What Would It Take to Genuinely Do What Is Best for Kids?

It’s quite the headline. Defiant Superintendent: How Can I Follow a Law I Believe Endangers My Students?

There are many possible responses:

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.

6 Comments

  1. You are asking the impossible of 99% of the administrators, or 100% of the adminimals* who now inhabit those positions of authority. It’s going to take a concerted effort by the teachers to make any lasting, substantial change. . . and that won’t happen because the vast majority of public school teachers are Go Along to Get Along Good German type implementers of malpractices without a peep.

    Thoreau had it right: “The mass of men [and women] serves the state [education powers that be] thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailors, constables, posse comitatus, [administrators and teachers], etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt.”- Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862], American author and philosopher

    Or as Comte-Sponville point out: “Should we therefore forgo our self-interest? Of course not. But it [self-interest] must be subordinate to justice, not the other way around. . . . To take advantage of a child’s naivete. . . in order to extract from them something [test scores, personal information] that is contrary to their interests, or intentions, without their knowledge [or consent of parents] or through coercion [state mandated testing], is always and everywhere unjust even if in some places and under certain circumstances it is not illegal. . . . Justice is superior to and more valuable than well-being or efficiency; it cannot be sacrificed to them, not even for the happiness of the greatest number [quoting Rawls]. To what could justice legitimately be sacrificed, since without justice there would be no legitimacy or illegitimacy? And in the name of what, since without justice even humanity, happiness and love could have no absolute value?. . . Without justice, values would be nothing more than (self) interests or motives; they would cease to be values or would become values without worth.”—Comte-Sponville [my additions]

    *Adminimal (n):  A spineless creature formerly known as an administrator and/or principal who gleefully implements unethical and unjust educational malpractices such as the standards and testing malpractice regime.  Adminimals are known by/for their brown-nosing behavior in kissing the arses of those above them in the testucation hierarchy.  These sycophantic toadies (not to be confused with cane toads, adminimals are far worse to the environment) are infamous for demanding that those below them in the testucation hierarchy kiss the adminimal’s arse on a daily basis, having the teachers simultaneously telling said adminimals that their arse and its byproducts don’t stink.  Adminimals are experts at Eichmanizing their staff through using techniques of fear and compliance inducing mind control.  Beware, any interaction with an adminimal will sully one’s soul forever unless one has been properly intellectually vaccinated.

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  2. Haha?

    Duane, judging from your photo, I am surmising that you (like me) have been in this circus for a few decades, and have met plenty of sycophantic or even malevolent administrators. And, of course, plenty of spineless teachers who just want to do what they always did, and keep their jobs. We’ve both heard the charge against teachers who ‘go to the dark side’ and become administrators.

    There are teacher-led buildings, but they’re exceptionally rare. Someone has to step up and take a formal leadership role. Would it be better if those wannabe administrators had zero teaching experience? I don’t think so. Education and training help, somewhat, but the true value of a school leader is in their innate character, and personal mission. Do they want to meet the needs of the children in their charge–or do they want to ‘run a tight ship’ and follow all the rules while hanging out in their air-conditioned office?

    In the earliest days of my career (back in the 1970s), I was trained to think that my principal and my superintendent would automatically be looking for more control over my work, more control over available resources, and more power. Adminis-traitors, we called ’em.

    Later, I came to see that some school leaders really could handle the tasks of administration with some kindness and grace. I’ve had admins who loosened rules, and stood up to bullies. I’ve known admins who nurtured teacher creativity. And, of course, those who were most interested in getting their name on a building or those who valued PR over genuine well-being for students.

    A building where teachers like and respect the principal? Been there–and it’s a good place to work.

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  3. How many supposedly groundbreaking educational reports have met with a resounding DUH from the people who actually do the work? Tale as old as time.

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    1. Yup. Agreed. But the stakes right now–life and death, human equity–could not be higher. We have to keep seeking responsive leadership. The fact that there are now big urban schools where superintendents, threatened by loss of job and loss of funding, are doing the right things is encouraging to me. If we stop hoping for change, we’re in a really bad place.

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  4. Quite some time ago a group of administrators and teachers union officials went through a workshop looking for a new way to relate to one another (the adversarial approach wasn’t exactly fun).

    In one exercise, the two groups separately were directed to come up with a description of the other group. What motivated us? Could we be trusted? As deep as we wanted to go (we were constantly encouraged to go deeper). After we did that the easel pages were posted in two galleries and each group had to go along and read all of the comments of exactly how each group felt about the other . . . in silence. This was a profound exercise because each group saw the other quite honestly. We were shocked because we assumed that we would be characterized via stereotypes.

    That exercise, along with others resulted in us using a completely different approach to negotiations and then problem solving (including contract management). Note: it was interest-based negotiating and I recommend it to one and all.

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    1. For a time, my district used interest-based negotiating. The MEA did the trainings. The teacher negotiators were generally positive. They would talk about how much better negotiations were when there was laughter and a focus on understanding, not winning. We got better contracts. The negotiations team didn’t feel they’d been lied to, for starters.

      Then, because of shifting personnel, the productive nature of negotiations eroded. Both sides have to be committed to interest-based negotiating for it to work. If only one side is committed, trust is lost. And Michigan became a right to work state, for teachers, in the 2014 cycle.

      And the usual flow of things–negotiated contracts, teachers and students together for an hour or a day, anticipated tax base, etc etc etc has been upended by a pandemic.

      Interest-based negotiation is a good leadership strategy–both district leadership and workforce leadership. We need more such strategies. My (pale, flickering) hope is that districts might see this as turning point, where the question of what actually is best for kids is asked repeatedly, and used to stimulate new directions.

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