You Might Be a Petty Tyrant If

A couple of years ago I was written up for wearing a red shirt to school. It was one of those national “Wear Red for Ed” days and the union had sent an email telling everyone to wear shirts that had been designed during a previous round of negotiations. They bore the words “Support Charlotte Teachers As We Support Your Students.” Administration caught wind of it and issued a memo telling teachers that such an act would be considered political and could result in discipline (because I guess suggesting that the public support teachers and students is political now – nice time we live in). Some teachers switched to other red shirts. I altered mine a bit:

The Superintendent directed the principals to go around and record the names of all the teachers who wore red shirts. I guess it’s in my permanent file now, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

This episode was one of many that teachers in my former district endured under the “leadership” of petty tyrants, and even it, silly as it was, doesn’t come close to how bad some teachers have it.

When I started this blog two and a half years ago, I didn’t think I was being brave. Still don’t. But apparently, that’s because I work for sane people. I’ve had readers email me things like, “Thanks for saying what we can’t” and “Thank you for being a voice for those of us too afraid to speak up.” Teachers have left anonymous comments on blog posts with arguments far more persuasive than anything I’ve written but then declined an opportunity to write a guest article because they were afraid someone in their district office would see it and deduce its author.  One Amazon reviewer left the following review for my book The Teacher’s Guide to Saying NO:

“Every teacher should read this book, subscribe to his page, follow him on Facebook! He and his guest writers say exactly what we would say if we could.”

Others have flat out said that if they wrote what I wrote, they’d be out of a job.

Some of this is likely fear on the part of teachers. While they may indeed work for contemptible, officious prats, they’re probably exaggerating the limits those prats want to place on their speech.

But some of this fear to speak up — far too much of it — is the fact that we have too many petty tyrants in positions of educational leadership. Offered a sip of power for the first time in their lives, they slam down the entire goblet and prance around like Nero. 

These leaders cause harm to our education system. They make improvement impossible by shutting down any possibility of debate that could make things better. The culture of fear and silence they cultivate drive good teachers from the classroom and destroy the morale of those who stay. It’s hard to pour your heart and soul into a job when the people who are in charge show so little respect for the work you do and focus instead on the color of shirt you’re wearing. Leaders who stand in front of teachers and tell them that it’s all about the kids but then act in ways that discourage candid criticism and snuff out pointed questions are not actually interested in improving their schools or districts; they’re interested in doing what’s easiest for them.

They say that people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. In my experience, this is true. I know many teachers who left their previous schools, not because of pay, or parents, or student behavior, or the physical condition of the building they worked in but because they were sick and tired of working for people who were more concerned with silencing teachers, squelching dissent, and promoting a false image of harmony to the community than they were about improving the teaching and learning in their schools.


If you won’t allow your teachers to speak to the media

If no teacher in your employ ever speaks critically at a school board meeting

If your instinct after having one of your decisions criticized is to get revenge on those doing the criticizing

If you’re more concerned with your image than the performance of the school or district you run

If you’re spending any time at all looking at your teachers’ social media pages

If you ask teachers to fill out surveys and there are no criticisms because the teachers suspect you’ll be able to identify them

If you never ask teachers to provide feedback on your performance as a leader

Then you might be a petty tyrant.

If you are, KNOCK IT OFF.  Do better. Be better. See if you can find a little humility and maybe learn something that will make your district or building a better place to work and learn.

And if you can’t do that, then please find something else to do.

Fiddle, perhaps.

The folks over at My Morning Routine interviewed me about – you guessed it – my morning routine, such as it is. You can read that here.

I received a shout out on a fun new education podcast, Teacher Talk with Mr. Teachwell, during their episode “The Teachwell Teacher Greets Summer.” Listen here. 

I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.

13 Replies to “You Might Be a Petty Tyrant If”

  1. Love this article! As a newly minted administrator these are exactly the trends I am hoping to change. We need leaders in education, not bosses. I would love to collab with you to provide more resources for both teachers and administrators on how to form TEAMS working toward the goal of excellent education.

  2. Murph:

    You are inspirational every time you write – and each time I nod my head in agreement I am being reminded of some incident from my days in teaching – or of some experience with an officious long-gone-from-the-classroom-into Education Officer role person.

    I was a state secondary school teacher in NSW (Australia) many years ago – with a mix of petty micro-controller school principals and others who encouraged and publicly praised. You can imagine under which I flourished as an educator. I rose to the dizzy heights of classroom teacher (changing subject disciplines – English and History, French/German introductory courses – at the equivalent of upper US-style elementary level – and finally Japanese through to university entrance level). Never interested in the career path which make take me away from the classroom. And then with my teaching degrees and diplomas and so forth I went to Japan and spent some 16 years teaching English (in the long run – via stories from Japanese history and contemporary culture) at middle school, senior high and at university level. Still very comfortable with my classroom teacher status via the rewards of students actively pursuing learning in my classes and beyond.

    That the kinds of people policing red-shirts and/or other small-minded matters are the administrators of public education is a worry indeed – power hungry, power mad – you made the point very effectively with the Nero comparison. Let’s hope for a tsunami of activism washing them well away from the education arena.

    1. Long-gone-from-the-classroom is bad enough, be now we have not a single administrator in the building who has actually ever been a classroom teacher. The state, being desperate for administrators, go rid of its minimum-5-years-in-the-classroom requirement for supervision certification, apparently. Welcome to the madhouse.

    2. The worst administrator/boss/person (really, in 36 years in education) I have ever known was from Australia, actually. Just saying.

  3. There is no debate allowed in my specialized department, which encompasses many satellite schools in a large school district in a major city. The department seems to operate under an “isolate and conquer” philosophy. This administration is essentially run by individuals from former Soviet bloc countries. If there is ever a meeting, PD, or “teacher talk” scheduled, it is never left to teachers alone to meet. Always an administrative representative within this specialized department is present.

    When I dissented about a new elementary curriculum that was being encouraged in a strong-armed manner for me to start using, I wondered what others in the satellite elementary schools within my department were thinking. I sent out emails to those teachers requesting their opinions. I got their opinions back, and they almost unanimously had very negative opinions about it. Within a few weeks, without warning, I was reassigned to a middle school.

  4. Good for you!!! Use your voice! As a retired teacher in IL, I am horrified at what is happening to and in my beloved profession. My best!

    1. And I hope things will be making a turn for the better with the new leadership. From the little research I did, it seems they’ve found two good candidates.

  5. I am currently in a school district being “lead” by the pettiest of tyrants ever. Everything is “what does the policy book say?” when he is asked a simple question. We all know that there are no black and white answers in school, just a whole lotta gray!
    We must read verbatim from a damn slide created by someone a zillion miles away from our students and classrooms. Heaven help you if you have a resource or book or activity that is not in the almighty guidebook!

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