So there it was, right out in the Twitter open:
Public school parents et al: What if we could use a site like Blind to chat anonymously with other parents at our kids’ school, share concerns and complaints, including about bad teachers, and organize to pressure administrators to do something about it? @MichaelPetrilli
Appropriately, the very first (polite) comment came from a teacher:
Are you being facetious? @IngridFournier
And…no, no he wasn’t. It’s really frustrating, Petrilli says, to see all the things that are wrong in his child’s public school, and not be able to do anything about it. That weak principal! Etc., etc.
There followed a long string of mostly coherent tweets, centered around salient points: You don’t need an app for that, plenty of ways to form groups. Anonymous chats tend to go sideways, sometimes direly so, and anonymous kvetching solves nothing. This kind of thing is a security/data-sharing nightmare, technologically—especially when you have no idea to whom you’re speaking, online.
That devolved into union-bashing and ‘my kid has a bad math teacher,’ precisely the kind of thing you’d expect to see on the Blind app that Petrilli proposes, only now it’s on Twitter, open to the entire low-information universe.
Petrilli has started further Twitter threads to explore this idea—which is hardly innovative—and, evidently, generate more complaints about public school leadership’s non-responsiveness. He seems impervious to the numerous tweets from teachers asking how unsigned, anger-fueled critiques improve ANYTHING in public education. Especially on the first day of school.
A couple of years ago, I was facilitating a graduate-level course in teacher leadership online. Because we’d had some serious ease-of-use issues with the Blackboard platform, we decided to try a closed, private Facebook page for threaded discussions.
I was surprised by the number of teachers in the class who were reluctant or flat-out unwilling to use Facebook—they had emphatically decided not to participate, at all, in any of the more common social media platforms.
Their schools blocked Facebook and Twitter (and often, other sites where required readings were found), for starters. They pointed out that even if access to the online discussion was password-protected and strictly limited to registered participants, course members from other school districts could copy and share things they wrote on a Facebook page—so nobody could be truly honest in online conversations. Social media discourse seemed both personally dangerous and academically lightweight.
I think this speaks more to where hard-working teachers find themselves today than to the relative merits of a technological platform: Watch your back. Keep your nose clean.
So much for the courage and autonomy underlying authentic teacher leadership.
Commenters on Petrilli’s Twitter thread suggested, wisely, that the place for genuine school improvement might be face to face meetings—the PTA, or another parent group. Instead of organizing in secrecy outside the school, prohibiting administrative access to the conversation–features Petrilli was promoting– why not show up with other parents and try to address a common issue of concern?
That, of course, would be a lot of work, and involve building personal relationships toward a specific goal. It would mean time spent in developing trust, time that many working parents don’t have. Plus–not all principals would welcome, say, a ‘Fix the Math Curriculum’ parent advocacy group. For all our talk about welcoming parents and the essential home-school partnership, we seldom invite parents into our professional work: curriculum, instruction, assessment and classroom management.
There are reasons why: Student privacy. State and local policies. The time and challenges involved in explaining every instructional decision. These things, after all, have traditionally been in the teacher’s purview—but few parents realize how much decision-making power has been handed over to federal and state guidelines.
Still—there has to be a real outlet for parent input on substantive issues. A lot of things parents think they want and need for their children, in my experience, fall into the category of ‘fond memories.’ Where are the textbooks, with their nice columns of information, words to copy and look up, and questions at the end of the chapter? Why don’t kids play dodgeball in P.E. anymore? What do you mean there won’t be spelling tests on Friday?
It can be exhausting to explain why you’re making certain choices. I was fortunate enough, in the pre-app era, to have a Band Boosters group, with 50-odd parents, that met a half-dozen times per year. It was the place where I defended my teaching decisions to the most involved families, face to face. It wasn’t always easy. I once got into a heated discussion with a school board member’s wife about—get this—spats for the marching band, that resulted in her walking out of the meeting in a fury.
Sometimes, I had to change course. But—whatever was being said about me and my program and my capacity as a teacher (including my decision not to wear spats) was said to my face and witnessed by the most important stakeholders: moms and dads.
Ironically—and again, this is just my experience, and not research—I have found public schools much more open to honest feedback than private or charter schools. One of my two children went to high school at a competitive-admission, all-girls Catholic academy. The school was run by a mothers’ group that met exclusively on Tuesday mornings when working parents could not attend. Many of the mothers were alumni of the school; they controlled hiring, shaped the curriculum and set policy. Their daughters were the obvious beneficiaries, in dozens of ways.
Petrilli is wrong in assuming that all public schools don’t listen to parents, but still seems to be at work developing his secret app to take down school system where his children are, presumably, reading and writing and playing on the monkey bars this morning.
The last word goes to @IngridFournier, the first teacher to respond to Petrilli’s mean-spirited tweet: Imagine if this was dedicated to developing best ways to support the teachers who are working hard, getting it right, and making a positive impact on your child’s life. Such a shame to see the energy used to bring folks down. #exhausted