Superman Ain’t Coming

We are in a pickle, my fellow educators. Make no mistake. Our best teachers, our top ten percent, as determined by various criteria including test scores, deceive and manipulate the administration in order to produce the results they’re famous for and preserve their love of the job. But all we’ve done is adapt to a dysfunctional system.

In Star Teacher of Children in Poverty, the late Dr. Martin Haberman studied what those star teachers do in the classroom. Two of his findings are particularly insightful.

He tells us that the best teachers try to protect the learner and the learning process.

Protecting learners and learning refers to making children’s active involvement in productive work more important than curriculum rigidities and even school rules. Effective teachers not only recognize all the ways in which large school organizations impinge on students but find ways to make and keep learning the highest priority.

In other words, the best teachers value student learning more than the rules that govern the school. They know that if they go through proper channels they’ll risk being denied the things they need.

And they know that sometimes the bureaucracy gets in its own way, trips over its own feet. The giant falls, threatening to squish our young wards. Well, this only goes to show that whether it’s tornadoes or a crazed gunman or our own top-heavy administration, teachers get between them and the kids. In the latter case, we pretend to comply with their foolishness, close our classroom doors, and do what’s necessary instead.

It can be exhausting and another of the doctor’s findings regard teacher burnout. One reviewer of Haberman’s work sums it up this way:

Star teachers in large urban school districts know they work in a “mindless bureaucracy,” and that, therefore, even good teachers will burn out. Eventually, they learn how to negotiate for the widest discretion for themselves and their students without prompting the system to react punitively. They often set up networks of like-minded teachers or teach in teams.

Here we see that the top ten percent of teachers know how to work the system to get what we need without arousing the giant’s anger. We form quiet networks that know how to tiptoe around the monster. It’s a survival strategy and arguably proof that teachers know best what we want and need.

These two strategies are combined to form the best practices of our top teachers, a how-to guide.

But those are not the happiest of terms we’d like to use to ascribe to the very best of our profession. And with the rise of computerization and the constraints of shrinking budgets, it’s going to be harder to keep that extra set of textbooks or that Smart Board your contact at the board snuck you off the bean counters’ radar. Heck, my alma mater keeps track of how much energy each teacher uses over the course of the day.

Deceiving our superiors is not a good idea anyway. It’s risky. Not your building administrators, and not the state. In the past, when one of our bosses asked us to do something generally held to be impossible, what do we say? Do we tell them we’d almost certainly fail? Or do we nod thoughtfully, return to our rooms, close the door, and fake it as our mentors taught us? Then, when they asked how it was going, what’s our classic response? According to the research, we let them believe their “initiative” is working just fine. We let them believe that their stupid idea worked. In essence, when they asked us to cut down a tree with a fish, we said, “Okie dokie” and marched off into the forest. Once out of sight, we borrowed a chainsaw or stole an ax and to cut down said tree. Our bosses remember they gave us a fish, but the tree fell. That’s all they care about.

They were silly for making a silly demand, but we were just as silly for making it seem possible. Sooner or later we’re going to want the proper tools and this district is only buying herring. Even the most well-intentioned, enlightened administrator can’t make good decisions with bad data

Of course, no one is trying to get one over on the administration for some nefarious reason. It’s not something we do for sport. I think we’d all rather just plop our wishes down in front of someone competent who will fight to get them. We want someone who’ll see through the smokescreen we’ve erected, understand why it was necessary, and fix the system. Then we won’t have to sneak around anymore, we imagine.

So, we wait and hope for a hero who will advocate for our students and us.

Meanwhile we blithely go on as we have before. But folks, I don’t think we can wait and hope and hide anymore. There are experts out there that are predicting the end of public education within the next ten years.

Our deceptions will be used against us and our motives won’t matter to our enemies. We’ve got to stand up to the powers that be now and tell them what we need to successfully reach our students. If they tell us no, tell them they’ve made a mistake.

We’re going to lose from time to time, maybe even more times that not, but sometimes we’ll win. Then the smoke could clear and the men and women we’ve kept in the dark might blink their eyes, come out into the sun, and see the light. It’s possible.

By Vance Lawman, Warren Education Association – Trumbull County




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