You Want Real Change? Ask the Real Experts

“We’re on our third principal in a year and half – no one feels any security here; two of them were there in the morning and gone by the afternoon – moved to other schools.”

I had this conversation in the aisle of a local thrift store with a teacher who is on her “third tour of duty,” one she considers positive at the moment.  But what about next year, or next week for that matter?  If the classroom can change as quickly as the office does, she can’t feel too secure either.

We talked about community and knowing the kids and all that other “teacher talk” we lapse DILO March 06 - Teacher with Students - 7:33 AMinto when chatting with other teachers.  Teachers are tied to one another by the job, even after we stop doing it.  Teachers know what it takes to make the classroom work.  They can identify those things that do NOT work for their students – or them.  So why are so few people asking teachers how to fix education?

Much lip service is given to the notion that teachers served on the committees that produced the Common Core Standards as well as state assessments.  That is true, but the limitations of that committee service are hard to discern.  Were there many teachers involved? How many?  At what level?  In which states?  How were the teachers chosen?  And what about the state-wide tests that are now connected to the CCSS?  Were teachers involved with those too?  Did they have a voice in how or when students are tested?  In the format of the tests?  In the methods mandated for test review/remediation?

In trying to find the answers to these questions, one becomes mired in documents that have similar vague references to the diverse group that informed the content of the standards initiative.  Did anyone ask large groups of teachers their opinions on the implementation and testing of country-wide content standards? I don’t think they did.  In fact, the government-corporate partnership that led this initiative castigated the large bodies of teachers – in some cases teachers unions – as groups of people selfishly focused on their own needs, disregarding those of their students.

Michelle Ree recently accused teachers in Seattle of distracting students by acting against the students’ best interests. This blatant attempt to further disparage teachers in the eyes of the country backfired in some circles, as seen in Jesse Hagopian’s article. These teachers were, in fact, supporting their students and their parents in the boycott of one of the state’s several standardized tests.

But back to my teacher friend with the serial principals. In her inner-city school she reports that A teacher works with special needs students at...many wonderful things are going on – creative music programs, honors programs that motivate learners, after-school activities.  I asked how the administrators structured in these positive interludes to the test-oriented environment I know exists in her district. Her answer was not surprising: “oh, it isn’t the administrators;” turns out it’s happening because some creative, motivated teachers saw the need and have taken on the extra tasks and committed to them with gusto.

Now don’t get me wrong – administration still had to at least “allow” these efforts and hard-working teachers are a great thing – but for the school and its students, what happens when those teachers get transferred next year, or move, or burn out, or have a new administrator who is non-supportive of the effort?

We all know what happens – the wonderful, creative efforts die on the vine because they are only one teacher deep.  They are not part of a community of education, a part rooted so deeply in the school that the efforts continue even when one teacher moves, or one administrator leaves.  They continue because there are enough people who care about the whole school community that they are able to absorb minor changes.

Schools, teachers and students, however, cannot absorb entire overhauls of staff that happen in revolving-door fashion. This type of top-down management devalues the human quality of education. It engenders a robot-like approach to the teaching – and administering for that matter – that makes education community development nearly impossible.  The lip service this district gives to retention of personnel is ironic in these situations.

Another insidious outcome of this kind of management is that teachers are unable to form relationships among themselves and with their administrators.  This lack of cohesiveness keeps them from meaningful collaboration opportunities, supportive work communities, deep knowledge of their students, and the caring that can only develop when an educator becomes a part of the community in which they work.  Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I think this is the intent, not a by-product of such management styles.English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...

When the top administration in a district wants to keep people in line, impeding relationship building is a great tactic. It is much easier to control people who feel vulnerable and isolated than those empowered by collegiality to stand up for what they know is right.

Teachers have enormous potential to right what is wrong with education.  But they can only do such difficult, important work if they have the necessary tools:

  1. A supportive, knowledgeable administrator who respects and trusts in the professionalism of her teachers and relies on them to do their jobs.
  2. Freedom to decide the what, when, how and why in their classrooms because teachers are on the front line of education and must make decisions accordingly.
  3. Freedom from oppressive evaluatory practices that demean and blame teachers when they cannot meet unrealistic or invalid goals.
  4. Curriculum inclusive enough to value the aspirations of all students, not just those who plan to attend a 4-year, traditional college.

In return, teachers must accept (as I believe most do) the responsibilities of educating students:

  1. Caring enough about the students to learn who they are and what they need.
  2. Teaching every child, not just the ones who learn easily or behave well.
  3. Motivating students to achieve the educational goals set by their community.
  4. Staying current in both their content areas and the methodologies of teaching.

These lists appear simplistic and generic, but they represent a huge paradigm shift from the business model that has become the U. S. educational norm.  The suggestions are not meant to become a one-size-fits-all standard.  This paradigm decreases the role of administration, especially above the principal level – and empowers teachers to take on the role for which they were trained.  The shift to the most localized interaction, that of teacher and student, is the shift that will bring about transformation.