CARIBOU — The Caribou school board last week unanimously approved hiring a permanent replacement for a high school teacher whose employ-ment was terminated after what officials described as a years-long pattern of “inappropriate behavior.”
English teacher Kirsten Albair, 57, of Caribou said she intends to fight the school board’s action, which she be-lieves stems from its taking the side of students who misunderstood her teaching methods. Albair also questioned the thoroughness of the investigation into the allegations.
Caribou School Department superintendent Frank McEl-wain’s recommendation to terminate Albair’s teaching con-tract came after an investigation and a hearing in late July.
According to the official findings of facts presented to the board, incidents concerning Albair and inappropriate comments to her students go back to 2001 when she was warned in writing by then-Caribou High School Principal David Ouellette for making “mean and sarcastic comments” to students and for “inappropriate classroom management.”
Despite that warning, according to the findings of fact, Albair “continued to engage in disrespectful or insensitive speech and behavior toward students.”
“A few of these incidents would warrant just cause for dismissal,” McElwain said in a recent interview. “Really, it was a pattern that led to my recommendation.”
Among the incidents students testified took place in 2008 was the use of profanity in addressing students, telling of anti-Semitic and racist jokes in the classroom, and addressing students with regard to their sexual orientation.
“Despite Ms. Albair’s claims to the contrary, none of these jokes or statements was part of any curriculum or instructional activity and none served any pedagogical purpose,” according to the findings.
“When students bring inci-dents like these to our attention, we are obligated to investigate and see if there is any truth to them,” McElwain said.
Incidents and investigation
“The first I knew of any of this was on March 20 of this year,” Albair said in an inter-view Tuesday. “That’s when the principal [Mark Jones] called me into the office with the assistant principal and told me there had been an investigation as a result of a comment a student made in his office on March 17.”
That student, Albair said, had gone to the principal to protest a late-assignment penalty Albair had given to her.
“She also apparently ex-pressed concern about another incident that took place five or six weeks earlier,” Albair said. “The student told the principal I had told an extremely offensive, racist joke.”
Albair said she told the joke in class as part of an in-depth unit on civil rights. However, she denied ever telling any anti-Semitic jokes.
“Those are horrific jokes,” she said of the two she was accused of telling.
She said she did use a joke to illustrate how, when she was a teenager growing up in central Aroostook County, people of French heritage were often the target of ethnic jokes and other forms of discrimination.
Among Albair’s defense exhibits are the lesson plans and syllabus focusing on civil rights.
“As a prelude to the unit I gave the students my own background which is perfectly good pedagogy,” Albair said. “I’ve lived here all my life, and when I was the students’ age central Aroostook County was not racially diverse [and] the people who suffered discrimi-nation were the French and the Catholics.”
Albair said she told the stu-dents that two generations ago it was not only popular, but acceptable, to tell French jokes.
“No one thought anything of it,” she said. “Today we know how wrong that was.”
The student’s March 17 com-plaint to Jones touched off the investigation that included multiple interviews with 17 students, culminating in the July hearing and ultimately Albair’s termination.
Albair and her Maine Educa-tion Association union repre-sentative Nancy Hudak ques-tion the validity of that investigation.
“The only people the admini-stration questioned were the students,” Hudak said. “They never talked to any of [Albair’s] colleagues or former students.”
While several members of the Caribou teaching staff testi-fied on Albair’s behalf during the hearing, Hudak said, the administration chose to give more weight to students’ testi-mony than to educators with more than 30 years experience each.
Jones stands behind his in-vestigation, noting that in two of the three incidents from the last school year, the only wit-nesses were students.
In the third incident, in which Albair reportedly made comments regarding sexual orientation, Jones said he con-fronted the teacher directly and she said she made the com-ments.
“I saw no need to further rile up the staff with questioning,” Jones said.
For their part, Albair said, the students had “a variety of responses” when any alleged ethnic jokes were told in class and their content.
In their testimony, the stu-dents indicated finding jokes told in Albair’s class “offen-sive” and “distressing.”
However, Hudak and Albair again note the differing recol-lections of what and when any jokes were told.
“This supposedly occurred five to six weeks prior to the student’s complaint,” Albair said. “It would just seem to me if this did happen and they could not clearly recall the comments, it couldn’t have been so distressing.”
Hudak is concerned Jones did not do a complete job with the investigation.
“The problem we have is the principal did not ask any prob-ing questions,” Hudak said. “Rather, it seems he was simply looking to confirm information [and] never put any effort to find out if the kids talked to each other about their versions of the story.”
Such investigative technique is bad enough, Hudak said, if the end result is a letter of rep-rimand, but “If the result is termination, it’s terrible,” she said.
McElwain noted that over the years Albair has received high and satisfactory marks on her annual evaluations for teaching methods, instruction and uses of educational tech-nology.
However, he was quick to point out the incidents leading to his ultimate recommenda-tion for termination took place outside the scope of normal evaluation review.
“These incidents did not happen in the classroom evaluations,” McElwain said. “Rather, they were unplanned remarks that you don’t see in planned observations.”
Albair said her teaching style and classroom behaviors have raised administrative concerns over the years, espe-cially early on in her career.
She also said she used pro-fanity in front of two students and later apologized for her actions.
“I was suspended for one day [March 1, 2007] without pay for that incident,” Albair said. Accountability
Albair started her teaching career in 1972 and taught for six years in two teaching jobs, in-cluding one at Fort Kent Com-munity High School. After tak-ing years off to raise a family, she began teaching at Caribou High in 1999.
Albair said she has always worked with the administra-tion at Caribou High to bring her methods and conduct in line with established school system policies and procedures.
“I have learned so much from my colleagues,” Albair said. “I’ve had some wonderful men-tors along the way, including my first principal, David Ouel-lette.”
Albair said she worked “very hard” with Ouellette and other mentors to amend her behav-ior.
“In the process, she got a continuing contract,” Hudak pointed out. “Clearly, this was because they saw some poten-tial in her.”
In addition, the school de-partment spent close to $10,000 assisting Albair in earning her master’s degree in education from the University of Maine, which she completed in August.
“Would you spend those kind of resources on someone with a long-term pattern of inappro-priate behavior?” Hudak said.
“When a person affects the teaching and learning envi-ronment in the school, the board becomes concerned,” Scott Willey, Caribou school board chairman, said. “Nor-mally it’s a student, [but] in this case it was a teacher.”
Whether student, teacher or administrator, Willey said, all are held to the same standards and are accountable to the same policies established by the board.
“When we have to make a disciplinary action, we expect responsibility and accountabil-ity for administrators, staff and students,” Willey said. “Just because someone is a teacher does not mean they are not held accountable.”
Willey and McElwain agreed a great deal of time had passed between the start of the docu-mented incidents and Albair’s termination. “Dismissing a teacher is something that does not happen often,” Willey said. “We wanted to be thorough and not hurry, [and] this is not something the board took lightly.”
Jones, who became principal at Caribou High School last year after serving three years as assistant principal there, said he could not speak for pre-vious principals.
“These allegations were brought to my attention by stu-dents, and I saw them as seri-ous,” he said. “I absolutely be-lieve our investigation was thorough.”
With the board’s approval of long-term substitute Sherry Black as Albair’s permanent replacement, McElwain and Willey look forward to getting back to the business of teaching and learning.
“We expect a classroom to be a positive learning environ-ment,” Willey said.
Hudak predicts the grievance Albair plans to file will go to arbitration late this year with a verdict possible in early 2009.
“Would I go back?” Albair said. “This is my school. I went there, my husband went there, my kids went there and it’s built on fields where I picked potatoes. This was my dream job.”