Sexual Harassment Happens in Our Schools and It Happened to #MeToo

Nov 30, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Marilyn Rhames

Matt Lauer. Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. Charlie Rose. Garrison Keillor. The list just keeps growing. But for every celebrity who has been fired or sued for sexually harassing or abusing women at work, there are a dozen cases where women working everyday jobs are sexually intimidated at work—even in a local elementary school. I should know…it happened to #MeToo. I once had a male assistant principal who would stop in my room when I was working late. I’d be at my desk grading papers or making wall charts at 7 p.m., and he’d come in and say to me, “Marilyn, go home! This is why new teachers end up having marital problems; when you get home and your husband wants to have sex with you, you’ll be too tired.” It gets worse. I conceived, and I taught during the entire nine months of my pregnancy. That same administrator would see me in the hallway or in the stairwell and make suggestive comments. One time he told me that he found pregnant women to be physically irresistible. “I just couldn’t keep my hands off my wife when she was pregnant,” he said. “The bigger her stomach got, the more I wanted to make love to her.” This, from the man reading my lesson plans. I never told my husband about it because I knew he wouldn’t be as diplomatic as I was. He wouldn’t have thought twice about coming up to the school to confront the administrator, and it wouldn’t have been pretty. I didn’t want him to go to jail, and I didn’t want to lose my job. I was a new teacher, untenured, out to prove myself. I loved my students and the school, and [pullquote position="right"]I didn’t want to rock the boat with a veteran administrator who was old enough to be my father.[/pullquote] Besides, it would have been my word against his. So I played polite. I never told him or anyone else how uncomfortable he made me feel…well, not for a couple of years. I only told my female principal about his comments during the last week of school—after announcing that I wasn’t coming back after I had the baby. I figured my problem with sexual harassment and intimidation would end if I only changed schools. Wrong. At my new school, I encountered a young male principal who in staff meetings referred to his two female assistant principals as his “two wives.” At first, I laughed. Then he began to call them that again and again, and I realized that he was only half-joking. (A couple of years later, he divorced his first wife and married one of his “school wives.”) Behind his back, many of the female teachers (me included) complained about his male chauvinistic behavior and the condescending way he spoke to us as opposed to how he addressed the men on staff. None of us dared to address the issue directly with him. Again, we were young, mostly untenured teachers—one false move and he could fire us without cause. And that’s exactly what ended up happening to me. I complained to him that one of his assistant principals (i.e., his school wife/future wife) was not doing enough to support me or the other teachers. He called me into his office, and he and his “school wife” let me have it with the how dare you’s. He put me on a performance plan that was evaluated by her, and a month or so later I was back in his office being fired. Though I had gotten an excellent review and was told I was the “best in the primary building” the year before, he was now calling me “unacceptable.” I broke down and cried. When I collected myself, I looked him in the eyes and told him that my tears were not for my job because I would be OK. No, my tears were for all the little poor, Black kids in the school who just lost a great, dedicated teacher. At the time of my firing, I didn’t know that he was secretly dating his “school wife.” I spent the next several months fighting back emotions of shame and embarrassment, like I had failed. I almost gave up on teaching altogether. But at the close of that school year, a third of the school staff quit—most of them women. A female pundit on FOX News said that the #MeToo movement runs the risk of becoming a dangerous form of female vigilantism and male-shaming. For that reason, I feel compelled to state that I don’t have a political or financial agenda attached to my #MeToo story and that most of the men I’ve worked with in schools were kind and respectful towards me. But if study after study finds that 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, then the sad reality is that [pullquote]a third of female teachers have probably been sexually harassed by men who work alongside them in schools.[/pullquote] I forgive the male educators in my story and do not seek to shame them (which is why I’m not naming names). I only hope that this blog and the #MeToo campaign instills the fear of God in them to never sexually harass or intimidate a female colleague again. And if this blog post prevents just one male educator from crossing the line with a female co-worker that he’s secretly crushing on, then I’ve made one school a safer place to teach and perhaps helped keep a rock star teacher in the classroom...where she belongs.

Marilyn Rhames

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” She is currently on the design team for Harvard University's Leaders' Institute for Faith and Education (LIFE). Marilyn has 14 years experience teaching in Chicago Public Schools, but before becoming an educator Marilyn worked as a journalist for People and Time magazines and for newspapers including New York Newsday and The Journal News. She currently writes for Education Post and has published pieces in the Huffington Post, Black Enterprise and RealClearEducation. Marilyn was named 2013 Commentator/Blogger of the Year by the Bammy Awards for her Education Week blog, entitled “Charting My Own Course." She was a 2016 Surge Institute Fellow and a Teach Plus teaching policy fellow from 2010-1012. Through her consulting firm Rhames Consulting, Marilyn offers a full range of services from education content editing to providing professional development on community engagement to public speaking on issues of faith, race, writing, and education. Marilyn has served as an education commentator on 90.1 FM Moody Radio Chicago; the presenter of a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo”; and a 2017 speaker at the Yale University Education Leadership Conference. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from National Louis University. Marilyn is a wife and mother of three. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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