Schools: A Changed Perspective

Summary: On the cusp of the end of a career in schools and the onset of a blog infested retirement, some meditations on the changed perspective the shift in life imposes. And a plea for stories, please.

This summer I retired from my position as a high school counselor, after forty four years of working with kids and their families. Whew. Mixed feelings, etc., but that is a whole ‘nuther story.

For this blog, my retirement signals some shift in direction. For one, it is time to come out from the shadows, and name myself.

For another, my freshly arrived perspective removed from the schoolhouse constellates a much altered view on my part of schools and the struggles therein.

At the outset of this blog, in January 2011 while still working in a school, I wrote the following introduction:

“I came to age in a school bureaucracy, sure to its character, which seems often to not perceive that teachers and other staff might offer insight creative in the very difficult tasks we face in schools.

Moreover, to offer suggestions counter to those in administrative vogue is to see ideas hit a wall and slide down to oblivion or, worse, set he who proffers on a course to poor favor or, even worse, into fear for one’s job.

So I decide for now to stay underground, anonymous in my postings, fairly sure that the point of view I express will resonate with denizens similarly ensconced as I, head down, in the thousands of school bureaucracies nation wide.

Let me be clear, however. There have been few villains in my school experience; to the contrary, the vast majority has been willing enough to do right by kids and give good enough energy to the task, administrative types and line staff such as teachers alike.

But we all labor in a bureaucratic web, a meta reality, that stifles communication and the birthing of good ideas, and siphons too much of our energies. We are all borne into it as newly minted professionals, and by the time we have become more experienced, we have already been inculcated in its ways, all of us.”

Retirement has enforced a significant shift in my perspective, simply because my daily experience of topics in education is much different – much less intense and less the stuff of direct personal and emotional experience – and is sustained more through my reading of books and media than daily exposure to the throes of work within a school system. I find it more difficult to articulate the experience of a teacher or of a counselor because I no longer share the intense emotional daily experience of kids and the challenges they bring.

Most observers necessarily share this disconnect, which stands as a disability for those concerned with finding ways to alter the progress of our schools. The emotional tone, too often the suffocation of creative energies by overly hierarchical management practices and the frustration of too many problems faced with too few resources, is an experience interior to teaching staff in too many schools, and is mostly hidden from the view of all except those who really want to hear what teachers really have to say.

Principals, superintendents, and other administrative types for the most part begin their professional school experience in the classroom. Once they transition to an administrative role, commonly the new administrator quickly loses touch with the juice of the classroom and the day to day constructive engagement with kids as a teacher experiences it, much the same shift as I experience in retirement.

No impairment is implied; all humans are subject to the observation that those full in the trenches of any endeavor understand it better on an experiential level than those who observe; to my thinking the better administrators recognize the resulting disability of their removal from the classroom, and so listen closely to the grass root teacher for the echoes of the understanding of kids and a teacher’s experience that they once shared.

Such administrators then use these echoes to deeply inform their decisions.

Retirement is a similar kind of disability. I read the passion and the injustice in my earlier writing, including the passage I cited just now, and wonder if I could still spin that same verbal web. I recognize and still validate the sentiments, but the phrases reflect a nexus of experience in which I no longer am immersed.

Over a few beers recently with former colleagues still working in schools, I was struck by the contemporary stories they told, yet ongoing, that frankly reflected a craziness typical of schools, or probably of most similarly frenetic and passionate social enterprises. Stories of events piled one upon another, before the first had been resolved or absorbed, criticisms experienced for actions that evolved out of running too fast, of having too many things to do, the absurdity of being set up for a fall by circumstances beyond one’s control or by directives into which one has had no valid input.

The experience on teachers’ part of being whipped around by winds outside of their control, with a worry of failure and a knowledge that not all of the expected can be done properly lurking in the background, evokes a sense of absurdity and sometimes bitter laughter, privately of course. “Life in a school bureaucracy.”

Professionalism in the school ranks, and additional money/staffing, along with a culture change that places teachers more completely at the center of the school power universe, are antidotes to this current reality.

Better training, even higher salaries, both aimed to improve the quality of teaching and to lure highly qualified graduates from other career alternatives, will not be enough by themselves without investing trust as well in the professional judgment of these nouveau teachers, and liberating them from the too many superordinate voices who think they know better than the classroom teacher how to teach the children.

Though a long time in the coming, for the first time I sense via reportage in various media some momentum building along these important channels. The rebel army doth approach, but yet a long way off.

The experiences of line staff are compelling and crucial to reform, but are stories too little told, because to tell them clearly leaves individual teachers exposed to retribution for stories told out of school, so to speak. As long as I am not defamatory in my comments, I can try to tell these tales, but am now hobbled, frankly, by the “disability” to which I have referred. While still working in a school I covered my tracks by remaining anonymous (and by, it should be told, a modest readership).

More commonly these stories get told under the umbrella of union inquiry, in privacy, when union officials ask the membership for those items that should be emphasized in the next negotiation. From what I have seen, be admitted in a small fraction of the greater school universe, grievance about working conditions and perceived disrespect persistently are at the head of the list.

It is my hope that school incumbents will tell me their stories, without defamation, but in the interest of informing the school reform debate. Such confidences would be the anonymous, because attribution could put the teller of the story at risk. This is not an ideal formulation, because attribution is an ingredient of legitimacy, but is better than suspending the story in silence, and the teller grinding teeth in isolation.

The contrary argument for anonymity is that it frees legitimate and archetypal story lines, those with larger lessons, from the passions, charges and counter-charges of a particular moment with particular personalities, and leaves their instruction relatively above the fray for others at distance to profit.

I would be the arbiter of whether the stories have credence, and whether they faithfully reflect school cultural realities important to the school reform effort.

This is an invitation to dialogue to teachers and other school folks listening.

As for my own attribution, if you care to know, please see the newly revised “About” section of this blog.

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