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Aaron Regunberg: Teacher Intimidation is a Myth, Right?

Friday, December 14, 2012


It’s a myth. It’s made-up. How can there possibly be teacher intimidation when teaching is one of the most well protected professions around? Right?

I hear this all the time. And while teachers often complain in private that they are worried about retribution from administrators or districts for speaking out, we generally dismiss this as paranoia.

Those of us who do not have direct experience in schools find it very difficult to imagine the fear that many teachers purport to live with on a regular basis. Of course they can exercise their rights to free speech or political activity without having to worry about professional or economic retaliation, we think. They have a union. They’ll be fine.

But this anxiety shared by so many educators is not the result of paranoid delusions. It’s based in the reality of our school systems and the very real threats that education professionals may experience every day on the job.

Just last week, the Rhode Island Labor Relations Board ruled that Education Commissioner Gist and other leaders at RIDE illegally issued a “gag” order to keep RIDE employees from attending an after-hours rally in support of fired Central Falls teachers way back in 2010. The case stemmed from an email Gist sent in her capacity as Commissioner to all RIDE employees which began by saying, “It has come to my attention that some of you have been approached to take an active role in the events transpiring in Central Falls,” and concluded with the sentence, “Please be assured that I will not hesitate to take action against any employee of RIDE who purposefully works to thwart RIDE policy.”

Of course, the consequence of that ruling is that now, more than two years after the event, Gist gets less than a slap on the wrist (the only sanction given is an order for RIDE to post a copy of the decision on bulletin boards across the department for 60 days). And even this entirely toothless result was only achieved because the labor violation was connected to a highly visible event and some high-profile actors (and was delivered, very stupidly, via email).

So if that’s the kind of thing that high-profile education leaders can essentially get away with, think about the extent to which less visible actors in districts and schools can use intimidation to keep their staff in line. From the students and classrooms and subjects and even schools to which teachers are assigned, to the out-of-class responsibilities they are given, to their leadership positions in departments, to their very job security, there are a lot of ways in which educators can be threatened.

Which is not, of course, to say that they always are. Certainly all of the principals I’ve had the privilege of working with in Providence schools have been open, supportive leaders whose relations with their staff seem to be based in trust and respect (though it seems as a general rule that principals are under even stricter district gag rules than teachers, which is an incredible shame in and of itself). But clearly, intimidation and threats of retaliation can and do happen. And they happen to the extent that a huge proportion of teachers share a fear of speaking out and exercising their rights as citizens.

This is a problem. I don’t know how we can expect students to learn to be democratic citizens if their teachers themselves don’t feel empowered to creatively question, challenge, or offer dissent in their schools. And I am not sure how we can expect to recruit a new generation of great teachers if these are the conditions we are offering them. Speaking from my own experience, I had planned to go into teaching myself, but upon getting a better sense of the restrictions to which I’d have to submit, I realized it would only be a matter of time before I got myself fired—and I know for a fact I was not the only person in my graduating class to feel this way.

It’s my strong belief that an effective education system requires structured empowerment at every level. We will never be successful in turning around schools as long as teachers operate from a place of fear. It’s time for us to take the concerns of educators seriously—if not for their sake, then for the sake of the students they serve and the communities that count on them.


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You accurately describe the life of many teachers in CF since Gallo took the reigns 5 years ago. Her slash and burn philosophy has created a 2 tier system: those who are "friends" with administrators and everyone else. Say something "out of line" & one can be removed from their class, the school, put on administrative leave or out of a job. How many other school districts would condone administrators befriending some subordinates on Facebook and blatantly posting how they all went out to dinner?

Makes for a great working environment to advance student achievement!

Comment #1 by barnaby morse on 2012 12 14

It's called poor leadership Aaron. Just like politics, the cream does not rise in this business.

Comment #2 by tom brady on 2012 12 14

Give me a break. What about all the stories parents can share about teachers who bully students and parents. Students really have no voice- no union to protect them, parents who can only call for a meeting that is stacked with teachers and administrators to back them up.
After 5 years of Substitute teaching, I have stories that will make your jaw drop, about teachers who are rude, unqualified to students. As a parent of two high school students I have years of stories of teachers who are BULLIES and intimidate parents and students everyday. The public education system has been taken over by unions and retired teachers who are only looking out for their own interest and not educating a new generation.

Comment #3 by shawna amitrano on 2012 12 14

Ms Amitrano, I respect you a lot more than the guy who went down in flames on YouTube. There are bully teachers; they are protected by the union, and the students deserve to be protected against them. One of my daughters went to the 9th grade in a "high achiever" district that I shall not name. Some of her teachers were punks with attitudes. If I didn't know some of the better teachers, she would have dropped out. When she moved here to Warren, she enjoyed her time at Mt. Hope, which is a much better school than people give it credit for being.

Comment #4 by Michael Trenn on 2012 12 14

Shawna, my job is student organizing. It's what I do, full-time, every day (this is a recent profile of my organization: http://www.eastsidemonthly.com/stories/Providence-Student-Union-zack-mezera-aaron-regunberg-education-providence-public-schools,4174?category_id=72&town_id=2&sub_type=stories,packages,photos,blogs). So believe me when I say I agree with you that students need, need, need a voice in their schools. And as someone who works with students every day, I have definitely heard stories of teachers acting like bullies to students.

But I don't see how any of that in any way contradicts the message of this piece--that many teachers also feel powerless in this system, and that this is a bad thing that we'd be better off addressing.

Comment #5 by Aaron Regunberg on 2012 12 14

Well imagine that...workers being afraid of their boss! Afraid of losing their job? Oh, what a nightmare. This article is a joke. Union workers, welcome to the real world.

And as far as teachers go, I think we all know who does the "intimidating"

For God's sake, teach my son his social studies. Stop turning the schools into "social justice" learning centers, and political training outfits. My kid doesn't need to see his teachers stand up to their principal. He needs to learn his algebra. What the hell is Regunberg talking about ("I don’t know how we can expect students to learn to be democratic citizens if their teachers themselves don’t feel empowered to creatively question, challenge, or offer dissent in their schools.")

Keep my kid out of your adult politics.

Comment #6 by Jared D on 2012 12 14

When there was real senority protection teachers did speak out and dissented, since that is gone no one speaks out unless they have decided they don't want their job anymore. Another thing is time after time the ONLY advocate a special ed student had was their teacher, school social worker, or guidance counselor so often they they fought for the sevices that these students needed and deserved. As the voices of these people has been silenced special ed services have declined to a formality on paper.

Comment #7 by Eloise O'Shea-Wyatt on 2012 12 15


When I read your article I thought for sure you were speaking about the intimidation of teachers and parents by the leadership of the teacher’s union. That seems to be a much more likely problem that you should address. I would suspect that most teachers are hardworking, dedicated professionals who do not, as you do, obsess with intimidation.

Comment #8 by Michael Byrnes on 2012 12 17

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