It was probably because I was reading Robert Putnam's Our Kids and Rick Hess's Cage Busting Teachers, but in Putnam's book, this section leapt out at me. Putnam is describing social capital, the "informal ties to family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances involved in civic associations, religious institutions, athletic teams, volunteer activities, and so on."
Social capital has repeatedly been shown to be a strong predictor of well-being both for individuals and for communities. Community bonds and social networks have powerful effects on health, happiness, educational success, economic success, public safety and (especially) child welfare. However, like financial capital, social capital is distributed unevenly...
Contrary to romanticized images of close-knit communal life among the poor, lower-class Americans today, especially if they are nonwhite, tend to be socially isolated, even form their neighbors.
Perhaps more important, more educated Americans also have many more "weak ties," that is, connections to wider, more diverse networks. The reach and diversity of these social ties are especially valuable for social mobility and educational and economic advancement, because such ties allow educated, affluent parents and their children to tap a wealth of expertise and support that is simply inaccessible to parents and children who are less well off.
Now, that speaks to me as a teacher learning about students-- but it also speaks to me just plain as a teacher. Putnam is talking about how the lack of social capital gives poor students a disadvantage, but it got me to thinking about teachers' social capital.
Hess's book talks about authority and power-- but what if the issue Hess is talking about is really social capital?
After all-- one of the side effects of working almost exclusively with children is that teachers don't develop the kind of network of soft ties that other professionals do. In fact, teachers early in their careers are often so busy doing the work that they don't get out, don't join community groups, don't volunteer, don't become part of a "more diverse network." Even things as simple as meeting someone for lunch are not do-able in teacherville.
We've talked a lot about how reformsters have access to a great deal of money, but it's social capital as well. When David Coleman and his buds decided that they had the blueprint for re-inventing American education, they cashed in some social capital and got a meeting with Bill Gates. When I have new ideas about how to revolutionize education, I can...um... tell other faculty in the lounge. Guys like Rick Hess and Mike Petrilli and Arne Duncan have powerful and important people in their phone directory. Guys like me do not.
Weak ties get things done for people with social capital. My child or I have an interest or concern? I know a guy. For the poor, informal weak ties are supplemented with formal government agencies. If a socially capitalized parent is worried that his kid is sick, he cashes in some capital to get an unofficial medical opinion. For the poor, the only solution is a trip to a clinic; they don't have access to a doctor's home number. Likewise, the union often substitutes for teacher weak ties. I may not know how to get connected with a political figure, but my union does.
So when Hess spends time talking about earning moral authority by doing the right thing, when he talks about how to effectively approach the People In Charge to get their permission and support, isn't he perhaps talking about building (or substituting for) social capital?
What is mentoring except offering to share a wealth of social capital with someone who hasn't had a chance to build any yet?
Imagine a world in which every rich and powerful player adopted not schools, but teachers. Imagine if every rich and powerful person decided to become socially connected to four or five classroom teachers, connected well enough that they felt comfy calling him any time.
Of course, it's hard to imagine because what would the teachers offer the rich and powerful player? Because they don't have any social capital to offer him in return. But if such ties became the norm, eventually teachers would become an integral part of a larger network. Heck. Imagine a world where rich and powerful folks connected to each other through their teachers.
But teachers-- because we are isolated in our classrooms, interacting mostly with children, don't build the kind of powerful social capital accounts that other professionals do. Our biggest source of social capital is our students and their families, which means in poor communities the teachers end up with less social capital to "spend" on behalf of their students. In upscale schools, teachers get to grow capital through parent connections, and through former students who go on to be Big Deals.
Seen through this lens, perhaps part of Hess's message is that teachers have more social capital than they think they do, and they should start using it and building it. I think of my colleague Jennifer Berkshire, who's not a teacher, but who gets to interview all sorts of people through the revolutionary technique of calling them up and asking. Sometimes we grossly underestimate the amount of social capital that we have at our disposal.
Maybe the big secret of cage busting is finding ways to build social capital, to create connections, to accumulate the kind of weak ties that make life run better for those who have them. Maybe the cage is not actually a cage, but a kind of null space created by the lack of connections to anything, and we don't need so much to bust the cage as we need to bridge the gap and build connections across that empty zone.
I'm still thinking this stuff through. Maybe when Putnam and Hess give me a call and invite me to sit down with them over lunch to talk about it, I'll flesh it out some more. If they can meet with me for thirty minutes during fifth period.