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Criminalizing Teachers (UPDATED)

May 19, 2011
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At the beginning of last year, I was still wrestling with the choice of whether or not to return to my school for another year. On the one hand, I really enjoy teaching, and looked forward to continuing to work with my colleagues, and working with a new class of fourth graders. On the other hand, the atmosphere in which I was working was downright toxic, and diminishing my overall quality of life.

I batted the decision back and forth until mid-March. At the time, one of my closest friends in the building (and, just two years prior, the school’s Mile High Teacher of the Year) was nearing the end of an incredibly stressful remediation plan. (For folks who don’t know, a remediation plan is one of the necessary steps to be taken before a non-probationary teacher can be terminated.) Despite the fact that we believed the plan was unjustified, and despite the fact that the plan required her to do an absurd amount of extra work and documentation, my friend did every last thing asked of her. She didn’t miss a single day of work, even though the job had gotten so tough on her and her health that she started losing weight.

Still, at the end of the process, our principal looked at all of her evidence and decided that she had failed. After that meeting, our Human Resources representative accompanied her back to her classroom to get her purse, where I and a few other colleagues were waiting for her in case she needed our support. As they arrived, Ms. HR informed us that she was not allowed to talk to us, and we were not allowed to talk to her. A security officer joined them, and then my friend was escorted out of the building as though she’d been accused of a crime.

(A judge later found the principal’s claims of her poor performance in the classroom completely baseless. His 40+ page decision explained in detail how virtually all of the evidence collected against her was either laughably flimsy, or supported her contention that she was, in fact, a very good teacher.)

I was disgusted by the display. Even if there had been merit in the attempted dismissal, she hadn’t been accused of breaking the law. She hadn’t behaved in a threatening or hostile manner. In truth, there was no evidence to suggest she’d done anything wrong. So why call security? What was the point of treating this woman– who had exclusively devoted over two decades of her life to teaching needy kids– like a suspect? What kind of organization would humiliate people like this, in front of their peers and community, for no good reason? I wrote my resignation letter as soon as I got home.

I was reminded of that this week, after reading about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s interrogation of librarians.

In a basement downtown, the librarians are being interrogated.

On most days, they work in middle schools and high schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District, fielding student queries about American history and Greek mythology, and retrieving copies of vampire novels.

But this week, you’ll find them in a makeshift LAUSD courtroom set up on the bare concrete floor of a building on East 9th Street. Several sit in plastic chairs, watching from an improvised gallery as their fellow librarians are questioned.

A court reporter takes down testimony. A judge grants or denies objections from attorneys. Armed police officers hover nearby. On the witness stand, one librarian at a time is summoned to explain why she — the vast majority are women — should be allowed to keep her job.

The librarians are guilty of nothing except earning salaries the district feels the need to cut. But as they’re cross-examined by determined LAUSD attorneys, they’re continually put on the defensive.

(Los Angeles seems surprisingly into the whole “educator-as-criminal” meme. For example, Leonard Isenberg, who was pushed out of LAUSD after voicing his objection to social promotion, was escorted from his classroom in handcuffs.) 

How did we get here? When did educators become de facto suspects?

ETA: The educator-as-criminal meme was also popular in DC under our friend, Michelle Rhee. In this instance, the cuffed teachers and counselors were being led out as part of a layoff– not even under any kind of suspicion of poor teaching, but just as part of a budget-induced RIF. (Hat tip to friend of the blog & writer extraordinaire, Rachel Levy!)

From the Washington Informer, circa Fall 2009:

Tempers flared among D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) students last week when principals handed nearly 400 staff members, including 229 teachers, pink slips in the most drastic reduction in force (RIF) since December 2003. Students at McKinley Tech Senior High School in Northeast left their classrooms in droves to watch their favorite teachers and guidance counselors being escorted out of the building by Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Officers.

Over the weekend, seniors who attend McKinley Tech organized a nonviolent protest on Mon., Oct. 5 directed towards District Mayor Adrian Fenty and DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s decision to layoff DCPS teachers and personnel because of budget cuts imposed by the D.C. Council.
“We’re protesting the manner in which our teachers and professional school counselors were released on Friday. They were escorted out of the building with police like they were criminals,” said Lowell Howard, a 17-year-old senior at McKinley.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan Middleman, M. Ed. permalink
    May 19, 2011 6:08 pm

    Educators became de facto suspects when parents stopped being parents. We have an epidemic in this country of weak adults having kids (note the rising obesity rate as evidence). How many times have we seen situations where kids act out and the teacher gets in trouble for writing him up. I’m a special education teacher/administrator. It’s happened to me. I’ve resigned under the same duress you’re describing from not one, but TWO school districts. My crime was not being a bad teacher (I had the highest test scores in the school). It was cracking down on disruptive behavior and pissing off parents. I’ve been at a charter school for six years now. We have no tenure. I’m on a one year contract every year. And I’ve never felt safer. What’s funny is that my side business (which pays me nothing) is counseling teachers and administrators that have run into the same buzz saw that I ran into twice. I will never again work for a system that blindly pushes kids along, or that blames teachers for students’ bad choices. When we band together and say “ENOUGH,” it will stop. They can’t fire all of us. We’re not dock workers that can easily be replaced, and our jobs can’t be shipped overseas. The country and our communities need us (as daycare) more than we need them. But until we become more organized, we will continue to be abused.

  2. Shafted teacher permalink
    May 20, 2011 7:26 am

    It’s a shame that this is happening more and more. I am in a similar position and I am fighting it with every ounce of strength I have. Since when has it become a “business” to be in education? It should be about teaching the kids and preparing them for the real world, not hiring more and more corporate administrators who don’t know what they’re talking about!

  3. Linda Johnson permalink
    May 20, 2011 11:55 am

    Everything that teachers are going through is wholly related to the effects of the Great Recession and has little or nothing to do with teacher performance. In the example of the Los Angeles librarians, for example, some administrator probably reasoned as follows:

    “If we place all the school librarians on the lay off list, we can say they are technically not teachers and so we will not be compelled to hire them back.” These administrators are focused strictly on the budget. They don’t know the teachers, the effect on the students or anything other than the bottom line. And they don’t care. The good news is that the public is finally getting some insight into what is happening. An increasing number of newspaper articles are telling the truth about our schools and our beleaguered teachers.

    There are two ways teachers can deal with this: One is by getting the best possible labor attorney and fighting the injustice in the courts. The other way is to resign and get a teaching job in a district that values its teachers, or another kind of job altogether. There is still a big need for speech pathologists.

    Has anyone noticed that all the teacher-bashing is occurring in large cities such as DC, New York and Los Angeles? Have you noticed that affluent districts such as Beverly Hills and Scarsdale are raising money to keep their programs and their “dedicated teachers?” Well, when better times come again, the affluent districts will (once again) be first in line for the fully qualified teachers while places like DC have to hire people with six weeks of summer training. As always, the poor kids will get the shaft.

    In the meantime I know almost all teachers are telling their sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, neighbors, students that “now is not a good time to be a teacher.” Indeed.

    • California Teacher permalink
      May 22, 2011 12:38 pm

      Very well put.
      But I disagree with one point: everything is not wholly related to the Great Recession. These anti-teacher policies have been building momentum for at least a couple of decades going back at least to the Clinton years, and picking up powerful steam with NCLB. What the Great Recession has done is create the opportunity for the kind of “disaster capitalism”, or shall we say “disaster education policy” that is now aggressively being implemented. I believe it is part and parcel to the feudalization of America and the rise of the plutocracy, as evidenced by our current maldistribution of wealth. If you want fascist-like control of the populace, attack the education system and it’s intellectuals. Read Chris Hedges excellent essay in Truthdig: http://tinyurl.com/43qnr3s
      I believe Sabrina has referenced it on this site or elsewhere.

  4. May 20, 2011 8:11 pm

    Dan,

    I understand your anger/frustration. I am neither a parent nor a teacher (though I was an aspiring teacher until I decided not to become one because of the exact same toxic environment you are all talking about). But let’s not play the oligarchs/deformers’ game of divide and conquer. If teachers & parents start finger-pointing at each other, the deformers win. Instead, we need to come together and question our economic system which
    – over the last 30 years or so, has promoted record inequality
    – forces people into becoming wage slaves and not being present for their children.
    – promotes private property & profits above the common good.
    ….. and on and on….

    Just my 2 cents worth.

    • Dan Middleman, M. Ed. permalink
      May 21, 2011 5:01 am

      Your point is well taken. But let’s be clear. All that you mentioned came about because of the way we voted for the past 30 years. We (adults) have done this to ourselves. I’ve been voting since 1988, and I believe that most adults in the USA put more thought into their choice of socks each day than they do their elected officials — particularly on the state and local level. Our generation was raised to believe that we could blame our problems on someone else. That has now been passed down to our children. So when my child misbehaves, it must be the fault of the teacher. When my child is obese, it must be the fault of the fast food industry. And so on. It didn’t used to be this way. And it’s not this way with foreign born students. It is unique to American children. This lack of personal responsibility and self discipline puts a lot of pressure on teachers. How can I teach a child effectively when he’s chronically late or absent? I can’t. But I’m still responsible, because the parent is never to blame.

      • Linda G. permalink
        May 21, 2011 11:07 am

        I agree completely with your sentiments, Dan. The reason I was so active in the 2008 election was that I was tired of NCLB, tired of the entitlement attitude, tired of watching the Department of Education ignore the problem of poverty.

        I volunteered for Organizing for America, knocked on hundreds of doors, and stood on street corners for hours passionately talking to strangers about Obama’s divergence from the republican drumbeat of choice/accountability. I was moved to tears when I heard his proposal to trade higher education credits for community service.

        What did we get? We got Race to the Top. In DC we got Arne Duncan. We got Brad Jupp (former DPS). We got Michael Bennett (former DPS). We got hosed.

        So, while I agree with your sentiment, I cannot fairly say that I got what I voted for.

        Tears.

      • May 21, 2011 7:57 pm

        Agree Dan on your point reg voting. But sometimes voting alone is not enough. We the people need to be in front and demand from our leaders. FDR has been lionized in the “mainstream” history. But he ran as a centrist promising to balance the budget. It is all those whiny left – communists, socialists, unions and other progressives who kept him very very afraid of strikes and riots , pushing him to act and enact what came to be some of the best social programs. Howard Zinn :

        And in general people are not aware of what is really happening , thanks to our corrupt and incompetent corporate media (again a product of our economic system with the profit motivation). We bought into how we should trade job security for future wealth and how stock market is going to help us send kids to college, and help us retire in paradise etc. And all other crap.

        Yes, teachers get blamed for everything including gasp ! our crappy economy and children not doing well in schools. Whereas the fast food companies, health insurance companies and the ruling class should be the ones blamed actually . The vitriol against teachers is nauseating. Another sign of a rotting empire.

        And now that we see both parties serve the same capitalist bosses with the only variation being in the degree of servitude, we need to end co-dependency on Democrats. And strive for a labor/progressive party.

      • California Teacher permalink
        May 22, 2011 12:51 pm

        I agree with G3 and wish I’d read through his comment before adding my own above. Dan also makes an important point, but I would argue that our capacity for critical thought has been compromised by a barrage of propaganda and manipulation over decades. Every heard of Edward Bernays? He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and is recognized as the guru of modern public relations and propaganda dating back to WWI.

        If you can find it, an excellent documentary, The Century of the Self, explores his contributions to controlling the thoughts of the masses. It’s shocking and amazing, and anyone concerned with our democracy should watch it.

  5. May 24, 2011 11:20 am

    Even if there had been merit in the attempted dismissal, she hadn’t been accused of breaking the law. She hadn’t behaved in a threatening or hostile manner. In truth, there was no evidence to suggest she’d done anything wrong. So why call security?

    This is actually a wider question. In the community college I work at, they treated deans in the same manner. And I’ve heard the same in the corporate world. Of course it looks like treating them like criminals – it’s preventative in all likelihood. Pre-crime, where the bosses are shielding themselves from violent outbreaks.

    Though I’m not sure how that works… It would seem to do the opposite.

    • Dan Middleman, M.Ed. permalink
      May 24, 2011 3:14 pm

      Human resources has a lot to do with that these days. You don’t want the boss to be the person doing the firing. He/She might say something off script and get the company/district in trouble. HR people are brought in to do the firing, often without the principal/boss in the room. The worker is then escorted off campus by security. We’ve had too many people go “postal”. I can see that aspect. Handcuffs though? You must be kidding me.

      • May 24, 2011 3:23 pm

        I get the idea of having an HR person be present for the actual process, but I still can’t see why teachers (or employees of any kind) should be treated as criminals unless they start acting like criminals. I can even see having a security or police officer nearby, should a person become hostile, but escorting people off campus like this as a matter of course is unnecessarily humiliating, in my opinion. Systems that treat people this poorly are systems that breed the kind of bad behavior they fear in the first place– * that* should be something they work to reduce, rather than piling on more humiliations. To me, the inclusion of such a cruel procedure could be the very thing that triggers a hostile outburst, where one probably wouldn’t have occurred.

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