As a career teacher, watching the House impeachment hearings has been a sort of “out of body experience.” Like the rest of America, I’ve witnessed a parade of brilliant, highly-educated, dedicated foreign service diplomats deliver eloquent, insightful testimony under the most pressure-packed circumstances they’ve ever experienced, and do so with grace, elegance, and professionalism.
At the same time, reports have surfaced that the State Department is experiencing unprecedented levels of dysfunction and demoralization, due in large part to employees feeling a lack of support from their boss, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo:
Revelations that Pompeo was unwilling to defend career State Department officials under political attack have damaged his standing within the Department and devastated morale there, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.
To be sure, this phenomenon began under Sec. Pompeo’s predecessor, the supremely and almost comically unqualified Rex Tillerson, plucked from his comfy CEO’s perch at Exxon Mobil to set up shop at Foggy Bottom.
From the beginning, it was clear that Tillerson was ill-suited to the job, seemingly more focused on the perks of the position than he was qualified for the…um, responsibilities of the office (Narrator: “It did not go well.”):
But even before all that, sitting in a silk-upholstered chair in front of a fireplace in his office, his State Department-seal cuff links peeking out from the sleeves of his navy blue suit, the impossibility of Tillerson’s assignment was apparent.
Things at the State Department did not improve during Tillerson’s first few months on the job, as he hollowed out the corps diplomatic core:
In a few short months, Tillerson had rid the State Department of much of its last several decades of diplomatic experience, though it was not really clear to what end. The new secretary of state, it soon became evident, had an easier time firing people than hiring them — a consequence of the election that delivered him to Foggy Bottom.
Tillerson, like his Cabinet-comrade Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, also destroyed the culture of his agency by attempting to cut his own budget, and shedding hundreds of experienced, dedicated career employees from the department’s roster:
At the same time Tillerson was getting ready to carry out his redesign, he was also trying to accommodate the Trump administration’s demand to drastically slash the State Department’s budget, ultimately acquiescing to a 30 percent cut.
The result has been an alarming deterioration of morale in the State Department and the nation’s diplomatic corps:
In nearly 300 embassies, missions and consulates around the world where State Department officials work to promote and defend America’s interests, diplomats complain about not just a dearth of resources but also a lack of guidance. “I’d request instructions on action items, saying I need a decision, and I’d hear absolutely nothing,” a recently returned ambassador said. Meanwhile, foreign leaders are increasingly emboldened in their attempts to drive a wedge between America’s diplomatic corps and the president. Earlier this year, according to Foreign Policy, Trump pushed out the United States ambassador to Jordan at the request of the country’s king. And this month, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has cultivated a close relationship with Trump, declared the American ambassador to his country persona non grata after a visa dispute. “We do not see him as the representative of the United States in Turkey,” Erdogan said.
A result, according to the nearly two dozen current and former State Department officials with whom I spoke, is that the department’s morale has never been lower. For that, almost all of them blame Tillerson. “When we’re put up for confirmation and swearing in, we thank the president and the secretary of state for having confidence in us, but I’m not sure I can honestly say that anymore,” the 25-year veteran of the Foreign Service confessed. “It’s not even about the president for me. It’s that I am deeply, deeply anguished about the secretary of state, and I have never felt like that.”
Unfortunately, things have not improved under Pompeo, as career diplomats worry that he has become more of a political defender of the president than the “head of state”:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned Monday morning from a European trip to a State Department workforce that is increasingly demoralized and resentful under his leadership, amid a growing belief that he has subordinated its mission and abandoned colleagues in the service of President Trump’s political aims.
The “prevailing mood is low and getting lower, if it can,” said Thomas R. Pickering, a diplomatic dean who served in high-ranking department positions and held seven ambassadorships, including to Russia and the United Nations, under six presidents of both parties.
Trump, according to Giuliani, ordered that career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch be fired as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and she was removed from her post in May. In his July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump described her as “bad” and ominously warned that “she’s going to go through some things.”
The parallels between the “demoralization” that these foreign service diplomats have been referencing during their testimony at the impeachment hearings and the demoralization we see in our country’s teaching force are uncanny:
- highly educated employees who are often supervised by inexperienced, unqualified persons (see: Tillerson, Rex and DeVos, Betsy)
- persons who have dedicated their professional lives to service–placing country over party, or their responsibility to their students over financial rewards
- public servants who stand up for their colleagues, or their students, and are then not supported by their supervisors or principals (see: Yovanovitch, Marie and Pompeo, Mike)
- seeing their work sabotaged by political rogue actors like the “Three Amigos,” or corporate education reform groups like “Teach for America” and the “Relay Graduate School of Education“, that are focused on different goals and objectives (i.e., “domestic political errands” vs. “international diplomacy and national security”; “privatization of public education and teacher union bashing” vs. “student learning and supporting public institutions”)
- being hamstrung or kneecapped by being forced to follow policies they know are not in the best interest of the country, or their students–and in fact may be dangerous:
“We think that there’s a growing movement of parents and educators who have been sounding the alarm that these tests are really detrimental and harmful to the academic development of children.” Potter indicated that CTU would stand firm in its views.
“In any political fight, there are two sides, and in this case, one side is threatening the other,” he said. “Do we just back off and allow the test to be administered and whimper away, or we do stand up for children who are going to have to suffer under hours and hours of unhelpful testing that will detract from instruction?”
Again, we can see disturbing similarities in how the witnesses from the diplomatic corps have been treated through the impeachment hearings:
Two weeks of public testimony has revealed new, damaging details of the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine, but witnesses who come before Congress and the American people have had to pay a price.
Witnesses have endured harassment, threats and attacks on their personal character as they are suddenly thrust into public view.
Those who’ve given testimony have described such incidents in both closed and open hearings during the impeachment inquiry detailing their experiences related to the Ukraine scandal.
It seems clear that Trump threatened Ukraine, a relatively small country at war with it’s much larger and more powerful neighbor, Russia, by withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in needed military aid unless they promised to announce an investigation of the Bidens–an eerie parallel to how schools and teachers that don’t report the minimum % of students sitting for their state’s mandated standardized tests are being threatened by states with withholding hundreds of millions of dollars from their allotted school allowances…
Last spring, as anti-testing activists and teachers’ unions rallied parents to have their children opt out, the state and federal Education Departments repeatedly warned that districts with high refusal rates risked losing federal funds…Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government has the right to impose various sanctions on states that fail to ensure all students are tested, including withholding Title I funds, which go to schools based on their numbers of poor students. Under the same law, the state itself can withhold funds from districts or schools that do not have sufficient numbers of students tested. The federal government has never imposed such a punishment.”
Education officials, like former New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia, have used these threats as cudgels to intimidate schools into administering these exams; exams that teachers know are not useful, or helpful in terms of either improving instructional practices or evaluating student learning—the two purposes of evaluation.
Teachers also are confronted with state and national education officials endorsing policies that are in conflict with educational best practices, and that are not research-informed:
The state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, appeared on Thursday to be trying to walk a fine line — not wanting to appear to condone opting out, while saying she hoped the federal government would not withhold funds. “I do think it’s good for kids to take the assessments,’ she said. ‘I don’t think that it necessarily is good for kids to have resources taken away that should be supporting them in their classrooms.”
And it’s not just happening in New York. Officials in Illinois, Massachusetts, and several other states have issued similar threats to withhold state tax dollars from public school districts that either refuse to administer these tests, or do not report adequate numbers of students sitting for the exams. In spite of the overwhelming lack of evidence that these tests serve any meaningful educational purpose, and are in fact being rejected with increasing frequency as admissions requirements by many of the nation’s leading universities.
According to Tim Slekar, the Dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College and host of the BustED Pencils radio show and podcast, the media’s coverage of the “teacher shortage” has diverted attention away from the underlying problem contributing to a mass exodus of talented, experienced teachers out of the nation’s classrooms:
the failed policy of “test-based accountability has destroyed the profession of teaching and caused a mass demoralization and exodus from public school classrooms. And let’s not forget about the thousands of hours of lost instruction time in the sciences, social studies, arts, music and anything else that doesn’t conform to basic literacy and numeracy skills.”
“Who designed such a pernicious system? Not teachers. They’ve been too busy trying to shield their students from the harm being dictated by policy makers and think tanks. However, all of that shielding has taken a toll and the number of demoralized teachers leaving our classrooms cannot be labeled as a simple shortage. It is an exodus.”
Thank goodness for the women
If there are any heroes in our narrative, they are the whip-smart, unflappable, experienced women who have been the unquestioned “stars” of the impeachment hearings to date. Career diplomats and state department officials like Marie Yovanovitch, Jennifer Williams, Laura Cooper, and Dr. Fiona Hill:
Their appearances were cheered…by viewers and listeners around the world, for their competence and composure under a glaring spotlight at an extraordinary moment in American history…
These women, veteran civil servants of what Trump has denigrated as a nefarious “deep state” working to undermine his presidency, told lawmakers they were compelled by a strong sense of duty to come forward, at times in defiance of White House orders not to cooperate.
They are high-ranking and deeply credentialed experts and diplomats who have served presidents of both parties from offices in Washington and around the world. They are Ivy League-educated and eminently prepared, with meticulous notes and important correspondence.
And they are naturalized and native-born Americans who testified knowledgeably and unapologetically at great financial cost and personal risk – and in the face of attacks from the president, and even death threats.
And in a turn of events that will come as no surprise to the nation’s teachers, 77% of whom are women, it’s clear that misogyny has played a role in these events:
But they weren’t just coming forward now. They had raised concerns in real time. And on at least one occasion, Hill testified, her justified anger over the handling of Trump’s Ukraine policy was discounted as “emotional”.
“I hate to say it,” Hill said. “But often when women show anger it’s not fully appreciated. It’s often pushed on to emotional issues perhaps, or deflected on to other people.”
From the House speaker who launched the investigation to the veteran civil servants who testified and the lawmakers who questioned them, women have played a central role at every phase of the impeachment proceedings.
Pundits in the Twitterverse are now freaking out, and with good reason, about how intelligent, poised, and strong Dr. Fiona Hill has been in her testimony, and saying they have “never seen anyone like her.”
To these persons I would like to suggest a visit to any public school or university in this country, because they are full of women just like Dr. Hill.
Women who have devoted their professional lives to public service…
Women who have earned multiple advanced degrees in their areas of expertise…
Women who have led with strength, compassion, and honor…
Women who have eschewed notoriety and financial reward to do the hard work of helping educate and raise generations of America’s doctors, plumbers, soldiers, CEOs, and diplomats…
And our nation would be a whole hell of a lot better off if we started listening to them.
[Fiona Hill image credit: Brookings Institution | Flickr]