To Mayor Bloomberg: Stop the Bullying

There is a young, thirty-something early childhood teacher sitting in my office. I have seen her grow emotionally over the last couple of years to the point that she no longer cries when she goes to her job every morning. In her last staff meeting, her principal stated that the latest policy demand is for her to meet with every child in her class each week to discuss a current reading strategy and review the reading strategy she taught the week before. The absurdity is that her students don't yet know the alphabet.

One year after she suffered a full year of intimidation by administrative personnel, she was able to finally face me with clear eyes and said, "I've got my priorities. It's their safety and my sanity." She aches inside and out because she knows her little students cannot meet the administrative demands and neither can the other teachers who are either petrified or running on empty or forced to hustle administrators to be the bossiest or affect the veneer of capability. She doesn't go to the teachers union meetings. Not because she is scared, but because she doesn't believe in the union.

My patient knows that Margaret Mead said the world can be changed by even one person. But it is scary, and she is scared. She is just starting to become brave in her life. Teaching is not her job alone, but she feels alone.

For her part, this teacher is very smart. She is a real thinking person and smart enough to know that we are damaging our children, we are damaging our teachers and even our parents. How can we get our kids to think critically about their lives when they cannot pause to think or play or be known by anyone?

This has been on my mind for ages because in all of our lip service to the notion that if we don't learn from history, we shall repeat it, how is there ever a place to think about whether our way of doing things is effective when we push rote learning down our kids' throats? What future are we creating when we scare teachers into worrying more about losing jobs than teaching and scare parents into producing kids who score points rather than learn?

If, as Albert Einstein said, anyone who can't make mistakes can't learn anything new, and if imagination is more important than knowledge, then we are in fact pummeling our kids' creativity; canceling their play which is the soil of innovation. We are all victimized by the drumbeat of buzz words, like the "American Dream," something which should really be re-invented by the children of each new generation.

This disconnect extends to the environment we perpetuate outside the classroom and exists in the hallways and school yards. Administrators claim to have zero tolerance of bullying, yet when bullying exists and any one victim says or writes something worrisome like, "If I had been in Columbine, I might have snapped," that kid gets snapped up by a principal or psychiatrist and silenced instead of heard; diagnosed instead of given empathy and curiosity.

We are all emotionally pulled by recent headline-grabbing tragedies of teen suicides as a result of bullying, and we should be. We are right to rally our compassion for the victims, but the inconvenient truth is that the solution to this problem is rooted in recognizing and listening to the bullies, most of whom are and/or were victims.

The simple fact is that the epidemic of bullying is a symptom of greater social ills than what is being played out in our schools.

Most children exist unheard. In effect our kids are viewed as machines who, developmentally speaking, are being forced into unnatural performance objectives. Our kids are rewarded with stars for learning how to form words, but they quickly learn that their words are ineffective largely because nobody is listening to them.

How does anyone stop this? How do teachers effectively intervene in a system in which they too are bullied? Does Mayor Bloomberg seek to change things up just for the sake of appearing to drive change? And what is a "bad teacher" anyway? Are we scapegoating those who don't play the administrative game but who are effective with students? Do you fire the teachers with the kids who don't know how to answer the questions on the standardized tests? Do you cut the teachers with rowdy kids? Do you eliminate teachers who are gutsy enough to question the banality of rules or dare to ask the more dangerous questions about why grownups are so mean to each other - the very ones modeling the bullying behavior being reflected in our schools?

My own key motivation is, at least in part, an admitted feeling of loneliness in a world where we are stuck in our isolated suburbs or ghettos of the mind and spirit, where one profession feels detached from all others. My patient, as she sits before me, has come to her moment of peace by deciding she will teach as she feels is right.

I don't want her to quit, only because she is good. But she will quit since she has no time to really teach, and because she is too alone and feels no respect for the profession. By contrast, education is a business with Bloomberg, an expert at business and cold logic. The education and nurturing of our children defies cold simple logic.

Meanwhile our kids continue to be bullied by the expectations of a dysfunctional system that fails to teach. They witness the bullying of their teachers by politicians and unions trying to score easy points in the media. They watch an endless supply of bullying in reality TV and video games. Are we honestly shocked that they are playing out these images among their peers?

Our cultural response is to blame the schools, blame the teachers, blame the "bad kids" and flee to the imagined respite of suburbs - where bullying merely takes a more sophisticated tack.

As we pledge allegiance to American dreams of freedom, invention and learning, can we compare ourselves to ideals rather than to others, and can we open hearts -- our own -- instead of closing them on demand.

I write on bullying, specifically bullying from the inside out, but here there is one big distraction. Unless we get behind our kids and enable them to have safety in their own skins, their homes, their schools and to have equal opportunity, then we are leaving those kids so far behind that it's scary -- and we are leaving the rest of us and our future in the cold.