Struggling for Power…

I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to read my Standing in the Corner post about the role that teachers should play in school decision making, but it’s gotten a few interesting feedback comments.  First, Jeff–who keeps an interesting blog called School Studio—wrote:

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 us as designers to serve 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.

For whatever reason, Jeff’s post rubbed me the wrong way.  I’m not sure why, but I felt a sense of "If teachers would just get out of the way, the rest of us could improve schools."  Of course, that theme runs through many of my strands about teacher neediness and our responsibility for making empowerment less risky and more rewarding—but I guess hearing an "outsider" say the same things seemed wrong.

Mike echoed some of my feelings of frustration when he wrote:

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. 

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.

I couldn’t agree more that there is an incredibly interesting dynamic at work here.  Struggle for power definitely plays out in schools and districts every single day—and has permeated every element of our profession leading to dangerous assumptions and quick judgments in many buildings.  "Us versus Them" attitudes dominate our thinking and phrases like "let’s stand up to this," or "I’m going to explode" indicate that adversarial relationships exist between classroom teachers and other educational professionals.   

Some administrators see teachers as "out of place" or "incompetent," valuing their own experiences and knowledge above anything that a teacher may possess.  Position and title are sacred and carry the only legitimate authority in many organizations.  Heck, even the title of "instructional leader" has been removed from the hands of classroom teachers and placed under the perview of those who are no longer instructors.

Teachers—lacking any official organizational power—feel slighted at every turn and respond testily to what may (or may not) be innocent comments and decisions.  My initial reaction to Jeff was nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction based on repeated experiences where I’ve been spoken down to by "experts" removed from the classroom.

Perhaps it’s time that all school personnel—from superintendents through cafeteria supervisors—begin reading Roland Barth.  Barth has long written about the impact that positive relationships between adults in a schoolhouse have on student achievement.  In fact, Barth argues that productive conversations are the single greatest factor in school improvement.  In this interview with the Journal for Staff Development, he explains:

"Conversations have the capacity to promote reflection, to create and exchange craft knowledge, and to help improve the organization.  Schools, I’m afraid, deal more in meetings — in talking at and being talked at — than in conversation…

By conversations I mean a dialogue characterized by mutual respect, time to really talk and reflect, active and nonjudgmental listening, the development of shared meaning. But the work of people in schools doesn’t lend itself to such conversations.

I’ve likened the experience of an educator in a school to that of a tennis shoe in a laundry dryer. It is difficult to have contemplative conversations in a laundry dryer. But many schools have found ways to create cultures that enable educators to get out of their laundry dryers, at least periodically, so they can reflect on what’s going on. A school that’s hospitable to conversation has to slow down a bit.

One precondition for a good conversation, of course, is having something to say. But a big part of conversation is listening, and I don’t think we have very sophisticated listening skills in schools. When someone talks, we are too often waiting for him or her to run out of gas so that we can jump in and get our airtime. It’s important that we be respectful of what each individual has to say.

I don’t know too many principals and superintendents who are good listeners. They want others to listen to them, of course. Conversation is much more equitable and satisfying when people talk and listen in roughly equal amounts and there is little posturing regarding who is the superordinate and who is the subordinate."

Barth goes on to argue that the single most important relationship in any school is that between the principal and teachers.  Both partners in this relationship, Barth writes, are responsible for promoting "we" thinking:

It’s important that both teachers and principals nurture…relationships. It’s a reciprocal responsibility. Unfortunately, given their charge to monitor teachers’ compliance with mandates, principals are more and more being placed in the role of adversaries to teachers.

When I was a teacher, and I suspect it is true for other teachers as well, I knew I wasn’t able to do all the things I was supposed to be doing, let alone do them all well. As a result, when a principal or superintendent walks in a classroom almost every teacher feels, "Oh my gosh, I’m going to be discovered as a fraud." No wonder teachers close their doors and cover the windows with artwork.

All of this wreaks havoc with relationships between principals and teachers. It’s getting harder and harder to maintain a respectful, collegial relationship because principals are often caught between supporting teachers and acting as agents for those who are laying expectations on the teachers. That’s a job that fewer and fewer educators are able to do or want to take on.

As a principal, I tried to change the first person pronoun I used from "I" to "we." When principals distribute leadership to many others within schools, then it becomes "we" who have a problem and "we" who are working on a solution. Teacher leadership is not only a huge part of the solution of relationship problems between principals and teachers, it’s a huge part of the solution to the problem of improving public schools.

Is my contention that the struggle for power in a schoolhouse can be set aside Utopian?

Perhaps….I know that the positive relationships that I’ve shared with those above me on the "organizational ladder" have only been the result of hours and hours of hard work.  It would be unfair to expect all teachers to make the same kinds of investments into relationship building while they are juggling the demands of today’s classrooms and trying to maintain a semblence of a personal life.

But I would also argue that setting aside power struggles is essential if we are ever going to maximize our efforts to ensure that every child succeeds.  Until all of education’s stakeholders—including those with established organizational power like principals and superintendents—leave their titles at the door and join together to promote "we" thinking in buildings, we’ll struggle at best and fail at worst. 

So I guess the critical question is whose responsibility is it to take the first step towards relationship building?

4 thoughts on “Struggling for Power…

  1. Jim

    Why would administrators listen to people who consistently whine for attention? If teachers want shared power then stop complaining and work on improving lessons. I see sloppy teaching habits all day long – and mainly from the biggest conartists who state they are ignored by admins. If you have so much time as to want to do an admin’s job then you probably are not focused on the job in the classroom. Teachers should work on improving instruction and not worry about anything else peripheral to their job. Period.

  2. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    I have indeed built relationships with principals, and with careful nudging, can often encourage them to make suggestings in meetings far above my pay grade that might make some small difference in some of the more minor aspects of daily educational life, but in reality, nothing has changed. I’ve made the first move, but the reality of the power relationship has not changed and will not change.
    No matter how well intentioned, wise, plugged in, competent, with it, published, teacher-leader-like we are, it avails us nothing unless we are fortunate enough to work in a school district wherein teachers are truly valued and their experience is used in decision making. Such places are very, very rare. In fact, I know of none. Again, I work in a district that is quite comfortable, as long as one has no silly ideas about having their ideas considered or implemented. Our department heads, for example, aren’t consulted, let alone involved in interviewing new teachers, nor do their duties have anything to do with anything other than minor budget paper shuffling and holding the occasional department meeting where more minor paper shuffling and scheduling occurs.
    The reality is much like Nancy so clearly relates. Oh sure, some may make a pretense of listening to teachers, but actually do something they suggest? Sure. Our district is about to embark on a massive building project. I can hardly wait to see how that turns out.
    Remember that my superintendent calls me a renaissance man, and at one point in the past, actually took a meeting with me to hear my proposal on a PA system upgrade for an older gym. There was much nodding and pleasant noises, but nothing occured. In about a year, a magnificent new gym was built, and the PA system installed was a disaster. They took my basic diagram, meant for another building, and hung speakers in the same general configuration, but didn’t know enough about acoustics and electronics to avoid such little bits of brilliance as hanging the speakers too high, placing them behind beams, and placing them immediately in front of heating/cooling vents (think about how well you can hear someone speaking to you from a distance on a windy day). In addition, there weren’t enough speakers in the right places, etc, etc. The bottom line? The system is completely unintelligable. One can hear sound, but can’t make out a thing that’s being said. If they had only listened, I would have helped for free.
    But enough of my personal whining. The bottom line is that no matter how much we’re willing to try to build relationships, without administrators who are willing to fundamentally change the power structure in meaningful and highly unusual–to this point in time–ways, nothing at all will change. Take the first steps toward changing the relationship? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

  3. Nancy Flanagan

    Just a couple of thoughts for school facilities planners who can “create spaces that can make our practices rock.”
    Having been on a new school planning team, and having spent countless hours describing what a suite of rooms where students could learn to perform and create music would look like, one of the most crushing disappointments of my teaching career occurred when I finally walked into the rooms I had been describing to the architects and dreaming about for two years. My practical needs (i.e.,open shelving to hold large instruments around three sides of the room) had been scrapped in favor of book cabinets with beautiful laminate doors. The shelves were too small to hold instruments. The room did look great when you entered, but was almost completely dysfunctional.
    The architects also shaved space off all the classrooms and built a round, windowed kiva in the center of the building. A teacher could not make visual contact with all students in the kiva unless she was standing in the center of the space. The teachers quickly dubbed this gorgeous place “Plaza del Tardy” and it became a nuisance to deal with between classes, a hiding place for trysts and an acoustic nightmare as the metal ceiling amplified rainstorms to make teaching in nearby classrooms difficult.
    The practical realities of supervising middle school kids were swept away by the romantic dreams of the facilities planners, who told us they imagined little groups of students chatting together or eating lunch in this pretty place.
    As teachers, we’re used to being at the bottom of the power hierarchy, but it was particularly galling to have architects suggest that the open shelving I needed was not aesthetically pleasing, so they had gone ahead with changes that superseded my experience and knowledge.

  4. Bob

    Teachers have unbridled power in classrooms to increase student learning rates.
    Yes, it’s hard to exercise that power. That’s what we agreed to do. That’s our primary contracted duty. Administrators and others take bows when we fulfill that duty. They look good when our students look good. It’s an old story that we all know and can easily forget. Fulfilling our duty for administrative support is a good trade.
    It only requires our focus and skills, not a special setting or tools. That’s what we agreed to do. No one will stop us from that task unless we let them do so.
    Granted, some teachers have more talent and their students learn faster than in other classes. Educators, students and alumni know this.
    We all know teacher leaders as those whose students succeed in class. Each school has at least one. They’ve earned that rank by performances of their students.
    Let’s stay focused on student learning rates. That’s under the daily control of each of us.
    Let others focus on their duties, so supportive relationships can occur when we continue increasing student learning rates.

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