By April, leftover holiday decorations still were hanging in a classroom where Tammy Ryan taught, and her students had taken to hiding a toy — a plastic African-American baby doll — around the room.
Over several weeks, the Metro Alternative High School students had propped the doll on top of a cabinet, draped it over the television and left it sitting above the whiteboard.
One day, a student took the end of a long, wrapping ribbon that had been left hanging from the ceiling. The student tied it around the doll’s waist, leaving it suspended horizontally in the air.
When Ryan noticed the doll hanging in the room where she co-taught social studies, she thought only that the doll appeared to be flying.
“It was my baby doll, and I’ve had it for almost 20 years now in the classroom,” Ryan, 53, told The Gazette this week in an exclusive interview. “I looked at it and I just thought of it as my ‘Super Baby,’ flying. That really was my mind-set when I saw it — it was a pleasant thing. I didn’t see any other interpretation.”
Her failure to see the racist connotation of a black doll hanging from the ceiling, and its allusion to a lynching, cost Ryan her job. Cedar Rapids school board members, in a 4-1 vote, terminated Ryan after a hearing that stretched over three days last week.
Hearing was a rare step
The termination hearing was an exceptional event for the Cedar Rapids school board. The board’s secretary of 20 years, Laurel Day, said it was the first termination hearing during her tenure. The nine-year director of the local teachers’ union, Kim Miller of the Cedar Rapids Education Association, also could not recall another hearing.
Superintendent Brad Buck recommended Ryan’s termination in July, and Ryan requested the hearing shortly afterward.
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“To my knowledge, it’s not something that’s happened in Cedar Rapids,” Miller said. “That’s not to say there’s not teachers who have been offered opportunities to resign, but that’s a whole different thing.”
A termination hearing that results in school board members finding in favor of a teacher, and against a superintendent, is even more rare, he said.
“The superintendent has the relationship with the board,” Miller said. “ ... I think it’s rare that the board would overturn the superintendent.”
Ryan’s hearing was closed to the public and is not subject to public records laws.
The school district has previously provided four reasons for her termination: the “inappropriate use of (an) African-American baby doll,” poor and ineffective role modeling, unprofessional conduct, and inappropriate use of instructional methods and techniques.
District spokeswoman Akwi Nji declined to provide additional clarification for this article, citing personnel confidentiality concerns.
The five school board members who decided Ryan’s termination also declined or did not respond to Gazette requests for comment. Board President John Laverty declined, citing the advice of the board’s attorney; board member Gary Anhalt declined, saying the hearing was in closed session; and board members Mary Meisterling, Kristin Janssen and Board Vice President Nancy Humbles did not respond.
Misinformation and rumors
Without a public, official account of what happened to the African-American doll in her classroom, Ryan said misinformation and rumors about the incident have spread since she was suspended April 23.
“I didn’t put a rope around the baby, I didn’t even put the ribbon around the waist,” she said, noting she does not believe the student who attached the doll to the ribbon had any malicious intent. “I didn’t see it, that’s where I failed here, and it was a mistake. I see it now. And I regret that I’m not going to get the opportunity to heal those wounds.”
The oversight has weighed on her for months, she said, because she otherwise tried to be a culturally competent teacher. She is in the midst of a master’s program in social work at the University of Iowa and planned to retire at 55 to pursue social work full-time.
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“No student had said anything to us, and we work with students who tell us when something’s wrong,” Ryan said of the doll’s placement. “If a student would have said anything, we would have had a conversation, and it would have come down. That’s how I’ve operated my whole life.”
Instead, Ryan only realized how the doll’s position could be offensive when a school facilitator removed it from her classroom on April 20, after it had been hanging for one or two days, she said. Her principal then showed her a photo of the doll that had been posted on Facebook.
‘How could I miss it?’
In the social media post’s context, Ryan said the implications of the doll’s placement immediately became clear.
“It just blew me away. It was a lot of self-doubt, self-hatred,” she recalled. “How did I miss it?”
Her only explanation, she said, is school district officials had told her days before that her position at Metro had been eliminated.
“My mind was not in a place it would have normally been, at all,” Ryan said. “… I don’t want to push blame. I want to own my piece, I want to recognize what state of mind I was in and own my piece of it.”
Placed on paid administrative leave, Ryan waited while the district conducted an investigation of the incident. In late June or early July, she said she was asked to resign or face termination.
“I felt like I was being bullied into resigning, and I didn’t feel that what happened warranted resignation,” Ryan said. “… I had to fight it. It concerns me where this could lead for other people, given my history, given all the positive things in my career — and then I can be terminated?
“I am scared for what potentially is in store for other people and other educators in our district.”
Teachers’ union: Ryan ‘discarded by the district’
The events that occurred in Ryan’s classroom presented the Cedar Rapids Community School District with an opportunity “to address the incredibly challenging issue of race,” Cedar Rapids Education Association Director Miller said in a message sent to union members Friday.
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It was an opportunity missed, Miller said, even though Ryan “has yearned for a forum to apologize to those who have been hurt by the image (of the doll) and be a part of wider, restorative conversation.”
“Throughout three days of painful testimony, it became clear that whether that baby doll was ‘flying’ over the classroom or in a position reminiscent of a lynching was truly in the eye of the beholder,” Miller said in the email. “… Instead of having a critical conversation about race and perceptions, Tammy Ryan was labeled a racist by the superintendent’s legal team and discarded by the district.”
Superintendent Buck did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Last week, after the board voted to accept his recommendation to fire Ryan, he described the proceedings as “a difficult circumstance.”
“The whole thing is difficult,” he said Aug. 30.
Although Ryan plans to appeal the decision to terminate her, she said she does not plan to return to the classroom. Instead, she hopes to continue studying at the UI and eventually pursue a career in social work.
Despite the district’s evaluation of her as “ineffective,” she believes the reputation she built over 26 years in the classroom — eight of which were in Cedar Rapids, at both Washington High School and Metro — will overcome the last four months’ events.
She hopes she will be remembered as a caring, supportive teacher — “somebody who pushed you to be better,” Ryan said, “but still cared about you at the same time.”
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