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.