Saturday, January 14, 2012

Teachers Committing Suicide: When Will The Bashing Stop?

For many reasons too lengthy and private to list here, I have been on a six-month hiatus from writing this blog. I knew, eventually, I would acquaint myself with my keyboard again. I needed to find something to write about that would really hit home. Something that not only pertains to the Future of America, but the fate of the nurturers that stand before them each day. Maybe something that makes my readers angry enough to actually do something, and speak up for those who cannot. And while lazily perusing Facebook last night, a luxury that Friday nights at home offer me, the only night free of fear and anxiety about facing the administrative monsters who call themselves human, I found it. I can't not write about this. So....I'm back!

On Thanksgiving, a grade-school gym teacher by the name of Mary Thorson 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. First, I need to extend my deepest sympathy and prayers to 32-year old Mary's family. Her parents' loss is unfathomable. It is a mother's worst nightmare to lose a child. As a mom myself, just the thought makes my stomach turn. I cried when I read this article. I tear up now just thinking about it.

One might choose to interpret this event as just another person who snapped. Who couldn't deal with their life and chose to end it all. Many Christians would profess that her soul is in for a lot of trouble on the other side. I beg to differ, especially with the latter.

If you read the details of the article, (and I really hope you clicked on it...there is a lot of information there that I am not discussing, such as the nauseating reaction to Mary's death of the Ford Heights CSD administration and school board) and you examine the current climate of education today, you will see (if your mind is open, of course) that this is not just another suicide. Mary had no documented mental issues. She served in the Military but was not exposed to anything there that might prompt a suicide, she did not go abroad. She left a suicide note that clearly stated her reason: she had to bring attention to the embarrassment, intimidation, torment, and criticism that teachers face today.

In case you haven't noticed, we are the evil enemy, demonized as the most poignant problem that faces education today. On the radio in the morning on my way to work: "Mayor Bloomberg is at war with NYCs teachers." on the CBS News after work: "We need to remove ineffective teachers from the classrooms. Fire half the teachers at 'underpreforming' schools.'"  (Underpreforming? Really? If you want the truth on that one, click here. Oh, and by the way, "underpreforming" isn't even a real word.At work: "Your lesson was rated unsatisfactory." or, "What does your test data look like? You are not doing enough to 'move them up'."  If a student lies and accuses you of something you would never dream of doing (as in Mary's case): "You are GUILTY until proven innocent." Teachers, like most children bullied in the schoolyard, suffer in silence. We are outnumbered. We are here for the children, not for ourselves. We are expected to be completely selfless and subservient. We dare not speak up. We have to pay our rent and our bills and put food on the table.

The vast majority of us chose to teach because we love the company of children. We have the innate desire to be an intricate part of their growth into an intelligent, productive citizen. It is a calling, an art, a career that only a special kind of person can knowingly choose as their lifestyle. Put simply, we teach because we care. Deeply. Given our character, this kind of repeated defamation and bullying is like being kicked in the stomach ten times a day.

Some of us are more sensitive than others. Some of us have a greater capacity for compassion. These are not mental issues, they are variables of the human personality. These defining characteristics: kindness, sensitivity, compassion, are what makes amazing teachers. According to her loved ones and colleagues, Mary possessed these honorable qualities. Her colleagues claim that she was an extremely dedicated professional that loved her students. She spent her own money buying them clothing and supplies. No doubt she spent hours of her personal time preparing lessons and doing mountains upon mountains of bureaucratic paper work demanded by her superiors, as most of us do.

Mary Thorson is not just another suicide statistic. She is a hero. She taught in one of the most underfunded school districts in Illinois. Half of Ford Heights' population lives below the poverty line. Compiled with the hopeless feeling of being unable to truly help her impoverished students, and the bullying, fear and intimidation she was exposed to each and every day, Mary chose to take her own life. It was a cry for Ford Heights, for Chicago, for Illinois, for AMERICA to open their eyes and stop hating on their teachers, the very people that spend half of their waking hours with YOUR CHILDREN. And for that bravery, Mary went straight up to Heaven.

Remember James Borges? Jamey Rodemeyer? Homosexual teens who recently took their own lives? These also were not just 'another' suicide. In fact, Jamey even said, "What do I have to do so people will listen to me?" These young men were constantly taunted and bullied. They were demeaned. Embarrassed. Intimidated. Tormented. Criticized. These unfortunate events were a shameful representation of prejudice and fear among youngsters in the US. They both made national news, along with other teens who took their own lives because of bullying. They, too, died as heroes in their own right. As a matter of fact, their plight opened America's eyes to the detrimental affects of bullying on the human spirit. Anti-Bullying campaigns sprouted up in school districts all across the country. Posters with acronyms and cries of RESPECT! KINDNESS! FRIENDSHIP! are plastered in hallways and classrooms and cafeterias everywhere. In my NYC school, where staff bullying is so rampant it's palpable, the posters are displayed on every landing of every stairwell. Students who bully are now dealt with swiftly by administration, with real consequences. But behind the closed doors of the Principal's office, in the shadows that lurk in teachers' mailboxes and personnel files, there lies a dirty, hypocritical little secret. Students are worthy of protection from bullying. Their teachers are not.

And, dear readers, it doesn't end there. Rigoberto Ruelas Jr., an elementary school teacher in inner-city L.A., suffered the same fate, where he taught in a poverty-ravaged suburb. Quite similar to Mary, he was known as a dedicated, compassionate teacher, loved by colleagues, parents and students. A lifelong educator who no doubt was born with the unique qualities only a teacher can possess. He took his own life shortly after his name was published in the LA times under the dreaded category of "Ineffective Teacher". A ranking crudely based on standardized test scores. Another set of parents now living without their child because of bullying.

Time and time again VAM (Value-Added-Measurement) has proven to be faulty, which researchers, mathematicians, and experts proclaim very inconsistent in providing solid proof that a teacher impacts students' lives. News flash: there is no way to prove our 'effectiveness'. Our children are not products and commodities that can be counted and categorized. You just have to trust us because this is the path we have chosen, and we're not in it for the money. If we wanted to be rich, we would have taken our intelligence elsewhere when we declared our majors in college. Rigoberto, God Rest His Soul, was demoralized to the point of suicide. Maybe he had other stresses occurring in his life that prompted this act. But isn't it possible that the L.A. times publication was the straw that broke the camel's back? He was publicly humiliated by politicians whose sole purpose is to dismantle America's Public Schools and bash teachers into submission. All he wanted to do was make a difference in the lives of the inner-city children he loved so much. He, too, is a hero.

Chicago. L.A. New York City. My city. Three densely-populated American cities with high poverty rates.   I can see this happening here in NYC. I can even see it happening at my school, where, as mentioned before, bullying by administration is the norm, blindly accepted by the faculty out of fear for their jobs and integrity, while we pass by several anti-bullying posters a day. I wonder how many teacher suicides in how many states, cities, towns, and counties have occurred since Teacher Bashing became the favorite pastime of politicians, corporations, and the media, and even the general population, whose children we nurture each day. I wonder...why don't these sad stories make national news? If we dig deep enough, we all know the answer to that question.

Fear is a prerequisite to silence. The only way to stop bullies is to expose them, and the silence must be broken.