Before I begin, and possibly anger you beyond belief or leave you with a feeling of helplessness, I have two foundational disclaimers......
- I have met and continue to meet hundreds, no thousands, of educators who are sincerely passionate about learning and students and work everyday to better themselves and who they serve. I had these types of teachers as a student, have aspired to be like them from my first day of teaching and continue to work with these types of educators daily.
- We have human challenges related to differences in values, priorities, pedagogy, vision, philosophies, personalities, styles and more. So, I am aware that any of the observations or concerns I share here certainly extend outside school walls. However, since I think education is uniquely important, I also know that we cannot evaluate or judge our work as compared to that of other entities - at least truly when it comes to human behavior.
I am concerned that schools, districts and educational organizations are drowning in a sea of adult issues. I know that we talk about students and learning constantly, but when we talk about what we’re going to do, change, create, re-design or implement, we often get bogged down immediately in adult issues or roadblocks. Here are some examples and areas of concerns that seem constant in all of the above settings:
Politics/School Boards - like with most things and referenced above in the disclaimers, most school boards and most school board members are probably loyal, rationale public servants with a common mission to help kids. I also know that locally elected school boards leading their local schools is a great American tradition and idea. It’s truly local government and local control. Sounds great and can be. However, I have witnessed several examples lately in school districts where school board members have obviously ran for their positions with very focused agendas that do not have kids’ interest on the top of the list. They are there to fulfill personal vendettas, influence hiring, exchange favors and more. This is not unusual in politics and is witnessed by many at all levels of elected government. But when it happens in school districts through school boards, there seems to be higher priced paid or even greater sins committed. When school board members abandon rational thinking and service for personal agendas, they sacrifice our kids’ education through lack of focus, funding and priorities. If they fire a superintendent because of personal vendettas, they are obligating more local tax dollars towards more adult things - buying out contracts, interim hires, superintendent searches and so on....sadly, many schools may not be served best by their locally elected representatives. Yes, they can be recalled, ousted and new folks elected. Meanwhile, kids are not the priority and adults are.
Teachers’ Unions - my father was a teacher and longtime union member. I know that teachers’ unions have done good work and have probably been a necessity. But have they outlived their purpose and do they continue the focus on adults vs. students? If one of their primary roles is to fight for better teacher salaries’ and benefits, I would say that they have failed overall. Teacher compensation in our country is abominable. We should be embarrassed. Great, or even good teachers, work long days, evenings, weekends and even 24/7 often in service of their students and communities. Regardless of how we evaluate their compensation, it’s weak and a huge problem. Teachers should be paid a lot more (probably double). If I were starting a charter school, I would figure out a way to start teachers at hire salaries commensurate with their peers starting out in other industries and would not just compensate them by years of service, but rather a myriad of easily documented professional goals and efforts. I am aware that teachers unions still fight hard for salaries, benefits and better working conditions for teachers. That is noble and important. However, again, how successful have they been and do we have better models, vehicles and mechanism now for change? And the truth is that we also know that teachers’ unions have protected weak, incompetent and even unethical teachers across all systems. And as long as that happens, the original mission cannot be realized. Teachers’ unions have become bastions for debating, arguing and negotiating things primarily become adult-focused issues that rarely trickle down to changing the lives of kids.
The Truth Behind HR - if one examines the HR department of any district, there will probably be some things that may frighten you. Regardless of district size or success, there are probably at least one or more lawsuits or mediated legal activity (in larger districts many more) happening at any given time related to a firing or dismissal of an employee. In order to get rid of an incompetent or negligent teacher, janitor or whomever, the district has to spend thousands in legal fees to show just cause. These are normally employees who don’t come to work regularly, don’t play nice with others and essentially don’t perform the basic duties of their jobs. However, in order to get rid of them, districts have to spend lots of taxpayer money to fire them. These legal processes are not necessarily unique to education. But again, only education has the unique job of spending its resources, time and attention on students.
Teacher Training and Professional Learning - the research has always been overwhelming that this is key in improving student learning and achievement. Additionally, many of us think that teachers and educators should want to pursue lifelong, continuous learning for themselves and to model this for students and one another. But if you attend almost any teacher training, conference or professional learning session, you will potentially observe some counterproductive occurrences: teachers that are not involved or engaged, teachers that are absent or late, teachers sharing all of the reasons why whatever their learning is not relevant or applicable to their students or classrooms, etc. We spend a great deal of taxpayers’ money on teacher training and we should. But we should also expect teachers to value and appreciate it, while also working hard to implement what they learn. All educators need to live and breathe lifelong learning for their own growth and to model that for those that they teach. We have a right to expect our teachers to set examples for what they expect from their students: participation, effort, growth, collaboration, engagement, product and more.
Staff Lounges & Lunch Rooms - there is an inside joke that runs rampant among schools and teachers. Ask any new teacher what they have been told about the lunch room or staff lounge? I was told this and so have many since me regardless of when and where. “If you want to stay positive and not be affected by the negative influences on campus, don’t hang out or go to the teachers’ lounge.” That’s right. This is a known fact on all campuses. I am not saying that teachers who go to the staff room are bad teachers. However, I am saying that much of the conversation that happens in these places is not positive and is not focused on helping students. They are more often a place to vent about adult issues. There is value in venting. But I believe that’s what local bars and our homes were better designed for in many ways. When teachers gather during any part of their work day or professional time, they should challenge one another to positive and solution-oriented...again, just like they want their students to be everyday. I’ve heard that some schools close down the staff lounge or lunch rooms or set guidelines regarding the discussions there and anywhere on campus. We have to find ways to focus the discussion on positive ways to better the lives of students.
Employee Territories - one could site many specific examples. But again, in every school or district across our system, one will find groups of people who do not work together well or have their constituents (students) in mind. Take many of our IT departments for example. Again, there are exceptions. But traditionally, many of our IT departments and coordinators have done everything in their power to keep students and educators off the internet or accessing resources they don’t want them to access. They don’t listen to the teachers or students in terms of their needs, but rather hide behind terms like bandwidth, safety, security in order to keep control. They don’t want to collaborate or share. It’s another example of people working in education not practicing or modeling the skills we want our students to have. Whether it’s who can use which copy machine, which person can go to which person for such and such a request or any similar scenario that happens daily, there are territories being protected. And these are not being protected with students or learning in mind.
Parents - Some of the adults that are keeping our schools from being about kids first are some parents themselves. They are part of the same disclaimer. Most parents are great community members who do great things for their kids and the entire school systems they represent in general. Indeed, I have had the pleasure of working with great parents at several schools who were great servants of the overall’s school mission. They helped raise money, donated time and equipment, volunteered and much more. But we have to confront the fact that we have some parents that harm the overall environment and success of the school. Go to any high school sporting event in the American and you’ll probably find at least one or two parents that are using profanity, complaining about the referees, giving a coach a hard time or generally being poor sports. That is why every school district in American has a policy and a form letter designed for just such parent intervention. Negative parent interaction extends beyond athletics, but is illustrated well there. The bottom line is that they represent one more group of adults who set poor examples for students, as well as unnecessarily expend the resources of schools and districts (administrative time, legal fees and more).
There are many great educators in education. There are many future educators entering the field for all of the right reasons. But we have also allowed several systems to flourish that don’t put kids first. Indeed, there are far too many adults spending far too much time on adult issues and agendas. If we want education to truly improve, we will have to address these systems and our priorities - all needing redesign truly focused on students. By now, I’m sure my soapbox run amok.
(Images courtesy of Foter)