Do not get the wrong idea from the title of this piece: I am not talking about punks stealing lunch money, or at least not in the literal sense. Children being harassed and sometimes driven to extremes is, of course, an important discussion, alongside the increasing reliance on technology, gun control, and the weaponizing of words, social media spreading a virus of humiliation, partial truth and outright lies. These are all topics probably better left to another person with a great deal more sympathy (or perhaps good-willed patience) than myself. No, what I want to talk about is literal: School Bullies. Schools themselves as the bully.
We can certainly make some obvious parallels to the current state of our society, from politics all the way down to a bar brawl, this wave of absolutism narrowing into the most frivolous things. But I don’t wish to do that today. Let us save President Trump and his lackeys and co-conspirators for another day, perhaps when Mr. Trump is not feeling so low for being so unloved throughout the world.
To repeat from several of my other pieces, I am a retired high school English teacher. I am not too old to still be doing this, but several years ago I suffered a traumatic brain injury that has never really gone away. I am thus no longer able to perform the dense, confusing and emotionally overwhelming task of educating several roomfuls of mostly indifferent and distracted minds. But I am not talking about the students here either. Any teacher takes pride in their job only because of their students. That is what we’re there for, to try and help the future, raising a new generation of knowledgeable citizens with the hope that the world will continue to go on. Teachers who only bitch and moan about the students, who get overwhelmed with rage, shouting and ranting so long and hard that it is nearly impossible to get any school work done, do not belong in a classroom. They should not have their jobs. For all of our union loyalty (and a deep understanding that in the corporate atmosphere enveloping schools, they might be our only, weakening protection from the atmosphere of profit and greed that consumes the weekly or monthly budgetary meetings), for every sincere desire we have to do our jobs without the brutal oversight of people who do not understand what goes on in our classroom, some teachers must be called for being not equipped to do their job.
Teaching is a tremendously difficult profession, made no easier by administrative or federal department of education policies, nor the seeping corporate ‘directives’ that have overtaken what has become a growth industry. People might scoff at this statement, the nine weeks of summer off (for now, as our nation gets closer and closer to 12 month schooling; many principals throughout the United States–and certainly elsewhere in the world–are already on a full year schedule), the 7-3 hours. This is not an eight hour job. No teacher goes home and simply forgets about their day. They grade papers. They fill out paperwork, and write required new lesson plans, editing them every day, then they prepare for the coming days throughout every weekend and over the holidays. It is spectacularly emotionally draining, and it is rare that any teacher is ever praised for their tremendously hard work. Those nine weeks in the summer, where the paycheck is usually to low to keep us idle (camp counselors and the like), these are not vacations. It is decompression.
Everything is the teacher’s fault too. Anything that goes wrong, like with the coach of a basketball team, must come from the primary focus on the floor, and that is rarely fair. I am of a generation where if I were to get in trouble at school, it would usually be for a valid reason, and my parents would side with the teacher, even if they were exaggerating the incident to get me in trouble at home. We do not live in that era any longer. As a result many teachers and administrators have become petty, cunning, vicious and cruel. They will target certain students in ways different than the past, when an annoying kid might be humiliated for doing something stupid. If you try that tactic today you will have a lawsuit on your hands. And most staff meetings are about how to avoid such bad press.
Today they target students through the same numb and meaningless terms that parents might employ to justify their child’s behavior, or inability to function in class. There is a medication for that. Most of the kids are on drugs any longer, not to fix any problems, but to subdue them, to keep them from being children. This is not to say that some students do not suffer from serious problems, but only that the whole population has been lumped into the same sort of danger so there is one less thing to think about.
There is a nervous atmosphere of fear that has infected public schools, crazy, angry, miserable people bringing guns and crying for vengeance certainly playing a major part. Like in the 1950s during a nuclear weapons drill, children scurry under their desks as though the lead in the frame will protect them from Kryptonite. Students today are forced to engage in similar activities that inspire uncertainty and profound terror (and maybe the occasional idea on how to get famous to the already utterly lost). They have active shooter drills. Let’s pretend that some maniac is going from room to room killing everybody. Let’s lock the door. Turn off the lights. Be very, very quiet . . .
The worst thing that has happened to schools is their transformation from being an idea for public good, to being just another middling business out to make money. Public school used to be ‘the great equalizer,’ a noble institution put into place to give less advantaged families a chance to attain the same level as the wealthy prep school children,who so often control our future politics. Now it is about fiscal quarters, growth rates and the board-elected CEO in charge who goes by the title of ‘principal.’
Let us discuss principals for a moment. And we have to admit before this rant that there are, in fact, a handful of excellent leaders who will defy as much of the corporate atmosphere as possible in order to lead their schools to academic success. But unfortunately these individuals are rare, and the higher up you go in a school district, through regional and absolute superintendents, you find less concern for the future, and only a political game of search and destroy. We all know that people claim ‘all politics are local,’ and nowhere is this more apparent than within school districts.
Principals are usually given their positions, any longer, as political favors to lackeys, or personal friends who need a higher salary and a way to get the hell out of the classroom. I am not saying that being a principal is an easy job–far from it, all the responsibility falling on their shoulders, but this does not change the fact that most of these sewer dwelling creatures are merely failed teachers with friends in high places.
I only worked with one principal who seemed to know what they were doing, and who actually cared about the students. The tragic thing is that she used to have a much higher position within the school district, but when a new regime took over the district she was demoted for speaking her mind. The other principals I worked under were all gibbering fools, utter incompetents in the classroom who were even worse at leading a school. They were bullies. They would bully the teachers, bully the students, all the while being bullied by their own superiors, who demanded that these unqualified numskulls develop a complex fiscal plan to get the school out of debt.
And it does not matter which neighborhood we are talking about. I worked for a very large urban school district, but wealthy (and pompous) suburban districts are nearly the same. They might have swimming pools and better manicured fields, but the inherent problems are no different. In many ways the teachers in these prized, blue-ribbon districts on the outskirts of town are far worse than a tough city school with a 33% drop-out rate. In the city teachers must learn to be tough, to be thick-skinned and tolerant, because otherwise the classroom will become a chaotic war zone. City teachers can be heard telling students to “Sit down, shut up, and do your work.” In the suburbs that might be considered emotional abuse.
The lawsuits in city schools are often for very good reasons: a violation of federal law, an unfair practice, the inability of the school to offer a fair and equal education to students with physical or mental disabilities. In the suburbs they try to brush these issues aside, pretending that everything is always perfect. They try to show that they are an honorable institution, promoting all that is good and decent and moral, while engaging in the same behind-closed-door corruption and cover-ups that will legally protect them from any potential consequence. And that is what they teach their students–how to get away with it, so long as you name a couple of patsies to blame everything on. If a student has been involved with any behavioral issue, no matter the context nor the cause, they can be made an example of, punished far too severely, even suspended for saying something to another student that is sarcastic, and not an attack on personal character. They are harassing them. They are bullies. And the administration then works their cheap black magic to paint one child as the cause of everything going wrong in the school. They can usually get away with this too, as anxious suburban parents, glaring out their windows with a shotgun in their hands, pray for a scapegoat to free their own children from blame.
In the city I once watched a parent beat their child in the hallway. This was an awful, terrifying experience. I will admit, however, that the first whack they gave to the little asshole filled me with amoral joy–give it to him, mama! He deserves it! As the beating went on and on it became very uncomfortable, and I had to step in by saying something positive about one thing the kid had done, which allowed the beating to wane. There was a call made by the principal (this was the good one) to the Department of Human Services after this. I do not know what the end result was.
But in the suburbs the administration is terrified of the parents–they are quivering insects caught in a glue trap as one of these helicopter mothers and fathers zoom in on the attack, siting some vague bylaw in the present contract that, they claim, gives their child permission to do whatever they want to in class. Then they blame the scapegoat, claiming their child is ‘being harassed by them,’ and ‘hurting their feelings.’ Everything becomes about how the mother or father feel, or the teacher or principal feel. As should always be the case, fuck your feelings. Let’s get to the truth.
The truth is that there is nothing that is a single person’s fault in school. There is enough blame to go around about anything that goes wrong, and perhaps this is what should be studied instead of which for-profit Education Book Publisher, or special interest action group can cut the best deal to keep the district in the black. Perhaps the corporate atmosphere that dwells in schools today is the cause of all these problems–the mindless standardized tests defining the quality of a school, and the amount of funding they receive from the state and federal governments. Tests that come in March are taught from day one–silly multiple choice questions that are without question designed for the middle and upper-middle class white kids. There is a subtle racial component to these tests, and a definite gender bias (against either males or females, depending on the political stance of the community), and an insidious brainwashing monotony, more interested in creating future consumers than successful people.
Teachers are constantly being abused today, by everyone above and below them. They are not respected for their dedication and hard work. Principals, berated by regional superintendents, who are attack by their bosses, before the city council or mayor get involved, which leads, inevitably, to congressional over site, then Senate votes and hearings, followed by the scouring of, or by, the Secretary of Education, which finally leads to a Presidential plan to reform public education. Everyone is panicked. Everyone is fearful of losing their job. Speaking up about these issues is no longer an option, because teachers can be fired due to the lies of their superiors. This is the what is meant by the ‘charterization’ of public schools, these district-run separate islands that are making small profits and pretending that they are somehow better than the public school they replaced. They are not. Just like there are excellent charter schools, there are excellent public schools too. Just like most public schools are dusty relics that no longer function as they should, most charter schools are failures, utter failures whose only difference is that it is easier to blame a staff that has no union (in public schools the unions are merely corrupt, yet still willing to come out swinging if there is a particularly egregious violation.)
The state of American Education is in collapse, and it has been for a long time. It is little wonder that fewer and fewer people are choosing to enter this once honorable profession. These days most memories we have of teachers (except one or two) are wholly negative. We do not respect them. We do not respect those trying to educate our children. The way teachers are trained today is unrecognizable to what those not involved in education should believe school is supposed to be all about. The courses are more like seminars about new rules and guidance principles, corporate newspeak, the the correct ways to fill out the endless forms, documenting everything, covering your ass, and preparing before you even enter a classroom for the legal realities of this age in America.
Young teachers are now entering the classroom with no idea or interest in the ABCs or readin’, writin’ and ‘rythmatic. They are more interested in reaching an average number on some newly designed flow chart, or a Venn diagram, the shaded intersection the goal. Does this sound meaningless? It should, because it is. Teachers teach the answers to future standardized tests, grilling the ABCs and Ds into their multiple choice heads, trying to guide the future into being exactly the same. “No Child Left Behind” could also have been called “No Child Gets Ahead.” “Common Core’s” key word is ‘common,’ denigrating and dumbing down academic requirements to fit into the financial goals of the district.
Any student who does not go along with this program to the letter is attacked, whether they are too smart or too stupid to adapt. The biggest sham of all is the notion that students are offered a fair education based upon their individual needs. They are offered a median, and if you do not swim in the center of that Venn diagram, you are something that needs to be either cured or eliminated. Do not excuse the schools from the drastic increase in student suicides. Do not excuse the schools for the seemingly mindless massacres that are happening with increasing frequency. Schools are failing us, they are failing our children. If we do not reform this disgrace immediately, the know-it-all arrogance of corporate marketers and the political machinations of mediocre administrators who are only good at playing the game, our future is doomed. I do not say this in the apocalyptic sense that sometimes extreme statements such as this inspire. I am being flatly honest, trying to provide some insight into just how dangerous the current education system has become. Without education, as so many sociologists, social psychologists and educational historians warn us again and again and again, there is no future for mankind.