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Laurel M. Sturt: Time for Teachers to Stand Up to Professional Bullies

Guest post by Laurel M. Sturt.

For as long as humanity has existed, feelings of insecurity and powerlessness have forged, in a crucible of inferiority, the cruelty which yet denies that same humanity. Dismissed as a banal character defect in some, and a mere inconvenience for the unfortunate targets, bullying never quite mattered enough to make the radar of national discussion. But bullying has evolved, the latest incarnation of the classic scourge of childhood its 2.0 cyber-fueled version. Garden variety schoolyard bullying has given way to the extreme public shame of Internet malice, literally mortifying in the number of suicides it has provoked. And so bullying is at last in the spotlight in the last few years, being challenged through discussion, programs and legislation. And whether it's effected by an obstructionist House Republican filibuster, Joe Scarborough browbeating a hapless guest, or a Miami Dolphin hazed in locker room "hijinks," bullying's fresh scrutiny is trending; Chris Christie's finger-jabbing predation is just the latest entry into a topic which won't put down the gloves. Guilty or not, Christie has enabled a culture of bullying, while equally cultivating a public persona of vicious predator, mercilessly hectoring constituents who dare a simple, challenging question. The fact that he then eagerly asks his cameraman, "Did you get that?" reveals the delight of a bully fresh from the kill. Ah, the smell of napalm in the morning.

Though the psychopathic rush of inflicting pain on another human being is not one most of us would appreciate, we have only to look at the realm of education to see an acceleration of bullying, in multiple guises. Take, for example, the oppressive federal mandates sent down from on high, No Child Left Behind, and its successor, Race to the Top. Here we have, for all intents and purposes, sadistic edicts impossible to fulfill, the charge of NCLB, "proficiency" for all children by 2014, nothing short of an iron mask for teachers and kids alike; states were bullied to participate to get millions in federal school funding. One would think subjecting kids to the torture of test prep and testing while losing a decade of authentic education, tilting futilely at an arbitrary data windmill, would have been consigned to the mistakes file. Yet, showing that arm twisting through policy is an equal opportunity, bipartisan affront, through his Bully of Education Arne Duncan, the very premise of Obama's RTTT has relied on the legalized notion of bullying, bribery and extortion: sign on to our agenda or you'll starve for funds.

Within the Race to the Top straitjacket, then, the bullying theme has continued with the individual mandates: bullying standards developed undemocratically by not educators but profit-motivated bullies; bullied instruction forced on teachers by these standards; and parents bullied to share their children's private data, their rights to privacy stripped by education business lobbyist cum bullies. Then there's the bullying of teachers through evaluations unfairly tied to the test scores of the bullied kids, victimized students who, subjected to impossible work and tests, are displaying symptoms of bullying--depression, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, hopelessness, with the added bonus of a PTSD scar for life. 

Move down to the next level of power, and state and local bullying is flourishing. Here in New York we have a governor and education officials stonily unmoved by the pain they've signed us onto with RTTT, with no movement in sight to end it, notwithstanding a coming fall election; their intransigent coercion in the face of hardship is bullying. New York City teachers and students recently endured a decade of bullying micromanagement under the dictator Michael Bloomberg, a mayor in control of the schools, a nationwide experiment which has yielded low achievement results but a much higher degree of yes, bullying.

Within systems bullied by the policies, mandates and officials, there's the quotidian assault inside the schools. Teachers, bullied to conform their instruction to the authorized perspective, are forced to teach against their own judgment, even enduring the insulting constraint of scripted lessons to be recited exactly, or risk being bullied by administrators who threaten their jobs. Here, in fact, at this ground zero, is the bedrock, in-your-face culminating essence of bullying, distilled to perfection by many principals. Enabled through the hierarchy with no accountability--as enjoyed under Bloomberg--helpful cronies in high places, or both, principals are the bully teachers face everyday, abusing their immense power to determine the lives of teachers and therefore students, and with impunity.

These days, many principals answer to the description of authoritarian sociopath, and the petty data collection that's taken the place of real education has matched their zeal for nitpicking harassment. As a teacher in a high-poverty school, the unspeakably difficult kids were far less challenging than fending off the bloodthirsty administrators; the merest assertion of independence was seen as defiance, and as such, incurred a reaction more Joseph Stalin than John Dewey. Even as a Dignity For All Students Act has been passed and all teachers are required to be trained in anti-bullying, no such protection exists for teachers. Hounding out teachers systematically through trained tactics like relentless fault-finding and guaranteed-unsatisfactory ambush observations, those charged with supporting teachers are in fact the secret WMD of the so-called reform movement. With no justification necessary, these capricious tyrants can do what they will. No matter a teacher's experience or ability, their job, mortgage, child's college and pension are all subject to the principal's bullying whim.

This veritable pile-on of bullying at all levels has had the effect of driving thousands of teachers out of the profession. But that mass exodus, of course, is the desired outcome for many of the worst bullies of all, the media and policy wonks that bash teachers and their unions, as well as plutocrats like Bill Gates and the Koch brothers, whose bullying-by-checkbook has been more effective, and more tyrannical, than any method we've experienced till now. In an age when teachers are publicly shamed, their ratings published in newspapers(notwithstanding the defective, discredited Value Added Measurements behind them), bullying is reaching new nadirs, as developments in North Carolina and other states have shown.

Now is bullying's long-deserved fifteen minutes; if beating us up after school or stealing our lunch money is no longer acceptable, than neither is robbing us of a profession, or our nation, of a future. As we go forward, our only hope against bullying is not our fists, but our feet: teachers standing up on them, together, as one. 

What do you think? Is it time for teachers to stand up together against those attempting to bully us?

Laurel M. Sturt taught for eleven years in the Bronx. Her new book, Davonte's Inferno, Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag, shares in close detail her experience working in a high poverty school under the Bloomberg regime.

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