My friend, Peter DeWitt, is a public elementary school principal in upstate New York. He is a thoughtful and caring person, and I think probably represents the best of his public school principal profession, and I think any of my teacher friends would be happy to have such a leader for their school. He writes a daily blog for Education Week magazine online, and his pieces generally wrestle with trying to be a humanistic educational leader within a bureaucratic system of standardization, high-stakes testing, and other mandates and strictures from above.
In his recent blog piece, “Why Would Anyone Want to Be a School Leader?”, Peter writes…
School leadership is hard…especially now. There are point scales to contend with, evaluations based on test scores, and budget cuts that result in the lay-offs of teachers and administrative colleagues. Some leaders who have been in the position for a few years have seen cuts to programs, and have a constant need to find creativity in a very uncreative time… On top of that leaders have students living in extreme poverty, an increase in the students with social-emotional issues, and in some cases are expected to take on the role of parents to students…and their parents…
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So why is it that doctors play a key role in running the institutions (hospitals) where they practice their profession and defining what constitutes quality practice, but teachers generally don’t? Aren’t these both considered “professions”, and as such should be given comparable stature? No hospital would think of having a governance structure where doctor’s don’t play a key role, particularly in the delivery of medical care. Shouldn’t teachers play a comparably critical role in running their schools and defining what constitutes educational practice?
Perhaps as a parent, and not a professional educator, I am not in the ideal position to pose these questions, but I don’t find the teachers I know posing them. The teachers I know personally generally define themselves as “labor”, union organized labor in most cases, in opposition to the people that run their schools, who are considered the “management”. Even the teachers whose words I see on Daily KOS or elsewhere in the media championing their profession rarely call for that profession to play the key roll governing their schools and the education process generally.
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The title of this piece is the goal of my friend Lynn Stoddard, who has worked for over 50 years as an elementary school teacher, principal and consultant. His goal is to elevate the profession of teaching and inspire teachers to truly facilitate the development of a young human being rather than merely instruct them on standardized curriculum so they can pass the tests. I am aware of no greater contemporary champion for a holistic approach to teaching and education consistent with the great education innovators of the 20th Century like John Dewey, Waldorf founder Rudolph Steiner, and Maria Montessori.
From chapter 1 page 1 of his book Educating for Human Greatness, Lynn frames the challenges for the profession of teaching in the current US educational context…
In 1983 a National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a “Nation at Risk Report” and set in motion a series of government imposed reforms, all based on a false goal: student achievement in curriculum. One of these reforms, “No Child Left Behind,” put extra pressure on teachers to ignore the diverse needs of students and, instead, standardize students in reading, writing and math. More recently the U.S. Department of Education has installed a set of national standards for student uniformity. Subject matter specialists, along with major influence from business and industry, have decided what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Tests are administered to assess student learning of the prescribed material. In some cases the tests are used as an assessment of the quality of teaching. This top-down, misguided pressure is evidence that public school teaching is not regarded as a profession in our society.
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Emily responded to my “School Decision Makers” post and shared her frustration that she is apparently sending her son to a school that, as best as she can tell, is not the right place for him, and there seems to be little she can (as a parent) do about it except for pulling him out of it.
Eric's Middle School
What kind of real collaboration can parents and public middle school teachers have when it comes to finding the right educational path for each kid? When our son Eric was going to a public magnet middle school, his mom and I were lucky if we got to speak with each of his teachers more than once or twice a semester, and then often to find out that making any adjustments or accommodations for individual students was impossible either due to school policy or the size of the class. That was extremely frustrating for us as parents. All we could do was basically drop him off at school at the beginning of the day and leave him to his own devices to deal with this large bureaucratic institution… take it or leave it. Continue reading →
Iain Coggins is an educator who has signed on, like me, to the start up of a group called “Educating for Human Greatness”, an effort to advocate for redefining schools and the profession of teaching focused on a more holistic and humanistic vision of how kids really learn. In his comment to my previous post Iain said, “I think a key to our efforts at Human Greatness is creating an unbreakable link between educators and parents. As both an educator and a parent I feel confident in saying that a true paradigm shift in education will be impossible without educator-parent unity.”
I agree with Iain on this idea of “educator-parent unity”. It certainly is general wisdom that kids are served if their parents are actively involved with their kid’s teacher. From my point of view, relationships are a good thing. Better to find a path forward through relationships with key players in your life or those of your family rather than relying on rules and other elements of bureaucracy as a substitute. Continue reading →