Battling Bullies

Carla Armstrong was a bully.  She picked on me once over forty years ago, but the feelings of fear and loneliness remain a clear memory to this day.  It happened when I was sitting alone at the lunch table.  She circled the table like a predatory bird repeatedly pulling my hair on each and every circuit.  Today there are all kinds of policies in place to deal with student-to-student bullying behavior.  Back then, the teacher would tell you to stop being a “tattle-tale”.

But bullies come in all shapes and sizes.  My oldest son’s 2nd grade teacher was a horrible bully.  Regrettably, I did not discover it until the end of the school year.  Like many parents, it never occurred to me that a teacher would transfer her frustration with parents onto vulnerable 7-year-olds.  But positions of power can lead to abuse.  As the saying goes, “power corrupts—absolute power corrupts absolutely.”   And bullying is power.

Recognizing the need for caring and supportive teachers, I seriously considered being a high school teacher.   I even spent one semester taking education credits that included a 30 hour practicum at two schools – North High School in Des Moines and Valley Southwoods in West Des Moines.  North High School was a great experience.  The students were respectful and I enjoyed teaching a journalism class.  The journalism teacher I shadowed was dedicated, talented, and spent the majority of her time in the classroom.

Valley Southwoods was a very different experience. It was a unique school, since it catered to only 9th graders and was designed on a pod system very similar to prisons or hospitals.  The atmosphere at this suburban school was not like the climate at North High School.  For example, when I tagged along on a field trip to a theatrical play, one of the students was very helpful answering my questions.  At the end of the play, one of the teachers confronted me wanting to know exactly what this young man had said to me and she was primed to punish him.  I was completely taken aback. The young man had been exceedingly courteous.  On another day at Southwoods, I spent time in the teachers’ lounge and was shocked at the labeling and backstabbing of specific students.  It reminded me of a PBS special on how jackals take out their prey.

These memories were triggered recently after reading the following news release:

(DES MOINES) – Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds joined Education Director Jason Glass today and announced that they will host the Iowa Teacher and Principal Leadership Symposium on Friday, August 3, at Drake University in Des Moines.

“Young people need to finish high school ready for college or career training, so they can compete for jobs that pay well in a global, knowledge-based economy,” said Branstad. “That means principals alone can’t provide all the leadership needed inside schools to continually improve learning and raise achievement for all children.”

Branstad says that leadership includes everything from setting and updating academic goals to constantly analyzing data to field testing instructional strategies.

“It’s time to utilize the untapped talents of Iowa’s many outstanding teachers who are interested in taking on greater leadership responsibilities,” said Branstad. “Stronger, shared leadership by principals and teachers is key to creating world-class schools.”

Branstad says he and Reynolds are holding the symposium to focus on how to organize schools to treat teachers as leaders, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

Symposium speakers and panelists will share their thinking about shared principal and teacher leadership.  We’ll hear about why this matters, how it’s being done in this state and country, and how top-performing school systems around the globe approach this issue.

Branstad and Reynolds also unveiled a new web site for the symposium:

Symposium registration is open to the public, and they hope a cross section of Iowans will attend, including educators, school board members, business leaders, parents and legislators.

“Teacher leadership will be at the heart of our 2013 legislative package because it is critical to give students the knowledge and skills they need to be well prepared,” said Branstad.

“We also recognize that growing expectations for students place even more demands upon teachers, without always providing teachers with the support needed to meet those demands,” said Reynolds. “Stronger, shared principal and teacher leadership can help schools do that more effectively.”

Reynolds stressed that the symposium is about ending the outdated practice of teachers working largely in isolation in their classrooms and moving toward greater teacher collaboration to help students learn more. Some Iowa schools have already set off in this direction, and two of them will be on hand at the August 3symposium: Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.


West Des Moines is known for being progressive and having excellent schools, but is that because the undesirable students are effectively eliminated from the system?  The inner city schoolteacher worked in isolation, yet she was very successful with her students.  This is the problem with absolute or black and white thinking.  Diversity is always sacrificed in the name of conformity. From my own personal experience, it appears that elected officials have misdiagnosed the problems in our educational system and have designed a strategy to group together teachers and administrators to implement strategies for conformity.  But this approach will not be helpful to students that differ from their peers and may very well promote bullying tactics.  It can be both fascinating and depressing to watch an adult bully justify his or her behavior.  One teacher thought that putting a young physically disabled student in front of her class so that his fellow students could ridicule his stories was good for him.  She considered it positive peer pressure.  Bear in mind that this teacher was tenured, highly respected by her peers, and considered a strong leader.  It is easy for bullies to rise to leadership positions.  Most people fear and avoid bullies.  This is one of many reasons why I will always remain grateful for home schooling and virtual schools as alternatives for the students that some teachers and administrators consider unfit for the public school system.

© Copyright 2012  Fawkes-Lee & Ryan.  All rights reserved.

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One Response to Battling Bullies

  1. Brian L. Millard says:

    Thanks for another thought provoking piece. We all are surrounded by bullies in life. Until people decide to take a stand and say enough, they’ll continue to thrive.

    As to our children, they should not have to be exposed to these types of people, regardless if they’re teachers, administrators or their peers. Schools talk a good story about having a zero tolerance for bullies but most are a sham. They slap the wrist of the offender and return him/her to the classroom. Parents need to be vocal and call the school or school district out when they do little or nothing to abate the problem.

    Thanks again!

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