Public education is a bureaucrat’s wet dream. Our school and district level leaders rarely, if ever, create policy or drive education reform. They simply carry out the will and mandates of government officials, politicians, and the loud minority who, in most cases, have never set foot in a classroom as anything other than students. Pushing paper and attending meetings has supplanted teaching as the focus of our educational system. Too many of our school and district level leaders are the puppets of politicians whose opinions change like Georgia weather; empty suits with six figure salaries, impressive titles, and no real investment in what really goes on in our schools anymore beyond test scores and photo opportunities.
But, they weren’t always that way … were they? Didn’t they have to have some integrity, conviction, and emotional investment in this thing of ours at some point? So, what happened? Does the climb up the ladder automatically make one forget that classroom teachers, school counselors, paraprofessionals, teachers’ assistants, and generally every system employee who actually works IN a school WITH students on a DAILY basis are actually the best equipped and most knowledgeable when it comes to diagnosing and ultimately addressing the many problems in the foundation of our educational system, particularly the problems related to poor students, rural students, and students of color? Doesn’t local control, with district support, make more sense as a leadership model for our educational system than the sprawling, bureaucratic, top-down, ivory tower based leadership model we have now? Isn’t a child’s classroom teacher more aware of the child’s educational needs than the Superintendent, Governor, President, or even the school’s Principal?
Classroom teachers (and other school level employees) have to become the real leaders because, everyday, they’re getting their hands dirty, working to create more leaders. Classroom teachers take more than their (our) fair share of the blame and much less than their (our) fair share of the credit for the failures and successes of our schools and educational system as a whole. Classroom teachers who (gasp!) CHOOSE to serve poor students, rural students, and students of color are often crucified in the court of public opinion when it comes to the perceived under-performance of the students they serve.
Entire legislative packages (NCLB, Goals 2000, etc) have been created by (non educators) politicians seeking to right the incorrectly perceived wrongs that the poor unfortunate under-performing students had to suffer at the hands of their incompetent teachers and uncaring schools. Lack of clearly defined goals for the classroom teachers was the problem. The teachers had too much freedom and not enough direction when it came to teaching the students what they needed to know to be successful in life: success as measured by a passing score on a standardized test. Millions of dollars are pumped in to adoption of new textbooks, development of new curriculum, and the systematic removal of a teacher’s autonomy to diagnose and address the needs of their students. That power now rests with an empty suit in an office in an ivory tower that may show up one or twice a year for photo opportunities with the poor unfortunate students. The classroom teachers are never in these photos … because they’re too busy working, getting their hands dirty, trying to serve whomever walks through their classroom as best as they can.
Obviously, there is a massive disconnect between perceptions of the public and leadership and the lived realities of the classroom teachers and their students. The public wants someone to blame for society’s ills. Public education and, as a natural extension, teachers are nice convenient whipping boys (and girls). Teachers do not have a single unified voice. Teachers do not have a single unified national certification and/or accreditation organization. Teachers don’t have hundreds of lobbyists pushing their agenda in DC. Teachers don’t have much of anything going for them (us) but their passion for the profession, seemingly infinite stores of patience, and a high threshold for pain.
Enough is enough.
Change, real systemic organizational change, is a bottom up endeavor with some collaboration and support (forced or otherwise) from the top. The bosses are too far away from the schools to see the real problems. However, the teachers are so concerned with the problems that they do not have the time to truly develop plans of action to fix the systemic problems that exist, sometimes even within their old buildings.
The old leadership model doesn’t work. It is time for something new. Something more personal. Something more grounded in reality. Instead of promotions that completely remove effective teachers from classrooms and place them in Principal, Assistant Principal, or district level leadership positions, why not require building level leaders to also spend a minimum number of hours in the classroom each week, working directly with the students, continuing to experience the problems firsthand and ultimately preserving their perspective of the problems? These “teacher-leaders” would then be able to use their position to help inform and/or create policy. Move the district offices out of the ivory towers and strategically place them within the schools. Then, and only then, can we begin to bridge the gap between the perceptions of the old leadership and the public and the lived realities of classroom teachers and students.
If we’re serious about the problem…then we need to be equally serious about a solution.