I am currently working in a turnaround school. A turnaround school is a public school that has been deemed "failing" by policy makers. The policy makers inflict draconian, fascist measures on such schools in an effort to turn them around - aka - increase test scores. If they don't increase test scores they bring the hammer down harder by firing teachers, handing the school over to a charter, or closing the school, and so on.
Turnaround schools are not failing. Rather, the truth is that the policies are the failures. The racist, classist, sexist policies are based on lies and false realities meant to create compliant worker bees who do as they are told to increase test scores, while ultimately allowing the corporate reformers to push forward other measures which increase profit, increase the privatization of our public schools, and finally, increase the power of the privileged. That's it in a nutshell.
However, the factual process of turnaround in no way reveals to the public how this brutal takeover goes down. How to articulate the process has been at the forefront of my mind for the last five months as I found myself thrown head first into this madness. And indeed, it is a madness like no other - a combination of insane asylum and prison. As I tried to articulate it to a dear friend of mine, she said, "Peggy, you are being gaslighted." I had never heard the term gaslighting. I immediately began to read about it. I owe much gratitude to this friend who has given me a framework I can use to explain this process.
My point in writing this blog is to expose the turnaround process for what it can be (not all turnarounds are necessarily as I describe), and allow those in the midst of this to figure out how to move forward. This is not a feel good blog with a happy ending. Ultimately, I don't know how it will end for me, but I believe that the only way we will end the bigger picture of corporate education reform is through educating the public and educating ourselves so that together, we can form a plan of action to fight back. Gaslighting is designed to keep you in fight/flight mode - so it's important to step back, understand it, and think it through, in order to determine your next step.
Gaslighting is such an insane reality to live in that it becomes incredibly difficult to focus on anything else except the ability to get through the day- it is designed intentionally so.
So let's try to take a look at what's really happening.
The first stage of Gaslighting is described as disbelief. Strange events, behaviors, and actions by others begin to occur. Perhaps you are told something that doesn't seem true to you or simply just sounds bizarre. Perhaps someone you trusted speaks to you in a manner that seems fake, or staged.
In my case, the "disbelief" began with the supposed root cause of our turnaround status.
We were told: Students experienced lower-quality and less rigorous instruction that did not accelerate them to proficiency and beyond, because the CCSS was not used to guide instruction in all content areas.
Now, for someone like myself, who has spent hours upon hours researching and advocating for the end of corporate education reform this "root cause" at first, is quite laughable. We know that standards - good, bad, and ugly, in no way increase student achievement. Quite honestly, there's no correlation whatsoever between standards and student test scores. This has been clearly confirmed by looking at NAEP scores and the standards used in the various states. So, simply put, it's a lie.
And therein follows the disbelief. You are told a lie about this so-called turnaround status. And I can assure you that nationwide there is no root cause - in a school improvement plan housed on a department of education website - that will state the truth - the truth is clearly poverty and that has been confirmed as well. But in this gut wrenching fast move to privatize our public schools it is necessary to lie and necessary to beat people into compliance in order to cash in quickly - using policies which gaslight educators who ultimately must carry out these actions of educational malpractice.
So, you sit in disbelief at these lies. At first you think, okay, whatever, we can play this game. We'll continue to do right by children behind closed doors and the policy makers can go screw themselves. That's the first reaction. At this point you still believe you have some autonomy and you think you might be able to reason with the powers that be in order to figure out a way to "tweak" this to make it doable.
But then, the gaslighting process continues. The policy makers have a strangle hold on our public schools, and they will find various ways to continue to push forward their measures in a turnaround school. Perhaps they will bring in an auditor who interviews (interrogates) each staff member in an attempt to expose weaknesses that might confirm the so-called root cause. Perhaps they will bring in district personnel to dig through your data and observe your classrooms nonstop in order to, once again, find confirmation that your root cause is true, valid and that ultimately - you, the educators, are to blame for your low test scores. Perhaps they will bring in consultants, books, videos, or additional training to lead you to see how embracing their root cause will fix your failure. There are many ways they might move forward as they gaslight you. In my school, we were enrolled in the Colorado Department of Education turnaround program. We were labeled a Relay Leadership School and Relay indoctrination became the vehicle for our gaslighting.
If you are unfamiliar with Relay please read my blog here. Relay is a fake graduate school that was created to meet the needs of particular charter school chains who focus on no excuse models of discipline and teach to the test curriculum. Simply put, it's hell on earth for experienced teachers with actual teaching degrees, master's degrees, and years of teaching experience. As a school that prided itself on our model of inquiry and democracy this was an insanely sharp turn to take.
The false root cause was just setting the stage for the steps that followed. We watched in awe as new vocabulary was introduced, new protocols for meetings were brought forward, new expectations around student behavior, new expectations around lesson plans, teaching, teacher evaluation and more surfaced. Ultimately, the reality we knew was gone. We watched in disbelief. We tried to shake it off like a wet dog and clarify who we were - what we stood for - but when you are not in a position of power it becomes extremely difficult to demand that your identity is acknowledged. At this stage of gaslighting one becomes defensive - it is here where you try to hold your ground - a bit of a last stand.
During stage two - defense - you think that perhaps there is a way to reason through this situation. Perhaps honesty will help. Perhaps stating clearly how we know that our root cause is poverty and that there is no research to demonstrate that adhering to standards improves student achievement, perhaps, just perhaps - there will be a way to shift this back to what you know to be the true reality - a come-to-jesus meeting so to speak. Let's just put it all out there....you think.
Or, perhaps, as a defense, you refuse to follow through with demands made on you - demands which are an attempt to make this reality become the norm. You might refuse to do test prep, post standards, or perhaps you simply refuse to participate in meetings where this bullshit is discussed. Perhaps you vocally state that you will not participate in book studies or processes which demand that you ignore what you know about pedagogy, child development, and ultimately, your students.
You think that you might be able to reason with the gaslighters who push forward these measures, but policy makers do not care about children. They care about their policy, and this is when you realize that you stand alone - policy prevails - and it trickles down in the most toxic way - it pushes and prods and ultimately pounds - when necessary - to enforce this reality which does not exist. You might at this point try to be a team player while still closing your door and attempting to do right by kids - you think you can work within the system in order to make the best of a horrid situation and protect the children by doing so - a careful and quiet defense. You participate in meetings, you try to make sense of the standards in a way that you can see how they might benefit your students. You smile in the hallways and you think this is doable - you can get through this - you can secretly do right by kids.
But the incredibly harsh and punitive measures keep coming. They want more from you - absolute utter compliance to a system of standards, targets, success criteria, tight transitions, evaluation of worthless interim test data, pre-assessments, post-assessments, and more. It's never ending. They want to observe. At first the observations are scheduled. But soon they become pop-ins and then you are told that they/the policy makers - could show up at anytime. Your defensive mode is still on - but you are also feeling fearful - fearful of the unknown and confused by the pounding that comes faster and more frequently by the day. You never hear the word child uttered in any conversations related to the work you do. You know that all of this is meaningless - this false reality is based on nothing - you know you're NOT crazy - standards, targets - all of this is based on a business model of education - a corporate fascist model designed to treat children and teachers as widgets - to be moved and manipulated as needed in order to get them to cough up numbers - data - data that can be used to create winners and losers. There's no humanity here. Just numbers. Just hard cold numbers that you must churn out with a militant nazi like step that makes you want to vomit in the bathroom on your lunch break.
As you give them the numbers, the data - you know that this is not what is best for children. You know that your attempts to play the game have failed miserably. You don't believe in this game and you are not a widget - you are a human being with a conscience and you care for the children in your classroom. You simply can't be brainwashed - and while you think you might be going crazy, your conversations with others makes it clear that none of you are going crazy, you are simply being gaslighted. You know you don't believe in creating compliant learners who parrot back targets and sit in rows and transition tightly with no student choice, no inquiry, no creativity and ultimately no democracy. You can't play the game - you simply can't do it. And you wonder, how can anyone do it?
Are we losing our humanity?
And that brings on the third stage, depression. As I have talked to teachers across the country over the last four years about the turnaround process, depression has been one of the most prominent feelings that teachers have discussed. Teachers are in tears daily, antidepressants and other prescribed medications become necessary to cope and survive day by day in this punitive process. Teachers have anxiety attacks in the middle of the school day. Teachers search for a quiet space somewhere in the building to make a quick call to a friend in order to get the fortitude to work through the next three hours rather than have an emotional collapse. Having the time and energy to take care of one's self becomes nonexistent. I just can't do it you say to yourself - but you know you must. Every day you must get up and do it again. Every day you imagine how you might escape - what other job could you do? But then, you love the kids, you don't want to leave, but you can't figure out how you will survive much longer. You sit in your car in the parking lot and try to pull it together for one. more. day. And you begin to wonder about the policy makers ultimate evil goals......are they attempting to push you out? They need compliant teachers who will believe it - and you know THEY know you are not compliant. Your mind is racing. And you wonder, who are these people who can believe these things? What has happened to humanity?
A dear friend of mine and teacher, Tanis Humes, who recently left my school due to our turnaround nightmare, described it like this:
Then another outside factor finds its way into your career, building, and classroom. Your department of education, a hired consulting firm, or district “coaching” team arrive to add a new stressor, their hard line and sense of “urgency” that they fail to recognize you already had. Now the times during which you doubt yourself, there is a person or group who says you should doubt yourself. Piece by piece, instead of building you up, they are tearing you down. They think if they pressure you enough you’ll "grow" and so will your students. They pressure you so that you’ll pressure the students. They bully you into compliance so that you in turn will bully the students into compliance, and eventually, there are not enough good moments to recharge. They use double speak so that you begin to fear for your job. They create impossible deadlines so you’ll kill yourself trying to make it and in return you might have a little less time for the students. Something they will see and cite as to why your school or practices need their input and assistance. In essence they kill the teacher in you and the spirit that kept you together through all the other stressors until you leave, and then they can replace you with someone who they think will be the magician that you were not. You leave, not willingly, but out of self preservation for your physical and emotional well-being. We call it burnout. But the source of the burn is not the students, the work or the calendar. It is the people who think they know how to “fix” you and your school. When all they need to do is look at what is best for the students, school, and teachers. It is not pressure and threats or compliance. It is meeting our physical and emotional needs and respecting us.
In a turnaround situation where one is being gaslighted, as Tanis described above, eventually you get to a point where a decision must be made - you stay - or you go. And if you stay, in some way your spirit, your identity, your being shifts - it is difficult to walk with a light step in this environment . Maybe your step becomes more determined, maybe slower, maybe you step out - for good.
I am sure that there are many folks out there who would add a new dimension, a new twist, or example, to my description of gaslighting - google gaslighting to see the varied experiences and stages that are shared. Feel free to leave a comment sharing your experience.
Bottom line is that in a turnaround school the end goal is to destroy what you know to be true - the end goal is to shift and transform the reality in order to meet the goals of the policy makers who know nothing about children. The goals of the policy makers are hollow and weak - they want to increase test scores. Yet, these policies embody something much bigger, much more egregious than anyone wishes to acknowledge in mainstream media. Standardized test scores are rooted in the eugenics movement, where they ranked, sorted and ordered individuals using standardized tests to confirm that certain races were smarter and better - standardized tests today remain as a strong hold to keep the privilege privileged. It's important to understand this history and keep it in the forefront of your mind when every last god forsaken mandate attempts to tell you otherwise. Karen Lewis explains it very well here . As policies continue to enforce a reality that is untrue (standardized test scores have value) it becomes essential for everyone under those policies to continue to pay homage to the policies if indeed this reality is to be believed by the public and continue to generate profit and power for the privileged. The reality is that providing children with nutrition, healthcare, and books, while also providing adults with a living wage, would allow our public schools and our democracy to thrive.
Under ESSA, these punitive measures will continue. There will be no relief from testing, in actuality, there will be more testing - but that's for another blog post. Turnaround schools will still exist, and the only way to shut down gaslighting is to educate and to refuse the tests. Until then, this false reality will continue to be pushed forward by policy makers. And policy makers will continue to push out true, experienced educators with teaching degrees in order to bring in fake (TFA, Relay) teachers who are willing to comply, believe the propaganda, and support the process of ranking, sorting and ordering America's children.
If you are being gaslighted, the best way to shut it down is to educate. It isn't easy to watch the transformation of a school filled with teachers and children shift to a model of education that lacks democracy, humanity, and truth. If it were easy, we wouldn't be human. Keep being human.