East Idaho commissioner emphasizes fairness and justice

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part of an ongoing series profiling influential or interesting members of Eastern Idaho’s educational community. If you’d like to suggest an educator or administrator to be profiled please email EdNews editor Jennifer Swindell at [email protected]

RIGBY — The chance to help children learn and grow is an especially rewarding experience for many educators. But education isn’t a career without challenges — particularly if you take on a role that deals with the negative, less-talked about aspects of the field.

Esther Henry has one of those roles. She teaches English at Rigby High School in Jefferson Joint School District 251, but the 29-year teaching veteran also is chairwoman of the Professional Standards Commission.

Esther Henry
Esther Henry

A branch of the Idaho State Department of Education, the commission maintains professional standards for teacher certification and professional development. It also deals with ethics violations and disciplinary actions against educators.

Henry sought an opening on the commission in 2009 because she felt an obligation to make positive changes to the profession itself.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for teachers, and I hoped I’d be able to bring an open mind and a sense of justice and fairness to the process,” she said.

Henry serves as a member of the commission’s executive committee. In the capacity, she has spent years dealing with ethical violations — everything from lying on certification applications to increasing instances of sexual misconduct or abuse by educators.

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“Even one case is too many,” Henry said. “But in the last ten years, we’ve seen a large increase in (sexual misconduct) cases, largely because of social media and texting.”

The commission sees upwards of 40 cases a year. A significant portion of those are related to inappropriate behavior between teachers and students, other educators or involved use of inappropriate material such as pornography.

The members of the committee are charged with weighing the evidence and deciding if actions — such as a reprimand or revoking a teacher certificate — need to take place.

It’s not an easy job, because ethical complaints are rarely black and white.

On one hand, Henry said commissioners have to weigh the possibility that a trusted adult has taken advantage of a child and disciplinary action may be necessary.

“The public has such a high regard for the position of teachers. They entrust their children to us,” she said. “So we are held to a higher moral standard in the public eye than many other professions. Because of that we have an obligation to make sure we honor that trust.”

But on the other hand, commissioners must also weigh the very real possibility the complaint is unfounded or misrepresents the truth.

“Rumors can destroy a teacher’s career and ruin them, even if they have done nothing to warrant it,” Henry said. “Oftentimes (these teachers) are tried in the court of rumor and opinion, long before (they) are tried in any type of court.”

Earlier in her career, Henry watched a colleague’s husband’s career be torn apart by a sexual misconduct complaint. But when the case went to court, it was determined the student accuser had made up the story.

“I saw the heartache that he went through and the devastation and toll it took on his family,” Henry said. “That’s why I want to make sure in my service that I don’t immediately condemn simply because of a complaint.”

Henry’s dedication to fairness and justice is a trait that is admired by fellow educators and those on the commission.

“It’s no small task,” said Taylor Raney, director of Certification and Professional Standards. “She’s committed to kids and keeping them safe, but her commitment goes beyond the classroom by doing things to positively impact the profession and holding educators to a high standard.”

Henry also has a positive impact locally in District 251. She works tirelessly to inspire a love of English and classic literature among high school students. She said it’s a thrilling experience to see an unlikely student develop a love for Shakespeare.

Additionally, Henry is as a longtime member of the Jefferson County Education Association and has been a mentor for many teachers.

“Her willingness to help other teachers growth and learn is unparalleled,” District Instructional Coach Donna Duerden said. “She is a superb teacher … and she has a head for logic, being fair, seeing both sides and having empathy. She has a great deal of integrity in her approach to her personal and professional life.”

East Idaho reporter Nate Sunderland can be reached at [email protected]