Saturday, October 21, 2000

RAMSEY: Education

Teachers also must face peers

        We have long seen the pattern in schools. The hard worker, the high achiever is the one the rest choose to pick on. She pours herself into a project, and finds herself harassed for it. She volunteers for special assignments, only to be called a brown-noser. She sets the standard for her peers, and so she is ostracized. She wins an award but, knowing it will draw biting comment, begs that no one be told, no attention be drawn to it.

        When the pressure is too great, she may simply decide to fade into the pack. Why put up with the abuse, why risk being different? Just go with the flow.

        For years we have watched high-achieving students suffer such treatment in certain classrooms. Researchers say it is a determining factor in why bright kids sometimes choose to under-achieve. But an unpleasant reality of education is that teachers sometimes face it as well. And all too often, there is nothing to abate it, no easy way to address it, and no advocate to intercede for them.

        In the best-functioning, healthiest schools, the opposite is typically true. A teacher with high standards, creativity and a strong work ethic is not only admired, but emulated. He or she sets a standard for the staff, is given a leadership role in decision-making, and mentors other teachers. When awards come that teacher's way, the whole staff rejoices, knowing the honor reflects on the entire school.

        And there are undoubtedly those schools where hurt feelings and envy are the byproducts of an insensitive or unfairly competitive atmosphere. Like a teacher's pet, some staff members are pampered and promoted to the public, carrying lighter teaching loads, being the only ones nominated for awards or asked to serve on committees. Sometimes “popular” teachers aren't the most capable or diligent at all, but those who draw followings for entertaining styles or easy grading.

        But there are other schools as well, where being a faithful, high-standards, hard-working teacher earns you public praise, but colleagues' contempt.

        Try being elected Teacher of the Year by the PTA in that school, and see what comments await you in the teachers' lounge. Find yourself chosen to travel to a conference to present a program you've developed, and watch envy raise its ugly head. Have the principal mention your students' perennial high scores on standardized tests, or applaud you for an award, or thank you profusely for pouring hours into an extracurricular project, and feel yourself sinking into your seat.

        It can happen anywhere and does, but it is especially damaging when it occurs at under-achieving schools. All too often, high-performing teachers who face resentment and little staff support choose to leave the profession, says Ann Haley MacKenzie, assistant professor of teacher education at Miami University.

        Their loss is unnecessary and, collectively, a huge detriment to education, says Dr. MacKenzie, who herself was the 1990 Ohio Teacher of the Year and understands the mixed reactions high-achieving teachers face. In the end, she says, school climate will determine how well outstanding teachers fare.

        “Is it a climate that fosters growth and going out on a limb, or one where there's pressure not to do anything that makes anyone else look bad?” she says. “Some of it falls back on what expectations the administration sets out for the school.”

        Ultimately, the answer lies in three things: mutual respect, professional integrity and so strong a focus on what's good for children that their success sweeps away petty distractions.


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