Monday, April 25, 2011

Big Lies and Public Education Wars

L.G.C. Smith

It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between lying and storytelling, but the most fundamental difference is obvious to five-year-olds. Stories come with embedded messages that signal “This is a story. It’s made up.” Lies don’t.

There are, of course, more and less subtle means of alerting audiences to story contexts. Lies can be subtle, as well, exploiting small distinctions. Then there are sledgehammer lies, those that are so outrageous, so blatant, and so clearly malicious that it’s hard to believe anyone gives them credence. Yet someone always does, frequently uttering the adage “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” as they give authority to something they shouldn’t. Self-interest is usually a big factor in this sort of lie, too, both in the telling and in the unwillingness to challenge liars outright.

Everyone reading this knows all about all this since we all read and write about the failures and triumphs of the human condition. Most of us are also very, very good at letting people know when we’re telling stories because we understand their power, and the difference between the power of a well-told story and a lie.

I’m trying really hard to avoid preaching because I’m mad as hell over a vicious lie my husband’s supervisor told about him.

My husband is a middle school PE teacher. He’s been teaching 22 years. His school district is working very hard to fire him because it costs less to pay a new, inexperienced teacher. Not only are their salaries lower, they don’t get the same benefits, and they can be fired more easily when the state cuts district budgets yet again. There are many administrative advantages to getting the experienced teachers out of cash-strapped public schools. But to get rid of them, the districts have to prove they’re incompetent or unfit to teach.

Now that there’s no limit on the size of PE classes in my husband’s district, almost every one of his periods has 55 or more students. With that many students, the administrators at his school have been reprimanding him when students don’t dress for PE, when they wander off to the bathroom during class, when there are fights, and when there are pantsing incidents. None of those things should be happening. That goes without saying. But what do administrators think is going to happen when the teacher/student ratio is 1/55? Seriously. There are going to be problems. The other teachers are having problems, too. There will likely be more problems with inexperienced teachers.

My husband has been placed on Notice for being unprofessional because of too many nonsuits, a kid getting dropped into a dumpster last year (thanks, Glee), two pantsings, and an argument between students that he kept from escalating to actual physical contact. He will be dismissed, the union tells us, no later than May 15th no matter how well he does in addressing the alleged deficits in his performance.

This places us in dire financial circumstances, but honestly, it’s happening to a lot of people. We don’t take this too personally. Neither do we take it lying down, but this is a trend that isn’t completely about my husband’s job performance. Up to a point, the district has used story-telling techniques to paint a picture of a teacher who isn’t in control. Strictly speaking, they’re lying, but if they keep to the legal parameters, there’s not a great deal we can do about it.

After several instances of not-quite legal behavior on the part of the administration, two weeks ago, the vice-principal came into the PE office at the beginning of one period and told my husband that there had been an accusation from another staff member (probably the inexperienced ‘aide’ they want to hire after they get rid of my husband) that my husband had used the “N” word six times in the PE office.

That’s right. The N word. Only slightly less loaded than an accusation of sexual abuse, which would involve the police.

My husband, terribly upset at this shameless lie, had to go immediately into class. There was no time to address the matter without leaving students unattended. At the beginning of the next period, both the principal and the vice-principal showed up for an unannounced observation.

This whole mess just became deeply, irrevocably personal. My husband is sick about it. Literally. He’s got a cold he can’t shake and the stress isn’t helping. He can’t even speak about this lie without his voice failing.

The N word.

My sister’s husband, our brother-in-law, is African American. Our niece, our beloved, cherished niece, the joy of our lives, is half Black. We live next door to them. They are family. We walk in and out of each others' houses every day. They take care of us. We take care of them. We love them.

For Bob to use this word…No. No.

I cannot measure the anger and the sorrow we feel knowing that someday our niece will learn that word. Worse, she’ll learn that having brown skin has made so many Americans less in the eyes of those with lighter skin. The world will be a darker place when that happens. It is a darker place every time it happens. It happens all the time. It happens to the children my husband teaches, children like our intelligent, compassionate, wonderful niece. This is personal and grievous every time it happens.

That word in the mouth of a white man teaching students of many colors reeks of racism, injustice and the senseless waste of dreams and potential.

This is the lie a middle school vice-principal chooses to tell about my husband.

California school districts are in financial straits. Across the country, public school teachers are being targeted as the new pigs at the public trough, a bunch of greedy thugs unwilling to shoulder yet more of the burden for public education by taking even lower wages, fewer health benefits, and worse working conditions. More lies. General, stupid, impersonal lies fostered by people who don’t understand or value public education.

But this lie was malicious in the extreme. It was personal. It was aimed at upsetting an experienced teacher as little else would immediately before an unannounced observation.

Is there anyone in this country who wants their child to attend a school where this sort of behavior is happening? My mother was a public school teacher. Three of my grandparents were public school teachers and administrators. I’ve heard plenty of backroom stories about what goes on in schools, and never anything like this.

This is wrong. This kind of lying is an exercise in vice. It wounds far beyond the person about whom the lie is told. It makes me long for a divine retribution I don’t really believe in, or instant karma and a cut-throat lawyer in my husband’s corner.

But if I had children in California public schools, I’d be worried that the people most concerned with students are under attack from their own administrators. If I were a parent, I’d spend time teaching ethics and what it does to a person’s heart and mind to tell big lies. Those lessons have disappeared from at least one middle school in the Bay Area.


Rachael Herron said...

Oh, no. This breaks my heart, and it's beyond fathoming. I can't imagine how upset you both are. :( :( xo

Barbara said...

Reading about this makes my stomach twist into knots. I hate lies. How can the administration live with itself when it stoops to that level? I'm be thinking of you and your husband. P.S. I live in Wisconsin.

Mysti said...

I am so sorry. And, hoping you both remember that it's for the Big Lies that god created lawyers.

My heart goes out to you and your family!!!!

Brenda B. said...

This is a terrible, terrible story. I am not a public employee, but my partner is. The current climate in which public employees are being vilified is terrifying. It causes a fever like McCarthyism, where people who should know better lie about others to (they think) protect themselves.

I am so sorry this is happening to you, your husband and extended family. I'm also sorry for his students, who will be losing a dedicated and experienced teacher.

Brenda Buchanan

Anonymous said...

I have a friend to whom this happened. After 15 years teaching Jr High and being a winning wrestling coach, he was forced out with just this sort of administrative lie. They chose something that stopped just short of being illegal so he had no recourse but to retire.

Sophie Littlefield said...

I am angry alongside you. That was so hateful...what makes me most astonished is that these administrators - people who, one imagines, went into this career with some measure of idealism - are willing to commit such a shameful act. It's truly, truly repugnant and I am so sorry you guys are going through this.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Thank you all for your supportive comments. If this were just happening to my husband, I'd conclude he probably is a crappy teacher and should move on. But it isn't just him. Not at his school, not in his district, not in this state, and not in the nation. Look at Wisconsin. Yeesh.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Wow, Lynn, what a terrible story. My heart goes out to you both...incredible that such things can happen -- especially with so little recourse for those harmed. AND my heart goes out to public employees everywhere, upon whom we seem to be waging war at the moment. Geeesh.

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