Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The World's Worst Boyfriend

I thought maybe it was just me, but yesterday's piece evoked some familiar feelings for other people as well-- the feeling of being in a toxic relationship.

The familiar feeling was the feeling of self-doubt. Am I crazy? I could swear I see a pile of rabbit poop, but my partner insists that it's a pile of magic beans, and he certainly seems to believe it, and after all, if we don't trust each other then what do we have? So either I can't trust my own judgment, or my partner is trying to pawn a pile of poop off on me. Does that sound like the current deal surrounding reformy stuff in education?

Well, sure. So I decided to see how our relationship as teachers with the leaders of our industry-- the Masters of Reform (e.g. Jeb Bush), our state and federal DOEs (e.g. Arne Duncan), some of our leading administrators (e.g. Steve Perry), and the Big Leading Voices who haven't actually accomplished anything but still have a seat at the table anyway (e.g. Celebrity Spokesmodel Michelle Rhee)-- stacks up against the classic Bad Relationship.

I'm going to use the "15 Warning Signs of an Abusive Relationship" that is distributed by The Women's Center . There are certainly other lists out there, and fine dramatic examples of this kind of abuse. But this one is widely distributed and accepted, so it should serve our purpose.

Are we, as a profession, dating the worst boyfriend ever? Here are the signs.

1) He pushes for quick involvement. Give TFA bodies five weeks of training and put them in a classroom as if they were full-fledged professionals. Institute CCSS and related reformy stuff RIGHT NOW. We can't possibly roll them out gradually or wait to check the validity and usefulness of all these programs.

2) There is jealousy. Are you following other programs? Don't. And that union you've been seeing on the side-- I made it my bestie so that when you cozy up to it, you're really cozying up to me.

3) He is controlling. You think? Look, sweetie-- your autonomy in the classroom is just causing all sorts of problems. Let me tell you what to teach, when to teach it, how to teach it-- oh, heck. Just take this script and read it.

4) He has very unrealistic expectations. Okay, okay. I've learned my lesson from NCLB-- 100% of students cannot be above average. But the effects of poverty and family life and other personal difficulties? You should just go ahead and erase all effects of those. Poverty wouldn't make a difference if you really cared about me.

5) There is isolation. I know I've already co-opted your national union, but if I could just wipe it out on the state and local level, that would be great. You don't need them. Just listen to me.

6) He blames others for his own mistakes. That messed-up evaluation? A computer glitch. Anything wrong with CCSS? That's an implementation hiccup. Despite the fact that I've been running everything my own way for fifteen years or so, everything wrong with public schools is still your fault.

7) He makes everyone else responsible for his feelings. Our first miss. There's no sign that feelings are involved. And as Uber-reformer David Coleman famously observed, nobody gives a shit about your feelings anyway.

8) There is hypersensitivity. Duncan's favorite word for his opponents? "Silly." We don't ever need to talk things over, and there is no room to discuss, because every criticism of reformy stuff is just because you're a big old silly poopy doo-doo HEADED MEANIE!

9) He is cruel to animals and children. Children should not be coddled. Children need to recognize that they are dopes, regardless of what their white suburban mommies told them. They need to be smacked into place with rigor. If they have problems with being poor and all, they just need to suck it up.

10) His "playful" use of force during sex. You know, I'm just going to skip over this one.

11) There is verbal abuse. Teachers have been called so many names at this point that it's hard to keep track. But you're responsible for everything bad in education-- there is literally nothing that is not teachers' fault-- and if we just have to keep mansplaining to you in clear, direct language, it's only because you're too stupid, obstructing and lazy to get it the first time.

12) There are rigid gender roles. Why can't you all be like nice lady teachers who play with the kiddies and then go home. Do what you're told. We'll let you come to the table if you're pretty and cooperative and make us look like we aren't a total boys' club (could you get me a coffee, Michelle), but we totally are.

13) He has sudden mood swings. I'm going to make some really nice speeches about how important teachers are and how we need to pay you well and support you in your work. Then I'm going to implement policies that kick you right in the teeth.

14) He has a past of battering. Strap up. There will be head injuries.

15) There are threats of violence. We are going to evaluate you, judge you, end your career, cut loose the dead wood, whip you into shape, kick your ass, and generally use whatever leverage and coercion we can to make you behave the way we want you to. And if you won't, we are committed to tossing you into the street. You can't make a new educational omelet without breaking a few eggs, and you look like a Humpty to me.

There are other parts of the pattern as well. There's always that sad girl who insists, "You just don't know him like I do. There's really goodness inside." Whether it's "he's only mean when he drinks" or "the CCSS are great as long as we're not testing," there are always sad girlfriends who will make excuses for the abuser. Part of it is not wanting to see how bad things really are. Sometimes part of it is also selfish-- if I'm the only one who can see the good, then I can save him, fix him, and show the world just how special I am.

So we're in a bad relationship. What do we do?

If we were in an actual relationship with another live human that met these standards, there would be only one thing to do-- get out. I want to be very very VERY clear about this. I'm having some fun and making a point but don't imagine for a minute that I want to minimize the awful danger of a truly abusive relationship. If this list is you in real life, get out. Get out now. (And I've kept to traditional genders for this for ease of reading, but if you're a man being abused by a woman, this is all still true). As teachers, we stay for the sake of the kids. If you have kids, get out and take them with you. Take them with you, and get out now. Is that clear enough?

For teachers, it's a slightly different situation. We can't take the kids with us, and we need to stay for them.

Some of us can't. Some of us have stayed as long as we can, and we just can't any more, and we have walked away. I try not to judge those folks. You can't do what you can't do.

Some of us have to adjust expectations. Teachers enter the biz with lots of golden fantasies about what it will be like, and one of those fantasies is a Chips/Holland dream of being loved and revered by the vast community of our students. It's entirely possible that to grow up as teachers we have to recognize that however much we love teaching, it's never really going to love us back.

But this is beyond that. We stay for the kids. We stay for the work. We stay because we are invested in the communities that house our schools. We stay because when times get tough you do what you have to do. And honestly, for some of us, things aren't so bad right where we are.

Beyond all that, we stay because when times are tough, when it's the very hardest to make a difference, that's when it's most importance that a difference be made.

I know some of you have been reading this abuser checklist thinking, "Yes, that's it!" But maybe I've started out with the wrong metaphor, and we should construct a different story. In the new story, we aren't the ones in the abusive relationship. Instead, if you want to be abstract, it's schools and education. If you want to be concrete, it's the students.

Either way-- we're not the ones dating the worst boyfriend in the world. We're the best friend of the person in the abusive relationship. We're the ones who are there to protect, to intervene, to say, "If you raise a hand to her again, I will put such a hurt on you that you won't see straight for a year." We're the ones who step in to take care of the abusee, assure her that she's not crazy, it's not her fault, she's okay, it gets better-- all those things.

We got into teaching because we knew there were people who needed our help. We had no way of knowing what kind of help they would need-- heck, we made a commitment to students who weren't even born yet-- but whatever it was they were going to need, we made a commitment to help them. We may not have expected that they would need help dealing with the very institutions that were supposed to be watching out for them, but that's one of the worst parts of abuse-- it's a betrayal of trust. Whatever. That's the help they need, and even though we didn't always expect it, it's the help we signed up to provide. We can do that. We're teachers, dammit. We're teachers.


  1. Sometimes you can't save your best friend, no matter how hard you try. Best friends here includes parents--it is they who have to say "Enough already, I'm kicking you out." The silver lining? More and more parents seem to be "getting it." Perhaps there's hope.

  2. Yes, public school teaching for me had all the marking of an abusive situation. I did manage to teach in a private school also during my career and the private school experience was wonderful. The private school experience gave me a reference point of being a successful teacher so that I could resist the crap of the public school district trying to convince me that I sucked and that the problem was me.

  3. One more reason I am glad I have left public school teaching. I now teach music lessons at home and I teach Early Childhood music classes. No "data-driven" this and that, no quarterly assessments, and none of the abuse from administrators. I could kick myself for having thought that I could possibly fit into what public education has become since I left to raise kids.

    Very apt, and downright chilling as a result.