Life and Law in Balance
Few legal jobs are more stressful than investigating teachers accused of shattering their students’ trust. Both versions of events are often murky, with students unwilling to press charges, teachers unwilling to cooperate and school district officials at a loss about what to do.
But George T. Finch’s work at the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission never seems to ruffle him. Finch, JD’06, is a Buddhist priest. He wears an amethyst bracelet of prayer beads on his left wrist and offers tai chi classes and meditation seminars for his colleagues.
“I’m not perfect,” Finch said. “I’ve been stressed out, but I’ve never yelled at anybody at work. You build a foundation and you go back to that foundation, that island of sanity.”
Finch, an only child who was raised in Detroit and attended Catholic schools, began his formal study of Buddhism in 1999. At Michigan State, he majored in international relations and East Asian languages and became fluent in Mandarin. He taught English in China, worked in international shipping and then in international sales for a high-tech firm. As his studies in Buddhism intensified, he began looking for more control over his time. Law school appealed to him, and he applied to Willamette because of the law school’s study abroad program in China.
Finch credits Buddhism, which emphasizes balance in life, with helping him get through law school. “In law school, you have to assimilate a huge amount of information in a short time,” he said. “Buddhism teaches you to be honest with yourself; it teaches you to be a better student.”
After graduation Finch ended up at the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) because he’d had an internship there and the agency wanted a tech-savvy law student to build a database. His job now involves interviewing witnesses, collecting documents and working closely with lawyers at the state Attorney General’s office, who end up prosecuting the cases.
Finch said he has a difficult time emotionally when teachers harm very young children but added that he doesn’t see all teachers as potential suspects. “That would be horrible,” he said. “Not everyone who gets arrested is a criminal.” About 15 percent of the cases the agency gets result in a conviction — either the case isn’t prosecuted properly or the parents won’t let their kids testify.
Aruna Masih, an attorney who represents teachers accused of wrongdoing, said Finch is a consummate professional even in the most delicate of situations. When teachers really need to know how an investigation is progressing, he’s efficient and prompt, she said.
“There’s a sense of peace and serenity that surrounds George, which is very interesting because the agency has a huge caseload and can be somewhat chaotic,” she said. “The serenity is, to me, what distinguishes him from most human beings. It’s the entire way of being he has that he imparts to everyone who comes into contact with him. Despite the fact we may have differences, it doesn’t change the basic respect I have for him.”