Our Place in the Corner…

I’d been meaning to get back to a comment that Mike left me last weekend on my Pavlovian post.  He wrote: 

My little aphorism for new teachers is that when it comes to understanding and properly responding to the daily concerns and needs of classroom teachers and their students, principals, even principals who really want to be supportive of teachers, are essentially beings from another planet. Central office administrators are from another galaxy; state educrats are from another universe and federal educrats are, at best, an utterly unfathomable form of life (perhaps) from another dimension.

Anyone who has worked in schools for long enough can relate to Mike’s sentiments, that’s for sure!  As a pretty accomplished teacher, I’ve always struggled to accept decisions made by those beyond the classroom without question.  Far too often, a school’s direction is set with little input from those who work closest to the children—and as a result, policies and practices in all but the most successful schools and systems are underinformed at best and just plain ineffective at worst. 

But I’ve gotten to the point where I’m convinced that our profession is plagued by too much chest thumping and too little action.  We’re quick to point out every flaw in our leaders but we do little to try to assert more influence over decisions.  We shun committee work, do little to understand the change process in organizations that are based on human interaction, and fail to raise awareness about work beyond the classroom door.   

Decades of this inactivity (apathy?) has earned us a place in the corner when it comes to school reform.  No one seeks our opinion because we haven’t proven that we can be articulate and well-informed advocates.  One of my favorite phrases is, "We have to make empowerment less risky and more rewarding before decisions will move from the principal’s office to the classroom door." 

That takes concentrated effort to stay "tuned-in" to trends in education and to build background knowledge on topics that fall outside of our day-to-day work.  With background knowledge comes credibilty—and with credibility comes opportunity.  We’ll be "heard" far more when those "above" us recognize our ability to bridge classroom expertise with an understanding of what’s possible at the school, district and state level.    

2 thoughts on “Our Place in the Corner…

  1. Mike

    Oh dear. Bill, thanks, as always for your kind comments about my responses to your blogs, but I’m afraid we’re all about to break into a chorus of kumbuyah and like, get really mellow, man! While I understand what you’re suggesting, I’m afraid it’s not terribly practical for one primary reason: human nature.
    It has been my sad experience, you see, that most human relationships, in schools or out, are dominated and motivated by the desire to attain and keep power. The higher up the ladder one goes, the more power they accumulate and the more determined they become to keep those below them on the lower rungs. Lord Action was right: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I’m not talking about deranged superintendents with nuclear weapons here, but human nature is human nature.
    Thus we have classroom teachers looking down on substitutes, custodians, support staff (which is unconscionable, by the way), and everyone above the teachers doing the same, only in more overt and nastier ways. Thus, no matter how skilled teachers become, no matter how aware, how reflective on our own processes and how strong our sense of how our work fits into current educational trends is, it will avail us little or nothing because we’re not understanding the underlying dynamic.
    You’d like examples? But of course! In my district, which is a good place to work in large part because you’re pretty much left alone to do your work, I’ve tried to work with the theater department for years. I have a minor in music and a lifetime of theatrical experience, and in other districts, have served as theater coordinator, advising on new construction, renovating existing theaters, etc. But in my district, the theater director (and of course, I) can’t have keys to their own theater. The maintenance department, which really runs our district, won’t allow it. Why not? Keys are power. But that’s idiotic you say, and you’re right. But that’s power.
    My superintendent calls me a “Renaissance man,” and he means it. He even repeats it to others. Does this translate into his seeking out my advice? Taking my advice? Implementing my suggestions? Not for a second. Then what’s up? I’m just guessing here, but hiring renaissance men reflects well on him, but imposes no obligation to listen to those renaissance men. That would involve the sharing of–all together now–power.
    But in the state of Texas, the law requires that schools be run by “site-based committees” comprised in large part of teachers who are supposed to have a significant say in the operation of their schools. This is true. And in my school, we do indeed have such a committee, which spends months arguing over minor changes in bell schedules, dress codes, etc. But doesn’t the law require that they have a significant say in…you’re kidding, right? The state Attorney General is going to prosecute someone because teachers don’t have sufficient say in running schools? Power again.
    Again, I’m afraid our plight isn’t due to years of being insular or insufficiently bureacratic in-fighting savvy, but it’s due to the very nature of people and organizations. After all, administrators writing their doctoral dissertations won’t get many points for bold new moves in turning power over to, of all people, teachers. No percentage, degree, or professional journal publications in that. After all, they’re the educational leaders and innovators, and they’ve got the diplomas, high salaries, company cars, and swank offices to prove it. I know that not every principal or administrator is inherently Machiavellian, but I’m suggesting that it may be a bit naive to think that they have teacher’s best interests at heart to the point of sublimating their own ideas and accepting the ideas of teachers instead. And even if they did, their bosses would not likely be receptive to the idea. For too many, empowered and aware teachers are only more threatening.
    It’s reminiscent of the classic Monty Python skit where a pair of smarmy doctors are explaining the medical process called “a birth” to a completely dense and self-absorbed hospital administrator who can hold forth at length about fiscal tricks, is very impressed by the machine that goes “ping” (but apparently has no other use whatever), but has no real idea what goes on in a hospital, literally over the body of the mother, feet up in stirrups. Confused, she asks” But what do I do?” They reply “Nothing. You’re not qualified.”
    For me, it always comes down to one thing: When the bell rings, I shut the door and teach as well as I possibly can. I’m qualified to do that. Ping!

  2. Jeff lackney

    As one of those “outsiders” to the school, as an educational (facilities) planner, I can add that having a teaching staff ready and able to discuss and reflect on their own practices assists the us as designers to serving the needs of teaching and learning much better. Some of my best conversations with educators have come when teachers have a strong sense of how their work fits into the trends in education; they are empowered and as such are already on a road of continuous improvement. When reflective thinking like this happens, we are then freed up to create learning environments that can make your practices rock.

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