Schools with abusive principals cannot be the friendly and healthy environment students need.
In a school ruled by fear, the priority is not the students, it is always the principal. What dominates the mind of the teachers is what the principal will see, what the principal will think, and what the principal will say. When the Principal, surrounded by the AP’s, patrols the hallways as a lord would a fiefdom, the teachers who hear the walkie talkies before the administration turns the corner, change their demeanor, and adjust their lesson, because at that moment, the priority is not the students, it is the principal.
In a school ruled by fear, classroom visits by the administration become traumatizing experiences for the teachers and for the students. Students know the teachers are nervous, awkward, and just not themselves. What message does this send to students? What examples do we become for them? What adulthood do we model? What abuse do we teach them to tolerate?
In a school ruled by fear, new ideas do not blossom. The frames within which new ideas can exist have been limited and predetermined. So, what is discussed and attempted is only to reaffirm preexisting notions. Processes like Professional Development and inquiry often become tedious Orwellian exercises in futility, as participants keep repeating and searching for what they are expected to find. The use of the correct bureaucratic jargon makes the outcome sound impressive, but this does not mean that it has any positive impact on the students.
In a school ruled by fear, teachers design their lessons according to what the principal demands. The technicalities of the lesson are valued more than the essence. Teachers hesitate to use direct instruction and explain what students do not understand because the lesson will be deemed teacher- centered. They are afraid to redirect the lesson based on unanticipated student response because they will deviate from the carefully crafted lesson plan. Even when they see a deficit in content knowledge, they will skip it and move on to the student-to-student discussion part, because without that type of discussion, no lesson can ever be rated effective. The instructional expectation of the school focuses on skills across all levels and subject areas, so even the most basic lack of content knowledge can go unnoticed. Teachers will use the protocols and they will carefully choreograph their lessons, always keeping in mind not what they think is best for their students, but what they know the principal wants to see.
In a school ruled by fear, controlling the process of teaching is an administrative priority. The administration does not want to accept diverse ways of teaching even if there is clear evidence that diverse approaches produce results. The belief that certain strategies must work interferes with the ability to see that other strategies can work. A dogmatic approach to instruction does not allow the school to do honest evaluation of their own data. They are more willing to accept and to reference unspecified studies than to evaluate the results of the student population they serve. In this environment, the Danielson Rubric is a tool of conformity and uniformity. By design, the Danielson is artificial and subjective, as it focuses on random snippets of teacher practice, and it fails to recognize and account for the most important part of teaching: the Deeper relationship teachers develop with their students. However, in the hands of an abusive and unsupervised administration, the Danielson can be absurd, retaliatory, and dangerous. The Danielson framework can destroy careers and harm students because when the Danielson framework is the priority, the students are not. In a school ruled by fear, teachers plan with the administration as their audience, not the students we are called to serve.
In a school ruled by fear, there are no democratic processes. All the mechanisms put in place after years of negotiations between the DOE and the UFT are obsolete. Department Meetings, Faculty Meetings, the School Leadership Team Meetings, the PD Committee Meetings, the Consultation Meetings take place, but they do not give birth to ideas. Even the Student Government is closely monitored. Teachers barely talk and when they do, they do not question the basic premises of the principal’s design. If anybody dares to disagree, the discussion is quickly refocused, and the person is chastised or dismissed, while in remote meetings, the chat is disabled. Instead of modeling for students what democracy and free speech look like, how messy but how fruitful and creative it can be, we are teaching them to accept the pretense of democracy, participating in meetings that always end in total agreement. If the emperor has no clothes, one wonders, would anybody dare say?
In a school ruled by fear, the agency and the authority of teachers are carefully undermined. Students are questioned about their teachers, and simple misunderstandings become cases of misconduct. The school is divided, as some teachers and some students are allowed to walk in and out of the principal’s office at will, while others must try their luck in setting an appointment through the secretary. Seniority and merit do not factor in as certain people are kept away from activities and positions. Not everybody is evaluated with the same scrutiny. Teachers and even students become informants, hoping for something in return. Favoritism and retaliation keep the school deeply divided. The presence of teachers sometimes is not acknowledged, not even with a simple greeting or a smile. In this environment, students come to understand the rewards of loyalty, not the fairness of merit or the blessings of equality.
In a school ruled by fear, good educators many times go unappreciated. What makes an educator fit for the school is loyalty and compliance. There is a high turnover as many good educators leave, and at times they are even encouraged to leave. Students are left looking for their teachers from one year to the other, and courses are taught out of license. At the end it is that fear that also decides how students get promoted undermining and bypassing academic standards and expectations.
In a school ruled by fear, Assistant Principals are not allowed to make independent decisions. They are expected to reiterate and put in effect the principal’s vision. Their judgment in evaluating the teachers is undercut and undermined by the principal who has the final review of the rating reports and asks for changes having not been present during the observation. The personal preferences of the principal will dictate how AP’s program their teachers, sometimes overlooking that effective programming can tap into the strengths of the teachers and bring better results for the students and the school.
In a school ruled by fear, interactions with the principal make people nervous. Though we are careful to teach the students the evils of bullying, we do not consider the possibility that they notice their teachers being bullied every day.
The rules of human contact are simple. Any relationship that involves fear is abusive. Anybody who knowingly instills fear in others who might be in weaker positions and capitalizes on that fear, is a bully. In a healthy work environment, fear has no place and when fear is detected, steps are taken to dispel it.
A school ruled by fear cannot possibly be a healthy place for children. Fearful and victimized teachers cannot provide the social and emotional support students need and deserve. A supportive environment must be based on trust and empathy for everybody. A school must be a place where people walk in with a smile. Students need to be taught by teachers who are happy and confident, not intimidated.
Our students are traumatized by a pandemic that turned their lives upside down. They are dealing with loss, fear, and insecurity and they need strong adults to help them regain their confidence. They need their teachers to be their heroes.
Abusive Principals have no place in the school system, yet they are in place, and they are tolerated, as anybody who recognizes the above description knows well. It is not the norm as many schools have very reasonable principals, but the unwillingness of the DOE to even address the problem when the evidence is loud and clear, makes it systemic. I do not know if allowing abusive principals to operate as they do is by design or a result of negligence. It does not matter. The point is that it is hurting our students and it must stop.
Now as we are trying to re-envision our schools emerging from the pandemic, the DOE and the UFT must come together to put systems in place to identify and deal with administrative abuse. The Danielson rubric must also be revisited because it prohibits the flexibility necessary to meet the academic and the social and emotional needs of the students. Let the teachers teach. We all know the craft of teaching; it is the art that we foster.