The Containment Company

January 30, 2013 at 12:59 PM Leave a comment

Once upon a time…Lifelong teachers paced themselves. The culture taught them not to get ahead of themselves. And if they did, wise leaders would fire up the ovens in the Humble Pie Bakeshop. Their colleagues could be trusted to organize the party. No one saw the invisible hand at work while order was restored. But what would become the residue of such containment?

Do teachers have lowered expectations of their students because they have been nurtured in a culture that limited them to a long, slow trajectory toward retirement? Or did teachers who were best at containing, er, managing their students get promoted to school leadership and elevate that talent to managing the adults in the building as well? This chicken and egg conundrum doesn’t matter so much as its legacy needs to be acknowledged and undone.

Teachers, like students, are capable of far more than we ask of them. Instead of nurturing them for greatness, we have focused on hiring the best and the brightest only to contain them for a 30-year endurance trial. With such a slow progression, periodic review happened every few years. The path to the top was short, but it was only available to a few young protégés or, alternately, the last guy standing…often a coach who was approaching retirement. For the rest, a closed pension fund limited their mobility horizontally as well as vertically. Being average at best was manifest destiny.

The vast majority of school leaders would agree that this system does not work. Yet, as long as the teachers make good scapegoats, too few administrators are likely to cite their own complicity in the problem or volunteer for professional reinvention. The truism that school leaders just need to keep getting better as models of instructional leadership is too deeply entrenched in their mythology. It takes an unnatural act of leadership to accept accountability and grow in different ways.

As talent managers, school leaders cannot just attract new staff; they must engender continued growth over every teacher’s career arc with frequent constructive intervention. Drawing on other industries, the employee motivation program must include annual goal setting and review. And goal attainment must be supported with quarterly progress checks. Finding time to engage with their staff in this manner will overwhelm them initially. And investments in high-level professional development will require changing the expectations of the entire professional community.

The change process will not be easy, and it will depend on deep commitment from the top of every district and school. However, proactive staff development can be achieved, again with extensive district support in the short run, and sustained through time and effort saved from the problems that will occur less often…like worries over bad teachers and student achievement once disengagement and ineffectiveness are reduced.

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Entry filed under: Career Arcs, School Leadership, School Transformation, Teacher Effectiveness.

The Pension Nudge From Ivory Tower to Real World Practice

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