SUSAN WARREN WAS FAMOUS for about three minutes.
That’s how long she was on the Channel 5 evening news one day in August of 1988. The television cameras caught her coming down the aisle of the First United Methodist Church in a long, white wedding dress. Family and friends admired her from the pews. Steven, her husband-to-be, stood nervously awaiting her in white tie and tails. It is the rare bride who gets her wedding on the 6 o’clock news. But Susan Warren was, indeed, a rare bride. Two months before the wedding, on her last day of teaching at L.V. Stockard Middle School, a student threw a brick across a courtyard, striking her in the head.
The blow left her paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors solemnly told her not to expect miracles; she might never walk again, they said.
As Susan lay helplessly in her hospital bed at Methodist Medical Center in Oak Cliff, a part of her believed it. “They were sticking pins in my feet, and I didn’t even feel it,” she says now, wincing at the thought.
But Susan was a strong woman, emotionally and physically. As a gym teacher, she was constantly on the go, chasing kids down a basketball court, pushing them over parallel bars, teaching them to swim in the summers. As a mother of two boys and a survivor of an unexpected divorce, a shotgun reentry into the working world, and two years of single parenthood, she was not exactly unfamiliar with adversity.
After a grading two weeks in the hospital and a long, hot summer of intense physical therapy, Susan did walk-just two weeks before her wedding. And on August 5, 1988, leaning ever so slightly on her father’s left arm. she walked down the aisle to her new husband.
The TV camera zoomed in on Susan’s hand as Steven slipped on her wedding band. A Channel 5 reporter intoned that Susan Warren thought now that her accident might have happened for a reason. It might have been meant to make her strong for the future. “I hope I can relate it to a lot of things that knock you down,” Susan told viewers, “maybe not necessarily physically, but something that happens to you to put you back. There’s not a reason why you can’t build yourself up again.”
What Susan didn’t know,
however, was that worse shocks were ahead. During the next two years, her employers in the Dallas Independent School District would shuffle her back and forth like the unwanted card in a bureaucratic game of Old Maid. She would unwittingly become a symbol of what many see as an endemic problem in the DISD: the district’s condescending, insensitive treatment of teachers not as valued professionals, but as so many menial day laborers ordered here and there to fill slots.
Now, at last, there’s hope on the horizon. Superintendent Marvin Edwards is launching a new plan next year that would give teachers far more authority in running DISD schools, making them almost-equal partners with administrators in the demanding business of education. For Susan Warren, that change can’t come soon enough.
SUSAN’S PROBLEMS WITH DISD DIDN’T START with the brick flung by a foolish student. On the very first day of her first year, 1985, the tone was set on the first day of orientation for teachers. “They said, ’You’re very lucky to have this job.’ When I first started teaching [in Chicago in 1969] the attitude was, ’Oh, we’re lucky to have you.’ But that’s not the message at DISD.”
Susan was originally hired to teach Italian at Skyline High School, but a week before classes started, DISD personnel informed her that her teaching certificate from Illinois, where she obtained her undergraduate degree in health and physical education, did not cover Italian. She was then given a position teaching health and theater arts at Skyline, which she did for two years until personnel told her she wasn’t certified to teach theater arts in Texas. She was allowed to continue teaching health full time, which was fine with her. But the next thing she knew, she was replaced in that job by a new football coach whose job description included health. The district promised to find her a great new job; instead, they put her in a PE job at a middle school so overcrowded that some days she found herself trying to teach gym to 100 students at a time, But she soldiered on until the accident. That’s when she found herself trapped on the bureaucratic merry-go-round.
Morning finals were over on that last day of school in June 1988, and a group of kids was horsing around in a courtyard, waiting for the next exam period. Some remodeling had just been done at the school, and the courtyard was filled with rubble and bricks and construction debris-toys for bored adolescents. Susan remembers looking out the window and seeing a potentially dangerous situation brewing. She went outside and told the kids to “put that stuff down.” The next thing she knew she was on the ground. “I vaguely remember being brought to the teacher’s lounge, but I don’t remember anything else,” she says. “People say I was answering things, but they said I wasn’t making any sense.” The next thing she remembers was waking up two days later at Methodist Medical Center.
When the TV reporters came around to see her-a fellow teacher, Susan says upon reflection, must have called the media-she didn’t try to hide her outrage. “What are our schools coming to?” she said from her hospital bed. “This is serious. This is unacceptable.”
DISD’s reaction was quite a bit tamer, Susan recalls. “They were saying that this was just a bunch of rambunctious kids, and well, hey, kids are kids.”
Although Susan was uncomfortable with that assessment, and with the eventual decision by DISD officials not to discipline the boy responsible, it was their treatment of her after she was on her feet again that truly stunned her. “What happened to me after was really the bad thing,” she says. “They were treating me like crud. It was like, ’How dare you get hit, and how dare you get hit and tell.’”
After the accident, she couldn’t go back to teaching physical education. Her doctor didn’t recommend it, and quite frankly, she was scared to death of being hit again. So when the district asked her what she wanted to do, she said she wanted to go back to her old job teaching health at Skyline. Sorry, they said, someone else is teaching health.
But once again, they promised to find her a great new job.
They did. They made her an assistant with a health specialist at Lincoln Instructional in Oak Cliff, helping to oversee all the school health programs districtwide. But the day Susan got her phone plugged in, personnel called to say that she was being transferred downtown-to personnel, to help around the office temporarily. Stunned, but at a loss for what to do, Susan went downtown. “I hung in there from September to January,” she says. “I interviewed teachers and custodians. I filed; I practically swept the floor.”
In January, personnel announced that she could once again use her teaching skills: They had found a health job for her at W.T. White High School in North Dallas. Susan was ecstatic-for about 24 hours. The very next day, personnel took the job away, saying that Susan wasn’t certified to teach health-despite the fact that she had taught health at Skyline, despite her certification. Yes, but that was Illinois, and this was Texas, personnel said. The only way she could teach health in Texas, they said, was to go back to school and get a health degree, which meant earning 50 class hours at her own expense.
Susan said she couldn’t afford it. So once again, personnel promised to find her a great job. And once again, they did: Now she would be a specialist in PE-another districtwide supervisory job back at Lincoln Instructional. Susan was ecstatic. For four months. Then she got a letter from personnel telling her that her current position would no longer be funded. Time to move again. Her new assignment? PE at Justin F. Kimball High School, where the teenager who hit her with the brick was surely now enrolled. When she balked, personnel came up with an even worse suggestion-she could become. a teacher’s aide (in other words, put up bulle-tin boards for real teachers) and go back to college and get a degree in something else.
Susan was devastated. “During this time, my morale was so low I would come home and say, ’I’m such a crummy teacher. No one wants me. No one has a place for me.’ “
Enter Chad Woolery, an assistant superintendent who had become sensitive to Susan’s plight. Woolery quickly found her a job teaching PE and life skills to handicapped children at one of the magnet schools. Susan was thrilled-for four months. Then the district turned the magnet into a vocational school and eliminated her job.
Next was R.T. Hill Middle School in Lake Highlands, where she tutored problem kids. Then she landed in a training program for the Laureate Program, in which gifted children are given special attention. But after Susan spent a whole school year being trained in Laureate, the program director did not place her at a school. (Susan and at least one DISD administrator both believe the director held a grudge against Susan for embarrassing the district.) Enter personnel with a new assignment: PE at Central Elementary in Seagoville.
That was the last straw. Susan’s lawyer, who was representing her on a worker’s compensation claim stemming from her accident, paid a visit to DISD officials. He told them that DISD was about to lose a great teacher. A great teacher who had been seriously wounded at one of their schools and, because of it, was now being bounced around the system like an errant child.
Robby Collins, director of employee relations, took note. Although he felt that DISD had, in a sometimes inept way, tried diligently to find a place for Susan, he could find no reason why, after months of training for Laureate, she had not been placed at a school. “I could see how Susan would be frustrated,” Collins says. So he took her file to Superintendent Marvin Edwards. And this past fall, about the same time that she was awarded a settlement for her comp case, Edwards made Susan a Laureate teacher at a DISD high school.
She is, once again, ecstatic. And personnel has yet to call or write.
Susan Warren knows that she might be jeopardizing her job by speaking out against the system. She loves to teach, and for the $26,000 a year that Dallas taxpayers give her, she thinks she’s worth every penny. But something isn’t right in DISD. There are other teachers who are afraid to speak up, and who don’t have good lawyers to help them out, and who don’t get the ear of the superintendent.
Says Susan: “I went through two years of hell, and I almost became one of those teachers who leave the profession and never look back.”
Needless to say, DISD can’t afford that.