"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Teachers Tired of Being Bullied to Death

We're not going to take it!

Recently, in Chicagoland, a story hit the papers about a teacher committing suicide. She wrote in her suicide note that the major reason for this drastic act was work-related. According to her colleagues, this woman took her own life because of the bullying and fear she experienced at her school.

As I discussed this event with a friend who is a current CPS teacher, he mentioned that in the comments section of the article many non-educators were shocked and horrified at this tragic happening but were also quick to assume that the woman must have been "soft" or had some kind of underlying mental health problem. But, he quipped, when many CPS teachers heard about the incident, they just shook their heads and said, "Yeah, I can see that happening."

Truth is, so could I. When I think back to my measly one year of teaching at a horribly-run CPS elementary school, I can very easily imagine that scenario unfolding with a number of my colleagues and yes, even with myself.

Did you all catch that? Suicide is not considered shocking in the realm of teaching in CPS.

And I don't think the general public understands the toll that years of working in an increasinlgly horrible environment coupled with the latest wave of teacher-bashing actually takes on the people who do the hard work of education.

Let me try and paint you a picture:

Imagine you've had one of the worst weeks of your life. You haven't slept in months, you have money troubles building, your relationships are failing, you feel unheard and unappreciated at home and at work, you worry daily about your future and whether or not you will have a job next year or even next week, and the idea of getting up to go to work the next day is practically unbearable. You need a moment to catch your breath, a moment to clear the clutter of worry, failure and fear from your clouded mind. But you don't get it. There is too much to get done. And all the while, you think, if I don't get it done, I am failing these kids. I have no choice but to keep pushing.

Now add onto that a vindictive, power-hungry boss who would fire you as soon as look at you, and colleagues at work who are themselves so tired, afraid and overwhelmed that they are one bad day from breakdown.

And then there are your students. God you love them. But some of them have problems you simply do not know how to fix. Or, even with the interventions you know to do through experience and training, you also know it will take all of your mental energy to implement them. You don't have that kind of energy left. Some of your kids are currently homeless and show up to school unbathed and with dirty clothes. Others have developed significant behavior problems and despite your best efforts, they continue to fight, curse, and act out in class. Some of them are so embarrassed they can't read that they throw books off their desks and rip up their hand-outs. You know deep down that most of the difficulties your children face arebeyond your control. But still, most days you come home and cry because of the guilt and helplessness.

You also know that your job is on the line if you don't get these kids to perform on some silly test. You know the tests are a joke, that they do not capture the intelligence, wit, humor and spark that live within your students. But still they hang there, always lurking in the shadows. Time is slowly marching until the day you must administer the dreaded test and seal your fate.

Now imagine turning on your TV or flipping through the Tribune or Sun-Times to see yet another story loudly proclaiming that the problem with America's schools is, well, you. "More teachers must be fired!" they scream. "Teachers are the ones failing the kids, we need to hold them accountable!" "Teachers are lazy and need to work longer, harder, for less pay!" "Teacher pensions are destroying our economy!" (Whoa, did I miss the part where newspapers yelled at the people who caused the financial crisis that is slashing education budgets around the country? Are the mortgage brokers, big banks and financial industries getting demeaned every five seconds? How about the corporations not paying their fair share of taxes which help schools? And don't forget the politicians and their horrible education policies. Surely no one reading the news is believing this baloney, are they?) And every time you hear the insults or name-calling you think to yourself, "Well what the heck are any of you doing to help these kids..." The unfairness of it all burns.

Now stretch that one terrible week into nine months. Welcome to CPS.

Of course, the great irony is that as the powers that be complain about "quality" teachers they create teaching environments where it becomes impossible to be great. Teachers at my old school started to look liked the walking dead as the stress and fear accumulated. The increased "accountability" robbed us all of the very qualities which would make us great teachers: our passion, kindness, drive, energy, camaraderie and humor.

And then there are people, like our lovely mayor, who seem to enjoy kicking you while you're down. Rahm would have us believe that something like extending the school day is so easy. Oh, that smurk on his face as he seems to say "How dare you expect to be paid for your extra time!" And "Sure, you've been working this whole year close to breakdown, barely scraping by, without any resources and with abnormally large class sizes, but I'm sure you can come up with 90 extra minutes of activities for your kids. Oh, and if you really cared, you'd do this willingly and for free. And stop asking for paper to make copies or books for them to read, you greedy teachers. And no, we are not going to fix your school building, give you the resources you say you need, or help you in any way, shape, or form. You suck, your school sucks, and we are just biding our time until we can shut the whole thing down."

Sigh...

Now, maybe not every school and every teacher has as bad a time as that, but I know I did. And I know too many other teachers out there who are experiencing that same fear, intimidation, and stress. Teaching under these unacceptable conditions has become the rule, not the exception. I recently came across a blog post which described something called "compassion fatigue" which is "a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress." The author goes on to say:

Like nurses, teachers confronting these pathologies [such as abuse, abandonment and alienation] are forced to perform triage. But teachers still have to somehow find the time and energy afterward to teach the subject matter they were hired to do. The debilitating effects on them are cumulative. It's little wonder, therefore, that teachers in inner-city schools have a higher rate of absenteeism and turnover than their colleagues in the suburbs. It's also not at all surprising that teachers who are faced with the challenge often find themselves drawing away from their students. The same sadness and despair that nurses report also affect teachers.

Now, if you've been paying attention to the education reform debate at all in recent years, you will know that this is the place in the story where the corporate reformers of the nation, you know, the Michelle Rhees, Bill Gates, Arne Duncans, and yes, Rahm Emanuels, would jump in and say something ridiculous like "no excuses" or "poverty is not destiny." They will fill your ear with talk of "the soft bigotry of low expectations" while completely ignoring the hard bigotry of poverty, racism and crippling income inequality. Their ignorance of the reality of life for students and teachers alike in the inner cities is frankly, criminal.

No more I say.

This post is for all my teacher colleagues out there. It's time for us to fight back. It's time to take back our profession. Teachers, use your natural inclination to educate and start teaching your friends and families about the hard realities of our profession. And don't be afraid to sing our praises. What we do is good work and it needs to be protected and cherished.

And while you're at it, don't forget to teach as many people as possible about the true nature of corporate reform and how it's left behind entire neighborhoods. Let people know about the ridiculous goals of No Child Left Beind and the evils behind high-stakes testing. Tell the truth about charters, that they are not, in fact, miracles. Speak up about the reality of Teach for America -- how placing untrained novices in classrooms with the hardest to educate students is unjust and wrong. Make people start to at least question the hype!

More than anything, make the act of teacher-bashing unacceptable. We know that when we are overwhelmed, upset, fatigued, demoralized and stressed out beyond our limits, we will be no good for our students. Remember, fighting for teachers isfighting for students.

So fight for the kinds of teaching environments which benefit kids. Fight for workplaces where teachers do not flee, breakdown, or God forbid take their own lives. Fight for a steady and strong group of committed professionals who actually stick around long enough to bring the slow change that is needed in our schools. Fight for the respect we deserve. Fight for the autonomy to make decisions on curriculum, implementation, and assessment that help the kids sitting in front of us. Fight for equity in resources so we have the tools to acutally do the difficult job of teaching. Fight for the mental health that we need to be the excellent educators kids deserve.

By fighting, we can beat back some of the hopelessness and exhaustion. We need to stop blaming ourselves, alone and guilty, and instead get angry at the forces that are hurting us and the important work we do. And all you non-educators out there need to get angry right alongside us. So sing along with me:

~*~
Katie Osgood is a special education teacher at a Psychiatric Hospital in Chicago. Before that, she taught in a Chicago Public School and in Japan.

15 comments:

  1. John Thorson8:54 PM

    My name is John Thorson. I am the father of Mary Thorson. She is the teacher who took her life because of bullying. The notes that were left in her car are six pages long. Five of those pages were about the way the superintendent and administrators were conducting business in district 169. Why did she take her life? Mary did it to bring these practices to the public. It is very clear in her letter why she did what she did. She thought that taking her life would finally bring attention to what is going on in the schools. A documentary is being done on my daughter that shows how serious this issue is, and how so many teachers are being abused by other educators. I like your video, “We’re not going to take it anymore.” I hope this is true and that all of you teachers stand up and demand to be heard. This is what my daughter wanted. This is what she sacrificed her life for.

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    1. Anonymous11:26 PM

      I am so sorry for your loss! I taught for 19 years the last three schools I was in - I was bullied by principals and other teachers. This article is dead on right. I know how your daughter felt. If I had not remarried this year and the wonderful man I married saw what was happening to me and let me stop, I could have ended up like your daughter. There is no feeling like it -complete and utter helplessness. I wish there was some way to expose these principals. I went to the superintendent in my district and told him what was going on - his response - go back and throw yourself at his feet. There was no one to turn to. I stumbled on this - googling for "help". This shouldn't be allowed to happen.

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    2. Anonymous11:27 PM

      John, Thank you for getting this out in the public. I have only been teaching for about 6 years now, and have been getting suicidal thoughts ever since due to the horrific abuse I have gone through at the hands of administrators, and others. I cannot quit because I have a family that needs me to work. This is a taboo subject, but Mary gave her life to get it out into the open. Let's not forget what she has been through and what she is still trying to do-Stop the abuse of power that these adminstrators think they are entitled to subject us teachers to. I need your help, and many more do, too.

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    3. Anonymous5:57 PM

      Hello John,
      My name is Lisa and my husband is currently out on stress related disability for being bullied for the last 4+ years. He is currently on meds and sees a doctor or therapist 5 times a month. He has been the victim of inappropriate behavior by students who falsely accused him because they would have gotten in trouble for various things they were not to be doing at school ie talking on a cell phone etc. He was also named in a local online news site because a counsel who disliked him took the student's side and was school the school district because she said they did not do enough to punish him and she was discriminated by the admin, even though there was no merit to the student's claims. The police even appeared at his school to question him. He has tried and tried to get help from the school admin, the union, and others. He currently has been diagnosed with post traumatic syndrome by several doctors. He has filed a disability claim with his insurance and has been denied twice. He has a love for teaching that has been extinguished, it is very sad. Since he supports me is wife and five kids, the decision to not return to teaching has been very very hard for him. I pray for you and your family. In my heart I hope Mary's situation brings this problem to light

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  2. Anonymous8:01 PM

    That's why I am reconsidering my major as a teacher, teachers are so degraded, unappreciated, under paid, over worked, pension being cut, these people don't understand the value of teachers. It's very sad but I agree fight back, because a close mouth, is not heard!!!!!!!!! I believe, my coworker/teachers
    Will total agree with this article. It discourage people who want to become a teacher,smh, so sad.

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    1. Anonymous11:28 PM

      Don't do it. It would be a big mistake - take it from me I did it for 18 years. Everything you wrote is correct.

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  3. Please view the following links in regard to the tragic story of Illinois teacher, Mary Eve Thorson. Thank you.

    http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=3236&section=Article

    www.marythorsondocfilm.com

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  4. Check out my eight minute preview to my documentary:
    Waiting for Superman: A Teacher Talks Back
    http://youtu.be/znlKjR86YdU

    www.irmarosas.com

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  5. Anonymous9:07 PM

    I an an educational counselor in Colorado. I came to education as a second career. In my previous, 17-year, profession in IT/Telecom, I was a writer, editor, program manager, software tester, change manager, quality facilitator, and training developer. I learned a lot about leadership. But now, doing work I love and trying to help kids, I have days when I truly feel suicidal. All the anti-depressants in the world can't help you if you go to school everyday to be bullied by your administration. The direct bullying is bad enough, but in a culture of fear, everyone's behavior is compormised. Distrust, lack of teamwork, and even sabotage of co-workers are pervasive in my school. Societal and political pressures are difficult to face, yes, but these pale in comparison to the damage that can be done by a poor administration. Why are our kids falling behind in the U.S.? Maybe it's because the limited supply of teacher energy is being sucked away, as teachers try to fight for their spirit and sanity. I'm sorry, Mary Eve. The ones who should have appreciated you the most are the ones who failed you.

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  6. Anonymous10:32 PM

    I am a teacher in California. It's not just the hoops we have to jump through at warp speed but also the teenagers that are not held accountable at home because parents want the teachers to raise their children. Thus, a concerned call home about behavior has the parent blaming the teacher! What is going on with blaming the teacher? Our parents have a teacher bashing facebook page! Students bullying teachers is another stress in a long day of trying to make a difference. With 15 more years before retirement I am burnt out, teaching is not what it used to be before over crowding and cuts.

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  7. Anonymous3:30 PM

    I was bullied my 3 year of teaching in California, I was an intern, coming into permanent status at the end of that year. My administrator took a dislike to me, I suspect she might have been told to get rid interns as it was a big year of budget cuts. Intern teachers in California have NO legal recourse and can be fired at will for no reason given. She convinced the resource specialist I had to go but i was doing the job so I had to be set up. I was giving the districts worst kids,, my support staff pulled out, no consistent subs and a set up situation for bad evaluations. I was harassed, had spies put in my class. everything I did was reported back to her with lies and distortions. I believe it was an attempt to get me to quit but when I didn't I ws nonrelected which basically ends my teaching career. The nonrelect caused me to be dropped in the last semester of a 3 year teaching credential program in which i had been successful up to that year. The stress caused health issues and two years later I am unable to work more then two days straight mentally as a sub para and am looking at a career change. It took me a year and a move to another state for me toeven consider stepping back in a classroom.This administrator targeted people she didn't like and made life hell for them, I was lucky I had enough years in to take retirement and get unemployment. I can very well see why this young girl ended it. I considered it at times myself.

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    1. Anonymous12:05 AM

      Absolutely - I had spies put in my room, evaluations given to me were poor and made up after ten years of excellent evaluations. Lies told on me. The day my cell phone was stolen by a kid that had just gotten out of reform school, and it was recovered by administration from him, they called me in and questioned me because when it was conviscated from him there was a porn site on it and they accused me of having it there before he took it- ridiculous. I was put on a plan of action - tool to fire you. Where lesson plans have to be turned in a week ahead of time and scrutinized beyond any hope of success. Basically- they set you up for failure. Bottom line for me the fat chick that had taught there for years and whose scores were good didn't like me - because I was cuter and thinner than she and therefore I didn't stand a chance. I got non- renewed - no test scores in yet to criticize- lies in evaluations- etc. Horrible experience.

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  8. Anonymous2:38 AM

    I am a teacher in Beverly Hills, CA. While poverty is not a problem in this area, teachers are always bullied by those well off parents. They think they have money and so they are entitled to have anything they want. If you do not give their children the grade they want or you do not pick their children to be in a certain sport teams or God forbid they did not get chosen to be in a choir because they cannot sing or perform well in an audition, the parents will write you nasty email and accuse you of not caring for their children. Then they will threaten you to take the matter to the school board and get you fired. Principals are scared of these parents and they never support the teachers. We were constantly forced to go with whatever these parents say and if we try to do the right thing as educators, HR will issue you a directive and accuse you of being insubordinate. While it is always challenging to teach in inner city schools, it is not all rosy in the suburban school neither.

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  9. Anonymous11:05 PM

    I am a teacher in Atlanta, Ga and have been successful for the past 14 years at my present school. Prior to Atlanta I taught in NC for 5 years. I have always worked long hours, bought supplies, and come up with creative ideas. My evaluations have always been excellent. Fast forward to this year. I have been falsely accused, lied to, and have had no support. It started when I was moved to a grade level that I never requested. Although I was disappointed I decided to look at the change as a fresh start. My new principal and assistant principal (who I had always liked until the past 2 years)called me in office and I was blindsided by accusations. When I wanted to tell my side of the situation I was denied the right. They belittled me and even said comments about a medical condition which causes slurring. As most people can attest when you are being attacked and not heard, you try to restrain yourself from saying something you may regret. They wrote the fact that I said, "I mean" and "you know" as proof that I cannot hold a thought or idea. On the flip side they wrote I have wonderful lesson plans and strong lessons. What? They had to give me a revised plan because of a mistake they had made about parent comments about me. I think they said something and I asked if they had proof. They said "yes" and I said "I hope so." You have parents that love you, or not. I have always been a very requested teacher. But there are some parents that want to blame anyone if their child does not get an easy A. When another collegue said that she overheard them laughing about me because I buy so many resources that was the final straw. If you care about the young girls starting out encourage them to go into another field.

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