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Friday, October 7, 2011

Put these chips between your lips! Or, sometimes what you learn isn't what they were teaching

Bullying is horrible. Adults have a responsibility to protect children from that type of damaging, cruel harassment.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about middle school anti-bullying programs - the kind my kids have been coming home and telling me about lately.

In 1982, the summer after my sophomore year of college, I got a job selling Chipwich ice cream sandwiches on the streets of Philadelphia. (Yes, this is about anti-bullying programs. Bear with me.) Before I was set loose on an unsuspecting public, I had to attend a day of training. I was given a Vendor Training Manual. Fortunately, I had the foresight to keep it all these years. (I tend to lose most stuff, but this had such enormous entertainment value that it’s traveled around with me ever since.)

The first page congratulated me for being chosen as “our newest professional Chipwich vendor.” Yep, I was a professional. A professional in a fake pith helmet with a bright orange hatband, a khaki apron, and an orange bow tie. It told me I was now an “ambassador of goodwill, wholesomeness, enthusiasm, and courtesy,” and it promised me “fun while selling lots of Chipwich.”

(Getting to the bullying programs. Really.)

Some more pearls of wisdom from the manual:

-- The cart is your office!
-- Smile
-- Make eye contact
-- Load vanilla on one side of the cart, chocolate on the other.
-- A well-groomed vendor will sell more than one who is not.
-- Success leads to success.
-- Never bring your personal problems to work.

You get the idea. But the best part? The slogans I was instructed to memorize so that I could yell them at passers-by.

-- It’s chip rich!
-- This is it!
-- Are you religious? It’s divinely delicious!
-- Want one? It’s a beauty!
-- North, east, west or south, Put Chipwich in your mouth!

And my personal favorite:
-- Put these chips between your lips!

Yes, I had to stand there during the training with all the other new hires and practice chanting these slogans. In uniform. With feeling.

It was utterly dehumanizing.

Some 15 years later, I was a manager working for an online startup that was acquired by AT&T - just in time for AT&T to announce that it was laying off 40,000 employees worldwide. Off they sent me and all the other managers to “Force Management Training” - or, as we called it, “Firing school.”

(Bullying. I haven't forgotten.)

I know I kept the highly entertaining manual from that training as well, but sadly I can’t put my hands on it at the moment. Suffice it to say that I spent the day listening to professional AT&T trainers tell me what I can and cannot say while firing someone. The obvious goal was to cover their corporate ass from lawsuits. (Don’t tell them WHY they’re fired, and especially don’t mention their age, gender, race, disability, or ethnicity.)

This authentic purpose was wrapped in a paper-thin cover of concern for people’s emotional well-being, as represented by a training film we were shown about  the four types of emotional responses we could expect. Ironically, this part of the presentation was meant to be the most benevolent and enlightened, but it was in fact the most offensive. Clearly, AT&T thought they were being hip with the diverse cast. But here’s what they ended up with: The angry employee was the black guy; the sad employee was the white woman; the hysterical employee was the Hispanic woman; and the stoic employee was the white guy.

(For the record, the actual firing turned out to be pretty painless because our division was mostly unattached 20-somethings, and the severance package kicked ass. Later, several managers, including me, complained to the mother ship (as we called AT&T HQ in Basking Ridge) about that offensive training film.)

So what do we have here?

(Bullying....almost there....)

Chipwich was a young company, just gone national, that was looking to sell a lot of product. Clearly, they took the advice of some marketing professionals straight out of Wharton who had never stood on a street corner selling overpriced junk food for a single day, and they were utterly oblivious as to the impression this training made on the people who were about to do so for real.

AT&T was a corporate behemoth with one goal in mind: profits. Specifically, not having to pay out large judgments in discrimination suits. So a bunch of personnel professionals consulted with a legal team and came up with a training program that was staggeringly oblivious to the real human toll of a gigantic layoff, both on those losing their jobs and on the managers being asked to fire colleagues and friends.

In both cases, the people on the receiving end of the program were not just underwhelmed, but downright offended at the dehumanizing bullshit we were being made to sit through. We didn’t feel the powers that be had a clue about what our day-to-day experiences were like. Their motivation was, “We’re doing this because it’s in OUR best interest, and because someone even more powerful than us says we HAVE TO.” Then they try to frame their selfish goals as being of benefit to ME, as a way of making MY job easier, when the truth is they know NOTHING of me, my job, or my life.

Which brings me back to school anti-bullying programs. (TA-DA!)

Everything I just said? When you’re in middle school, it’s ALL THAT TIMES A MILLION. The assemblies and “rap sessions” and edutainment programs with well-intentioned adults lecturing kids about the dangers of bullying? They are coming off to our kids exactly the same way.

The real question is, can it be done any better? In truth, I doubt it. Once you create an institutionalized program for the masses, you’re done for. There's something inherently dehumanizing about it - something self-help-guru-ish. It's lecturing. It treats people like children. It offers common-sense platitudes as if they were revelations from God at Sinai. And it misses the messy, complicated, disturbing realities of the real lives of real kids.

The hard work of combating bullying needs to be a personal commitment on the part of every single adult in a child’s life - whichever side of bullying that child is on - to truly see the child, listen, get involved, and intercede. Our schools are filled with people who do this well, every day. They’re also filled with those who don’t. How can we change those who don’t into those who do?  I’m guessing a training program won’t work.

Life is complicated, and I sure as hell don't have all the answers.

Why New Jersey schools are going all out with the anti-bullying programs: Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools on Spot

Yeah, Chipwich really made us wear that stuff.

AT&T's kinder, gentler way of firing 40,000 people.

The anti-bullying policy parents in our district were asked to read. Think anyone did?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Education reforminess drives me to ranting

I haven’t blogged in ages, but not for lack of material. In fact, more often than not I read a hundred education-reforminess things a day that piss me off, about which I have LOTS to say. But then I get kind of bogged down in, “Where do I start?” (and all the million-and-one other things I have to do in a day), and it just doesn’t get done.

So this morning I realized that it’s time to rant. Ranting is good and necessary when the bullshit is piled up so high you can’t see over it. Ranting knocks down bullshit. People are occupying Wall Street because they’re trying to knock down bullshit; the least I can do is take a few minutes to type angrily. And best of all, ranting doesn’t require a high degree of organization. In fact, a list will do just fine. Random paragraphs with numbers in front of them. Here goes.

1. The primary danger of charter schools and vouchers isn’t that they might not be any better than public schools. Some of them might be better, and if they are, why not go for it? The real danger is that THEY ARE NOT PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Reformy types can say “charter schools are public schools” until they’re blue in the face, but THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT SO. It’s a lie. Public schools are PUBLIC. It’s not just who pays for them, but who runs them, and whom those people answer to, and what students are in them, not to mention little matters like the separation of church and state. Michele Bachmann loves charters specifically because she hates the government for insisting on the separation of church and state, and she wants charters to do an end-run around that established principal. And vouchers - don’t even get me started. Charter schools are not public schools, and private schools paid for with taxpayers’ money certainly aren’t, and that’s reason enough to not want them.

2. Some charter school advocates are no doubt sincere, and we could have an honest debate about whether charters could solve problems related to educating poor inner city kids. But there’s really no point wasting our breath on that debate because their movement has been co-opted by people who are inarguably insincere and downright dangerous to the welfare of our society. Businesses that want to profit off the education “sector.” Right-wingers who want to shrink government at all costs, including the cost of educating all our children. Christian extremists who see public schools as the primary liberal secular institution threatening their vision of a Christian nation. Industrial tycoons who hate unions and want to take down the public-sector unions because they’re the last bastion of a strong labor movement. These are the people pouring millions of dollars into an anti-public education movement and propagandizing about bad teachers and whatnot. And they do NOT give a shit about poor minority kids. We have to stop them before it’s too late. To the small handful of sincere charter school proponents who have jumped on that bandwagon in a misguided effort to bring some kind of positive change to their sorely underserved communities, I am truly sorry. You’ve been used. We’re not fighting you. We’re fighting your puppet masters.

3. Poverty is not an excuse. It’s a gigantic, dangerous, destructive PROBLEM. All those people railing about how zip code shouldn’t be destiny (or whatever that stupid mantra is) are conveniently ignoring the fact that in our country there is a shameful level of poverty, especially affecting children, and there is a shameful lack of basic humane support for those who need it. Firing teachers fixes NOTHING. Anecdotal evidence about some kids who were inspired by great teachers and rose from poverty to become Supreme Court justices or Nobel Prize winners is a bullshit distraction from the millions of poor kids who DIDN’T because not everyone gets that chance, or has the talent and drive to overcome staggering odds, or has adults in their lives who can help even a little. Acknowledging that our economic system is completely stacked against allowing the poor to become middle class would be dangerous to corporate America and billionaires, so instead they offer up CHARTER SCHOOLS and claim they will beat the demon poverty. Charter schools are cake, as in, “Let them eat cake.”

4. Reforminess, with its charters and vouchers, has completely diverted the public’s attention away from a great unresolved civil rights issue: school integration - and not just racial, but socioeconomic as well. If zip code is destiny, it’s because zip codes are segregated. Affordable housing is a more valid way of reforming education than charter schools will ever be. I say this as a parent of three kids in a district that was unified by court order in the 1970s and has provided high quality education to all comers ever since.

5. We all need to tell the Christian right who would insert their agenda into public education to SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN. America is not a Christian nation; we’re not chosen by God to be special; kids should learn science in school, not superstition (and yes, that means evolution, not creationism). Speaking for my own tribe, history has taught us that handing power (in education or anything else) to Christians in the belief that they will always be kind and benevolent toward the rest of us is STUPID BEYOND THE POWER OF WORDS TO EXPRESS. I prefer my constitutional protections, thank you very much.

6. We all need minority interest groups who would insert their agendas into public education to SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN. Yes, I’m looking at you, my fellow Jews, with your immersion Hebrew charters. That way lies madness. How the hell do you plan to teach “Hebrew culture” without falling off the cliff of religion? And more to the point, how do you expect that this won’t open the door to other groups using tax  money to teach their religious values? Have you learned NOTHING from history? Everything that made America good for the Jews - the historically unprecedented freedoms we’ve enjoyed here - would be threatened by putting a chink in the wall between church and state. Please don’t be that stupid; leave religious education where it belongs - far, far away from public schools.

7. We need to teach our kids about the social contract - that it’s perfectly okay in a capitalist society/constitutional democracy to enter into compacts where the people trade absolute liberty for communal benefits. Libertarianism is an odd form of utopianism that has never even been tried, let alone shown to work. In plain English, public schools are not evil. They are good, or anyway, the concept is good, and if we’d all just work at it, they could actually be good. Even taxpayers who choose not to utilize the public schools get enormous benefit from their existence, because we live among a better-educated populace more capable of intelligently exercising the duties and obligations of a democratic society.

8. Teachers are some of the best people around. God knows, not all of them, but then again, compared to hedge fund managers and oil barons, maybe all of them. At least they’re trying to contribute something good to our society in a pretty selfless way. Again, if you doubt it, answer this: Who’s more selfless, hedge fund managers and oil barons or teachers? If you said hedge fund managers and oil barons, you’re either being super sarcastic or you’re a massive idiot. You know damn well that, given the choice between earning what a hedge fund manager or oil baron earns and what a teacher earns, it’s the people with values OTHER than greed who would choose teaching. And some teachers go so far above and beyond mere goodness, it’s staggering. Some day I will write about Gerry Cohen, my friend’s dad who taught English in the South Bronx for decades. When I asked him why, he said simply, “If I don’t, who will?” Not the Koch brothers, that’s for damn sure.

That’s all I have in me for today. It actually felt pretty good to get all that off my chest. I should do it more often.