Catch 22-How to Drive Someone Crazy: Letters to Esther’s School Board

I want to share with you two letters. I wrote one after receiving a note from Dave, and the other after hearing Dave’s response to my draft of the first.

Dear Board Members (1),

I’ve just received an eloquent but disturbing letter from the husband of one of your teachers. I’ll call the two Dave and Esther. I want to share it with you and then discuss your role and the burden she feels is placed upon her. I take the writer to be a caring man who would do almost anything to help his wife, and I hope you‘ll hear your own concerns in it:

“My wife is (an elementary) teacher and is very frustrated. She says teachers are not allowed to teach because they are mandated to spend most of their time evaluating students. She has told me that she believes they are doing ‘a lot of things not enough’ and they need to be doing ‘a few things a lot.’ She feels that No Child Left Behind is a crock, as it goes against the basic rules of nature. Because of this mandate, the school teacher sends too much time evaluating when the time is better spent teaching. She is in a … system that is strapped for resources and the leadership of that system does not possess the capacity to properly channel the resources in order to get the most teaching for the buck.

“My wife began teaching (many) years ago because she felt there was a need for teachers that were excited about teaching. I told her last weekend that I am afraid she has become what she got into teaching to change. So many teachers in our area are beat down by bureaucratic overload that reading, writing, and arithmetic are hardly even on anyone’s list of priorities. It seems that achievement tests are the rules of the classroom and instead of reading, writing, and arithmetic, we are teaching “Bubble in the Dot.”

“My wife needs some help. I think she is a good teacher but our system prevents good teaching to manifest. My wife has a masters degree in … and is… Between rapidly declining socio-economics, bureaucratic overload, lack of leadership, etc., I am afraid my wife is going to quit simply out of frustration. Our public schools need help. I would appreciate a copy of your book, so I can help my wife try to regain her perspective…”

Board members, please don’t take Dave’s letter or my comments as criticism of you. I respect your willingness to expend your time and effort for your community, but we have a problem to solve. Your presence in the system is a reflection of the American premise that while professionals supply expertise to do a job, it must be ordinary citizens reflecting community values who define what to pursue. What we want from our schools is for you to ask for.

So if administrators come to you with a complex proposal, it’s in your job description to say, “Wait a minute. Explain that to me in one-syllable words.” If they can’t do that, then you say, “I think we ought to look into this more closely.“ You’re the community’s common sense as focused on the schools, and when those “above you” fail to act with common sense, what is one to do? How about refusing to do it, and doing instead what your own common sense dictates? Where does a transformation/revolution start but with people directly affected who see what’s wrong?

The problem with the organizational design is that professionals carry out everything, and can easily snow the non-professionals who are held at arm’s length. I had a long talk a few months ago with the president of a school board of a well-performing district. She’d been a teacher herself and held practically every position available. We discussed the relationship between board and administrators, and I inquired how far the board would go if it thought a change was needed. She was adamant. If the board felt that a change was needed, she was clear that that it could implement it.

As we ended our talk, I offered a suggestion I thought would help her district. She agreed that the change was needed, and she told me she would pass it on to an administrator. Then she cautioned that within the working relationship she had with administrators, she would go just so far in suggesting something.

Time went by, I heard nothing from the administrator, and recognized the familiar bottom line, that school boards have power but choose not to use it. In some localities a “good old boy network” steadies things. People who work together for a long time develop their routines and no one upsets things by insisting on change.

My train of thought arrives then at this station: By what you have permitted and accepted, you have brought about the picture Dave paints in his letter. If you want a different picture for your district, you are the ones selected by your community to request it.

Finally, the parallel with Catch-22. You remember the story. A squadron of bomber crews in World War II tried to stay alive while their superiors treated them inhumanely and constantly increased the number of missions required before they could return home. Yossarian, the hero, discovers that insanity is considered a reason to be sent home, but the catch is that anyone claiming insanity thereby proves that he’s sane by his logical reasoning. So either way, you lose. If you’re genuinely crazy, you don’t know it, keep flying, and get shot down. If you’re not crazy, you’re not eligible to return home, keep flying, and get shot down. No win.

Look closely and you’ll recognize the “no win” theme in Dave’s letter. If Esther complies with the bureaucracy, she has no time to teach, the kids don’t learn, and she loses. If Esther defies the requirements and teaches as she knows best, she’s a rebel, faces consequences, and again she loses. No win, crazy time, frustration multiplied.

You are the ones to do something about it.

Dear Board Members (2),

I sent a draft of the letter above to Dave, thinking he might want to take it to

Esther’s board and give it a reason to discuss teachers’ needs. Dave wrote back that there were ways to identify Esther in his original message to me, and that there was certain to be retaliation against her if it were published as sent.

I sighed, changed the names and deleted details, and noticed how my judgment about Esther’s school board had gone awry. Typically I start off assuming the best about everyone. I try to place myself in their shoes and think how I would feel handling their problems. I can sympathize with nearly anything from one perspective or another, and understand rage and jealousy and hurt. Even a scene from Dostoevsky sticks in my mind. The narrator in the story describes watching a military officer kick a man to death with heavy boots, and then saying calmly, “You can learn a lot by kicking a man to death.” I can’t personally wrap my head around what he learned but I recognize that what he was doing made sense to him.

Having Dave certain that you would retaliate against Esther is in the same category to me as watching a man be kicked to death. One is left with their jaw hanging open in wonder at what kind of people would do that. I can’t enter the frame of reference of that military officer nor such a school board because what they protect and assert are simply strange to me, outside the orbit of my cosmos.

But I also know what happens to people who depart from the common cosmos of thought of those around them. They miss crucial knowledge and their judgment is impaled with a mortal wound. It is impossible to judge well what we exclude from our awareness. A board that suppresses the best thinking of its own employees from even being aired is proceeding toward a cliff that is invisible to it. It is bringing on the time when the nation suddenly and vehemently says “Out!” and the carefully manicured system that favored the few in charge is ripped away.

That’s not by hostility from any human being but lies in the nature of reality. Reality stays there and waits, whether you see it or not. Sooner or later reality has its way– maybe in chaos in your own community arising from the actions of students whose needs you dismiss, maybe a national movement to correct the “school-to-prison pipeline” you generate, maybe a teacher revolt, maybe the Federal government taking over. If you do not fulfill the responsibility you voluntarily accepted, you give energy to the forces in society that inevitably are drawn to the field you deserted.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of Finding Your Inner Lenin: Taking Responsibility for Global Change (Xlibris, 2006). He welcomes comments sent to him directly at and will email an ebook version of his book to anyone without charge upon request. Read other articles by John.

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  1. Dave Ziffer said on December 9th, 2009 at 4:19pm #

    I have never seen a school board either intelligently discuss or expressly do anything of any educational significance.

    Mark Twain said it best: “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”