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John Louis Meeks Jr: Fear and loathing in the classroom

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

The schoolyard bully wears Prada.

Efforts to create safer and more civil schools have centered on working to encourage students to treat each other with respect and courtesy.  And, at a time when it has been difficult to reach a consensus on much, politicians are drafting legislation to combat bullying.  In Florida, for example, anti-bullying laws are in place to create serious consequences for educators and students alike who create a harmful atmosphere for learning.

But what do we do when the bully is higher up on the food chain?

"Part of the problem has been that for some principals, it’s not about if you're doing a good job, it's about whether they like you or not" Johnson said. "We are trying to change the relationships, and we felt [the contract] was the way of doing it,” said the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers during contract negotiations in Baltimore City public schools in 2010.

Education ‘reformers’ have long vilified ‘bad teachers’ in their crusade for better schools, but they neglected to hold ‘bad principals’ accountable for the overall teaching and learning environment.

The problem is that, although it is easy to point fingers at the unions for ‘protecting’ educators from the consequences of their alleged actions, there is a more covert system that allows autocratic administrators to lead by intimidation and bullying without fear of repercussions.

Teachers who are in the trenches are indeed subject to accusations from parents and students that could potentially damage their reputation are more vulnerable than administrators who operate in a star chamber that allows them to act like petty dictators.  Subordinates dare not speak out against their supervisors’ behavior because they know that they will be targeted for retribution and harassment.  Instead, they silently suffer because it is much easier to tow the line than it is to speak truth to power.

Yes, we have developed instruments that supposedly are objective and fair.  The problem is that the system is still administered by humans whose personal likes and dislikes can still railroad good teachers through arbitrary and unfair punitive actions out of the teaching profession.

Whether or not a principal ‘likes’ a teacher,’ the professional thing to do would be to afford our educators the ability to do their job with the same empathy and mercy that we expect to be delivered to our students.

Because of the nature of our government-run schools, I believe that politics will always be a factor in how we operate our public schools.  The downside of this aspect of public education is that bad principals will play the kind of games that harm our teachers’ ability to serve our students.

There are procedures in place that are supposed to protect the integrity of the classroom environment for teachers and students, but nobody is willing to openly call out those who routinely torment them.  It is much easier for good men and women to leave teaching altogether than it is for them to fight what is wrong with our system.

What we are left with is a system in which we have more malleable rookie teachers who dare not complain about the capricious ways of the more powerful people in the system who are free to bully and hector everyone else to blindly follow their orders, however vague, unfeasible or contradictory they may be.

Teachers would be laughed out of their profession if they were to impose the same edicts on their students that are routinely handed down by principals and district administrators.  Yet, educators toil under the premise that they are to:

· ·         Bring to life the abstract idea or concept of the day that is ‘non-negotiable.’  For example, when rigor became the cause du jour in our schools, teachers were expected to create lessons and assignments that increased complexity in the classroom.  Did they initially receive the tools to make it happen?  No, they were told to create with no real idea of how to get it done.  And when they did, they faced criticism from their superiors that could have been much easily avoided by helping them to produce what was originally needed to begin with. 

·  ·         Teach research and technology at a time when resources are scant for either.  The more rigorous work that is demanded of teachers and students requires more media center time and more computer tools.  At a time when media center hours and staffing are being reduced and when there are pitiful student-to-computer ratios in the classroom, when public library funding and hours are cut, and when many students are victims of the ‘technological divide,’ the only response that we get from our education leaders is to stop giving excuses and to draw more blood than is possible from the turnips that we have.
·  ·         Differentiate between learning styles for students, but shoehorn teachers into a single type of teaching that turns professional educators into Stepford teachers.  Differentiated instruction for students works because it makes the most of varying levels of learning and understanding, but all teachers are treated like they are interchangeable parts in a machine that should all be working in a way that may not play up their own individual talents or strengths.  A diverse group of men and women suddenly has been reduced to reading from a script and arranging their lessons and classroom for the sake of looking good for the people who enter with clipboards to hand out their usual demerits.

Finally, the most subtle aspect of bullying is from the social aspect of how administrators treat their subordinates.  We would immediately object to students deliberately ostracizing their peers or to teachers who play favorites with their students.  The pecking order, however, takes its cues from a larger picture where administrators develop their own cozy cliques that create an atmosphere in which some faculty are staff enjoy more favorable treatment than others.  Those who are not in the ‘in-crowd’ are just as humiliated and bullied as the most vulnerable pupil at the hands of a merciless bully.

Today’s education system is about results.  Our success as a school system, however, depends on achieving our goals together with the right means.  The time has come for administrators and educators to finally work with each other than against each other.  I am not very optimistic about this as we fail to abide by our own advice to our students, “When you see bullying, confront it.”  Until we can face down the petty dictators among us, we will continue to live and work in fear of those few who use the ends of results to justify their shameful means.

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