Two years ago, Paula Baack was packing boxes with nine years of memories as the choral director at Air Academy High School.
She shared tears and hugs with students and parents. She attended goodbye parties and accepted the Peak Performance Award for Excellence in Choral Education from the Colorado Springs Chorale, presented annually to one local “exceptional teacher.”
After 46 years of teaching kindergartners through college students in Nebraska, Arizona and Colorado, Baack, a Monument resident, retired. But not by choice. She said she was unexpectedly forced out of her job for trying to help a student in need.
“I was embarrassed I had my career ending so quickly,” she said last week, the wound of her displacement still stinging.
Baack, who said she wallowed in self-pity for months, constantly replayed in her mind what had led to her being reassigned from her longtime position to overseeing study hall, and subsequently tendering her resignation.
She said she was accused of “misappropriating money” by collecting change in class and starting an online fundraiser for a student whose family was struggling.
Four complaints emerged, she was told, and that was the end of her lifelong work.
But what had seemed catastrophic for the well-respected choir director proved to be a new beginning, as Baack realized she wasn’t the only seasoned educator this type of thing was happening to.
“I started wondering are there efforts in all school districts to unload teachers who’ve been there for a long time,” she said.
The question took her on a 19-month journey researching and writing a book, “Rescue the Teacher, Save the Child!” The newly released book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The answer to her question is a resounding, “Yes.”
Across the nation, public school districts “want to make way for teachers who aren’t going to cost them as much,” Baack said. “And when you’re on a tenured track and you have success, it’s relatively hard to get rid of you.”
But there’s a pattern in the stories Baack relates in her book from teachers who may not “kowtow” correctly. The path to involuntary job loss often begins with “an underlying harassing tone” from administrators and staff, she said.
Faults on performance reviews follow, often for actions that were praised in the past but are deemed no longer acceptable.
“I’d witnessed colleagues telling me their evaluations had been changed to fit the scenario of them moving closer to being asked to leave,” Baack said.
A closed-door meeting occurs with the principal telling the teacher he or she is not properly following protocol or the curriculum or another infraction.
Then comes the demotion, dismissal or departure.
Why not a buyout, Baack asks, from districts who are too heavily laden with experienced, more expensive teachers?
Baack met some of the teachers featured in the book at a gathering organized last year by a representative of the Colorado Education Association. These were teachers who had been harassed in their jobs, or forced to resign or retire.
Along with relating the stories of other educators, the part memoir, part self-help book includes insight she’s gained from her experience from the time she started teaching in 1971.
In addition to ushering longtime educators out the door, mistreatment on the job takes several forms, she said. Low pay is the No. 1 reason teachers leave the profession, she said, but “angry emails” from parents and other staff is usually the top pitfall of being a teacher today.
“I don’t think a lot of administrators understand the administrators’ job is to protect their staff,” she said. “About three-fourths, when put to the test, would feel compelled to take the side of the parent.”
Throughout the book are “teachable moments,” situations from a student setting a fire in a classroom to a teacher realizing an ultimate achievement, for colleagues to learn from her mistakes.
“Reflection questions” for students, parents, teachers and administrators are another helpful tool.
If a student is unhappy or unsuccessful, the teacher is the first one parents and administrators blame in 21st-century learning, Baack said.
“We have parents ranging from helicoptering to in absentia,” she said, “and some kids feel entitled.”
And instead of providing mentoring for struggling teachers, administrators often just issue threats of termination, she said.
As a result, teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and not as many young people are choosing the field as a career, Baack said.
She points to a “hostile work environment” as the reason for the national teacher shortage.
“I hope to become the voice advocating for teachers who are demeaned and demoralized in our nation’s school systems,” she said.
Baack also offers solutions in her book. In addition to standing behind teachers, supporting them and providing mentoring, she believes administrators should follow a due process for grievances — a system that she says is now insufficient.
She also advocates for more camaraderie among teaching staffs, a better vetting process in hiring teachers and school boards to have a more active role in determining integral practices.
School districts should ban vitriolic emails, she advises, and encourage class retreats at the beginning of a school year to develop empathy among students and identify students with mental health issues.
“If we do reach out and rescue our teachers from an environment where they don’t feel comfortable and can’t grow, we will save our children,” Baack believes.