Schools and Bureaucracy: Reflections on Survival and Other Personal Idiosyncrasies: Part C

Summary: Being the last installment of a series of reflections on long term survival in the belly of the educational beast.…..

Despite the relentless bureaucratic monolith, pockets of encouragement and support for individual vision occur, which have helped my longevity. I wrote some months back, for example, of a math teacher grown program that sought to foster the grasp of mathematics for those students whose understanding had stagnated.

Four years ago I began a set of groups for African American males and Latinos, both groups badly underrepresented in educational success statistics. I hesitated because of the potential questions about a white man, maybe particularly an older guy, intervening in such a way with young men of color. There appeared to be no one around willing to take the challenge on, so my understanding of the need impelled me forward. I will not soon forget my principal’s take when I brought the proposal to him, together with my misgivings. Said he in paraphrase, “it’s clear we have a problem with graduation rates with these groups, so there’s the justification – we would be addressing a clear need.” His support never wavered, and my fears of criticism never materialized, at least not to my face.

There have been other times that my sense of what should be done aligned with the wishes coming down from on high. Frankly, in these happy coincidences I feel I have done some of my best work, motivated beyond a paycheck and the requirements of a boss.

Despite such interludes, in the broader scheme of things, life in schools can be more like death of the spirit from a thousand small blows. One learns that survival means biting one’s tongue, because fighting a battle, particularly a relatively small one, draws on energies that must be otherwise husbanded, and because too often in a bureaucracy, which is a mechanism of control above all, the powers that be feel the need to reinforce control of the recalcitrant parts, whether because they are taught in administrator school that they need to do so, or because they too insufficiently find the balance between a legitimate need to be in charge, and the strength to not only tolerate dissent, but encourage it as a means of dialogue to a better product.

Those who fight back in such a context have a way of becoming former employees. The lesson is not lost on others in the ranks. Shut up and just do your job. As have others who have lasted a long time, I have learned to do just that when necessary among my repertoire of skills.

I recognize that much of what flows down hill is not meant personally, but stems from massive system dysfunction, in which control is at a premium, and in which ideas are devalued the further down the hierarchy they emerge. Information flows top to bottom, feds to state to district to superintendent to principal to teacher, and seldom effectively the other way. When my principal has let down his guard when he passes on a commandment, I sometimes see his heart is not in it, that he is as squeezed silent in some ways much as I am. Sometimes, I can be rational and recognize not to take it personally. This conceit helps, sometimes.

In the end, some of staying the course in teaching for a career is sheer dumb survival, albeit abetted ably by the tradeoffs I have offered from my own experience. Resilience needed, and a capacity for emotional jiujitsu, or do not apply.

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