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Thursday, March 3, 2011

It Starts at the Top

I am so disgusted right now.

I cannot believe how many teachers have contacted me sharing similar issues and concerns as those I've recently outlined. (This is not what outrages me. I'm glad they're sharing. What is so ridiculous is the commonalities between stories that indicate the deep issues our system faces.)

Teacher after teacher has written in to say things like, "Wow. Your story could have been my own" or "As another teacher who has suffered XYZ, I know where you're coming from..."

Teacher after teacher has written to say that they are now former teachers or have moved to private school or have faced disciplinary action for speaking up.

Teacher after teacher has written to say how they are being undermined and chastised any time they don't "yes" parents, students, and administration to death.

WHY IS OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM SO WARPED? Why are these stories so much the norm and yet the situation is not being fixed but is spiraling more and more out of control???

We live in a country where education is a right. That's fantastic... in theory. However, as with most "rights," there is a point at which we fail to recognize them as something that probably came about as a result of some struggle by someone who came before us, or as something that someone else--at home or abroad--would kill (or die) to enjoy. Rather than appreciating what we have, we take it for granted.

(Case in point: women's voting rights. Women hoped and dreamed and suffered and fought and worked for this right. Yet it's (disgustingly and sadly) not at all uncommon to hear female students today remarking casually, "I can't be bothered with politics. Voting is for boys." Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa????!!!!)

Other countries in the world value education. They value hard work. They realize that education is the key to larger success. The more they learn and know, the more success their countries (and they themselves) will enjoy in future. Education is an investment into the greater good of humankind. Teachers are valued and respected. Administration oversees the cooperation between school and home. Parents push their kids to be great. Students push themselves to bring pride to their families and countries.

Our own great country, though, has lost its way on this point.

Here, funding is cut. Programs are eliminated. Class sizes are increased. Meaningless testing is revered. Teachers are peons and whipping boys for everything that's wrong. Administrators work for parents. Parents pass the buck to schools. Students pass it farther.

Teacher after teacher has remarked to me, "I just want to reach the kids. I want them to understand the material and to appreciate the lesson." My own goal as a teacher is that I want students to leave class knowing more than they did when they entered, to ask questions, to seek the answers, to think and to try.

But there's usually a 'but' that comes after the statement of the teacher goal. Things like:

*But there's too much other work to do (chaperoning duties, conferences, meetings, grading)
*But they won't listen (students, parents, administration)
*But they won't even try
*But there's no support
*But when I point out the issues, I'm scolded or ignored
*But I'm just too tired to fight anymore

I've spent a lot of time talking about some of the problems with student mentalities today, with parental disengagement and heaping on the teacher blame. But let's face it: if the people at the top would demand more of parents and students and would support their trained staff, maybe these other issues wouldn't spiral so out of control.

Nobody is saying leadership is easy. I'm sure that administrators are being pulled in all directions--they need to answer to voters, school boards, the public, the government, etc--but if there was an expectation from the onset that the learning and functioning of the system was the number one priority, I think everything would run a lot more smoothly for all.

To begin with, people who know nothing about education have way too much say in education.

These people, usually elected officials, read snippets of "the latest" in educational research theories and fancy themselves qualified to make idiotic, counterproductive proposals that will affect the rest of the world. (Come to think of it, this is not necessarily unique to education; government itself can be largely uninformed about much of what they decide. But I digress...) Many times, these theories are financially motivated, and do not consider other important factors or possible solutions.

Bureaucrats come up with their supposed money-saving ideas and push them through the system. They strive for uniformity and high performance, but aren't willing to back that up with anything that means anything. Instead, they try to impose merit pay, curb worker rights, force mass firings, and other ridiculous nonsense in efforts to push the blame off of their own poor choices and onto someone else's shoulders, and act like they're doing the system a big favor. They pass all of those stresses onto the guy below them. Here's what you have to do, school districts. Now do it (even if it makes no sense).

Then the district big shots have further theories on how to make ill-informed decisions a reality and how to please their public (wouldn't want to have to raise taxes or anything), and they pass those along to the building administration.

The building administration mucks things up the rest of the way. Most (if not all?) building administrators started as teachers. At a glance, one would think this would be a good thing for teachers. But somewhere along the way (within 2 years, typically) administrators forget what it was like to be on the front lines. They start "drinking the Kool-Aid" and things go to hell.

Suddenly, their main intent is to avoid pissing anyone off, (by "anyone," of course, I mean the school board, superintendents, parents, and students; nobody else really matters) and to keep the customers happy. (Parents and students learn quickly that this is how things run. And then they exploit it.)

Teachers are told the policies du jour of the school. Sometimes, those policies are even explained. Sometimes, there's an illusion that teachers even have input into them. But that's really just an illusion. Because when teachers try to have input, that usually means that there is bound to be some contention over things and suggestions of how to improve the proposed policy or concerns over issues that may arise, and then the time for teacher input promptly ends. Enough talk; let's move to action! Administration really doesn't tend to like to hear anything that isn't "positive."

So teachers try to make sense of these mandates and carry them out. But, from several accounts I've heard from other teachers, when they encounter confusion or seek administrative clarification, they are told to use--wait for it--their "professional judgment." (There's a laugh!) So they use said judgment, only to encounter some complaint, and then they are promptly called in by the administration for discussions of how they misinterpreted something or should have handled it differently. The administration's half-baked ideas are purposely vague because they don't know how to tell the teachers how to implement them (since, perhaps, they weren't so well-considered as they first seemed and that extra input WOULD have been useful), so what happens is that they leave things undetermined and go back and try to correct problems after the fact.

What a shitty way to run things.

Do we go to restaurants and tell servers: "Hey, take a look at me and guess what I'm in the mood to eat. Use your professional judgment since you know the menu. But if you guess wrong or bring me something I'm allergic to, you're not getting a tip!"? What? That's ridiculous? Exactly.

Teachers, though, are routinely left the unwilling participants of a guessing game that usually ends badly for them. So many teachers say, "Look, just tell me what you want me to do and I'll get it done. But don't make me guess what you want, or tell me one thing one day and then change your mind the next day. And if you say you trust my professional judgment, TRUST IT!"

What does this all amount to? Well, frankly, administrators are an unnecessary step in the education process, like some needless middle-management. They're so concerned about answering to their bosses that they forget what it was like to be in the trenches. Instead of listening to the troops and backing them up, they bark orders from behind closed doors and end up appeasing the other side. They're only creating more turmoil in being removed from the day-to-day of the process.

Education is supposed to be about teaching and learning and bettering society and affording our citizens the opportunity to be and contribute something to society.

If the people at the top would keep that in mind and get their heads out of their asses; if they would take a good, hard look at the glaring deficiencies of the system as it exists; if they would tell parents, "Get it in gear, people, and do your jobs at home and sit down with your kids at the end of the day and help them with their work and listen to the suggestions coming from school"; if they would tell students, "Hey, you're lucky to have this opportunity to learn and we expect you to try and to think and to respect and appreciate the system so you can give back to it later"; if they would put a little more stock into the professional opinions and suggestions of their educators; if they would stop trying to make everything about a bottom line and privatization and big business, THEN we would be on our way to making a change that matters. THEN good teachers wouldn't have to quake in fear at telling the truth, speaking up about reforms that would help, or leave the profession altogether, but could actually reach their goals of making a difference in their students' lives and molding young minds.

But it starts at the top. And, sickeningly, until the mentality shifts up there, nothing is going to change for the better.


  1. Interestingly, this happened to me once when I was a brand new teacher in the very rural, very poverty stricken, Arkansas Delta (first year, first semester): I was expected by administration as an art teacher to be responsible for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with my job directly, but which were "just expected" of the art teacher. For example: I was to be responsible for putting up the Christmas tree, parade floats, backdrops for the school play, decor for prom, homecoming, backdrops AND posters for the high school play. I was suffering with new-teacher-syndrome (What the hell am I doing? and Oh My GOD I didn't know I could BE this tired) and delusions of grandeur (the arts department is important, has its own set of state frameworks, and will be respected as a valid class) and also, did I mention, the wonderful chronic illness of lupus (which is now, 4 short years later, terminal).

    Anyway I had left a message with my principal that I would like to have a private meeting with him about all of these extra projects. I felt that if I used class time I would be robbing my art students of what art is actually about, but if I didn't use them I would be forced to do all the work alone.

    Instead of heeding my request he came to my room in the middle of Art 1 to "discuss" these issues in front of my students. I was more delicate then and he was an intimidating man who made me cry, and one of my students said this to him:

    "How dare you talk to her like that? She is a professional! She went to college! She has a degree, and she has earned some respect."

    He looked at the student and stormed out of the room. I have had students undercut my authority, but I have also had students and parents, especially in low income areas where education is the only way out, support me when administration did not, and while I greatly appreciated this student's comment it should not have been necessary for him to tell my boss that I was a professional deserving of respect.

  2. I hear you, Natalie. I'm thinking it's possibly a bit easier in Oz. I teach in a government school, and whilst the parents have more clout than is good at times, our leader usually keeps things real. He should be flattered that I wrote that!! He has his moments, but ultimately, I think I'm lots better off than you've been. What's happening re your job?

  3. Oh my this is so true. I heard that 88% of the school budget is personnel. How can this be exposed? Above the teacher level is the first place to start cutting.
    They are out of touch and need another place to work. We need help. Teachers who are working are fearful of losing their jobs so they never tell how we all talk at school. I would be glad to help get this message out.

    We had a crazy principal come to our school 12 yrs ago to runud off. We were a top performing school where no one had ever chosen to leave. After teacher berating and insulting from the suoerintendsntn,saying "if you don't like this principal , get out, she is staying."'30 of us left and thank God, one teacher stayed and with the help of her lawyer family friend , this crazy principal was moved to another school and was fired the next year. I contacted Gloria Alred in CA to help us. The bully principal destroyed lives

  4. I was never a full time teacher, so I will not comment on school administrators per se. I do know something about organizational sociology from formal studies and experience working in large private corporations. Bureacracies breed a permanent class of ass kissers. This group often butresses bad bosses or muck-up any effective change in the organization. The TV series with Steve Catrell called "The Office" is popular and strikes a chord with anyone who has worked in an organization because, although it is high parody, it presents the essential incomprehensibilty of organizational behavior in ossified dynasties. People who are in power retain their power with alliances of ass kissers and sycophants and ambigouous and conflicting rules and regulations. They do not allow independent action and ownership by employees but they do pass on full responsibilty for failures of the organizations to those employees. On the other hand, bureaucrats take full credit for any successes of the organization. Now, about parents being told to sit down with their trouble-making, rude, and lazy kids and tell them to appreciate their opportunity.... Well, you know how these students talk to you in class? That's how they talk to their parents at home, they run their homes, and parents don't stand up to them. These parents will always seek the easiest path (kind of like those administrators you're talking about) and blame the teacher. Now , about the politics of it all...teachers and schools are the whipping posts for current politics, primarily Republican politics, who love to blame high taxes, immigrants, teacher's unions, and "liberal ideas" for disrespective kids, drop-outs, budget deficits, etc. and their proposed solutions are to cut government, reduce school budgets, privatize education, promote homeschooling, etc. I rarely hear them say to their constituents that we need to back up teachers, provide better salaries and benefits to attract and keep good teachers, provide incentives for people in private industry and the sciences to transition to a career as a teacher, lower tuition for students in educational majors, provide grants and debt forgiveness to increase teachers, provide tax incentives for businesses who provide resources and mentors to schools, tell parents to visit the schools regularly and to support them. I saw "Waiting for Superman" and I think it had many good points, especially in demanding accountability from top-heavy and failing school administrations. I am not anti-teacher union and I think it stressed the negatives of teacher unions too much. I think peer evaluation is important in the decision to retain new teachers, provide merit raises, or give tenure. Teachers know who are carrying their weight and who are the slackers. Also, making the organizational unit smaller and more accountable (think charter schools or schools within a school) can help to accomplish our educational goals. Of course, a national discussion on what our educational goals really are needs to take place. Too often, we stress the older "cold war" model talked about in "Waiting for Superman" of identifying those who will go on to college, those who will do administrative work, and those who will be industrial and service workers. Today, we still do that kind of tracking but only really emphasize as a positive outcome going to college (there are too few industrial jobs out there anymore and administrative jobs more often than not require a 4 year degree for entry-level positions these days). We need to talk about goals and restructure our schools and curriculums. Too often, we just stress high test scores, measure success based on drop-out rates and college admission, all the while, falsely trying to keep the majority of bored, aimless students involved though sports and social events.

  5. Here's a relevant posting of interest from another teacher-blogger, Roger Conway in Connecticut who often comments on educators and politics:

  6. I am in a school where our principal bows to the wishes of the parents. We have parents thank him for helping their child raise their grades. The problem with this is he doesn't teach those children. As a matter of fact he has never been a teacher. He has no children and therefore doesn't understand we have a life outside of school. If we question something he did or something he said to a parent we are pretty much told he made an "executive decision" and we have to live with it. He intimidates and bullies and we are afraid of losing our jobs. He tells us at every meeting how many positions will have to be cut but that he hasn't made any decisions yet. We work in a hostile work environment. Meeting with parents are made worse when we are dismissed from the meeting and they have a closed door meeting. Many of these students flaunt in our face that their parents have been best friends with him or they go to church with him and so we need to watch what we say or do or they'll tell their parents who will tell him. He takes credit for the things we the teachers do. How does he get away with this? His mother is the assistant superintendent of our school district. I have always wanted to be a teacher yet they tie our hands more and more each year and expect more from us. The state of our schools has gone from bad to worse. There has to be an answer somewhere.

  7. I was nodding my head at everything you said. When I got to the line about using my "professional judgement" I could have fallen out of my chair. That was always the answer I got instead of them saying "I/we don't know." When I went ahead and used my professional judgement, which is to do what the kids need, it wasn't what they wanted. If it doesn't revolve around data and test scores, it's not worth the time of day at my school.

  8. Natalie,

    I hear you, administration sucks. I must be one of the rare parents who hasn't had to deal with that kind of issue with administration....yet. I am very diligent in making sure that my son flies right and is successful in school. In my day, I would be seen as a problem parent.
    I've also seen, at my son's school, the principal back up the teachers in a lot of situations.
    What I see you doing is a lot of complaining. My grandparents told me growing up that you are either part of the problem or the solution. While I know that most schools are not like the one my son goes to. What I am asking of you Natalie, is this: If you could, what changes would you implement? How would you go about doing this? One person CAN make a difference, how would you do that? Also, I'd love to see a positive post from you about the GOOD students and GOOD parents. They do exist, why not give them some recognition

  9. Actually when the blog article is read in context there are many answers provided for the readers to consider. I've found nothing of serious consequence to fault from Natalie M or from you, simply two separate perspectives, each having some merit, however seems to remain that Natalie M's is less politically correct. Less politics, less mollycoddling and more accountability rings from Natalie M's commentaries. And even though this blog has far more supporters of this teacher’s assertions, it is evident that out there in la-la land (or ought I say law-law land) remains plenty that promote our current system in a vain attempt to keep a public money-tree dinosaur alive. Our public schools ought to be the best in the world, not the informercial presentation results that public school interest bureaucrats, politicians and other money grabbers promote. As much as I dislike unions I can find no functional outcome possible in public education without a strong teachers representation able to defend the best on-task teachers out there. I hate saying that because I also know of the damage some unions can promote concerning some public education agendas. But without a decent union some administrations, some bureaucrats, some special interests and some politicians would bully at will any teacher they dislike. There are too many ‘bully-at-will’ workplaces in public education now, some of it successful when a union sidetracks itself with special interest agendas of its own invention rather than defending our education system’s best. Natalie M ought to be receiving a great deal of respect for her willingness to attempt what so many cower away from, to dare attempt to change the status quo that continues to promote havoc while spiraling our public education system to the bottom of the world’s list of achieving education systems. She is attempting to educate a nation, a path of effort loaded with stumbling blocks placed in her path hoping to cause her to fall in to a lion’s den. Were Natalie M to ever get her way she would most likely be hated for it by the lazy, the mollycoddlers, and plenty of the resource distracting special interests. Not much different than what can happen to our nation’s best teachers in the classroom. Public education can work when the best in our nation stop buying in to informercial-like scams, and also start buying in to genuine education academics with the genuine at the helm. Until the best, most genuine take back the run of our public schools than what is now prevails.

  10. I think one way to make some changes involves money. Parents whose kids are failing should be required to pay for school. Sort of like a scholarship situation - if you don't keep your grades up, you lose the scholarship. For people who can't afford it (like with free/reduced lunch) then I would require them to file for an exception, and explain how they will make their child's education worth it to the tax payers.

    Instead of basing teacher pay on student ability, parents should be held responsible for their part. Last year, only one of my students failed the state English examination.I was reprimanded by the administration because that student represented a minority group at my school. I’m pretty sure the parent was not reprimanded for only getting the student to school a total of 112 days out of 180.

  11. For some of you that may be wondering, I am Natalie's husband and I moderate the comments on this blog. Overwhelmingly, the posts that are sent are positive and constructive. However, on occasion, I receive a negative post that is constructive. I post ALL comments that are constructive, even the negative ones! However, if it is a personal attack, then I delete it. I moderate because when this incident first took place, CB East students posted multiple comments wishing ill-will on Natalie, my 3 year old daughter, and my unborn child. Needless to say, no one needs to see those! For everyone else, rest assured that Natalie gets your messages.

  12. I am all in favor of anyone who is an expert in his/her field to get paid as much as they can based on the results they deliver, not based on good intentions or the nobility of their profession. It's up to teachers to improve the system in which they work, both educationally and politically. Those that disagree with it and remain silent are only hurting themselves by perpetuating a broken system.

    by the way, education is not a right. Rights, as in the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, come from the Creator and never come at the cost of an individual's private property.

    Since the 1930s the judicial and legislative branches have invented rights to privacy, education, living wage, gay rights, health care etc. but have never bothered to use the means provided by our governing document to amend it.

    In essence, the federal education system is broken. Top-down, one size fits all systems have never worked.

    Education is best left to the local community it serves. After all, it is the local property owners who have the best interest of their community at heart.

    I'd love to read your comments.

  13. Claude, I agree that there is a difference between paying on what you achieve and paying for the nobility of it. But based on what you're saying, you're saying that a firefighter should only get paid for the fires they successfully put out. You're saying that it doesn't matter that they risked their own life to go into the burning house to save two people and unfortunately, one of those people had perished beforehand.

    There's a difference between who else the achievement is based on. If some of my teachers had been paid based on what I achieved in math, they would've been on welfare, but my history teachers would've been rolling in it. However, my history teachers BLEW - I had one that was the basketball coach and would assign us book work while he sat there and watched the taped games and took notes on those. My math teacher actively worked with me to try and raise my grade - just because it didn't work didn't mean he and I didn't try our damn hardest.

  14. Aside from the firefighter analogy, most people who are for merit pay seem to think that test scores are the best way to judge teacher merit. That assumes that the test is the best way to prove that the student has learned, and as I think most educators know, this is not the case. Also, there is significant research now pointing to creative classrooms (like art, music, and dance) as places where students develop the skills they will need in the workplace. Granted, all classrooms SHOULD teach critical thinking, personal and group critique, problem-solving, and a variety of tasks including but NOT LIMITED to pencil and paper testing, but the arts classes innately teach these skills. However merit pay leaves out art, music, foreign language, and many other teachers because there's no standardized test on which to base their merit. Principal evaluations could be used except that often principals don't value these programs either. Perhaps a peer review system could work. Anyway this has always been my problem with merit pay. An art teacher like myself can work my butt off teaching all the skills listed above and also work math, english, and science into our curriculum and be ignored just because we are art and "not a real class."

  15. I think everyone should watch this recent show from the Daily Show. He nails some of the things on how public school teachers have been under attack and why so many people have got it wrong today.

  16. Schools are broken. I work as a sub and over the years have learned how to pick and choose the jobs I will do but yesterday I got suckered and had one of the worst days of my life. Read about it here:

    I don't know how some teachers can stand it. Kids can be such enormous assholes.

  17. Is it really true? Do the kids really act so apathetic? I am a hairdresser and I have quite a few school teachers as clients and not one of them has much good to say about the way things are.

    My question is how why is this still going on!

    MTV, sports figures who are criminals, past government "dumbing down" our society (a president who said dumb things with a chuckle to brush it off), Kardashian mentality as a role modles??
    Not good.

  18. Hi, Natalie...

    Just wondering how things are going with your case: Any progress (or regress, for that matter) to report? I hope that everything pregnancy-wise is going well for you and your family. Since I haven't come across anything new on the web and you haven't posted in a while, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that no news is good news :)

  19. Thank God someone is saying this.

  20. Angelica,

    Things are at a stand-still with the case. The school district, per their statement at the board meeting a few weeks back, is waiting to make a determination about the case until sometime during my maternity leave. (Which, then, could be between now and the start of the next school year.)
    My pregnancy is progressing as normal and I'm ready to pop, but the baby seems to be comfortable where she is and appears to have no plans to vacate. It feels like things are at a stand-still with the pregnancy, too. haha. Every day we say, "This will be the day!" but we've been wrong so far. One of these days, we'llhave to be right!
    Thanks for your well-wishes and good thoughts. I'll try to post something again soon. I've just been so eager to give birth that I've been distracted.


  21. I agree that students/parents take our educational system for granted. Anything that is totally free is easily taken for granted. My suggestion would be that mandatory attendance be required through the eighth grade. After that - anyone (to age 19) may attend classes without charge but must meet attendance and behavioral guidelines or they forfeit the right to that education. Then the only people at the schools are those who wish to teach and those who wish to learn. Those students who have aged out but wish to return to school for a diploma would have to attend and pay tuition for a "night school". Then our schools would have a built-in motivator for students and parents.

  22. I am not so sure that things are so much worse than 20 years ago. I went to a shitty high school 20 years ago where a lot of these issues existed. Administration, as far as I can tell, has ALWAYS sucked. But this isnt a "zero-sum" game as far as I can tell. In general, a third of the kids are going to be good kids and good students. A third of the kids are going to be a bad students with idiot parents, and a third will be on the fence. I think these "fence kids" are where teachers should spend their time and energy. A short story--I was a borderline shitty "fencer" student until one day I completed a paper on Andrew Jackson in US History. The teacher was never a favorite of mine, but he was a solid, if underwhelming, instructor. But he stopped me after class and whispered, " I enjoyed your paper on Jackson. A nice job. Keep it up." I felt like I hit the lottery. I became a better student with only one encouraging comment. I would say forget the administration and try to help the students who want help. Forget the rest. The success of one kid can wipe out the failure of many.


Please feel free to comment. However, please note that not all comments will be posted, and that it does take time to read through them, so your comments may not be read the day you write them.

Thanks to all for your thoughts.