Friday, September 26, 2008

Weekend Homework Assignment: You Are The Educational Emperor Augustus..or Caligula

Hey folks, it's Friday! Let's not forget that, regardless of how coma-inducing the following blogpost is. Besides, it's Friday, and this is the can surf elsewhere today and save the following for a day/time less celebratory and more in tune with the reading of boring, "educational" stuff. Like next Tuesday around lunch or something.

The number and quality of comments on these K-12 matters is such that we'd probably be better off just all meeting at a bar one afternoon and speeding up this whole "blogpost/comment/off-topic blogpost/comment" multi-day cycle, but this is the Internet and the thought of having a small, very small group of people meeting due to a shared passion or issue brought up online is creepy.

Let's start with a few questions (and try to keep Scot's word count below 15,000 this morning):

  • For starters, let's eliminate the stickiness of determining criteria for "good" and "bad", and just say we can make simple Roman Circus Maximus gladiator fight concluding "thumbs up/thumbs down" conclusions here without feeling guilty or defensive about it. Also, no middle ground...just up or down.
  • Teachers: while holding your coffee cup in the other hand, make a quick "good/bad" determination about your current principal. Do you work for a good or bad principal? Hold your thumb out accordingly (and yes, I know that the whole "thumbs up/down thing in Rome was actually backwards from how we know it today...a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, no?)
  • Teachers: Now put the coffee cup down because you're going to need both hands. Count on your fingers the number of "bad" teachers at your school. Take your shoes off if necessary.
  • Teachers: Write that number down and do the same mental calculation for the number of "good" teachers at your school. For both of these counts do not be shy and worry about things like "I really have no idea what they do in their classrooms". Calculate a ratio of good to bad teachers.
  • Parents/Students: Do the same as the teachers above, based on your own observation and student reports. As with teachers above, calculate a ratio of "good" teachers to "bad". Now do the same gut check for your principal. Good or bad?
I know this is utterly without scientific merit, but I would be very interested to see the results from the questions above. What is the "conventional wisdom" for the ratio of good/bad principals/teachers? What are these gut reactions based upon? My feeling is that knowing the answers to these questions can be the basis for better understanding of where a particular critic/analyst of public schools sits philosophically on the relative importance of things like getting rid of bad teachers.

Here's what I think, personally, first on "good/bad" teachers:
  • Their are many ways to teach well. Because of this, I don't like the whole "thumbs up/down" method of determining good teachers. At the same time, I've been around enough to know that some teachers with styles completely at odds with my own are good. I can think of specific examples. No, I won't name these teachers. Not even if you ask.
  • In my 15 year career I would say that the ratio of "good" to "bad" teachers is, in my opinion roughly 50/50. That is a ratio worth worrying about. It should be something like 90/10.
  • I feel that the negative impact of a "bad" teacher almost always outweighs the positive impact of a "good" one. Teachers...think about the worst teacher at your school (and, by sheer definition, there has to be a "worst" teacher). What ripples of destruction does this "worst" teacher have on the structure of the school? How much teacher/teacher, parent/teacher, student/teacher conversational time and effort has been wasted on this "worst" teacher?
  • Because I feel this way, I understand the need to recruit and keep "good" teachers, but think at least equal energy needs to be spent on dealing with the "bad" ones. Right now a ton of energy is wasted unsuccessfully trying to get rid of "bad" teachers because the mechanisms to do so in APS and other public school settings crippled principals in this regard.
And speaking of principals:
  • I think the job of principal as currently constructed is disastrously conducive to having them fail.
  • I think the number of perceived "bad" principals is much higher than the actual number, because the job as currently constructed is a massive setup to fail.
  • I think principals should be paid around $125,000 a year. Really. And that's after having the job duties reconfigured ala the post I wrote a few days back.
  • I think the ratio of truly "good/bad" principals is probably 3:1 (good/bad).
  • I think the ratio most teachers/students/parents would state is probably closer to 1:2.
  • As Willie Nelson might say, it's the difference between teacher/public perception and reality that "makes the jukebox play". Part of the dysfunction in the current setup is a job duty recipe that turns principals into lightning rod scapegoats for all the problems at a school without empowering them with the means to do anything about the problems at the school.
  • Bad teachers included.
So, if all three of us Burque Babble readers were to meet at a bar one afternoon, as creepy as that would be, the above would pretty much sum up where "my head is at" going into the confab. I wonder how far my head is from "conventional wisdom", or from the mindset of the other two readers of this blog. I also wonder if the number of real and perceived problems in public schools is so great that we all (all three of us) are playing a fundamentally useless game of whack-a-mole here.

Okay, the answer to the last "question" is the easiest to answer. Of course we're wasting our time. But at least this type of ranting and steam-release is less deleterious to our bodies than hours and hours of "bar therapy". Or is it?

Have a good weekend, everybody. And let's get this homework turned in by next Tuesday at lunch. Remember only 50% credit for late work.


Natalie said...

Depends on what's on tap at the bar. If it's Courvosier (pick yer cognac) and cigars, well, that's cool.
Kools and draft... not so much.
Either way, same end result: a headache, sore throat, and possible lewd and lascivious behavior.

Almost the same result as, say, attending a board meeting.

Gerald said...

Aye, Natalie, there's the rub. You'd have to get the sore throat and headache in order to plan what to say at the board meeting where you'd get a sore throat and headache.
Just warn me what bar ahead of time, I'll want to stay away from the area for a while.
I've seen that principals are charged with tasks that they are subsequently prevented from achieving.

Anonymous said...

I've seen that principals are charged with tasks that they are subsequently prevented from achieving.

Teachers too. That is one definition of stress, being held accountable for the results of something you have no control over. I have no control over the kid who comes to school stoned. Or the kid who never comes. I am held in scorn and derision when they are the reason our school does not make AYP. I report the absences, ( I'm thinking of one in particular who I have seen 4 times since the beginning of the school year) to Administration, counsling, social worker, head sped and CYFD (educational neglect). What do you expect me to do about it is the reaction I always get. Maybe it's time I stop beating my head against the wall and join the rest of retired in the classroom brigade.

Abuelita2 said...

Preamble: I’m responding from within the elementary school world. I’ve been reading your blogs for a while. I’ve been thinking and feeling about all these issues for years. Reading your posts make me realize that there are real differences within these “subworlds” of education. – elementary and middle. Probably high school also.

So.. The issues you address are not boring. They are intensely important. They do, and will, affect us all, for years to come.

Good principals? Good teachers? Oh, lordy! Let me begin….

I worked with a wonderful elementary principal here in Albuquerque for six years. “Wonderful” in this case means: She cared about kids. She cared about kids learning. Evidence? That’s what she talked about. That’s what she read about (and obviously read a lot, and with understanding, since she knew more than many of us about programs, about theory, about best practices, about regulations and laws, and whatever had to do with creating situations in the real world in which mostly Hispanic ELL children could learn.) She listened. Great god, she listened! She spoke Spanish well. She arrived at school before or at 7 a.m. She left at, or after 6 p.m. (I don’t think the job should require those hours for satisfactory undertaking, but having no small children at home, it was possible for her, and she obviously cared.) She had taught for several years. (Wasn’t one of those who couldn’t wait to “get out of the classroom.”) She let me teach as I knew how to teach. (Oh, how I yearn for those days!) She had read my resume; she knew I had taught many years, in a number of situations, at different levels, and had worked even for little money and as a volunteer because teaching was my passion. She respected that. And she respected me. I could have intelligent, informed discussions with her about programs, practice, individual kids, etc.

I didn’t do a perfect job. There were still things I needed to learn. But she gave me space, and time, and understanding, to learn. Because she didn’t assume that I was ignorant, and not too bright, a beginner, and that I had the wrong motivations. ????

She retired, to go back to school and get a PhD. I had to temporarily “retire” to care for a critically ill family member. When I returned to teach after a year, I had one of those principals “from hell.” This is an insecure, self-absorbed, vain, ignorant (and I mean: doesn’t know diddly-squat about pedagogy, programs, regulations, children, human beings, or anything!) He has taught a total of 2 years. (How do they get around requirements like that?) He latches on to key jargon – you know, those ubiquitous acronyms, which upon pronouncement are supposed to mean that you’re knowledgeable – which he uses inappropriately, without even realizing it! Worse, however, is that he is an abuser. Verbal abuser. Bypassing the details of the situation, I was hired by someone with whom he was having a tiff. With his okay, I’m sure, but another problem he has, is that he is mentally absent in meetings and conversations, and then totally forgets what he has said. (By the way, I’m not exaggerating at all. If anything, I’m leaving out ugly facts.) During the first few months, when he was alone with me in a room, he talked to me very abusively. (Including: “You don’t ask me questions! I ask questions! I’m the boss!” in a very loud and scolding voice. All in all, he talked to me as though I were a very naughty child. Until I got the teacher’s union to give him a call. Then he didn’t speak to me for the rest of the year. (The newly hired assistant principal was quite stable, and reasonable; I dealt with her.)

I met a young, new teacher during a training, who works in a school on the west side. She was nearly in tears talking about the abusive, vindictive female principal at her school. I felt so sad – for her, for the lost promise of satisfaction and joy in teaching.

There was also a principal in 1999 at an elementary school who told teachers who questioned her that she “would put a note in their file.” They actually thought she could ruin them professionally that way. (Shows the importance of being informed about our contract!)

And then…. bad teachers! Oh, dear!

But, I think I’ve used my word quota for now.

jscotkey said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, but Abuelita has the A+ here (and yes, I guess I do grade on quantity and quality). But Abuelita, if you want extra credit we gotta hear the teacher side from you.

Seriously, if you get a chance, I'd/we'd love to hear your thoughts/memories on teachers and whether the percentage of bad ones is anywhere close to the scary high percentage you imply on the principal side.

Amber in Albuquerque said...

My homework is late but, since Abuelita got the best grade, and since she mentioned one of the key points (as I see it) in the difference between a good teacher/principal and a bad one, I thought I'd chime in.

Disclaimer: I'm not an educator and my kids are in elementary, so I can't speak to middle and high school issues.

The difference between a good educator and a bad one is that a good educator 1) can tell the difference between teaching and presenting a slickly packaged set of materials purchased at great price from a corporation whose business it is to sell a product, not to educate children 2) can teach and communicate (to parents and other 'outsiders' without condescension and without resorting to educational jargon and what I like to call 'alphabet soup' (NCLB, SAT, AYP, etc.) both of which are prime examples of Orwellian "newspeak" at its best.

Good educators recognize the language of the trade as a useful tool, but understand that it is no substitute for effective teaching, a passion for learning, and a respect for the students and parents who share that passion. Bad educators are those who hide their incompetence and/or apathy, or just plain damn ignorance of how bad they suck, behind this wall of words because they think it makes them look smart or because it is enough to intimidate some (but not all, no not all) parents (and other 'outsiders').

Or, as Thorstein Veblen put it, "Except where it is adopted as a necessary means of secret communication, the use of special slang in any employement is probably to be accepted as evidence that the occupation in question is substantially make believe."

Teachers and principals are real, so the slang must be "secret communication" (I'd refer you to a C.S. Lewis essay on groups that define themselves by who they exclude if I could remember the title...what can I say, college was 20+ years ago). Instructional coaches--secret communication or make believe employment...that one (in this writer's opinion) is still a toss up.

Finally, Abuelita's comments on the bad principals are well taken. I transferred my kids out of a west side elementary with a principal who was never on site, showed no leadership when she was there (unless she could get her face on the news for a good photo op), had hidden agendas, supported little cliques of teachers to the detriment of others, etc. The entire school suffered as a result. There are some great teachers at that school, but it's easy for me to see how, after serving under a principal such as the one at my home school and the ones Abuelita describes, bad teachers end up staying (because they don't know enough or care enough to leave) while good ones are lost to the school and sometimes to the profession and that's a shame.