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Dysfunction at Waterloo Elementary

Community members up in arms about teacher transfer

By Matthew McCully

Local Journalism Initiative

Tensions flared during the opening question period of Tuesday evening’s Eastern Townships School Board (ETSB) council of commissioners meeting as a group of parents, staff and students from Waterloo Elementary School confronted the board about the transfer of teacher Timothy Croteau out of the school.

Zooming into the meeting from Waterloo legion, a group opposed to Croteau’s transfer said a petition had been signed by most staff members at the school, and suggested removing a teacher mid-year would create instability and cause undue stress.

According to the board, Croteau is being transferred in an attempt to improve the atmosphere in the school in general, not because of anything that he is specifically accused of. “This is in fact in no way related to his competence as a teacher, or as an individual,” ETSB Chairman Michael Murray said during the meeting.

The group opposed to Croteau’s transfer was combative, and their arguments were emotional.

The first to speak was a Handicapped Student Attendant (HAS) at Waterloo, who described being beaten by a 12-year-old, and while other staff ran away to get help or watched in shock, it was Croteau who diffused the situation.

“Timmy is respected by the kids; the kids love him. I feel safer with him there,” she said, asking how the board could ensure the safety of staff at the school with one man missing.

“It’s a very complicated answer,” Murray said, “I’ll try and do my best. We all want the same thing,” the chairman said.

For the last year, we have been trying to implement a new approach to discipline that does not involve punishment and consequences. It involves trying to understand the motivation of the student, trying to create an environment in which they feel safe, and therefore they do not need to lash out,” he said. “Adriana Lyons, your principal, is familiar with this approach and I know, believes strongly that building a rapport with the students is essential to long term solutions to the violence and bullying problem, which has plagued Waterloo for many years.”

Murray said that according to the latest figures, there are 31 staff members in the school for approximately 143 students. “That’s one staff member for fewer than six students. It’s important to understand that that ratio means that adults have an opportunity to get to know the students as individuals, not just as students, to relate to them, to know their background, to try and develop a degree of empathy with them. Not all children respond well to this, and it takes time.”

Murray added it does, however, mean that a discipline problem that relies on an individual, be it a man or a woman, is not constructive. “We can only work on improving the situation by implementing the policy consistently, and that’s what we are trying to do,” the chairman explained.

“Moving Mr. Croteau is part of a broader issue that has implications for more than simply the ability to discipline a single child.”

The next question was garbled by tech issues, but alluded to the procedures in place for investigations of sensitive interpersonal incidents.

“We all fear that this is only political, and that we could be next,” they said. “What is the master plan? Why is this happening? Why is Mr. C being moved?”

Murray offered up a sports analogy, but before beginning, audience members interrupted saying he should use the truth, not an analogy.

Murray continued, “Sometimes our teams perform less well. When we think a group is not performing well, we start to make changes. One of the first changes is to change the coach.”

In a school, the coach and principal have the same role, Murray said.

“In this case we have changed the principal three times. The atmosphere, the working environment, the tension in the school have not improved. So, to continue to do so seems to us to be not the best approach,” commented the chairman.

The second approach, Murray said, is to begin to change the personnel.

“Mr. Croteau is being changed in order to improve the general atmosphere on the staff level at the school.”

“Why would you change your all-star?” an audience member replied.

“You don’t change your all-star because you can’t deal with your principal. You change the principal because she can’t deal with the students,” he added.

The pleas continued, pointing out that Croteau had received an award of excellence, has a good relationship with staff, and the climate at the school is suffering.

“Why is this happening?” the audience member asked, “There need to be reasons for doing things.”

Murray replied that privacy of information relating to personnel prevents the board from going into detail. He did, however, say that an investigation has been done.

“All of the steps under the collective agreement have been followed. We have done so in order to ensure this is, to the best of our ability, the correct solution. We all want the same thing, we want to improve the school,” chairman Murray said.

The next question came from a student from Croteau’s Grade 6 class. She said she had a petition from kids in his class, as well as petition from students from the other Grade 6 class, wanting to be transferred to Croteau’s group because of all the problems in their class.

The student also referenced 44 letters, written by current and former students explaining how Mr. C changed their lives.

According to the student, while in Grade 5 last year her class faced a revolving door of teachers, a total of 18 passing through.

Murray thanked the student for her question, and said that the board would not change a teacher in the middle of the year if they did not think it would improve the situation.

Microphones buzzed with disapproval at Murray’s reply. “You had all summer to do this,” someone called out, “Let him reply, because he has nothing to reply.”

“I’m sorry that you are so impacted at the thought of losing this teacher,” Murray continued. “He is undoubtedly, based on his reputation, an excellent teacher and the students are right to be concerned at his departure.”

On the other hand, Murray said there are other factors the board is not at liberty to disclose that played into the decision.

Appalachian Teachers’ Association President Megan Seline asked the next question.

“Obviously Mr. Croteau is being transferred based on the climate within school; that appears to be the reason. Has Ms. Lyons been considered or thought to be transferred to another school? Has Ms. Lyons been under the same scrutiny as Mr. Croteau, is that perhaps a possibility?”

Murray said the answer to both questions was yes.

“We have already changed principals in that school three successive times over the last 6 or 7 years. It seems to us evident that changing the principal again would not fundamentally change the situation. We feel that we have no choice but to seek an alternative solution,” Murray said,

adding it is not necessarily a final solution, but it is a step in a direction the board thinks will make for an environment more conducive to learning for students, and healthier for staff.

None of the answers offered by Murray satisfied the group opposed to Croteau’s transfer.

The sports analogy came back to haunt Murray.

“I know more than one sports team that’s changed their coach over and over again because changing an all-star is not the necessary thing to do, it’s to put the right coach in place,” an audience member said.

He then went on to ‘take a swing’ at principal Lyons, saying she came to the school with no previous experience as an administrator, and that she brings drama to Waterloo Elementary.

“Not just drama where the parents are unhappy. Drama where the kids do not want to go to school. Drama where the kids do not like their principal. Drama where the kids won’t even go see them because there’s nothing being done. You don’t change your all-star teacher where the kids actually feel safe,” he said, “you change the problem.”

The discussion deteriorated, taking a crack at the expression on Murray’s face, and ultimately taking issue with the lack of information provided by the board about Croteau’s transfer.

Murray then asked a question of his own.

“Why would you think as a council of commissioners; as serious managers who work for us, why would you think that we would do anything that would make the school worse? Are we evil? Are we the kind of people who are destructive?”

Acting secretary general Sharon Priest then called an end to the question period, but the group was permitted to respond.

“I’ll tell you why you would do this. Because you would rather have obedient people than competent people,” was the reply, accompanied by applause.

“There’s nothing more to say. Thank you very much,” Murray said, continuing with the rest of the meeting.

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