Tag Archives: Mary Thorson

The Bullying Problem

bully

It looks like it has happened again. Another teacher has taken her own life after being bullied in the workplace:

“The stepfather of a Bassett High School art teacher who committed suicide in July has announced plans to file a wrongful death suit against the district after claiming his stepdaughter’s death resulted from bullying by administrators.

A series of incidents led to Jennifer Lenihan taking a stress leave, which left her in such financial turmoil that she took her own life July 1, the day her mother went to give her money to help with rent, according to Manuel Jaramillo, her stepfather.”

Bassett High School is part of the Bassett Unified School District in Los Angeles County, California. You might recall that another bullied teacher who took his own life, Rigoberto Ruelas, taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Southern California, much like the rest of the country, does not seem to treat their teachers very well.

The tragic case of Jennifer Lenihan’s suicide seems to have certain things in common with the suicide of Mary Thorson. Both teachers reported regular harassment by administrators in front of students. Both teachers took their own lives while on leave from their positions. Both teachers’ families pinpoint the toxic work environment as the main reason why their loved ones were pushed towards suicide.

As someone who has had a front-row seat to the systematic bullying of teachers by administrators, I know the psychological toll it takes on the victims. Like most victims of bullying, they start to internalize the message that they are somehow flawed human beings. As some sort of hybrid of Stockholm Syndrome and a Manchurian Candidate, they begin to identify with the agenda laid out by the bullies that they are not deserving of a career teaching children. Jennifer Lenihan and Mary Thorson took their own lives while on leave from their schools. The timing might not just be mere coincidence. The fact that a teacher is not inside the classroom is solid proof that the bullies are correct about their fitness to teach. A teacher not in the classroom has all the minutes and hours to think, to allow that message to sink in, to internalize it and, eventually, to lose all hope entirely.

The bullying of teachers has sort of, by default, become my pet cause. It was the reason why I created this website in the first place. It is a particularly insidious form of bullying because it takes place inside of places that are supposed to be safe havens for children. The media, government and school districts have exerted much effort recently to stamp out the bullying of children in schools and on the internet. We know that children who are bullied wind up with deep emotional scars that could take a lifetime to heal, if they heal at all. While children should not be bullied at school or anywhere else, we will never be able to eliminate it if the adults in the building are bullying each other. How can the adults create a bully-free environment for their students if they do not know what it looks like?

Closer to home, we are witnessing another case of bullying with Francesco Portelos. I know Francesco and his case. He is currently locked in a heated 3020-a hearing, the procedure that tenured NYC teachers must face before having their licenses revoked. The charges against Francesco read like a sad comedy. Even by DOE standards, the infractions with which he is being charged are frivolous. One only has to look at the attempted hatchet job done on him recently by the New York Post to see this. Usually, the Post calls teachers perverts, incompetents, child abusers and drug addicts. But the worst the Post could throw at Francesco was this:

“Portelos, 34, allegedly made life hell for colleagues at the Staten Island middle school by slapping papers out of people’s hands, mass-e-mailing complaints and making false theft claims.”

Assuming this is all true, which it certainly is not, should this be grounds for termination?

But it is not true at all. If Francesco made “life hell for colleagues”, why would those colleagues elect him chapter leader while we was languishing in a rubber room? I cannot speak for all teachers but I certainly would not vote for a guy who slapped papers out of my hand.

The Post even went on to reveal, unintentionally of course, the real reason why Francesco is being victimized:

“Portelos was relegated to a succession of rubber rooms more than a year ago, after complaining that Hill broke DOE rules permitting parents and staff to review the school budget.

The technology teacher claims he was a “whistleblower” — and got back at his bosses by writing a scathing blog and streaming live video from rubber rooms to which he had been exiled.”

Heck, they even tag the article at the bottom with the term “Whistleblowers”.

The event that is Francesco Portelos is a product of the systematic bullying of teachers taking place in schools nationwide.  He is doing what everyone should do with bullies: fight back. It is easy for teachers to be cowed when they are written up by administrators for frivolous things or hit with retaliatory charges or have investigators come to their homes and ransack their garbage (which was done to Christine Rubino). But both Francesco and Christine fought back and both are winning.

It should not have to come to this. Teachers should not have to come to work in fear of what lies in store for them once they go through those schoolhouse doors. Not only does it distract from the already difficult job of teaching, it creates an environment of fear that automatically gets passed down to the students. We should not have to be put in a position where we have to waste time and brain power protecting ourselves against bullies. No person in any line of work should have to endure those circumstances.

While we can be heartened by the examples of Francesco Portelos and Christine Rubino, their stories are offshoots of a toxic climate imposed on our schools by the Bloomberg regime here in NYC and similarly odious school regimes nationwide. Now that Bloomberg is slinking out of office and a friendlier administration seems likely to take the reins, it is time for our union to take action.

That action needs to be in the form of an anti-bullying clause in the next contract. Bloomberg has allowed us to languish without a contract for the past four years, which means a new contract will be one of the incoming mayor’s priorities. I and many other teachers would forgo retroactive pay (which we probably will not get anyway) for solid protections against bullying. Administrators should face serious consequences for harassing teachers. Teachers should have viable avenues of protection if they become victims of administrator bullying. Schools should no longer be isolated fiefdoms where principals wield absolute power and destroy people with impunity.

This will take some organizing on our part. Something tells me our union leadership is not too keen on making this an issue at the next contract negotiations. I smell a petition brewing.

Speaking of petitions, here are a few you can sign right now over the internet:

Petition calling for Bassett Unified School District to do a thorough investigation into the bullying of teachers.

Petition to reinstate Francesco Portelos to the classroom.

WHY MARY THORSON’S STRUGGLE IS OUR STRUGGLE

HaroldMelvinAndTheBluenotes

Readers of this blog should be familiar with the story of Mary Thorson. She is the Illinois physical education teacher who took her own life on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. As the film Dying to Teach shows, as well as the piece I wrote last year entitled The Killing of Mary Thorson, Mary’s suicide was an outgrowth of harassment she faced at her school. Her harassment came not from the students she loved but from administrators who seemed bent on making her life a living hell.

Her family and friends have been devastated by the loss. While nothing will bring Mary back, some compensation might lie in exposing the circumstances behind what drove Mary to suicide. In this age of education deform, the systematic harassment of teachers is widespread. There are no accurate statistics on the rate of teacher suicides across the country. The best Mary’s loved ones could hope for, and the best anyone who dares to dedicate their lives to teaching could hope for, is to call attention to her story as a way of shedding light on what is happening in our public schools. Indeed, if the responses to my piece regarding the offensive math questions is any indication, teachers have not seen such a hostile environment since the day Socrates was forced to drink hemlock. Any teacher worth their salt knows exactly what drove Mary to such depression.

The first step was when Myra Richardson made the film Dying to Teach. Things improved when, at the last minute, I was invited to Washington, D.C. to give a short speech introducing the film at the annual Save Our Schools conference.These things, combined with my modest article, were small steps in calling attention to Mary’s story.

It has been a struggle ever since to get a major media outlet to really dig deep into the events leading up to Mary’s death. Then, not too long ago, a breakthrough occurred when CBS reporter Pamela Jones of Chicago started to take an interest in Mary’s story.

Ms. Jones saw Myra Richardson’s film, spoke to Mary’s parents and, by all accounts, wanted to give some honest coverage to this tragedy. She went to Mary’s school, Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, Illinois, to speak with the superintendent, Dr. Gregory Jackson. As we might recall, it was Dr. Jackson’s actions that seemingly played the major role in the misery Mary faced at work on a daily basis.

However, Ms. Jones was greeted with an unpleasant surprise when she arrived at the school. Nobody would grant her an interview: not a teacher, not a secretary, not a principal and certainly not Dr. Jackson. Instead, she was intercepted by someone speaking legalese who warned her to back off lest people’s jobs be endangered. Whose jobs would be endangered and why remains a mystery, although we can take a few guesses.

For my part, I find the actions of Cottage Grove Middle School to be bizarre to say the least. After all, they lost a member of their community, someone who, by all accounts, was loved and respected by her students. Regardless of Mary’s standing at the school at the time, what happened was a tragedy for them. The very least they could have done was to make a brief statement about how the loss of Mary Thorson devastated both students and staff.

This is what someone with a heart might expect anyway. However, as we know, school districts are not places with heart. They are cold, inefficient bureaucracies. They become even more so when they have something to hide. This seems like the most logical explanation for the cold shoulder received by Ms. Jones.

If she was not going to be able to get anything out of the school district, Ms. Jones was at least going to speak with Mary’s parents. She invited the Thorsons, who live in Indiana, to make the 5-hour drive over the border into Chicago for an interview. The Thorsons arrived, gave their heartfelt side of the story and Ms. Jones then spliced pieces of the interview with clips from Myra Richardson’s movie. It was supposed to air that very evening.

The key word is supposed to. At the last minute, Ms. Jones was told by an angry editor that the piece was not going to air. All of Ms. Jones’ legwork, all of the Thorsons’ time and emotional energy, was wasted for no good reason. There still has been no explanation for why her editor nixed the piece.

Perhaps the editor was worried about painting Dr. Jackson and the school district in a bad light, opening them up to a defamation lawsuit?

Perhaps, just like here in New York City, the media was afraid of upsetting the school district and, therefore, losing their privileged “access” to information and future scoops.

As someone who knows his fair share of reporters in the Tri-State area, this seems to be the number one concern of those working the education beat here. No matter what the issue is, or where the truth lies, their number one concern is not to alienate those with power within the school district. That is why sensationalized stories about teachers are rampant, the same types of stories about administrators are less rampant and stories about the educational malpractice practiced by Bloomberg, Walcott and Tweed is barely covered at all.

We can only speculate as to why CBS Chicago pulled the plug on the story. We can only speculate as to why Cottage Grove was so silent about the death of one of their own. What we do not have to speculate over is how difficult it is for teachers to get a fair hearing in the media. The Killing of Mary Thorson, much like the killing of Rigoberto Ruelas, is not an isolated incident. They are symptoms of a much deeper problem. These tragedies were outgrowths of the same environment that led to the termination of Christine Rubino and the hateful comments left by the supporters of Aziza Harding.

America hates teachers because America hates learning. How can anyone who tries to instill ideas in the next generation stand a chance in this country that brought us Fox News and reality television?

America hates teachers because America hates unions.  How can a nation of workers, most of whom are vastly underpaid, hate unions so much? It is because we also hate learning. We do not see how attacking one group of workers leads to attacks on all workers. We do not see it because we do not know how to think.

America hates teachers because Americans hate taking responsibility for things. Why hold ourselves accountable for rearing our children or alleviating poverty if we can just pass it all off on teachers?

The battle to shed real light on the true story surrounding Mary Thorson’s murder continues. Mary’s parents will never give up. Mary’s loved ones will never give up. Myra Richardson will never give up. As long as eyes are on this website, I will never give up. I sincerely hope that Pamela Jones of CBS will not give up either. Her heart is in the right place. Even though she has been temporarily cowed by her bosses at CBS she is in the right and, I like to think,  the right always triumphs in the long run.

The Killing of Mary Thorson is a tragic microcosm of the killing of our public schools, the killing of the next generation, the killing of the working class and the killing of our nation. This mass murder is taking place at the behest of very powerful and very wealthy interests who wish to subjugate the rest of us under the boot of unaccountable private power.

We can only fight back against this with enlightenment and education. We can enlighten others on an individual basis everyday. We can also hope to enlighten by getting the media spotlight for a split second and, like a bolt of lightning, illuminate the darkness around us ever-so-briefly.

The struggle of the Thorson family is our struggle. Together we can ensure that Mary Thorson was not killed in vain.

A Turn of Fortune

In the last post, I explained how Save Our Schools put the kibosh on showing the film about Mary Thorson because of the accusations made against the filmmaker, Myra Richardson, some 10 years ago. By allowing an unsubstantiated accusation to determine how they treat a fellow teacher, I explained that that SOS was feeding into the culture of teacher bullying for which Mary died.

God sometimes works small miracles because SOS did allow the film to be shown at the opening day of their conference yesterday. The catch was that I would present the film. It was also shown at the very end of the day, after the keynote address and after many people had spent the day traveling long distances to get to the conference here in Washington, D.C. Needless to say that the turnout was not great and there were many sleepy eyes in the audience of those that remained.

Hopefully, the movie had an impact on those that saw it and they will go out and screen the film for their colleagues back home. This is the only way any important idea or film is promulgated among he national teaching force.

Here is the text of the speech. Hopefully, it had an impact on those who were there that night:

Presentation Speech – The Killing of Mary Thorson (8/3/12)

Thank you for having me here tonight. My name is xxxxxxx from New York City. I am 33 years old and have been teaching history in the city’s public high schools for the past 12 years. Public schools have been a major part of my life from the age of 5. Every single year since then, I have had a first day of school and always feel the trepidation that comes with i

Whether as a kindergartener, a high-schooler or a teacher, my trepidation stems from the same anxious question, which is: will I be accepted? We want to be accepted because we know the ramifications if we are not, which could be isolation, harassment or bullying. We do not want to be judged unfairly by others and have that erroneous judgment follow us for the rest of the school year.

We know if that happens, that judgment becomes a label. There are going to be people that know of us exclusively through that label. When they see us they will not say “Hey, there is Dave” or “Hiya Susan!” They will merely say there is that weird person or stupid person or ugly person. Labels objectify us, turn us into memes and dehumanize.

Dehumanizing leads to harm like teasing and violence. This is the anatomy of “bullying” that has become such a popular watchword in recent months. While the anti-bullying campaign certainly has an admirable goal, and those who have participated in it certainly are genuine in their efforts to combat bullying, I wonder if all of this new-found vigilance against schoolyard bullying is being used as a subterfuge by certain interests to downplay another type of bullying no less epidemic in our country today: the bullying of teachers. To contrast it with the schoolyard bullying that our children face, I’d like to refer to the bullying of teachers as schoolhouse bullying for two reasons: one, the worst of it takes place within the confines of the schoolhouse and, two, the word house connotes opacity, since the bullying of teachers is a secret from the public.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2011, a 32-year-old middle school physical education teacher from Illinois named Mary Eve Thorson put herself in the path of an oncoming semi on an Indiana interstate. In her suicide note, she referred to her students as her “babies”. Her babies were suffering from a school climate that repressed teachers through abuse and harassment. Towards the end of her note she asked a question that more and more teachers are asking: why isn’t anyone stopping this?

The origins of Mary’s nightmare can be traced back to the familiar culprits: No Child Left Behind, the high-stakes testing regime, the rise of convoluted education data, Race to the Top…. the bludgeons of the ed reform movement. Teachers like Mary Thorson, teachers like us, are required to comply with the conversion of their children into numbers no more valid than the numbers Wall Street dealt in before and after the financial meltdown of 2008.

Teachers have a front row seat to this corporate education show. There is a chance that a good many of us are horrified by the dehumanizing of our students as numbers. It is imperative that teachers keep that horror to themselves. To ensure this, the teachers who have civil service job protections, mistakenly dubbed “tenure”, have been the targets of a nasty media campaign to garner public support for tenure’s erosion. The media dutifully does the bidding of local leaders like Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York. They run stories daily about teachers accused of horrible things, or how teachers are to blame for sub-par test scores, and how tough it is to fire “bad” teachers.

They have used the very word “teacher” as an insult. It connotes an old, burned out mossback who reads the paper all day while eager young minds cry out for an education. The United States is losing ground to other countries, countries producing the next generation of nuclear scientists. Furthermore, bloated teacher pensions are bankrupting state governments during this time of economic recession. Condoleeza Rice and Joel Klein inferred that teachers were threatening national security, so teachers joined the ranks of Alger Hiss and Osama Bin Laden.

These labels and judgments create the environment that supports the bullying of teachers. The public does not know us as Dr. Ravitch or Mr. Kozol anymore. They know as those lazy hacks, union bums and public enemies. This gives local politicians, beholden to the billionaire boys’ club, the popular mandate to railroad unions in contract negotiations, which has led to the denuding of workplace conditions and job protections for teachers.

This means that those above the teachers in the education bureaucracy: principals, superintendents, chancellors and mayors, are given ever widening latitude over our careers. The bureaucracy now rewards those administrators who are the most effective at entrenching the worship of data in public school buildings. A good administrator is one whose data looks good. The easiest and most surefire way to get the data to look good is to pressure teachers to make it look good through dishonest means like scrubbing. Those teachers who refuse to do so have no protection from any harassment the administration might unleash. This is where the next step of the bullying process, direct harm, comes into play. Any teacher with a conscience and a sense of ownership of their profession is a target.

The system rewards good data. Children are the numbers they attain on high-stakes exams. Teachers are the numbers their students attain on high-stakes exams. A new generation of educators, both teachers and administrators, are being trained in this philosophy. The idea of humanistic education is becoming foreign, in favor of a worship of numbers that dehumanizes the entire learning process. Inhuman systems breed inhuman behaviors. Teachers who don’t play ball in the new regime risk facing fake and embellished charges from their administrators. Pushing a teacher out of their career, depriving them of their livelihood through harassment and intimidation, is easy in a system where humans are numbers. It is classic bullying: first dehumanize, then harm.

And so, in 2010, Rigoberto Ruelas jumped off a bridge when the Los Angeles Times published data portraying him as a bad teacher. In 2011, Mary Thorson stepped into the path of an oncoming semi. As a union leader, I have worked with many harassed teachers whose only crime was questioning the worship of data and speaking up in defense of their students. They faced termination because of it, faced living on the streets and being stripped of their identities as teachers, unable to provide for themselves or their families. I have sat with too many teachers who have cried and talked of suicide. Every time I do, I have to stop myself from crying.

Why isn’t anyone stopping this? That’s Mary Thorson’s question. Her suicide note is a primal scream of frustration over what it means to be a teacher today. The things that worried her about the profession are the same ones that worry us. Not once in her note did she mention her own horror story of bullying. Instead, she was gravely concerned for her babies and her colleagues. She was concerned that tremendous harm was being done to them and nobody cared. She was locked in an educational fiefdom where harassment and extortion from above were the norms. Why isn’t anyone stopping this? Does anybody care?

As you will see in this film, Mary did what she did for us. She wanted to draw attention to the anonymous suffering that goes on in our schools by sacrificing her very existence, which was the only thing she had left after being methodically and systematically bullied for so long.By making this film, Myra Richardson has taken the first step towards redeeming Mary’s sacrifice. With nothing but a simple camera and a laptop, she interviewed those closest to Mary Thorson and the bullying she faced. The film is a series of in-depth interviews, each of which peel back the onion of Mary Thorson’s story.

By showing this film, Save Our Schools is taking the next step towards redeeming Mary’s sacrifice. This is the first time SOS is showing a film. By being here right now, all of us share in a very important moment for the teaching profession in the United States. I thank Myra Richardson, Save Our Schools and all of you for being here for this moment. It is my honor to introduce to you Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Eve Thorson, Educators Who Bully

 

The Human Stain: The Myra Richardson Story

We have already read about the tragedy of Mary Thorson and the movie that sheds light on it. When I first heard about the movie, I figured that whoever did it must have had a reason. Then I learned that the filmmaker, Myra Richardson, had a deeply personal reason.

In many ways, Mary is an anagram for Myra. Her story, although thankfully not ending in suicide, is deeply disturbing in its own right. Like Mary Thorson, it is an instructive case of teacher bullying in the age of education reform.

The winter of 2002 was before the nationwide charter school wave had taken effect. There were a few urban locales at the time that served as laboratories for chartering, especially Arne Duncan’s home base of Chicago. Myra Richardson was working at a Chicago charter called Sullivan House at the time.

Sullivan House served high school students from Chicago’s South Side, one of the most impoverished areas in the country. As a lifelong resident of Chicago and Chicago’s vibrant black community, Myra took a personal interest in her students. She was a popular teacher due to her dedication both inside and outside of the classroom. If a student needed extra help, she tutored them. If they needed breakfast, she fed them. If they needed shoes, she bought them. Like Mary Thorson, Myra considered the children in her class her babies.

Little did she know that she was not the type of teacher valued by the overlords of the education reform movement. Arne Duncan was in his second year as CEO of Chicago Public Schools at the time. His “Chicago Miracle” entailed firing veteran teachers. Female teachers of color like Myra were disproportionately terminated under his watch. The movement Duncan represented, and continues to represent, values low-paid suburbanite transplants as inner-city teachers over knowledgeable fixtures of the community.  It was the perfect workforce for hedge fund managers and bankers with an eye on chartering Chicago’s school system.

Hence, Myra was caught in a perfect storm. She was the wrong type of teacher at the wrong time in the wrong type of school. Many of her coworkers and administrators, the ones who were the “right” type of educators in the burgeoning age of school reform, did not understand Myra’s methods. On top of that, she was wrapping up her second year at Sullivan House. She threatened to become a permanent presence in a school that thrives on transient workers.

The principal, Lynn Nuzzo, knew exactly the type of school she was running. Charter school teachers, in 2002 as now, have no union, no due process, no rights. She decided to take advantage of this by doing something that was going to derail not only Myra’s career, but her entire life. It is the perfect argument in favor of granting teachers workplace protections.

Nuzzo pulled a 16-year-old girl in Myra’s class aside, a student who had benefited from Myra’s dedication and largesse, and tried to get her to lie. The principal then spread this lie to the other students in Myra’s class. It was the worst type of lie one could spread about a teacher, or anyone else for that matter. The principal was saying that Myra had molested the 16-year-old girl. Students in Myra’s class started mistrusting her and asking her why. After two weeks of the principal’s machinations, she presented Myra with the non-choice of resigning voluntarily or being terminated on the spot.

Without a union, Myra had no rights and nobody to advise her on how to fight back against these lies. She only had two choices. Seeing as how she was innocent and had no reason to resign, Myra was terminated. She received a final paycheck, a glowing letter of recommendation from Sullivan House and an escort out of the building under the darkest pall that could ever be cast upon a teacher.

As any teacher who has been bullied knows, the accusation is the start of a long fight to retain one’s livelihood and reputation. Myra filed a defamation lawsuit against Sullivan House in August of 2002.

Sullivan House’s defense in this lawsuit was, ironically, Myra’s defense from their accusation: nothing ever happened. Sullivan House claimed they never accused her of anything. The absence of any criminal charges or parental complaint was their proof that no child molestation accusations had taken place. This is exactly what Myra had provided to everyone, her lawyers and family included, as proof that she had never laid a hand on a child. A tragic instance of teacher bullying had descended into the realm of the surreal.

Throughout the lawsuit, Sullivan House claimed that Myra was mentally disturbed and was making up the story for attention. She was spending her every waking moment to clear her name from an accusation that never happened. It was an untenable position. This is why they ultimately ended up offering her a settlement in the defamation case.

But Myra was not out for money. She wanted her day in court and for it to be on the public record that she was not guilty of the sins of which she had indeed been accused. This is when the story took its next surreal turn.

Chicago has always had the reputation of being a big city of corruption. It was the city of Al Capone and those political gangsters, the Daley family. They control one of the most effective and enduring political machines in American history. It just so happened that Myra’s case was being heard in the Richard J. Daley center under Judge Bill Taylor. Myra’s lawyers, Kevin Besetzny and Daniel J. Stohr, knew that Myra wanted her day in court. They were determined to not let that happen.

What happened or what was discussed in that room in 2006 with Judge Taylor and Myra’s lawyers could never be known for sure, although these court documents go a long way towards an explanation. Up until that point, Besetzny and Stohr had spent nearly half a million dollars on fighting this case, which they took on contingency. Yet, for some reason, on a day that Myra was not there, her signature magically appeared on a settlement agreement with Sullivan House for $17,000. Judge Taylor issued a court order for Myra’s lawyers to sign the checks. The case was over.

And why would two lawyers who had spent nearly half a million dollars settle for $17,000? It is a question that answers itself. We can never know for sure what was discussed in that room between the judge and the lawyers, but chances are it involved many more zeroes than 17,000.

Myra’s is not an encouraging story for those teachers who go to the courts in search of justice. Her long fight to clear her name ended in disillusionment. Seeing as how she could not find satisfaction via the system, she wrote a book and then did a documentary about her horror story. These were the only avenues of justice she had left.

The final bit of irony is how Myra continues to be affected by what happened in Sullivan House in 2002. Her lawsuit, book, movie and websites have all made the accusation of child molestation a matter of public record. Any Google search or background check will turn up her name in conjunction with the sordid accusation. It is as if she is really part of the sex offender registry. It has prevented her from getting teaching jobs or making any kind of living at all. Like Christine Rubino, she is the mother of two children. If Myra would have left Sullivan House quietly with her letter of recommendation, she could have probably been in a teaching position right now. However, as with most teachers, her good name was the most important thing of all. Her quest to clear it ended up unjustly mucking it up in the public eye.

It has also prevented her from fully exploring the possibilities of the movie she made for Mary Thorson. Teachers who follow the blogosphere know about Mary Thorson and they also know that a movie has been released documenting her tragedy. Along with The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, it is probably the most important documentary a teacher can see. That is why it was scheduled to be shown at the start of the upcoming Save Our Schools convention in Washington, D.C.

Yet, when the SOS committee found out about Myra’s tragedy, they pulled the plug on the movie. Myra herself was originally invited to introduce the film, an invitation that has since been rescinded. While I respect SOS’s need to protect themselves and their fledgling movement, I am saddened by what seems to be a blind spot in the overall campaign to fight against education reform.

If my experience as a chapter leader and now blogger has taught me anything, it is that the bullying of educators is an integral part of the education reform movement. I do not mean teacher bashing, which is generalized and hurts all of us directly. I am talking about the targeting of individual teachers by either school administrators or school districts. I am talking about false or embellished accusations designed to deprive individual teachers of their livelihoods. Every time a teacher is wrongly accused or unfairly terminated, the entire profession is weakened and dishonored. What happens to one of us happens to us all.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many teachers willing to throw their colleagues under the bus by refusing to support those teachers who are in trouble. It ranges from the indifference most teachers within a school building show when one of their colleagues is reassigned for a frivolous accusation all the way up to what SOS did with Myra and Mary Thorson’s film. By refusing to help or be associated with a teacher in crisis, we help the bullies to accomplish their goal of destroying lives, careers and reputations.

And if you ever wanted to bust a union, engendering callousness and distrust among its members is a great way to do it. With that type of attitude, a union can never be a bastion of solidarity.

The system is not designed to weed out the truly incompetent or, more rarely, the truly dangerous teachers in our schools. As with Sullivan House, it is designed to weed out the teachers in it for the long haul, those who take an active and compassionate interest in the lives of their students. The longer we allow the bullies to get their way by treating the victims as persona non grata, the longer we allow the truly incompetent and dangerous teachers to survive in the system.

Myra’s case is a prime example of this. Since 2002, she has faced a long train of suffering due to a false and vicious accusation. As teachers, we can defend ourselves from the bashing we get in the media. However, it is much tougher to defend ourselves from a false or frivolous accusation. Save Our Schools, I fear, is out of touch in this regard. It is a shame, because what happened to Mary and Myra has and is probably happening to many teachers who will be in attendance at the conference. It will continue to happen until we take an active and fearless stand against it.

Growing up, those kids who bullied others in the schoolyard stamped their victims with the label of being a coward. It then made it easier for others to bully that same victim. “Oh, that kid is a punk, he deserves to be picked on.” In schoolyard politics, labeling people was the first step towards doing them harm. If your schoolmate is a punk, they are not a human and, therefore, fair game. The sad thing is that, in teacher bullying, the same dynamic is at work.

Like the victim in the schoolyard, Myra is a label. She is fair game to be accorded less respect than the average human being. To SOS, she is a liability, much like being seen hanging out with the victim in the schoolyard makes one a victim by association. Like kids at the cool table in the cafeteria, SOS will not allow Myra to sit with them. The principal that bullied Myra 10 years ago is affirmed every time someone rejects Myra due to the accusation. The whole epidemic of teacher bullying is affirmed when c0lleagues shun those who have been victimized.

Myra is innocent, much like Mary Thorson was innocent. Like Mary, the only thing of which she was guilty was dedicating herself to a career she loved, and of refusing to play the corrupt game of education reform. Mary gave her life because she understood that the bullying of teachers was ingrained in the system. She gave her life for teachers like Myra. Myra and Mary are anagrams.

Despite SOS’ complicity in the regime of teacher bullying, the film will catch on. It will catch on because the message resonates with teachers everywhere. Sadly, most bullied teachers I have spoken with have mentioned suicide. I will venture a guess that many teachers who will attend this year’s SOS conference have been in a similar place.

It is a shame that SOS is on the wrong side of this issue. Part of saving our schools means putting an end to bullying in our schools no matter who the victims are. Putting an end to bullying means acting in a way that makes the bullying regime unsustainable. It means treating people with compassion, love, humanity and understanding, which are values anathema to bullying and the entire regime of education reform it serves.

The Killing of Mary Thorson

There is a new documentary out that every teacher, parent, student and concerned citizen needs to watch. It is called Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Eve Thorson. Mary Thorson has been mentioned here before. She was the Illinois middle school teacher who committed suicide by standing in the path of an oncoming semi on Thanksgiving Day, 2011. She was only 32 years old.

The filmmaker, Myra Richardson, is herself a former Illinois school teacher whose career fell victim to the machinations of education reform. The film for Ms. Richardson has been a labor of love; love for Mary Thorson, a teacher she did not know personally but with whom she has a kinship nonetheless. Upon hearing the story of Mary Thorson, I too felt a kinship with her. I sense that most of us who teach for a living cannot help but identify with her tragic story.

Mary Thorson was blessed with many gifts, including natural athleticism. This was one of the reasons why she decided to become a teacher of physical education. Before that she enlisted in the United States Army Reserves, knowing full well our country was gearing up for the War on Terror at the time. She found herself in El Salvador and was awarded medals for opening up schools there. These facts demonstrate that Mary was motivated by an abiding civic spirit. Whether it was serving her country, the children of her country or the children of other countries, Mary Thorson found ways to exist for the benefit of humankind.

Yet, we know that teachers of Mary’s stripe are not welcomed by the current overlords of the education system.

While serving in the Army Reserves, Mary attained her certification to become a physical education teacher. She eventually landed a job at Cottage Grove Middle School in Ford Heights, Illinois within school district 169. For part of the school year she coached the girls’ basketball team. Like most teachers, Mary spent a good portion of her salary on materials for her students. Children, especially children of middle school age, instinctively know when an adult is working from a noble plane. So it was with Mary, and her students recognized and respected her for it.

It was Mary’s misfortunate to be working in a school district run by Superintendent Dr. Gregory T. Jackson. Unlike superintendents here in the big city, Dr. Jackson was a frequent presence in Cottage Grove Middle School. In New York City, superintendents tend to be more evanescent than real. Teachers might run into them by chance once every few years. Rarely do they ever deign to speak to us peasant classroom teachers.

Not so for Dr. Jackson. He is intimately involved with the day-to-day operations of Cottage Grove. It is clear that he loves the teachers that work in his district. By love, we mean he loves to intimidate and harass them. Teachers here in NYC have to settle for harassment from their principal or, worse, an assistant principal. But the teachers out in Ford Heights, Illinois have the privilege of being harassed by the superintendent himself. Yelling is one of his preferred methods of communication. Any school administrator worth their salt knows that yelling at a teacher not does count unless you yell at them in front of their students. This Dr. Jackson does with relish. He knows that, in our current era of education reform, students must be made to understand that their teachers are low-level schlubs, not role models. Nothing accomplishes this better than public humiliation.

However, Mary Thorson was a special type of teacher, which prompted Dr. Jackson to bring out the heavy artillery. It started when Dr. Jackson demanded of Mary that she change the grades of many of her students. Under our current education regime, administrators only demand changes in one direction: up. He wanted Mary to give passing grades to students that had clearly not earned it. To Dr. Jackson, whether or not students earned a passing grade was immaterial. The only thing that matters is that students pass. Passing students means the school is doing well, meaning that they will continue to receive funding, meaning that Dr. Jackson gets to keep his very high-salaried job.

This is why Dr. Jackson is an administrator, not an educator. An educator, someone like Mary Thorson, would look at failing grades and ask “how can I help teach my students the things that will help them pass next time?” An administrator like Dr. Jackson asks, “how hard will I have to squeeze in order to get teachers to pass everyone?” To educators, students are people. To administrators like Dr. Jackson, students are data. Like most data, it is meant to be fudged, nudged, and budged in ways that make him look good. Data must paint a rosy picture not only so that he might keep his job, but that the politicians and educrats for whom he lickspittles can make speeches about how their reforms are working.

This is the Wall Street philosophy of education. Create fake numbers out of thin air. Make everyone think they have value. Then sell that bill of goods to suckers in the general public. Nobody will ever be the wiser unless, of course, it comes time to pay. For Wall Street, that was when AIG woke up one day with a billion dollar hole. For schools, it is when the students they certify as graduates go on to be functional illiterates. In either case, the perpetrators will be long gone: Wall Streeters with their giant bailouts, administrators with their advancement up the bureaucratic ladder.

Mary knew all of this. She refused to help create the next crop of functional illiterates, or whatever the physical education equivalent of a functional illiterate might be. It was going to take more than the familiar Dr. Jackson method of yelling to get Mary to play ball.

It was at this point when Dr. Jackson got the opening he needed. One day, a parent called into Cottage Grove to complain that Mary Thorson had hit her child. Mary, knowing she had done no such thing, explained that the “assault” she had perpetrated took place in the context of PE horseplay. It did not matter. Dr. Jackson’s District 169′s brand of due process called for Mary to be suspended without pay.

Mary Thorson, the teacher of almost a decade, found herself traveling the road that so many strong-willed veteran teachers across the country travel in the age of education reform. One day she is waking up in the morning to make a living doing the job she loves. The next morning, she is waking up without the ability to make a living or pursue her love. The ringing of a phone, the signing of a paper, the snap of a finger is all that it takes. Maybe if Mary had played ball, maybe if she cared just a little less or compromised a little more, Dr. Jackson would make the problem go away.

For someone like Mary, a woman whose entire life was a pursuit of the humane and good, to be unable to render the service you carry out so well is nothing short of torture. Worse than the fact that she could not make the rent was that pall, that accusation, that hung over her head. Talk to any dedicated teacher that has had to face an investigation and chances are they will say the same. A teacher’s reputation is everything. They are accustomed to landlords, store owners and neighbors according them a level of trust that says that they are a member of good standing within the community. The public entrusts their children with them. To go from that to the drawn-out, bureaucratic nightmare that follows an accusation is to go from due north to due south on a dime. For many teachers who have reached that point, it does not matter if they wind up exonerated or not. They have already lost it all.

And so it was for Mary Thorson.

The one bright spot was that the school community knew the type of teacher Mary was. There was no way she would assault any child. The fear among her students that a special teacher was going to go out on her ear caused an outpouring of support. It made its way all the way back to the parents that leveled the accusation. They wrote a letter to Dr. Jackson explaining they knew that Mary was right when she contended that the alleged assault was nothing more than PE horseplay. Mary Eve Thorson did not deserve to lose her career. Please Dr. Jackson, put an end to her nightmare and let her teach again.

In response, Dr. Jackson, ever the magnanimous soul, restored Mary’s pay while keeping her on suspension. This was no victory for Mary. It was the teaching, the coaching, the children from which she was being separated which was causing her existential crisis. She would have rather returned to work without pay than be returned to pay without work.

But Dr. Jackson’s final sadistic flourish took place on the eve of Thanksgiving break. School administrators know that one of the cruelest things they can do is send a teacher a memo right before a long holiday break saying they wish to have an important discussion regarding their career after the break is over. It ensures that the teacher will be consumed with fear in the days school is out of session. While loved ones are supposed to gather and celebrate during these times, the families of these teachers will notice the long face, the bags under the eyes, the one-word responses to questions, the faraway countenance of the teacher in the family. Loved ones might be able to sympathize with such misery, but they cannot empathize. Only another teacher can empathize.

This is exactly the place in which Mary Eve Thorson found herself in the days leading up to that fateful Thanksgiving Day. She was given the memo and told to enjoy her holiday.

The plan was for Mary to be with her parents on Thanksgiving Eve. But she called them and said she was going to wait until Thanksgiving Day instead.

Thanksgiving rolled around. Mary stockpiled on her bed all of the paperwork associated with the fatal accusation. She penned a note, then headed out to her car. She was to drive just over Illinois’ eastern border into Indiana, a state known as the literal crossroads of the United States. It is where many of the country’s superhighways intersect. You can choose a road and go anywhere in the country. Cars zoom through Indiana on their way to their destinations, as do the trucks that carry out much of the nation’s commerce.

Trucks.

Mary Thorson pulled her car over to the shoulder. She opened the door of the steel pod that had been acting as a barrier between her body and the speeding traffic of Indiana’s highways. Her two feet stepped onto the road designed strictly for rolling rubber. An oncoming truck. Mary stepped into its path. The truck driver swerved to avoid her. Mary swerved in the same direction. It was over.

Mary’s final note could have been written by any teacher in the United States. The children that she had taught for almost 10 years were so clearly flesh and blood human beings. Yet, the lords of the education system insisted that they were data. She had tried to explain this many times to no avail. The powers that be, the people that could determine whether or not Mary taught, made it clear that children were numbers on a paper. They were to be fudged, nudged and budged on a whim. What those numbers represented, whether they were accurate or useful, did not matter.

Why was it like this? In her final note, Mary said it comes down to money. Good numbers meant good money. Even bad numbers meant good money. So many people have their hands in the education till: administrators, data companies, test publishers and politicians. If children could no longer be reduced to data, the money train stops and all of these interests would be slightly less wealthy. The educrats would never tolerate this. Education, Mary Thorson says, is a business in America. Children are the widgets. Mary Thorson lets it be known that, counter to the self-righteous wisdom of our esteemed educrats, children are not widgets. They are her babies.

And why are the Dr. Jacksons, the Pearsons, the Bloombergs, the Rhees, the Rahm Emmanuels of the world able to perpetrate such a heinous crime? Because the people who could stop it, the people who have a front row seat to the huckster’s ruse, are being silenced. Those people are the teachers. Through union breaking, through the empowerment of administrators, through media bashing, through rigged legislation, through harassment and intimidation, teachers are being told in so many words to shut up and go along with the whole thing. They are being forced to play ball against the better angels of their nature. There is no room for teachers to be humane, to provide a truly humanistic education whose value is unquantifiable in numbers. Those that try are spit out of the machine either by out-and-out firing or creative methods of subtle psychological torture.

As the title of the movie suggests, Mary Eve Thorson was killed. Like so many of us who teach, she was being killed slowly everyday by a rotten, autocratic regime that cloaks itself in the benign garb of providing an education to children. Mary Thorson’s story, her tragedy, is the tragedy of millions of caring teachers from Anchorage to Atlanta, from Bakersfield to Bangor. What is extraordinary is not that Mary Thorson died for the sake of teaching, but that more such teachers have not taken the same route given the times in which we are living.

Mary Thorson said she did not want her murder to go in vain. Mary’s father, John Thorson, is determined as well. He has an online petition against teacher bullying that everyone should sign.

Furthermore, if you would like a copy of Dying to Teach: The Killing of Mary Thorson you can contact Myra Richardson at teachersformary@hotmail.com. Donations can be made via that address as well. All funds will go to Mary’s family, as well as to the foundation that will be founded in Mary’s memory at the start of August.

Rest in Peace Mary. We are determined that you shall not die in vain.

The Other Bullying

This story has weighed on my mind since I read about it earlier this year:

On Thanksgiving, a grade-school gym teacher parked on the shoulder of Interstate 80/94 in northwest Indiana, got out of her Mercury SUV and walked in front of a moving semi truck.

The 32-year-old’s suicide shocked the tiny Ford Heights school district where she worked. In the days afterward, tension grew amid conversations by co-workers about what had happened and questions from the Army veteran’s parents. The turmoil peaked during a crowded meeting in December, when some teachers and school board members clashed.

The suicide note that Mary Thorson left centered on frustrations at the school, and her death spurred some of her co-workers to speak out at the public meeting.

Teachers described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the two-school district, where little things snowballed over time.

“We don’t feel like we can speak out because we have been intimidated,” teacher Rose Jimerson said at the meeting. “We have signs all over the building about anti-bullying. … Our staff gets bullied.”

Mary Thorson was, tragically, driven over the edge. It is an edge too many of us find ourselves in the age of teacher bashing.

The same thing happened to Rigoberto Ruelas.

Between these two tragedies we see the two biggest culprits in the war on teachers: administrators and the media.

It is no coincidence that the media has made an issue of student bullying, a problem that has been around for ages, at the exact same time that they have taken to bullying teachers.

Can anyone say subterfuge?

Teachers, those who are actually in it for the long haul like Mary Thorson and Rigoberto Ruelas, were dedicated to the profession to the point where being a teacher was part of their identity. It is a tough thing for people in other lines of work, who usually frequently change careers, to understand. Being a teacher is who you are. It defines you. When people attack and insult teachers with words or actions, it is an attack on who we are as people. It is an attack on our very identity as human beings.

Sadly, it is tough to see how there will not be more tragedies like this in the future.

There is an online petition in Mary Thorson’s memory started by her father to stop the bullying of teachers. It is worth your signature, if for no other reason than a show of solidarity.

My heart goes out to Mary Thorson’s and Rigoberto Ruelas’ families. There are people who understand what is happening to teachers and fighting against it.