Blog Post

The Biggest School Bully

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.


At the beginning of the new century, a disease is spreading in our schools. National news magazines carry images of babies with guns and scenes of violent murder and suicide. Pages turn and TV screens flicker in a kind of bad dream march through time. The media waits for the next aberration. The cameras sit at the ready to consume malevolence for the next public feeding of its sickening psychic diet. Meanwhile, Sesame Street puppets continue to move and gesticulate inside the box, while plush animals become totems for make-shift-shrines burials, providing an eerie, muted counterpoint to school violence.

I find this tragically ironic because for the same reason Sarah Brady has fought  to restrict access to guns, I have labored to convince schools to "arm" themselves with a antidote for the poisons that have polluted our learning culture. I refer to puppetry-you know, that amusing little medium that people feel more comfortable watching on TV than holding in their hands. Its nurturing, emotive, and healing effects are capable of taking society a quantum leap toward humanizing the communication infrastructure of our schools and classrooms. But media gatekeepers who measure stories by some mystifying criteria routinely ignore or dismiss my work. The subject of puppets, or the perception of them, is just too lightweight to even warrant returned phone calls with a question or two. But that is another story.

The reports I routinely receive from teachers reveal how the medium of puppetry somehow transforms their view of teaching and learning. How it changes the way they see themselves-and their kids. How the kids, especially boys, undergo dramatic change in their feelings about hunting and killing; how the medium provides an uninhibited avenue for kids and teacher to reveal themselves in a moment where defenses fall away; how problems posed by puppets can be seen better at some distance in this non-threatening 3rd party; how the puppets alter the learning landscape from something hard and colorless to something extraordinary, warm, and engaging. How the element of play suddenly displaces fear. How teachers of sixth-graders, for example, cannot imagine their preteen students responding openly to puppets-- and how the fact that they do respond reflects as much on their misperceptions as adults as on the sheer innocence of their kids. It goes on and on. How rare it is these days of educational business and accountancy to even consider such quaint explorations!

School culture has evolved into an even more stressed version of what it was 30 or 40 years ago--a rote, aggressive world where feelings don't count. All you have to do is spend a day at school and imagine what it's like from the inside. There is the official school policy of zero tolerance, zero trust, and zero communication other than the message to kids to "get your work done." The unofficial policy: adults involved should avoid communication, and if possible don't get involved in bullying and abuse. Just do your job. You're not a social worker--there have always been victims. We have created an emotional wasteland: kids on one side of the abyss--adults on the other.

As violence erupts, kids are left to their own devices-- the ones with the guns and the pent-up anger lash out for ?attention' and ?take control' because they've been helpless victims of bullying or familial abuse. The other kids stand by like proverbial deer frozen in the headlights. Neither their peers nor adults at school can be trusted. The code of silence is not just for kids. It's school culture's state of the art. Administrations come down hard with the lid when violence erupts, but there is no desire to dig for the root causes. Why? Because down deep they know that life at their school is a big part of the problem.

After the San Francisco high school shooting, commentators are now suggesting that students are responsible for whistle blowing; that it's the fault of those at ground zero. The friends and kids who know what's brewing and who do not take action are just not stepping up to the plate. So, let's see:  first we take away their voices in a system that has largely silenced and disenfranchised them, that has subjected them to searches and zero-tolerance school law. Then we ask them to trust teachers who themselves are bullied, stressed and unsupported that they, as adults, have adopted inner coping policies of self-preservation and benign neglect toward students. It would be nice to care, but in this culture it's every man for himself. It is much tougher and more stressful in some ways than the typical adult workplace.

School culture has become all business. There is little time or interest in building trust or talking about feelings. The foundation of school experience promotes a no-talking, one-way policy (unless you have the right answer); fear governs and top-down teacher-centered control is the primary learning modality; the inner lives of children are irrelevant to the agenda of testing, accountability, and to the predominant keep-the-lid-on management models. The sword of accountability hangs over the heads of the people who work in schools. Yet, ironically, accountability where it counts, namely reaching kids in fun, trustworthy ways--is not an important factor. We are all victims of a bankrupt learning culture.

The learning culture we have created needs to be seen for what it is: the root cause of the problem of violence. Unfair, you cry? Then why are the schools the prime and consistent target and the stage upon which these violent events begin, are planned, and played out? Are the schools merely poor innocent, helpless bystanders?  The harsh truth is that educators cannot see or don't want to see their own nest for the dysfunction it breeds. And parents cannot really challenge it because the condition is so transparent and does not really show itself until their kids are fully immersed in it. We have turned the democratic ideal of a compulsory system of education into an academic gulag where intolerance and abuses of intellectual freedom have been lost. By the time kids reach high school, their learning culture has hardened or silenced them.

Why are acts of violence played out at school, as if the enactors needed to soil and violate their social family nest with suffering, blood and rage. For beneath the ordered corridors of 2001 America at school, young kids are still required to walk in silent, single file, teachers still exact their daily pound of flesh in the form of ?tally marks' and referral sheets in order to maintain order to control the activity of children, life is still ordered but not inviting, and there is a big agenda but little meaning. A gaping hole has evolved in the school zone layer, a sinister disconnect between kids and adults. For the kids whose home lives are reasonably comfortable, this disconnect is tolerable. For kids at risk, it provides a thousand daily reminders of how natural it is to fail and how little there is to lose.

We don't count the dead and wounded in the war kids fight in school, the war Frank McCourt describes in Angela's Ashes and ?Tis. But we should. We should begin a body-count of all the children whom the system, in its blind and sometimes maddening way, wounds and condemns.

When public schools were mandated, we forgot to write a Bill of Rights. The standards movement represents the logical outcome state-mandated public education. We equate schooling with suffering. We equate schooling with the pew. Children are still organized in stuffy clusters or lines where they are expected to sit obediently for hours before priests who drone upon the alter academic excellence.

We brand the kids who know how to work the system with As. These cream-of-the-croppers are the brethren, the next order, the elite. The rest are left to themselves to figure it all out, the not-as-goods. We do this thinking that the best students are what our best schools have produced. The ancient triangle and hierarchical principle of school still holds up: Excellence is conferred upon an academic elite whose performance reflects back on the system. The system must be working: every year there are these irrefutable examples of grit and determination.

But what if all kids rose like water seeking its own level? What if there were many pathways to make it to the top? And what if ?the top' were by definition something altogether different from the academic box we place kids in? When I refer to water seeking its own level, I mean a process found in the nature of things. It refers to a general rise in the water table-a spring tide. Kids come in all shapes, sizes, abilities, and maturation timelines that are filled with imperfections, inconsistencies, and abnormalities. There are the achievers, movers, dreamers, designers, slow-motion processors, spatial imaginers, the questioners, and the builders. The school, hell bent on conformity and compliance, and one-size-its-all learning, shuns these differences. Those kids who can withstand the volume of tasks, who can work independently, competitively, religiously, and spit back the right answers are the ones who are granted passage. What an incredible waste and neglect of human resources and this nation's future.

School leaders-and politicians-- have it all wrong. We don't need faster processors and more information. We need richer processes, less expectation, more trust in teachers, and less big-brother intrusiveness. If we want teachers to perform, then let's find ways to train, encourage, and inspire them to reach and excel. The educrats are the ones who are failing our children and our country. A difficult, active child in the classroom represents a threat to classroom order and control. He is of course the one who will be judged and pigeonholed by the teacher and by the system. But in reality, if this child is not reached, it is a true reflection of the teacher's character and training and her failure to reach the child meaningfully and emotively. As long as the child fits the conformist mold, the teacher has less work to do. If the child does not fit the mold, the child and the family are placed on notice, grades are issued, expectations are increased or decreased as the case may be, walls are put into place, and the child along with the family are ignored.

Bullying grows in a culture like this. The ones who are different, the ones who are not reached early on begin to resent the culture that reaches only the brethren. So-called LD kids, the kids with a label, are themselves diminished and cut by the system. They often become subjected to ridicule, self-negation, and bullying, but later when the system has failed them, LD boys find ways to belittle and bully others, or, as statistics tell us, they end up in jail. They are a true reflection of the learning culture we've created. They are not people who come in from the outside with bad upbringing and guns. The schools have been so obsessed with their academic tunnel vision that they have forgotten the true mission of their profession-to be with kids, to guide kids, to introduce facets of the world that spark their interest and personal meaning.

We are paying an increasingly dear price for this brand of American education.  We are destroying our learning culture. But there are tools and artful ways to alter the old learning culture. We can begin in the preK through elementary level to enrich the nature of communication and experience in our classrooms. The effects of such a policy would be evident in increased trust and levels of responsiveness to adults by children in the middle and high school years. Teachers can be taught and encouraged to see and to work differently. They would welcome and rise to such an opportunity.  We owe it to them and to our country. Our kids deserve so much more than this. American education should not compare itself to other countries. It must forge a character consistent with its rich, diverse heritage, a taste for the frontier, and trust in the vitality of its  imagination.


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