JOHN R. GIBSON, Circuit Judge.
The Dardanelle Public School District and its officials, as individuals, appeal the judgment of the district court,
Appellee Nancy Cox was first hired by the Dardanelle Public School District to teach eighth grade English at the district's Middle School for the 1976-77 school year. Her employment contract was renewed by the School Board each of the following two years. During the first two years Cox taught at the Middle School, she established a good working relationship with the principal, Ed Bradshaw, who served as her immediate supervisor. Bradshaw gave Cox good evaluations and recommended each year that she be rehired.
At the beginning of the 1979-80 school year, the third year Cox was employed by the School District, appellant John Dillard replaced Ed Bradshaw as principal of the Middle School. During this same school year Cox became more active in the teachers local organization, the Dardanelle Education Association (DEA), and was appointed DEA representative to the Middle School for the 1979-80 school year.
The difficulties between Cox and Dillard were best illustrated by the following factual findings of the district court:
Cox v. Dardanelle Public School District, No. LR-C-80-441, slip op. at 2-4, (E.D.Ark. April 23, 1984).
The district court found that the appellants had dismissed Cox not for alleged insubordination in failing to comply with administrative directives, but because of her continued expressions of disagreement over the educational policies in force in the Middle School.
Claims by public employees that they have suffered job-related sanctions as a result of speech are considered in accordance with the now familiar analysis set out by the Supreme Court in Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 97 S.Ct. 568, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1977). As a threshold matter, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the speech or conduct, which she alleges as the basis of the adverse employment decision, was entitled to constitutional protection; she must then show that this protected conduct was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment decision; the burden then shifts to the employer to show by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have taken the same action absent the employee's protected conduct. Id. at 287, 97 S.Ct. at 576.
Whether a public employee's expressions are constitutionally protected involves a two-step inquiry. Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 143-47, 103 S.Ct. 1684, 1688-90, 75 L.Ed.2d 708 (1983). Initially, a court must conclude that the employee's speech can be "fairly characterized as constituting speech on a matter of public concern * *." Id. at 146, 103 S.Ct. at 1689; if the speech falls within this category, the court must then balance "the interest of the [employee] as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interests of the state, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public service it performs through its employees." Id. at 142, 103 S.Ct. at 1687 (quoting Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563, 568, 88 S.Ct. 1731, 1734, 20 L.Ed.2d 811 (1968).
The district court concluded that Cox's speech, for the most part, was an "expression of her own ideas concerning the educational process in the Dardanelle Middle School ...," Cox, slip op. at 4, and therefore related to a matter of public import. Appellants contend that this conclusion is wrong as a matter of law
Whether a public employee's expressions relate to a matter of public concern must be considered in light of the "content, form, and context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record." Connick, 461 U.S. at 147-48, 103 S.Ct. at 1690 (footnote omitted). The question in each case is whether the employee's expressions can be "fairly characterized as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community * * *." Id. at 146, 103 S.Ct. at 1689. Where a public employee speaks out in public or in private
Additionally, we believe that much of Cox's speech directed at the school's personnel policies was not motivated solely by employment concerns, but was legitimate criticism of policies and administration which affected the educational function of the school.
We therefore conclude that a significant portion of Cox's speech was of public concern. We must now balance appellee's interest in advancing these expressions with the state's legitimate interest in the "effective and efficient fulfillment of its responsibilities to the public." Connick, 461 U.S. at 150, 103 S.Ct. at 1691; Pickering, 391 U.S. at 568, 88 S.Ct. at 1734.
An employee's interest in freely commenting on matters of public concern must generally give way to the state's interest in efficiently fulfilling its responsibilities where the employee's speech significantly impairs her ability to perform her duties, disrupts working relationships and harmony among co-workers, or otherwise
There is no evidence that Cox's criticisms throughout the year introduced discord into otherwise harmonious relations with her colleagues. To the contrary, the evidence indicates that this dispute was between a majority of the teachers at the Middle School and the principal. Moreover, there is no evidence that Cox's speech affected her teaching performance.
Nor do we believe that any statements by Cox can fairly be said to have disrupted her relationship with Dillard. The evidence indicates that the primary source of the disruption in their relationship (indeed, the cause of disruption of the relationship between a majority of the faculty and Dillard), was Dillard's implementation and enforcement of the personnel policies, not Cox's speech. See Monsanto v. Quinn, 674 F.2d 990, 998-99 (3d Cir.1982). See also Atcherson v. Siebermann, 605 F.2d 1058, 1063 (8th Cir.1979). Although we do not intend to minimize the importance of the teacher-principal relationship, see Nicholson, 682 F.2d at 864, it is not a "relationship between superior and subordinate * * * of such a personal and intimate nature that certain forms of  criticism of the superior by the subordinate would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the working relationship between them * * *." Pickering, 391 U.S. at 570 n. 3, 88 S.Ct. at 1735 n. 3. The teacher-principal relationship is not of such a personal and intimate nature that teachers must be precluded from filing responsible grievances. See Derrickson v. Board of Education, 703 F.2d 309, 316 (8th Cir.1983). Cf. Pickering, 391 U.S. at 572, 88 S.Ct. at 1736 (case does not present occasion to decide if teachers can be required to follow grievance procedures to submit complaints first to superiors before bringing complaints to public).
Finally, there is no allegation that the time, place or manner of appellee's speech aggravated her relationship with Dillard or impeded the normal operation of the school. Cox did not attempt to circumvent the chain of command, see Foster v. Ripley, 645 F.2d 1142, 1149 (D.C.1981); nor is there a suggestion that her individual grievance or criticisms throughout the year were intemperate, or antagonistic, see Nathanson
The appellants argue that even if Cox's speech, on balance, was constitutionally protected, it was not the motivating factor in the Board's decision not to renew her contract. They contend that the Board's decision was based on Cox's repeated refusal to comply with proper administrative directives, not her criticism of those directives.
A public employee generally can be discharged for refusing to follow administrative policies and directives, even those they contend are misguided. See Nicholson, 682 F.2d at 865 & n. 9; Berry v. Bailey, 726 F.2d 670, 675-76 (11th Cir.1984). Of the eleven charges listed by the superintendent in his letter to Cox and advanced to the Board, only two were found by the Board to be true and sufficient grounds for non-renewal: Cox's violation of the sign-in policy on several occasions by signing in for a fellow teacher, Richard Johnson; and, her violation of the policy forbidding unauthorized visitors in the classroom.
Whether the protected conduct of the plaintiff was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment decision is question of fact, Roberts, 773 F.2d at 954; Wheeler v. Mental Health & Mental Retardation Authority, 752 F.2d 1063, 1069 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 474 U.S. 824, 106 S.Ct. 78, 88 L.Ed.2d 64 (1985). Our review is therefore governed by the clearly erroneous standard, Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a); see Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 105 S.Ct. 1504, 84 L.Ed.2d 518 (1985). After considering all the testimony and evidence, the district court concluded that the charges of insubordination were "pretextual and insignificant," Cox, slip op. at 4, advanced by Dillard and Fugatt to retaliate against Cox for her continuing criticisms of the educational process and environment at the Middle School.
We believe that there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the district court's finding that Cox's speech motivated the Board not to renew her contract. Dillard admitted that Cox's individual grievance likely was a factor in subsequent decisions he made regarding her employment. At least three memoranda Dillard placed in Cox's personnel file, describing actions of Cox which he believed violated administrative policies or were improper, made reference to the grievance and suggested in each case that Cox's actions were not consistent with the criticisms she had levied against him in the grievance. See Joint Exhibit of Parties at 174, 175, 183. Furthermore, the district court took explicit notice of the fact that only the three teachers who filed individual grievances were subject that year to job-related sanctions. Cox, slip op. at 2. The district court's decision is not clearly erroneous.
The appellants also argue that the district court erred in finding that the teachers did not successfully discharge the burden of demonstrating by a preponderance of the evidence that the School Board would have reached the same decision but for Cox's protected conduct. Cf. Mt. Healthy City Board of Education, 429 U.S. at 287, 97 S.Ct. at 576. As with the previous question of causation, this is a question of fact, and thus subject to review on the clearly erroneous standard. See Roberts, 773 F.2d at 954; Professional Association of College Educators v. El Paso County Community College District, 730 F.2d 258, 267 (5th Cir.1984).
There is ample evidence to sustain the district court's finding. The appellants offer
We also reject appellants' argument that because the School Board members were unaware of Cox's grievance and other criticisms of Dillard's policies, their decision not to renew Cox's contract was not tainted by any impermissible motive. The district court could reasonably conclude that the Board would not have considered an adverse action against Cox had Dillard and Fugatt not advanced these retaliatory charges. See Professional Association of College Educators, 730 F.2d at 266.