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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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