It’s quite the headline. Defiant Superintendent: How Can I Follow a Law I Believe Endangers My Students?
There are many possible responses:
- What have you been doing up until now, about other laws that endanger students?
- Who and what helps you decide that a law or policy is dangerous, or potentially damaging?
- What’s the worst that can happen, if you follow your conscience and good sense?
- Also—what’s the best outcome for this kind of moral decision-making?
These wonderings are at the heart of my long-time, central theory about school reform: When formal, titled school leaders join forces with teachers, kids win.
This is a wide-focus theory, that applies to almost everything about running a public school: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessments. Budgets and resources. Staffing. Public relations. The master schedule. Everything down to whether the supply closet is locked–or teachers are trusted to use the construction paper judiciously, with sharing in mind.
In my 32 years of teaching in public schools—in a strong-union state most of that time—there was almost always a divide between administrators and teachers. Of course, there were ‘good’ principals and superintendents, who kept communication channels open and were open to new ideas.
But every two or three years, when the union was negotiating our salaries and working conditions, there was a bright line between ‘us’ and ‘them’—we were the good guys who wanted autonomy and adequate resources. And they were the bean-counters and policy followers, whose ultimate job was managing us, and our productivity. We were for the kids; they were for the district, the taxpayers and the rule of law.
Over several decades, I had easily three dozen administrators, and most of them were somewhere between pretty good and outstanding. A handful were unimaginative or timid. One or two were vindictive bullies. Someone like that can throw off an entire building or district, setting teachers against each other, changing the learning climate, making school a miserable place to be for lots of kids and staff. People matter.
And now—these same people are players in a game with life-and-death consequences. A game wherein dark money political organizations want to disrupt placid school board meetings, in an attempt to control curriculum, and parents feel free to physically attack teachers and administrators over mask mandates.
This is the worst possible time to have a tentative, apprehensive administrator. The school leader who is unable to articulate and defend her own core beliefs about what students need to learn in 2021, and how to teach them safely, is worse than useless.
If you were tempted to pin the admin-teacher power gap on unions, I think teachers in right-to-work states have even less power over their own work.
The President has directed Secretary of Education Cardona to combat governors who “block and intimidate local school officials.” It will be interesting to see which Superintendents choose community safety over a bullying gubernatorial or legislative directive.
It will also be instructive to watch which districts roll over—and which extend their newfound power to retaining control over their own curricula when the anti-CRT ‘concerned moms’ pay a visit to the school board.
This year is going to be a long, bumpy ride. Districts will be forced to make many deeply contested choices, and the best way to navigate that journey is listening to your workforce, and having a morally framed reason for pretty much everything you do. Doing what’s easiest, to shut people up, is not a morally framed reason.
Have you heard masking children called ‘child abuse’ or worse? That’s their message; what is yours? And how far will you go to defend it? Summon your courage.
Best case short-term scenario: Districts are transparent about their health and safety choices. Somebody has to be the adult in the room. We don’t pay attention to crazies. The feds back us up.
Best case long-term? Leaders find their voices. Schools begin to reclaim the professional work designed for their particular students. What to teach. How to do it safely and effectively. How to build school communities. (And yes, I know that local control can go awry and become ineffective or inequitable.)
What would it take to genuinely do what is best for kids?
A few days ago, a Hechinger report on what science tells us about improving the middle grades made the rounds among middle school teacher communities online. It’s a great piece, but the reaction from veteran middle school teachers was a resounding duh.
We’ve always known that middle schoolers want most to be taken seriously, and that the way we have middle schools set up—cells and bells—is not and never has been conducive to deep learning in 12 year-olds. So why do middle schools mostly look the same as they did 20 years ago? Why aren’t we making choices that evidence tells us are good for kids?
Because, middle school teachers said, our administrators kept a tight lid on innovation in the post-NCLB era. Because test scores. Sad, no?
This is a crucible moment in public school leadership.