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.

Note: Anyone who wishes to get full bibliographic information for any sources used in this or any other posting can send an e-mail to

Saturday, February 6, 2010

To Write or Not to Write: The Ethics of Posting Objectives

I love the show Lost. I mean, besides all the twists, turns, and mystery, there is a heavy amount of allusion running throughout the show. Take this season's premiere episode. Without getting into the not-so-necessary specifics, a power shift has occurred amongst the two "beings" who live on the island. Jacob, the kind and beneficent being, has just been murdered by another, meaner, and unnamed being. Things have gone from bad to very bad. In another scene, in another part of the island, another character finds a copy of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, his treatise on "theodicy." Theodicy is the philosophical inquiry into why bad things happen to good people. The allusion introduces a theme that I think the power shift will reinforce.

But that is just it. The writers and producers of this show have spent countless hours choreographing this type of plot device time and time again. From its inception, Lost has had an ending point in mind. It is a complete story starting at the crash of Oceanic 815 and ending with...well, however it ends. How do people create such enormous, epic story lines that take six years to tell? They know where they are going.

The same goes for teaching. How do you know your students have learned the material they need to learn? When you plan, you write objectives. You know where you want to end.

Lately, there has been a push to post objectives on the front board. In my home district, that push has been translated into posting an objective on the board in the old school "SWBAT" plus objective framework. Literally, they want me to write "SWBAT ('The Student Will Be Able To')" and, for example, "read and analyze relationships among American literature, history, and culture." (This objective is the third standard from our junior English curriculum.)

We are told that this push is taken from a new "professional growth system," the not-so-new Jon Saphier and Bob Gower (1997) book The Skillful Teacher. The edition I have was published in 1997, but the original incarnation was printed in 1979, so Jon and Bob have been lending their expertise to teachers for quite some time. Does this time frame limit or otherwise nullify what they have to say? No. The time they have spent researching teachers and teaching should show us the depth of their commitment to the art of teaching. I make this somewhat emphatic statement to underline the point that I was deeply confused when they were given as the justification for such a rigid and unflinching approach to teaching students.

So, being the intrepid investigator that I am, I made the effort to open The Skillful Teacher and review the section on objectives. Shock of all shocks, no where in the text of the chapter could I find anything about "SWBAT," formulaic language, or writing objectives on the board.

I found that Saphier and Gower (1997) believe that there are five types of objectives which must all be utilized at different times in lesson or unit planning to provide students with an education devoid of "significant gaps" (p. 398). These five types of objectives are:
  1. Coverage - what the teacher will cover in a lesson
  2. Activity - what the students will do in a lesson
  3. Involvement - how students will connect with the lesson's content
  4. Mastery - what the teacher will do to increase the likelihood that students will master some curricular knowledge or skill.
  5. Generic Thinking - What strategy students will learn to apply across lessons and curricula.

Saphier and Gower (1997) even supply a graphic organizer to show the hierarchy they believe exists among these different type of objectives (p. 406). Nowhere is there talk of any objective that explicitly begins "SWBAT." Instead, the authors define a clear objective as "one that creates an image of specifically what a student will know or be able to do" when a lesson is completed (p. 408).

Additionally, Saphier and Gower (1997) discuss the idea that objectives should be inferred by the lesson. They write, "Each of us in teaching...ought to be able to infer a clear [objective]" (Saphier and Gower, 1997, p. 408) from observing a colleague's lesson; the same expectation is applied to students (p. 409).

So, so much for that logic. On a separate note, there are more important reasons not to post objectives on the board. As teachers of language, we know the power words can have. In sociolinguistics, power becomes a focal point for why people do and say certain things in certain ways. If any theorist of the past century embodies the ideas of sociolinguistics and its application to education, Basil Bernstein is that theorist. I highly recommend any of his essays or books to anyone interested in the power structures set-up by the use of certain language in the classroom. (An aside: the more reader-friendly American version of Bernstein is Shirley Brice Heath. Her book, Ways with Words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms (1983/1996), is a great resource for breaking into discussions of language, power, and education.)

Basil Bernstein's chapter in Sociology of Education: A critical reader (Sadovnik, 2007, pp. 97-114) is entitled "Social Class and Pedagogic Practice." This rather lengthy chapter (the font is like size 6 or something ridiculous) discusses most of the basic theory Bernstein builds his arguments upon. The one I am most concerned with is his theory of the three sets of rules that keep order in classrooms. These rules are:

  1. Hierarchical - rules that place students on a lesser level than teachers, teachers on a lesser level than administrators, and so on. These rules also teach students lessons about which culture, group, or belief set is the most valued by the society in which they are attending school.
  2. Sequencing - rules that determine the pace at which learning will take place as well as in what order content will be learned. These rules assume that the school and the home are both environments for learning. Generally, as students increase in grade, more and more learning is shared between home and school, regardless of what the home environment may be like.
  3. Criterial -rules that legitimize what is learned and illegitimize what is not acceptable as learning material.

Placing objectives on the board falls into all three of these categories of rules.

Placing objectives on the board reinforces the hierarchy of teacher as gatekeeper. Students see teachers writing the objectives on the board in "teacher talk" (that is a Shirley Brice Heath term) and they perceive a certain cognitive distance between themselves and what they are supposed to learn. Ironically, if an involvement objective were placed on the board, this relationship between student and posted objective would cancel out the goal of having students connect with content.

Placing objectives on the board reinforces the back-breaking pace of learning. How will students feel comfortable asking for help on yesterday's objective if the board says that today is a new objective? Furthermore, the student who does not have mastery of the previous day's objective is made to feel inadequate since he or she is not ready to move on. Essentially, posting objectives on the board works against treating the student as an individual learner and reinforces the feeling of being just another "jar" to fill in the assembly line.

Placing objectives on the board reinforces notions of what is and is not legitimate for school. The information in the objective is valuable; any other explorations or "teachable moments" are not to be considered. If the objective is "the student will be able to read and analyze relationships among American literature, history, and culture," any connection to literature from other countries is considered irrelevant. Additionally, the literature covered in the class is considered representative of American culture. If omissions of cultural groups or experiences occurs (for whatever reason), students of the omitted group may feel as though their culture or their experiences are not valuable in discussing what "American literature, history, and culture" stands for and is.

An unempowered and disenfranchised student usually becomes a failure or a discipline problem. And for what? So an objective can be posted on the board for an observation by a supervising principal or some such. In a democratic society, shouldn't all vices be given some validation? Can I teach only the classic "dead white guys" without including Hispanic, Italian, Polish, etc. authors in my class's reading selections? Can I do that in an area as diverse as mine (we are 45 minutes from the heart of Washington, D.C.)? As an instructor, should I blindly follow policy or should I ask questions about how that policy will affect my students?

If I was asked for an overarching answer to this question, I would say that no one should post objectives for the class anywhere. Not even the state or national standards. Teachers need to know these. I have my three thin volumes lined up next to my desk at school: the Virginia State Standards of Learning, or SOLs (I know; don't laugh too hard); the NCTE/IRA Standards for Teachers of Language Arts; and my home district's scope and sequence/pacing guides. I refer to them when I formulate objectives that I write on my lesson plans. These plans get reviewed when i have an observation. My administrator should be able to do as Saphier and Gower said earlier, infer what my goal was. When we conference after the observation, the administrator should ask what my objective was; then we should discuss whether or not my goal and what was observed matched.

But I am not one for nice neat answers. I don't post objectives, but I do post an outline of what we will be doing in class. I write up the date and then I list the steps we will take throughout the lesson. Being mindful of my friend Basil Bernstein, I write them up in ways that are flexible, but I also make sure they are definite enough to actually guide the class through the period. On any given day, my board may read:

"5 February 2010

English 11

  • Warm-up: [Instructions] (I walk around and check on students during this time, but who doesn't, right?)
  • PowerPoint and Notes: [Title]
  • [Name of Culminating Activity for that Lesson; I usually try to be catchy]
  • Wrap-up"

So, that is my way to keep students on the path to the goal. I would really be interested in reading what some of you use in your classrooms. How do you keep your students on the path to your lesson objectives? What types of objectives do you think you favor? What do you think about Bernstein? I look forward to reading some of the responses. Just don't expect a reply on Tuesday nights. Lost is on.