything I did in my last position, I did because I loved education. I loved everything about it; what it was, what it is, and more importantly, what it can be. And so I worked tirelessly to do what was best for the state of education in New Jersey. I was not an “embarrassing hire”. I was not a “mistake”. I was a woman who worked long days and weekends to help support teachers and schools who would ultimately support our children, your children.

To dig up a four year old article and turn it into a new headline was absurd. I have been working in the real world for over 20 years, and one day, four years ago, I made a really stupid mistake. And once again, I am punished for it. This time I lost my job. This time I lost my pension. But this time, I am not lost.

Moving forward

I didn’t lay in a fetal position on my bed and cry this time. I read the article four years ago. It was the same thing this time around. I am a good human being. I am adamant about our education system needing support. I will continue to provide that support it needs. I don’t need to be employed as a state worker to offer help to those who need it. And so I will move on. This post was needed first before I did that.

Where do we go now?

So this blog will produce content on all things education. I think the profession is struggling. I think that teachers need support and guidance. I think our unions needs to reinvent themselves to stay alive and well, and boy do we need them. I think the intention of a good education is something that politicians speak about but don’t always do the right thing when it comes to supporting our schools. I think there needs to be more diverse teachers in our workforce, specifically more black and latino males. I think we need more accountability and less standardized assessments. I think the PARCC test is ridiculous. I think homework is a waste of time. I think there are thousands of special education students not being serviced in a manner that is in their best interest. I think there are LGBTQ+ teachers and students that are not comfortable in their environment. I think we can do better.

I think about all of these things a lot. And so, I will write about them. I will create content that I think is useful to you. I will answer emails and messages you send asking for advice. I will advocate for you, or if you’re a parent, your child. I will fight. I will move on. I hope you will move on with me.

For those of you who would still like to believe I’m a shitty person, I get it. There are a lot of people out there who have done things that I think are unforgivable too. For all of you, I am sorry. I truly am. I never intended to hurt anyone, but I did, and for that, I hope one day you can forgive me. If you’d like to leave negative comments on my post or troll me on Twitter, I understand. My handle is @mairecervenak I look forward to seeing you there.

For the rest of you, let’s get this moving. Let’s work together to do what’s right for these kids. Some of our kids will be ok. They have a good home life, they have resources, they have support. Some of our kids need those things, and I have a feeling that between all of us, we can do something about that.