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