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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

The three leaders

Kirsten sent this my way: “Just Smile,” a New York Magazine feature on Cathie Black, the new schools chancellor of New York City.

While I don’t have any special knowledge of New York City’s schools – or of those in California, DC, or New Jersey – I try to follow what happens in the major markets.

The article is a pretty canny piece on the state of public education in the United States of America as illustrated by Cathie Black’s appointment and the early days of her tenure.

I am full of conflict in considering it.

I’ll let people closer to the struggles of the school system speak to and of its leaders.

For my part, I’ll share this:

I attended a well-attended meeting recently. There were three leaders.

One kept us on-task during the meeting.

One reminded us of what we didn’t do before the meeting.

One challenged us to move ahead more deliberately according to our professional judgment after the meeting.

All three leaders have worked with kids, but none of them are currently classroom teachers or building-level principals. Two of them worked outside our school. Furthermore, I felt pushed by two of them, albeit differently by each.

Here is one worry: as teachers, when we feel threatened by outsiders who challenge us, we sometimes lump those outsiders together. I worry that in defending ourselves, we pay an opportunity cost that makes it impossible to afford outside help or to account for others’ points of view.

Here is another: many of the outsiders who want somehow to help – as well as many of us – are working with obsolete mechanisms and metaphors for learning. Forget for a moment that there is no standardized unit of time or learning – forget that every minute spent trying to reach out to a wounded child isn’t one spent on strategies to remember the causes of the Spanish-American War. As professions, few teachers and administrative leaders are thinking outside given buildings and schedules. We are all near-sighted – almost.

We could wind up staying on-task.

We could keep reminding ourselves of what we haven’t done.

We could move ahead more deliberately according to our professional judgment, but is that judgement compromised? Does it allow us to look outside ourselves for guidance? Does it give us the courage to stop doing what is wrong in our pursuit of being right or acknowledged as such?

Regardless, we need to consider our profession more critically.

There are questions we decry when the reformers pose them; however, we don’t often ask one another those questions, either. I think that some of the questions we don’t want to talk about over lunch – some of the questions that seem the most divisive and selfish – are actually the ones that hold the greatest promise for freeing us up to do our jobs and innovate in schools.

Do we want to stay together for safety, or do we want to risk being acknowledged for our work as individuals?

Do we want to prepare for the tests each Spring and cite student pride, or do we want to spend all year finding ways for students to take pride in excellent work?

Do we think things are good enough, or do we think they suck?

Are we unable to bring ourselves to strike or otherwise protest on our behalf, or are we unable to bring ourselves to strike or otherwise protest on behalf of our students?

I’ve worked with people I love who would answer those questions differently than I do.

So how do we move forward more deliberately?

Two February suggestions:

  • Figure out independent study inside class (synchronously) and outside class (asynchronously) for every kid who tests out of your mid-year.
  • Start a discussion with colleagues and at least one administrator and at least one outsider whom you trust, but with whom you don’t necessarily agree, and push until you hear, “No.” Then figure out what the real cause is for the, “No,” redress it with sound design (or call out the adult-convenience gate-keepers), and repeat.

It’s not that easy, but it’s not likely to get any easier. Respond to the right threat; listen to the right outsider; they are not all the same.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


9 thoughts on “The three leaders

  1. Good morning Chad.

    This piece resonated so much with me. I’ve been experiencing a great deal of what I would call cognitive dissonance of late: a sense that I am suspending moral action in favour of the security that my current position as teacher provides.

    I abhor the immediate polarization that occurs in the public square (most often media-assisted) as soon as difference of opinion are encountered. I’m also tired of being represented by the voices of folks who, well-intentioned, don’t allow for more dialogue between opposing perspectives.

    I believe that we, as teaching professionals, need to move to do something about this.

    If there was no truth at all in what those with different views had to say, then some of these issues would not have the same degree of passion attached to them–on the right or the left.

    I’m going to take your thoughts with me today, and come back and respond more later.

    I will say, however, that in an effort to sharpen my own vision (I’m near-sighted in one eye, and far-sighted in the other!), I’ve been hanging around and participating in the discussion at a rather conservative/traditional blogsite dedicated to fighting for school choice here in Canada. Fascinating, frustrating, but very revealing.

    Thanks for the rush this morning!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 16, 2011, 7:41 am
    • Thank you, Stephen –

      Your comment resonates with me, as well. I love it when I connect over education with people different from me. Of late, I’m particularly taken with ex-military officers flexible thinking about education, teaching, learning, and ways to reach the goal’s of reform.

      I’ll rejoin you later for more conversation –


      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 16, 2011, 9:05 am
  2. Chad, Your far ranging mind is a wonder and pleasure. It’s an honor to learn along with you.

    Two questions:

    1) What are the questions we decry when reformers pose them, but may actually hold the greatest promise for freedom and innovation?
    2) What have you heard beneath a “no” in a recent conversation with a colleague?


    Posted by Kirsten | February 17, 2011, 12:22 pm
    • Great “shovel” questions, Kirsten!

      Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 17, 2011, 12:36 pm
    • Kirsten, here are the questions I ask myself all the time regarding my own work and its value:

      Are teachers correctly compensated for the work they’re expected to do by the people who pay them? Moreover, is the nature of that work understood – explicitly (canned curriculum, test scores) or implicitly (keep doing what you’re doing until someone says stop) – by teachers, their respective employers, and their customers?

      The first question gets at the stark differences I see between different kinds of teaching. That second question is a rephrasing of, “What is good teaching?”

      There might be some kind of Lagrange point at which different kinds of teachers get equal pay – someone working KIPP hours on rote learning might make as much as someone “working” fewer hours in a higher-order project-based setting.

      Another way to pose both questions: are unions the best form of representation for educators, their employers, and/or customers?

      I don’t mean to trivialize or take away from the courage of the Wisconsin protestors or the many, many people who sacrificed to secure the blessing of liberty for public employees, but when I think about the future of teaching, I think of talent management both as instructional best practice and the best teacher recruitment and retainment strategy.

      So let’s talk compensation – how, for what, and for whom now and in five, ten, and twenty years. What I get compensated for – and how – directly impacts my morale, motivation, and professional development. I want a sound contract that grants me equal measures of freedom and accountability; I don’t want the same things as everyone else in my classroom – who does? – so why can’t I find people to talk to about individualized contract clauses in my non-union state?

      We should also join in the conversation about how and why we fail to reach different kids in different ways. Furthermore, we should propose some alternatives to what we’re doing now so that the public can see both what we see and what we envision.

      I don’t hear, “No,” so much these days – when I do hear it, it’s usually part of a conversation about radically changing scheduling and staffing, and I attribute it to adult fear of not covering content outside of classes designed to cover content.

      What other, “No,” conversations are we hearing?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 20, 2011, 4:11 pm
  3. This is very thought-provoking. I am actually planning to leave my school at the end of this year because in order to stay we have to commit to a TIP program called STAR3. My reasons for leaving have nothing to do with any impact on me, but everything to do with the impact this program will have on students. Most of my colleagues are staying because they fear being identified as defectors and/or they can’t bear to leave the students. While I am deeply distraught over leaving the students that I LOVE, I am more distraught that more educators are not speaking out about the dangers of using student test scores to pay teachers… It was not an easy decision, but I am proud that I have taken a stand for students and I am looking for guidance on how to best inform students and parents about my decision and about STAR3 (which they have no idea about!) Any suggestions on this?

    Posted by dancecookie | February 19, 2011, 11:12 pm
    • I don’t know exactly what to say, Dancecookie, but I share your frustration with the system. We cannot educate a citizenry on curricula of consumerism.

      I wish you the best in whatever next step you take – and I hope there is a conversation or opportunity out there that will help you and your students.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | February 20, 2011, 3:29 pm


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