Sunday, February 21, 2010

Boogiemen, Administrators, and Other Make-Believe Monsters: Problems in Power Dynamics in Publilc Schools

Editorial Note: Before I begin, I just need to take a moment and be very clear about what I believe. I believe that teachers and administrators have a duty to themselves and their students to do the best they can to make their schools the best. Occasionally, that means having to work against one another, but it should mean that more often, they work together; however, I have noticed a disheartening trend in today's schools. More and more, I am seeing teachers who are afraid to put themselves out there, be upfront, and stand up for what is right. This post is made in the spirit of bridging the gap of mistrust and paranoia that seems to widening between administrators and teachers, especially in this day and age of declining resources. Together, we can teach; alone, we will fail.

I have been in many different school systems considering the number of years I have taught. In one of the schools, a Principal Intern made the unfortunate following statement:

“If I am not careful, [Name of the Principal] is going to demote me to teacher.”

What made this statement so profoundly ridiculous was that the Principal Intern made it to a library full of teachers on the first day of the first workweek of the year. OOPS. Most importantly, why do people swarm to every mistake administrators make? I seem to remember a story about not casting the first stone. When can teachers and administrators come together and agree on what responsibilities they will share and which are separate? When will teachers become content experts and administrators become the show runners? But, most of all, when will the two groups learn to trust each other for the benefit of the school.

People from that school still refer to that incident and still quote that line. Thinking about those words got me to thinking about the dynamics of power in a public school. Who is “in charge”? Is it that simple?

I do not believe it is. Schools are not simple hierarchies. In the last posting, I made reference to Bernstein’s three rule sets. One of those rule sets, hierarchical rules, is put in place to teach children where they belong, to help them learn their “place.” If that sounds distasteful, then it is right. American society cannot be built upon hierarchies because we all are all “equal in the eyes of the law.” Yet, we have hierarchies in much of our society. At work, we have the relationships between the employees and the various managers. At home, we encounter people of different economic classes. In schools, among students, status can be as simple as a swoosh. Are these separations actually a part of society, or are they engendered in people through schools? I think the answer may surprise you.

Are administrators of a higher rank than teachers? Rather, are apples better than oranges? Teachers are not administrators. Administrators are not teachers, regardless of what the original intention behind the name principal might be. Principal and Assistant Principal are just shorthand for in-house bureaucrat. They are responsible for discipline, for evaluating teachers, for gathering data, and for implementing policy. Seems like a lot of responsibility and knowledge for a position that can be filled by someone without a doctoral degree. How could someone with just a master’s degree have a full knowledge of the standards and content for each subject area?

The point is administrators and teachers are not even in the same professional sphere. One’s job is political and legislative, while the other’s job is about content and students. I have seen so many decisions, more than are necessary, that have been made to the detriment of the students at any of the schools in which I’ve taught. Why were these decisions made? Administrators were given the “authority” to make them and teachers assumed that authority was absolute. Principals, like teachers, are employees of the local school board, not the individual administrators. While their evaluations are important to the reissue of annual contracts, they are not the people who sign the contracts. Part of those very contracts asks us to be advocates for our students. What type of advocates are we if we give into the hierarchical rules of school and let ourselves be subject to the will of people no longer connected to those for whom they make decisions. As Cassius once said, the fault is in ourselves.

Do not make the mistake of interpreting my disregard for the “chain of command” as a call for all out insurrection; I assure you that a rebellion is not the way to solve this problem. In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire discusses the nature of all oppressive relationships and how, if they are to be salvaged, they must end. The oppression of one group by another results in the “dehumanization” of the other. I’ve heard people call teaching a “calling”; what else is oppression if not the barring of someone from the thing they feel called to do? If consciously making decisions that negatively affect the students we teach, even when there are alternatives that would be less harmful, is not an oppressive decision, what else is? Budgetary constraints are fairly universal right now. That is the reason why having administrative personnel filling half-time positions and earning six figure salaries is particularly baffling. These are the moments when teachers must step up and open a dialogue with administrators at all levels. The oppressed cannot become the oppressors; this only makes matters worse (Freire, 2006, p. 44). We can open an honest dialogue and do what is best for our systems and our students.

Opening a dialogue may not be too easy. How long have teachers been hiding behind the mask of “job security” when they should have been defending their students? I don’t know nor can I find out. All I know is that a study done by Richard Ingersoll of the Department of Education’s Schools and Staffing Survey and the Teacher Follow-up Survey says that this adversarial relationship has been going on long enough to truly affect others (Ingersoll, 2003). After researching the results of the survey, Ingersoll collated a list of the top reasons for teacher dissatisfaction. He then ordered that list from most dissatisfying to least dissatisfying. The first reason is the usual, poor salary; however, the second most common reason for teacher dissatisfaction is “poor administrative support” (p. 169), or “lack of recognition and support from administration; lack of resources and material/equipment for your classroom; inadequate support from administration” (p. 169). This on its own is not surprising, but it is not alone on the list. The fourth most common reason for teacher dissatisfaction is “lack of faculty influence and autonomy” (p. 169), or “lack of influence over school policies and practices; lack of control over own classroom” (p. 169). What is oppression on the job if not lack of respect, support, and autonomy? These complaints are widespread enough to be the second and fourth most common reasons for teacher dissatisfaction; furthermore, it may not be too much of a stretch to connect poor salary with lack of respect for faculty.

Who is the higher-up and who is the underling? Is there such a thing as a chain of command in public schools? Is that the right question? I don’t think so. The right question is how long are we going to pretend that there should be a chain of command as opposed to a cooperative effort? People always seemed shocked when I get clearance to try new pedagogies and new class arrangements. I question, I demand, and I explain in an effort to serve my students better and I’ve yet to find an administrator myopic enough not give any ideas a try. I cited it before and I will cite it again, perhaps the reason for our status is in us, not the administrators.

I encourage those of you who believe that becoming an administrator is a promotion to be happy where you are first. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that administration is a step up from teaching because you become the very problem that made you unhappy in the first place. In a democratic society, all people should have a voice; John Dewey said that the schools were the great laboratories of democracy. Thus, schools should be the place where all different types of people with all different types of skills should be allowed to do their best to make students successful, not a place where people feel like they are not allowed to grow and become the best they can. Next time you feel downtrodden, put upon, or just plain overwhelmed, try and find out why. If the reason you are upset is administrative, don’t just complain, open a dialogue.

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1 comment:

Tom said...

Wait, you actually ask permission? I just do it and contribute to our profession's time-honored tradition of CYA.

AAAAAANYWAY, I've mentioned quite a few times that our image as a profession needs an overhaul and the relationship we have with our higher-ups definitely contributes to it. But to a certain extent, we tend to be our own worst enemies.

Look, it's the Peter Principle: "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence."