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Published in Print: December 13, 2000, as Battered-Teacher Syndrome

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Battered-Teacher Syndrome

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Districts are debasing teachers' creativity, initiative and enterprise.

In today's educational climate, questioning the value of the standards movement seems a little like maintaining that the Earth is flat. How could anyone not recognize the importance of increasing student achievement? Standards help us eliminate curriculum redundancy, clarify what we mean by high expectations, and assess student learning in relation to clear benchmarks. The problem we need to address, though, is not with the standards themselves, but with their top-down implementation.

Unfortunately, the way many districts are implementing state mandates looks more like assault and battery than the open- forum, step-by-step, democratic process that characterized the development of the standards. Under the guise of "staff development," districts are beating the mechanics of the standards into teachers and, at the same time (whether deliberately or not), are undermining and debasing teachers' creativity, initiative, and expertise. This cycle of district abuse and teacher resignation cries out for examination.

How do current district practices batter teachers while sabotaging effective change? Let's look first at what we know about effective change. An overwhelming amount of research and professional literature demonstrates the futility and ineffectiveness of top-down mandates; teachers' practical experiences and common sense help us understand the absurdity of this approach:

  • Change never occurs in any meaningful or enduring way if the teachers involved do not recognize a need for change. A teacher has to see that something is not working well, or that it could be better. If teachers perceive that everything is currently working, there will be little that can convince them otherwise. They may make changes because they feel that they have no choice, or that they will lose their jobs if they don't, but without an accompanying shift in philosophy or belief, the necessary grounding for substantial, productive change will be missing.
  • When teachers are forced to make changes—and particularly when they do not understand the need for the change or support it—only surface changes will occur. The change will not endure.
  • Teachers will always find subversive ways to circumvent unwelcome mandated changes, or to placate those they perceive to hold power over them. They may merely pretend to acquiesce, to agree with the change, or to go along with it.

Change never occurs in any meaningful way if the teachers involved do not recognize the need for it.

  • Mandated changes leave in their wake teachers who feel angry, confused, tense, stressed out, and impotent.

Inattention to the fundamental dynamics of change is the first ingredient in a recipe for abuse. Add to it the subjection of teachers to the most ineffective yet most common route to mandate implementation—teacher staff development and in-service forums—stir well, and, voila! You have "battered-teacher syndrome." Any of the following can be symptomatic of a battered teacher: depression, resistance, anger, hostility, acquiescence, confusion, mental resignation, belligerence, helplessness, loss of self-confidence, loss of passion for teaching.

Recently, we worked with a large group of teachers at a mandated, districtwide in-service program. The district's ostensible goal was to help teachers promote student understanding. Principals had asked the teachers to develop (and share with others at the in- service) standards-based units focusing on learning opportunities that would lead to greater student understanding. The symptoms of battered-teacher syndrome—hostility, frustration, misplaced aggression, acquiescence, silence, mental resignation, and programmed responses—were clearly observable among those present.

With few exceptions, in-service training typically results in a cynical and hostile group of teachers being forced to meet and do what they perceive as a waste of their time.

As is typical in such staff-development programs, many attending this daylong process had no solid sense of what the objective was, or why they were being asked to create yet another standards-based unit simply for the purposes of this training session. This is not unusual in the world of in-service. It has always been and remains one of the most ineffective ways to promote professional growth. And with few exceptions (one being teacher-developed and - run programs), in-service training typically results in a cynical and hostile group of teachers being forced to meet for a day and to do what they perceive as a waste of their time.

Some teachers at this program could not explain why they were working on a particular unit; others said they would never use it; still others said they were doing it because they were told to. When asked how the day could be made more productive, many could not answer. Their expressions were blank, surprised, tentative, and suspicious. Only a couple offered concrete responses.


Can teachers not know what is (or could be) productive for them? Must they wait to be told? Has this happened so often that they simply have stopped thinking, or caring? Or are they too overwhelmed just trying to handle the mandates?

How can we hope to have teachers promoting critical thinking in their students if they do not understand what it is, do not practice it themselves, and cannot recognize its absence? As teachers become more battered over time, they begin to suspend critical thinking and implement blindly whatever the latest political focus orders. Given the continuing political interference in educational processes, teachers, more than ever, have to be able to sift through and analyze propaganda, determine what makes sense, and act accordingly.

As teachers become more battered over time, they begin to suspend critical thinking.

Happily, there were some teacher responses at the in-service meeting we attended that indicated a genuine intellectual curiosity about issues and ideas that affect teachers' practice and its improvement. This leaves us with a couple of questions: Why are some teachers able to survive in a less-than- optimum environment, maintain their ability to think independently, and continue to move forward in spite of demeaning mandates? And why do some teachers lose this ability and their teaching focus (assuming they once had one) and follow along sheepishly?

"Professional development" refers to teachers' developing professionally. It does not mean requiring teachers to accept without thinking whatever the state or district or school mandates. Do teachers currently have a clear process through which they can determine and identify their own professional needs in relation to student learning? Do they have a clear process through which they can move forward with professional goals, working with the support of their districts and their schools?

In some places, the answer to this question is yes. This kind of implementation is even becoming a priority in a few states. In Washington state, for example, a proposed developmental model (the Seashore Teacher Professional Certification Program) recognizes that teachers are in different stages of their professional growth. This and other models in Washington are aimed at developing a process by which teachers can review and examine their work in light of clearly defined criteria supported not only by research, but also by teachers' practical experiences. Following such review and analysis, the teachers can create a professional growth plan that makes sense to them and follows sound educational processes.


The top-down implementation of "standards"—whether these are teaching or learning standards, or whatever other kind may be fashionable next year—cannot and should not be confused with the process of professional development. The focus of the latter is the professional growth that leads to and supports intellectually-based, sound practice.

Teachers are stressed to an extent not seen in recent decades. That stress translates into unhealthy atmospheres and unproductive acadmic process in many schools.

Teachers are stressed to an extent that we have not seen in recent decades. That stress and frustration translate into unhealthy atmospheres and unproductive academic processes in many schools. Teachers should be outraged at districts that waste their time while also treating them as objects for exploitation.

If teachers themselves see a need to make changes, on the other hand, they should be able to get the support and assistance that will allow them to do so.

This is not to say that there are not teachers who need to be monitored, pushed, and forced to do things. These malingerers simply shouldn't be in education.

As outraged as teachers are and ought to be about how they are treated and the unsound, redundant, or mechanical pedagogical processes they are forced to adhere to, they should channel this outrage, through group effort, into the kind of energy that can be helpful in their continuing professional efforts to improve student learning.

Teachers need to empower themselves. They need to make their voices heard, so that they can stop being victims.


Bruce Marlowe and Marilyn Page are associate professors of education at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt. They are the authors of Creating and Sustaining the Constructivist Classroom (Corwin Press, 1998).

Vol. 20, Issue 15, Pages 43,46

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