Abused Teachers Syndrome?
Are DCPS teachers and staff at risk of developing battered women's syndrome?
The idea was first suggested to me via this blog by a middle school teacher in DCPS. I find the comparison so horribly appropriate that I can't help but comment on it.
From the small amount of internet research I've done, I've gathered that battered women's syndrome (BWS) is thought to be a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder affecting women who have been seriously abused by their partners. BWS is characterized by recognizable psychological symptoms that occur in a particular pattern. Those symptoms include:
- the belief that the violence was her fault
- apathy toward activities she was formally excited about
- the belief that she must stay in the situation because nobody else would want her (and an economic dependency on her abuser)
- fear of increased danger in leaving or attempting to leave
Before I go on, I should note that I am in no way an expert on BWS. If there's someone out there with a background in psychology and would like to enlighten me on anything I've overlooked or gotten wrong here, please add a comment. Also, I've discovered in looking through some information on BWS that it is apparently still a little controversial as some argue that there is insufficient empirical evidence to support its existence. Nonetheless, I've seen similar symptoms in many of my colleagues in DCPS.
I've often commented on how unrealistic it is to expect teachers, administrators, and school systems as a whole to live up to the demands placed on them by policymakers and the public. Almost everybody in the system is being expected, in one way or another, to perform minor miracles on a daily basis (and this is especially true in high-needs environments). It seems obvious that the results of this include burnout, depression, apathy, and disillusionment. These are things that I've seen in every school I've been at. By themselves, they probably would not warrant a comparison to something as severe as BWS, and I hope in most districts teachers don't see a lot of the other symptoms.
I believe there are two factors that make DCPS a district more likely to foster the development of the rest of such symptoms than many other environments. First, I suspect that it's mostly struggling inner-city districts with large and highly publicized reform agendas (and high political costs for failing to make the public believe they've lived up to those agendas) that create the remainder of symptoms that one might legitimately compare to BWS. Secondly, DCPS employs a significant portion of teachers who are largely ignorant of what it's like to work in a different educational setting/environment/culture, thus facilitating a common belief among many brand new DCPS teachers that they really aren't cut out for this line of work.
Highly publicized reform agendas in high-needs districts (on a national level, and possibly even a mildly international level, when it comes to DCPS) that incur high political costs for failure are a good bet to create cut-throat, if-you-don't-perform-you're-fired working conditions in which teachers and administrators are not only expected to accomplish the unrealistic kinds of duties that most teachers across the country are expected to perform, but also to do it in a fashion that strokes the ego of their superiors and in the face of overwhelming social ills.
While a new optimistic teacher may harbor high hopes of making drastic differences in the lives of seriously troubled children, s/he often tempers his or her optimism after facing the realities of the inner-city classroom. While the level of discouragement experienced differs from teacher to teacher, many of them choose to adjust their expectations and continue to persevere. However, in districts like DCPS, these teachers are met with a truckload of PR-phrased pedagogical dogma that essentially tells these new teachers that their experiences in the urban classroom have led them to incorrect conclusions.
"You're not supposed to lower your expectations for the student whose heroine-addicted mother told her to get the hell out of her house last night and whose father is in prison. Instead, you should raise them. We have truckloads of evidence that shows that you don't have to change a child's home environment, her relationships with her peers, her predisposition to substance abuse, or her natural tendency to comprehend whatever it is you're trying to teach. No. All you have to change is the educator standing in front of her. Look at Michelle Rhee or William Taylor or Jason Kamras. Those people confronted the realities of the everyday urban classroom and helped students make huge gains without changing poverty, providing excellent parenting, or eradicating racism," they might say.....
But the reality is that while a teacher can make a big difference in how much a group of students can learn, s/he will never be able to compensate for some of the challenges that many of his or her students will unfortunately enter the classroom with. The myth of the teacher who manages to take a classroom with 10% of students on grade-level to a classroom with 100% of students on grade-level in their first or second year of teaching may not be a total lie, but I'm tempted to believe that there's probably either some data fabrication involved or a tremendous stroke of luck in getting a classroom full of students who, while academically behind, were willing to give up afternoons and weekends to do the work in a lot of those stories.
It's easy to see why many DCPS teachers would feel so inadequate in such conditions. Administrators are being pressured from so many directions to ensure high test scores (which leads them to hold teachers to outrageously unrealistic expectations) that they imply to teachers with all of their criticisms that there's actually a teacher out there who is doing all of these things well. These teachers feel totally inadequate, like they could never do all of the things asked of them. And the reality is that they're right. They can't, and nobody else can either. But that's not a reason to feel (or to let an administrator make a teacher feel) like they're worthless to the profession. Unfortunately, I'm afraid we lose a lot of teachers in DCPS because of this. They likely go on to choose careers that allow them to experience some degree of success rather than work in a school that tells them they're bad for children. They've learned that they're not good enough to be a teacher and believe that nobody else would want them working at their school either.
However, when the decision is made to leave, it's often met with hostility by administrators, teacher colleagues, and even people outside of education. Teachers who leave are directly or indirectly accused of giving up on the students. Some write these teachers off as individuals who just couldn't cut it. There is a similar reaction to teachers who advocate for themselves by calling foul when their lunches are shortened for an assembly or their workload is increased as a result of some new assessment program. Lastly, there are the bad recommendations administrators will give to teachers who leave their schools or the abysmal evaluations they'll give those teachers on their last day (yes, I'm talking about my experience). People really are afraid to leave, either for fear of retaliation or because they need the paycheck (which, or course, can be said for any job).
So are teachers in DCPS suffering from BWS? No, I don't think it's nearly that bad, but the similarities are striking. Perhaps some sort of abused teachers syndrome would be appropriate. Either way, I think the symptoms are real, and they do have negative effects on our students.
To end, I'd like to include a portion of an e-mail I received from the middle school teacher I referenced above (and by the way, it's NOT the middle school that was associated with my former school if any of you were wondering). I feel like it speaks more concretely to a number of the issues I raised in this post.
The teacher says: