Dangerous Silence: How Arkansas Failed Me in My First Year of Teaching

The author, on the far left, rehearsing with Joshua Bell and the Fort Smith Symphony in 2016 (from the Fort Smith Symphony Facebook page)

When I started teaching orchestra at Arkansas Arts Academy High School last fall, I didn’t know much at all about the state of public education in Arkansas. Professionally, I had spent my entire career as a professional violinist, having spent time in roles including as concertmaster of the Fort Smith Symphony, concertmaster and principal viola with the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra, composer/director of Storybook Strings, and a freelancer with touring groups like “Book of Mormon” and Harry Connick, Jr. I also had a long history of teaching private violin lessons in the Suzuki method.

When I made the change into education, everything was new for me: I did not have an Arkansas teacher’s license or any previous training teaching in a school setting. “That’s okay!” the principal of Arkansas Arts Academy assured me. “We’re a charter school. We have waivers from teacher licensure requirements, as long as you have a bachelor’s degree and relevant professional experience!”

That sounded like it could work. I know music. I teach music. I figured that I can learn anything else the job may require. So I signed up to teach part-time, trusting in the experience and good faith of the school administration, and my fellow teachers, to help me learn the ropes.

Getting to work as a teacher

Things got off to a different start than I had imagined. The school did not give me a contract until 41 days after I was hired (despite my frequent requests) and I didn’t even learn what my salary would be — $21,187.50 — until my fourth day of teacher in-service. This was around the same time I first learned of my employment terms as well, which ended up being incredibly vague.

How vague, exactly? My contract specified that I would be working 190 half days, and that the nature of my work was “at-will employment.” It also mentioned a waiver granted by the Arkansas Department of Education that made Arkansas Arts Academy “exempt from certain laws relating to schools, including, specifically, many of those relating to employees.” Despite the general language of my contract, I never doubted that I would be in good hands — the school had a good reputation, I had a friend who taught there, and I knew families who sent their kids there. Plus, what musician wouldn’t root for the success of an arts academy?

Ultimately, this is where I should have been more careful. If I had gone to the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) website at the time my contract was first presented to me, I would have learned that the “waiver” in my contract was actually a lot of waivers, and that the ADE grants new ones all the time. Currently, Arkansas Arts Academy High School has 51 waivers in effect, which infringe on teachers’ rights to planning periods and duty-free lunches, limitations on before- and after-school duties, and even Arkansas’ Teacher Fair Dismissal Act. Arkansas Arts Academy is also exempt from having to provide written personnel policies to its employees, which means that there is no handbook telling us how to access our classroom funds, what to bring for fire drills, how to interact with parent organizations, or who to talk to if we need help.

In the absence of state oversight, and without written personnel policies, things quickly become chaotic.

Photo from Arkansas Arts Academy’s Facebook Page

Navigating the Ocean of Chaos as a First-Time Educator

From the get-go, we had to maneuver around the obstacles created by the simple fact that the school’s campus was under construction. During that first week of faculty in-service, for example, the administration asked us to come to work while the water was turned off — for an entire day. This means that we had no access to toilets, sinks, water fountains, and that there was no place for me to pump breastmilk for my three-month-old baby. I guess the administration figured that we could go to the grocery store down the street… right? After all, sacrifices must be made in the name of education.

In-service training itself turned out to be a series of general meetings: one day of “let’s all introduce ourselves and learn how to write a purchase order,” three days of “how exactly we are an arts-integrated school,” another full day of “here’s how to use Adobe,” and a final day — “go get your classrooms ready!”

Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay, conducting the Arkansas Arts Academy High School Orchestra, August 2017

The lack of organization was already difficult enough to navigate from the start, but, in a time that felt like it couldn’t get more chaotic, our principal was unexpectedly forced to resign — exactly one week after students began classes. I still don’t know all the details, but the resignation created a lot of havoc in the beginning of the school year: there were student protests on the street and constant tears in the hallways. I did the best I could to support the students in such a tumultuous time, trying to bring their attention to the beautiful things we could do with music together, and doing my best to help them land on their feet.

The out-of-nowhere resignation meant that we went an entire month with an interim principal, during which a teacher at our affiliated elementary school got arrested for failing to fulfill her duties as a mandatory reporter of suspected child sexual abuse. The day after our colleague’s arrest, my mentor teacher emailed all the high school teachers a link with information on state protocol for identifying symptoms of child abuse, and our responsibilities as teachers to be mandatory reporters of abuse if we suspect it. Until my colleague got arrested, I had no idea of my legal responsibility, or the protocol, regarding child abuse — pretty scary, to say the least.

The start-of-term chaos felt never-ending, due to the school’s ongoing lack of clear authority. In the absence of a principal, the district’s Chief Financial Officer began asserting independent control over the terms of my employment. One particularly troublesome example of her frenzied control was when she emailed me that my absence a week earlier, already approved in writing by the former principal, would be recategorized as unexcused, and therefore docked from my pay — after the fact. I objected and asked that revisions to the faculty attendance policy be written down and distributed to the entire staff. She referred me to “the handbook,” never acknowledging that the school didn’t actually have a handbook, and, technically, wasn’t obligated to provide one, either.

Unions, Money, and The Tiring Search for Support

Despite the chaos, I never heard from the Arkansas Education Association (AEA), a subsidiary of the National Education Association (NEA), which is the country’s largest labor union. Arkansas Arts Academy does not participate in collective bargaining with the AEA, but the AEA does welcome teachers from non-union schools to become members of its organization. The AEA probably could probably have given me useful information about my rights under state law, but never reached out to me, and, to be honest, I didn’t know it existed in the first place. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is “locked out” of the school where I worked.

The teachers at Arkansas Arts Academy generally join the Arkansas State Teachers Association (ASTA) for access to benefits like grant money, liability insurance, and professional networking opportunities. ASTA is not a labor union, so it says it does not pursue a legislative agenda or engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members’ employment rights. I joined ASTA in September 2017.

Alice Walton, 2011, from Wikimedia Commons

Looking back, it makes sense that we were an ASTA school, rather than an AEA school. Arkansas Arts Academy is a pet project of Alice Walton, founder of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Our superintendent, Mary Ley, brought a $450,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation with her when she took over the school in 2012.

From Arkansas Arts Academy’s “Charter Renewal Application” 2014

ASTA also runs on grant money from the Walton Family Foundation, which works hard to fund research organizations that encourage school deregulation across the country, including the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy. This is the office that recently helped promote Arkansas Act 1240, allowing school districts to petition the State Board of Education for the same waivers granted to open-enrollment charter schools if any students residing in the district attend a charter school. This could mean more chaos, but at a much larger scale. The Office for Education Policy recently published a scholarly article entitled, “The Waivers Sought by Arkansas Charters: Should They Be Extended to All?” which concludes with the chilling line, “We won’t know unless we try.”

In hindsight, I should have done my research and known better than to commit to teaching at a charter school funded by the Walton Family Foundation, one of the most powerful donors to organizations that promote school deregulation and privatization (which, ultimately, leads to their profiting off things like interest-bearing loans to charter schools.) I should have expected and been prepared for what I experienced so it would not have come as such a surprise. Still, I was a first-year teacher without a teaching license, and I simply did not know any better.

Here’s the thing: my colleagues at the school and across the state, however, did know better— and I think they should have reached out and helped.

All-Region Orchestra Auditions: How Bad Policy and Administration Affects a Teacher Firsthand

One major difference between orchestra teachers and teachers of academic subjects is the expectation that orchestra teachers will be available to work on evenings and weekends, since our students give evening concerts and participate in weekend competitions. Regarding pay, most school districts follow state law about “additional days” and “supplemental duties” when they write contracts for their orchestra teachers. My school did not. Although Arkansas Arts Academy did not have waivers exempting them from following these laws, they did not include a stipend for additional days or evening work in my contract. I didn’t know these laws existed, so I didn’t raise objections.

It is important to remember that I was learning the ins-and-outs of my position on my feet as the year went on. Since All-Region Orchestra auditions were looming, I began trying to figure out the school membership and student eligibility rules for entering inter-scholastic contests. In the process (and after the fact, thanks to the slow-moving Arkansas Freedom of Information Act process,) I learned that the Arkansas School Band and Orchestra Association (ASBOA) is institutionally dishonest with regard to school participation and student eligibility, and does an intentionally terrible job of communicating rules to participating directors.

I had many concerns about my discoveries, which I wrote out in emails to our district’s superintendent and fine arts director, the chief financial officer, the interim principal, and the school’s replacement principal. I asked to be excused from taking my students to the auditions, based on the disorganization I was witnessing firsthand, and the horror stories I was learning from students who had attended in the past. They were dismissive of my concerns and insisted that I take my students to the auditions. “I’m sure we will be able to work out the details,” said one respondent to an email. “Thanks for what you do for our students.”

“I’m sure we will be able to work out the details” is another example of vague words that serve only to provide a cover for unethical activity. The “details” never did work out after all: I asked to be paid and got nothing (although I learned later that administration did pay another teacher who went to the same event on the same day.) I also offered to work the Saturday of the auditions in exchange for an extra day off during the school week — this trade-off never got approved either.

The extra work required of me during the auditions extended beyond simple chaperoning duties. At the event, the ASBOA host director insisted that I had to “volunteer” as a judging official for the auditions, or my students would be disqualified. It violated the ASBOA’s constitution for him to require me to be there in person, since it was an individual event and I only had three students registered, but he required it (in writing), and assigned me to the longest judging room.

My school did not intercede on my behalf, even though they knew the statewide regulations governing inter-scholastic contests, and had sent two students to an ASBOA event earlier that same week with a volunteer parent (who was also a school board member) chaperoning, instead of a teacher.

Just for comparison, I was the tallest bar. Some of these teachers represented students from multiple schools, despite the ASBOA constitution “requiring” each school to have its own faculty representative (or other responsible adult, if the school was sending fewer than six students.)

Margo Cecilia Ballay, in the christening gown my grandfather wore.

At the time of the auditions, I was a nursing mother who required regular lactation breaks. I emailed the event chairperson, notifying him of my lactation status, and asking whether they would be able to accommodate my needs. He assured me I would have all the break time I needed. What I got instead, on a day consisting of almost ten hours of 189 auditions to judge, plus a mandatory judges’ meeting, and a 30-minute “prep” time for the students, was nearly twelve hours of unpaid, involuntary work — without even a scheduled lunch break. The host teachers brought us takeout from Chick-fil-A at lunchtime, and expected us to eat while we continued to judge.

An orchestra teacher from Bentonville, observing my dilemma, offered suggestions for how to accommodate my human needs, including volunteering herself to judge in my place before the auditions even began. The host and the ASBOA officials refused every suggestion, blaming me for “not judging fast enough.”

To deal with the turmoil of the day, I broke ASBOA rules by whipping out my cell phone in the judging room to text the principal of Arkansas Arts Academy and ask what I should do. She suggested that I simply stop judging, load my students back on the bus, and leave. I knew I would get in trouble for that, so I asked her to call the ASBOA executive secretary, Julia Reynolds, on my behalf. When the call came through, Reynolds and the state orchestra chairperson (an orchestra teacher at Rogers High School) Karol Rulli, entered my judging room to tell me that if I left, all the students in my judging room would have their scores invalidated. Basically, I would be hurting 189 children if I stood up for myself. I decided that I would stay, in tears, and finish judging. All the while I explained, yet again, that I didn’t think I should have to be judging at all if I wasn’t being paid, that weekend work wasn’t a part of my contract, and that my principal had told that me I should just leave immediately.

Rulli and Reynolds (whose emails from their faculty accounts prove they cooperated to break eligibility rules for one of Ms. Rulli’s private students who attended a non-member school) told me I was mistaken. Ms. Rulli said I worked for the same district she did, that I got the same “additional days” stipend she did, and that my contract required me to do whatever “additional duties as assigned” that her district chose to assign me.

Of course, this was all terribly false. I was employed by the Arkansas Arts Academy charter school district, with no stipend for additional days, and a state law in effect limiting my “additional duties as assigned” to 60 minutes per week. I still don’t know whether Karol Rulli really misunderstood my situation as dreadfully as she seemed to, or whether she was deliberately trying to punish me because she knew she was vulnerable to my questions about eligibility violations.

What I do know is that I was surrounded by experienced teachers when this happened to me — both at my school and at the All-Region Orchestra auditions. Only a few of them tried actually tried to help, and instead, most expressed an impotent sympathy, sharing stories like, “I’ve never gotten a lunch break in 27 years of teaching!” and “These are always terrible events. I can’t believe I have to work 16 Saturdays a year for a measly $500 stipend!” I would have expected a little more solidarity — the kind that could make a difference as I tried to stand for my rights. At the very least, I would have preferred that my colleagues not have deliberately caused harm.

When I got back to my school at 10:00 that night, my principal was waiting for me, and had already started researching federal employment law on my behalf, with regard to lactation breaks and lunch breaks. Unfortunately, teachers are specifically exempt from the wage and hour provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, so the only thing she could find was that I was supposed to be allowed lactation breaks on an as-needed basis, although I couldn’t expect to be paid for them.

The truth is, Arkansas Arts Academy had no control over my work environment while I was on the campus of Kimmons Junior High doing mandatory volunteer work for the ASBOA. I was at the mercy of other teachers, who served as hosts and organizers. I waited the entire next day for a phone call — an apology or even a “thank you for sticking it out” call — but got nothing from my colleagues. Instead, the next evening, I received an angry email from the orchestra teacher at the Arkansas Arts Academy Elementary School, accusing me of interfering with her students’ chances at the audition. Even though I knew I had done no such thing (and can prove, now, that both of us were deliberately left out of the loop with regard to ASBOA rules distribution), I also knew that my district-level administrators had a history of unpredictable policy changes and miscommunication. It was the last straw for me, and I decided it was best to cut my losses and resign immediately.

Reflections From A Former Educator

Through a closer reading of the waivers received by Arkansas Arts Academy High School and state law, it appears that the school does not have the entirety of the Personnel Policies law waived — just certain aspects, like a grievance procedure. This makes it even more problematic that they didn’t provide a written handbook for school employees. Everything starts with a simple handbook so that employees know their rights and can enjoy a relationship with administration that is based in clarity. The fact that I was never given a handbook, but told repeatedly to refer back to it, is problematic in and of itself, and could have prevented a lot of the turmoil I experienced.

Speaking of the turmoil, where, in everything I endured, was ASTA? Where was the AEA? And why — why— did so many of my colleagues think my experience was a normal, albeit unpleasant, part of being a teacher? The experience ended my nursing relationship with my baby and ended my educational career. No “normal” part of a job does those things to a person.

What happened to me should not be allowed to happen to any other teacher. This is why I’ve started writing, publicly, about school deregulation in Arkansas. How do we expect to drag ourselves out of a teacher shortage if we continue to treat teachers so inhumanely? What are the consequences of our actions on our children if we continue to send them to school in the care of teachers who are under this kind of abusive stress?

I will continue fighting and speaking up about the need for education reform in Arkansas, and about my experiences, hoping that teachers will finally realize the change that we need to ensure we are doing the best for Arkansas’ young minds, and ourselves, as part of the educational system.

Orchestrating Change

Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay Advocates for Public Education in Arkansas

Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay

Written by

Former professional violinist and public charter school teacher. Current stay-at-home mom and agitator for change.

Orchestrating Change

Elizabeth Lyon-Ballay Advocates for Public Education in Arkansas

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