A Village of Leaders Trapped in Their Own Stories

February 17, 2015 at 2:42 PM Leave a comment

The study of literary classics teaches us about characters – heroes, villains, and the rest – who are trapped in their respective stories. Paralyzed by karmic inertia, they often pursue flawed strategies in parallel, and the plot cannot be resolved without life-changing events that both unite and liberate them in a convergence of common causes and conflicts. Collateral damage is unavoidable, but children are rarely allowed to suffer tragic consequences in the end.

Accountability and blame are two sides of an unbalanced coin, or so it would seem in education. But accountability in a fair game could also be the catalyst for a much needed cultural change…inclusiveness among all teachers. Results-orientation is a good thing…something to strive for in a world of natural leaders who just happen to be teachers. And for that, traditional teachers, boot-camp “heroes” from the Land of No Excuses, and seasoned career changers need to merge their ranks and share talents with more mutual respect and less suspicion. Maybe then the lost children of failed schools would be saved.

I became a teacher through a mid-career transition program after 20 years in health care. As an ICU nurse, I learned quickly that failure was not an option to be taken lightly. Later, as an MBA working in the corporate world, being accountable for my personal, professional, and company goals was just business as usual. One agreed to a set of goals and met them. It wasn’t mercenary. The trickle-down theory of profit-sharing was just that – theoretical – to a young business analyst. But having a job and delivering results went hand-in-hand.

Similarly, the No Excuses teams of recruits have a common thread of achievement that links their mission-driven work. And many new teachers emerging from traditional teacher prep programs arrive in schools truly believing that they are their students’ only hope for success. Yet the schools were full of well-intentioned professional teachers before any of us joined their ranks. Why can’t we all get along?

Education has a long history of regulation, and a bureaucracy has grown around documenting rule-following behavior instead outcomes. Caught up in such distractions from the primary mission of educating the children, many career teachers are frustrated by newcomers who introduce an alternate agenda…like they invented it. And the cruelest irony is that each group seems to bank on gathering young, like-minded individuals who will all do it (fill in new leader’s name)’s way. “Watch me succeed and learn from me” is the battle cry. Great…another charismatic leader with a magic pill and a role modeling strategy for delivering change. And as the pendulum swings and time marches on…educators try every strategy from A to B.

The fly in the ointment is the idea that a universally adopted narrow agenda is a long-term solution. A novel approach in the classroom may yield a boost in performance for some, but it will grow stale and miss the mark for many. To reach all students, a broad range of learning strategies must be cultivated, and teachers need to be able to have the discretion to respond to students for whom the latest thing in education is not a good fit. Innovation is crucial, but it does not guarantee obsolescence of that which came before it.

And veteran teachers need to have their voices heard at least as well as any other group. True leadership fosters mutual respect among staff members, and professional development must be robust enough to keep all teachers vitally engaged in their mission over the course of a lengthy career.

A legacy of grudgingly tolerating teachers for the last 15-20 years of their employment is the self-fulfilling prophecy of the occasional bit of dead wood within the ranks of veteran teachers. In my first couple of years of teaching, I bought into the folklore of new heroes and old villains. But the closer I looked at many of the older teachers walking ghostlike, unseen by their younger colleagues, the more evident it became that their spirits had not died of natural causes. They were the victims of not-so-benign neglect, the designated scapegoats who were vital to the formula for a blame-based failure cycle.

School transformation has become a disruptive process that is driven by a presumption of guilt among some of the teachers. Individuals have been faulted for a bad system’s outcomes with little benefit to the children. Further, accountability testing itself is being targeted as an evil force as well. A truly bleak picture is emerging of eliminating accountability tests and turning out the spotlight on achievement so that the children will be allowed to fail without so much evidence…Mission not accomplished.

In an alternate ending to the story, breaking the failure cycle could mean transforming the people – students and staff – through a better system…not just new schools designed around closed systems of elite players who fit into a tight mold and forgetting the rest. Broad-based pedagogy and inclusiveness of all teachers and students would be essential to the ultimate plan for success. And accountability for student outcomes would be founded in a commitment to a minimum standard for literacy and mathematical reasoning as the base from which all students would pursue their goals as lifelong learners. For that, conversations will have to be moved beyond identifying individual culprits who can be excluded.

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Entry filed under: Ageism in Education, Teacher Effectiveness.

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