Friday, January 20, 2017

What Exactly Does the Inauguration Have to Do with Becoming a School Principal?

I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somewhere along the way people began seeking me out as a mentor.  They ask me for career advice.  Me? All the time! 

I’m not being falsely modest when I say I don’t really know why.  My own career was built on a foundation of poorly researched choices, chutzpah, and desperation.  If not for a few instances of tremendous serendipity, I’d be living in the basement of my sister’s house and hoping to score an ACT tutoring gig at a store front in a strip mall.

Seriously.  I got my first teaching job totally by accident.  The names of most of Chicago’s suburbs are compounds of a limited number of natural phenomena. There’s Forest Park, just west of the city, and Park Forest to the south; Lake Forest on the north shore and Lake Park to the southwest. As a city dweller who didn’t drive, I had neither reason nor interest in learning these nuances, so I confused the names of a prestigious north suburban school district with a slightly less glamorous one to the west.  Glenbrook’s loss was Glenbard’s gain.  And mine.

But I digress.

I work with a lot of young teachers, and, I suppose because my terminal degree is in educational administration and policy, they often ask me for advice about becoming administrators.  First, I explain that I have little interest in either administration or policy.  My degree is a function of the department that employed the person who was chairing my dissertation committee—another poorly researched choice that eventually worked itself out—and that my interests lie in teacher quality and efficacy. 

This rarely discourages anyone from continuing to solicit my opinion.  So here’s what I tell them. 

Wait five years.

Most of you probably think that I’m alluding to the folk wisdom that it takes five years to become a teacher, that, if expertise is in large part a product of experience, five years is the minimum amount of experience needed to quality as an expert.

That’s not why I tell them to wait.

A good administrator has to have lived through at least one cycle of state and national elections. You have to experience firsthand overhauling your curriculum in an effort to comply with one administration’s policy only to be asked by another to dismantle and rebuild it four years later.  You need to feel the heartbreak that occurs when, after buying into a paradigm shift and working for two years to transition your practice to meet it, you are betrayed by the same people who pitched it to you in the first place.

Sometime in the late 1990s, the state of Illinois adopted a new certification process.  Teachers had five years to assemble evidence of their continued professional learning.  Hard copies of this evidence—transcripts, certificates, programmes, etc.—would then be submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education where, presumably, someone’s job would be to verify that every certified teacher in Illinois had attained the necessary number of credits.

There are approximately 130,00 teachers in Illinois.  If each of them submitted only five artifacts, the ISBE headquarters would collapse under the weight of nearly ¾ of a million documents.  Well, that’s what I was counting on anyway. 

For many of my younger colleagues (and, sadly, some of the older ones), this process was a source of tremendous anxiety.  I overheard more than a few panicked phone calls attempting to track down a certificate of attendance for a conference they’d attended six months earlier.   

I collected nothing—just waited.  I’d been around long enough to know this wasn’t going to happen.  

And it didn’t.  When the first few portfolios starting arriving in Springfield, those tasked with implementing the policy suddenly realized that lacked the time, the manpower, and the will to do so.

I don’t know what replaced it.  Presumably something equally superficial but less bulky.

One of the most important jobs a principal must do is to serve as a buffer between her faculty members and the continuous barrage of stupidity bombarding them.  A principal may not be able to excuse teachers from external mandates, but he can help them discriminate between tasks worth doing well and those worth doing well enough.  Great principals encourage their people to put their time and energies into executing policies that are meaningful and stand a chance of sticking around. 
The other stuff they let them half-ass.  

But until you’ve been in the classroom at least five years, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Pride Goeth Before a Fall (or Does it?)

Recently, I became concerned that my point of view as a blogger was too ill-defined.  Without a unique niche, I’m just one more self-proclaimed educational expert yammering away in cyberspace, and God knows, we have enough of them. 
This concern got me to thinking about a night fifteen or so years ago, following one of many break-ups that everyone but me saw coming.  My friend and I were about four inches into a bottle of something brown.  She looked at me, a bourbon-glazed twinkle in her eye, and suggested that maybe God’s plan was for me to serve as a horrible warning to others.
I don’t remember much from that evening but I remember that comment.  I like it.  It gives my screw-ups gravitas. 
If this is, in fact, my cosmic destiny, it seemed appropriate to blog about my education-related failures.  In addition to providing some schadenfreude-induced laughter, I hope some struggling teachers can take shelter in them. 
“See how badly I screwed up?” they beckon.  “I bet you didn’t screw up this bad!  And even if you did, look what a great career I’ve had despite my shortcomings!”
Over time, I’ve learned that the worst case scenario rarely happens.  And when it does it’s usually not as bad as you think it will be.

This prologue will precede every post in this particular series.

I make no secret of my disdain for movies about teaching.  This contempt developed over time as I came to understand that real teaching bears little resemblance to the pabulum peddled by Hollywood.  Even documentaries must be viewed with a generous dose of skepticism, as their version of the truth is circumscribed by the political or ideological bias of the filmmaker.  I have been unable to get all the way through Waiting for Superman, frustrated as I am by what I feel is David Guggenheim’s rather simplistic implication that charter schools are the solution to every problem facing urban American education. 
Back in the day, though, that film would probably have impelled me to join a charter school network.  Then I would have sent a letter and headshot to Guggenheim in the hopes that he’d put me in his next film.  I wanted to be the kind of teacher people made movies about. 
In fact, I had a particular scenario in mind, culled from a small volume called The First Year of Teaching: Real World Stories from America’s Teachers.  In one vignette entitled “Don’t Waste Your Time with Those Kids,” a newbie is assigned to a class of self-described “retards” and can’t seem to corral them.  On Day #2, she reveals to the students her own struggle with dyslexia and forbids them to label themselves stupid.  They immediately improve.  They even coax her into drilling them in grammar because “people still think [they’re] stupid because [they] don’t talk right.” 
The students know she is getting married over the summer, but they are poor and can’t afford to buy her flowers. They take the initiative to solicit donations from floral shops and funeral parlors, literally filling her room with flowers. The student who spearheaded the operation tells her, “Period 2 got you roses, and Period 3 got you a corsage, but we love you more.” She bursts into tears.  She gets married, all the kids graduate, six earn college scholarships, and everyone lives happily ever after. 
That was the sort of first year I expected.  Nothing less than slavish devotion from my students —including but not limited to a roomful of flowers—would do.  I had no reason to expect otherwise.  Everything I’d ever read or seen assured me that if I worked hard enough and cared deeply enough, this would happen.
On my last day of student teaching, I received numerous cards, a bouquet of flowers, a bottle of really excellent perfume, and a necklace and earrings set.  One young lady sang “How Do I Say Good-by to Yesterday,” reducing me to heaving sobs.  Being a Super Teacher was even better than I had hoped.  
And so easy.

I found a job teaching English and theater in a western suburb of Chicago and fully anticipated that, by the end of my first year, Oprah would be optioning the rights to my life story.  At 7:20 a.m. on my first day, I went to the ladies’ room, touched up my make-up, and fluffed my hair so that I might look perfect when, at 7:30, I positioned myself at the podium and greeted my Senior Composition class.  Around third period, with my first section of freshmen, things began to unravel.
I have an acting background and an undergraduate degree in theater.  As a result, I am highly sensitive to audience reaction. I could feel that something was off. They were grinning, but the grins didn’t seem to match the timing of the jokes. I couldn’t put my finger on the problem and was beginning to feel uncomfortable, so I finished my introductory shtick and suggested they talk quietly until the bell.
            “Don’t you want to collect these cards?” I had passed out index cards and asked them to write down their contact information.
            “Oh, yeah. Pass those up.”
            I walked along the front row collecting stacks of cards and eventually was handed one with a piece of paper folded on top of it.
“Oh. My. God.” I inwardly smirked.  “Someone has a crush on me already and has passed me a note?!“  With a shiver of anticipation, I unfolded the paper and read:
I looked down and, sure enough, my fly was wide open. And had been since about 7:20 that morning.  It was now a little after 10.
I quickly ran through my options. I could burst into tears, flee the building, get in my car, and never come back. I could find a way to make this their fault, get really angry, and start yelling. This is how we dealt with anxiety in my family. Or I could react the way I hoped my own teacher would react if I were sitting in one of the little desks. I started laughing hysterically and zipped up.  I didn’t even turn around. 
Given these humble beginnings, you might expect me to surrender my Super Teacher aspirations. Instead, that incident reinforced them.  Third period was, hands down, my best class that first year.  They liked me.  I did relatively little screaming at them. 
If I could turn that sow’s ear into a silk purse what couldn’t I do? Clearly, I was destined to be the hippest, the smartest, the bestest teacher in the history of education.  The idea that my career would be anything less than spectacular was unconscionable. 
Of course, that was just the first day.  The real teaching had yet to begin, nor was I in any way prepared for what real teaching entailed . . .

Deb Teitelbaum, PhD is a faculty member at the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee, NC, and focuses on beginning teacher support and secondary ELA instruction.