Working for My Public School Is Just Like Working for the Mob

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I am a mob movie fanatic. I’ve watched all of the classics (to my husband’s dismay) from Godfather, American Gangster to my all time favorite Goodfellas. Even though I know how the movies will end, I still get a rush right before the villain  is outed and the mob boss brings the harsh retribution. Long after I’ve turned  the channel, I still close my eyes and think about how nostalgic it would have  been able to work as a cop or reporter during that time- uncovering all of the criminal behaviors that the mob was involve in for cash flow. Even though I have these ridiculous fantasies,  I  thought I took the ‘safe’ way out in school, opting for obtaining a degree in history and teaching in an urban district in the northeast part of America.

While I devoted the last twenty years in education, little did I know my work was eerily similar… Click To Tweet

Usually,  as I’m sitting in the teacher’s lounge debating on whether to grade more papers or call parents, I have epiphanies about teaching and life in general .  Last week  as I was eating my turkey sandwich on rye with Ruffle potato chips,   I had an epiphany that hit me literally like a ton of bricks tied to my feet (no pun intended).  I listened to  one of my colleagues bitterly telling us about how he was called into the principal’s office because he had encouraged a parent to challenge the grading policy that allows  all children at the school to  have the  ability to retake exams that they fail (as many times as possible during the semester). As he continued to   ‘rant and rave’ about the humiliation of being pulled from his class and ostracized by the principal, I realized that I (and many of my co-workers) were characters in a modern day mob movie-produced, directed and written by the school district.

As I thought closer about the similarities, I further realized that working for public schools in… Click To Tweet

I know I sound crazy, but hear me out. While the mob is an organization that dabbles in crime, my school system is not far behind in the tactics it engages in to punish the ‘little’ people (teachers and children) and to glorify and reward the district employees that sit in their downtown offices and orchestrate complete chaos at the schools they supposedly serve.

Don’t believe me? Well just read the four principles that all mob families live by:

A 'vow of silence' is demanded by all employees. Click To Tweet

A ‘vow of silence’ is demanded  by all employees. In any classic mob movie, the audience  knows that it’s a common rule that no one knows anything. Remember in the first Godfather movie when Sunny Corleone (James Caan)  is murdered by another mob family? Despite him being murdered and everyone knowing who did it, no one says a word to the cops. As a matter of fact, the cops are never even called to investigate his death (as if they really would have with all the criminal behavior he was involved in-but I digress). In the end, Michael Corleon (Al Pacino) decides to avenge his brother’s murder on his own.

In my district, we (when I say we I mean administrators and district level people) do the same. When a scandal occurs (which is often) all district employees are sent an email demanding that we say nothing to the media.  To make matters worse, if we’re really mad about something (take for instance our medical insurance premiums increasing by  100%) and we take our grievances to the members of the Board of Education, we are routinely put on the district’s ‘black list’.

Take this case in point, a colleague of mine started to have breathing issues anytime she was in the building.  She was constantly going back and forth to the doctor until he diagnosed her with asthma and cited her working conditions as the cause of her ailment. When she brought it to our principal that she would have to move classrooms,  he directed her to our Central Office. When she finally got an interview with our Facilities Manager  (after a ton of emails were sent) she asked that they test the air quality of the school. Within two weeks (and without an air quality report being taken) she was reassigned to the worst alternative school in the district.

She could have fought her move, but  it would have been futile because others who complained of the same symptoms (shortness of breath, moisture in the air, ‘wet’ smell) all stopped in their tracks and refused to file a formal complaint after seeing what happened to her.  In our district, if we have a problem we can fill out one of those anonymous complaints, but there have been occasions that what’s shared in those are sent to the principal and through the process of elimination the person who wrote it is found out and all hell breaks lose.

Criminal Behavior is accepted.   In all movies about the mob, a criminal operation is always in play behind the scenes. In Goodfellas, the men dabbled in stolen goods while in Scarface drugs were the revenue making product. While everyone knew something was going on, it was a widely accepted practice by even the most ‘saintly’ characters.  The same happens in public schools and they usually revolve on how federal, state and local money is spent. We’ve had instances where employees take trips that have nothing to do with education or even worse they intentionally misuse funds for their benefit.

In addition, to the financial mishaps occurring,  there will be all types of morally bankrupt and illegal things happening even as I type. There are principals who everyone in the district (heck the entire city) knows are ineffective shells of leadership, yet they stay in schools due to nepotism.  Almost every two years we hear of some charter school that’s in trouble for misusing money and it’s common practice for people downtown to be on the nightly news because they are suspected of taking part in cheating on standardized testing.

Working in this district, it’s amazing that more of the news isn’t broadcasted out to the public, but we realized a long time ago that only certain schools in the district are targets. For example, two years ago there were rumors that  students were bringing weapons on campus through a broken fence in the back of our building. While we would hear whispers, the kids were pretty tight-lipped about saying names for fear of retaliation we all had our suspicions. All of the teachers reported what we had heard, but the administration “chalked” it up to too many teachers watching episodes of The Wire and demanded that we show him proof before he would confront any students. Guess who was caught on campus with a loaded pistol a couple of months later? Yes, that same student. But because of rule #1, many teachers did not feel comfortable ‘outing’ the principal for not keeping a safe school. Now a number of us have decided to lock our doors just to fail safe in the building.

The workers have no say in anything that happens. Click To Tweet

The workers have no say in anything that happens.   In the movies, we only hear about the mob bosses or their families and rarely hear from the many   ‘workers’  of the family who have little to no say about what happens in the operation. In public schools, it’s not hard to guess that classroom teachers are the ‘workers’ and the bosses work in the Central Office controlling every aspect of the school.  Usually, in mob movies you see a glimpse of these workers doing the ‘dirty work’ but you never get to know them for who they really are- all eyes are on the boss. The same is similar for how teachers are treated in my district.

While the majority of teachers not only have  Bachelor degrees, the vast majority of us have advanced degrees that we have toiled over to achieve; however, we are still never asked about how our opinion about how the school district should be run. Instead, we generally learn of new policies after they’ve already been drafted and changing them would be literally an  ‘act of God’. A few years ago we were encouraged by our school’s counsel to attend the monthly Board of Education meetings to let our voices be heard on issues, but after going a couple of times we realized we couldn’t just voice our issues. Instead, we had to be put on the agenda and then (if time permitted) we were allowed a few minutes to bring up issues that the board members always elected not to discuss in open session.  Just this year, our state has fully adopted the Common Core standards and despite overwhelming issues with the standards,  we’ve been directed that these standards will happen with or without us on board.

The sad part is that we believe our Department of Education and district officials when they make these ‘threats’ on our job. We have to remember that  our job is just to teach students- everything else is told to us.

If the 'right' person dislikes you, it can ruin your job, or worse your career. Click To Tweet

If the ‘right’ person dislikes you, it can ruin your job, or worse your career.   In the movie, The Godfather, Sunny (before his untimely death) doesn’t really care for his sister’s husband. It wasn’t really anything he did (other than killing Sunny later in the movie) he just didn’t care for him and excluded him out of all Corleone family business. In public education this is normal- if the right person dislikes you, your content or your areas of specialty then you could very well be looking for a new job or worse yet, career. Take for instance my mentor, Mr. Sams*, he was a thirty veteran in the district and he made it a point to break all of the above rules as frequently as he could. We joked that he had a thing for ‘pissing’ the right people off and that one day it would catch up with him.

As part of the district’s move to college and career readiness, it was someone’s bright idea to end all vocational at the high school level. So with that decision all of our wood working, auto mechanic, beauty school pathways were cut and instead replaced with pathways dealing with computers (computer programming, engineering, etc.) and engineering. The kids were  devastated (rightfully so) and went to Mr. Sams to see if there was  anything he could do about it. They organized a peaceful sit-in at a Board of Education meeting. Nothing happened there, except for the board allowing everyone to air their issues with the shift in classes, but not a week later Mr. Sams was strongly advised to take his retirement because someone at the Central Office thought he’d be a better fit at another school. Knowing he was too old to fight a move, my mentor retired early and is now substituting at a smaller district, but he does have a potential lawsuit ready to be filed- when has the money for an attorney.

In the end, my job is eerily similar to all of the movies that I watch about mobsters. The only difference is that my job is operated  by people who are supposed to be in ‘it’ for the kids.  Which leads me to this question, is your district similar? Do you feel like you’re working for the mob, but in a different state?

*Names of been changed to protect the innocent.

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The Educator's Room is a daily website dedicated to showing that teachers are the experts in education. If you are interested in submitting a piece for publication, please send a draft to info@theeducatorsroom.com.

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