02 February 2011

The Culture of Fear

Little known fact about me: I hate scary movies. It's true. Can't stand to be scared. Don't like the sensation, never have. Now, I understand that these films are popular (mostly because they cause teenage girls to cling to teenage boys, a situation that both sides like) but I've never been able to get into them.

I also am scared of needles and overflowing public toilets. Illogical and true, I swear. 

Why have I subjected you to this short list of my illogical fears? Well, there are two reasons: firstly, my therapist is stuck to a flagpole by his tongue and second because it provides a neat-ish segue to today's topic here at the BlazeBlog: fear.

Now, I'm not going to talk about teachers being afraid to go into work (though that is a problem at many schools). I'm not going to talk about students being "afraid to fail". I'm not going to tackle the issue of young students being afraid on the first day, and I'm not going to rant about graduate students who are afraid to leave the comfort of academia. 

Nope, valid and interesting as all of those fears are, I'm going to talk about one that I think is sadder than Flowers for Algernon. I'm going to talk about a culture in public schools that causes many teachers to be afraid to speak their mind. 

Think about it; even though most of you know who I am and where I work, I blog anonymously, as "Cato". I try not to reference my school or district directly. Why? Because I, like many teachers, carry some fear that being too forward with my ideas and criticisms could cost me my job.

How could this be? Don't I have a right, a duty even, to question decisions which I think will impact students negatively? Why should I be afraid to offer professional, calm criticism of educational policy in my district?

I shouldn't.

And yet, I and many of my peers are afraid. Why? In large part because of the power which administrators have over teachers. Principals are also "evaluators", that is, they fill out my performance reviews. They will serve as references when I move to another state. In fact, in some states I won't be able to get a new license without my current evaluator signing paperwork indicating my competence as an educator. Most principals are upstanding and honest people. They will do this, even for teachers who disagree with them professionally. However, there are a number of principals who fear for their jobs, and to protect their livelihood, they lean hard on teachers who dissent, to provide a picture to higher-up decision makers and fund givers that their building is compliant. 

It isn't just money, though. Most teachers at the secondary level are not specialists. We can teach pretty much any class in our subject-area. Administrators often have control over who gets what classes. The teacher often fears that they will be stuck with all freshmen unless they get in line.
So, here's the cycle  we find ourselves in in education: School boards / reformers want drastic change, so they threaten to non-renew administrators (who generally work without union protection). Those administrators, in an effort to protect their income, lean on teachers, dictating philosophy, and creating an atmosphere where dissent is not appreciated. Teachers, trying to make sure they are employable, and have good classes,  keep their heads down and their mouths shut.  

This is sad 

Teachers should have safe, open forums to dissent with the philosophies that come at them from above. I know that unions often provide this function, but as I've detailed before, unions are fraught with problems of their own.

I don't know what the solution to this problem is. I think that going to a system of using outsiders as evaluators might help alleviate the problem. I also think that convincing Boards of Education that they should manage the money and stay out of educational philosophy would be nice as well. 

However, frogs think it would be nice to not bump their butts on the ground when they hop, but they can't grow wings....


  1. Dammit. Now I feel terrible for not finishing the post I've been working on since September.

  2. Don't feel terrible. I get to speak crazy, since I know I'm walking away.