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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