I recently read a post by Sue King, a principal in Pennsylvania, which I found through Dangerously Irrelevant, in which Sue discusses what she says versus how it is perceived by some of the teachers listening.
As we're having some of the same conversations at my school with some of the same results, I thought I’d add my perspective on why her comments may have been misinterpreted to some extent by part of her audience (like all those qualifiers there? Nice, right?).
Sue says in her post that she accepts “the bulk of the responsibility for how things have gone” at her school in the time she has been principal – I wonder if she has said that to the teachers? At my school, we’ve been told that if we improve our instruction, everything will change.
Yes, there are certainly instructional improvements that could (should...must...might) happen (oh, I could spend hours on THAT subject), but, um, that's not the whole story. And to imply that it is, which is what I took from the quotes with which she opened the article as they all address teaching practices, is disingenuous, short-sighted, or both.
Sue says that her school is “blessed with plentiful resources, very involved and supportive parents, and a student population that is extremely compliant and very well-behaved.” My school’s not. We have decent resources, but the other two….not so much. Which is okay, because I believe that the school’s impact can be tremendous no matter what, but it’d be easier if we had more involved parents and better behavior. The lack of those two things, though linked to the high poverty at my school, I believe is due primarily to administrative failure to promote those.
If we don’t offer parents opportunities to be involved, they won’t be. Many of our parents weren’t successful in the school system when they were students – they want to help their kids, but they don’t necessarily know what to do. They aren’t made to feel welcome, that their help is needed or even desired. We don’t have any kind of parent group, like a PTA or PTO. Just doesn’t exist. The last round of parent/teacher conferences, we used an auto-dialer to remind parents about the event – which is great, but they didn’t do it till day of, and some parents didn’t even get the message until the next day. Helpful. Over half our kids don’t speak English at home; though other languages are spoken, the vast majority speak Spanish. Some of the materials we send home are translated, but not most of them. I’d love to be part of starting a parent group, but I’m on three committees already that I believe are also important, and I just don’t have any more time to give right now.
Behavior….the behavior stuff really pisses me off, not just because it's such a waste of time, but because I feel like it could be dealt with so much more effectively. I am known as a pretty strict teacher, and I don’t have a lot of behavior problems within my classroom. The problems I do have I try to take care of myself, because I don’t want to give up my authority, but some issues have to be sent to the office (physical contact, sexual harassment, truancy). We have a whole matrix of consequences that administrators are supposed to follow – it doesn’t happen. One administrator does, but the others seem to frequently ignore what they agreed to do, and just dole out whatever consequences (or lack thereof) that they feel like. One time it actually led to a student who should have already been suspended starting another fight with another student. Kids know this, and they hate it. When you talk to them, they talk about how inconsistent the consequences are (though they tend to say that things are unfair or that the admin don’t care what happens to students). And then they buy out, and they don’t try as hard as they should or could, and they don’t demonstrate growth, and they don’t even make as much growth as they could, and the test scores look bad, and the school gets in trouble, and it gets dumped on the teachers. Some of the behavioral issues could be taken care of by changes in instructional practices, absolutely, but by no means all. No one seems to want to address that.
When we were being told about the trouble we’re in (because we are, a significant amount), the focus of the conversation was on instruction. No acknowledgment of the other issues. No responsibility taken by anyone higher up. Responsibility for gaps must be shared. If it's not, teachers feel like they're being told they're not doing a good job, even if that wasn't what was meant.
Maybe Sue’s school doesn’t have these other issues that my school does, so maybe their conversations really need to be about teaching exclusively, but I have a hard time believing that’s all they need to consider.