My big ‘ole bully is probably a pretty decent guy.
In just over decade of teaching I’ve had some people who were pretty nasty, of course, now and again. Despite rumors to the contrary, I am not universally beloved. In the last few years of public speaking and writing, I’ve gotten some crummy messages after speeches, but I only really have one bully. My big ‘ole bully.
I want to tell you about him, but also don’t want to tell you so much that you know who it is. He’s probably a pretty decent guy. I know some members of his family even, and they’re fantastic. He’s been working in and for schools just about as long as I’ve been alive, and has done some work that’s been important and good. My experience is just mine, and only from my point of view. I can promise you that I felt bullied. I cannot promise you he intended it.
I suppose a thing about bullies is that we find some reason to protect them.
But, my big ‘ole bully has been in my life now for a decade, and just about every year has found a way to insert himself into my space and be awful.
Early in my career, I came into a school that was very much his, at least in his eyes. He was well-regarded and powerful in the district (as much as we allow teachers to be). Parents loved him (at least, the powerful White parents did), teachers followed him. I was just this young kid, and he seemed like someone pretty important. So, when he started routinely tearing me down, it was demoralizing.
I’m worried already that I’m just talking shit. I guess talking about bullying is like that. There are so many ways that we are not supposed to do it.
When I broke from my big ‘ole bully on any school debate or focus, he never hesitated to tell me I was wrong. When people started to listen to me sometimes and not him all the time, when my work started having impact, that’s when the emails started.
I’m not sure what he did all day in his room, really, but nothing that stood in the way of his writing pages-long emails detailing all the things I was wrong about. They were just the polite side of vicious, just the passive side of aggressive. Demeaning in a way he could dismiss when called on it. Often, the impact in them was in their length, and in their complete confidence that I obviously understood nothing.
Sometimes I would try to argue my point, and a chain of emails would go back and forth all day or week. Mine would go, “I see your perspective, but my belief is…” and his would start, “what you do not understand is…”
Emails came in addition to him stopping me in the hallway, coming to my classroom before school, became talking over me at meetings, talking about me when I wasn’t there.
Ok. But have you heard that saying, “Live life with the confidence of a mediocre white man”? I am that mediocre white man. Part of my discomfort with my big ‘ole bully probably had a lot to do that we are both mediocre white men who are used to being treated like kings in every room we’re in. Part of that unearned self-confidence meant that even though he found a few new ways a week to tell me to shut up, I just kept talking and talking and talking.
Every so often I would approach him, “It seems obvious we have some issues with each other,” this after I learned of him telling parents in the school I was dangerous and telling union leadership I was anti-teacher.
“No we don’t. I’ve never thought or said a bad word about you.”
And what is a better description of adult bullying, really, than someone who obviously hates you but won’t tell you why?
There was the year I won Minnesota Teacher of the Year, which can’t have been an easy year to be my friend, much less an easy year to be someone who didn’t like me that much. When, near the end of the year, our state union posted a notice that the next winner would be picked soon, he was first to respond, “I’m hope the next Teacher of the Year will really speak for teachers.” So, yeah. I kinda felt that was a little bit directed at me.
A year later, I started in a new school in a new district. Within a week, a different delightful (yes, yet another white) man took a blog piece I wrote and mocked it. I reached out and told him I’m cool with debate and disagreement, but taking my actual written words, this little open chest wounds I put into the world, and using them to mock me, was incredibly offensive to me, asked him please, as a colleague, to re-think that part. Nope. It’s his right to say what he wants to say whenever and however he feels like saying it. My fault that I took offense to it. I mentioned, right, that this was a White male? Guys, we’re the best.
I got a lot of random email that week from people, many strangers, that said, “Welcome to the district. This is how teachers treat each other here.” I also got a string of anonymous twitter handles with names like PublicTeacherDefender and EdTeacherPublic and TeacheryTeacherPants responding to every post I made calling me egotistical, saying I wasn’t a real teacher because I had taken a teacher coach position, and being laughably unpleasant. Moving to this new district with a group of teachers arrogantly sure of their righteousness put me smack dab in a playground full of bullies, though these weren’t my bully, my big ‘ole bully.
Just like the playground, we watch the bullying happen, glad it’s not us this time, and then come over in a quiet moment with some support for the bullied. Teachers struggle to really stand up to one another, for one another.
My big ‘ole bully was the first person commenting on that hit-piece online. His “great piece” was just one piece of a ten year puzzle. Hey Tom, just a quick note to remind you I don’t like you.
A short time later, a few teachers at my new school approached me. One of our coworkers had pulled them aside after a meeting, told them she talked with someone I used to work with, that she was told to try to get everyone to “make [my] life hell” and to try to give me every menial job they could throw at me to keep me from getting work done (I’ve heard some version of this story from teachers all over, especially those who do any work with reform groups, attacked while teaching in the name of teacher unity. Ok.). I checked on facebook and she only had one friend I had ever taught with. Guess who.
I recently asked that teacher, the one who supposedly pulled people aside, about what happened at the start of last year. She had no idea what I was talking about, said nothing like that happened. I tend to want to believe her, so I will. Ok.
It’s not just that district and those teachers. It is everywhere. I know countless teachers and support staff who have been pulled into some insane, Shakespearean-level drama of devils and destruction among teachers who also spend a lot of time complaining they aren’t treated like professionals. I’ve been that teacher. Through email and through rumors. Through exclusion, through judgement, through the sort of mean-girl garbage that some teachers couldn’t leave behind when they switched roles from student to grown-ass adult, we’ve all been pretty crappy to someone whose primary issue was trying to do the same impossible job we’re trying to do and doing it slightly different (or too much the same) than us. Ok.
Oh well, whatever, nevermind.
I’m away from my big ‘ole bully, from this group of teachers who see bullying as political strategy. I’m teaching in the brilliant and frustrating and rather bizarre world of seventh grade and pledge my allyship and energy to no one older than 13. I’m writing, not just essays that are little chunks chipped off from my heart, but a book that took the whole damn thing and smashed it down into paper. Things are going well, and good work brings out bad haters. I brush it off when I can.
The way we treat each other across the Education world is distressing. That we build up enemies and allies in our buildings, that we spend our energy and our time attacking the energy and time of each other is beneath us.
This job is too hard and too beautiful for what we do to each other sometimes.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is the Minnesota Teacher of 2014. He writes about teaching at Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.