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
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. Lake Park
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.