I am a white privileged girl living in the suburbs. That being said, I have my own experiences with power structures, and many that have occurred via my activist work, in my personal life, and via my teaching in the public schools. I want to share a few today in the hopes that thinking through these ideas might help others consider how to move forward as activists and teachers as public intellectuals. Right now, we are losing in our efforts to save public schools and the teaching profession. If anyone tells you otherwise they have not done the research or they are intentionally using their power to keep you in the dark – it’s all out there – in writing – for anyone interested to peruse.
One would hope that power is used for the good of humanity, for the good of our world and each human, plant, and animal walking this earth. That’s what it should be. Seems like a silly thing to even point out, doesn’t it? But in this country – that idea – doing things for the common good – has vanished for the most part.
My chickens have taught me a lot about power. I have eight. We got six about three years ago and added two to the flock two years ago. The youngest two, named Lucy and Phoebe, are thick as thieves. Lucy is a stark white and black beautiful Brahma and Phoebe is a deep black and rich brown red laced Wyandotte. The two girls stick together – it gives them power to ward off potential bossiness or meanness from the older girls. As a young hen Lucy was as fierce as the wind. She would jump and fly up into the face of one of the strongest and biggest leaders in our flock. She would take the older girls off guard and they weren’t quite sure how to put her in her place – they typically backed off. I kept waiting for a coup – as Lucy tried to take the lead in the flock. Early on we noticed that Lucy had a crooked claw on her foot. I worried about that for fear that it might someday cause her to lose some of her assertiveness and power within the flock. Phoebe could fly up high and jump on perches quickly whereas it took Lucy a bit longer to learn to grip the perch. Eventually she did. However, never, did she reach the heights Phoebe could reach. And oddly enough, Phoebe still allowed Lucy to take the lead in everything. At night on the perch she would try to bury her head under Lucy’s body to go safely to sleep. Lucy’s potential for being the lead in the flock was strong.
Several weeks ago I noticed a change with Lucy. She looked thinner. She was always one of the biggest girls in the flock. I went to pick Lucy up and Phoebe charged at me and pecked me and then pecked Lucy hard on the neck. Lucy cowered. I had never seen her cower. Phoebe charged at me again and in shock I pushed her away hard. She then flew at me and attempted to bite me again. Lucy continued to cower. I was blindsided by these behaviors. Lucy had always protected Phoebe! As I watched throughout the day I noticed that Lucy had become a target. The girls were letting her have it left and right – pecking her neck – pushing her off the perch – refusing to let her eat – and she simply cowered and tried to run away. Suddenly it hit me. Lucy was sick. She had to be sick. For her dear Phoebe, who had walked side by side with her for two years, to begin to peck at her – HARD – Phoebe sensed something. She sensed a weakness. And chickens will attack and kill a chicken that is weak.
This reminded me of what an activist told me many years ago – never contemplate what those in power are thinking or feeling – pay attention to their actions. Their actions will tell you everything you need to know.
But the hard part about being human is that when people are nice to you and then turn on you, it becomes very difficult to separate feelings from the objective “actions” that you see. My chickens remind me of where to keep my focus – on actions. Paying attention to these actions might allow me to save Lucy’s life. We’ll see. This is still a story in play.
Power in the public schools right now is so overwhelmingly at the top, specifically in our urban diverse schools, that it becomes almost impossible to breathe. Our schools are very sick. There are many people who are thriving off of our dying profession and starving schools. And then there are the Lucys – cowering and running – simply trying to survive one more day. The question is, how do we support and nurture the development of power by those who wish to create and do good within the public schools? How do we return to supporting the common good? How can we make our schools healthy again? How can we help those who are sick, regain their strength? It has been difficult to watch, and understand, how human beings can turn on other human beings – much like Phoebe turned on Lucy. And we cannot allow that behavior to become naturalized and accepted within the public schools.
As our school turned into a Relay Leadership School last year I watched the transition at our school with horror. The manner in which teachers were treated, and the demands placed on children, were all necessary for those at the top to maintain their power. If teachers didn’t agree with an “order,” they were targeted and often treated to relentless detailed emails outlining demands and observations that requested absolutely unrealistic expectations – these expectations were meant to enforce 100% compliance or simply drive the teachers out. People you thought you could trust, you suddenly realized you no longer could – like Phoebe. It pit teachers against teachers. And these unrealistic expectations pushed on teachers and students became normalized – creating a very sick environment within the school. Teachers simply could not keep up. One of my colleagues left in December. It was too much.
As the abuse of power becomes normalized, teachers, in most cases, do not expect or even consider demanding the autonomy that a teacher with a professional conscience needs in order to create problem solving citizens. They comply, shut their door, and do what they can to do right by children. It’s like we are sick – the energy to fight back is minimal. And typically, knowing you will be fighting alone, makes it difficult to keep mustering up this energy. Teachers are treated as though we are not human. We are slaves to the corporate machine. Fighting this seems futile in many cases. When I can’t be home to care for Lucy I shut the hen door so they can’t get in to peck at her. I’m hoping she’ll regain her strength. There are other cases where I see hope, specifically in Chicago where the union is strong. Without a strong union – who has your back?
In the world of activism I’ve watched power destroy and build simultaneously. The key is getting enough momentum to allow the power of goodness to work together in a rush – an unexpected flood that allows the power of revolution to overtake those who use power to do harm. The problem is, power, status, and ego are just as prevalent in activism as they are elsewhere. It’s very difficult to succeed – it’s very difficult to help goodness prevail. It requires a lot of things to simultaneously occur – some are intentional strategies that are thought out in short term and long terms goals, some might be luck, and others fall into the category of the hundredth monkey effect. Just my take. Just what I’ve seen and observed.
While all this is happening – this attempt to regain humanity – gas lighting is used to disrupt, shock, control and manage the population, allowing corrupt power to stay intact and grow. I’ve watched it in my former district – the disruption, the slow removal of elements of teacher autonomy. This year the teachers at my school were (for the first time ever) told their detailed daily schedule. They were told their literacy schedule. There is no longer a leadership team made of teachers. There are multiple pages of information about “disruptive behaviors” which they must follow as steps when “disciplining” children. The level of behaviors are categorized from A to F. Level D includes defiant behaviors. The word defiant is completely in line with Teach Like a Champion tactics – an absolutely racist behavior system used to keep power in place – it’s the bible of Relay Fake Graduate School. Everything is very much about absolute compliance – perfectly in line with the school to prison pipeline. Planning time has been decreased for teachers at my school this year. Colored printers have been placed on lockdown – the list goes on. All of this is a pattern occurring all over the country – most prevalent in urban diverse schools. It’s like the 100th monkey effect gone bad – gone so bad that I begin to wonder when and how we will ever be able to regain footing to do what is best for children in our public schools?
There are also the visual surroundings – the compliant environment – at school that becomes the norm, slowly conditioning parents, children and teachers to accept what we see – this new and brave “reality” – as absolutely okay. Bulletin boards of data, disciplinary charts, the visual display of lined up desks, and students in regimented lines in the hallway (acronym HALL – hands at your side, all eyes forward, lips zipped, low speed). Orange cones scattered in the hallways are the norm for months on end to remind children to be quiet during testing. This past year paper chains were added to literally block off testing areas. I always thought about the children behind those closed doors testing away as akin to a prison sentence in a cell. The testing at my former school starts next week. It’s August.
All of these power moves via action and visuals completely mess with the mental ability for people to think, act and vocalize concerns. It’s gas lighting at its finest. It’s Lucy cowering in the hen house. The teachers are presented with these visuals, these compliance models, as perfectly rational. I once lived in an environment where light deprivation was used as a tactic to control. Low watt bulbs were the name of the game. It made it very difficult to think lucid thoughts. It made it difficult to create change and/or get out. Our schools present that same concern for teachers today in a variety of shapes and forms. The language is harsh and rigid, rigor is the name of the game. Teachers become beaten down, behaving as work horses, confused, exhausted, simply doing the bidding of those in power who are pushing forward an agenda and system that profits the .01%. They get pecked again. And again. And again. There is absolute lack of trust – even among colleagues at times.
As I’ve watched public education and the education activist populace grow and change over the last five years, one thing has been very clear to me – as with my chicken flock, always analyze actions – not emotions, or feelings. If you begin to feel sympathetic towards a corporate reformer, or any district personnel that is making poor decisions that impact the lives of children in a way that is harmful, refocus on the direct actions. Examine the power structure, and determine your strategies based on how you might crack it, tear it down, and rebuild for the common good. Look for patterns and eventually you will discover that some of their actions are predictable – allowing you opportunities to derail and stop them from harming others. Do not allow cruelty to be naturalized. We are human. Don’t let them take your humanity. As we move into this next phase of ESSA, the federal bill which is primed to destroy the teaching profession and further privatize public schools via charters and online daily testing, we must find new ways to harness our power – because with this new phase, will come great cruelty. Remember Lucy.