Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Teacher's last lesson

On November 17, Mary Thorson left her students for the last time. She was suspended without pay for allegedly cursing at a student. On Thanksgiving day, she stepped in front of a semi truck. She left a letter in her car describing the conditions she faced at her school, and her stack of disciplinary notices on her bed in her apartment.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-met-teacher-suicide-20120101,0,1207321.story?page=2

From the descriptions in the article, Ms. Thorson poured all of herself into her students, and specifically picked an environment that she knew she could take care of students of highest need. She gave all of herself to the students in ways that most of the society could, but chooses not to. She may have made mistakes. I remember in particular a colleague who I would join frequently as we risked our own safety to break up gang skirmishes in my previous school. When CPS turned around Fenger High School, many of the roughest students were pushed out, some to our school and this led to increased violence at our school. One day, my colleague had a bat out "Lean on Me" style and students were rushing his door to get at some of his students. He hit the door frame with the bat to send a message, and the window in the frame shattered from the vibration, hitting a student who was watching the incident. It was a terrible mistake, but a mistake that many would never have been in the position to make. The student got stitched up and I spoke with her later. She said she was fine and she felt foolish for standing there. I honestly don't know how to process that situation.

What exactly happened to Ms. Thorson, or the severity of the bullying she faced, we may never know. But what she described is common, and it's quite clear the environment she faced based on the district's response to the situation. It's particularly telling that from the article, it doesn't appear she assigned much of her stress if any to the students she taught. That's a gift.

Reading the article, all the school board's statements were about how surprised they were and how it wasn't fair to blame them. You who it's more unfair to? The person who put their life on the line for first their country, then the kids, and was loved by the kids, bullied by admin and then pushed to suicide. That's not ****ing fair. And as for surprise, this situation is in almost every district and more pronounced in districts like Mr. Thorson. While we don't blame the students for the stress involved, the challenges we face each day make the lack of respect from the district even more difficult to handle. Even in my school, where the admin seems excellent, the district mandates are soul crushing.

I look forward to the blessed time with the students, but I always go to work knowing that I'm probably going to lose students and colleagues--to the stress, to the poor district supports and ultimately to depression, suicide and violence.

In allowing these conditions to continue, in a way we are all responsible. We in fear stay silent and the society in ignorance chooses to not notice the reality and blame the outcomes on those of us who devote our lives to the students in these environments.

The first step is what her colleagues did in sharing their realities and in such a way, celebrating her life and final words: "We must speak up about what's going on!"

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