06 February 2011

The Culture of Fear, a real world example

Last week, I wrote a rant about the culture of fear which permeates public schools. My larger point there was that school boards often create cultures where everybody from the superintendent on down fears for their jobs. This creates, in many cases, schools full of teachers who are unwilling to take risks, or to oppose initiatives on philosophical grounds. 

It is easy to wonder why teachers, often very highly educated, fall into the trap of being afraid. I took the position that it was because principals had incredible control over teachers' current and future employment. To many people, this may have seemed to be hyperbolic. They probably thought that I had some bullies as supervisors and that was why I ranted about fear the way I did.

And then, this morning, I was watching CBS News Sunday morning (mostly because I like my television hosts to wear bow-ties, Tucker Carlson excepted). The first story was about privacy in the era of social media.(here's the story if you'd like to watch) It began as most such stories do, with panning shots of pictures on facebook. Then a shot of a young woman. I'm braced for the tale of how she didn't get a job because of things she wrote that were outlandish. Perhaps she had bared her bosoms in a photograph and been tagged. I thought she had made some foolish mistake.

Her mistake? She went to Europe, and posted this picture:

Oh noes! A 24 year old went to Europe (expanding her horizons), and took a picture of herself engaged in a LEGAL ACTIVITY.

She wasn't smoking a half-pound of pot. She's not on a stripper pole with a sign that says "vocational education". She's not even visibly intoxicated. Students couldn't even see the pictures.

And yet, her principal called her into his office (I'm doing the math and guessing that she was in her 1st or 2nd year of teaching), and asked her if she had a facebook. Once she said that she did, he said that he had received a complaint from a parent about the picture, and that, on the spot, she had to resign or be suspended. Imagine this. The 23 year old, recently in a situation where the principal was a figure of authority (when she was a student), given an ultimatum of that gravity. She chose to resign.

Now, CBS used this as a segue into privacy in the era of social media, which is fine, I understand that their show is general interest. But I think the most interesting part of the story came at the end: she was fired over an email complaint from someone who was anonymous

This is why teachers are afraid. We don't join the unions that might protect us because they're expensive and often protect what we view as incompetence. Then, as individuals, especially as young teachers, we're often put in positions where one or two people with administrative power can end the career we trained for quite quickly, and with very little reason.

What can we do about it? Perhaps new unions? But they would be corrupted by the same issues that have corrupted the current unions. Perhaps national legislation? Unlikely, since the conservative forces have managed to make job protection impossible in this nation, unless you're an incumbent. 

No I think there's another solution. Take power to hire and fire away from principals. Make them the educational peers of teachers. Hire someone to function purely as an evaluator, and that person would have control over staffing, to whatever degree principals currently have that power. 

You're probably wondering where that person's salary would come from. Well, I have an answer that those conservatives will love: trim the fat. For example, my district; cash-strapped, cutting bus service, has the money to provide my building (and our middle school) with a woman called a "learning coach". She sits in inservices, and helps with RtI (Dr Dick has your RtI RIGHT HERE). She also shows us youtube videos and sometimes spouts educational jargon. 

I don't know what she gets paid, but I suspect that we could use her, or her salary to pay someone, who could become an outside adjudicator of teacher quality. Then, the principal could run the building, teachers could collaborate openly and without fear of retribution, and we wouldn't be reading stories like the one of a 24 year old, new and eager to change lives, bullied into resignation, for a picture of herself on the internet doing something legal.

But we won't. Instead, we'll stick to our current model of evaluations, and spend the money paying administrators mileage to go to work.

Don't get that dig at the end? Go ahead and click here.


  1. Ilia Catharine SmithFebruary 7, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    But what would stop the evaluator from firing someone for the same reasons used by the principals? Even if there had been an evaluator position at this teacher's school, wouldn't the evaluator have fired/forced her to resign for the same reason? Is there something specific and inherent to the position of principal that makes them promote the culture of fear?

  2. I think the problem is that principals are viewed and treated by superintendents and school boards as the leaders of the schools. So, when there is pressure to implement philosophical change at the building level, principals are leaned on the hardest, and they in turn lean on their staff. If you had a person separate from the philosophical leadership, they would be less inclined to use fear, because their job wouldn't be tied to the success of philosophy changes.

    Does that make sense? I'm willing to admit that the outside adjudicator could easily become an agent of fear, but without the same pressure to get people in line, it would be less likely.