Thursday, October 6, 2016

Has Education Reform Turned the Schools of America into Hostile Workplaces?

By:  Cheryl Binkley

October is Anti-Bullying month.  
When you use the word bullying, most people think of children and playground bullying, middle school mean girls, or internet shaming high schoolers.  Childhood bullying certainly can scar, even destroy.  Thankfully, renewed awareness has been spreading and inspiring new student programs. Civility and bullying concerns have also been raised due to the cruelty we've seen growing in our politics and entertainment mediums, but there is another serious adult bullying problem in this country.

Some of the most serious and most damaging bullying, or mobbing as European researchers call it, is workplace bullying, and it’s becoming clear that perhaps some of the most serious workplace bullying is occurring in our schools. 

In a panel Dr. Gary Namie indicated that the largest numbers of workplace bullying targets who call the Workplace Bullying Institute are teachers and health care workers.  Not so surprising since several sources,  report that teaching is the largest profession in America and nursing is the other “caring” profession.

Studies from Brookings Institute and other sources have been reporting both high teacher turnover from school to school and high teacher bleed off from the profession. According to Brookings for every two teachers who leave their job, one of them leaves the profession altogether. 

 According to the BAT AFT Quality of Work Life Survey in 2015 which had over 30,000    respondents:

 30 percent of respondents reported being bullied at work in the past 6 months
 51 percent of Teachers with disabilities reported being bullied at work in the past 6 months 
58 percent of respondents reported their bully being an administrator
40 percent reported their bully being a co worker  
Almost 40% did not report the bullying to HR or other authorities
Of those that did report bullying only 34 percent were satisfied with how the bullying was  resolved

Some of the behaviors reported by teachers in both the survey and other anecdotal reportage from self-identified targets included:
  • Name calling, put-downs, and assorted verbal abuse. 
  • Malicious Re-Assignment to different grade levels or course loads
  • Withholding of needed job information and then holding the teacher accountable for it Isolating the teacher from colleagues by room assignments or by direct requests to colleagues so that colleagues disappear from interaction with the target teacher
  • Giving unachievable amounts of work, over loads of problem cases, or larger class sizes than others with no supports
  • Being shut out of desirable special projects or projects with stipends or status. 
  • Constantly being made to move to a new classroom, work from a cart, or do additional non-teaching duties
  • Being called into ambush meetings where the teacher is caught with no witnesses and berated or threatened.
  • Labelling the teacher as negative for asking any questions in meetings or in emails
  • Overt berating in meetings or in front of colleagues and students. 
  • Undermining with parents by not backing in parent-school interactions
  • Low evaluation scores without actual prescribed observations or reading standards data supplied.
  • Short deadlines for surprise data collection or project assignments.
  • Criticism of evidence based practices in favor of newer or different unproven methods
  • Agressive physical behavior approaching and occasionally including physical attack.

When teachers or school employees are targeted, they become isolated and alone. Many consider calling out sick often, and develop a dread of entering the school for work. The stress spills over into their family and social lives. Reports from general workplace bullying studies report 70% of bullying targets suffer anxiety. Others experience depression, and even more extreme mental and physical health results.  Stress dream reports about school have become a running genre among teachers on social media. 

Lately, we see article after article about teacher shortages, turnover, and drops in enrollment in teacher training programs. Given that studies show witnesses of bullying suffer similar anxiety to those actually targeted, it’s not surprising that more teachers would be deciding to leave the school environment, even when not the target themselves. A Workplace Bullying Coalition survey showed that 77% of their respondents once targeted would leave their jobs either voluntarily or by being forced out. There were very few good outcomes once the bullying was initiated, even when teachers fight back with reportage, unions, or legal recourse.  According to the Work Place Bullying Institute, targets tend not to be weak or ineffective teachers, but some of the best and brightest; independent, creative thinkers, and positive problem solvers.
But how do we know that Education Reform as implemented in the recent past is responsible? It would be difficult to prove cause unequivocally,  but we can say that teacher turnover studies report the major reasons teachers report leaving is because of working conditions, particularly lack of autonomy, and work overloads.  

It does not take much of an intellectual leap to draw the line between punitive evaluation systems and working conditions, or between standardization of instruction & assessment and lack of autonomy, or between work overloads and the massive data collection that has been added to teacher job descriptions through high stakes testing, increased parent reporting to justify the tests, and value added evaluations– all as class sizes have been rising due to the bleed off of general funding due to testing costs and competitive, rather than needs based federal funding .  

From there it does not take a strenuous jump to consider that the stress teachers feel bleeds into their classrooms and the limits standardization places on teachers who are not allowed to meet students’ individual needs has at least a correlation if not causal relationship to lower achievement. 

Sadly, workplace bullying breaks trust between all the stakeholders in an organization.  The bullying teachers suffer is mirrored in the pressures placed on administrators whose jobs are threatened with denial of accreditation of their schools and ineffective ratings and job loss for them if they do not demand and deliver the standardization and data collection from their teachers.  With their jobs at risk, administrators are caught in a costly double bind that is creating a similar failure in job satisfaction and attrition in administrator ranks.  Superintendents’ average tenure these days is well under 5 years.– hardly long enough to get a successful initiative and stabilized system well established. And the low morale created by so much alienation in a building does little to create a positive and affirming energy for parents and community members who enter the building.

Ironically, the changes most districts have proposed to relieve teacher attrition have little or nothing to do with the reasons teachers give for leaving.  Added cash for those who meet demands and expectations, contrived “leadership opportunities” for those willing to push standardization, coaches and mentors to make sure teachers are meeting the demands of Reform.  None answer the desire teachers are expressing for a return to autonomy and the chance to practice the skills of their profession for the benefit of their students. 

It is rare to witness a meltdown due to workplace bullying across an entire field of endeavor – not just in a single school, a single region, or a state, but nationwide across many organizations and an entire profession. 

After 20 years of ever tightening Education Reform, it may be the single achievement of Corporate Reform that it has turned school, one of the most positive places in society, into possibly the most toxic hostile workplaces in the country. 

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