Swickard: Mean is not confined to student bullies

© 2013 Michael Swickard, Ph.D. “Michael,” the teacher snarled, “Did you bring your brain with you to school today?” I blushed and nodded. “Then why don’t you know this?” It was not the first nor last time I was bullied by a mean educator. At a young age I knew some teachers were nice while others were mean. I knew I must endure the mean teachers and administrators because no one was going to stop what the educators were doing.
     There is lots of talk about school bullying but it is always kid-on-kid. Consider that mean educators can be a hundred times more devastating. I am not excusing kid-on-kid bullying, rather, there is something worse.
     In 1993 I was teaching future teachers at a College of Education. I asked my supervisor about potential teachers who seem to not like children. Worse, what about educators who are mean. I was told to not worry since the teachers would be certified by the state and selected by the districts. Perhaps those who do not like children will self-select themselves out of education.
     It would appear the lure of employment attracts and keeps some in education. The average teacher works nine months a year for $40,000 to $50,000. School administrators make much more. Many stay for the pay.
     The issue of mean educators is different. Alas, there is no mechanism to report mean teachers and administrators, as there is for students who bully. Even with a report the adult-centric Educational Industrial Complex normally circles the wagons.
     Education in many communities is the major employer. Half of New Mexico’s budget goes to public school education of which 90% is for adult salaries. The political focus is upon teacher salaries, teacher performance and teacher retirement. In theory it is connected to children. But if a school district needed to fire half of their teachers, it could not because of political influences. It is about the needs of those adults for jobs.
     Factory model education does not look from the student point of view. Could we do so? First, let each student vote each day without teachers corrupting the process on whether they liked that day in school. Preposterous? They are the clients. Do so every day and the stats would show students who were treated better would do better. (Teachers too, but I’m focusing on students here) The leaders will not pull this data first because they would be working against their own self-interests and also because they are not prepared to reform education so that it is student-centered and anti-mean.
     For the most part the leaders are often only trying to keep the train on the tracks which is a huge task. They need so many teachers, assistants, diagnosticians, cafeteria, bus drivers, janitorial and secretarial workers that they cannot discard employees because they need so many warm-bodies. Someone has to be in front of the class when the bell rings. Finally, never forget that in a hyper-political setting like education, it is dangerous to the career of any educator to take on a mean colleague.
     Making this worse is the recent political notion of “rigor” where the school is to “toughen up students.” People say, “The Marines are tough on the recruits.” There is a vast difference between three months of Marine training and thirteen years of public school.
     We certainly have a “Pin the Management Tail on the Burro” moment. Let us start by recognizing that when educators act mean, it does have a serious trickle-down potential. When administrators bully teachers and staff often it does reach the students. When teachers or staff members bully students there is a residual effect upon other students.
     Former New Mexico Teacher of the Year Jim Smith said, “Every great teacher is just one bad administrator away from leaving the field of education forever.” Could it be the same for students? We should consider mean educators as having a role in dropouts. We do not know because there is no mechanism to track these actions.
     Perhaps a start is to start looking for mean educators. The problem is: when people identify mean educators, who should get the report? Hopefully it will be someone who is not going to just circle the wagons.