Monday, March 3, 2008

Falling Apart

This is Chapter 11 in my history... others can be found by clicking the history tab at the right

After my stain in the hospital, I returned to Western Oregon University to start the education program. I was excited that after years of school I was finally about to dive into the core of what I was there for.

Every student in the WOU education program is placed in a group with about 15 other students and one advisor. I ended up being placed under a man who was acting as his first term as an advisor. I will call him D, only to protect his privacy, but after this story, it's hard for me to do because I want to scream to the world about what he did.

I was familiar with D. Only a few terms before he was a fellow student with me in Teaching Writing. This was the class that I often butted heads with the professor in. I didn't think anything of D carrying over experiences from the class to being my advisor, but it happened.

At first I didn't really notice any problems. Going to class, working on projects, networking with fellow students was my concern. I think that entire first term I had a few weird feelings after things that D said to me, but nothing that really triggered much. The entire first term of the Ed program was devoted to starting work on our professional portfolio. We had to take pieces that we worked on through the term and show how they fit into to competencies that were required by the state. It was a time intensive project, something that I worked several hours on, and turned in with a sense of accomplishment.

The rug was torn out from under me when I met with D to discuss my portfolio. He berated my work the entire time. My work was filled with red marks, several per page, and paragraphs of angry words about my lack of competence as a student and a writer. I always struggled with grammar and spelling and having it all laid out in red screaming words hit my panic button and a deep seeded hurt. He picked apart every page, every thought. Even passages that were grammatically correct and spelled right were ripped apart because he did not agree with my style. I was devastated to say the least. Insult to injury was added when he picked apart how I acted in our previous class when we were both students. He told me that if I couldn't shut up and listen to a professor then I was giving myself a disservice to my education and I could never be viewed as a professional. That if a professor says it, I should automatically believe it as the only truth because they are the professional.

I came away from the meeting deeply hurt. I had an entire summer to lick my wounds. I considered several times contacting the university and being switched advisers, but I didn't know if I had just reason, and I believe in giving everyone a fair chance.

Fall started exactly where I left the situation the previous Spring in D's office. He continued to try to break me down as a person and as an academic. The volleys of insult increased in frequency and intensity as the weeks ticked by. I took solace in the fact that there were a few other students also being attacked by D, but I also received the brunt of it. D started to use my name in class to speak poorly about my work. Comments like "Well quite frankly what happened to you this week because your work was more terrible than normal" were said in front of the entire class. The irony of being taught that naming students by name and their performance was illegal in other classes that term was not lost on me.

I continued to take the abuse. I figured I'd show him that I could listen... but the pain, the shame, the desperation was building with each comment. We started out in the schools that term. My mentor teacher and I had a good working relationship and I was excited to be in the classroom. D frequently came to observe, and I know from asking other students that he came to observe me more frequently, waiting for me to slip up. He wrote me a vaguely worded email that I was not dressing professionally. That he had been approached by multiple people about this. While I doubted this claim, I knew that I did not dress as preppy as other kids in the program, mostly due to a lack of funds. My clothes were threadbare at times, and I didn't have time to iron everything as I was still working about 30 hours a week on top of my school work. At the end of the email he put that I "needed to watch myself". This single line pushed me over the edge. I took everything that I had documented about D, the occurrences that I have mentioned and many more similar ones, and I emailed them to the professor that I trusted most in the program. I also sent a copy to D. I felt that I should give him the chance to change, a last chance rope to appeal to his humanity.

I realized that I was being harassed. It may not be sexual harassment as so many young women experience in college, but it was pure harassment. Sending that email was difficult, but I couldn't stand to be his victim any longer.

My email was forwarded around the education program, but before any action could happen, I found myself in my final evaluation with my mentor teacher and D. A week before my mentor teacher had given me glowing reviews. After a closed door meeting with D, where he shared my email to him with my mentor teacher, which included nothing about her, my mentor teacher gave me a harsh review of my time. My scores on professionalism went way down based on my email and relationship with D. I was highly upset by this as nothing that happened between D and I effected my time in the classroom. Sharing that email was a huge slap in the face.

After this meeting I was called to the university to meet with D and the supervisor of teacher placement at WOU. What I was told was a mediation session turned into an assault on every thing that I did the entire time I was in the program. I was accused of doing things that never happened, I was told that I wasn't going to make it through the program, and that D had never done anything unprofessionally. When I gave examples like him sharing comments about my work, I was told that it was his right and that he was only doing what he could to teach me. I went from being deeply hurt to feeling my entire world fall apart. They cooked up a contract with a number of terms that were unfair to me as a student and told me that I had to sign it or I would be kicked out of the program. While I did not agree, I also felt I had to sign it as my dream was to become a teacher. I made sure that my disagreements with the contract were noted on it before I signed. They also refused to change me out of D's group, one of my main demands. I knew that no amount of "mediation" would make the situation better. I was tempted to quit there, because I was not sure how I could make it another two terms with D, after how badly he had broken me after the two previous. Before I left the mediation I also made sure that D and the other advisor knew that I was going to contact a lawyer about the harassment that I had received at the hands of the university.

In the fifteen minutes that it took me to get home, the university started singing another tune. They were more than willing to change my advisor, but I had to stay with the contract. This was something that I was willing to do, as long as I was freed of the toxic environment of D. I had to move to a new school to do my student teaching, but I was now under that trusted professor that I had sent the original email to. I didn't have the easiest time, but my new mentor teachers loved my work and crowed about my talents. They also realized that having a chronic illness, working 30 hours a week, the amount of commuting I was doing, and being a full-time student teacher was a lot to handle. They didn't require perfection from me and I flourished in their classrooms. My new advisor, while at times harsh, was far better than D.

I wish I could say that D was fired over the incident, but he wasn't. He continued to advise the other students, but I heard from them that he was less harsh on them after me. He disappeared from WOU that Spring. I soon found out that he was teaching at a local middle school. The thought of him working with students who were younger and weaker than I was at 21 broke my heart. However, D was found a few years later engaging in inappropriate conduct in a local park with several other men. I take solace in the fact that this got him removed from the classroom. He should never be allowed to break people like he broke me.

I am still recovering from D. I still feel very anxious when my spelling and grammar are corrected. I didn't write much for an entire year after college, even though I had so many other people tell me that I was talented. I always felt less capable in professional situations. I'm slowly getting my confidence back, but it has taken far longer to return then it left me. I also learned in the passing years that I was saved from D being my advisor by threatening that lawsuit. Unknown to me at the time, a top professor in the Ed school was under investigation for sexual harassment. While mine was not sexual in nature, the school did not need two harassment suits at the same time and went to all lengths to prevent it. State laws passed because of the other case setting up clearer pathways for students who feel harassed. I am happy those rules are in place, but they are mostly focused on sexual harassment. I hope the colleges realize that all forms of harassment exist and they are all devastating.


Anonymous said...

Hey, it's Rachael... Oh my GOSH I can't believe that you had such a bad time of the teaching program! And I am totally scandalized that he was caught in that sting at the park!! Wow!

terri c said...

Eeewwww, HOW nasty of him to do that to you. I'm really glad you had the courage to mention the word "lawsuit." YIKES!!!

Beverly said...

Oh my, I would have been destroyed. I'm glad that you are able to write about this and that you are recovering your confidence.

That should never happen to anyone.

65redroses said...


tell me his name

i am going to go and kick his ass.....NO JOKE.

Whitney said...

Hi Talana,

I never knew you had a blog, so that's why I'm responding to this a LONG time after you posted it! :-)

I am truly sorry that you had to go through this from someone who is supposed to be in the most trusted position a college student encounters during their education. Advisors are there to ADVISE, not criticize and demoralize and I just can't believe that this situation went the way it did. I too am glad you had the courage to mention a lawsuit, because sometimes that's all that gets through to unscrupulous people. I'm sorry it came to that, but I'm very impressed with your perserverance.

I'm not sure if this is still a problem for you, but I want to encourage you not to feel any stress if someone corrects the things you feel you aren't good at, like spelling and grammar. I worked as a Writing Assistant at OSU during my undergrad years and there were SO many students with HORRIBLE grammar and spelling but WONDERFUL writing voices. It's okay to accept constructive criticism; not everyone out there is there to tear you down. Remember that he was ONE PERSON- one unscrupulous, sad person who obviously felt judged in his past and needed to carry it on to someone else. Who knows, perhaps he actually felt threatened or jealous by the talent he saw in you when he had a class with you. No one is perfect at everything and you have so many talents- even as a writer, regardless of your ability or inability to spell "quixotic."

I'm glad you went on to finish school and be a teacher. I'm sure the students you interacted with were happy about that too. :-)

(Wow, sorry this was so long!!! You just got me fired up with your story.)