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Estella, a white female,  is a first year teacher of students with learning disabilities at an inner-city elementary school with a predominately African American student body.  The principal openly acknowledges that he was forced to hire her but would have preferred to hire an African American male teacher. Unfortunately, none had applied. Feeling unwanted and unsupported by the administration, Estella struggled to deal with a disruptive student and his mother.


Estella wondered how much worse things could get. In her first year of teaching, she had faced one big problem after another. Her friends laughingly told her she was going through "bootcamp" because of the many challenges that she had been given. Her troubles started with the job interview. After graduating in June with a degree in special education and certification to teach students with learning disabilities, Estella submitted a number of resumes to different schools in the district. Most of the available job openings were at the secondary level. Because she wanted to teach in an elementary school, she held out for such an offer. Finally, on a Thursday afternoon just before school started, a call came in from Jefferson Heights Elementary, an inner-city school with a high enrollment of minority students. She went for the interview with the special education personnel director at the district office on a Monday afternoon at 4:00. By 5:00 p.m., she had signed a contract to begin working the next day. Estella went to the interview in a suit and carried her portfolio, prepared to impress the interviewer with her knowledge; however, he asked about her certifications and otherwise seemed disinterested. She felt she was "just a body with the right certifications," but because the position she was offered was as a learning disabilities teacher at the elementary level, she accepted it.

Estella's first day at work was a staff orientation day for the entire district. Estella was surprised by the number of new teachers in the district. She knew that this district had a high turnover rate, and seeing so many new teachers confirmed that fact. Estella wondered why so many teachers left the district. She began to understand the next day.

The school was located in the middle of a low-income neighborhood that generally was viewed as an unsafe place to live. Children were not allowed to play outside after school because of shootings and drug trafficking. For Estella, a young white teacher who grew up in the suburbs, teaching at Jefferson Heights was intimidating. In spite of her apprehensions, she arrived  that afternoon eager to meet the faculty with whom she would be working.

"Another white female teacher," Mr. Singleton, the principal, remarked as Estella extended her hand and introduced herself. She was stung and confused by his comment because he was also white. She was a white female, so what? Why should that be a problem?

Later, in a faculty meeting, Mr. Singleton announced that Jefferson Heights had lost a number of African American teachers, unfortunately all male. He went on to explain that he had no choice but to replace them with six white female teachers because no other males had applied. His comments made Estella feel more unwanted. There did not appear to be any friendly or welcoming support at this school. She felt that she was really on her own!

Estella's second day at school was to be spent working in her classroom, preparing for her students. Estella was assigned a class for students in grades 4, 5, and 6. Most of the 15 students were African American. Shortly after she arrived in her classroom that morning, the previous teacher entered the room followed by two custodians with handcarts.  In spite of Estella’s objections, they proceeded to remove the file cabinets and cupboards full of teaching materials and manipulatives. They also took the teacher’s desk as well as some of the nicest furniture in the room. After their two-hour sweep, Estella was left with a naked classroom and only a few hours left in which to prepare for her students. The teacher maintained that he had bought these materials with his special education allocations, thus the materials should go with him when he transferred to another school. When Estella called the principal's office to inform them of the situation and to confirm that this was, indeed, the county policy, Mr. Singleton's secretary informed her that he would be out of the building for most of the day. Distraught, Estella went downstairs to another special education teacher who willingly helped her develop a plan for replenishing her classroom and obtaining materials for use until the materials she was ordering arrived. That night Estella went home in tears, worried about how her first day with students would go and wishing for more support and guidance.

The next day, parents began arriving with their children. One after another, they reacted with surprise when they approached her doorstep. "Oh, I thought Mr. Washington would be the teacher again this year," they commented as she introduced herself. Estella thought she heard disappointment in their voices, which contributed to her mounting self-doubts. She assumed that the parents were upset because Mr. Washington, an African American male, had been a favorite teacher and a good role model for their children. She felt her confidence dwindling as she considered the prospects for ever being accepted into this school environment. Everything seemed so unfair. She felt she was not being given a chance.

About two weeks into the school year, Estella’s paraprofessional, James Green, was called to the office soon after the morning announcements. When he returned, he told her that the principal ordered him to leave immediately because of unjust charges brought against him last year. Estella was stunned. Not only was she upset that she was losing her paraprofessional in the midst of beginning-of-the-year chaos, she was also concerned about the charges. She went to the district office and insisted on seeing the special education supervisor who explained that her paraprofessional had been accused of touching a child inappropriately.

After James left, a series of new paraprofessionals were assigned to Estella’s room, but they were more trouble than help. They yelled at the children, ignored Estella’s instructions, and took long breaks to smoke and socialize. In addition, Delores, a mental health aide, was assigned to her classroom to assist with Anthony, who had a history of running away from school. In spite of Estella’s encouragement, the aide was indifferent to Anthony and did little to help him succeed in the classroom. Estella was so upset by Delores's poor attitude and work habits that she filed a complaint with the district special education office. After she complained several times, the supervisor wrote up a job description for the position, specifying exactly what the responsibilities were. For a short while, things improved but then Delores returned to her former pattern. Estella documented the inappropriate behaviors and reported them. A few days after submitting her documentation, Estella walked into her room to find Delores cleaning out her desk.

"Congratulations, I’m being transferred," Delores muttered as she threw her things in a box and marched out of the room without another word. That’s all Estella was told. A few days later, another aide was assigned to help with Anthony.

In spite of the district's lack of support, Estella liked her students. Rather quickly, she established some order in her classroom and began to feel that, for the most part, she was making a difference. However, one sixth-grade student, Scott Thomas,  posed a major challenge. Scott's IEP stated that he should have a male teacher (Estella did not know why this was included). Scott was an angry, belligerent student who was constantly picking on other children and getting into fights. He had been born to a 14-year old, unwed mother. Ms. Thom had lost custody of her children at one point, but regained it after her marriage to Scott's stepfather. Although Ms. Thomas denied it, suspicions of drug use during pregnancy were noted in Scott's social work and psychological reports.

Estellas’s problems with Scott's mother began after Estella reported Scott for starting a fight. It was a school policy to suspend students for fighting at school. On that particular day, Estella had called Ms. Thomas to inform her of her son's suspension. When she arrived at school to pick up Scott, Estella and Mr. Singleton met with her to explain what had happened. Much to Estella’s chagrin, her principal said nothing. He just sat quietly and watched.

Estella started the meeting by thanking Ms. Thomas for coming so promptly. Before she could say anything else, Ms. Thomas interrupted, demanding to know why Estella was picking on Scott. "My son does not fight!" Scott's mother exploded. "He's a good boy, not like my other son!" She then charged that Estella did not have control of the classroom and was letting little problems get out of hand. Later in her tirade, she stated, "Scott can't help it. It’s part of his problem. It's a mental disability. He was born with it." Presumably, she was referring to the fact that Scott was classified as having both a learning disability and a behavior disorder.

As Scott’s mother vented, Estella held her tongue, thinking about how the mother was distorting facts. She recalled Scott’s records, full of accounts of his difficulties-- referrals to social work, to the behavior disorders class, and to the psychologist-- all for fighting and disruptions at school. Finally, after Ms. Thomas calmed down, Estella asked Scott to join them and tell his version of what had happened. He blamed Estella for picking on him and treating him unfairly, saying angrily, "She don’t take points from Tony. It's not fair. She's always blaming me!"

"Why don’t you take points from Tony?" Scott's mom demanded, turning to Estella.

Feeling threatened and shaken, Estella shared her point system with the small group, noting that both boys had lost a lot of points. She explained that her students started the day with 40 points but during the day lost points for misbehaving. She noted that the students did not always know when they were losing points because it was too complicated. Mr. Singleton remained silent and removed, sitting at his desk as Estella struggled to regain her composure.

"Now tell me what really happened," Ms. Thomas asked her son as she looked at the behavior sheets. To Estella's relief, Scott responded with a more truthful account. Fortified by more details, Ms. Thomas seemed to accept that Scott had indeed misbehaved. As she left, she said in a stern voice, "When he returns next Monday, he will behave."

Scott now had four days to calm down before Monday. Ms. Thomas also seemed more allied with her, so Estella was hopeful that her relationship with Scott and his mother would improve. She felt they had reached an understanding and could possibly work together in a more productive manner in the future. Unfortunately, within days of Scott’s return he was in trouble again. When Estella next called his mom, their rapport was a thing of the past.

"Why are you picking on my son again?" Ms. Thomas berated Estella as soon as the conversation began. When Estella described how Scott had told her to shut up and refused to return to the room after storming out, Ms. Thomas was hostile and defensive. "I've always told my boys to respect adults and to leave the room if they can't control their temper," she retorted.

Estella countered, "But I have to be concerned about his safety. I can’t allow him to outside by himself." No matter what the issue, Estella felt she was in a constant battle with Scott’s mother. Nothing she did seemed to put the relationship on a more positive note. In conversations with Ms. Thomas, Estella was constantly thinking, "What can I do to get her on my side? How can I convince her of my point of view?"

Estella’s problems with Scott blew up a week after the winter holidays. Her class was returning to their room from lunch. A few male students, including Scott, had preceded Estella into the classroom and in that short period, a fight had erupted. This time they threw desks and truly wrecked the classroom, so Estella again reported the boys for fighting. Scott’s mom came and picked him up, but this time she went straight to the district office, complaining that she was concerned about her son’s safety.

"His teacher is letting things get out of hand in her classroom.  She isn't able to control her students!" Ms. Thomas asserted angrily. She asked for Scott to be transferred to a different teacher. The director of special education agreed to look into the matter.

The next week, a multidisciplinary team came to Jefferson Heights to see what was going on. Again, Estella felt apprehensive and uncertain. "What will others think of me?" she thought fearfully as she considered her predicament. Prior to the meeting, Amanda Jenkins, the teacher whose class was being considered for Scott, approached Estella and disclosed that she had taught Scott the previous year.

"He's your responsibility now.  I don't want him back!" Amanda said adamantly as she recounted her experience with Scott. "I dealt with him all last year. My kids are making lots of progress and I don't want him disrupting things again! Last year he was on Ritalin, but I hear that his mom has stopped giving it to him. I can just imagine what he is like now! No, thanks!"

The meeting was fairly brief and the director of special education decided that Scott should, in-deed, be transferred back into Amanda's class. Estella could not miss Amanda's incensed expression as the meeting adjourned. Although somewhat relieved, Estella also felt a sense of personal failure. She wondered if there was something else she could have done and if she would ever overcome the ethnic and gender biases she perceived at Jefferson Heights Elementary School. She regretted that Amanda, an influential teacher in the district, was so angry about having Scott returned to her class.

Estella also wondered if she should stay at Jefferson Heights. Her family was encouraging her to transfer to a suburban school next year. She felt attached to her students and thought that she was helping them a lot.

"The kids are already asking me if I am coming back," she thought to herself sadly as she struggled to make sense of her dilemma. "I have been telling them that I plan to return, but deep down, I wonder if I should."



Discussion/Study Questions


List what you learned about each of the characters in the case.

What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

What are the issues/problems in the case?


Additional Questions

How do you interpret Principal Singleton's actions? How did he contribute to Estella's difficulties? What could he have done differently to improve the outcome for Estella?

What supports should schools offer to beginning teachers?

What steps could Estella have taken to improve her rapport with Scott's mother?

Did Estella contribute in any way to the situation with Scott and his mother? What about with the administration?

Can a teacher be effective when teaching students from a cultural background different from their own?



CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed In The Case

Major Areas

One's own cultural biases and differences that affect one's teaching.

Variations in beliefs, traditions, and values across cultures within society and the effect of the relationship between child, family, and schooling.

Diversity and dynamics of families, schools, and communities as related to effective instruction for individuals with exceptional needs.

Importance and benefits of communication and collaboration which promotes interaction with students, parents, school, and community personnel.


Other Areas

Ethical practices for confidential communication to others about individuals with exceptional learning needs.


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