Sunday, May 8, 2011

Three Students Severely Injured in Accident in Teacher's Car

Alarming headline, right? Or how about this one: "Student Injured at Sleepover at Teacher's Home"? Sound like headlines from a bygone era, when the boundary between teachers and students wasn't encumbered by insurance and legal liabilities. Before parents sued school boards because their children were injured during informal outings with their teachers.

Boundaries

Today, school systems throughout the country have strict boundaries in place between teachers and students to ensure student safety. A teacher should not hold sleep overs with students at their home. A teacher should not drive students around in their car. A teacher may disagree, but this is how teachers should conduct themselves today. A teacher may view this as interfering with their ability to establish supportive relationships with their students. But these guidelines ultimately exist to protect the students, and teachers, from uncontrolled situations. Any parent whose child was injured in an uncontrolled situation with a teacher would demand that all the parties involved take responsibility: the teacher, the School Board, the Superintendent of Schools, the School District and the State. When a parent's child is injured, it doesn't matter that a teacher was well intentioned. What matters is that the child was injured.

Yet a small number of parents, and one School Board Trustee, Carmelo Garcia, are irresponsibly rallying to support a Hoboken teacher who is knowingly drawing children into uncontrolled situations. A teacher who is driving kids around in her own car. A teacher who is holding sleep-overs in her own home for over 20 students at a time. A teacher who is hiring adult workers who have not been cleared by the School Board to work with students without supervision. And what do you think these parents would do if their child was injured as a result of one of these indiscretions? Of course, it's predictable. They wouldn't wait a second to sue everyone, the teacher included, best intentions of the teacher be damned. But, thank goodness, no one has been injured to date.

The Theater Teacher

The teacher in question is none other than Hoboken High School's acclaimed theater teacher, Paula Ohaus. Staging highly polished student productions, year after year, Ohaus and her talented students have brought national recognition to Hoboken High School's theater program. And all of these statements about Ohaus's conduct have been publicly discussed by the current Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Mark Toback, with Ohaus's permission.

Based on her public statements to date, I expect Ohaus sees all of these rules as trivial annoyances that only serve to interfere with the more noble goal of inspiring kids to aspire to ever greater theatrical heights. And I would agree with this view. They are trivial annoyances. But where we diverge is that I recognize that these rules exist for a reason: for the safety and well-being of the very students Ohaus is trying to inspire, not to mention for Ohaus's own safety. Yes, they may interfere with, and perhaps inhibit, her ability to inspire, but this is the compromise one must agree to when working with high school students. Ohaus must know this and yet she continues to be defiant year after year. Why?

Butting Heads

Ohaus has a history of butting heads with Hoboken School Board Superintendents. It was Superintendent Jack Raslowsky who insisted that Ohaus finally get her teacher accreditation. Following Raslowsky's resignation in 2009, Superintendent Peter Carter insisted that Ohaus take on teacher's duties in accordance with her job description and New Jersey state rules. During Carter's term, the School Board Business Administrator also uncovered accounting irregularities with theater productions. Now, our newly hired Superintendent, Dr. Mark Toback, has identified a series of problems going beyond the student safety issues mentioned above. In Dr. Toback's report at the April 12, 2011 School Board meeting, Dr. Toback stated that students with poor grades were permitted to participate in theater productions - a contravention of district policy. Ohaus is not helping kids by encouraging them to participate in time-consuming theater productions when they should be spending time raising their grades to acceptable levels.

Defiance

Why doesn't Ohaus try to work within the guidelines set by the district and state, while inspiring kids and staging outstanding productions at the same time? Perhaps she would have to make some compromises, but life is full of compromises. Just like life in theater. Launching a theater production outside the Hoboken School system involves working with unions, budgets, producers, investors and artists. A theater director has to be able to work with all of these people to bring a production to fruition, all while crafting it to meet their own artistic vision. But students at Hoboken High School aren't getting a lesson in working within constraints to achieve greatness. Instead, they're seeing their beloved theater teacher ignoring the rules. Worse, they're being encouraged to attend School Board meetings to support her continued defiance of these rules, to their own potential detriment.

Responsibility

Ohaus has inspired many students over the years, and her productions have entertained many, including myself. However, Ohaus holds a position of great responsibility. Unlike Broadway theater directors, Ohaus is dealing with kids; kids who are growing up and learning how to enter the adult world. Like any good teacher, she is responsible for their safety, she is responsible for their grades, she is responsible for inspiring them. She is a role model. But, unfortunately for her students and the community, she is not behaving like one.

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