Saturday, May 2, 2015

(Don't) Leave Me Alone

I’m on a hiring committee for a new Middle School Head and it’s turning out to be a great way to step back and look at what’s important. One theme that’s coming up is the relationship of admin to faculty and it’s helping me crystallize some thinking about what feels like a proper relationship. I’ve narrowed down the possible paradigms to three, as follows:

1)   Compliance and conformity. You will teach as I tell you or as the State tells you or as the National Standards tell you or as the previous teacher’s curriculum tells you or as my surface understanding of the latest-and-greatest-best-practices-in-education-that-I-got-from-a-workshop-at-a-conference tells you.

In my talks with teachers nationwide (and worldwide), I hear horror story after horror story of such mandated compliance, down to uniform ways that all lessons must begin, certain machines that must be used, certain keywords that must be spoken. This is death to any meaningful education, any spark of passion in the teacher and sense of being valued. I thank my lucky stars that never once in my 40 years at the school have teachers ever felt such pressure. Or when they did, the necessary conversations helped get it back on track. (The music department was once asked to take attendance by computer that would feed into the main system and we refused on the grounds that we wanted to greet kids at the beginning of class without a screen between us. So the Middle School head comes in with pencil and paper and takes a quick silent attendance while we teach.)

2)   Autonomy in isolation. We will leave you free to teach to your passion and in your own style (within certain curricular expectations) and leave you alone to do so. This has been the norm in our school and it mostly works. Teachers are excited about what they do, appreciate the autonomy to find their own way and build their own curriculum.

As wonderful as this is, it can fall short as teachers feel isolated in their classrooms, alone with their own doubts about their choices and unclear about whether admin is aware of what they do, appreciates it and values it. It reminds me a bit of my daughter’s teenage friends who sometimes said “My parents don’t care what I do” and though they often meant it in an appreciative way about how much the parent trusts them and gives them freedom, sometimes I felt a touch of accent on the care. From watching kids in the playground to checking in about their teenager’s homework and expecting their presence at family meals, the parent’s job is indeed to care what their kids do. While still preserving a developmentally appropriate sense of autonomy. And that brings us to:

3)   Autonomy within community. While still giving freedom to the teachers to find their own way to reach the kids, admin shows great interest and enthusiasm, spends time visiting, not to judge, but to help as possible, to witness, to appreciate, to know what' going on and to engage in follow-up conversations.

“Here’s what impressed me… Here’s what I wondered about… Did you notice how you made this kid’s face light up? Did you notice the confused look in that kid’s face? What are you going to do after this? Is there a particular lesson you’d like me to see? What do you want me to particularly observe?" In addition to such admin visits with a genuine sense of enthusiasm and excitement, admin can also create a community of support in staff meetings devoted to sharing successes and challenges.

Truth be told, we could do this all a lot better at my school. Too many meetings have lowered to the mere nuts and bolts of running a school and there isn’t enough time and space devoted to keeping the mutual flames of our passion lit by engaging conversation. The music department has had the great pleasure of doing this, especially as we meet with the Interns we have to go over the details of the lessons they watch, our goals and intentions and pedagogical premises that shape our lessons, our analysis of what worked and what could work better. Preschool teachers team-teaching also get a taste of that. But with one class per grade level at elementary and a different structure of specialty subjects in Middle School, not all teachers get to do this.

While so much of the nation seems to be slipping back to compliance and conformity and uniformity, let’s do what we can to create the freedom of autonomy within the responsibility of community. Happy teachers excited about what they teach and how they teach is probably the number one factor in the success of a school. Let’s get to work! Together!

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