The Importance of Accurate and Timely Documentation

I have been a teacher mentor twice in my career, and I had a couple of first-year co-teachers that I also helped to mentor. When I sat down and thought about what I wanted to tell them in those first few precious days of in-service before the hubbub of having actual students in our classrooms, one thing continued to come to mind first: Document everything. I had been given that piece of advice by countless seasoned teachers my first year, and I felt an obligation to pass it along to all of the newbies in my charge.

We have a union. But, we also have administrators who do not always listen to our side when parents come knocking; some never listen to teachers regardless of the situation. And, with everything that happens in the day of a life of a teacher, we truly may not be able to remember everything in detail when we are called upon to testify, report, or share in any setting from a court of law to a guidance counselor or principal’s office. While it is possible to go a little overboard with documentation, especially during those first couple of years as a new teacher, it is better to play it safe than sorry and find yourself in a situation where you wish you had documented it.

Documented Life Journal tab by marynbtolSo, what do you document? In my opinion, you should document anything that occurs with a student involving discipline, a confrontation, an uncomfortable conversation, etc. And, the documentation in question here is the sort that you keep in a private three-ring binder, journal, or other source that you easily can take with you on conference days or days that you are out of the classroom. Your documentation will be highly sensitive in nature due to the fact that it will contain the truth about students, their behavior, threats, your evaluations, and more, so when you are out of the classroom you should make every effort to secure it.

As for the importance of documentation, I cannot stress it enough. In an era during which teachers are being blamed for everything, students are beginning to assimilate the war-on-teacher mentality from society at large. They demand that we respect them rather than earn it from us. They assume that they are going to be able to do as they please in our rooms because they know that teachers often are powerless against “squeaky-wheel parents” when they complain to administrators about our plagiarism policy, our grading guidelines, our seating charts… This is what happens when we adopt the school-as-business model: the customer is always right, even when the “customer” is a fourteen-year-old kid armed with a smartphone and an attitude.

Documentation adds another layer in our defense of ourselves. We cannot do much in a their-word-against-our-word scenario without it. With it, we can point to times and dates and witnesses and help build our case. It seems crazy that grown professionals even need to do such a thing, but that is the culture in which we currently operate. Gone are the days when teachers were trusted because they were the professionals and adults in the room.

We have been receiving email from teachers across the country who have horror stories about needing records to defend themselves. In the interest of protecting teachers who want their voices to be heard, we are not going to share any personal information – not even their initials or home states.

  • A teacher received an unsatisfactory rating on an observation dated by an administrator on a date when the teacher was not in the building – she had been out for two weeks due to surgery with sick days in place.
  • A teacher was accused of calling a student an “idiot” during a class with a co-teacher. The parents demanded the teacher be suspended and called school board members and the superintendent. The co-teacher had documented that one student had called another student an “idiot” during class, and the regular teacher addressed it by saying, “We don’t call people idiots in this classroom. Apologize now.” It later was revealed that the student who told his parents the teacher had called him an “idiot” had failed a test and wanted to get the teacher into trouble for failing him.
  • A teacher was accused of targeting a student for plagiarism. The parents contacted the principal and said their child was being accused unfairly and demanded that the teacher accept and grade the paper. The teacher had documented the plagiarism, printed out the website from which the student had taken the paragraphs, highlighted the material in both the student’s work and the website copy, and contacted parents to tell them that the student had five days to redo the assignment. The teacher also had documentation of two other students who had plagiarized, so she was able to prove she was not unfairly targeting any student.
  • A student raised his hand and made a gun with his fingers. He pointed the “gun” at a teacher’s head and said, “Boom!” A teacher documented the incident and took it to an administrator.  The administrator said that he was sure the student didn’t mean it and wouldn’t worry about it. The teacher then took the documentation to the guidance counselor and her union leaders.

This is just a sampling of the stories we have received from teachers. We wish we could say that the documentation made a difference in all of the cases we have heard about, but unfortunately it hasn’t. What it has done is raise awareness about the issues teachers deal with daily and help some teachers feel at least a little better that they have records to rely on when they need to protect themselves.

There are a few things you should keep in mind when you document issues:

  1. Complete the documentation as soon as possible after the incident occurs. The details will be more fresh in your mind and you will be more accurate in your description.
  2. Always include the date, time, and location of the incident, or the date and time of the telephone call, in the documentation.
  3. Include the names of adult witnesses and do everything you can to get them to document the issue and give you a copy to include with your records.
  4. Keep your documentation records secure at all times. Don’t store them in a visible, public area. Most important, remember to take them with you at the end of the day.
  5. Print emails and make copies of notes, evaluations, letters, etc.
  6. If an administrator asks for your documentation, you may want to check with a union leader first. If you don’t have a union, use your best judgment about what to share. If you do turn in your documentation, turn in a copy of it. Never turn in your originals.

Documentation may not help in every instance, but it will help you keep an accurate record of the problems and challenges you face throughout the school year. If the time should come that you need to protect yourself, your documentation is going to be very important to the process. It is almost comical that teachers feel the need to document everything in this day and age; we feel as though all of the forces are working against us and pushing us out of our profession. Yet, other groups are fighting teacher tenure because they feel like we are invincible. The two sides could not be further apart: this is the fallout from the war on teachers.

If you have any stories of your own about the importance of documentation that you would like to share, please email Bailey at bailey@truthinteaching.com or reply in the comments below.

Image via Flickr by marynbtol

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