Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Dark clouds, silver lining

In his post this afternoon, Dan McDowell at A History Teacher reveals the crux of so many educational dilemmas: "It is the teachers that make the school and we simply have not had consistent leadership (3 principals in 4 years, 4 in my 10 years) to bring us together."

He's speaking in the context of a protracted contract dispute (going on two years, which strikes me (pardon the term) as beyond protracted)and says important things in his piece. It's what I quoted above, though, that struck me hardest, in no small part because it resembles my own experience. I wish I couldn't relate.

I taught for 28 years. Without bothering to count assistant principals (whose turnover was even higher), I did so under the leadership of ten different building administrators. Actually, two of them hired me in May and had retired by the time I actually started serving on the campus, so let's say it was only eight.

The first seven years it was all the same principal. The second seven were split between two. The last fourteen there were five, so right in the same problematic neighborhood Dan talks about for 75% of my teaching career: inconsistent leadership.

Stop and think about what that means: it's not at all uncommon for public schools to change leaders with over twice the frequency that our country has, and at this time when people are so vigorously and verbally concerned about the performance of those same schools.

I'm not about to blame any of those who left behind the task of writing my evaluations in response to greener pa$ture$. I'll be cynical about the lure of the almighty dollar, but I won't blame them for following it. Some of my favorite lures are green, too, so I understand.

However, I want to return to Dan's point(s): it is the teachers who make the school, and consistent leadership matters. I'm concerned that an ever-expanding educational bureaucracy seems dominated by entrepreneurs. Of the eight I worked for, only two principals struck me as genuinely interested in the students; the others were there for the financial or bureaucratic mobility the position offered: the green frosting on the other side of the fence.

We're living in an age wherein teachers, much as they might want to make, as much as they might hope to make, as much as they might actually succeed in making a difference with individual students, are viewed as interchangable steps on an invisible ladder by the people who revolve through the leadership door. We want to be consistent. We need to be consistent. Because when you get right down to the bottom line, none of it works without us. We are the school.

And then every two or three years, the wind changes direction...



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9 Comments:

Blogger Matt Johnston said...

Assuming that teachers make the school (I would argue that the students make the school, but that is a discussion for another time), what then can teachers do to demand a bit more consistency in leadership?

Given the clout that teacher unions have in the schools, could they not begin demanding at contract time, conditions that would ensure a bit more consistency in school leadership?

In what I have read regarding the teacher/principal dynamic, the animosity between the two parties is almost palpable. Is the reason for the high turnover the intensely combative nature of the relationships the principal must endure, tension between the principal and the teacher, tension between the principal and the parents, tension between teachers that the principal must referee, etc. I would not want to work in such an atmosphere now either, why do we expect principals to endure such atmospheres any more than we would.

6:32 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Wow, you worded my feelings on the consistency issue exactly. I appreciate great administrators but I feel that they are moved around too much/too fast. I believe that the continued under-appreciation of teachers creates the entrepreneur mentality. If we were paid for what we really do there would be less mass exodus for greener pastures.

Thanks for a great post. I enjoyed my visit and plan on coming by again. Thanks for the comment over on my blog.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Al said...

Matt-

Any day now, I'm likely to propose that a community makes the school: students, parents, teachers, staff, administration, neighboring businesses - the whole ball of wax - and try exploring the ramifications of that, both past and current. I'll give you a heads up, as I sense you could well help me sort out my thinking.

On the "union clout" issue, my Nevada/Texas perspective differs substantially from your Maryland one. I wish I could sense any real control over education issues in the hands of teachers (beyond the walls of the classroom. And I sense that is continuing to diminish).

Leaving those things aside, I've only rarely felt anything resembling animosity between principal and teacher. Even the truly pathetic administrators I worked with were generally easy to get along with in a social sense, and most had the sense to stay out of the way. I just see the best ones move on to different challenges and bigger paychecks, while the closest we get to long-term consistency is from the mediocre ones.

Elementaryhistoryteacher-

Thanks for your kind words. I knew I wasn't alone (after all, I was spinning off a point Dan brought up), but knowing there's another sympathiser or two out there certainly helps.

I'll have to keep track and see which blog you hit more often: mine or the dog's...

2:27 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

It sounds like what your districts needs, and always has needed, is an airstrike on your central administration building. If you've gone through that many principals, whose fault is it? If the superintendent, etc. are so incompetent that they can't recruit or hire competent principals, that would seem to be the tail wagging the dog of this story.

7:49 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I do not believe my association leadership has the clout you think we do, Matt. I live in state where it is ILLEGAL for teachers to strike, so districts here basically have us where they want us. Working to the rule is one of the few tools we have to make a point with administration.

The national association perhaps has clout with national organizations, maybe, but that does not influence the details of my working life in a meaningful manner.

Al makes a great point about consistency. Principals have and will continue to come and go. But I and my fellow teachers are still there, day in day out.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

You touch on so many good points its hard to know where to begin. I read this post last night and came back today after I'd thought about it some more.

1. Many principals are casting a longing eye toward the central office. Hour long lunch breaks and hobnob with the local business honchos. I don't get this at all. The district's most talented administrators should be in the schools themselves. In my district I've met the superintendent once in two years. His impact at the building level is negligible.
2. Districts tend to move the best principals around to patch holes. Having a problem in School A? Move one of your best principals over there. This is understandable, but constant movement of principals creates that instability you are talking about.
3. In my state, superintendents can sign three year contracts. Principals are limited to one year at a time. I think a principal under a longer term contract that both parties will respect will promote the kind of stability you're talking about.
4. I agree with your basic premise. Good teachers thrive under good, consistent leadership and so do the kids. The worst teachers don't care. They're just watching the clock and deciding whether to burn another sick day to stretch the weekend out a little more.

Excellent post

7:41 AM  
Blogger dan said...

Glad I was able, indirectly at least, spark a good discussion. I know within my district the time principal's spend at different schools varies. I know there is at least one that is 20+ years in the position and another that has at least 10 ten.

There are principal's who are truly dedicated to the students and the teaching staff, and the school as a whole. They see these communities as something they want to help shape and be a part of for years to come. That takes a certain amount of dedication. Others find opportunities and have a hard time passing them up. My last two principals left for better jobs in the district office. They both said they hope to make a greater impact by having a voice in the education of 25,000 students instead of 2,500. Understandable, but neither were really able to make the school into the community it could be in 2-3 year tenures. It is too early for my current principal, he only came on board the week before school started.

Our union can't even get the district to compromise - no way we are getting a say in anything else.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

Prinicipals, just like any other boss, can definitely make or break a school.

My principal does the business side of things very well, but when it comes to actually knowing and caring about the children, there is a disconnect.

She also did not teach in the classroom all that long before she became a principal, which I feel makes a difference in the type of leader you are. If you are out of touch with what it is like to be a classroom teacher, that makes it very hard to put yourself in their shoes when making reasonable decisions, or demands.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Greek Shadow said...

I agree with your point of view 100%. No matter how much teachers like or dislike their administrators eventually over time things settle down and the school functions well. The constant upheaval changing leadership causes disturbs the whole process.
Students are what everyone is there for, but what some people don't realize is that students are temporary. They come in and graduate in the proscibed number of years. Teachers are the permanent ones. I've been teaching for 24 years. I have aged, but every year the students stay the same age, and what works or doesn't work changes with every class.

4:26 PM  

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