Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What Does It Take for Teachers To Lead?

Rick Hess has been trying to answer this question for a while with many pieces grouped around his concept of a Cage-Busting Teacher (soon to be a book). Here he is answering it again at EdWeek, complete with a quote from me.

Hess has been wrestling with a balanced view of teacher leadership for a while, and I don't know that he's exactly close to an answer, but I'll give him credit for spotting most of the obstacles.

He is correct in noting that one obstacle is the fault of teachers themselves. Many of us have made variations of that same observation-- teachers are so inclined to play nice, follow the rules, avoid making waves, avoid upsetting the main office, and keep their heads down in their rooms that they are often terrible advocates for what they know is right. Every single union leader can tell you the story about the teacher who wants the union to get in there and fight for her, but would you please not mention her name because she doesn't want to have anybody upset with her.

Hess suggests that teachers are also complicit in covering for our less-able colleagues. I don't agree. Most of us are in no position to either cover for or put pressure on our fellow teachers. In fact, most commonly we do the one thing we do have the power to do, which is try to help our less-able colleagues do better. That's as much a practical consideration as a compassionate one. The compassionate part is important-- every teacher has vivid memories of being a lousy teacher for at least a day. But the practical part matters too. About the only other thing I can do to another teacher who I feel is not pulling his weight is to be a dick to him-- criticize him to his face or behind his back, or I could refuse to talk to him, help him, or ever answer any of his questions. That might make me feel like a righteous warrior, but it won't help my school be any better. I can only accomplish that by trying to help. Even there, I'm limited-- he does not answer to me.

It's an interesting thought-- what would it look like to have a system set up so that teachers were accountable to each other.

Critics forever complain about how unions "protect bad teachers." This is like complaining about the existence of defense lawyers. The only alternative is a system in which people can be punished because one person with power is really sure that they deserve punishment.

Hess also notes that the system, including the various new reformster flavors of the week, does not always (or even often) support teacher input. There's a reason that teachers feel conditioned to sit down and shut up.

Some of it is very formalized. My contract with my school district is very explicit-- for me to make statements in public critical of my administrators is contractually forbidden, a fire-able offense. That makes a pretty powerful statement about who gets to decide what is discussed, and how, and when, and by whom.

Teachers are also familiar with this common school district planning approach.

Administrator: Welcome to the first meeting of the District Widget Committee. We really want to hear input from all of you, and we hope that you will feel completely empowered to develop a district widget policy that will really carry the district forward.

Committee chair (one year later): We've put in hundreds of man-hours in research and meetings, and after drafting and redrafting this policy, we think we've come up with something that will really enhance the district.

Administrator: You didn't really come up with the policy we wanted, so we're just going to throw out your work and implement the policy we always wanted.

This of course assumes that the committee wasn't simply stacked with people who were prepped and ready to come up with the "correct" answer in the first place.

When Common Core and its attendant pilot fish or reform arrived, anybody who had been in the teaching biz for a while recognized the drill from the first PD. Like NCLB and a dozen other initiatives before it, this might have been introduced in sessions that began with a large booming announcement: "We are here to tell you what to do, not to listen to you. So shut up, sit down, and do as you're told."

Hess wants teachers to speak up; he also wants them to earn the right to be listened to. But neither particularly matters if local, state or national leadership are unwilling to let either happen. We are working in an environment in which the federal government told the state of Illinois to tell Chicago Public Schools that they were not free to make local decisions about testing. In that environment, I'm not sure what sort of cage-busting any teacher can do.

It is true that some teachers are wayyyyy too sensitive about being so much as frowned at by their administration. It is true that some human beings would rather whine about a problem than try to solve it. But it is also true that some administrations take cage-busting teachers out to the front door and drop-kick them to the street. Hess says that teachers have no obligation to "turn a blind eye to goofily constructed or not-ready-for-prime time evaluation system," but the fact is that it doesn't matter what kind of eye teachers turn to or from those systems-- teachers only have as much say about the matter as their administrators allow them to have. Let me refer you again to my contract-- if I were to post in this blog that I thought my boss was pursuing an evaluation system that was poorly constructed and a threat to the quality education of students in my school district, I could be fired. My only hope would be that my administrator was willing to listen to me; if not, I would have no other recourse.

To be a teacher leader, you have to have followers (or at least collaborators), and teachers who are required to follow one master are not free to be led by somebody else. Hess suggests (not for the first time) that the ed reform wars have been about communication and trust, but they have also been about power (and money) and there is only so much power that teachers can claim before the people who have the power and insist on keeping the power simply get to building a bigger cage.

1 comment:

  1. I think your analysis is spot on except for your third paragraph where you say Hess is right about teachers being their own obstacles. He doesn't fault teachers for "playing nice" instead of speaking up for what's right; he faults them for giving "mediocre teachers...a pass" and for not coming up with "their own workable alternatives."

    Hess is just another of these guys who pretend to be impartial when actually he's involved with an organization that actively promotes charters. I also have zero respect for someone who's only taught two years at the secondary level who says he knows how to "fix" anything about education. And I also don't see how anyone can be considered a serious writer if they don't use citations or links for the "facts" they state or people they quote. You always use links for your sources. (And notice how he made sure to call you a "former union president" to give the weight he wanted for the effect he was looking for.)

    Hess compares teachers to police, as if police union presidents blasting the mayor of New York for saying cops shouldn't kill unarmed black men is anything like teacher unions supporting due process for teachers. I haven't seen any teacher unions vocally supporting teachers having sex with or selling drugs to students, which would be the only thing comparable.

    Hess says, "We know the concerns of "reformers" and policymakers are legitimate, and not just an excuse to attack educators . . . because teachers say so" - according to some poll or something he gives no link or citation for that says teachers say they would give an "F" to 5% of teachers they know and a "D" to 8%. So a subjective impression on the part of teachers in this survey or whatever "proves" that the "fears" of reformers that "some" teachers can't be trusted with the "authority" to influence educational policy trumps teachers' need for resources and support and the right to be listened to. He admits that the number of "mediocre" teachers are small and that the blame really lies with district officials, but no matter, teachers as a whole have zero credibility unless they "embrace accountability."

    "Accountability" actually means the responsibility of the employee to accomplish assigned tasks ethically and honestly, subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify their actions, in order to assist the organization in fulfilling its goals. It does not mean standardized tests, ranking, or applying metrics to things that can't be measured. Hess is very disingenuous in insisting teachers "earn" respect by coming up with "workable solutions." He's still simply framing the debate in his own terms.

    I'm somewhat curious to see the ideas in his new book on how "subversive" teachers can influence education policy, but judging from the quality of his writing and thinking on EdWeek, my expectations are not high. I'm certainly not going to buy the book. Except for your writing, everything I've read on EdWeek has impressed me as being mediocre and without depth of thinking, so I'm really stumped as to why they should demand I pay 60 bucks a year to read more than three articles a month.