Editorial: Speaking out works
For those who might despair that speaking out doesn’t change anything and the best bet is to stay silent and let others fight their battles, the story of Michelle Steele is heartening. Steele is the Middlebury Union High School French teacher who was named one of 20 Fulbright Distinguished Teachers in the country for 2022-23.
It’s a big honor, and for it she was entitled to spend the upcoming fall semester in Rabat, Morocco to study that country’s educational programming and complete a research project — an experience that would undoubtedly benefit future MUHS students and the larger ACSD community. Steele teaches French 1,2 and 3 at MUHS, as well as IB Diploma French for grades 11 and 12.
But a glitch in the ACSD’s teachers’ contract threw the proverbial monkey’s wrench into her plans as the administration initially denied her a fully paid leave to go on sabbatical. The Independent initially reported on Steele’s honor this fall, then months later on the administration’s denial, which was a practical reading of a clause in the contract that hadn’t been used in decades and that was less than clear.
It’s what happened next that’s inspiring.
People spoke out. They wrote letters to the editor expressing their disappointment in the administration’s decision not to grant her paid leave, spoke up at board meetings and in personal letters to Steele, school board members and the administration. And Steele herself appealed to the ACSD board challenging the decision.
It worked. The board and administration found a way to condition a revised decision on Steele’s paid sabbatical to make it consistent with how the teachers’ new contract (which will be renewed this summer) will read going forward. Importantly, it also smooths the way for other teachers who might win such prestigious honors. Much credit also goes to the ACSD board and administration for being open to a different outcome, but we’re certain that without public outcry it’s unlikely the issue would have been pursued.
In a story in today’s Addison Independent, Steele recognizes the public’s support. “While this process has been a bit of a roller coaster, I have been consistently overwhelmed and humbled by the fervent support of our community and my colleagues,” Steele wrote in an email to the Independent. “I would like to thank all of the community members who wrote letters and spoke out about this issue. The letters and words of support have meant so much to me, but more importantly speak volumes about this amazing community, the way we value education, and our collective dedication to the students of this district.”
In the scheme of life in Addison County, it’s a small victory. But it’s precisely such small victories happening in many ways throughout our communities every week that make living here special. Because people do speak out in support of what they value, changes are made, and better outcomes are often the result.
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