Friday, October 23, 2020

What's wrong with schools?

 The pandemic is bringing to light so many of society's problems--areas of life, unsupported over time, are clear to us now as we rely on long held traditions, institutions, and lifeways more than ever for survival. What's wrong with schools is staring us right in the face now during these pandemic days. With this knowledge, what are the next steps?

Teacher voice

Sadly, in too many schools, teacher voice is ignored. This obstructs the good work possible and ignores educator investment, training, ideas and care. I know this issue first hand. In the spring, when the pandemic struck, I did everything I could to create a worthy, successful virtual teaching/learning program with my colleagues. While not perfect, it was very good and almost every student made significant progress. Where children did not make progress, we understood why. As the school year came to a close, I shared the many ideas we put in place as well as the additional needs that existed to make the program even better should the pandemic continue through the summer months and into the fall. Then when that happened and leadership began planning for the fall, they ignored teacher voice and opted to project their own lack of classroom experience and knowledge of what we had done onto the fall plans. They planned an unhealthy, disrepectful, and weak return to school in the fall--their plans not only neglected teacher voice or the good work we did in the spring, but their plans also put teachers' lives in danger--they saw us as their peons, people to manage, direct, and use/abuse, and not as the professionals we are, professionals with years of dedicated service, experience, knowledge, and skill. I knew that I could not return to such a situation--a situation where I would be used/abused and put in harm's way. I retired instead.

School systems that employ management/leadership models that negate educator experience, ideas, knowledge, and skill are on the path to destruction. Educators will not be able to work at their possible capacity in situations like this. Instead they will do what they have to for survival, and little else. The disrespect I noted in so many leaders' decisions, words, and voices were oppressive, inhumane, and frankly, simply not smart when it comes to building a strong, successful school environment. How money, time, and capacity are used and acknowledged in schools needs to be reconsidered with strength--there is too much good potential ignored and misused, and that includes teacher choice and voice. Educators, along with their students and families, should be the centerpiece of school systems everywhere.

Poor leadership models and infrastructure

Throughout my career, I was always dissatisfied with the wasteful organization, money, and time at the leadership level. While educators often didn't even have time to use a bathroom, go to a doctor's appointment, make a call, or take care of a sick family member, leaders had the luxury to do as they pleased with little accountability. Mostly leaders did not know what teachers were doing, and as long as parents didn't complain, they stayed mostly away from schools, teachers, students, and families. These leaders, including some school committee members, would talk about school without the knowledge of what was really happening and without the knowledge about how children learn and the many, awesome tools out there to help educate all children. This was always frustrating. In my opinion, there is a lot of waste in school leadership models--there are too many people distanced from the actual teaching and learning with too much power--these people are often a burden, not a support. How can we make change in this area?

First, it is essential to look at time-on-task for leaders. I believe school leadership models waste a lot of time with issues and efforts that don't matter or do anyone any good. I had coaches who were earning full salaries who had no idea what was happening in the classroom and did not understand the content being taught. These people would send out random ideas every so often that were either too late or too distanced from the curriculum to be of any use. In my opinion, the coaching models in place where I worked were a waste of money. Also, many leaders would simply hire consultants to do the work without any care of whether that consultant work was successful or not. Over my tenure, consultant after consultant was hired to update and better programs, and most of these initiatives were dead ends. The consultant came, shared ideas, and left without much change. There were a few instances where consultants did make good change. Further, there were many leaders who were so high on their positions that they never listened to educators. For example, I took a real interest in technology and used it to help students learn often. Yet the technology leader would never support my work--I had to pay for almost all the technology I used, and whenever I asked for support, all I got was a lot of negative feedback and forms to fill out. The technology department, for the most part, was a hurdle to any good work in that area. I had to do it on my own and with the help of outside consultants and experts who were willing to help. Leadership models in school are often poorly constructed, managed, and utilized--often leaders are without the knowledge they need to make good decisions. This was particularly visible with some of the system's school committee members who were making decisions with a lack of modern information about how learning happens or how schools work--they clearly had an attitude that teachers were dumb and they knew more. I believe, in the long run, they will find that this is working to their detriment if they want to continue to foster a strong school system. 

Neglected school buildings and environments

All over America, businesses have been building incredible campuses while school buildings have been neglected. The richest Americans send their children to gorgeous private schools often located on multi-acre campuses while poor and middle-class students are often relegated to old, crowded buildings with sometimes unsafe and polluted structures, schoolyards and communities. This is horrible. America needs to update their school environments for both in-school and virtual learning so that every child in America has access to an inspiring, workable, safe school environments. There are many creative ways to do this--one is to tax businesses more to support great schools. After all, businesses profit from well educated employees. 

School evolution

Schools and education have to continually evolve. In the past, I was very pleased with what my state, Massachusetts, had done to build a strong school system. In many ways, I've been disappointed with the leadership during the pandemic because I feel that our leadership at the state level has been disrespectful to educators and not broad-thinking about the needs of families, children, educators and schools.

The pandemic has laid bare the lack of support for working parents, children, the environment, teachers, and schools--it's a chance to take a hard look at what exists now and what we want to build for the future. In my opinion, many communities are still operating with outdated ideas about what makes a strong, happy family and school environment. We need to reimagine life in the United States to do better, and as we reimagine, we have to consider the following questions?

  • What can we do to ensure that every child and every family has what they need to be healthy, happy, and strong for themselves and others?
  • What can we do to create greater environmental health in communities, natural lands, homes, schools, and other buildings?
  • How can we connect child/family-care agencies in ways that streamline the accessibility to needed quality health, recreation, nutrition, and other supports?
  • How can we better support children from birth to age six--what can we do to ensure healthy, happy early life experiences. Strong, healthy, happy early life experiences prevent a lot of troubles later on--this is a great investment for any community?
  • How can we support working families more--what can we do to give families adequate leave time to take care of their children, the time/money to build their career knowledge/skill, and time for healthy, happy recreation--the kind of events that build a strong, caring community and culture?
  • How can we ensure that our schools and education systems are evolving with the best new knowledge, progams, and results? What do we need to do? 
While I know that everyone is busy just surviving during this pandemic, we cannot loose the opportunity to see this as a ripe time to analyze what's going on and to work on a better vision for our families, schools, and communities. David Culberhouse has some terrific writing and research which supports efforst like this. 

Tremendous opportunity for positive growth and change

The pandemic found most people unprepared for the changes we're experiencing, yet most people have risen to the challenge and maintained some success during this time. There is a lot more that we can do to use what we've learned to recommit to building strong supports and structures for optimal family life, the environment, education, health care, and communities. It's time to begin reimagining where we want to go and what we want to do. We have to ask the important questions about what matters to us and why that matters--we have to listen to the voices of all stakeholders to make optimal change and growth in the many ways possible. We can do this, and I look forward to working on a process like this in my own, new chapter of life--a chapter which finds me shoring up my capacity to contribute in ways I find both meaningful and productive for my own life and the lives of others.