A Hapless Search for Organizational Juice?

After spending the better part of the last two days thinking about my recent battles with digital bureaucracy, I’ve come to realize that I CRAVE something that I’ll never have:  Organizational Juice.


This is going to sound like a broken record to those who know me best because I’ve been bumping up against education’s glass ceiling—wanting to remain a full-time classroom teacher while leading at the district and state level at the same time—for years now.

Sadly, I’m convinced that those two professional goals are mutually exclusive. 

Here’s what I mean:  As long as I remain “just a classroom teacher,” I can birth as many ideas about instruction or institutional direction as I want, but I’ll never be able to directly translate my ideas into action beyond the classroom because translating ideas into action requires decision-making power that my position doesn’t carry. 

As a buddy of mine who works as a principal in a local district told me this week, “It really is pretty easy to say no to classroom teachers.”

And he’s right:  Saying no to classroom teachers is easy because whether we want to admit it or not, classroom teachers still sit at the bottom of the schoolhouse ladder.  We have to work within structures defined by dozens of well-intentioned professionals who—whether they realize it or not—make decisions influenced by their own perspectives of ‘what should be’ and who have the organizational authority to insist on compliance.

What does this look like in action? 

It's the tech guy who locks down laptops and block websites in an effort to keep kids safe while inadvertently preventing digital innovation.  It's the principal who believes in collaboration, but underestimates the amount of time that it takes to collaborate and requires meetings that are less than productive. 

It's the district level leader who introduce new initiatives every year in the honest interest of improving schools without realizing that we're struggling to keep up with last year's changes.  It's the state legislator who want to ensure that schools serve every child well and advocates for policies that restrict learning but produce "results."

What’s wild is that if I really wanted to work at it, I probably could play a key role in shaping all of these decisions.  It would just take a commitment to building positive working relationships with every one of the stakeholders listed above. 

If they came to see me as a respected and intelligent ally, I’d have what I like to call influence by proximity.  While I wouldn’t be able to set direction unilaterally, I’d “have the ear” of those with power.  They’d run ideas by me, I’d get the chance to offer feedback, decisions would be polished based on my input, and I’d have juice, right?

The only hitch is that building those kinds of relationships takes tons of face time.  Trust is only built when individuals have meaningful shared experiences with one another—-and as a full-time classroom teacher, I don’t have time for shared experiences with a dozen different decision-makers because I spend the better part of every day behind closed doors with kids! 

I can’t stop by the principal’s office for informal conversations about teaching and learning.  The 10 AM conference calls with district level leaders fall in the middle of my class periods.  The 3-day PD conferences that instructional resource teachers and school leaders attend together building professional rapport require being away from class—-and finding money for substitute teachers, and writing sub plans, and catching up after getting back to school. 

What does this all mean for me? 

Who knows.  I still have this pipe dream that I can reshape the way that people think about classroom teachers.  My goal has always been to redefine the role of the practitioner, crafting a world where teachers were respected players in the world of educational decision-making. 

I’m not sure it’s possible, though.  I’ve been doing this a long time and I haven’t had much luck.  While I’ve built a level of credibility in the broader educational community on issues ranging from teacher working conditions and technology to professional learning communities and educational policy, I’m still just a classroom teacher.

And saying no to classroom teachers—no matter how accomplished they are—is always going to be easy. 

7 comments

  1. Janice Robertson

    One of the things you haven’t considered is that the second you step out of your classroom teacher role, into a resource role or an admin role or whatever you choose – your circumstances change. You won’t have to deal with Skype being blocked, because, as a resource teacher, it won’t be!!!! One of my frustrations is that non-teachers can’t appreciate how crazed we get when something is blocked because they NEVER have to experience it. If you want them to appreciate what it feels like to have your handcuffs on, tell them to come and spend the day in your classroom, teaching the students, but tell them they can only use your log in! Betcha that within minutes, they’ll be muttering to themselves, and by lunch they’ll be miserable. It took me a while to have my hunches verified – that our central Board people, such as our resource teachers, didn’t have the same restrictions that teachers did. No wonder they can’t empathize with us!!! Invite them to walk in your shoes for a day. It might help. And if it doesn’t… misery does love company! 😉

  2. Bob Heiny

    Indulge a brief sermon, Mr. Bill, that you already know, and likely tell yourself repeatedly.
    It used to be common sense that people, including teachers :), respond to honey over vinegar; and don’t-foul-your-own-nest.
    Translated: Give them something to brag about. Feed admins and others a consistent flow (weekly Twit length email, etc.) of good news about a successful student(s), etc., so they come to expect (an operational version of “trust”) it from you. Demo your exceptioinality as a teacher, which you are.
    Stand out with a positive can-do-in-spite-of-whatever successes. An admin will likely pick-up on it and share appreciation at an unexpected time.
    Principle: administrators, as do teachers, respond to things that make them more successful with their duties (as they seem them) and insure their job performance evaluations, which you can do for your district admins.
    So, keep doing it, perhaps more targeted as a plan of action to demo more academic achievement of your students than of others. (That’s your primary duty, not IT.) Someone will follow your example, when they make it their idea.
    I hope this says, stay with your vision, but adjust it slightly to fit your current reality, because that realiy, too, will change in ways you will not control.
    Yes?

  3. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    John Palfrey has written a book “Born Digital” which is featured this weekend on C-Span Book TV. The book takes a look at the generation which has never known the non-digital world, the generation you are teaching. Information about the book and the digital natives project may be found at http://www.borndigitalbook.com.
    You surely recognize the day you step out of the classroom, you will be discarded by heaps of teachers and administrators as yet another “outsider”. If you do not realize this, look before you leap, because the tendency of those within the school systems to immediately disregard the validity of the ideas of anyone not in the school system is a very real obstacle. Former teachers find themselves far more characterized as “former” than as “teachers”, with the gap increasing each day they are out of the classroom.
    The author sought comment from the audience about how teaching could recognize the differences teaching this generation demands. Simply said, the two of you need to collaborate.

  4. Catina

    Sounds like you are in a tough place right now! I’m out of the classroom, and I have to say that I MISS it so much, and there are quite a few days when I’d love to go back! I miss working with the kids, and directing teachers is not always easy!

  5. Russ Goerend

    Bill,
    I share your idealism. I believe that the closer to the classroom the decision-makers are the better for the students.
    So why is it that saying no to classroom teachers is so easy? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy? (Is it even a prophecy?)
    I think Scott Mcleod is on the right track with the second link Kevin provided. Of course, it still takes an administrator open to learning about technology, but those are good examples to start with.

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for the kind words KJ. What’s interesting is that I’m not sure if what I’m feeling is discouraged or not.
    I think, instead, that I’m coming to a point of acceptance—recognizing that the role of the classroom teacher is what it is. No value judgments attached.
    For me, that means making a decision: Either I’ve got to find satisfaction in the role that I’m filling or find a new role. The kinds of change that I want are just not going to happen.
    The advantages of staying where I am: I get to continue working with kids and holding on to the credibility that comes along with being a practitioner.
    The advantages of leaving: I might just wind up in a position where I have the kind of organizational juice that I write about wanting.
    I should just make a decision and live with it.
    Does this make any sense?
    Bill

  7. Kevin Jarrett

    Hey Bill,
    You’re on quite a tear lately! Don’t burn yourself out, we need you, man! 🙂
    Came across an interesting article in the current (June/July) issue of ISTE’s L&L Magazine (not online yet):
    Unlocking Excellence with Keys to Quality
    By Ann Ware
    There are tons of good ideas in there but the essence of it IMHO is that it suggests aligning technologies with a school’s strategic improvement plan. Put another way, if you/we can find a way to link some of these technologies directly to plans that will determine how our districts are evaluated … seems to me you’ve got all the leverage you’d ever need. What do you think?
    Also, I know you read Scott McLeod over at Dangerously Irrelevant but you might find these posts of interest:
    Professional development for the leaders http://bit.ly/ioblN
    Creating digitally-interested administrators http://bit.ly/ibgO8
    These may be things you’ve already tried but I thought I’d throw ’em out there.
    Whatever you do, don’t get discouraged, we need you out there man!
    -kj-