Responding to Jim….

One of my readers named Jim—who I believe to be a principal—left this comment on my Struggling for Power post:

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.

How would you respond to Jim’s thoughts?  Is he right that teachers are consistently whining for attention?  Do we spend too much time complaining and too little time improving lessons?   Is it possible to work on improving instruction without worrying about anything else peripheral to our job?

A better question:  How have we gotten ourselves into the position where this kind of attitude is even possible from a school administrator?  When did adversarial relationships characterized by indignancy become the norm in our profession? 

The best question:  Is this evidence that Mike is right when he writes:

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. 

Is my thinking that productive conversations between adults in the schoolhouse are the key to school reform naive to the point of absurdity?

10 thoughts on “Responding to Jim….

  1. anonymous

    i have begun to despair about my profession. I read your article about Maria leaving the classroom and I identified with her very strongly. The thing for me is that I’ve already moved passed my best window of opportunity for leaving. I’m 16 years into the classroom and I’m in my 40s. So, for me… leaving the classroom may not even result in the kind of rewards your young teacher will receive.
    I’ve been told by so many that teaching is its own reward, but it isn’t true. I’m a very hard working teacher and I know I do great work with kids. But, my goals have changed. I want increased control over my career. Instead, I continue to be the pawn I was when I first entered the profession. I get no choices and being good gets me nothing. I’m expected to get my reward from the smile of a child. It used to be good enough, when I was Gandhi, but now that I’ve realized that I have goals for my own professional development, it means less.
    I want out now, and the only way I can see out is to go to university, get a PhD and move into a lower paying university job somewhere, leaving my secure pension and my erstwhile profession as a teacher of children behind. I just can’t see being happy doing the kind of teaching I’ll be doing. I’m tired of struggling so hard and never being able to grow in place. And, although I received my administrative license last year, I don’t want to do that either. So, now I stand at the edge of the diving board… will I dive out into the unknown, with all it’s possibilities and pitfalls… or will I retreat backward to a profession that doesn’t give back?

  2. Bob

    Yes, Mike, I’ve worked for principals and other administrators like that. They’re human and have concerns like yours and mine, whether with or without a sense of humor. Some people ask, “What can I do to help you, Principal, and get the same Q asked of them in return, sometimes delayed, but it comes back.

  3. Mike

    Whining? Perhaps Jim doesn’t understand self-deprecating humor or irony. But considering the tone of his comment, particularly if Bill’s assumption that Jim is a principal is correct–he certainly sounds like bad principals we’ve all known, doesn’t he?–he doesn’t sound like the kind of fellow with much of a sense of humor, particularly when “underlings” are involved.
    We must indeed have productive conversations between educators, but in terms of power sharing, the decision to share power, and the degree to which it is shared, is entirely up to principals and administrators. If I have desperately needed knowledge and skills, the world’s best intentions and willingness to cooperatively dialogue with administrators, unless they’re willing to reciprocate, that and a buck will buy coffee at any McDonald’s in America.
    I tend to avoid business analogies because they’re so easily abused where education is involved. For example, the current trend toward calling improvement in education “value added,” tends to make my skin crawl. In truth, business and education don’t have much in common, and applying a business model to education has lead inexorably to expensive disasters such as NCLB and high stakes testing. But that said, there are some areas of management and personnel relations that do apply to our realm.
    After WWII, prominent American businessmen traveled to Japan to teach the Japanese how to be effective businessmen and managers. The Japanese took those lessons to heart and adapted them for their culture. We, on the other hand, seem to have forgotten them, and we’re the worse for it. The best and most productive businesses understand that several of the keys to success involve hiring the best people possible, orienting them to the mission/goal, and giving them the power they need to make things happen. They create things, they bring them to fruition, not managers, whose primary task is seeing that those who do the work have what they need to be successful. This involves sharing substantial power with underlings, who are, of course, expected to produce. This makes sense in that failing to use the skills and knowledge of one’s personnel in favor of a small cadre of insulated, out of the loop managers, will not produce the best results. Yet, this is precisely what we do each and every day in education.
    We all know that some people are, in fact, whiners, ready to complain, engage in character assassination, and are utterly without suggestions for improvement. Then there are those who see and know a better way and are prepared to make it happen. Sadly, poor administrators often use the former to deny the latter as the former are merely an annoyance, but the latter are a genuine threat.
    Sorry, but I see little impetus for change, particularly with administrators more and more caught up in producing state and federal paperwork at the expense of all else. And of course, human nature rears its ugly head here as well. Only the most self-assured and secure will share power. Know any principals like that? Thought not.

  4. dayle

    I’m not surpised that teachers in Jim’s school are complainers. Teachers who have leadership ability will lead – one way or another. They can lead WITH you, to reach a higher level, or they can lead behind your back and look like whiners, but they will lead. Working in a school where the principal is not threatened by suggestions, ideas, and inspiration, I know what it feels like to be empowered. It puts a skip in my step. It makes me excited about the next new project. It puts a smile on my face as I walk into the building. That positive attitude in the culture at my school provides the foundation and trust for taking risks and learning with my colleagues… and that type of learning community promotes student achievement. This is one alternative to teachers that whine!

  5. Bob

    Good post, Bill. It’s interesting how a few words have so many different meanings. Perhaps therein rests a weakness, but I’m not clear what weakness.

  6. Renee Moore

    In my experience, the best teachers are not the whiners. Conversely, those of us who do improve our instruction and teach our students well, are still often shut out of any real dialogue about policy or reform. “Just teach and that’s all” sounds too much like “barefoot and pregnant” to me.

  7. Marsha Ratzel

    I think the problems that we struggle with in education are not all that different from the rest of the corporate world. There has been much written about the driving need for workers(teachers) to produce more and more for less. Employees (teachers) feel this “drive” ignores their personal abilities, intelligence and creativity…they lose their voice. And without voice, I’d say they lose hope. I’d also say that this years in our history mark a transition from the great military/industrial time to a knowledge-21st century information time. And that transition causes us (workers, employers, teachers, principals et al) to strike new poses for working. I think tons has been written about being “great” as the world flattens out; being independent, able to transition from one thing to the next; and preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist.
    Certainly conversations are the basis of that work. Wouldn’t you say that it now the responsibility of leaders, teachers or principals, to find ways to raise people’s voices? to inspire them to use what they have and can do best? and to embrace new ways of thinking? Education doesn’t seem so very different from other hierarchically structured industries…and the transition to this kind of empowerment and what that means to our internal structures is stressful.
    In our “struggle to produce more with less”, I think the commotion you hear is about that problem. I also think that the volume of that complaint is causing policymakers to start listening because they can’t ignore it. You may be right in that we let this happen because we were not demanding a place at the policymaking table, but my sense is that it is changing.
    Nothing happens overnight. People hate change. I think Jim doesn’t like it too well and it doesn’t sound like his teachers like it any better. It takes time for the system to make a change, to react to the change, to analyze what happened and make adjustments. It seems to me that we are in the latter stages of making adjustments…which will inevitably lead to the start of the cycle again!!!! With the rise of the era of the Knowledge worker, I don’t think we’ll head backwards so that leaves only ahead!!!!

  8. Bob

    Setting aside Jim’s flame throwing, he has a point with which many of us agree. Teachers should do what we agreed to do: teach. Positive balanced relationships emerge between people when we do something that makes someone else look good. Neither teachers nor administrators look good until students perform academically as expected, one teacher at a time, every day of an academic year, regardless of what anyone else says or does to distract us. That’s our job. I enjoy my part and the many great relationships it’s allowed.

  9. Michelle Capen

    I recently filled in for my administrator at a county principal’s meeting and I was astonished with the behavior of the “powers that be” at that meeting. I saw school administrators acting just like bored 5th graders before a test. (Complete with passing notes and mugging behind the presenter’s back). I walked away reflecting on what it takes to be an affective administrator and how that affects teaching in a school. Teachers are much like students, they respond well to praise, they want to be acknowledged for trying their best, and they will make life miserable for anyone who makes them feel stupid or worthless. Jim, you have a tough job. You are caught between the central office and the classroom and no one is going to recognized you for the hard work you do. Even so, are you encouraging and coaching your teachers? Do they feel engaged with the management processes at your school? Is the atmosphere professional rather than personal? Think of those teachers as your students. How can you help them to improve? And remember, its May. We’ve all about had it in May. Best wishes.

  10. Gail Ritchie

    Bill, I do not think that you’re naive in believing that productive conversations between adults in the schoolhouse are the key to school reform. Margaret Wheatley said that all change begins with a conversation. And the change gurus name the individual school as the place where meaningful change takes place, with the building administrator as the key change agent. Now, with an administrator like Jim, it’s unlikely that any substantive positive change will occur. He sounds like someone who is not comfortable with distributed leadership. As Barnett said, “most administrators do not have the teaching expertise or content knowledge for all the instructional leadership needs of a school or district.” Instead of trying to do it all and being unsuccessful (as evidenced by his whining teachers), Jim should try treating his teachers with respect and engaging them in productive conversations about school improvement.

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