SPRING HILL — There have been times since Sandra Hadsock started her new job teaching art at Explorer K-8 School when she's pulled an unruly student aside for a talk.
"I usually take them out in the hall and say, 'How is this working for you? Do you want people to be angry back at you?' " Hadsock said in an interview this week. "I try to get them to see they're creating that response — that it's their words and actions."
In May, Hadsock's 22nd year of teaching art at Central High School, she didn't try to have a rational discussion with a student who called her a vulgar name and then marched up to her. When she told him to step back and he took another step forward, she swung twice, landing the second punch on his jaw. Another student captured the incident with an iPod video camera.
The 64-year-old veteran teacher with a blemish-free personnel file was arrested on a charge of child abuse, booked into jail and released after posting bail later that day. The student was suspended and eventually transferred to another school. Prosecutors dropped the charge against Hadsock about three weeks later, after deciding the video didn't contradict her assertion that the student bumped her and she was acting in self-defense.
Hadsock maintained from the start that she felt threatened, acted on instinct and should be able to return to the classroom. The incident made national headlines, and Hadsock and her attorney traveled to New York to appear on the Today show. Some criticized her for overreacting, but she became a hero in the eyes of many, lauded for defending herself in a culture plagued by increasingly disrespectful youngsters.
As the district conducted its investigation, superintendent Bryan Blavatt initially indicated Hadsock faced termination, but she eventually was offered a post teaching elementary students at Explorer. Hadsock was a strong and effective teacher, and the district needed her, Blavatt said. She was not disciplined and started her new job on the first day of the 2011-12 school year.
Seven months later, Hadsock says the ordeal tested her resolve and ultimately transformed her.
The outpouring of support, especially from former students in the form of e-mails, Facebook messages and comments posted on online news stories, gave her new perspective on the impact she has made during her career.
"It was especially stunning how many students said I made a difference in their lives, that they are a better person because they were in my classroom for a little while," Hadsock said. "I was reading those and had tears in my eyes. If this hadn't happened, I wouldn't have known that."
She said she is proud that she stood firm, against the advice of her own attorney, and refused to sign agreements with the district that had her admitting some blame by not de-escalating the situation.
"I have my self-respect and personal integrity intact," she said.
She may still face sanctions, though. Documents from the district's investigation have been sent to the state Department of Education for review by the education commissioner, who will determine if there is probable cause to recommend that the Education Practices Commission take action against Hadsock's teaching certificate.
Hadsock says she is adjusting well to her new job. Administrators, fellow teachers and parents have welcomed her, and the switch to the elementary level is presenting a fulfilling, if tiring, challenge.
During an eight-week rotation, Hadsock sees every one of the school's 1,000-plus elementary students. She arrives at her Brooksville home more physically exhausted than she did as a high school teacher, but says it is satisfying to know she is helping to instill in some of her charges a lifelong passion for art. Even the youngest students — many of them call her "Miss Sock" — have surprised her with their ability to grasp art concepts such as depth and perspective.
"It's almost literally light bulbs going off over their heads when they get it," she said. "I get goose bumps."
There are times, though, when a student's behavior makes her think of that Central teen.
She is usually able to calm the student on her own. But on several occasions, she said, a student has been so disruptive that she felt compelled to push the white button in the front of the room to call for assistance from an administrator.
"There are kids who are rebellious and defiant and refuse to do anything," she said. "It's surprising that kids so young have anger issues. What's going on in their lives that anger plays such a major role in how they relate to the world?"
Hadsock says her experience over the past eight months has inspired a creative spurt.
She has started a book, tentatively titled Mommy Talk, that will be a compilation of all of the mini-motivational speeches she has given students over the years.
"I called them mommy talks," she said. "What do you want to have in life? What can you do, today in the classroom, to become a person who is happy and lovable and successful. Students have told me, 'You said things that really went to my heart,' so I decided to start writing all of that down."
She is also working on a website that she envisions as a forum for parents and teachers to share ideas about raising and teaching children. There will be a particular focus on the bullying epidemic. She's thinking about calling it Save the American Teacher, or STAT.
"We have so many parents who love their kids, but they're not being successful parents because they don't have the skills," she said.
Hadsock has enrolled in the state's deferred retirement program and is not sure if she will go the full five years before retiring. Either way, she plans to stay busy.
"I've got a lot to say," she said. "I want to heal and make some lemonade with these lemons and use something that could be devastating for other people and make it into an opportunity to grow, to learn, to become a better person, and to share how I did that."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com. Find him on Facebook by searching for Hernando Education Beat — Tampa Bay Times.