On a more somber note…

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I’m going to throw in a News Tribune article about a young woman who committed suicide by stepping out in front of a semi truck here because it deserves to be shared in its entirety:

Teacher’s suicide stuns school, spurs colleagues to speak out

School board surprised by allegations of workplace bullying and fear

January 01, 2012|By Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Tribune reporter

On Thanksgiving, a grade-school gym teacher parked on the shoulder of Interstate 80/94 in northwest Indiana, got out of her Mercury SUV and walked in front of a moving semi truck.

The 32-year-old’s suicide shocked the tiny Ford Heights school district where she worked. In the days afterward, tension grew amid conversations by co-workers about what had happened and questions from the Army veteran’s parents. The turmoil peaked during a crowded meeting in December, when some teachers and school board members clashed.

The suicide note that Mary Thorson left centered on frustrations at the school, and her death spurred some of her co-workers to speak out at the public meeting.

Teachers described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the two-school district, where little things snowballed over time.

“We don’t feel like we can speak out because we have been intimidated,” teacher Rose Jimerson said at the meeting. “We have signs all over the building about anti-bullying. … Our staff gets bullied.”

Co-workers and friends said in interviews that Thorson was deeply upset by her job and was worried she was on the verge of being fired. She had been suspended in April after allegedly striking a student and again a week before her death, records show. The second suspension was for allegedly cursing at a student, a co-worker said.

Even some of those close to Thorson acknowledged that it’s difficult to pinpoint why anyone commits suicide, but her death opened wounds in the district. School district officials have vowed to work on healing with new channels of communication.

School board members and the administration expressed sorrow over Thorson’s death but also surprise at the way some teachers described the work atmosphere.

At the meeting, board members denied the allegations and asked why no one had come forward with such concerns.

“If you guys would have come and brought allegations and we didn’t address it, then you would have every right to say what you need to say,” Board President Joe Sherman said.

Thorson, known as Coach T, left behind a handwritten, six-page note in her SUV. Other than one paragraph in which she apologized to her parents for the hurt her death would cause, the rest of the note was exclusively about Ford Heights School District 169.

Thorson’s parents agreed to share the note with the Tribune. In it, Thorson wrote, sometimes rambling, about the plight of children in the poor school district and the lack of resources and discipline. She also wrote about the school’s leadership and said teachers were not taken seriously.

“We must speak up about what’s going on!” The note concludes: “This life has been unbelievable.”

Thorson had started her teaching career after an eight-year stint in the Army Reserve, where she attained the rank of specialist and served honorably, said Army spokesman Mark Edwards. She joined in 1998, just out of high school, to help pay for college, said her father, John Thorson.

Thorson was the first in her family to graduate from college, getting a diploma from Western Illinois University in 2005. She worked at schools in Chicago and Bellwood before taking a job in Ford Heights at Cottage Grove Upper Grade Center in 2008.

A lot of sympathetic teachers in my district discussed this incident when it occurred. Teachers in underperforming schools frequently face that kind of stress, as outsiders demand fixes for troubles that no teacher can control. Children can’t learn unless they are in school, for example, but when parents don’t send those children, a teacher’s options are limited. That teacher may still get slapped in a review for the chronically absent students’ test scores.

 

Eduhonesty:  That teacher had been suspended after allegedly striking a student and suspended again shortly before her death for allegedly cursing at a student. I can’t speak to the truth of those allegations. I can tell readers that certain students try to provoke these responses. They may spend an entire class period trying to get the teacher as angry as possible in hopes of making that teacher do something stupid. Sometimes kids do this for sport, especially in our underperforming and urban schools. A kid who is failing his classes and plans to drop out has little incentive to behave. If the teacher sends him to the Dean, he gets out of class. That’s a win for a student who did not want to be in class in the first place. If the teacher doesn’t send that student out, but just looks steadily more harried and upset, that’s a win, too. Administration may provide little help. I have a referral form here for a student I sent out for talking. It says, “this is a classroom management issue.” The first time that student talked, that was a classroom management issue. The tenth or fifteenth time might have been. But by the time I wrote that referral, I was looking for some help. I wasn’t surprised not to get it, though.

Part of the problem is an idea sweeping through administrative academia: Administrators now are told that students need to be kept in the classroom if at all possible, since they cannot learn if they are not in the classroom. Professors who have never taught in a public school point out that removing kids from the classroom necessarily deprives those kids of opportunities to learn. But little attention is given to the impact of chronically-misbehaving students on the classroom, as they steal learning minutes from other students. Five minutes here, five minutes there, and pretty soon these students have taken hours from their peers, a fact that some of these miscreants find funny.

Why are there bully posters in all our schools? Because there are bullies in all our schools. The sad fact is that sometimes teachers are bullied, too. I hope the kids who kept pushing Mary Thorson’s buttons on that day have learned something from what happened. I’m selfish enough to hope they have a few nightmares, too.