A recurring motif in much of the work being done with school reform has to do with outside “experts” being the driving force for change. Be it Bill Gates, Diane Ravitch, or the Waltons; it seems that the people with the most influence about what our schools should be like tend to be those who haven’t, aren’t, and will never teach in any classrooms. That leads to the question of how effective any master plans they have for public schools can possibly be. It also creates the problem of how do we get worthwhile programs in place if we don’t tap the only source that can impact the classroom—teachers.
I spent a good portion of my teaching career—eight years teaching language arts to eighth graders in a junior high and twenty-five teaching English to freshmen and seniors—struggling to gain the freedom to do what I knew to be best for getting my kids to learn what I and my colleagues had determined they needed to learn. The guidance I had from those above me on the educational hierarchy was generally well-intentioned and even insightful once in a great while, but by and large, it was wrong-headed, a waste of time, and/or detrimental in relation to the things I knew to be in my students’ best interests.
And this creates problems on several fronts for teachers. First, doing what you know to be wrong is one of the most mind-dulling, frustrating, spirit-crushing things humans can experience. I’m sure this has been an issue for as long as we have had bosses and employees—it’s easy to imagine some poor slave realizing his method for dragging the stones needed to build the pyramids was 43% more efficient than the idiotic way his overlords demanded—but the “people ignorant of the job telling those who are knowledgeable how to do it” conundrum definitely dominants education more than just about anywhere else. Every two-to-four years during my career we would have some new “initiative” which was destined to change everything we had known about how our school worked and would, without a doubt, transform it into an educational Eden. And every three-to-six months after this incredible new “paradigm” had been introduced; it would have changed little except to chew up enormous amounts of time, stealing the precious hours we had to do the really necessary work our jobs required. There were also the poor fools who had drunk the Kool-Aid of the brave new world, working extremely hard to make this impossible plan work, but winding up with little besides a reputation as one of the idiots who believed this crazy proposal might work. Guess what their reception to the next paradigm shift would be.
A corollary issue with that frustration is how many good teachers leave the profession due to their being yoked to others’ methods instead of doing what they believe will serve their students best. If you’re talented and ambitious, but have all your ideas ignored and your initiative thwarted, you’re sorely tempted to find other places and professions which will better appreciate your skills. Add in the incentive of making more money to go along with more authority in your workday, and you have a potent enticement to lead some of the best teachers right out the door. How much better would our schools be right now if more of the 40% of teachers who abandon education in their first five years had stayed? We’ll never know, but there’s no question that continuity and experience are pluses when it comes to teachers. Teaching is demanding enough all by itself without young teachers having to jump through all the hoops required of them by all the experts who know exactly how their classrooms should function, despite never having taught in one themselves.
The most important issue—and the one which offers the most hope for a better tomorrow in our schools—is that these experts really have no way to control what the millions of teachers do every day in their classrooms. Believe me; it’s child’s play for any teacher to pretend to go along with whatever new big deal is trending without changing one damn thing he had been doing previously. Yes, that’s passive/aggressive behavior, and it would be so much better if teachers didn’t have to engage in it so frequently. But when you’re constantly being told you don’t know what you’re doing in comparison to the flavor of the week’s brilliant insights, you only have a couple of options: One, you can dump all your convictions and obsequiously obey those who know much less about your kids than you do. Or, two, you pretend to dump all your convictions to get the authorities off your back and do what you believe to be best, ignoring all the hoopla about the latest fad.
There is a third way, but it definitely isn’t for everyone, and it only works in states like Illinois which have decent collective bargaining laws: You can learn enough about those laws in order to assert your rights, carefully but stubbornly, when you can. For instance, you can resist some top-down edicts by understanding how Illinois statutes require anything which impacts “terms and conditions of employment” to be collectively bargained with the teachers’ union. Those in power conveniently ignore this unless teachers confront them on it; but once administrators understand you will, they’re more likely to overlook that you’re blowing off their school-altering new paradigms and leave you alone to do as you think best.
Yeah, that was my way, but it did take an inordinate amount of time and effort in the teachers’ union to clear out some personal space. Fortunately for me, I liked having more say in my working conditions and helping out when others needed it. And I had the positions to show for it: I was union president, grievance chair, newsletter editor, and chief spokesperson for contract negotiations (to name the most high-profile of my many positions) during my career. Not surprisingly, administrators and school board members treaded carefully when dealing with me.
One example to illustrate my point occurred when grade programs became all the rage, and my school district committed to using them in all classes. I felt then—and I feel to this day as you can read at https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/11/19/collaboration-or-confrontation/—that grade programs wouldn’t work well with my system and that overall they were a bad idea. I believe they force teachers to convert every activity they do into points that can be recorded, they diminish the importance of non-graded aspects of education (behavior, participation, reliability, consistency, and attendance to name five), and they create unnecessary tension between teachers and parents who joust over point spreads instead of focusing on a student’s overall performance. For those reasons and others I’ve already discussed, I had no desire or intention to use our fantastic new program when our administrators were touting how wonderful it was to the community. So I never started using it.
When a parent or three asked me why my grades weren’t online, I explained why the program didn’t work for my class. I also told them that all they needed to do was to email or call me any time and as often as they wanted, and I would supply them with a personalized, accurate grade update which would include all those intangibles that couldn’t be shown in a point total. When a couple of those parents complained to my administrators that they didn’t want to call or email me, but had grown accustomed to the convenience of checking their kids’ grades online whenever they wanted, my bosses told me that I had to comply with the new procedures.
And that’s where the system makes it very hard for teachers to get their views heard. Having read my reasons for not wanting to use the program as well as my alternative methods, you can see that it I wasn’t resisting the new software because it was hard for me to learn—I never had too much difficulty with new technology as long as it made my and my students’ lives better; I was no technophobe. But changing to something different just because it was new and cool, even if it negatively impacted the way I thought was best to run my classroom? Nope. The system should not be so rigid that it can’t allow for some differences, particularly when the person affected by the new big deal has solid reasons for not wanting that change. My guess is that most of you who are parents out there like the quick, black-and-white percentages of the grade programs; virtually all schools use them now. But there is an important aspect of educating students that your child doesn’t really get anymore; at least that’s how it appears to me. We’ve done away with evaluations that were slower, more based on a teacher’s evaluation, and much more about the whole child rather than just his tests; now we have grades that are fast and easily accessed, give the illusion of more objectivity, and are weighted in such a way that little besides test scores matter.
But the way education works, nobody wanted to have this discussion with me. I tried to force it on a couple of people, but it stalled going up the line. The system rejects any variation in the way things are done, no matter how willing the person bucking the system is to meet the same goals as the new technology does in a different way. I apologize for the rant, but this disconnect between how schools are administered and what teachers believe to be in their students’ best interests is at the heart of why our schools have such a hard time allowing for individuality. And that leads to conformity and standardization, which are the key reasons our schools cannot improve.
Back to my grade program story: By the time I was “ordered” to use the grade program, I was very experienced (over twenty-five years of teaching and over twenty years of union activism), so it didn’t bother me too much that I was now embarking on a path which would not make my building administrators happy. I understood the law and had no intention of doing things that would undermine the effectiveness of how my classes were going. “Very well,” I told the person who had ordered my compliance, “If you are threatening me with disciplinary action if I don’t comply, I will. But, if this is a term or condition of employment—which threatening disciplinary action definitively means it is—then I will be filing notice with the school board that we need to re-open negotiations in order to bargain this issue. The contract makes no provisions for your being able to force me to use a certain piece of technology whether I want to or not. Nor does it give blanket permission for you to make us alter how we teach our classes to meet decisions made with no teacher input. And the law clearly doesn’t allow anyone to make unilateral decisions like this—‘terms and conditions’ of employment covers this kind of thing—so we will have to bargain grade programs with the school board and its lawyers.”
Needless to say, the irritation of a few parents who could have gotten all the information they wanted with a phone call or an email paled in comparison to the ire of a school board being dragged back into negotiations with the teachers’ union. I was told—in a closed-door meeting with my department chair—that it was not required for all teachers to use the grade program, provided teachers made grades available to parents who wanted them. No blanket announcement to the whole staff was made, of course, so I was basically the only teacher on a staff of 370 not using the grade program.
I readily admit that many teachers like grade programs and can’t believe anyone would prefer the old brown gradebooks filled with green graph paper over a computer, but I believe that an open discussion of the issue would have been much healthier, not to mention empowering for teachers who generally feel that their opinions make little difference in how schools work. “I just shut my door and do what I want,” is a common refrain you hear from teachers, but the trend is for outsiders to pry open those doors more and more.
Nor am I arguing for a system based on such confrontational and litigious behavior or the previously mentioned passive/aggressive approach. So far, we’ve focused primarily on how teachers can and do respond to those outside forces. But there are healthier, more collaborative approaches that could create more positive, open environments in our schools. We’ll take a look at how that might work next time.
For more on how schools could function better overall, see my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.