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Making Change

I have worked in and around public education for over twenty years. Over the past seven years, I have attended numerous meetings, panel discussions, and conferences that include participants from outside the public schools. Few of these meetings go by without someone coming up to tell me about a disappointing encounter with a public school graduate. Remarkably, these people have all taken part in a common interaction-dealing with someone who could not give them the proper change in a retail establishment.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Is it possible that the inability to calculate correct change has reached epidemic proportions? Since most of the people from my meetings are Ohioans, maybe we have a rogue serial improper-change-giver on our hands. Given that fact that retail businesses often struggle with high employee turnover, perhaps all of my meeting comrades have had the misfortune to come across the one public school graduate in the region that cannot make correct change. In the future, I'm going to ask them to describe the offender.

In all honesty, I cannot recall a single incident where the person at a store, restaurant, car wash, or toll booth has failed to give me correct change. In the same way that aliens always seem only to abduct crazy people, maybe those with a poor opinion of public schools are destined to always be in the checkout line of the cashier with the least skill at dispensing change.


Taking Care of the People Who Take Care of Kids

I just finished re-reading an article by Parker Palmer entitled Good Talk about Good Teaching. I never tire of reading his work. I find it refreshing and hopeful. I have often thought that schools do a terrible job of taking care of their teachers. Additionally, teachers make it very difficult for schools to take care of them. Some teachers reading this might be of the opinion that to really take care of teachers, throw a little something extra in their pay envelopes. While I am always open to discussions about how much teachers ought to be paid, I don't necessarily equate taking care of teachers with increased compensation.

Palmer highlights three conditions of teaching in this article. I would like to focus on the privatization of teaching, the fact that teaching is more than technique, and the human conditions of our students. As most of my opinions have a tendency to be inflamatory, I will pose them as questions and hope for your comments.

The Privatization of Teaching: Palmer acknowledges that increased privatization may well be attributable to the notion of academic freedom, but contends that it is most likely perpetuated out of choice. Teachers choose isolation as an attempt to escape the scrutiny of others and evaluation by supervisors. I tend to agree. The worst part about teacher isolation if the fact that it breeds what Palmer refers to as "institutional incompetence."

Are teachers really isolated from one another, or is this just an overblown notion? Is it true that teaching in a public school is the most private job you can have?

Teaching is More Than Technique: Most school improvement efforts have a "technical" component. The logic behind this fact is alluring; if teachers do this, student achievement will be increased. Palmer cites an American tendency to believe that all problems have technical solutions. He is quick to follow-up, however, with a piece of scathing insight into most school improvement efforts. Palmer points out that focusing on technique, we can make the conversations much more "safe" for those involved. The price for this safety is continued neglect of the more important issues that are likely to uncover the real barriers to improvement.

Can we have deep conversations about important topics, or will the school's immune system kick in and squash the dialog like a virus? How do we get started?

The Human Condition: One sentence from Palmer's article that haunts me is his description of the current condition of our students. He describes the fact that many teachers have mis-diagnosed students as "brain dead." This diagnosis has led to the prescription that these students require "pedagogies that function like life-support systems, dripping information into the veins of comatose patients." Palmer continues by pointing out that "nothing is easier than to slip into a low opinion of students, and that opinion creates teaching practices guaranteed to create vegetative states even if students who arrive at class alive and well."

How have your opinions of students (good or bad) shaped your instructional practice?


Teaching. A miserable job?

On the surface, thinking about teaching as a miserable job seems ludicrous. You have all heard it from your non-teaching friends and relatives:

  1. Teachers get full-time pay for part-time work (180 days)
  2. Summers off
  3. In many cases, tenure, guaranteeing continued employment
  4. Assurance of annual incremental pay increases

Although the teachers among us might point out flaws in the statements above, when compared to other ways to make a living, teaching is a pretty good gig.

Upon closer examination, I am prepared to argue that teaching in public schools might fit at least one definition of a miserable job. Michael Lencioni, author of the well-known tome Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has written a book called The Three Signs of a Miserable Job. In this book, Lencioni identifies the conditions that lead to a job being characterized as miserable. The three conditions are anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurability.

Anonymity: As a characteristic of teaching, anonymity is overlooked. After all, we conduct our work in the presence of others, the students. We work in a public institution and meet with parents and other staff members. Think about anonymity differently. Our certification and licensure is predicated on the notion that we are interchangeable. Our district’s can move us around (under negotiated conditions) as is we are replacement parts in a repair shop. Further, I have heard it said that teaching in the public schools is the most private job a person can have. Once the students arrive, the door closes and teachers are alone. Teachers are left alone to resolve classroom issues, figure out how to manage new accountability requirements, and implement new initiatives. One educational observer got it right when he stated that teachers are a group of independent contractors that share a parking lot.

Irrelevance: Employees have to know how their efforts impact the larger organization. Bumper sticker slogans like “If you can read this, thank a teacher” do not begin to strike at the heart at irrelevance. An assembly line worker might get to know the transmission assembly very well, but still have little understanding of how cars are assembled. Similarly, teachers get to know the curriculum of their grade level or subject very well, yet do not get insight into the part it plays in the overall education of a student. Perhaps the biggest blow to relevance comes from the increased deployment of “managed curriculum.” These pre-packaged instructional programs rely upon scripted instructions followed by activities and assessments created far away from the classrooms where they are to be used. More and more, we have created situations where the classroom teacher’s creativity, innovation, and skill are irrelevant.

Immeasurability: Perhaps the most paradoxical of all of signs of miserable jobs, increased accountability demands have not led to increased measurability of our craft. The link between quality instruction and student achievement is complex, to try to measure it with a single metric (student performance on high stakes tests) is extremely unwise. Being left to your own devices to determine how well you are doing your job is a recipe for disaster. Current evaluation and assessment structures do little to provide effective feedback about teaching performance. Similarly, the supervision structure in public schools is ill-suited to promote teacher growth. Finally, the profession of teaching provides little incentive for members to continually increase their skills.

I think that I have laid out a decent case for how the profession of teaching meets the three signs identified by Lencioni. Even though they meet the criterion, I still do not believe teaching to be a miserable job. I offer this post in hopes that we can raise awareness of the dangers of disengaging, and perhaps losing, the very people that can cause schools to improve--the teachers.


The Tyranny of the Practical: Why We Need Third-Third Thinking

People read my blog. Even though I have few followers and even fewer comments posted, I know that people read it because they come up and tell me that they read my latest post. The conversation usually starts like this: "Wow, it must be nice to have time 'think out of the box' and post the results on-line." I am going to continue to consider this a compliment, even though I think that it might be some kind of comment about the work that I do. I seldom respond to the comments, but if I did I might point out my doubts that it is a lack of time that prevents them from "thinking outside the box."

The practical strategies that emerge from school improvement meetings hold an insidious tyranny over us. I have nothing against things that are practical, in fact I have an incredible bias towards the practical. My problem really comes from the belief that we have incorrectly defined practicality. The things that we continue to regard as very practical have proven to do very little in terms of student achievement or school improvement.

Benjamin Franklin, John and Samuel Adams, and Richard Henry Lee probably had better things to do than hang out in taverns, but we can't discount the fact that those conversations led to American independence.

School improvement teams typically come up with their activities by brainstorming. Many consider brainstorming to be a trite practice that has value only in making team members feel included. The fact is that, done right, brainstorming is one of our most powerful tools. In his book Think Better, Tim Hurson describes the typical items that appear as a result of brainstorming.

Hurson divides the lists generated through brainstorming into thirds. The first third of the items will usually be "mundane, tired thoughts, that reside close to the surface of our consciousness." These are not new ideas, but things that we recall having heard (or thought of) before.

Second third thinking is represented by ideas that are more than regurgitation of things we already know, but are still constrained by the things that we already know and have thought of before.

Finally, third third thinking is, according to Hurson, "where the diamonds lie." Here is where you will find true "productive thinking." You will notice unexpected connections, breakthrough ideas, and innovative solutions.

The value of third third thinking lies not only in the product, but the process. Once again, according to Hurson, "the challenge is not to get new ideas, but to get rid of the old ones." By generating long lists, we "flush" ideas from our heads, making room for new ones. The Greeks use the word kenosis, or self-emptying, to describe the process.

The tyranny of the practical prevents us from ever getting to the third third. Time that we have with teachers is so limited, that we tend to only do things that we deem essential. Brainstorming, dialogue, and debate are "luxuries" that we do not have time for. The result is disheartening. In an attempt to do something practical we eliminate the practices that are most likely to result in the improvement we seek.


In Defense of Jargon

Vertical articulation, cognitive dissonance, metacognition. These are the words of people involved in the education profession. Recently there has been a movement to rid public education from what critics call "jargon." I believe that such a movement is a grave mistake.

Those who follow public education, in my opinion, would be hard-pressed to claim that the problem with public education is too many big words. As a matter of fact, I think that I could build an argument in support of the opposite--we don't have enough big words.

Ours is an academic profession. I refer to "academic" in its purest sense. Increasingly the word academic (as in, "this is a purely academic exercise") has come to mean irrelevant. This is a sad state of affairs. It should be noted that space travel, initially, was an academic pursuit.

I was recently working with a district that was considering revising the way that it keeps parents informed about the progress of their children. One segment of the administrative team felt strongly that the current report card format should be kept. Their argument was that parents understand letter grades (A,B,C,D,F), they would struggle to make sense of a standards based report card. I contended then, as I do now, that it is not the job of the public schools to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but to raise it.

To those who continue to argue for the removal of jargon from pubic education, would you be satisfied with a physician that, after a battery of tests came back to you and said, "Yep, you've got a tummy ache."

Big words have a place. They have specific meaning. They should be used by people within our profession to communicate specifically and correctly.