Legal Lessons for North Carolina Teachers

by Heather Newton on August 11, 2015

 

For many years, I have represented North Carolina educators as they try to perform their jobs with diminishing resources, at times without the support they deserve from administration and their elected representatives. As we enter a new school year, here are my tips to educators for how to protect their employment while providing high-quality education for North Carolina public school students.

In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly repealed North Carolina’s Career Status law, purporting to strip career status (sometimes called “tenure”) from educators who had already earned it as well as those in the pipeline.  Among the due process rights the new law took away was the right to a hearing before a neutral hearing officer in dismissal and demotion cases.

The good news for teachers who earned career status before the General Assembly’s action is that as of this writing, you still have career status with all the rights career status bestowed under the previous law, thanks to the North Carolina Court of Appeals’ ruling in litigation brought by the North Carolina Association of Educators (“NCAE”).

Whether or not you have career status, there are practical steps you can take to protect your employment.

Toot Your Own Horn

The NC Teacher Evaluation Process rates teachers as developing, proficient, accomplished or distinguished in six categories (“Standards”), such as “Teachers demonstrate leadership” and “Teachers establish a respectful environment for a diverse population of students.” From a few brief observations during the school year your principal may not know what you have accomplished in a particular category.  To inform him or her, you should proactively upload artifacts documenting your accomplishments to the electronic evaluation system and provide copies to your principal when you meet to discuss your performance.  Examples might include documentation of outside workshops, letters of commendation from parents or proof of community service.

Read The Policy Manuals

When you were hired, Human Resources handed you a stack of orientation materials and probably had you sign that you had received a copy of school and system policies. You never read them.  Read them now. Employment policies are typically in booklet form and Board policies are available on the school system website.  Following policies to the letter becomes particularly important if you have engaged in some kind of protected activity that has irritated your bosses: complaining about a safety issue, asking for FMLA leave, filing a workers’ comp claim.  The best way to avoid retaliation is to be the perfect employee, even if no one else follows the policies.

Limit Your Use of Social Media

Wise teachers do not friend or follow students on Facebook or other social media, and do not complain about their jobs on social media. Assume that anything you post may come to your employer’s attention.

Limit Your Use of Electronic Communication

Text messages, even deleted messages, can be subpoenaed. Do not text with students. If you must text them, such as on a field trip, instruct them after the trip that they should no longer text you. If a student sends you an inappropriate text, report it immediately. Do not leave your cell phone out where a student can send texts from it as a prank. Remember that your employer can read any email you send from your school account and can view your computer search history.

Know Your Rights to Short and Long Term Disability Benefits if a Physical or Mental Condition Prevents You From Being Able to Work Effectively as a Teacher

Physical and mental health issues can affect the job performance of even the best teacher.  If this is true for you, depending on your length of service you may be eligible for long as well as short term disability benefits.  Inquire about these benefits before your health problems lead to disciplinary write-ups.

Exercise Your Right to View Your Personnel File

You have a legal right to examine your personnel file, and should do so periodically to make sure nothing has been placed in it without your knowledge. Administration must notify you in writing if it intends to place a negative document in your personnel file.

Respond to Inaccurate Information in Any Write-up

If your superior places a negative or inaccurate document in your personnel file, or gives you an unfavorable observation or evaluation, promptly exercise your right to place a respectful, professional, rebuttal in your personnel file even if you do not elect to file a grievance.

Do Not Resign Without Advice from an Attorney

Unfortunately, it is common for administrators to call teachers in, present them with allegations and tell them they must resign on the spot or be fired. Do not resign. Repeat, do not resign. Inform administration that you will make a decision about resignation after you have spoken to an attorney.  If resignation turns out to be your best option, a lawyer can help you negotiate resignation terms that may protect your future employability, but a lawyer can do little for you if you have already resigned.

Consider Joining the North Carolina Association of Educators

The North Carolina Association of Educators advocates for educator rights with a goal of providing an equitable, quality education for every child. In addition to working for legislative changes and filing key litigation, NCAE provides a legal services benefit to members who join BEFORE they get in trouble–if you join after employment problems begin, you will not receive this full benefit and your legal expenses may far exceed the cost of NCAE dues.

As a group, teachers are nice people committed to their students, and do not expect to face criticism or problems at work. Challenges can arise, however, with the arrival of a new principal, a teaching assignment that is not a good fit (a gifted kindergarten teacher may not be equipped to teach third grade), or health problems and other life stressors that affect job performance. It pays to be prepared. Thank you for your service, NC Teachers, and have a wonderful school year!

Heather Newton’s law practice in Asheville focuses on employment law for teachers and other workers, ERISA disability claims and small business advice for writers and artists.  She is a past chair of the N.C. Bar Association’s Labor & Employment Law Section and a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators’ legal team.  Contact her at www.heathernewton.net or by phone: (828)254-7177.

 

 

 

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