Schools and Bureaucracy: Notes on Staying “Alive”

A younger colleague, in the midst of a discussion about some relatively minor indignity we counselors have suffered or observed, turned to me recently and asked as though to a veteran of many wars, “how do you do it?” She means how have you remained in the schools game, when so often our good efforts are vitiated or undermined by decisions made without our input, or by new “duties as assigned” upon our already bent backs. I suppose to my credit, she sees me as still vigorous in my work, having avoided the near to retirement shuffle of others who have lasted as long as I, and with sense of humor more or less intact. And, of course, still good looking despite all.

Her honest inquiry comes on the heels of one new decision that has largely cancelled out heavy work I and others undertook earlier in the year, and a revisit of directives from the state education hierarchy that I lamented in a post earlier this spring (2/18).

She has caused me to reflect on this latest incident, and to try to answer her query, because in fact I think I have better than survived. To set the stage, and at risk of beating a horse I have flogged much in the past, first I take you on a trudge through a few chambers of bureaucratic horror. Or, not horror exactly, but of circumstances that could hardly be better crafted, if purposely, to dull the mind, stuff the spirit, evaporate incipient professionalism, and generally turn school staff members – teachers, counselors, and yes, principals – into passive labor awaiting the next order from somewhere, as though educational good soldier Schweiks.

In the charge to increased rigor in all things expected of our students, our state has sometimes lurched more than cleanly progressed in that general direction. The mandated state testing, the High School Proficiency Exam, or HSPE, has been most emblematic of that characteristic, particularly the math testing requirement. When it became clear in the earlier going that too few students would pass the state math test, the implementation date that made a pass on the math test a high school graduation requirement was first pushed to a later year, and then when finally implemented, the state allowed a student to pass the requirement, if not the test itself, by taking two full years of math (2.0 credits in our system) after tenth grade. Fair enough.

Because in our district high school students are not moved ahead in grade level by age, but only by meeting certain credit criteria, we have a significant number of students who do not advance to eleventh grade in their third year of high school. Since the state rule to circumvent a necessary pass of the math test clearly stated “may take and pass 2.0 credits after tenth grade,” we all wondered if we could still count math for this purpose taken in the third year of high school, albeit a second year of tenth grade, or if quite specifically students who didn’t pass into eleventh grade in their third year of high school would have to wait until their fourth year, hopefully by now eleventh grade year, to start counting the 2.0 math. Not an incidental question, because many of our struggling learners both fall behind in credits as well as tend to do poorly on state math tests.

I try normally to make notes when I am given a decision to carry out because I have been burned more than once when the rules changed in the middle of the game. In this instance, unfortunately, when I and others were told by someone – by our principal, by our district, or perhaps by someone in the state hierarchy – that the 2.0 rule was to apply only once the student had been classified an eleventh grader, I failed to make such notes at the time. Now, two to three years later, I cannot remember who and at what level told us how to interpret the rule, and have no documentation of what is a fairly steadfast memory.

Operating on this undocumented understanding, at the beginning of this school year, I and others checked the schedules of about 150 seniors who had yet to pass the state math test in order to make sure they were scheduled in such a way as to meet the 2.0 math requirement, including those who had not been of eleventh grade standing in the previous year. These latter students were given two full years of math at the beginning of the year in order that continued failure on the state math test would still leave them with a math option that would graduate them. A fairly massive effort at an otherwise very busy time of the school year, but I proudly patted myself on the back for persevering through a tedious and time crunched process.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when toward the end of the school year the ruling changed. When I returned from a medical leave, our registrar said she had received a ruling, I believe from the state, though never clear, that the 2.0 math after tenth grade rule meant after the second year of high school for all students, regardless of school district policies on reclassification. Our principal, I assume in the wake of the same ruling, decided the same.

Wow. I and my colleagues who helped substantially had done all that effort in vain. Because I have some linear brain cells in my head, I am confident that I originally got a ruling of satisfactory certainty those few years ago when 2.0 math after tenth grade implied eleventh grade standing. When I polled colleagues both within my building and elsewhere in the district, there was an exact 50/50 split in those who understood all along the interpretation to be the way I had it, and those who understood all along the interpretation to be the way it came out in the end.

I rolled with the punch and chose not to question because I would get nowhere, I felt, other than to make myself an unwelcome nuisance. Moreover, I lacked any evidence in the way of emails, or even notes on phone calls or conversation that would bolster my original understanding. Finally, the new and contrary ruling to my point of view made it easier for the seniors under my charge to meet graduation requirements, so I would be in the position of arguing a rather unpopular position, and it was an easy decision of the heart to just let it be.

It was this story specifically that led my colleague to ask me how I had managed to last….

Rather younger and still with a fine shot of idealism and self importance in my veins, newly hired in my school district, with some regularity I gave full attention to various district committee assignments, bent on having some influence on the direction of the school district. Ego fully in charge, at that stage. After a number of episodes, many late afternoon and evening meetings, I began to realize that I never saw the results of my and others’ labors. The reports we produced never seemed to see the light of day, or sometimes if they resurfaced, had been transformed by unknown editing into something other than what we had produced. It began to dawn on me that I was wasting my time on these committees. With a few notable exceptions, it has been long since that I have volunteered for district committees. I wouldn’t say I have been beaten into submission, but my younger assumption of power to help steer the ship of state has been much diluted. Is this where we want our teachers and other staff to arrive?

Further tiny, but telling indignities.

— I am resigning from my full time position at the end of June, having some time ago declared my intentions, but so far there has been little information from the administration as to what will happen with my position, which leaves my colleagues remaining in limbo. More to the point, though apparently questions have been asked by our department chairman, the decision remains held closely to the vest by the principal. He has hinted he will fill the position in part as a learning tool for an administrative intern, but no input has been requested, which risks once again a decision without all the factors being considered. For example, in a similar such experiment this year with an administrative intern while I was out on medical leave, the individual did an admirable job processing the many pieces of graduation data, but did not have the background to handle the truly counseling issues that arose during my absence. Though the spirit of experiment is to be congratulated – in fact, there have been past discussions around saving money by hiring cheaper administrative assistant types to do much of the credit crunching higher priced counselors are paid more to do – the counseling staff would have useful perspectives toward a successful configuration of any such experiment, yet not consulted to date.

— Another. One of my counseling colleagues was recently hired for a part time position at a new drop out retrieval program in our school district. She suddenly began disappearing this week at times when she would normally be in our building. Vaguely, we received the message that some arrangement was made between our principal and that of the new program for my colleague’s time. None of us seems to have been asked what the consequence of our colleague’s absence might be. The rest of us have been left to wonder what the deal is, as we stay back at the ranch and deal with the students still in our building.

— Among the means to meet our state (HSPE) reading and writing test standards, is an alternative called Collection of Evidence (COE), which is utilized as one might surmise by students whose skills are marginal. In beginning years students needed to take the HSPE Reading and the HSPE Writing test each only once, and then could submit COE documents multiple times should they not pass the test itself. Suddenly, without explanation, the state has decided that students must attempt the HSPE reading and writing tests twice before attempting the corresponding COE, and then can do that only once, effectively increasing the barrier to such kids meeting the requirement, rather than facilitating their success in a more creative way. There might be a satisfactory explanation, but it is difficult to see what that might be.

However, in each of these relatively trivial circumstances, the point is not that a good decision was made or not made. In each case, it would be valid to wonder why more questions weren’t asked on my part or those of my colleagues. Why have we not more assertively asked to be a part of the hiring decision in the first instance, or why have we not inquired more directly why our colleague has disappeared without explanation? In the last instance, why would we not pound the state officials (if we can figure out who they are) with queries and arguments about the weight added to struggling students in their quest to pass the state standards?

The point is that after many such experiences, repeated in large and small ways over a number of years, one learns the futility of tilting at the proverbial windmills. However righteous, one is taught by experience that the chance of making a significant dent in a given issue is negligible, and the energy often needed even for that detracts from the responsibilities with students on the ground floor, in front of us. So in a profession that at its best calls for independent thinking and assertive action, a practitioner becomes confounded by numbness in the face of the difficulty doing either. Too often those who are successful as teachers hunker down with their students, manage and control what they can, and put up what walls they are able to around their efforts.

So my young colleague, asking how I have done it, had the mélange of these stimuli in mind. How, for crying out loud, have I done it?

Before I attempt to address the question, I want to share a post script. I told the story some posts back (2/18/12: Schools and Bureaucracy: Empower Your People; Chrysler Does – Part B) of my conflict with folks in the state educational hierarchy who attempted to reach down into schools, apparently unbidden, and tell myself and others what to do, albeit in a good cause, that of the bringing of lower income students to higher education. Though I had worked with some regularity with the very same kids they targeted, and continued to do so, I refused to do the reportage of detail they demanded.

Well, I should have known it would bite me. In the last week or two before graduation, when counselordom is at its busiest, our principal who to his credit kept himself, Olympian, out of the fray of which I complained, contacted me to ask for a compilation of data that covered the same information I had refused to the state hierarchy. Seems another principal had reported certain statistics to the superintendent, so now our principal was in need of a similar report, as soon as possible. Though it was easier to do at the end like this than to track the data over the entire semester, the effort came at a juncture when I could least afford it. What could I do but grin; the local and state low income support effort has political muscle to it, and it was bound to come round.

I can afford to grin. I won’t be around to deal with the future. Periodically bold new programs appear, without additional funding, without additional staffing, which are dumped squarely in counselors’ laps, without anything else taken off the plate. We are told to suck it up, shut it up, do the best we can, which we do, but the net effect is to hunker us down even further into our psychological bunkers.

Most preciously, on the day of this post, there arrives in email yet another layer of the same state program. To the tracking of data just referred to, and a financial aid oriented evening that was also ordered up last fall, the same state consortium is now dialing up a college application evening, to begin next fall. Even now, when I am leaving this circle of directive, I smolder, not because the program in its fundamentals is ill conceived, nor because I do not and have not myself put energies to the growth of low income students, but in reaction to the ham handed manner in which the leaders of the program choose to disrespect the autonomy of the folks in the schools who are the first contact with the low income kids being served.

I am reminded that people do what they are rewarded for doing. My erstwhile colleagues, grinding their teeth, rolling their eyeballs, will be rewarded for keeping their mouth shut, enduring, and doing their best to manage yet another layer teetering on their already oversubscribed backs. No one other than the counselors in question, it seems, cares to notice nor even suspect that quality diminishes across all manner of task in such an arena.

So all this has been preamble to the answer to my colleague’s question – “How have you (me) endured the frequent assault on sanity that seems to be a regular feature of life in schools?” All this is also a reminder of the poor quality of work environment that saturates schools I have known to such a degree as to be as unremarkable as it is profound. How, indeed, have I done this? How, indeed, do others do it for a career? Why do some stay, and some leave? What is it in the job that draws one in, or repels others? What kind of character endures, what kind gets the hell out of Dodge? Next post, my friends, next post.

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